When Pope Julius II died everyone knew how he wanted to be remembered. Every Pope was obsessed with glory and power and Julius was no exception.
His vehicle of choice to attain both was the machine of war.
He wanted to be remembered sitting astride his horse in his gold-plated armor besieging the Venetians, or the French or whoever it was that he was picking a fight with at any given moment.
The Warrior Pope.
His successor was somewhat different. Leo X was a Medici, which meant that not only was he power hungry and obsessed with glory he also had expensive tastes.
Julius had begun the laborious task of renovating St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome but he died before he could see it completed. When Leo took the Papal throne he pounced on the half-finished job with glee.
Leo loved a good makeover project and St. Peter’s was the mother of all makeovers.
Unfortunately for Leo, the Papal treasuries were in shambles. Julius had been busy dumping money on his war efforts which left very little money to do anything with.
Leo had grand dreams for St. Peter’s but they were a little difficult to accomplish when he was also somewhat broke.
But Leo was resourceful and he soon began to work out ways to channel money back into the Papal bank accounts.
A deal with France which brought in all the revenue of the French church was a good place to start and then a most appealing offer presented itself to him.
Albert of Brandenburg, the son of the Elector of Brandenburg, a small state in Germany, reached out to Leo.
He wanted to be Archbishop of Mainz and he was willing to pay a reasonable sum for it. Now Albert was already Archbishop of Magdeburg but Mainz was a more powerful seat to hold and Albert was greedy, mostly for the power but also for the money that would go with it.
The thing was though that Albert had no money.
He was bankrupt. Broke.
So how was he going to pay to be Archbishop of Mainz? Ah, this is where the plot thickens and gets delightfully and perhaps, jaw-droppingly twisty.
Albert offered the Pope, 48,000 ducats for the office of Archbishop of Mainz. A small fortune that Leo was more than happy to tuck into his little building fund. Albert then went to Jakob Fugger in Augsburg. The Fuggers were venture capitalists and bankers. Jakob Fugger agreed to lend Albert of Brandenburg the 48,000 ducats he needed to buy off the Pope. Everything was done and dusted in the five seconds it took to complete a handshake. Albert despatched the money to Rome and happily assumed office as brand new Archbishop of Mainz.
But Albert still needed to pay back the Fuggers. And Albert was still bankrupt.
Enter John Tetzel.
Rumor has it that John Tetzel was prosecuted for a heinous crime that does not bear mentioning. It was so horrific that he was sentenced to drowning. In a sack.
He managed to escape and in a world where criminals were not punished but promoted he managed to land the job of Grand Inquisitor of Poland.
During his stint as Grand Inquisitor Tetzel became good and being persuasive. He freely and gleefully used the rack, the rail and any other means necessary to squeeze, tear or beat out recantations from heretics. Albert was impressed with his abilities and engaged his services.
The plan was simple.
Albert needed money to pay back his debts and the Pope needed extra cash for St. Peters. The people; the poor, wretched hard pressed, hard taxed peasant masses were going to have to cough up the money to pay for all of it and they needed to be persuaded to part with the few florins they had left after they paid for their rent, their taxes and their food.
John Tetzel was a good salesman and Albert wanted him to sell salvation so he could pay back his debts.
Like I said, simple.
On Good Friday 1517, Tetzel and his traveling band marched into the little town of Juterbog. He set up his banners and his tables before mounting an amazing little show.
“I am here good people of Juterbog, to offer you something that you desperately need. Today is your lucky day. For a small fee you can buy yourself and anyone you love a spot in heaven. A couple of florins and grandma can be released from Purgatory and fly straight through the Gates of Heaven. A couple more florins and you can spring Grandpa and Uncle Victor too!”
In the illiterate backwater that was 16th Century Europe, Tetzel’s claims were not fanciful or crazy at all. The crowds flocked around him in a frenzy, dropping their coins into his money box as he poetically announced this blessing over them; “When the coin in the coffer rings, the Soul from Purgatory Springs”
He was a hit or a hitman, depending on where you were watching the spectacle from.
The money flooded in at such a rate that not only did Albert manage to pay off his debt but there were leftovers for the Pope as well.
But the John Tetzel Show awakened a sleeping giant. A man who never thought he would face off against the Pope or the Church he loved but a man who was forced to do so because he couldn’t stand by and be silent.
Martin Luther was an eclectic mix of tortured soul meets indomitable intellectual and he managed to straddle the line between depression and genius quite convincingly.
When Tetzel blew into Saxony like an ill-fated wind Luther was furious.
Admittedly this wasn’t his first encounter with indulgences, he had spoken out against the practice before. His patron, Prince Frederick, The Elector of Saxony was quite fond of selling indulgences and did it regularly.
It was an open secret that Luther’s paycheck came from the money Prince Frederick generated by selling indulgences but that didn’t stop Luther from speaking. He was indebted to the Prince for his seat at the University and by extension for the bread on his table but the Prince’s benevolence couldn’t buy Luther’s conscience.
That had been surrendered to the Word of God.
Luther openly opposed the doctrine of indulgences from as early as 1516 but when Tetzel came to town Luther had come to understand more of justification by faith. He had been spending more time studying the Bible and the truths of Salvation were crystallizing in his mind.
Tetzel’s pedaling became a personal affront.
In Luther’s mind Salvation was free, precious, personal and required sincere repentance for sin. It was a deeply intimate exchange between the soul and God.
Tetzel was turning Salvation into a mockery. Something that only required a willingness to fork out a few florins.
The entire spectacle rankled Luther.
Angrily he wrote to Albert, Archbishop of Mainz, little realizing that Albert was the one who had actually despatched Tetzel. In his letter he detailed his protest against indulgences, appealing to Albert to do something about it.
He was met with silence.
Unable to bear it anymore he wrote out his protests, rolled up the parchment and on All Saints Eve, October 31, 1517, strode through the narrow streets of Wittenberg.
Pilgrims from all over Saxony had converged on Wittenberg to see Prince Frederick’s relics and to pay an indulgence for that privilege. It was the perfect opportunity. The perfect storm in the little teacup that was Wittenburg.
Walking up to the Castle Church, Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door. The wandering crowd gathered to read it.
Someone grabbed it off the door and made a copy of it. Within days it had made its way through Germany and within weeks it had traveled across Christendom, even landing on the Pope’s desk.
The Reformation had officially begun and it began with one man, making a stand. One somewhat quirky and deeply flawed man who had experienced the grace and goodness of God and had surrendered himself completely and unequivocally to Him.
That one man, constrained by grace, raised a revolution and nothing was ever the same again.
Socially. Politically. Religiously.
He changed the world.