Indulgences and their Role in the Reformation

"Satan Distributing Indulgences"
Illustration from the Jensky Codex, 1490s Czech Manuscript. Wikimedia Commons

An ‘indulgence’ was part of the medieval Christian church, and a significant trigger to the Protestant Reformation. Basically, by purchasing an indulgence, an individual could reduce the length and severity of punishment that heaven would require as payment for their sins, or so the church claimed. Buy an indulgence for a loved one, and they would go to heaven and not burn in hell. Buy an indulgence for yourself, and you needn't worry about that pesky affair you'd been having.

If this sounds like cash or good deeds for less pain, that is exactly what it was. To many holy people like German friar Martin Luther (1483–1546), this was against the teachings of the founder Jesus (4 BCE–33 CE), against the idea of the church, and against the point of seeking forgiveness and redemption. At the time Luther acted against indulgences, he was not alone in seeking change. Within a few years, European Christianity split apart during the revolution of the "Reformation."

The Development of Indulgences

The medieval western Christian church—the Eastern Orthodox church followed a different path—included two key concepts which allowed indulgences to occur. Firstly, parishioners knew that after they died they were going to be punished for the sins they accumulated in life, and this punishment was only partly erased by good works (like pilgrimage, prayers or donations to charity), divine forgiveness, and absolution. The more an individual had sinned, the greater the punishment awaited them.

Secondly, by the medieval era, the concept of purgatory had been developed. Rather than being damned to hell after death, a person would go to purgatory, where they would suffer whatever punishment was required to wash off the stain of their sins until they were freed. This system invited the creation of a method by which sinners could reduce their punishments, and as the idea of purgatory emerged, the pope gave bishops the power to reduce sinners' penance while they were still alive, based on the performance of good deeds. It proved a highly useful tool to motivate a worldview where the church, God, and sin were central.

The indulgence system was formalized by Pope Urban II (1035–1099) during the Council of Clement in 1095. If an individual performed enough good deeds to earn a full or ‘Plenary’ indulgence from the Pope or lesser ranks of churchmen, all their sins (and punishment) would be erased. Partial indulgences would cover a lesser amount, and complex systems developed in which the church claimed they could calculate to the day how much sin a person had canceled. In time, much of the church's work was done in this way: During the Crusades (instigated by Pope Urban II), many people participated on this premise, believing they could go and fight (often) abroad in return for their sins being canceled.

Why They Went Wrong

This system of reducing sin and punishment worked well to get the work of church done, but then it went, to the eyes of many reformers, hideously wrong. People who didn’t, or couldn’t, go on the crusades began to wonder whether some other practice might allow them to earn the indulgence. Perhaps something financial?

So the indulgence came to be associated with people "buying" them, whether by offering to donate sums to charitable works, or by constructing buildings to praise the church and all the other ways money could be used. That practice began in the 13th century and was so successful that soon both government and church could take a percentage of the funds for their own uses. Complaints about selling forgiveness spread. A wealthy person could even buy indulgences for their ancestors, relatives, and friends who were already dead.

The Division of Christianity

Money had infested the indulgence system, and when Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses in 1517 he attacked it. As the church attacked him back he developed his views, and indulgences were squarely in his sights. Why, he wondered, did the church need to accumulate money when the Pope could, really, just free everyone from purgatory by himself?

The church fragmented under the stress, with many new sects throwing the indulgence system entirely out. In response and while not canceling the underpinnings, the Papacy banned the sale of indulgences in 1567 (but they still existed within the system). Indulgences were the trigger to centuries of bottled up anger and confusion against the church and allowed it to be cleaved into pieces.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Bandler, Gerhard. "Martin Luther: Theology and Revolution." Trans., Foster Jr., Claude R. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. 
  • Bossy, John. "Christianity in the West 1400–1700." Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 1985. 
  • Gregory, Brad S. "Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe." Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. 
  • Marius, Richard. "Martin Luther: The Christian between God and Death." Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • Roper, Lyndal. "Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet." New York: Random House, 2016.