Preacher of indulgences at the time of Luther; b. Pirna near Meissen, 1465; d. Leipzig, Aug. 11, 1519. He studied at Leipzig and entered the Dominican Order there. He was prior at Glogau, and in 1509 was appointed inquisitor for Poland.
Tetzel is best known for his preaching of an indulgence that was the occasion—though not the cause—of Luther's rejection of the doctrine of indulgences. By 1517 Tetzel had already had much experience: he had preached indulgences in ten different cities from 1503 to 1510. In 1516 he was appointed subcommissioner in Meissen for the indulgence granted to those who contributed to the rebuilding of St. Peter's in Rome. In January 1517 he preached the indulgence in the territory of Albert of Brandenburg. His preaching of it at Jüterbog attracted the inhabitants of nearby Wittenberg, which was ruled by Frederick the Wise (d. 1525), Elector of Saxony, where the indulgence could not be preached. Luther was already hostile to indulgences because of Frederick's traffic in them: 129,799 years' indulgence could be obtained by the faithful for venerating Frederick's collection of relics. He was further alienated by accounts of Tetzel's methods and attacked the whole system indiscriminately in his 95 theses.
Tetzel spent the remaining 22 months of his life defending his position. From Frankfurt on the Oder, he answered Luther with 122 theses (anti-theses) composed by K. wimpina (d. 1531). He also published in 1518 Vorlegung, a refutation of Luther's position.
In accordance with the polemical techniques of the period, Tetzel was grossly calumniated; accusations included charges of adultery, falsifying bulls, and the granting of absolutions without contrition and for future sins—all at a monetary price. Tetzel was orthodox in regard to indulgences for the living. In regard to those for the dead, however, he followed the teaching contained in the Mainz Instruction issued to preachers of indulgences. That is, he taught the then widespread, erroneous theological opinion that indulgences for the dead were gained independently of dispositions of contrition in the person seeking the indulgence, who also had the right to apply them absolutely to a specific soul in purgatory. Cajetan condemned this teaching at Rome. Exhausted by his labors and the cruel attacks upon his reputation, Tetzel died in the Dominican priory at Leipzig at the age of 54.
Bibliography: n. paulus, Johann Tetzel der Ablassprediger (Mainz 1899). Historisches Jahrbuch der Görres-Gesellschaft (1921) 80–86. h. c. ganss, The Catholic Encyclopedia, ed. c. g. herbermann et al., 16 v. (New York 1907–14; suppl. 1922) 14.2:539–541. j. beckmann, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. m. buchberger, 10 v. (Freiburg 1930–38) 10:10. l. pastor, The History of the Popes from the Close of the Middle Ages, 40 v. (London-St. Louis 1938–61) 7:347–351, 354–358.
[c. m. aherne]