Confirmation Revisited: Papal Indulgences

Cathy Lundeen

​How many of you have seen a papal indulgence? In confirmation class we learned that Martin Luther objected to the Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences and that he turned that objection into one of his 95 Theses which were instrumental in bringing about the Protestant Reformation. But in all of the study and discussion about Luther and the Reformation, do you ever recall seeing an indulgence? If not, you’re in luck — among the many records and artifacts in the ELCA Archives is an actual papal indulgence. A photograph of it is at the right.

It is dated 1516 and was issued on behalf of Pope Leo X.   Below the text of the indulgence hangs the remains of tin holders for wax seals attached to the envelope with hemp strings. The artwork on the document depicts Jesus and his mother Mary, St. Peter on the left and St. Paul on the right. Given the size of the document (approximately 27” x 17”) it may have been used to make a public pronouncement as sometimes the indulgence was affixed to the doorway of the church.

This indulgence is part of a larger collection of records from the National Lutheran Council, a cooperative body that comprised several of the ELCA’s predecessor church bodies. We think the indulgence was displayed in the offices of the NLC and then its successor agency, the Lutheran Council in the USA (LCUSA). Since the ELCA Archives is the archives of the LCUSA and the NLC, the indulgence was transferred along with the rest of those collections when the ELCA formed in 1988.

The NLC received the indulgence from a German film production company that worked with the NLC and Lutheran Church Productions (LCP) on the 1953 feature film Martin Luther. This film was the first production of LCP which was a cooperative film production company that comprised representatives of several of the ELCA’s predecessor church bodies in addition to the National Lutheran Council. Martin Luther had commercial and critical success and was nominated for two Academy Awards — for art direction and cinematography. Unfortunately, it lost out to From Here to Eternity for cinematography and Julius Caesar for art direction. We may not have an Academy Award in the archives, but we do have an important piece of history from the Reformation.

Note: if you click on the image you will see a larger version.