Luther spent time at Auerbachs Keller

The inn belonged to a friend of the reformer (Photo: Auerbachs Keller)

Leipzig Disputation

Johann Tetzel – Porträt von C. G. Böhme, 1519
Portrait of Johann Tetzel (Photo: Leipzig Museum of City History)
1517 saw the birth of the Reformation. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg on 31 October of that year, it was the beginning of Luther’s public clash with the institution of the Church and with the papacy in particular. Luther attacked the commercial sale of indulgences, which allowed believers to pay to redeem themselves and their dead relatives from sin rather than going to confession to do so. For the church this practice represented a welcome source of income: amongst other things, it financed the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Luther’s 95 theses targeted in particular the activities of Johann Tetzel, a preacher of indulgences who carried out his mission under the authority of Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz and Magdeburg. He went much further than his colleagues in carrying out his duties. The saying, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!” is attributed to Tetzel and shows that for him, absolution was first and foremost attained through money and not repentance. Although he preached mainly in the archbishopric of Magdeburg in 1517, he did attract believers from further afield. Citizens from as far away as Wittenberg sought absolution from him.

„Die Leipziger Disputation 1519“, Lithographie von Max Seliger, um 1900 (Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig)
“The Leipzig Disputation of 1519”, lithograph by Max Seliger, c. 1900 (Photo: Leipzig Museum of City History)

The final break

So it is no surprise that Archbishop Albrecht and Johann Tetzel emerged as two of the most vociferous opponents of the Lutheran theses. The smouldering conflict came to a head in the summer of 1519 at the famous Leipzig Disputation, a fierce debate between Luther and theology professor Johannes Eck from Ingolstadt, a supporter of the Pope. This was Luther’s most momentous visit to the Saxon trading city. He was accompanied by two other driving forces of the Reformation movement: the scholar Philipp Melanchthon and the theologian Andreas Karlstadt. During the three weeks of the debate the Wittenberg reformers stayed in Hainstrasse at the home of the printer Melchior Lotter.

The Disputation began on 27 June 1519 with a Mass in St. Thomas Church, at which the St. Thomas Boys Choir sang. Afterwards the debaters threw themselves into a battle of words in Pleissenburg Castle, today the site of the New City Hall. The debate covered a range of topics including indulgences, the legitimacy of the Pope, free will and divine grace. While Eck stubbornly defended the teaching authority of the Pope and the supremacy of the church, Luther took the view that papal infallibility could not be derived from Holy Scripture and that church councils could also err. At the end both sides claimed to have carried the argument. For Martin Luther, the Disputation, also known as the “Leipzig Church Battle” in German, represented a final break with the Roman Catholic Church. Because of his refusal to recant his theses on the sale of indulgences, Luther and his followers were finally excommunicated from the church and outlawed by the Emperor in 1521.