The end of the fifteenth century had left Christendom with a Church in great need of reform. The Church had been greatly weakened by the events of the past few centuries. The fourteenth century’s Great Famine and Black Death had battered the public’s trust in the Church, as had the Papal Schism spanning from 1378-1417. When the ideas of Martin Luther began to spread in the early 1500s, the Church became afraid for its power, its reputation, and its finances. Luther was promising people that they would be saved through their faith alone—what place did that leave for the Church and its teachings? In any other time in human history, Luther’s ideas likely would have been quietly beaten down and buried, but a very unique set of circumstances allowed the ideas of a small-town monk and professor to take on the immense power of the Catholic Church. While others’ ideas could be ignored, the Church was intensely threatened by Luther because his ideas questioned the role and necessity of their already-weakened institution, called for an end to indulgences, endangered social stability, and exposed the failings of the Church by returning to the Bible as the only source of God’s truth.
Two hundred years before Luther came onto the Church’s radar, the Catholic Church was enjoying great power and success. The Church leaders wielded considerable influence on all matters in Christendom. Even those who felt discontent with the Church were too afraid to rebel against its order, fearing the loss of their salvation. The despair of the Great Famine and Black Death, however, greatly destabilized the Church’s position. The people of Europe had placed so much faith in the Church, yet what could they think when their priests and monks proved susceptible to the plague, dying in higher numbers than the common people? Should not the Pope, with his power bestowed by God, be able to stop this famine and disease from ravaging the continent? Should God not save His people? The doubts of the people caused the first real murmurings of religious upheaval, made even worse by the Papal Schism. The schism caused people to not only question the power of the Church, but to wonder who was really in charge and from what source his authority came.
The weakness of the Church in the wake of the famine and plague led to the prominence of potential reformers in the late 1300s and early 1400s. John Wycliffe and Jan Hus preached the desire for the Church to return to a humbler form, one bereft of extreme wealth and grandeur. Both men hailed the importance of putting the Vulgate into the vernacular so the common man could understand it. Though they both lived many years before Luther, their teachings caused great anxiety in the Church, and their actions helped to lay the groundwork for the Protestant Reformation.
One of the greatest reasons the Church was already feeling so threatened and vulnerable when Luther started preaching was because of the discoveries of Lorenzo Valla. Valla, a student of Petrarch’s humanist schools, had spent time studying the Donation of Constantine, the document from the Emperor Constantine giving the Catholic Church authority over the entire Roman Empire. After examining the document, Valla came to the conclusion that it was a forgery and, thus, completely voided. His essay revealing the forgery was circulated for many years and finally officially published in 1517. The Church, having using the Donation of Constantine for centuries to validate its power over Christendom, flatly rejected Valla’s logic. After the blows of the last century, the delicate Church could not afford for people to start questioning its authority.
The combination of the effects of the Great Famine, the Black Death, the teachings of Wycliffe and Hus, and the discovery of Valla left the Church in a very vulnerable position. When Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses up on the door of a Wittenberg Church, the Church...