Researching the Reformation

PhD candidate Alyssa Lehr Evans describes her experience in Germany as part of the Karlstadt Edition team

PhD candidate Alyssa Lehr Evans talks to us about Andreas Karlstadt, her experience in Germany as a member of the Karlstadt Edition team, and the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.

News Image Alyssa Evans Reformation

Q: What first drew you to Karlstadt and the Reformation?

A: I actually didn’t enter into Reformation studies determined to study Karlstadt (a German theologian during the Reformation), but through reading Luther during my master’s program, I found that I enjoyed the challenge of trying to understand him. I came to realize that if you want to understand the theological writings in that time period you had to really understand what was happening on the ground.

In my research, I kept coming across Andreas Karlstadt, an important but under-studied early reformer. I found out about the work of the Karlstadt Edition (an editorial project aimed at bringing Karlstadt’s writings and letters into a digital and critical age). As I continued, I realized that exploring Karlstadt and his impact on the early Reformation was a way that I could really contribute to the field and gain a better understanding of the early Reformation movement in Wittenberg.

Q: Why did you choose to study abroad in Germany?

A: I was in Germany for two years, first with the Fulbright Program and then as a Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD) scholar. I went there for two reasons. First, I wanted to work with the Karlstadt Edition, which is working to create the first complete critical edition of Karlstadt’s letters and writings. Karlstadt is second only to Luther in publications on the early Reformation, so this is a large project and an important contribution to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The first two volumes of the project appeared in print in April 2017, commemorating the 500th anniversary of Karlstadt’s posting of his 151 Theses. It was also an opportunity to gain experience working with sixteenth century primary sources and to work with a team of scholars currently focusing on Karlstadt. It was priceless for my development as a scholar.

Secondly, and closely related, I also went to Germany to do research for my dissertation. I’m focusing on Karlstadt’s first Reformation writings from 1517–1519—his own development as a reformer and his role in the beginnings of the Reformation in Wittenberg.

Alyssa Evans Reformation

Q: Who were some of the leading Reformation studies scholars you worked with in Germany?

A: I was very privileged to have Thomas Kaufmann, the general editor of the Karlstadt Edition and one of the leading scholars of the Reformation, as my academic advisor in Göttingen. I can only commend him and say how grateful I am for the way that he went above and beyond to support my work. His work has been influential for me and his advice has helped shape the direction of my dissertation.

I worked closely with the editors of the Edition. Harald Bollbuck especially invested a lot of time in teaching me the various intricacies of edition work, and we coedited several texts together. I also worked closely with Stefania Salvadori and Alejandro Zorzin.

I’m happy to say that after two years of working together I can count these people not just as colleagues and mentors, but as friends. I already miss working and interacting with them on a day-to-day basis.

I am so grateful for the opportunity to have worked and studied in Göttingen. It has hugely impacted my life, both academically and personally.

Q: What did a typical day look like while you were in Göttingen?

A: As far as my work for the Edition, I did a lot of groundwork for the upcoming volumes, like transcribing texts, which included lengthening abbreviations to help the modern reader, and collating various prints of the same text. I also participated in team meetings and learned how much work goes into a project like the Edition and how decisions about what should be edited or not take place.

I did my own research and reading while I was there. There really is a whole other world of German Reformation scholarship, so during my time in Göttingen I focused on improving my language skills and reading German scholarship as much as possible. I spent a lot of time translating several of Karlstadt’s works into English for my dissertation.

It was a wonderful setup. The team gave me a lot of freedom and responsibility, and they were always there to check my work when necessary and answer my questions. I am so grateful for the opportunity to have worked and studied in Göttingen. It has hugely impacted my life, both academically and personally.

The Reformation was a time when social, political, and religious worlds were being reevaluated and rapidly changing in ways that still affect us today and in ways that many people don’t realize.

Q: Why is it important to read and study Karlstadt? How does he speak to us 500 years later?

A: Karlstadt was one of the most influential reformers in Wittenberg next to Luther. He was the first colleague to publicly support Luther’s new ideas and played an important role in disseminating them outside of Wittenberg. Karlstadt also shows us what happened when those in the Reformation period rediscovered the Bible and the church fathers and allowed them to reshape everything they were taught about theology and ecclesiology.

But less than five years later, after they were working so closely together, Karlstadt and Luther got into quite the disagreement, and long-story-short, Karlstadt lost. He has been largely understudied because he has always been interpreted, until the last century of scholarship, through the lens of Luther’s more negative later opinion of him.

While my dissertation project focuses on his development and role as a reformer in Wittenberg, better understanding Karlstadt helps us to further understand several of the various trajectories of the Reformation period, as he was associated not only with Wittenberg, but also with Swiss and Anabaptist circles. Interestingly, Karlstadt ended his life in Basel, Switzerland, as a professor of Old Testament influencing the curriculum and development of the Reformation. Karlstadt is a thinker who influenced and participated in different movements of the time, and studying his life gives us important new data for understanding how these various groups developed.

I’ve always been interested in what exactly happened. How did the Reformation begin? What are the details? When you start asking more questions you realize that there’s still a lot of work to be done to understand it, and the further you get into it, the further you realize the role that Karlstadt played in it. And it’s an important story to tell.

Q: What’s the importance of commemorating the Reformation?

A: The Reformation was a time when social, political, and religious worlds were being reevaluated and rapidly changing in ways that still affect us today and in ways that many people don’t realize. I think it’s important to better understand those changes, especially in our own context of shifting ideologies and drastic change. Within the Princeton Seminary context specifically, it’s important to remember that the Seminary has its religious heritage in Protestantism and, by extension, the events of the Protestant Reformation.

Evans is currently finishing her dissertation and hopes to return to visit Germany sometime soon.

The first two volumes of the Karlstadt Edition were published in April 2017: Kritische Gesamtausgabe der Schriften und Briefe Andreas Bodensteins von Karlstadt (KGK), vols. 1–2, Thomas Kaufmann, ed. (Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2017).

Volumes 3 and 4 are scheduled to appear in April 2019, with a total of 9–10 volumes projected.

To access the digital version of the Edition, see: karlstadt-edition.org

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