Story of Liberty - Charles Coffin

The Boy-Cardinal

It is a great day in Rome, the 11th of April, 1513. One of the grandest processions ever seen in the city is passing through the streets, escorting the newly elected Pope to St. Peter's. Julius is dead, and the cardinals have elected as his successor the man who was defeated at Ravenna by Gaston de Foix, the man who loves pictures, statues, poetry, and music, who gives sumptuous entertainments, and who pawns his silver plate to obtain money for a grand banquet—the Boy-cardinal, John de' Medici. He has had his eye on the Pope's chair for a long while, and all of his grand dinners have been given with the view of making himself so agreeable that when the time should come for electing a new Pope, he would step into Julius's shoes. He is no longer to be known as the Boy-cardinal, but as Leo X. He is amiable and kind-hearted. He never will mount a scaling-ladder, and enter a city sword in hand; he will stay in Rome, and gather painters, sculptors, and poets around ]rim. He loves their society. He loves good dinners and good wine, and drinks so much at times that he becomes limber in the legs. His garments glitter with diamonds and jewels. He rides a superb horse. Triumphal arches have been erected along the streets, marble statues set up, and banners flung to the breeze. Bright-eyed girls strew flowers along the way, and the multitude kneel as he passes by in his gorgeous coach. In the evening Leo gives a magnificent banquet. Since the days of the emperors of old Rome, there has been no such feast. The rarest and richest luxuries are spread upon the tables, and the choicest wine of Italy is drunk from golden goblets.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


As soon as the new Pope is seated on his throne he lays his plans for the future. He will have a new church edifice—the grandest in all Christendom. He will have it adorned with the richest marbles. Among the architects whom he employs is Michael Angelo, the greatest of all.

Fortunately, that gray-bearded man, Christopher Columbus, has discovered a new world, rich in silver and gold, and the wealth of those distant lands is beginning to flow to Europe; while England, France, Spain, Germany, and Holland are increasing in riches. There are few heretics now, for the men who ask questions have roasted nearly all of them to death.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


The people everywhere love and honor the Pope, and are ready to give liberally to enable him to build his great church. He sends the Gospel to their very doors, so that everywhere the poor, as well as the rich, can purchase salvation not only for themselves, but for their friends in purgatory. The Pope is very kind and accommodating. He bestows his blessings freely—blessing the people, the bells in the churches, even blesses horses! Anybody can secure salvation or buy a blessing. Priests, monks, and friars travel up and down the country selling indulgences.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


One of the Pope's agents for the sale of indulgences is a fat friar, with a thundering voice—John Tetzel. He is from Leipsic, in Germany. John does not give himself to fasting, but eats fat meat and drinks good wine. He rides in 'a carriage drawn by three horses. Once he committed a crime, and was sewed up in a sack, and was about to be thrown into the river, but the judge concluded not to put him to death; and now he is carrying the Gospel about the country, with a cavalcade of horsemen to escort him and protect him from robbers.

Just before he enters a town, the sheriff passes through the streets with a trumpeter. The people hear the sounding of the trumpet, and rush out from their houses to see what is going on.

"The grace of God and St. Peter is before your gates," shouts the sheriff.

The good news spreads. The Gospel has come. Now they can purchase salvation, and release their friends from the pains of purgatory. The people form in procession, the priests leading. Then come the school-children, the monks, friars, and nuns, and a great number of citizens carrying banners and lighted candles. They meet Friar Tetzel, and escort him, in his gilded coach, to the church, singing and shouting, for it is a joyful day. The procession enters the church, the organ peals, a chant is sung, the cross is placed in front of the altar, and the Pope's arms suspended upon it. Tetzel takes his position in the pulpit.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


"Come, friends, and buy my pardons, buy my indulgences. You can release your friends from purgatory. Do you not hear them say, 'We are enduring horrible torments?' A small sum will deliver them."

The people shudder at the words. Their friends in purgatory! They will release them at once.

"The very instant the money chinks in the box their souls will fly toward heaven," says Tetzel.

But there are some who do not quite believe all that he says.

"I will excommunicate all who doubt this blessed grace," he cries.

To be excommunicated—cut off from the Church—would be terrible, and they must doubt no longer.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


"Blessed, my friends, are the eyes which see what you see," and Tetzel holds up the cash-box. "Bring your money! Bring your money!" He drops a piece of silver into the box to set an example of benevolence.

A king, queen, and prince must pay fifty dollars for an indulgence; counts and barons, twenty dollars; poor people, five dollars; and if they are very poor, they can get one for a less amount. For particular sins there are specified prices. If a man has committed murder, he must pay a larger sum than he who has committed theft.

The people flock to the church, and all day long the money is dropping into the cash-box. The money not only of Germany, but of all Europe, is flowing toward Rome.

Tetzel travels from town to town, and after a while reaches the city of Leipsic. Little does he know of what is before him. A gentleman comes to buy an indulgence.

Can you pardon a sin which a man intends to commit?" he asks. "Certainly; the Pope has given me full power to do so."

"Very well. I should like to punish a man a little. I don't want to hurt him much—just a little. How much do you ask for an indulgence that will hold me harmless, so that I shall not be punished?"

"For such a sin I must have thirty dollars."

"That is too much. I will give ten."

"No, that is too little. I will let you have one for twenty-five." "I can't pay that. I will give fifteen."

"That is not enough. I will let you have it for twenty."

"Are you sure that it will protect me?"

"Certainly. I should like to know how any harm can come to you. It is the Pope's dispensation; and no one may question my authority." "Very well; here is the money."

The man takes the indulgence, and goes away; and Tetzel starts for the town of Juterbogk. He comes to a forest, when suddenly a party of robbers spring from behind the trees. Some of them seize Tetzel and pound him, while others ransack the carriage, find the money-box, and all flee to the woods.

Who are the robbers? The leader of the band is the man who bought the indulgence, and this was the crime that he intended to commit. Tetzel hastens to Duke George, who is Governor of Saxony.

"I have been robbed."

"I will have the robbers hanged," says the governor, and sends the sheriff to arrest them.

The sheriff very soon brings them before the governor.

"You are accused of robbing," he says to the gentleman who bought the indulgence. "What have you to say for yourself?"

"Tetzel has already pardoned me. This is the crime I intended to commit. I paid him twenty dollars for the indulgence. Here it is." The governor reads the paper.

"I don't see as you have any case, Mr. Tetzel."

The governor cannot send the robber to prison, nor compel him to give up the money. To do so would put an end to Mr. Tetzel's business, for it would show the people that the indulgences are worthless. Ah, Mr. Tetzel, it would have been better for you not to have taken the road to Juterbogk, and it would be better for yon not to go there to set up your fair; but go on, for out of your going will come liberty to the world!

Although so many years have passed since Doctor Wicklif's day, the people all through Europe are still in slavery. They are taxed by emperors and kings, Pope and priest. They are robbed systematically; they are ignorant and degraded. If a man commits a murder, he can flee to the shelter of a church; or if he can once get inside of a convent door, the sheriff cannot arrest him. The civil law, then, is powerless. The bishops and priests are, many of them, ready to burn a heretic to death; while emperors and kings are autocrats. They do as they please. There is no liberty as yet for the people.

John Tetzel sets up his great red cross in the Juterbogk church, and begins the sale of his pardons. He is very sore over his loss. The people laugh at him, and say it was a good joke that the robber played. Juterbogk is only four miles from Wittenberg, where the boy who sung for his breakfast is preaching and hearing people confess their sins.

All-saints-day comes. The people from all the country round flock to Wittenberg to see the procession of the holy relics, for, on this 31st of October, the images of the saints and the relics are to be carried in procession through the streets.

The people come to Friar Martin to confess their sins.

"You must leave off sinning," he says to them.

"Leave off sinning?"

"Yes; I cannot grant absolution unless you do."

"But we have liberty to sin."

"Liberty to sin! Who gave you liberty to sin against God?"

"Doctor Tetzel, over in Juterbogk. Here are the indulgences which we have purchased."

"I care nothing for your indulgences. Unless you repent, you will perish. I will not grant you absolution, unless you promise to leave off sinning."

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


The people are in despair. They have paid their money for their indulgences, and now their confessor will not absolve them. They hasten to Juterbogk.

"Our confessor will not absolve us. He says that these indulgences are good for nothing."

"Good for nothing!" Doctor Tetzel will see about that. He goes into the pulpit. He is the Pope's ambassador, and is endowed with authority. He curses the young priest at Wittenberg, who has thus taken it upon himself to say that these indulgences are worth no more than blank paper.

"I have orders from the Pope to burn every heretic who dares to oppose his most holy indulgences," shouts Tetzel; and he orders a fire to be kindled in the market-place, to let the people understand that he means what he says.

Evening comes. In the market-place of Juterbogk the fire which Doctor Tetzel has kindled is burning. Over in Wittenberg, at the same hour, the people see their young confessor nailing a paper upon the door of the church. They crowd around to see what sort of a notice it may be. They read:

"Those who truly repent of their sins have a full remission of guilt and penalty, and do not need an indulgence."

And this:

"He who gives to the poor and lends to the needy does better than he who buys an indulgence."

There are ninety-five paragraphs. The people read in amazement.

Here is war against Doctor Tetzel—a war between two doctors.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Doctor Luther goes back to his room in the convent, little knowing what will come of his nailing up that paper—that it is the beginning of a series of events which will go on while time shall last; that out of it will come a great division in the Church; that thrones will be tumbled into the dust; that kings will go down, empires be rent asunder, lands be desolated by war; that there will be massacres and horrible outrages against the lives and liberties of men; that for thirty years continuously war will sweep over Germany. If he could but lift the veil that hides the future, he would see the streets of Paris and the vine-clad valleys of Italy drenched in blood, He would see fires kindled all over England for the burning of men, women, and children. He would see men hurled headlong from precipices, roasted over slow fires, starving in dungeons, subjected to every form of cruelty; but with all this he would see the beginning of the emancipation of men, the advance of justice, truth, and liberty—the beginning of a new era in human affairs. The monk does not know it; but that paper which he has nailed upon the oaken panels of the door is, as it were, the marching orders of the great Army of Freedom.

The people read, and go home to think about it. They see that if what Doctor Luther says is true, then Doctor Tetzel has fooled them. He has sold them worthless slips of paper. Men do not like to be swindled.

Doctor Luther does not rest content with nailing up the paper on the church door. He will call into use the invention made by that man in Haerlem who loved to please his children—Laurence Coster—and which John Gutenberg carried out. He prints the paper, and in a few weeks all Germany is reading it. Tetzel is terribly enraged. At Frankfort he kindles a fire in the market-place, and burns the paper.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


"Wait a little, and we will have the heretic roasted," he says.

"has that monk of Wittenberg an iron head and a brass nose, so that he cannot be crushed?" asks the chief of the Dominican friars.

"Such a heretic ought not to live an hour," cries James Hochstaeter, of Cologne..

Friar Martin is not frightened in the least, but goes on preaching and writing against the sale of indulgences and the practices of the wicked monks.

The priests say that he has sold himself to the devil. They get up a horrible picture, representing Martin as being inspired by Satan. Martin's head is a bagpipe, his nose the flageolet. The devil squeezes the friar's head under his arm, blows the wind into one ear, and plays upon his nose with his claws.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


The friends of Friar Martin set themselves to work; and Hans Holbein draws a powerful picture, one part of which represents the Pope and his agents selling pardons; and, in contrast, King David, Manasses, and the humble publican are confessing their sins to God, and receiving his blessing. The people see that they are being swindled. Some have seen it for a long time, but have made no open protest; but now they speak plainly. They take the liberty of dissenting from what the Pope has decreed. That man who was so disgusted with St. Thomas's shirt, Erasmus, long before Martin nailed the paper on the door of the church, poked fun at the friars, and ridiculed the sale of indulgences in a book which he wrote. In the old city of Nuremberg there is a man who mends shoes, and who sings songs ridiculing the monks—his name is Hans Sachs.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


The painter Holbein brings out another picture, which represents Christ as the true light. The pictures, the songs, the tracts, the preaching, set men of everywhere to thinking. One of the pictures published represents an ass wearing the Pope's crown, and playing a bagpipe, with a couplet explaining it. So, from ridiculing the monks and friars, they began to ridicule the Pope.

Lucas Cranach drew a picture which represented the Pope as being cast into hell. Up to this time men have regarded the Pope as having all power—as being God's agent on earth; but now they laugh at the idea, and consign the Pope to perdition. It is a sudden breaking of the shackles that have bound the intellects of men. It is freedom.

In vain does John Tetzel set up his cross in the churches; the people will not buy the Pope's indulgences. The money which has been flowing toward Rome ceases to go in that direction. Friar Martin and his followers are drying up the fountains. Leo is a kind-hearted man. He would like to have everything peaceful; but he cannot permit an obscure monk to overthrow his authority. He sends a summons to Martin to appear at Rome and answer for what he has said and written; but Martin will not go. And the Pope summons him to appear before a legate, Cardinal Cajetan, at Augsburg; and Martin obeys.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


"Take back what you have said," is the demand of the legate. "I stand by the truth. I will not take it back."

Doctor Luther knows that his life is in danger; that if Cardinal Cajetan could only get him once inside of a dungeon, he never would regain his liberty. He has appeared and made his answer. He waits four days.

"You are not safe here; you must not remain," say his friends.

He is on foot, but they supply him with a donkey, and an hour before daylight, on an August morning, he mounts the animal, picks his way through the silent streets of the old town. The birds are singing. The sunlight streams up the east. He, too, breaks into singing, for he has stood up for truth and liberty against the mightiest power on earth.

Doctor Luther goes back to Wittenberg to send out more books and pamphlets, in defence of what he believes to be the truth. Peddlers carry them through the country. The people read them, pass them from hand to hand, discuss them by their firesides. It is like the lighting of torches. Men see as they never saw before. Others begin to write and preach against the authority of the Pope. Germany is stirred as never before. The works of the monk of Wittenberg are read by the mountaineers of Switzerland. They are translated into other languages; and so the wave of intellectual life and liberty rolls over the land.