Selling Forgiveness: How Money Sparked the Protestant Reformation

NOWADAYS THE NEWSPAPERS might call it ‘Indulgence-gate’, but at the time corruption was common in the church’s highest offices. Leo X was Pope in Rome, a member of the high-living de Medici family. He dished out bishoprics to his favorite relatives and tapped the Vatican treasury to support his extravagant lifestyle. When the money ran out, he made use of a fairly new fundraising scheme—selling forgiveness of sins. For a fee, bereaved relatives could get a deceased loved one out of Purgatory. At the right price, they could also save up for their own future sins—sort of a spiritual IRA. Indulgences, they called them.

Meanwhile, in Germany, Albert of Brandenburg was a young professional on the fast track of church success. At age 23, he was archbishop of Magdeburg and administrator of Halberstadt. It was against canon law to hold more than one office, but everyone was doing it. It was a great way to play politics. So when the archbishopric of Mainz became available, Prince Albert sought to add a third office to his resume—this the most politically powerful of all. The problem was, Albert was low on cash. Seems he had spent his liquid assets in getting the posts he already held, and Pope Leo was asking a colossal sum to consider him for the job in Mainz. The normal strategy, passing the cost on to the common folk in the form of taxes or fees, was impractical, since Mainz had gone through four archbishops in ten years and was nearly bankrupt from supporting all those pay-offs. But Albert had a good credit rating, and was able to borrow from the bank of Jacob Fugger, an Austrian merchant who was the money mogul of Europe at the time. How to pay back the loan? Indulgences. Pope Leo authorized the sale of indulgences in Germany, with half the proceeds going to pay back Fugger and half going to Rome to fund the building of a new basilica (St. Peter’s).

Enter Johann Tetzel. A Dominican monk and a popular preacher, Tetzel was named commissioner of indulgences for Germany. He was a regular P.T. Barnum, traveling through the towns and villages with his pitch for forgiveness of sins, cheap at any price. He even had a theme song: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings/ The soul from Purgatory springs.”

Many of the Germans were not amused. In fact, they were downright offended by Tetzel’s antics. Among them was a priest named Martin Luther. When Tetzel brought his traveling indulgence show through Wittenberg, Luther wrote his 95 theses, detailing his opposition to the sale of indulgences, and tacked them on the church door—the community bulletin board—on Oct. 31, 1517. That act ignited the Lutheran Reformation. The rest, as they say, is history.

Tetzel answered with 106 counter-theses a few months later, but was reprimanded by a papal legate shortly thereafter, charged with avarice, dishonesty, and sexual immorality. He died in 1519, at the time when Luther was debating his new theology in Leipzig with the great Catholic scholar Johannes Eck. Luther by that time was no longer centering on indulgences; there were matters of papal and scriptural authority to discuss. Leo at first laughed off Luther’s challenge to the church, then was slow to deal with it. Ironically, it was power politics (which had started the whole indulgence mess) that kept Leo from putting down the Lutheran threat. He favored Frederick of Saxony, for purely political reasons, to take the vacant position of Holy Roman Emperor. Yet Frederick was supporting Luther. Leo died in 1521, leaving his cousin, Clement VII, to worry about the Reformation. He also left the Vatican in poor shape financially. Albert, meanwhile, lived through the Reformation, but lost power. He was advised by his friend Erasmus to have nothing to do with Luther if he cared at all for tranquility. Indeed, he became a violent opponent of the Reformation. He died in 1545, forsaken and rather poor. CH

By Randy Petersen

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #14 in 1987]

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