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John Tetzel

John Tetzel is famous (infamous?) for arousing the ire of Martin Luther by his outrageous claims for the sale of Catholic indulgences.

Tetzel, whose German name is Johann, was given the task of raising money for the building of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. He was exceptionally good at it, and his claims for the effect of indulgences were exceptionally extreme and superstitious.

He's famous for this claim:

As soon as the gold in the casket rings; the rescued soul to heaven springs

[So wie das Geld im Kasten klingt; die Seele aus dem Fegfeuer springt]

Johann/John Tetzel, salesman of indulgences that aroused Luther's ireJohann/John Tetzel

To this day, even the Roman Catholic Church condemns his extreme claims. The Catholic  Encyclopedia, which still supports indulgences as Christian doctrine (a little stunning), nonetheless says this about Tetzel's claims:

[His] opinion found no recognition but actual condemnation at the hands of authoritative writers, and was rejected in explicit terms by Cardinal Cajetan as late as 1517-19. By the teaching he laid himself open to just censure and reproach. To condition a plenary indulgence for the dead on the mere gift of money, without contrition on the part of the giver, was as repugnant to the teaching of the Church, as it violated every principle of elementary justice. (under Johann Tetzel)


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As you can see from the quote, John Tetzel claimed that no repentance was necessary on the part of the buyer in order to obtain the benefit of the indulgence. This seemed ludicrous to Martin Luther.

Of course, first it would be good to know what an indulgence is!

What's an Indulgence?

St. Peter's Basilica, built with indulgence moneySt. Peter's Basilica, built with indulgence money
Photo by Oriol Ventura Pedrol, used with permission

The Roman Catholic Church to this day (look for yourself!) claims that Jesus, Mary, and the saints did so many good works that left behind "merit" that they didn't need. That "treasury" of merit is in the possession of the Church, and that merit, says the Roman Catholic Church, can be bestowed on others as the Church wills.

I'm stunned I'm actually writing this about what a "Christian" Church believes.

Oh, well. Onward … 

According to the Roman Catholics, when God forgives, there are some sins for which he remits only the eternal punisment. There is still "temporal punishment" that must be endured, and if it is not endured in this lifetime, then it must be endured in purgatory.

Through the giving of indulgences, the Roman Catholic Church can shorten that punishment, whether on earth or in purgatory.

Indulgences for Future Sin

There is a story, almost certainly false, that the leader of a gang of ruffians approached Tetzel to obtain pardon through the purchase of an indulgence.

"Will indulgences forgive future sins as well?" he asked. Tetzel assured him that they would, and the young man immediately paid him.

That night, confident that he was forgiven, the young man robbed Tetzel, obtaining his money back and more.

I have now also heard this story told with a German noble as the thief.

Why John Tetzel Was So Successful

The citizens of Europe under the rule of the Roman Catholic Church were kept in great ignorance. Superstition was rampant. Doctrines like purgatory were superb for keeping citizens in fear, and ignorance lent strength to wild ideas about demons and witches.

John Tetzel fed on those superstitious fears. It was very easy to convince people who believed that their dear mother, departed wife, or beloved child were that very moment burning in flames in purgatory that they ought to pay money to release them from their torment.

In a sense, the sale of indulgences was a way to get the poor to willingly pay taxes.

John Tetzel's Sales Plummet

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed the death warrant on indulgences to the cathedral door in Wittenburg. His 95 theses were powerful arguments against everything about the sale of indulgences.

Luther was a powerful salesman in his own right. He was popular both with the people and with the prince. His words were soon distributed all over Germany, and John Tetzel's indulgence sales came to an abrupt end.

Wittenberg Schlosskirche, Luther nailed his 95 theses to this doorWittenberg Schlosskirche; Luther nailed his 95 theses to this door

This, of course, aroused the ire of the pope, who was anxious to have St. Peter's Basilica built, and the rest, as they say, is history.

John Tetzel's End

With the wrath of the public aroused against him, Johann Tetzel was forced to retire to the to a monastery at Leipzig. It was at that time that Carl von Meltitz wrote up numerous accusations against him, further scandalizing his already damaged reputation. (Meltitz has since been discredited, and no one trusts anything he wrote.)

Broken and in ill health, John Tetzel passed away in 1519.

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