In 1517 Pope Leo X, empty-pocketed and needing funds to rebuild St. Peter’s basilica, issued a special “sale” of indulgences. The very word “indulgence” tends to convey dubious moral connotations, but these indulgences were particularly questionable. What was an “indulgence”? It was a special sort of forgiveness for sins issued by the pope in consideration of various acts of merit, in this case donations to Leo’s treasury. Indulgences could even be “purchased” on behalf of loved ones in purgatory.

Dominican friar Johann Tetzel became the pontiff’s peddler, a P. T. Barnum traveling around with a brass-bound chest, a bag of printed receipts, and an enormous cross draped with a papal banner. Whenever Tetzel came to a town, church bells peeled, crowds gathered, and street performers kicked up their heels. Tetzel would set up shop in the nave of the local church, open his bags, and shout, “I have here the passports to lead the human soul to the celestial joys of Paradise. As soon as the coin rings in the bowl, the soul for whom it is paid will fly from purgatory and straight to heaven.”

He usually exceeded his quota.

But many were troubled, and when the hard eyes of Martin Luther fell on the indulgences purchased by fellow villagers in Wittenberg, he studied them carefully and pronounced them frauds. At high noon on October 31, 1517, Luther, a 33-year-old university professor, walked to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, and tacked to it a document. The door served as the town bulletin board, and Martin Luther had an announcement to post. He called for a “disputation on the power and efficacy of indulgences.”

A few curious passersby drew near and scanned the words: “Out of love for the faith and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg under the chairmanship of the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology. … ” There followed a list of 95 items.

Luther did not yet know what mighty blows he had struck.

God is our mighty fortress, always ready to help in times of trouble. Nations rage! Kingdoms fall! But at the voice of God the earth itself melts. The Lord All-Powerful is with us. The God of Jacob is our fortress. (Psalm 46:1,6,7)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Oct.31.

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