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 medieval Catholicism and a major trigger to the Protestant Reformation. Basically, indulgences could be purchased in order to reduce the punishment you were owed for your sins. 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 Martin Luther, this was against Jesus, against the idea of the church, against the point of seeking forgiveness and redemption. When Luther acted against it, Europe had evolved to the point that it would split in the revolution of the 'Reformation'.

What They Did

The medieval western Christian church – the Eastern Orthodox church was different and not covered by this article – included two key concepts which allowed indulgences to occur. Firstly, you were going to be punished for the sins you 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 you had sinned, the greater the punishment. Secondly, by the medieval era, the concept of purgatory had developed: a state entered after death where you would suffer the punishment which would reduce your sins until you were free, so you weren’t damned to hell but could work things off. This system invited something which would enable sinners to reduce their punishments in return for something else, and as purgatory emerged so bishops were given the powers to reduce penance. This developed in the crusades, where you were encouraged to go and fight (often) abroad in return for your sins being canceled.

It proved a highly useful tool to motivate a worldview where the church, God, and sin were central.

From this, the indulgence system developed. Do enough to earn a full or ‘Plenary’ indulgence from the Pope or lesser ranks of churchmen, and all your sin (and punishment) was erased. Partial indulgences would cover a lesser amount, and complex systems developed which claimed to tell you to the day how much sin you’d canceled.

Why They Went Wrong

This system of reducing sin and punishment then went, to the eyes of many Reformation reformers, hideously wrong. People who didn’t, or couldn’t, go on crusade wondered 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, to buildings to praise the church and all the other ways money could be used. This began in the thirteenth century and developed, to the point where government and church were creaming off a percentage of the funds, and complaints about selling forgiveness spread. You could even buy indulgences for your 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 divided into fragments, many of which threw the indulgence system entirely out, and while they didn’t cancel the underpinnings, the Papacy reacted by banning 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.