The St. Francis Revival
By Glenn E. Myers, Ph.D.
-- While most people today are familiar with the name Francis of Assisi and can identify statues of him in a garden, few know why this small medieval man is so famous or how he spread revival across Europe.
Born in 1181/1182 to a wealthy cloth merchant, Pietro Bernardone, and his wife Pica in the town of Assisi, high in the Umbrian hills of central Italy, Francis grew up in privilege. A spoiled young man, he led an extravagant lifestyle, throwing expensive parties for his friends and dressing in the finest silk fashions brought back from France by his father.
Desiring to add knighthood to his station in the world, Francis pursued the glory of battle when he was around twenty. The military forces of Assisi, however, were captured, and the glamour of war quickly faded for Francis as he lay sick for a year in a Perugian jail. Although he began to consider spiritual things during his imprisonment, Francis returned to a life of partying upon his release.
In 1205 he set out again to gain fame by fighting against the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor. But God had different plans for the rich young man. Encamped at Spoleto the night before battle, Francis had a dream in which the Lord spoke to him. He turned back from combat, and soon began to follow Christ.
“By their fruit you will recognize them,” declared Jesus in Matthew 7:16. To answer the question whether Francis had genuine encounter with Christ, we need to observe how he produced “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt 3:8). Repentance is a radical change of mind. It implies turning around 180 degrees and moving in the opposite direction. That is precisely what Francis did.
Renouncing a life of wasteful living, Francis began to give away his clothes and possessions to the poor. Rather than donning the latest silk styles, he took the humble brown robe of the peasant for the remainder of his days. Perhaps most revealing is that instead of partying all night, Francis pulled apart to spend hours with the Lord in prayer.
In addition, Francis began to love the very people who most repulsed him before he met Christ. Lepers were the lowest people in society. Consigned to reside in leper camps in the marshy areas below Assisi, they were the walking dead as their bodies and faces slowly rotted away. Francis—the young man caught up with looks and fashion—had always been revolted by the very sight of them. One day after his encounter with the Lord, however, he was riding his horse in the fields and ran across a leper. Dismounting, Francis had compassion on the man and gave his money to him. More than that, Francis saw Christ in this broken man. As Jesus asserted, “to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine . . . you did it to Me” (Matt 25:40, NAS). Francis reached out to the leper and kissed him.
Call to Ministry
Savoring time with God, Francis often stole away to the small chapel of San Damiano, a crumbling structure about a kilometer below Assisi. Here the young believer dedicated days to solitude with the Lord. At one point Christ spoke to him, “Francis, go and repair my house, which, as you see, is falling into ruin.” Taking Jesus’ words literally, Francis began to restore the dilapidated building.
Needing construction materials, Francis did what he had always done—he dipped into his family’s money. His father had never objected to the expensive parties he threw, so Francis assumed that he would not mind this donation to the church. Taking an expensive bolt of cloth, the zealous young man rode to the nearby market at Foligno where he sold both the cloth and the horse. Returning with a sack of gold coins, Francis presented the funds to the priest at San Damiano to buy building materials. Sensing that something was wrong, however, the priest refused the gift.
When Pietro found out what had happened, he was so enraged that he literally imprisoned Francis in their home. During Pietro’s next business trip, though, Francis’ mother released her son who went right back to his building project. Going from house to house in Assisi, he raised the necessary supplies to repair San Damiano.
Upon returning home, Pietro was infuriated by Francis’ shameless begging. Pietro wanted to put his son on trial. Because Francis was serving the church, however, the hearing went before the bishop. Recognizing that he needed to make a complete break from his family’s money, Francis made a radical decision. In a powerful gesture, the young man dropped all of his clothes at this father’s feet and stepped away from the life of comfort he had always known. Throwing his robe around Francis, the bishop symbolically declared that he was officially under the auspices of the church.
Returning to the reconstruction of San Damiano, Francis pursued a life of prayer and hard work. Soon several men joined him. Many of the first followers, like Bernard of Quintavalle, came from wealthy patrician and noble families. Laying aside their fortunes, distributing the money to the poor, and taking up the simple life of following Christ, they called themselves the Friars Minor—Little Brothers. Others came from all strata of society to become part of this emergent Christian community.
After Francis and his fellow brothers completed the refurbishment of San Damiano, they discovered that the Lord had a much larger restoration project in mind—the reformation of the whole Church in Europe! In great need of spiritual renewal, medieval Christendom was filled with compromise. In many churches people heard Scripture read only in Latin, which they did not understand, and they seldom received a sermon. Clergy were known for immoral living, and the ecclesial hierarchy pursued wealth and power. In the midst of the Church’s great prosperity, the poor went hungry and the sick had no one to care for them.
Although Francis loved solitude with the Lord, he sensed a calling to something more. One day Francis and two of the brothers sought the Lord for direction regarding their growing community. The Lord answered them in a clear and dramatic way. Three times they opened the Gospels and read the passage that lay before them: “Jesus said, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me’” (Matt 19:21). “He told them, ‘Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra tunic’” (Luke 9:3). “Then he said to them all: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’” (Luke 9:23).
With that, Francis and his fellow disciples set off to the various towns across Italy. Traveling two-by-two they preached the Gospel to people in the common language, inviting them into a personal relationship with Christ. Seeking to follow Jesus’ instructions literally, they took no extra clothes or food with them on the way. They received what provisions people donated to them, often giving most of it to the poor and infirm. They slept in homes or barns that were offered for their accommodations—else they spent the night under the stars.
In 1209 Francis and his dozen coworkers went to Rome to receive approval for their ministry. After dismissing the ragged group of brown-robed preachers without even speaking to them, Pope Innocent III had a dream. That night he saw the cathedral of Rome beginning to crumble. Suddenly it was upheld by one of these peasant-looking men in brown robes. Calling Francis and his companions to himself the next day, Innocent gave approval to their ministry.
Revival fires spread rapidly across Italy as the Little Brothers declared the Gospel and invited people into a relationship with Jesus. Lepers were cared for and the poor were fed. Everywhere people began to see the love of Jesus lived out in the ministry of Francis and his colleagues.
Others enlisted, and soon hundreds of Franciscans traversed the countryside. In 1217—after just eight years—no less than 5000 men had joined their numbers as itinerant preachers! Assembling as a whole group that year, the Friars Minor encouraged each other in the Lord and laid plans for ministry across Europe. Over the following decades these traveling evangelists led untold numbers into vital faith in Christ.
In a day when many churches pursue power and wealth, we can learn from Francis’ model of simple obedience. We can follow his example of fervent prayer, humble service and compassionate care for those in need. To see revival anew, let us pray that God would raise up a fresh generation of young people like Francis and his co-laborers who passionately preach Christ.
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Glenn E. Myers is a professor of Church History at Crown College with a specialization in the history of Christian Spirituality. His passion is introducing contemporary Christians to the wisdom, depth and vitality of spiritual leaders from the past two thousand years of the church. Receiving an M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in church history from Boston University, Dr. Myers has served as a pastor, a missionary and a professor.
In 1995-1996, he and his wife Sharon ministered with CBN in Kiev. Currently Glenn serves on the board at Restoration Ministries, Inc., offers retreats and provides spiritual direction. He is a contributor to Zondervan Press’ forthcoming Dictionary of Christian Spirituality and is nearing completion of a book on the Beguines. Offering fresh spiritual water to thirsty saints today, he authors a blog: deepwellswithglennmyers.blogspot.com.
© Glenn E. Myers. Used with permission.
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