Editor's note: This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and this is one in a series of columns to describe the origins, nature and impact of the events and personalities of the Reformation. Previous articles are online at deseretnews.com/faith.
Imagine a world in which Mormon bishops were permitted to keep half the tithing receipts of their wards, with the stake president willing to accept bribes from potential bishops. This was the world of simony — the buying and selling of church offices — that faced the Catholic church on the eve of the Reformation.
When Paul wrote that “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10), he was making a profound observation that was as valid in his time as in ours. Humans have a natural acquisitive instinct that is necessary for survival. If we don’t store up food and other resources for times of dearth, our families may not survive a cold winter. However, the line between useful collection of necessities and excessive hoarding is often a fine one.
This is as true in the history of religion as in our personal lives. Since the origins of civilization, religion has been a wellspring of wealth and power, and as such has often attracted and corrupted those who love money. Almost all ancient temples conducted extensive economic affairs in which land and donations could make the temple and its priests wealthy.
The teachings of the New Testament reflect a society familiar with the often intimate connection between wealth and religious elites, both Roman and Jewish. Christ’s followers were expressly forbidden from giving or receiving money for spiritual teachings or powers. Regarding their teachings and authority, the disciples were told “freely ye have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:18). Followers of Christ were to give away their wealth: “Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, … and come and follow me” (Matthew 19:21). Jesus’ apostles were to be the “servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
Unfortunately, these ideals were not universally practiced. The foundational story of the problem of mixing money and religion is the tale of Simon, a Samaritan “Magus” (magician) (Acts 8:9-24). After seeing Christians who had received the Holy Ghost perform miracles, Simon attempted to purchase its power from Peter, who replied: “Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money” (Acts 8:20).
The earliest Christians were often poor and powerless, but, with the coming of the imperial church in the age of Constantine, bishops and other church leaders became civil servants, paid and chosen by the state.
Being a bishop now gave access to the highest corridors of power rather than a path to potential martyrdom. Bishops became honored members of society, often residing in state-purchased palaces. Men seeking power and wealth thus found a new avenue of potential fulfillment. Of course, many bishops and other church leaders in medieval Christianity were sincere and devout, and did their best to perform their spiritual and ecclesiastical duties.
Many medieval Catholics recognized the problem of simony, which was illegal according to Catholic church law. Reforming Catholics saw the elimination of simony as a fundamental step to erasing corruption from the church. Dante, for example, placed 13th-century Nicholas III in his “Inferno” due to that pope’s notorious simony (Dante, “Inferno” 19.52-57). One of the greatest spiritual leaders of medieval Christianity was Saint Francis of Assisi — whose hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King” remains a favorite from the LDS hymnal. Francis believed that the wealth of the medieval church was undermining its spiritual authority and power, and insisted that all his followers live lives of poverty and service.
By the time of the Reformation, simony had become an insidiously widespread and widely recognized problem in Catholicism. Simoniac clerics held top positions throughout the church, and bribery even determined papal elections — most notoriously with Rodrigo Borgia’s election as Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503).
Many church leaders held multiple bishoprics (pluralism), and sold church offices to their relatives (nepotism). Their vested personal interests in this system of buying and selling church offices and spiritual indulgences meant that reform from the inside proved difficult.
Opposition to entrenched simony and other financial corruption was among the major issues raised by the Protestant Reformers. And the most spiritually minded Catholics agreed. During the Council of Trent (convened intermittently from 1545-1563) the problems of simony and financial corruption were finally seriously addressed. But by then it was too late, as the Reformers had used the financial corruption of the medieval Catholic Church as one of the major reasons for creating new Protestant denominations.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.