The straw that broke the camel’s back

ON OCTOBER 31, 1517, the day before the Feast of All Saints, 33-year-old Martin Luther posted theses against the practice of indulgences on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. (At least, so wrote Philip Melancthon after Luther’s death.) The door functioned as a bulletin board for announcements related to academic and church affairs. Whether or not Luther put the theses on the door, he certainly mailed them off that day to his superiors with an annoyed note. 

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The theses were written in Latin and printed on a folio sheet by John Gruenenberg, using the new technology of the printing press. Luther was calling for a “disputation on the power and efficacy of indulgences out of love and zeal for truth and the desire to bring it to light.” He did so as a faithful monk and priest who had been appointed professor of biblical theology at the University of Wittenberg—a small, virtually unknown institution in a small town. The man, the school, and the town would soon be “on the map.” 

Copies of the theses were sent to friends and church officials, but the discussion Luther requested never took place. Albert of Brandenburg, archbishop of Mainz, gave the theses to some theologians who encouraged Albert to send a copy to Rome and demand action against Luther. Within two months, indulgence-seller Johann Tetzel fired back with his own theses, including:

“Christians should be taught that the pope, by authority of his jurisdiction, is superior to the entire Catholic Church and its councils, and that they should humbly obey his statutes.”

By the early months of 1518, the theses had been reprinted (in German) in many cities, and Luther’s name had become associated with demands for radical change in the church. He was front-page news. 

The Issue of Indulgences

Luther was calling for a debate on the most distressing issue of his time: the relationship between money and religion. The granting of forgiveness in the sacrament of penance was based on the “power of the keys” given to the apostles according to Matthew 16:18 and was used to discipline sinners. Penitent sinners were asked to show regret for their sins (contrition), confess them to a priest (confession), and do penitential work to pay the temporal penalty for them (satisfaction). Under certain circumstances, someone who was truly contrite and had confessed his or her sins could receive partial (or, rarely, complete) remission of temporal punishment by purchasing a letter of indulgence (from the Latin indulgentia—”permit”).

Indulgences were issued by executive papal order and by written permission in various bishoprics. By the late eleventh century, it had become customary to issue indulgences to volunteers taking part in crusades to the Holy Land against the Muslims; all sins would be forgiven anyone participating in such an enterprise, deemed dangerous but holy. After 1300 a complete “plenary indulgence” was granted to all pilgrims visiting holy shrines in Rome during “jubilee years” (at first every 100 years, and, eventually, every 25 years).

Abuses soon abounded: permits were issued offering release from all temporal punishment—even from punishment in purgatory—for a specific payment determined by the church. Some popes pursued their “edifice complex” by collecting large sums through the sale of indulgences. Pope Julius II, for example, granted a “jubilee indulgence” in 1510, the proceeds of which were used to build the new basilica of St. Peter in Rome.

In 1515 Pope Leo X commissioned Albert of Brandenburg to sell indulgences in his lands to complete the building of St. Peter’s. Albert owed a large sum to Rome for having granted him a special dispensation to rule three territories. He borrowed the money from the Fugger family’s bank in Augsburg, which engaged an experienced indulgences salesman, Tetzel, to run the indulgences traffic. One-half of the proceeds went to Albert and the Fuggers, the other half to Rome. 

The issue of indulgences had now become linked to the prevalent anxiety regarding death and the final judgment. This anxiety was further fueled by a runaway credit system based on printed money and newly developed banking systems. And when the unknown monk from the unknown town began to read, he could not stand by and watch the church selling grace for profit. 

The message of Martin Luther

In the 95 Theses, Luther strongly objected to the abuse of indulgences—most recently under the salesmanship of Tetzel: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance. … This shameless preaching of pardons makes it hard even for learned men to defend the pope’s honor against calumny or to answer the indubitably shrewd questions of the laity” (Theses 1, 81). 

By 1520 Luther was announcing that baptism is the only “indulgence” necessary for salvation. All of life is a “return to baptism”:

one clings to the divine promise of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ alone, who by his life, death, and Resurrection liberated humankind from all punishment for sin. One lives by trusting in Christ alone and becoming a Christ to the neighbor in need: “Christians should be taught that whoever sees a person in need and, instead of helping him, uses his money for an indulgence, obtains not an indulgence of the pope but the displeasure of God” (Thesis 45).

Luther criticized the papacy, which claimed to have power over every soul:

“Why does not the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus [a wealthy Roman nicknamed “Fats,” who died in 53 BC] build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?” (Thesis 87).

Though condemned by church and state, Luther survived the attempts to burn him as a heretic and lived out into old age the message he had preached in 1517:

“We should admonish Christians to follow Christ, their Head, through punishment, death, and hell. And so let them set their trust on entering heaven through many tribulations rather than some false security and peace” (Theses 94–95).


This article is from Christian History magazine #116 Twenty-Five Writings that Changed the Church and the World. Read it in context here!

By Eric W. Gritsch

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #116 in 2015]

Eric W. Gritsch (1931–2012) was professor of church history at Gettysburg Seminary and director of its Institute for Luther Studies. This article is adapted from issues 28 and 34 of Christian History. Read more about Luther in CH 34, 39, and 115.
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