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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 5 — History of Protestantism in Germany to the Leipsic Disputation, 1519

Chapter 8 — Tetzel preaches indulgences

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Luther Returns to Wittemberg – His Study of the Bible – Leo X. – His Literary Tastes – His Court – A Profitable Fable – The Re-building of St. Peter's – Sale of Indulgences – Archbishop of Mainz – Tetzel – His Character – His Red Cross and Iron Chest-Power of his Indulgences – Extracts from his Sermons – Sale – What the German People Think.

LUTHER'S stay in Rome did not extend over two weeks, but in that short time he had learned lessons not to be forgotten all his life long. The grace he had looked to find at Rome he had indeed found there, but in the Word of God, not in the throne of the Pope. The latter was a fountain that had ceased to send forth the Water of Life; so, turning from this empty cistern, he went back to Wittemberg and the study of the Scriptures.

The year of his return was 1512. It was yet five years to the breaking out of the Reformation in Germany. These years were spent by Luther in the arduous labors of preacher, professor, and confessor at Wittemberg. A few months after his return he received the degree of Doctor in Divinity, [1] and this was not without its influence upon the mind of the Reformer. On that occasion Luther took an oath upon the Bible to study, propagate, and defend the faith contained in the Holy Scriptures. He looked upon himself henceforward as the sworn knight of the reformed faith. Taking farewell of philosophy, from which in truth he was glad to escape, he turned to the Bible as his life-work. A more assiduous student of it than ever, his acquaintance with it daily grew, his insight into its meaning continually deepened, and thus a beginning was made in Wittemberg and the neighboring parts of Germany, by the evangelical light which he diffused in his sermons, of that great work for which God had destined him. [2] He had as yet no thought of separating himself from the Roman Church, in which, as he believed, there resided some sort of infallibility. These were the last links of his bondage, and Rome herself was at that moment unwittingly concocting measures to break them, and set free the arm that was to deal the blow from which she should never wholly rise.

We must again turn our eyes upon Rome. The warlike Julius II., who held the tiara at the time of Luther's visit, was now dead, and Leo X. occupied the Vatican. Leo was of the family of the Medici, and he brought to the Papal chair all the tastes and passions which distinguished the Medicean chiefs of the Florentine republic. He was refined in manners, but sensual and voluptuous in heart, he patronized the fine arts, affected a taste for letters, and delighted in pomps and shows. His court was perhaps the most brilliant in Europe. [3] No elegance, no amusement, no pleasure was forbidden admission into it. The fact that it was an ecclesiastical court was permitted to be no restraint upon its ample freedom. It was the chosen home of art, of painting, of music, of revels, and of masquerades.

The Pontiff was not in the least burdened with religious beliefs and convictions. To have such was the fashion of neither his house nor his age. His office as Pontiff, it is true, connected him with "a gigantic fable" which had come down from early times; but to have exploded that fable would have been to dissolve the chair in which he sat, and the throne that brought him so much magnificence and power. Leo was, therefore, content to vent his skepticism in the well-known sneer, "What a profitable affair this fable of Christ has been to us!" To this had it come! Christianity was now worked solely as a source of profit to the Popes. [4]

Leo, combining, as we have said, the love of art with that of pleasure, conceived the idea of beautifying Rome. His family had adorned Florence with the noblest edifices. Its glory was spoken of in all countries, and men came from afar to gaze upon its monuments. Leo would do for the Eternal City what his ancestors had done for the capital of Etruria. War, and the slovenliness or penury of the Popes had permitted the Church of St. Peter to fall into disrepair. He would clear away the ruinous fabric, and replace it with a pile more glorious than any that Christendom contained. But to execute such a project millions would be needed. Where were they to come from? The shows or entertainments with which Leo had gratified the vanity of his courtiers, and amused the indolence of the Romans, had emptied his exchequer. But the magnificent conception must not be permitted to fall through from want of money. If the earthly treasury of the Pope was empty, his spiritual treasury was full; and there was wealth enough there to rear a temple that would eclipse all existing structures, and be worthy of being the metropolitan church of Christendom. In short, it was resolved to open a special sale of indulgences in all the countries of Europe. [5] This traffic would enrich all parties. From the Seven Hills would flow a river of spiritual blessing. To Rome would flow back a river of gold.

Arrangements were made for opening this great. market (1517). The license to sell in the different countries of Europe was disposed of to the highest bidder, and the price was paid beforehand to the Pontiff. The indulgences in Germany were farmed out to Albert, Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg. [6] The archbishop was in Germany what Leo X. was in Rome. He loved to see himself surrounded with a brilliant court; he denied himself no pleasure; was profuse in entertainments; never went abroad without a long retinue of servants; and, as a consequence, was greatly

in want of money. Besides, he owed to the Pope for his pall – some said, 26,000, others, 30,000 florins. [7] There could be no harm in diverting a little of the wealth that was about to flow to Rome, into channels that might profit himself. The bargain was struck, and the archbishop sought out a suitable person to perambulate Germany, and preach up the indulgences. He found a man every way suited to his purpose. This was a Dominican monk, named John Diezel, or Tetzel, the son of a goldsmith of Leipsic. He had filled the odious office of inquisitor, and having added thereto a huckstering trade in indulgences, he had acquired a large experience in that sort of business. He had been convicted of a shameful crime at Innspruck, and sentenced to be put into a sack and drowned; but powerful intercession being made for him, he was reprieved, and lived to help unconsciously in the overthrow of the system that had nourished him. [8]

Tetzel lacked no quality necessary for success in his scandalous occupation. He had the voice of a town-crier, and the eloquence of a mountebank. This latter quality enabled him to paint in the most glowing colors the marvelous virtues of the wares which he offered for sale. The resources of his invention, the power of his effrontery, and the efficacy of his indulgences were all alike limitless. [9]

This man made a progress through Germany. The line of the procession as it moved from place to place might be traced at a distance by the great red cross, which was carried by Tetzel himself, and on which were suspended the arms of the Pope. In front of the procession, on a velvet cushion, was borne the Pontiff's bull of grace; in the rear came the mules laden with bales of pardoils, to be given, not to those who had penitence in the heart, but to those who had money in the hand.

When the procession approached a town it was announced to the inhabitants that "The Grace of God and of the Holy Father was at their gates." The welcome accorded was commonly such as the extraordinary honor was fitted to draw forth. The gates were opened, and the tall red cross, with all the spiritual riches of which it was the sign, passed in, followed by a long and imposing array of the ecclesiastical and civic authorities, the religious orders, the various trades, and the whole population of the place, which had come out to welcome the great pardon-monger. The procession advanced amid the beating of drums, the waving of flags, the blaze of tapers, and the pealing of bells. [10]

When he entered a city, Tetzel and his company went straight to the cathedral. The crowd pressed in and filled the church. The cross was set up in front of the high altar, a strong iron box was put down beside it, in which the money received for pardons was deposited, and Tetzel, in the garb of the Dominicans, mounting the pulpit began to set forth with stentorian voice the incomparable merit of his wares. He bade the people think what it was that had come to them. Never before in their times, nor in the times of their fathers, had there been a day of privilege like this. Never before had the gates of Paradise been opened so widely. "Press in now: come and buy while the market lasts," shouted the Dominican; "should that cross be taken down the market will close, heaven will depart, and then you will begin to knock, and to bewail your folly in neglecting to avail yourselves of blessings which shall then have gone beyond your reach." So in effect did Tetzel harangue the crowd. But his own words have a plainness and rigor which no paraphrase can convey. Let us cull a few specimens from his orations.

"Indulgences are the most precious and the most noble of God's gifts," said Tetzel. Then pointing to the red cross, which stood full in view of the multitude, he would exclaim, "This cross has as much efficacy as the very cross of Christ." [11] "Come, and I will give you letters all properly sealed, by which even the sins which you intend to commit may be pardoned." [12] "I would not change my privileges for those of St. Peter in heaven, for I have saved more souls by my indulgences than the apostle did by his sermons." [13] The Dominican knew how to extol his own office as well as the pardons he was so desirous to bestow on those who had money to buy. "But more than this," said Tetzel, for he had not as yet disclosed the whole wonderful virtues of his merchandise, "indulgences avail not only for the living but for the dead." So had Boniface VIII. enacted two centuries before; and Tetzel goes on to the particular application of the dogma. "Priest, noble, merchant, wife, youth, maiden, do you not hear your parents and your other friends who are dead, and who cry from the bottom of the abyss: 'We are suffering horrible torments! A trifling alms would deliver us; you can give it, and you will not'?" [14]

These words, shouted in a voice of thunder by the monk, made the hearers shudder.

"At the very instant," continues Tetzel, "that the money rattles at the bottom of the chest, the soul escapes from purgatory, and flies liberated to heaven. [15] Now you can ransom so many souls, stiff-necked and thoughtless man; with twelve groats you can deliver your father from purgatory, and you are ungrateful enough not to save him! I shall be justified in the Day of Judgment; but you – you will be punished so much the more severely for having neglected so great salvation. I declare to you, though you have but a single coat, you ought to strip it

off and sell it, in order to obtain this grace... The Lord our God no longer reigns, he has resigned all power to the Pope."

No argument was spared by the monk which could prevail with the people to receive his pardons; in other words, to fill his iron box. From the fires of purgatory – dreadful realities to men of that age, for even Luther as yet believed in such a place – Tetzel would pass to the ruinous condition of St. Peter's, and draw an affecting picture of the exposure to the rain and hail of the bodies of the two apostles, Peter and Paul, and the other martyrs buried within its precincts. [16] Pausing, he would launch a sudden anathema at all who despised the grace which the Pope and himself were offering to men; and then, changing to a more meek and pious strain, he would wind up with a quotation from Scripture, "Blessed are the eyes which see the things that ye see: for I tell you that many prophets have desired to see those things that ye see, and have not seen them, and to hear those things that ye hear, and have not heard them." [17] And having made an end, the monk would rush down the pulpit stairs and throw a piece of money into the box, which, as if the rattle of the coin were infectious, was sure to be followed by a torrent of pieces.

All round the church were erected confessional stalls. The shrift was a short one, as if intended only to afford another opportunity to the penancer of impressing anew upon the penitent the importance of the indulgences. From confession the person passed to the counter behind which stood Tetzel. He sharply scrutinized all who approached him, that he might guess at their rank in life, and apportion accordingly the sum to be exacted. From kings and princes twenty-five ducats were demanded for an ordinary indulgence; from abbots and barons, ten; from those who had an income of five hundred florins, six; and from those who had only two hundred, one. [18] For particular sins there was a special schedule of prices. Polygamy cost six ducats; church robbery and perjury, nine; murder, eight; and witchcraft, two. Samson, who carried on the same trade in Switzerland as Tetzel in Germany, charged for parricide or fratricide one ducat. The same hand that gave the pardon could not receive the money. The penitent himself must drop it into the box. There were three keys for the box. Tetzel kept one, another was in the possession of the cashier of the house of Fugger in Augsburg, the agent of the Archbishop and Elector of Mainz, who farmed the indulgences; the third was in the keeping of the civil authority. From time to time the box was opened in presence of a notary-public, and its contents counted and registered.

The form in which the pardon was given was that of a letter of absolution. These letters ran in the following terms: –

"May our Lord Jesus Christ have pity on thee, N. N., and absolve thee by the merits of his most holy passion. And I, by virtue of the apostolic power which has been confided to me, do absolve thee from all ecclesiastical censures, judgments, and penalties which thou mayest have merited, and from all excesses, sins, and crimes which thou mayest have committed, however great or enormous they may be, and for whatsoever cause, even though they had been reserved to our most Holy Father the Pope and the Apostolic See. I efface all attainders of unfitness and all marks of infamy thou mayest have drawn on thee on this occasion; I remit the punishment thou shouldest have had to endure in purgatory; I make thee anew a participator in the Sacraments of the Church; I incorporate thee afresh in the communion of the saints; and I reinstate thee in the innocence and purity in which thou wast at the hour of thy baptism; so that, at the hour of thy death, the gate through which is the entrance to the place of torments and punishments shall be closed against thee, and that which leads to the Paradise of joy shall be open. And shouldest thou be spared long, this grace shall remain immutable to the time of thy last end. In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen."

"Brother John Tetzel, Commissioner, has signed it with his own hand." [19]

Day by day great crowds repaired to this market, where for a little earthly gold men might buy all the blessings of heaven. Tetzel and his indulgences became the one topic of talk in Germany. The matter was discussed in all circles, from the palace and the university to the market-place and the wayside inn. The more sensible portion of the nation were shocked at the affair. That a little money should atone for the guilt and efface the stain of the most enormous crimes, was contrary to the natural justice of mankind. That the vilest characters should be placed on a level with the virtuous and the orderly, seemed a blow at the foundation of morals – an unhinging of society. The Papal key, instead of unlocking the fountains of grace and holiness, had opened the flood-gates of impiety and vice, and men trembled at the deluge of licentiousness which seemed ready to rush in and overflow the land. Those who had some knowledge of the Word of God viewed the matter in even a worse light. They knew that the pardon of sin was the sole prerogative of God: that he had delegated that power to no mortal, and that those

who gathered round the red cross of Tetzel and bought his pardons were cheated of their money and their souls at the same time. Christianity, instead of a source of purity, appeared to be a fountain of pollution; and, from being the guardian and nurse of virtue, seemed to have become the patron and promoter of all ungodliness.

The thoughts of others took another direction. They looked at the "power of the keys" under the new light shed upon it by the indulgences, and began to doubt the legitimacy of that which was now being so flagrantly abused. What, asked they, are we to think of the Pope as a man of humanity and mercy? One day a miner of Schneeberg met a seller of indulgences. "Is it true," he asked, "that we can, by throwing a penny into the chest, ransom a soul from purgatory?" "It is so," replied the indulgence-vendor. "Ah, then," resumed the miner, "what a merciless man the Pope must be, since for want of a wretched penny he leaves a poor soul crying in the flames so long!" Luther embodied in his Theses on Indulgences what was a very general sentiment, when he asked, "Why does not the Pope deliver at once all the souls from purgatory by a holy charity and on account of their great wretchedness, since he delivers so many from love of perishable money and of the Cathedral of St. Peter?" [20] It was all very well to have a fine building at Rome, thought the people of Germany, but to open the gates of that doleful prison in which so many miserable beings live in flames, and for once make purgatory tenantless, would be a nobler monument of the grace and munificence of the Pope, than the most sumptuous temple that he can by any possibility rear in the Eternal City.

Meanwhile Friar John Tetzel and Pope Leo X. went on laboring with all their might, though wholly unwittingly and unintentionally, to pave the way for Luther. If anything could have deepened the impression produced by the scandals of Tetzel's trade, it was the scandals of his life. He was expending, day by day, and all day long, much breath in the Church's service, extolling the merit of her indulgences, and when night came he much needed refreshment: and he took it to his heart's content. "The collectors led a disorderly life," says Sarpi; "they squandered in taverns, gambling-houses, and places of ill-fame all that the people had saved from their necessities." [21]

As regards Leo X., when the stream of gold from the countries beyond the Alps began to flow, his joy was great. He had not, like the Emperor Charles, a "Mexico" beyond the Atlantic, but he had a "Mexico" in the credulity of Christendom, and he saw neither limit nor end to the wealth it might yield him. Never again would he have cause to bewail an empty treasury. Men would never cease to sin, and so long as they continued to sin they would need pardon; and where could they go for pardon if not to the Church – in other words, to himself? He only, of all men on the earth, held the key. He might say with an ancient monarch, "Mine hand hath found as a nest the riches of the nations, and as one gathereth eggs so have I gathered all the earth." Thus Leo went on from day to day, building St. Peter's, but pulling down the Papacy.

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