It has had a tremendous impact on the world, not just Christianity. Because moveable type, not the printing press, first appeared in Europe, Christianity felt the brunt of the invention first. Of course, to discuss the changes after movable type, you must first at least have a feel for the world before movable type.
The Christianity you likely think of before Guttenburg is probably not a good semblance of the real world of the time. Also, Christianity existed a long time before 1440, and it changed pretty substantially over that time as well.
In the first fifty years of Christianity, churches stretched from India to Libya and France and from the Alps to the Sahel. By the year 1100, the Patriarch of Tokyo could have sent monks to Ireland, while the bishop of Armagh could have done the same to Tokyo. Neither set of travelers would have had to miss a eucharistic celebration on the way, barring catastrophe or incivility. That is the source of the Prester John myths and so forth.
Of course, by 1500 two thirds of all of the churches of the world extant in 1100 would have closed and in many places, been at most a distant memory or an old monument by the road. Almost all of that was voluntary deconversion, there was little of it that could be attributed to persecution. Had you been in Tokyo or Beijing in 1500, you would not have been able to find a Christian, and you would have to know what to look for, basically being an archaeologist, to realize they had ever been there.
Christianity, in most of the Old World, was being outcompeted in the marketplace of ideas. Of course, you had pockets where it survived in India, Iraq, and Iran. It was also expanding in northern and eastern Europe at the time. It could easily have vanished in Spain and the Balkans.
There is another effect happening as well that had a pretty substantial impact on the change from early Christianity to pre-Protestant Christianity. That is the Black Death. It had a fundamental impact on Christian theology, and the Reformation is at least in part a reaction to the reaction to the Black Death. I am going to ignore most of that as the existence of the press exacerbated those differences but did not cause them.
You also ask about Christianity, but that is something difficult to discuss as the impact on Syriac Christianity was very different than the implications for Methodism in the United States. Instead, since most people mean western Christianity when they speak of Christianity rather than actual Christianity, I will restrict myself to Western European Christianity.
For some parts of Christianity, such as Russian Orthodoxy, movable type didn’t really impact the religion until after the Bolsheviks won the Russian Civil War. Then the impact was catastrophic.
For simplicity, I am going to define Western Christianity as those areas where the bishop of Rome is the patriarchal bishop or was at the time of the Reformation.
Western Christianity, especially before the conquests by Napolean, was exceedingly non-uniform. The Western Patriarchate was somewhat of a puzzle from the view of Eastern Patriarchs and Metropolitans. In all of the Eastern synods, there was a unity of worship, canon law, and choices of versions of the bible. The Patriarchate of Constantinople was internally uniform. The Patriarchate of Alexandria was internally uniform. They didn’t agree between each other, but they were internally consistent in their formal religion.
That was never true inside the Western Patriarchy. The liturgy in England didn’t match the liturgy in Germany or Italy. Likewise, and still to this day, there is a Mozarabic liturgy sung in the Western Patriarchate, and in other places, you can attend the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom or Basil the Great which are contractions of the Liturgy of James. At Easter in the United States, you will hear a version of the Liturgy of Peter at Roman churches, while on other days, you will see a version of the Gallican liturgy. You can also see the Tridentine Liturgy under exceptional circumstances.
Dropping printed books into a highly non-uniform environment had differential impacts throughout the system. If the same input is dropped into different processing rules, you get different outputs. You can think of the printed book as having the same impact as the internet on society now. You have Amazon destroying businesses and the Russians taking over American elections. Eventually, it came to blows, of course. However, it is too early to talk about that.
First, every locality had its own bible, and it would not match the bible of another district in the same language group except by accident. The printed book created a previously absent literary convention, that a version of a book is correct and that other versions altered by copyists were not a correct version.
There are 33,000 verses in the New Testament, and there is an average of six variant passages for every passage in the text in ancient texts. That doubles if you include things like typographic errors, misspellings, and so forth. When you translate those passages, then that number goes way up. That was part of the controversy of the Tyndale Bible. He had planned to drop fifteen centuries of translation standards and use a new one, which changed critical words.
Most people believe the council at Nicaea approved the books of the bible, but that is not true. Pope Damasus, following three synodal meetings, issued the decree creating the bible and choosing the books. That was part of the problem. If you reject papal authority, then you reject the authorizing body for the creation of the bible.
Luther solved this problem by choosing the books all over again, and he tossed quite a few books out. He, and Tyndale, excluded Hebrews, James, Jude, Revelation, and the books now called the Apocrypha.
If you reject the papacy and Luther, you run into logical problems for how you are to function. The King James Bible, with the King as the head of Christianity, solved that problem.
So the first thing to understand is that the bible was a political document at that time. It still is, but not in the same way.
A problem that formed and still impacts Protestantism up until today is that denominations formed based on different variant passages as they appeared in different bibles. The snake-handling churches in Kentucky depend on a passage that is widely agreed not to be part of the bible, but which was in a printed bible when they formed. They pass live rattlesnakes around the congregation, including to children, throughout the service. If you die, then that is God’s judgment. If you were holy, you would live.
That makes Protestant scriptural translation a highly charged process today as some denominations are on weak footings had they tried to form today under more neutral readings of passages. So one of the first elements that happened, though they didn’t realize it until around the beginning of the 18th century, was that there were bibles and not a bible. It had the effect of exacerbating the differences on a Christianity that was under a lot of pressure from the outside world.
You have to remember, Christianity had spent three centuries vanishing, though expanding in some areas too. The princes of the Holy Roman Empire would probably not have come to the same decisions had they realized that within thirty years that one-third of all Germans would be dead from infighting and civil war because of how they handled the Luther affair. Just thirteen years after Guttenberg, the Roman Empire would finally fall to Mehmed II. The shock waves would cascade everywhere. If you add in Luther, Calvin, Henry VIII, and the Anabaptists, you get a very old system in grave peril. It had to change.
Before violence took hold, the regional differences in Protestantism looked quite a bit like those regions’ versions of Catholicism. Once the violence started, there was no return for any party. Luther had 20,000 Anabaptists burned at the stake. Calvin ordered the execution of all Lutherans. Anabaptist armies laid waste to entire regions figuring it was better to kill the entirety of a mixed heretic village than let some contamination in. Catholic armies roamed the countryside.
The printed book made the quick propagation of religious ideas into the rapid circulation of war propaganda. Luther recommended the Rosary. Rosaries now were the weapon of the enemy and had to go.
About a decade ago, a Lutheran bishop was commenting on the ninety-five thesis. He said that continued division with the Catholic Church made no sense as the Catholic Church ended up adopting ninety-three and a half of the ninety -five thesis. Even though the Catholic Church ended up adopting ninety-three and a half of the ninety-five thesis, that cannot matter anymore to millions of Lutherans. Reasonableness ended with the bloodshed. The printed book had a similar effect as deep fakes could have now. You just need to read a tract by Chick to realize that the wars are still real to many Americans.
The first change to Christianity was to define some baptized people as not Christian. It also brought an end to the requirement that churches be lead by someone whose ordination was part of the apostolic succession. All Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, and Oriental Orthodox bishops can trace their ordination back through a series of bishops that go directly back to the Twelve. The apostles laid hands on new bishops, that laid hands on new bishops and so forth.
The splits didn’t take bishops with them, so there was no authority authorized by the apostles, so the result was a critical discussion of how a congregation should be run. It is really the first real discussion of importance since the ante-Nicene fathers discussed it. See, for example, 1st Clement or the Didache. There really had not been much critical discussion outside the Apostolic Fathers, though you have the monastic movement and the writings of individuals such as Basil, Anthony, Benedict, and later people such as Francis and Dominic.
The next big difference you begin to see is the sermon instead of a homily or kontakia. If you look at Latin, Greek, Syriac, and African Christianity (Copts and Ge’ez), you can see why the sermon was important to Protestantism. However, without printed literature, the sermon probably would not have existed as a core element.
If the Greeks are the singers to God, the Syriacs God’s poets, the Africans God’s mystics, the Latins were the teachers about God. If you take that to an extreme, you get sermons. In the Greek service, the laity sang kondaks to the clergy. They are essentially singing the sermon to the bishop and the deacon based on the bible passages of the day. The service is one very long song dominated by the laity followed by the deacon with a small part for the bishop and a tiny part for any priests (one sung verse).
The Syriac liturgy, when they don’t use the Greek, is really a giant poem. The African liturgies are mystical. The Latins were usually sober and had a story to explain.
A sermon is a long, sober explanation. However, as not all people are equally good at sermons, books of sermons were a necessity. Without the printed book, that could not be. There has to be a consistency of thought within a denomination. Western Christianity lacked any consistency of thought. That is why regional Christianities formed.
Another modern or just slightly pre-modern issue of importance from the book was in the area of what should be thought of as proto-science. One person’s heretic is another person’s hero. Many critical ideas that could have been destroyed everywhere in the world up to the printed book were preserved because heretics could jump from one jurisdiction into another and live. Further, the books which may be burned in one place could survive in another.
A critical element that survived is the idea of an infinitesimal. In much of Europe, the discussion or even the concept of an infinitesimal was a banned discussion. Without it, there can be no calculus, no science, and no modern engineering. Many other fundamental ideas, such as the Copernican Revolution, could never have happened without the printed book. That set up the first “atheist” crisis of Christianity.
Isaac Newton and Benjamin Franklin were far more dangerous than either Galileo or Darwin. The Principia probably would have destroyed Christianity if reading and education been widespread. The planets did not depend on God for their motion. The bible was false.
Lightening, the most frightening of God’s punishment that was a regular part of ordinary life, was natural, and the lightning rod means humans could defeat God at will. Protestantism was forced to confront explanations that could spread as fast as a religious tract. Catholicism was less at risk because of how it conceptualizes epistemology.
Catholicism was instead at risk from the idea of something being a superstition. Of course, a wide variety of superstitions from early Europe still survive into today as mainstream ideas, but it allowed a bright light to be shone on folk religion rather than the relationship between formal religion, science, and mathematics. However, I don’t think that ever badly harmed Catholicism. The individuals who are most likely to be persuaded by scientific arguments and those most likely to endorse folk religion are different people likely only to interact in family groups.
Catholicism had two responses to the printed book related to interaction with science. First, it created institutions of higher learning and adopted an idea of the Catholic intellectual tradition. Second, it created a papal science academy. The Galileo affair taught a lesson. It sought to reshape the debate of Catholics with science to internalize science to become part of Catholicism without getting into the necessary battles that Protestantism had to face. Making a book infallible is risky. That took a long time, however. Catholicism took the position that “truth cannot contradict Truth,” and so science was helpful to the world and harmless to the faithful.
The seeds of ideas that escaped censorship and censure in the chaos of the Reformation set in motion the scientific revolution. That revolution was slower than a modern person would think it was. It would take the Industrial Revolution to trigger the first major, book based shift that was so large that early Christians would have trouble recognizing Christianity.
Several things likely triggered the Industrial Revolution in England. First, several of the dioceses in England felt illiteracy was a threat to Anglicanism, and so literacy rates soared. By the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, one diocese had a ninety percent literacy rate among men and seventy percent among women. We now know that literacy among women is a critical component of social advancement.
Women began delaying marriage so that the average age at first birth was twenty-five around the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. In addition, primogeniture meant that second and later sons would be impoverished at a father’s death. They had to develop what we now called “intellectual capital” because they had to have something following the father’s death. They became priests, attorneys, shopkeepers, and other professions.
They also became engineers, chemists, inventors, and business entrepreneurs. That triggered a radical change in the organization of labor, the factory. If you read Adam Smith’s famous tome on economics, you will see that people expected to have full-time employment at age six. Full time was a ten to twelve-hour day, six days per week.
Until the Industrial Revolution, church was a daily event. Of course, the mass is still said daily, but daily prayer and some form of daily service had persisted since the beginning. The liturgy of the hours became the archaic property of the monasteries. Daily lessons turned into Sunday School. The farmer saying the Angelus when the monks sang the psalms became more difficult. Praying seven times per day and stopping work was terrible for factories. Prayer and work were becoming separated.
Work was no longer part of the realm of the sacred.
In the year three hundred, the morning began with “shout joyfully to the world all the Earth.” In 1893, when Durkheim coined the word anomie, the morning started with a steam whistle. The Industrial Revolution was impossible without movable type, and it rearranged life dramatically.
It also set about the second round of atheism pushing at it. You began seeing speakers like Robert Ingersoll and would later see Freud. You would also see Proudhon, Marx, and Engels. Religion was no longer providing guidance in labor, morality, or understanding life for at least a percentage of the population.
A second strand began with the French and American Revolutions and the rise of Napoleon. These were literate revolutions. In America, it would result in the Great Awakening and an explosion of Protestant denominations. In Europe, it would result in the beginning of the intermittent repression of all religions that would last through the twentieth century.
The French imprisonment of the Catholic clergy had two impacts. First, when the service books were seized, the eventual reinstatement of the churches meant that there were no books. Rome sent Tridentine service books reducing the unique French forms to nothingness. That directly impacted worship. Second, as with Henry VIII seizure of the monasteries, it changed the position of the clergy forever in Europe.
It also imposed the Civil Law on the continent anywhere Napoleon conquered and left behind accountability structures that were hard to undo.
It also changed mission work. Although the age of exploration would have happened without the printed book, the empire creating forces in Europe required books and mass literacy which would then bring Christianity to places it had never been before. It had begun to win again in the marketplace of ideas.
A religion that can conquer the whole world began to flaunt its self-advertised intrinsic superiority. You should read the language used in Veblen’s Rise of the Leisure Class to see how the Victorians viewed themselves and the savage others that needed to be conquered for their own good.
Ultimately, the book led to technological changes that resulted in television evangelists, the sexual revolution, a rise in analytic thinking, and primacy for the quantitative. It also produced the internet, which has created the next atheist threat.
Those technological and social advances, such as Social Security, nationalized medicine, and so forth, now allow the crippled to walk, the blind to see, the deaf to hear and the resuscitation of the dead. People who would have required alms to survive now have social insurance. Entrepreneurs, inventors and scientists are heroes and conquerors and those that attempt conquest such as Mussolini, Hitler, Hussein or others are now villains.
Many saints, such as Saint Francis, that made sense in their time, no longer make any logical sense at all. Voluntary impoverishment means that you cannot form capital to make the sick well, afford to preach anywhere, feed the poor, or accomplish anything. While it may be nice to live among the poor, it is better to hire educators, social workers, build businesses and create housing. Indeed, untrained volunteers often make their charges lives worse off because of a lack of training or perspective. An amateur healer is no match for a trained physician in terms of treating people.
The post-industrial saints are people like Representative John Lewis who voluntarily resist oppression to make a level playing field. They take on the traditional power structures that are often undergirded with churches. Consider the role Evangelicals have played in the election of Donald Trump. That is old-style Christian power. It is also why 20-40% of eighteen-year-olds report that they do not believe in a god when you ask the question carefully. Blunt force power, undergirded by dominant social structures such as the churches, is now on the opposite side of the fence from the bulk of social morality.
If Christianity revives, it will be because it repudiates its position of social power, turns the other cheek, focuses on prayer, alms, and fasting, and presents itself as a set of socially useful tools to keep the powerful in check. Otherwise, it is a relic of a world before the printed book.