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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:
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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.