It is quite true that Gutenberg printed papal indulgences before he
produced the famous "Gutenberg Bible." His motivations for developing
movable type and the printing press were not particularly noble:
Gutenberg was in it for the profit.
"The history of the Gutenberg Bible is the subject of considerable
scholarly debate. The earliest dated specimens of printing by
Gutenberg are papal indulgences (notes given to Christians by the
Pope, pardoning their sins) issued in Mainz in 1454."
Charles Sturt University: Art and Books / The Introduction of Printing
"Although Gutenberg did not invent the printing press, he made it more
practical. His main contribution to the printing press was movable
type. The movable type-face printing press was invented to make print
indulgences for the Catholic Church, which Gutenberg could produce at
one four hundredth of the cost of paying copyists."
Sir Wilfrid Laurier Secondary School: Johannes Gutenberg
"Johannes Gutenberg - inventor, goldsmith - and businessman. Like any
good businessman, Gutenberg was constantly on the lookout for market
opportunities. He diagnosed the market's need for mass produced
writing. Like any good businessman, Gutenberg borrowed money to
research a solution for this gap in the market. He produced the
printing press, with innovations in the use of movable metal type. And
like any good businessman, he was good at marketing. His first
publication was thus the bible, the world's first, and still greatest,
bestseller. But Gutenberg had an eye on where the real money was -
Indulgences. Indulgences were rich people's way of buying forgiveness
from God for their sins, and the Church's way of funding religious
wars. Gutenberg wanted to mass produce these indulgences for the
Church, in effect a license to print money."
Handhelds for Doctors: Future of Publishing
"When Gutenberg first began printing, the church considered his work
sacrilegious. (Some say this was because up until then the Church had
a monopoly on the written word.) In an effort to restore relations
with them, Gutenberg would leave the first letter or sometimes the
first few lines of each page blank to be filled in ('illuminated') by
monks and priests. This served him well and helped him gain the
contract for printing church 'indulgences.' An indulgence is a paper
given by the church that removes any threat of punishment for a sin,
which has been forgiven in return for service or payment to the
church. (Indulgences were one of the primary complaints of Martin
Luther that led to the Reformation.) Gutenberg became quite wealthy
from printing them, and the Roman Catholic Church was able to finance
the Crusades with the money gained from their sale."
The Gutenberg Press: Gutenberg and the Church
"Onto this scene came Johannes Gutenberg, a profit-minded goldsmith
from Southern Germany. Ben Franklin he was not. His inspiration for
the reinvention of movable type (this time cast in metal) was not the
betterment of his society, nor the advancement of human knowledge. His
motivation was personal profit. He hoped to get rich by printing the
Church's ever-popular indulgences. These handy slips of paper could be
bought by a sinner to gain dispensation from any discretion, past or
So popular were indulgences that soon Gutenberg was printing up to
200,000 of them in one run."
TechColor Graphics: A Brief History of Printing
"Johann Gutenberg (1397-1468) designed a printing press and movable
type, which made printing practical and efficient for the first time.
A German businessman with training in metallurgy, he developed these
revolutionary devices between 1430 and 1450, using them to print a
Latin text book called De octo partibus orationis in 1448 and papal
indulgences, single pages sold by the Church to raise money for
crusades and other projects, in 1454 and 1455. Between 1452 and 1455,
he secured his place as one of the most important and famous people in
history by printing about 200 copies of a two-volume Bible, now known
as the Gutenberg Bible."
Cached copy, University of South Carolina at Pembroke: Descriptive
First known dated printing from moveable type: papal
indulgences printed at Mainz.
1455 or 1456
Publication of the Mazarin Bible, the first book printed from
moveable type by Johann Gutenberg (c1400-1468)."
Terra Media: Chronomedia
"Johann Gutenberg began his career as an inventor and goldsmith. His
entrepreneurial drive led him into a state of debt that he to sought
to pay off by producing and selling religious trinkets, indulgences
(contractual papers purchased from the Church as credit against time
in Purgatory) and other Church-oriented products... He saw that by
mass-producing indulgences and other religious literature, he could
become completely debt-free and perhaps even profitable.
Gutenberg created metal molds for letters, which were then filled with
a molten lead alloy. Uniform in size, the cast letters would be
positioned on a frame which, in turn, would be pressed against
parchment. This process enabled Gutenberg to produce repeatable
pieces of writing, all of which reflected exactly what was on the
original frame. Utilizing this process, it is believed that Gutenberg
produced thousands of indulgences. It was the Bible project, however,
that was to make Gutenberg a legend."
Graphic Arts Information Network: Gutenberg's Printing of the Bible
"Gutenberg foresaw enormous profit-making potential for a printing
press that used movable metal type. Despite their rapid growth in
numbers, secular scribes simply could not keep up with the commercial
demand for books. Gutenberg also saw strong market potential in
selling indulgences, the slips of paper offering written dispensation
from sin that the Church sold to fund crusades, new buildings and
other projects devoted to expanding its dominance. In fact, press runs
of 200,000 indulgences at a time were common soon after the
handwritten versions became obsolete."
Lancefuhrer.com: Johann Gutenberg
"Gutenberg's major contribution to printing came while he was working
as a goldsmith, back in Mainz. He knew if he could produce indulgences
quickly and by the hundreds he could pay off some of his debts from
his trinket selling days. So he created metal molds for letters, which
were then filled with a molten lead alloy. The cast letters were
uniform in size so that they could be aligned easily on a frame, and
once assembled in proper order, the frame holding the letters was then
pressed against parchment or vellum. The result was an exactly
repeatable, error-free piece of "writing." Gutenberg may have printed
thousands of indulgences."
Media History: Johannes Gutenberg
Here's an interesting article which suggests that Gutenberg did not
invent movable type, in the sense of type that is created in metal
"Johann Gutenberg, the 15th-century German craftsman, has long been
believed to be the father of modern typography. But the secretive
inventor may have to share some of the paternity now. A physicist and
a scholar of rare books at Princeton University who jointly used new
technology to examine some of Gutenberg's texts say he may not have
created the seminal process after all, a finding could rewrite the
history of printing.
The two scholars contend that the metal mold method of printing
attributed to Gutenberg was probably invented by someone else about 20
years after Gutenberg printed his Bible."
Hymns and Carols of Christmas: Has History Been Too Generous to
Google Web Search: "gutenberg" + "indulgences"
I hope this information is useful. If anything is unclear, please
request clarification; I'll gladly offer further assistance before you
rate my answer.