THE BEGINNING OF THE REFORMATION
 EVERYTHING in the Renaissance did not make for good. It led towards freedom, but it also led towards
godlessness and licence. But born of the same desire for truth, led by the same spirit of liberty, helped by
the printing-press, even as the new learning was helped, another movement grew and spread. This was the
The Reformation was not a revolt against the Renaissance but its natural accompaniment. They acted and
re-acted upon each other. In everything men had begun to think for themselves. By new discoveries on the earth
and in the heavens old beliefs had been shaken. It was not wonderful then that men should claim the right of
freedom in religious thought as in all others.
As the Renaissance had its forerunners, so also had the Reformation. At the beginning of the thirteenth
century the Albigenses in the south of France had been crushed out of existence because they dared to worship
God in their own way. In the middle of the fourteenth century in England John Wycliffe had preached against
the doctrines of the Church, and had made the first translation of the Bible into English. He was persecuted
but not silenced, and after his death his followers, the Lollards, continued to teach and preach until they
were suppressed by force.
Wycliffe's teaching, however, was not killed, and it spread over Europe even as far as Bohemia. Here in the
beginning of the fifteenth century John Huss began to
 preach his doctrines. He was burned at the stake, a crusade was declared against his followers, and for
fifteen years they were hunted and persecuted.
But in the end these and other movements like them had all been crushed. None of them had the aid of the
printing-press, therefore they remained more or less local, and left little impression on the world as a
In spite of these occasional risings against its authority, the pretension of the Church increased as time
went on, until the pope claimed absolute authority over every country and every king, in secular as well as in
spiritual matters. Kings, said the pope, in effect, could reign only by his will and favour. And if any
displeased him he claimed the right of deposing him, and of giving his lands to another.
But as in each country the sense of nationality and the royal power grew greater, both kings and people began
to chafe at this foreign interference. As the papacy became less spiritual and more and more secular, as the
pope himself became less and less a pastor and more and more a ruling prince and warrior, this dissatisfaction
increased. Kings grudged more and more the constant stream of gold which, flowing from their countries in the
shape of tithes and other ecclesiastical fees, went, not to spread the Gospel of Christ, but to swell the
exchequer of the pope as a temporal prince and possible political enemy.
On the political side, then, the world was ready to break with the pope. On the religious side it was also
ready. For there came the new learning and the printing-press. Bibles were soon sown broadcast in the tongues
of every nation in Europe. Men were no longer content to be told that such and such a doctrine was taught by
the Church; they wanted to know why and upon what grounds the Church taught its doctrines. The Reformation was
thus both a political and a religious movement. For in the
 Middle Ages Church and state had become so bound together that it could not be otherwise.
More than any other land Germany had felt the power of the pope. Because of the fatal connection between the
Holy Roman Empire and the Holy See it had been kept from nationality, and had remained a collection of states
great and small, held together by the slightest of bonds. Now, more than any other land, it was ready for
revolt. The gunpowder was ready, the train was laid; it needed but a spark to fire it. The spark which caused
the explosion was the sale of Indulgences.
The Sale of Indulgences
An Indulgence meant that by paying a sum of money a man could buy forgiveness of any sin he had committed. The
selling of them was no new thing. It was closely connected with the practice of doing penance, many people
preferring to pay money than do penance in other ways. But in early days no Indulgence had been given except
upon the promise of repentance. By the end of the fifteenth century the sale of them had become a scandal. The
most vile and wicked, who had neither the desire nor the intention of repentance, could buy them freely.
When an Indulgence seller set forth upon his rounds he did so in splendour, with a gay train of followers.
Coming to a city he entered it with pomp. The Bull declaring the Indulgence was carried on a cushion of cloth
of gold or of crimson velvet. Priests swinging censers and carrying lighted candles and banners followed
after, and thus to the sound of chants and songs, and the ringing of joy bells, the procession passed along
the streets to the church.
Here, before the altar, the vendor spread forth his wares, and declaring that the gates of heaven were open,
invited the people to come and buy.
 When Leo X became pope he found his exchequer almost empty. He needed money sorely for his many projects,
among them the building of St. Peter's at Rome. To get the money he fell back upon the fruitful expedient of
The man who had charge of their sale in Germany was a Dominican monk named John Tetzel. He was vulgar and
blasphemous. He cried his wares in the church like a cheap-jack in the market-place, making unseemly jokes by
the way. This manner of selling Indulgences shocked many people who before had found no harm in the custom.
Among these was the monk Martin Luther.
Luther was the son of a poor miner, and his childhood had been one of bitter poverty. But poor although he
was, Hans Luther had managed to send his son to school and afterwards to the university of Erfurt, at that
time the most famous in Germany.
His son repaid him by working hard, and it seemed as if he had a great career before him, when suddenly he
threw all his brilliant prospects to the winds and became a monk. Martin took this step, he said, to save his
soul. For he was one of those who had begun to think for themselves on matters of religion, and his thoughts
had thrown him into an anguish of doubt. In time, however, he found some sort of peace, and when Tetzel came
to Germany he was teacher of theology in the university of Wittenberg.
For various reasons many of the rulers in Germany disliked the selling of Indulgences, and the Elector of
Saxony had forbidden Tetzel to enter his dominions. But Tetzel would not willingly forgo the harvest of gold
which might be gleaned from Saxony. So, without actually entering its borders he came as near to them as he
could, and set up his booth in Magdeburg.
And as he had foreseen, many people crossed the frontiers to buy
 At this Luther's heart was filled with sorrow and indignation. He could not but feel that these poor people
were being deceived and exploited. At length he wrote out, in Latin, ninety-five theses, or articles, against
the sale of Indulgences, and on November 1, 1517, he nailed them to the door of the castle church at
Wittenberg. The chief idea in these theses was "that by true sorrow and repentance only, and not by payment of
money, forgiveness of sins can be won."