For his commitment to Scripture and his proclamation of righteousness, Girolamo Savonarola is viewed as a heretic by Catholics or a hero by Protestants,
He was born in Ferrara, Italy, in 1452 into a noble family. In his youth he became an earnest student of both philosophy and medicine. After listening to a sermon from an Augustinian friar, at the age of twenty-three, Savonarola decided to adopt the monastic life.
It was 1475 when Girolamo joined a Dominican monastery as a servant, but his superior devotion to God eventually earned him a promotion as a lecturer. In 1478 his studies were interrupted when he was sent to the Dominican priory of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Ferrara as assistant master of novices. In 1482, instead of returning to Bologna to resume his studies, Savonarola was assigned as lector, or teacher, in the Convent of San Marco in Florence.
The excesses within the Italian court and the corruption among the clergy in the Church had by this time become blatantly obvious to him. He began to view his country as one controlled by petty tyrants and wicked priests, where dukes and popes competed with each other in vulgarity and profanity. This brought great sorrow to this virtuous and truth-seeking soul. He fasted and prayed, seeking God for revelation to bring about reforms. This resulted in him receiving visions. “They came to me in earliest youth, but it was only at Brescia that I began to proclaim them. Thence was I sent by the Lord to Florence, heart of Italy, that the reform of Italy might begin.”
He became famous as a preacher in the Lent of 1489, and shortly afterwards he was elected Prior of St. Mark’s Convent, Florence.
In this, his first mission, he began efforts to reform the city. He was able to sway audiences with his humour, charm, and dramatic presentations – but he began to share more than pleasantries and entertainment! Like John the Baptist he spoke prophetic messages that were fire, light, and brought searing conviction; listeners paled, and trembled. He warned his hearers of soon coming judgment if they did not ament their ways. Their “eyes glazed with terror… tears gushed from their eyes; they beat their breasts and cried to God for mercy” (Harold A. Fischer, Reviving Revivals, pp. 85-86).
In his fiery sermons he called for repentance from the people and their leaders, and championed the cause of the poor and the oppressed. He warned of judgment to come on the church and on the city, claiming divine revelation as his source.
He accurately predicted the demise of Lorenzo the Magnificent. He warned of a great judgment to come on the city, after which a golden age would arrive for Florence. This prophecy was fulfilled when Charles VIII, king of France, invaded Italy and the Medici rulers of Florence fled.
One famous scholar, Pico della Mirandola, said “the mere sound of Savonarola’s voice was as a clap of doom; a cold shiver ran through the marrow of his bones; the hairs of his head stood on end as he listened.” Another tells how his sermons caused “such terror and alarm, such sobbing and tears that people passed through the streets without speaking, more dead than alive” as he prophesied coming judgment on the church and the country (Harold A. Fischer, Reviving Revivals, pp. 84-86).
Villari says, “Wonderful was the effect of Savonarola’s preaching on the corrupt and pagan society of Florence. His natural, spontaneous heart-stirring eloquence, with its exalted imagery and out-bursts of righteous indignation, was entirely unprecedented in that era of pedantry and the simulation of the classic oratory.
“The Prior’s preaching confounded his foes, for it completely changed the aspect of the city. The women cast off their jewels and dressed simply; young profligates were transformed into sober, religious men, the churches were filled with people at prayer, and the Bible was diligently read.”
“The fame of this marvellous preacher was now extending throughout the world by means of his printed sermons. Even the Sultan of Turkey commanded them to be translated into Turkish for his own study. Of course, the individual aim of Savonarola was simply to be the “regenerator of religion.”
“With his powerful preaching, his profound philosophy, and by the divine unction resting upon him, Savonarola convinced the masses that faith was not all sham and formalism, and a new day dawned for Christianity and for the world.
A. J. Gordon said of him: “When we read of his intense and enrapt communion with God, his unconquerable persistence in seeking the power of the Highest, till ‘his thoughts and affections were so absorbed in God by the presence of the Holy Spirit, that they who looked into his cell saw his upturned face as it had been the face of an angel’, we are not amazed at the character and effects of his preaching—so pathetic, so melting, so resistless that the reporter lays down his pen with this apology written under the last line—’Such sorrow and weeping came upon me that I could go no further.’”
In the revival of 1496, the Florentines made a great bonfire of cosmetics, false hair, pornographic books, and gambling equipment. Savonarola appears to have had prophetic gifts. He called for repentance on the part of the leaders of the city and pled the cause of the poor and oppressed. He accurately predicted the demise of Lorenzo the Magnificent. He warned of a great judgment to come on the city, after which a golden age would arrive for Florence. This prophecy was fulfilled when Charles VIII, king of France, invaded Italy and the Medici rulers of Florence fled. On two occasions Savonarola persuaded the king not to sack the city, and Charles VIII finally left without doing any deliberate damage.
The beginning of the end occurred when Savonarola criticized Pope Alexander VI’s immorality and denounced the Papal court. The pope ordered the friar to Rome to explain his special revelation. Savonarola refused, so he was ordered to stop preaching. When the friar continued to preach during Lent, he was excommunicated. Since personal threats did not stop Savonarola from preaching, the pope threatened the whole city of Florence with a ban on worship. This edict forced Savonarola to surrender to the civil authorities. First, he was tried by an ecclesiastical court. After they found him guilty, Savonarola was turned over to the civil authorities. They hanged him and burned his body on May 24, 1498.
Sources: Winkie Pratney, Revival; R.E Davies, I Will Pour out My Spirit; W. E. Allen, The History of Revivals of Religion; Arthur Wallis, In the Day of My Power: Revival Study Bible art. Savonarola and more.