Illustrations of the life of Martin Luther - THE INDULGENCES; OR, THE NINETY-FIVE PROPOSITIONS

(Scene: In front of All Saints' Church, Wittemberg.) 31st OCTOBER, 1517.
Autor: Labouchere, P. H. (?-?), Erscheinungsjahr: 1862
Enthaltene Themen: Reformation, Reformationszeit, Reformatoren, Martin Luther, Melanchthon, Wittenberg, Wartburg, Eisenach,
ONE day, in the autumn of 1517, Luther was in the confessional at Wittemberg; for if he was inwardly a new man, outwardly he wore the robes and discharged the functions of a monk. Burghers and mechanics, men and women, holding papers in their hands, knelt down before him and whispered their sins in his ear, accusing themselves, one of theft, another of usury, a third of unchastity. To all he enjoined a renunciation of their vices, but the penitents refused; and in justification of their refusal, showed him the letters of indulgence which they had bought and paid for.

The doctor took the letters, and read them. He was horrified; and starting from his seat threw from him the vile papers, and exclaimed, with threatening voice to these unrepentant Christians, - “Except ye repent, ye shall all perish!"

The astounded penitents hastened to Juterbach, a distance of four German miles from Wittemberg, where a famous merchant was then staying, who had been selling indulgences all over Germany. Tetzel (for that was his name; was in the pulpit, and with stentorian voice shouting to the people who crowded the church: "For twelve groats you can have a plenary remission of all your sins, of all your penalties. Buy! Buy! Buy!" The Wittemberg folks waited until he came down from the pulpit, and then told him of Luther's refusal. Tetzel, red with anger, cursed the bold doctor; and lighting a fire in the great square, declared that he would burn every heretic who should dare say a word against his famous indulgences.

Meanwhile, Luther had shut himself up in his cell at Wittemberg, and begun to reflect. He was but a little wretched monk, without power; but this puny man was on his knees before God, and was about to become the salt of the earth, such as man had never been since the days of Saint Paul, "A monstrous traffic in the church", said he to himself, "presumes to take the place of redemption through Jesus Christ gave Himself for our sins. It was not gold or silver, - it was not a man, it was not all the angels it was Himself that he gave - Himself! without whom there is nothing great ! . . . . And a wretched mountebank dares, with his bellowing voice, tender his abominable licences in the stead of Jesus Christ . . . . . Well, well . . . . . but, God willing, I 'll make a hole in his drum . . . . ."

Luther stood for a few moments in deep thought, and motionless. He recalled the days when he had learnt to know Jesus Christ, and exclaimed: "I have found pardon; yes, I have found it - amid anguish and terror and groans, which sin forced from me. I found it by believing that Jesus Christ is the Saviour, even of those who are great, real sinners, and deserving utter condemnation . . . . . I found it in the wounds of the Son of God; and from that hour my soul has been filled with a joy unknown before. I will proclaim to my people the true plenary indulgence of Jesus Christ."

At these words Luther drew near the table, and began to write. He was excited - nay, agitated. He lay down his pen, got up, paced the room, and again sat down. Certain propositions issued one after another from his mind, as lightning flashes from a stormy cloud. On a sudden he stopped, and exclaimed with alarm: "What am I doing? Have I reflected upon the work I am about to undertake? I must be mad Is it not the archbishop of Mentz, and the great Pope Leo himself, that have these pardons sold? . . . . And who am I, a poor contemptible friar, more like a corpse than a man, to set myself against the majesty of the Pope, before whom tremble not only the kings of the earth and the whole world, but (if I may say so) both heaven and hell also?" For a moment he entertained the idea that, before attacking Tetzel, he ought to speak to Staupitz or Spalatin. Upon a second reflection he came to the conclusion that he ought to consult God alone.

He fell on his knees, and prayed earnestly. Then, rising, he opened the Bible, and read at the beginning of the discourses of John the Baptist, of Jesus Christ, and of the Apostles, these ever recurring words: Be converted! He hesitated no longer. "To the law and to the testimony", he exclaimed, "we must obey the Scriptures." He continued his labours; and when he had written down ninety-five propositions he stopped.

The festival of All Saints was approaching, a day of great importance to Wittemberg, and especially for the church which the Elector had built there and filled with relics. On the 31st of October, the eve of the feast, crowds of pilgrims began to flock together from all quarters, eager to obtain the indulgence promised to those who visited the church on that day and made confession there. "Now is the time", said Luther. He took the propositions which he had carefully written out, left the convent, and prepared to post them up. He little thought that by the deed he was about to do the whole world would be shaken. The monk, holding the papers in his hand, walked along as usual. On reaching the Castle church, he fastened to the door of that sanctuary the great indictment he had drawn up against the Papacy; but that evening the propositions excited very little attention.

On the morrow, the great day of the feast, Luther was at the university, prepared to defend his propositions as he had announced; but no one came forward to attack them. He returned to his cell, and leaning on the table, with his head in his hands, he exclaimed, sorrowfully: "Alas! this word will pass away, like so many others." Just as he was indulging in these reflections, a friend entered, saying, "A great crowd is collected in front of the door of the Castle church, and everybody wants to read the propositions you have posted there. People are commenting on them some attacking, some defending. Come and speak to them yourself." Luther quitted the cell in haste.

It was a fine autumn evening. Monks and pilgrims, tradesmen and magistrates, knights and professors, soldiers, students, men, women, and even richly dressed courtiers, had crowded together in front of the church. In the morning the priests had brought out and exhibited the relics. Pilgrims had flocked thither to adore these precious remains, but ere long the priests were left alone. They were listening anxiously to an unusual noise from without, when a man rushed hurriedly into the church, and said: "All the city is in an uproar. There is a great crowd in the square, where they are reading some propositions which a monk has posted up. Come and see for yourselves."

In fact, just as the priests and Luther came up from different quarters, a man was reading the propositions aloud. The noise of the multitude prevented the most distant spectators from hearing them all; but from time to time, in an interval of quiet, one of these propositions sounded over the crowd like a clap of thunder. "Silence!" exclaimed one of the listeners; and a voice was heard reading:

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ says, "Repent" He wills the whole life of His followers here below to be a constant and continual repentance.

"The whole life!" said one. "Of a truth this is harder than buying a piece of paper." For a few minutes the reader's voice was drowned in the noise. At length it was heard again:

The Pope cannot remit any condemnation, but only declare and confirm the remission that God Himself has granted. . . . .

On hearing such language, which seemed to degrade the Holy Father, one of the nobles shut his fist, as if he would have struck Luther, and there was a confusion of voices; but the reader soon resumed: -

They preach mere human follies who pretend that the moment the money rattles in the strong-box the soul escapes out of purgatory.

At this there was a general laugh, and the reader continued: -

Every Christian who feels a true sorrow, a sincere repentance for his sins, has a plenary remission of his fault, even without an indulgence.

"What!" exclaimed many, "the conversion of the heart is enough for salvation!" - "Then what is the use of penance?" asked others. "Of confessions?" interposed a second. - "Of priests", added a third. - "This proposition demolishes the clergy", said many; "it destroys the Church," - "If such incendiary language is tolerated", exclaimed a monk, " the edifice of the popedom, which has stood for so many ages, will be overthrown." But the majority applauded the Reformer's words. For a long interval nothing could be heard. At last the reader's voice once more rose above the noise of the crowd:

To trust to he saved by indulgences is vanity and lying, should even the indulgence-broker or the Pope himself pledge his soul to the truth.

"What blasphemy!" exclaimed one of the bystanders. "O tempora, O mores!" To which some retorted: "What the proposition says is quite true. God's word is above the Pope's word." The reader continued: -

The true and precious treasure of the Church is the Holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God.

This proposition was received with loud cheers. "Yes, yes! true, true!" exclaimed many. "No, no! it is rank heresy!" said others. Upon this, Luther, feeling encouraged, advanced towards the opponents. Some magistrates and nobles laid before him their objections, and Luther had an answer for each. "I maintain", said he, "the truth of all that is posted on the church door."

Within a fortnight the propositions were known all over Germany; in a month they reached Rome, and every part of Christendom. They were read, and meditated, and commented upon by all; good and pious men were filled with joy. "Christ has been restored to us", they said. "He who possesses Christ possesses all the riches that belong to Christ. What need, then, have we of indulgences?" - "I have caught the goose by the neck", said Luther. "I have conquered the Pope."

God had lighted a fire in the world that nothing could henceforth extinguish.

Luther, Anschlag der 95 Thesen

Luther, Anschlag der 95 Thesen