Wikipedia tells a story about a man who asked Tetzel if he could buy an indulgence for a future sin. He did so, and then “used” that indulgence to rob Tetzel dumb, deaf and blind.
This little story presents a good opportunity to delve into Wikipedia: your source for everything one needs to know, even if it's wrong or perhaps just hearsay. Wiki attributes this story to... none other than... Martin Luther. They say it's "Luther's Impression" of Johann Tetzel. Here's what's currently posted on Wikipedia:
According to Luther, after Tetzel had received a substantial amount of money at Leipzig, a nobleman asked him if it were possible to receive a letter of indulgence for a future sin. Tetzel quickly answered in the affirmative, insisting that the payment had to be made at once. The nobleman did so and received thereupon letter and seal from Tetzel. When Tetzel left Leipzig the nobleman attacked him along the way, gave him a thorough beating, and sent him back empty-handed to Leipzig with the comment that it was the future sin which he had in mind. Duke George at first was quite furious about the incident, but when he heard the whole story, he let it go without punishing the nobleman.This story serves as an example why Wikipedia should not be used as a primary reference. This is not a report "according to Luther" nor is it "Luther's impression" of Tetzel. While Luther did make a number of comments about his adversary, this account is not Luther's. Further, the story is just that: a purported story of something that may have happened to Tetzel.
Documentation From Wikipedia and Plagiarism
At least at the time of the composing of this blog entry, Wikipedia gives no documentation. Wikipedia articles are composed by "volunteers" that "do not need to have any formal training." It's no wonder therefore that Wiki content appears and disappears as per the whims of these volunteers. Kudos to Wikipedia though for providing transparency as to how these covert Wiki articles are edited. In this instance, the paragraph under scrutiny was added November 26, 2015 to an already existing entry on Tetzel. For this added story, the Wiki volunteer cited "Johann Tetzel" Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911 Edition" (without a volume or page number) as proof of the story's validity. This reference though is bogus (here is the page from the Encyclopedia). Three minutes later on the same day, Wiki then provided this reference:
Description of Incident Involving Tetzel, by Luther http://randy_horton.myteachersite.org/teacher/files/documents/ref%20primary%20sources%20-%20tetzel%20&%20indulgences.pdf Description of Incident Involving Tetzel, by LutherThis hyper-link was eventually edited down to, "Description of Incident Involving Tetzel, by Luther." On March 18, 2017, someone then added a PDF link page 745 of this this book to verify the story. This was fallacious as well: there is no page 745 in the book being cited. Even though a similar story is recounted on page 445, on May 21, 2017 this PDF book link was removed, along with the original documentation-link "Description of Incident Involving Tetzel, by Luther." That's how the entry stands now: no documentation.
Wiki's original documentation, "Description of Incident Involving Tetzel, by Luther" was to a PDF link entitled, The Reformation, Primary Sources apparently put together by someone named "Randy Horton." The website hosting this PDF is My Teacher Site. Randy Horton appears to be a teacher at UME Preparatory Academy (a K-12 school), using the "My Teacher" site to put up documents for young students. His Tetzel link has been up since at least Sept. 2015. Horton provides the documentation, "Luthers Schriften, herausg. von Walch. XV, 446" (we'll look at that reference later on). I suspect that Mr. Horton did not read Walch XV and then produce this English paragraph. The way a few of his quotes are laid out are very similar to this older web-page which says the English version of this Tetzel story is from Hans. J. Hillerbrand (ed.), The Reformation in its own Words (London, 1964). The story / quote can be found on pages 44-45, worded (with the same documentation) exactly as Mr. Horton's "My Teacher" web-page. The translation used by Wiki / Horton is Hillerbrand's. Horton can be excused; he's not looking to sell his material, he's a grade school teacher, probably using the material in a lecture. On the other hand, what irks me is that there are authors that have taken Hillerbrand's translation without crediting him for it while trying to sell their materials:
Michael Grzonka, Luther and His Times. This author obviously utilized Hillerbrand's translation, but tried to rewrite it to make it appear to be his own words. Certain phrases are exactly the same as Hillerbrand's, for instance, "...nobleman attacked him along the way...," "...gave him a thorough beating, and sent him back...".
Andreas Malessa, The Unreformed Martin Luther: A Serious (and Not So Serious) Look at the Man Behind the Myths, p. 27-28.
Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, p. 106. Not only does this author provide no documentation, he erroneously attributes this story to "a contemporary of Luther's named Myconius."We'll see below that this story is not something Luther stated. Rather, it was a story recounted in an early version of Luther's works, and whoever at Wikipedia cut-and-pasted it simply assumed Luther said it. Their history of editing demonstrates something I've seen often in their articles: they make assertions, and then try to document those assertions. This is a backwards methodology demonstrating poor research skills.
Other English Sources
Leaving the land of Wikipedia for a moment, this Tetzel story has circulated for a long time. Various published versions of it are available. In Luther and His Times, the story is presented with some extra details sifted from Walch 15 mixed in with some sentences plagiarized from Hillerbrand:
A Saxon gentleman had heard Tetzel at Leipsic, and was much shocked by his impostures. He went to the monk, and inquired if he was authorised to pardon sins in intention, or such as the applicant intended to commit? "Assuredly," answered Tetzel; "I have full power from the Pope to do so." Well," returned the gentleman, "I want to take some slight revenge on one of my enemies, without attempting his life. I will pay you ten crowns, if you will give me a letter of indulgence that shall bear me harmless." Tetzel made some scruples; they struck their bargain for thirty crowns. Shortly after, the monk set out from Leipsic. The gentleman, attended by his servants, laid wait for him in a wood between Juterboch and Treblin, — fell upon him, gave him a beating, and carried off the rich chest of indulgence money the inquisitor had with him. Tetzel clamoured against this act of violence, and brought an action before the judges. But the gentleman showed the letter signed by Tetzel himself, which exempted him beforehand from all responsibility. Duke George, who had at first been much irritated at this action, upon seeing this writing, ordered that the accused should be acquitted. [Albinus Meissn. Chronik. L.W. (W.) xv. 446, (and) c. Hechitus in Vita Tezelli].And finally, John Dowling's History of Romanism appears to have utilized d'Aubigné:
On another occasion a gentleman of Saxony had heard Tetzel at Leipsic, and was much shocked by his impostures. He went to the monk, and inquired if he was authorized to pardon sins in intention, or such as the applicant intended to commit ?" Assuredly," answered Tetzel; "I have full power from the Pope to do so."— "Well," returned the gentleman, "I want to take some slight revenge on one of my enemies, without attempting his life. I will pay you ten crowns, if you will give me a letter of indulgence that shall bear me harmless." Tetzel made some scruples; they struck their bargain for thirty crowns. Shortly after, the monk set out from Leipsic. The gentleman, attended by his servants, laid wait for him in a wood between Jaterboch and Treblin,—fell upon him, gave him a beating, and carried off the rich chest of indulgence money the inquisitor had with him. Tetzel clamored against this act of violence, and brought an action before the judges. But the gentlemen showed the letter signed by Tetzel himself, which exempted him beforehand from all responsibility. Duke George who had at first been much irritated at this action, upon seeing this writing, ordered that the accused should be acquitted.
Mentioned above a number of times as the source has been the Walch edition of Luther's Works, 15:446. This volume contains more than just Luther's writings. It also includes early historical documents from the early Reformation period. The story in question is not a writing or saying of Luther's. It an historical account about Tetzel from these other historical sources. Here's the text from Walch, 15:446-
The Walch text here says that there are different versions of this story available, and included above are two of those versions. Walch also provides references to a number of historians mentioning this incident. The first account (#96) is the version mentioned above by Jean Henri Merle d'Aubigné (Albinus Meissn. Chronik.). This refers to Petrus Albinus, Chronicles of Meissen [information on Albinus can be found here]. Meissnische Land-Chronika can be found here, and here is page 342 cited by Walch]. "Löscher's Ref-Acta, Vol. I, p.405" refers to Valentin Ernst Löscher's Vollständige Reformations-Acta und Documenta, oder umständliche Vorstellung des Evangelischen Reformations-Wercks, p.405. "Tentzels Hit. Bericht, Bd. I, S. 111" refers to Wilhelm Ernst Tentzel's Historischer Bericht vom Anfang und ersten Fortgang der Reformation Lutheri, p. 111.
The second account (#97) is the work of Georgius Arnoldus (Georg Arnoldus), from his Vita Mauritii Electoris Saxoniae (Life of Maurice, Elector of Saxony) [Information on Arnoldus can be found here. Information on Maurice can be found here]. The Life of Maurice was also include in Mencken, Scripores Rerum Germanicarum tom II, p. 1151 (mentioned by Walch above). Also being cited by Walsh is Commentarius historicus et apologeticus de Lutheranismo, Volume 1 By Veit Ludwig von Seckendorf, p. 26.
All of this Wiki-produced-tedium should lead the honest inquirer to one simple conclusion: Wikipedia is not to be trusted as any sort of primary source. Simply take a look at the way the stories are presented above. The German versions are fairly straight forward. Some of the English versions above appear to be fleshing out the story for dramatic effect. As far as I can tell, the story functions more as hearsay than an actual historical happening. Sure, the account is within the realm of probability, but Albinus wrote his version in 1580, Arnoldus did his in 1569. Neither one was present to hear Tetzel preach on indulgences.
One thing is certain: Luther did not write this story. Wikipedia (or anyone else crediting it to him) never bothered to actually look it up in Walch 15. Those folks selling books using Hillerbrand's translation without crediting him, be they Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Atheists, etc... well, shame on them. For years I've caught Rome's defenders doing the same sort of thing: giving an English quote they've taken from a secondary source, and then attempting to pass themselves off as honest and meaningful by citing a German text. It doesn't prove anything except that actual research was not done.
Someone may well ask, why should I be trusted for the content just presented? To this I say "kudos to you." Go and do your own research.