Reformed Churchmen

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Friday, December 12, 2014

December 1515 A.D. Remembering Maximilian and 2 Indulgence Peddlers, Profiteers & Romanist Hucksters—Bernard Samson and Johann Tetzel

December 1515 A.D.  Remembering Maximilian and 2 Indulgence Peddlers, Profiteers & Romanist Hucksters—Bernard Samson and Johann Tetzel


Waddington, George. “A History of the Reformation on the Continent.”  London: Duncan & Malcolm, Paternoster Row, 1841.  Accessed 14 Nov 2014.


Picking up at page 18 and ending page 32.

“…before the entire degeneracy of Rome, in ages of comparative purity, the transgressor was taught that there were certain acts of piety, such as fasting, alms-giving, pilgrimage, by which he might obtain, through the mediation of the church, remission of the punishment due to his sins. There was something plausible in this theory, and flattering to the natural pride of man. And so long as the practice was exercised with moderation, it did not excite any great scandal in the world, and people did not turn to examine how far it was founded in Scripture.

But when this system of saving works, for such it was practically, was once established, it was no difficult matter to commute those works for gold, especially in times when the civil tribunals sanctioned the redemption of the most heinous offences. The temptation proved too strong for the virtue of the hierarchy, and the Father of the faithful was not ashamed to tax, for the immediate profit of the see, the transgressions of his children. In tracing the previous annals of the church,* we have observed the gradations of this corruption, and the steps by which a practice, in its origin innocent and perhaps useful, in its progress not indeed in accordance with an essential doctrine of Christianity, yet not opposed to the mere moral interests of society, descended at last into a direct and undisguised traffic in the sins and frailties of mankind. And more is not required here than to describe it, such as it existed, not only in its professed principles, but in its practical operation, at the epoch of which we are now treating.

The bull "Unigenitus" was published during the secession to Avignon, when avarice was beginning to supplant ambition in the councils of the Vatican. Thence * "History of the Church," chap, xxviii. vol. iii. pp. 320, 339, et seq.

forward the Popes aimed more boldly at the pecuniary contributions of the people, and all the spiritual resources at their disposal were brought to bear mainly upon that object. Among the rest, the doctrine of indulgences, as then modified, was obtruded under various forms upon the devotion of the faithful. Commissioners were officially appointed to dispense them through every quarter of Christendom. The defects in civil government co-operated with the vices of the ecclesiastical. The necessities of the princes of Europe, and even especially of Germany, not uncommonly engaged them as interested implements in the service of Rome, and made them zealous promoters of an imposture of which they shared the profits. Under such encouragement the papal pardons were advertised with their stated prices, and sold without fear or shame in the most public places.

Some murmurs, however, had been faintly raised against this practice, and even Saxony had been the scene of some confusion occasioned by it, towards the end of the fifteenth century. In 1491 Innocent VIII. had granted certain indulgences to Albert Duke of Saxony for the re-construction of the church of St. Mary at Freyburg, which had been burnt down some years before, on condition that a fourth part of the sum thus raised should be transmitted to Rome, to be there applied to the building of a Basilic to St. Peter. Some learned men remonstrated, and in the year following the Pope confirmed his grant. Still the dissatisfaction was not appeased; and even the Dominicans, seemingly through motives of monastic jealousy, joined in the outcry. Sermons were preached and public disputations held on the subject, and theses maintained by those monks, which gave great scandal at the Vatican. The dissension continued for four years; but at the end of that time Alexander VI., having previously issued a commission to examine the question on the spot, published a bull (August 25, 1496) confirming the edict of his predecessor and imposing silence on the party which had resisted it.* But with this exercise of power he was contented. He inflicted no punishment; he required no retractation. And the result was, that the quarrel died away and was presently forgotten. For indeed it does not appear that either the princes or the people took any great interest in what they may possibly have regarded as a mere monastic squabble. The practice continued, and grew more daring and obtrusive through long impunity. "Everywhere," said the moderate Erasmus, "are reprieves from the executions of purgatory put up for sale; nor are they sold only, but forced upon those who refuse them." In 1514 Angelo Arcimboli, Pope's Protonotary and Referendary, was appointed High Commissioner for Indulgences in the Rhenish provinces, the Netherlands, and Burgundy. In 1515 another commission was issued for Bavaria, Austria, Westphalia, Holstein, Sweden, &c., in which one Tetzel was under-commissary. In 1516 the same Arcimboli gathered fresh spoils at Lubeck and throughout Denmark. Christopher di Forli, General of the Franciscans, received about the same time a commission for Switzerland, in the execution of which one Samson, a Milanese, acquired an ambiguous celebrity. A similar service had been previously performed for the Teutonic order by the above-mentioned Tetzel, in which he had levied large contributions. In short, those plunderers were at that time spread over the face of Europe, and the people of Christ seemed to be delivered up as a prey into their hands.

The Emperor Maximilian made one feeble and partial attempt to restrain this iniquity. On March 7, 1515, he addressed an edict to the magistrates of Memmingen against certain very lucrative indulgences which some Dominicans of Augsburg were then preaching. He condemned the practice and prohibited their further publication.* But, immediately discovering that he had engaged in a struggle too difficult for his irresolute character, or tempted perhaps by some lures held out to his ruling passion, avarice, in the same year he revoked his edict, and on August 27, 1516, he published another in favour of the commission of Arcimboli. Under such patronage the traffic grew in extent and audacity. The manner in which it was conducted became more indecent, the expressions of the preachers more extravagant, more entirely at variance with the first principles of morality, more insulting to the name of Christ. Yet the credulity of the vulgar and the connivance of the great seemed to provoke still additional insults and to promise a still longer impunity. The race which had submitted to purchase its salvation from the hand of Alexander VI., why should it ever awaken to any use of reason, or any sense of religion, or any respect for human virtue? The instrument of extortion which had been so powerful in the grasp of Innocent and Julius, why should it prove less effective when wielded by a popular pontiff? In the present high and palmy state of Rome, what was there to fear from perseverance in a profitable and unresisted practice? Such were the natural suggestions of a worldly policy, and doubtless they contributed to confirm the confidence of the see.

The confidence of the see was reflected upon the people in the rapacity of its prelates and the insolence of its emissaries. In 1516 Leo X. granted, among others, a commission of indulgences to Albert Archbishop of Mayence and Magdeburg, and primate of the German Empire. Its chief object was to enable him to defray the expenses of the pallium lately received from Rome; and some portion of the profits was, as usual, destined to the apostolical treasury. On publishing the bull, the primate issued some very particular instructions* to the commissioners whom he appointed to execute it. He exhorted the preachers to be diligent in representing to the people "the immense and inestimable fruits of those indulgences, to expound to them the principal passages of the bull, and to interpret and magnify them as largely as possible." He spoke of the Pope as the Vicar of God, and as possessing the same tribunal with Christ. He dilated upon the various privileges conferred by the indulgence; of which the first mentioned was, "the plenary remission of all sins, than which no greater can be imagined, since, through it, man, a sinner and devoid of the grace of God, obtains perfect remission and grace." Then followed absolution from all censures; and from all offences, even those reserved to the apostolical see; and from all vows,  with three or four stated exceptions. Then, in the diploma of indulgences signed by Bernard Samson or Simson (Bernse, Nov. 15, 1518), "the relaxation of all oaths in all contracts, instruments, and obligations, except in the Pope's Court," is expressly mentioned among the virtues of the indulgence, as well as "absolution from every perjury." The passage is: "Ac qusecunque tunc per eos...the liberation of souls from purgatory, through the contributions of the survivors. For the obtaining some of these graces contrition and confession were necessary, or at least a disposition afterwards to make such confession; while others were secured by the mere payment of the stipulated sum. The efficacy of the indulgence was likewise extended to all simoniacal offences, and other similar "irregularities;" to the retention, in certain cases, of property illicitly or dishonestly acquired; to uncanonical marriages and ordinations, and other ecclesiastical offences; and it was particularly inculcated that those, who had previously possessed themselves of similar pardons, were not for that reason to suppose that they might dispense with the present. From these few particulars it will be perceived, how wide a field for imposture and extortion was opened by the apostolical grant, and how willing was the prelate who had received it to enlarge the boundaries.

And if the commission of the Pope was thus amplified by the archbishop, the "Instructions" of the latter were received in the same spirit, and obeyed with even less discretion, by the emissaries to whom he addressed them. Among these the most zealous and distinguished was Tetzel—a name which would never have found a place in any history, had not that Providence, which sometimes deigns to employ the meanest instruments for the accomplishment of the mightiest purposes, placed it, though but for a moment, in the threshold of the Reformation.

John Tetzel was born in Misnia, on the banks of the Elbe. He received his education in a Dominican convent; and by the boldness of his manner and assertions, his restless diligence, his sonorous voice, his ignorance, his impudence, his want of moral principle, and his uncompromising devotion to what were called the interests, and what were really the scandals, of the church, he was qualified in those days for a certain degree of ecclesiastical promotion. He presently acquired some celebrity among the tools of the hierarchy; he was even raised to a considerable rank among the directors of the Inquisition; but it was in the sale of indulgences that his talents had been proved with most success. For this reason he was selected for the management of the present affair; nor was there any reason to believe that it would pass off less quietly or less profitably than so many which had gone before it.

The bull under which he acted was recommended at least by a specious pretence. The construction of the basilic of St. Peter, which had been commenced by Julius, was continued by Leo X.; and while the actual desolation of the resting-place of the apostles, and the profane exposure of their sacred relics, were impressed upon the commiseration of the vulgar,* the real sublimity of the design lent a colour of grandeur as well as piety to the present exaction, which might reconcile even the more enlightened. The popular character of the Pope, the more decorous deportment of his court, the peace and security which surrounded them, with other circumstances above mentioned, were all well suited to feed the corruptions of the spiritual despotism and the insolence of the menials who proclaimed and protected them.

The preachers of indulgences recommended their mission by much display of pomp and ceremony. When they approached any place of resort they sent before them a messenger to announce to the magistrate, "The grace of God and of the Holy Father is at your gates!" Immediately all prepared to receive them with honour. They made their entrance in long procession. First came the pontifical bull, placed on a cushion, or book bound in silk and gold. The commissary followed, supporting a large red cross; then a numerous assemblage of priests, and monks, and nuns,—of magistrates, schoolmasters, and scholars,—with a mixed concourse of men, women, and children, carrying flags and lighted tapers. The bells and organs resounded in the churches; and in the middle of that, appointed for the reception of the crowd, the red cross was planted, with the banner of the Pope attached to it. Then the preacher ascended the pulpit; and, if the language in which he recommended his barter exceeded the more cautious phraseology of the Vatican, the people knew no such distinction; but whatever proceeded from the minister was by them received as the oracular declaration of an infallible church.

Some of the expressions which were on this occasion employed by Tetzel have been diligently and, as I believe, faithfully recorded. He inculcated that the indulgence was the highest and most precious gift of God; that the indulgence-cross, with the affixed banner, was as powerful as the cross of Christ; that the Saviour had made over all power to the Pope, and would not resume it till the last day; that, by means of that paper and seal, sins, however deliberately committed, however monstrous in themselves, would be forgiven, even to the violation (were such possible) of the body of the blessed Virgin; that no sooner did the money chink in the box than the souls for which it was offered flew up into heaven. We need not be surprised that these and suchlike blasphemies were uttered by sub-commissioners and other subalterns, when we find in the instructions of their prelates directions at variance with the first axioms of morality, and indeed subversive of the most sacred principles of social intercourse. The doctrine of the indulgence, in itself corrupt, passed through two mediums before it reached the practice of the vulgar, and was thus distorted into a threefold deformity.

The general " Form of absolution" retailed by Tetzel, being an official document for which the church was in some degree responsible, was free from the most disgusting extravagances of his oral discourses; but the power assumed by it was sufficiently extensive. It was expressed as follows: *

* "Forma absolutionis plenarise, prsemissa confessione.—Apud Gerdesium. torn, i., Monumenta Antiquitatis, No. vii. B. p. 74. There exists among these monuments a particular diploma of indulgences granted by Tetzel to one Tileman de Copenik, dated Berlin, October 5, 1517, giving absolution from homicide: "Thou hast explained to us that in slaughtering a swine thou didst unwittingly and unwillingly, and with infinite sorrow, kill thy boy, for which offence thou art most deeply afflicted. On which account, with a view to thy salvation, thou hast humbly requested of us the seasonable remedy of absolution; and we on our part, seeing that thou hast made composition according to thy means, do, by the apostolical authority here committed to us, mercifully absolve thee from homicide; and we do hereby declare thee absolved from the above said homicide, and announce to all that thou art entirely liberated from all its consequences." Ib. p. 73. We should in justice observe that the contrition nominally required by the church is in this instance mentioned as having preceded the absolution.

"May our Lord Jesus Christ absolve thee, through the merits of His most holy passion. And I, by his authority and that of His blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and of our holy master the Pope, granted and committed to me in these parts, do absolve thee—first, from all ecclesiastical censures, howsoever incurred; next, from all sins, faults, and excesses hitherto committed by thee, howsoever enormous, even those reserved to the apostolical see, in as far as the keys of the Holy Mother Church extend; remitting by plenary indulgence all punishment due to thee for the aforesaid in purgatory. And I restore thee to the holy sacraments of the church, and to the unity of the faithful, and to the innocence and purity conferred on thee by baptism, so that the gates of punishment may be closed against thee at thy departure, and those of the joys of paradise be opened. Or, shouldst thou not presently die, let this grace remain in full force, and avail thee at the point of death. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.—F. B. Johannes Tetzel, Sub-Commissarius manu propria scripsit."

This pardon was preceded, at least nominally, by the form of confession; and there is doubtless some ambiguity in some of the expressions in which it was conveyed. But it was unquestionably intended to persuade the vulgar that the remission of all their sins and the certainty of everlasting happiness were secured to its possessors; nor can it be disputed that it conferred an entire absolution not only from all past, but also from all future sins. It is impossible with any shadow of reason to affix any other meaning to the concluding paragraph. Here then was temptation sufficient for the credulous sinner; and multitudes flocked accordingly to obtain on such easy terms the assurance of absolute spiritual impunity. Their motives might indeed be various. The example of their priests and magistrates, the pomp of the ceremony, respect for an established usage, mere curiosity, or mere habit—these and a thousand other causes may have combined with superstition to attract them to the foot of the pontifical cross. Howbeit, the preacher, less regarding the motives than the numbers of his hearers, saw no cause to despair of his wonted harvest, or of the perpetual devotion of the people. He assumed the lofty tone which had hitherto overborne all resistance; he advanced the enormous pretensions which had so long subdued and paralysed the reason of mankind; and he had every promise before his eyes that the ordinary expedients would be followed by the long-accustomed success. Yet had Providence so ordered, that in this very moment of his pride and confidence the blow should descend upon himself and his church, and the age of disgrace and retribution at length commence.

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