Martin Luther and Indulgences



In the early sixteenth century, Pope Leo X decided that the Basilica in Rome needed renovations. With the help of the Archbishop of Mainz, Albrecht, he devised a scheme to sell indulgences to fund the project. Indulgences allowed a Christian, upon purchase, to set a loved one free from Purgatory. Leo X and Albrecht sought to popularize indulgences and enlisted Johann Tetzel, a German Dominican Monk, to advertise them in Germany. Tetzel’s slogan, “When the coin in the coffer rings, from Purgatory the soul springs.”

Martin Luther, a German Augustinian monk and university professor, was deeply offended and contested that sola fides, salvation through faith alone, was all that was needed to save a person’s soul. In Wittenberg, Germany in 1517, Luther posted his “95 theses” on the castle gate to protest the Catholic Church’s nefarious ways.

Initially, the subversive monk only intended to censure the Church’s misdeeds and hoped the papacy would heed his plea to make the necessary reforms. The Church, however, enjoyed power and money too much to change, so they had Luther excommunicated.

Frustrated with the Church’s negligence, Luther, perhaps reluctantly, formed his own church, with principles he believed the Catholic Church lacked. One of these principles was sola fides, already mentioned. Another was sola scriptura, the Bible is the only true Word.

One of his grievances with the Church was how their priests preached one interpretation of the Bible, an interpretation that largely served the Church’s own agenda rather than solely to benefit the spirituality of its listeners. Luther argued that there should be a “priesthood of all believers,” that is, individuals should be permitted to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. This could bolster them against absurd pitfalls, like buying indulgences.

Luther's Influence Leaves a Muddled Legacy

The direction Christianity took because of the Protestant Reformation wasn’t entirely free of its own debauchery. Often, the German princes, serving more ignoble motives than the monk intended, allied with and protected Luther, doing so more for political reasons rather than religious ones. Phillip of Hesse wanted to marry another woman and keep his current wife. Luther posited that the patriarchs of the Old Testament were polygamous, and that there was nothing deeply depraved about following their practices. Other princes sought to strengthen their own positions while weakening the Church’s hold over Europe. In Luther, and the advent of the Protestant Reformation, the princes saw an opportunity to undermine the Church’s authority. Protestants did not owe allegiance to the Pope, and therefore, could be controlled by local secular leaders.

Meanwhile, the Catholics were not without their champions. Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, relied on the power of the Church to protect his title. The Emperor’s position was an elected one, chosen by powerful Catholic leaders throughout Europe. To maintain that position, Charles V waged war upon the Reformed Christians of Europe.

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Comments 9 comments

kathryn1000 profile image

kathryn1000 6 years ago from London

Yes,it is astonishing to read about this now whilst the Pope is here in the U.K.You write well.I shall read more when my eyes have had a rest.

jambo87 profile image

jambo87 6 years ago from Outer Space / Inner Space Author

He is? Whoops, better pick up a newspaper. Thanks for reading.

MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 6 years ago from South Africa

Jambo – as always, brilliant writing! Objective, informative, and discreet. My hat off – again – for you. Though sad, the shortcomings of churches, not being solid on a rock, but like mercury – always fitting the hand that feeds it – with money.

jambo87 profile image

jambo87 6 years ago from Outer Space / Inner Space Author

Thank you Martie!

My sentiments fit with your's. Religion isn't the problem, only the fanatical leaders and their followers.

A.A. Zavala profile image

A.A. Zavala 6 years ago from Texas

Very good hub. I've always admired Martin Luther for the stand against the Pope he had taken in his day. Outstanding.

wingedcentaur profile image

wingedcentaur 6 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

Good Day jambo87

Great hub! I voted it up for useful. You know, that scheme of Pope Leo X can be placed in a larger of what seemed to have been the wild financial speculation that was going on in Northern Europe during the 1500s.

In fact the institution we know as the stock market has it origins in the gambling, carnivals, and "other frolics" of the medieval fair (Phillips, Kevin. Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich. Broadway Books. New York, 2002. p.347).

In fact the so-called "blue chip" stocks got their name from the color of the most expensive chips in the Monte Carlo casinos (ibid). The financial markets of N. Europe followed route of the seasonal fairs. At Medina del Campo, for example, royal bankers came, at fair time, to pay the king's debts and arrange his loans. Here's the point: these were popular gatherings that enjoyed CHURCH EXEMPTIONS FROM THE USUAL RELIGIOUS RESTRICTIONS OF TRADE AND FINANCE (ibid, p.348).

If I understand the literature properly, the atmosphere, particularly in Catholic Spain (and I think some Italian city-states were dependant affiliates, were they not?) was one of wealth euphoria, similar to the atmosphere that existed in the United States during the 1920s when everybody apparently thought that everybody could get rich off the stock market before it crashed.

Here's my point at long last. When you have all that wealth (or the illusion of it) sloshing around it can lend itself to creating a social environment, in which it seems that all limits have suddenly been shattered. It seems that everything and anything is possible. There's nothing that can't be accomplished. Anyone and anything can be bought or at least rented.

And so, there is no reason why the church (a human institution after all) should be immune.

Take care, and again, great hub!

jambo87 profile image

jambo87 6 years ago from Outer Space / Inner Space Author

Wow, I had no idea. Thank you for the information expanding on the scope of indulgences and thank you for reading. As always, I enjoy reading your thoughtful comments!

paperlake profile image

paperlake 4 years ago from atop a unicorn, vanquishing evildoers

Great read.

jambo87 profile image

jambo87 3 years ago from Outer Space / Inner Space Author

Thanks for reading, paperlake.

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