Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales: German by Charles Morris
Historical Tales: German by  Charles Morris

Luther and the Indulgences

Late in the month of April, in the year 1521, an open wagon containing two persons was driven along one of the roads of Germany, the horse being kept at his best pace, while now and then one of the occupants looked back as if in apprehension. This was the man who held the reins. The other, a short but presentable person, with pale, drawn face, lit by keen eyes, seemed too deeply buried in thought to be heedful of surrounding affairs. When he did lift his eyes they were directed ahead, where the road was seen to enter the great Thuringian forest. Dressed in clerical garb, the peasants who passed probably regarded him as a monk on some errand of mercy. The truth was that he was a fugitive, fleeing for his life, for he was a man condemned, who might at any moment be waylaid and seized.

On entering the forest the wagon was driven on until a shaded and lonely dell was reached, seemingly a fitting place for deeds of violence. Suddenly from the forest glades rode forth four armed and masked men, who stopped the wagon, sternly bade the traveller to descend and mount a spare horse they had with them, and rode off with him, a seeming captive, through the thick woodland.

As if in fear of pursuit, the captors kept at a brisk pace, not drawing rein until the walls of a large and strong castle loomed up near the forest border. The gates flew open and the drawbridge fell at their demand, and the small cavalcade rode into the powerful stronghold, the entrance to which was immediately closed behind them. It was the castle of Wartburg, near Eisenach, Saxony, within whose strong walls the man thus mysteriously carried off was to remain hidden from the world for the greater part of the year that followed.

The monk-like captive was just then the most talked of man in Germany. His seemingly violent capture had been made by his friends, not by his foes, its purpose being to protect him from his enemies, who were many and threatening. Of this he was well aware, and welcomed the castle as a place of refuge. He was, in fact, the celebrated Martin Luther, who had just set in train a religious revolution of broad aspect in Germany, and though for the time under the protection of a safe-conduct from the emperor Charles V., had been deemed in imminent danger of falling into an ambush of his foes instead of one of his friends.

That he might not be recognised by those who should see him at Wartburg, his ecclesiastic robe was exchanged for the dress of a knight, he wore helmet and sword instead of cassock and cross and let his beard grow freely. Thus changed in appearance, he was known as Junker George (Chevalier George) to those in the castle, and amused himself at times by hunting with his knightly companions in the neighborhood. The greater part of his time, however, was occupied in a difficult literary task, that of translating the Bible into German. The work thus done by him was destined to prove as important in a linguistic as in a theological sense, since it fixed the status of the German language for the later period to the same extent as the English translation of the Bible in the time of James I. aided to fix that of English speech.

Leaving Luther, for the present, in his retreat at Wartburg Castle, we must go back in his history and tell the occasion of the events just narrated. No man, before or after his time, ever created so great a disturbance in German thought, and the career of this fugitive monk is one of great historical import.

A peasant by birth, the son of a slate-cutter named Hans Luther, he so distinguished himself as a scholar that his father proposed to make him a lawyer, but a dangerous illness, the death of a near friend, and the exhortations of an eloquent preacher, so wrought upon his mind that he resolved instead to become a monk, and after going through the necessary course of study and mental discipline was ordained priest in May, 1507. The next year he was appointed a professor in the university of Wittenberg. There he remained for the next ten years of his life, when an event occurred which was to turn the whole current of his career and give him a prominence in theological history which few other men have ever attained.

In 1517 Pope Leo X. authorized an unusually large issue of indulgences, a term which signifies a remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, either in this life or the life to come; the condition being that the recipient shall have made a full confession of his sins and by his penitence and purpose of amendment fitted himself to receive the pardon of God, through the agency of the priest. He was also required to perform some service in the aid of charity or religion, such as the giving of alms.

At the time of the Crusades the popes had granted to all who took part in them remission from church penalties. At a later date the same indulgence was granted to penitents who aided the holy wars with money instead of in person. At a still later date remission from the penalties of sin might be obtained by pious work, such as building churches, etc. When the Turks threatened Europe, those who fought against them obtained indulgence. In the instance of the issue of indulgences by Leo X. the pious work required was the giving of alms in aid of the completion of the great cathedral of St. Peter's at Rome.

This purpose did not differ in character from others for which indulgences had previously been granted, and there is nothing to show that any disregard of the requisite conditions was authorized by the pope; but there is reason to believe that some of the agents for the disposal of these indulgences went much beyond the intention of the decree. This was especially the case in the instance of a Dominican monk named Tetzel, who is charged with openly asserting what few or no other Catholics appear to have ever claimed, that the indulgences not only released the purchasers from the necessity of penance, but absolved them from all the consequences of sin in this world or the next.

We shall not go into the details of the venalities charged against Tetzel, whose field of labor was in Saxony, but they seem to have been sufficient to cause a strong feeling of dissatisfaction, which at length found a voice in Martin Luther, who preached vigorously against Tetzel and his methods and wrote to the princes and bishops begging them to refuse this irreligious dealer in indulgences a passage through their dominions.

The near approach of Tetzel to Wittenberg roused Luther to more decided action. He now wrote out ninety-five propositions in which he set forth in the strongest language his reasons for opposing and his view of the pernicious effects of Tetzel's doctrine of indulgences. These he nailed to the door of the Castle church of Wittenberg. The effect produced by them was extraordinary. The news of the protest spread with the greatest rapidity and within a fortnight copies of it had been distributed throughout Germany. Within five or six weeks it was being read over a great part of Europe. On all sides it aroused a deep public interest and excitement and became the great sensation of the day.

We cannot go into the details of what followed. Luther's propositions were like a thunderbolt flung into the mind of Germany. Everywhere deep thought was aroused and a host of those who had been displeased with Tetzel's methods sustained him in his act. Other papers from his pen followed in which his revolt from the Church of Rome grew wider and deeper. His energetic assault aroused a number of opponents and an active controversy ensued; ending in Luther's being cited to appear before Cajetan, the pope's legate, at Augsburg. From this meeting no definite result came. After a heated argument Cajetan ended the controversy with the following words:

"I can dispute no longer with this beast; it has two wicked eyes and marvellous thoughts in its head."

Luther's view of the matter was much less complimentary. He said of the legate,—

"He knows no more about the Word than a donkey knows of harp-playing."

In the next year, 1519, a discussion took place at Leipzig, between Luther on the one hand, aided by his friends Melanchthon and Carlstadt, and a zealous and talented ecclesiastic, Dr. Eck, on the other. Eck was a vigorous debater,—in person, in voice, and in opinion,—but as Luther was not to be silenced by his argument, he ended by calling him "a gentile and publican," and wending his way to Borne, where he expressed his opinion of the new movement, demanded that the heretic should be made to feel the heavy hand of church discipline.

Back he came soon to Germany, bearing a bull from the pope, in which were extracts from Luther's writings stated to be heretical, and which must be publicly retracted within sixty days under threat of excommunication. This the ardent agent tried to distribute through Germany, but to his surprise he found that Germany was in no humor to receive it. Most of the magistrates forbade it to be made public. Where it was posted upon the walls of any town, the people immediately tore it down. In truth, Luther's heresy had with extraordinary rapidity become the heresy of Germany, and he found himself with a nation at his back, a nation that admired his courage and supported his opinions.

His most decisive step was taken on the 10th of December, 1520. On that day the faculty and students of the University of Wittenberg, convoked by him, met at the Elster gate of the town. Here a funeral pile was built up by the students, one of the magistrates set fire to it, and Luther, amid approving shouts from the multitude, flung into the flames the pope's bull, and with it the canonical law and the writings of Dr. Eck. In this act he decisively broke loose from and defied the Church of Rome, sustained in his radical step of revolt apparently by all Wittenberg, and by a large body of converts to his views throughout Germany.

The bold reformer found friends not only among the lowly, but among the powerful. The Elector of Saxony was on his side, and openly accused the pope of acting the unjust judge, by listening to one side and not the other, and of needlessly agitating the people by his bull. Ulrich von Hutten, a favorite popular leader, was one of the zealous proselytes of the new doctrines. Franz von Sickingen, a knight of celebrity, was another who offered Luther shelter, if necessary, in his castles.

And now came a turning-point in Luther's career, the most dangerous crisis he was to reach, and the one that needed the utmost courage and most inflexible resolution to pass it in safety. It was that which has become famous as the "Diet of Worms." Germany had gained a new emperor, Charles V., under whose sceptre the empire of Charlemagne was in great part restored, for his dominions included Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands. This young monarch left Spain for Germany in 1521, and was no sooner there than he called a great diet, to meet at Worms, that the affairs of the empire might be regulated, and that in particular this religious controversy, which was troubling the public mind, should be settled.


Statue of Luther at Worms.

Thither came the princes and potentates of the realm, thither great dignitaries of the church, among them the pope's legate, Cardinal Alexander, who was commissioned to demand that the emperor and the princes should call Luther to a strict account, and employ against him the temporal power. But to the cardinal's astonishment he found that the people of Germany had largely seceded from the papal authority. Everywhere he met with writings, songs, and pictures in which the holy father was treated with contempt and mockery. Even himself, as the pope's representative, was greeted with derision, and his life at times was endangered, despite the fact that he came in the suite of the emperor.


The diet assembled, the cardinal, as instructed, demanded that severe measures should be taken against the arch-heretic: the Elector of Saxony, on the contrary, insisted that Luther should be heard in his own defence; the emperor and the princes agreed with him, silencing the cardinal's declaration that the diet had no right or power to question the decision of the pope, and inviting Luther to appear before the imperial assembly at Worms, the emperor granting him a safe-conduct.

Possibly Charles thought that the insignificant monk would fear to come before that august body, and the matter thus die out. Luther's friends strongly advised him not to go. They had the experience of John Huss to offer as argument. But Luther was not the man to be stopped by dread of dignitaries or fear of penalties. He immediately set out from Wittenberg for Worms, saying to his protesting friends, "Though there were as many devils in the city as there are tiles on the roofs, still I would go."

His journey was an ovation. The people flocked by thousands to greet and applaud him. On his arrival at Worms two thousand people gathered and accompanied him to his lodgings. When, on the next day, April 18, 1521, the grand-marshal of the empire conducted him to the diet, he was obliged to lead him across gardens and through by-ways to avoid the throng that filled the streets of the town.

When entering the hall, he was clapped on the shoulder by a famous knight and general of the empire, Georg von Frundsberg, who said, "Monk, monk, thou art in a strait the like of which myself and many leaders, in the most desperate battles, have never known. But if thy thoughts are just, and thou art sure of thy cause, go on, in God's name; and be of good cheer; He will not forsake thee."

Luther was not an imposing figure as he stood before the proud assembly in the imperial hall. He had just recovered from a severe fever, and was pale and emaciated. And standing there, unsupported by a single friend, before that great assembly, his feelings were strongly excited. The emperor remarked to his neighbor, "This man would never succeed in making a heretic of me."

But though Luther's body was weak, his mind was strong. His air quickly became calm and dignified. He was commanded to retract the charges he had made against the church. In reply he acknowledged that the writings produced were his own, and declared that he was not ready to retract them, but said that "If they can convince me from the Holy Scriptures that I am in error, I am ready with my own hands to cast the whole of my writings into the flames."

The chancellor replied that what he demanded was retraction, not dispute. This Luther refused to give. The emperor insisted on a simple recantation, which Luther declared he could not make. For several days the hearing continued, ending at length in the threatening declaration of the emperor, that "he would no longer listen to Luther, but dismiss him at once from his presence, and treat him as he would a heretic."

There was danger in this, the greatest danger. The emperor's word had been given, it is true; but an emperor had broken his word with John Huss, and his successor might with Martin Luther. Charles was, indeed, importuned to do so, but replied that his imperial word was sacred, even if given to a heretic, and that Luther should have an extension of the safe-conduct for twenty-one days, during his return home.

Luther started home. It was a journey by no means free from danger. He had powerful and unscrupulous enemies. He might be seized and carried off by an ambush of his foes. How he was saved from peril of this sort we have described. It was his friend and protector, Frederick, the Elector of Saxony, who had placed the ambush of knights, his purpose being to put Luther in a place of safety where he could lie concealed until the feeling against him had subsided. Meanwhile, at Worms, when the period of the safe-conduct had expired, Luther was declared out of the ban of the empire, an outlaw whom no man was permitted to shelter, his works were condemned to be burned wherever found, and he was adjudged to be seized and held in durance subject to the will of the emperor.

What had become of the fugitive no one knew. The story spread that he had been murdered by his enemies. For ten months he remained in concealment and when he again appeared it was to combat a horde of fanatical enthusiasts who had carried his doctrines to excess and were stirring up all Germany by their wild opinions. The outbreak drew Luther back to Wittenberg, where for eight days he preached with great eloquence against the fanatics and finally succeeded in quelling the disturbance.

From that time forward Luther continued the guiding spirit of the Protestant revolt and was looked upon with high consideration by most of the princes of Germany, his doctrines spreading until, during his lifetime, they extended to Moravia, Bohemia, Denmark and Sweden. Then, in 1546, he died at Eisleben, near the castle in which he had dwelt during the most critical period of his life.

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