Indulgences and the Ninety-Five Theses

In 1515 a new papal indulgence, shown on the left, was issued in exchange for donations to fund the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This small printed form would have been filled out with the name of the recipient and date of purchase. However, this copy remained blank because it was never purchased. Ultimately it was cut in half and recycled as a book cover.

Luther, by 1515 a professor of theology in Wittenberg, saw no scriptural or theological foundation for the sale of indulgences and vehemently objected to the fleecing of the faithful by unscrupulous indulgence sellers who tried to sell salvation. Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses―on the right in one of only six existing printed broadside, or single-page, copies―is a list of points for a university debate on the moral and ethical validity of indulgences. Just like the announcement for any other university debate, a copy like this would have been posted to the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The debate never happened, but we are now celebrating the 500th anniversary of the storm that followed Luther’s Theses, his challenge to Church tradition.

Albrecht of Brandenburg, Archbishop of Mainz, Papal Indulgence for the Construction of St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome. Leipzig: Melchior Lotter the Elder, 1515. Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt.

Martin Luther, “The Ninety-Five Theses,” Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum (Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences). Nuremberg: Hieronymous Hötzel, 1517. Österreichisches Staatsarchiv/Abteilung Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv.