by Rev. Donavon Riley
John Tetzel, as one historian described him, “was a short, dumpy, stump-preacher who was very good at the business of selling indulgences.” He was so good at it that in the Fall of 1517 he was sent to Germany to announce a special plenary indulgence that, the Papacy hoped, would bring in the amount of money it needed to finish building St. Peter’s basilica in Rome.
The special indulgence Tetzel peddled to the German people was so broad in its definition that just purchasing it seemed to be the actual means of freeing people from purgatory. Not a repentant heart, true faith, or even a desire to earn God’s grace was necessary. Money talked in this case, and Tetzel used all his skills as a public speaker to bend the peoples’ ear to his message.
Tetzel would go from town to town and deliver the same stirring message: “Do you not hear the voices of your dead relatives and others, crying out to you and saying, ‘Pity us, pity us, for we are in dire punishment and torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance’? And you will not?” Then, in his concluding appeal, “Will you not then for a quarter of a florin receive these letters of indulgence through which you are able to lead a divine and immortal soul safely and securely into the homeland of paradise?” Then at the very end, Tetzel would say, “Once the coin into the coffer clings, a soul from purgatory heavenward springs!”
In every town, Tetzel’s preaching filled money boxes for the papacy. The German people, concerned for their family and loved ones’ souls, bought indulgences in record numbers. And before anyone could reconsider their decision, Tetzel and his entourage of soldiers, musicians, and actors were on to the next town.
Due to the power of his delivery and the amount of money being gathered up, Luther knew about Tetzel’s methods far in advance of the little preacher’s appearance in Wittenberg. In fact, Luther was so upset by the news he received about Tetzel that he finally spoke publicly about it, calling Tetzel’s mission, “The pious defrauding of the faithful.” And others, following Luther, referred to it as “Roman bloodsucking.”
But, Tetzel expected this push back. It was, in his experience, normal for some amongst the nobles and clergy to oppose his work for financial reasons, if not for theological ones too. This time however, it would turn out different for him. Instead of riding out of Germany with boxes of gold and silver, a very different outcome was waiting for him in Wittenberg.
Next week we will examine what happened when Luther publicly opposed not only Tetzel, but the sale of indulgences altogether.
Rev. Donavon Riley is the pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Webster, Minnesota.