In Darkness, Light: Francis of Assisi, Proto-Reformer

It is an unfortunate fact that Protestants usually have a low view of the medieval Church. Of course, this is understandable to a degree: during the Middle Ages, the Church became increasingly corrupt, and there were plenty of theological developments which Protestants later deemed unbiblical. This negative view of the medieval Church has been so pronounced in certain Protestant circles that the phrase post tenebras lux (“After darkness, light”), etched on the Reformation Wall in Geneva, has become something of an outline for church history: the Middle Ages were dark, but the Reformation pierced them with light.

Of course, this overlooks the fact that there was a fair amount of lux not only post tenebras, but also in tenebras.[1] Immense light was cast by the Church upon the doctrine of God, Trinitarian theology, ethics, and science. Even as the Church lapsed into significant errors, there was a steady stream of leaders advocating for reform and orthodoxy, often seen as proto-Protestants, such as Peter Waldo, John Wycliffe, and John Huss.We may consider another who perhaps outshone the rest, a man that Dante described as “seraphical in ardour”: Francis of Assisi.[2]

Francis (c.1181-1226) was a reformer. He shared many of the same concerns of the later Protestant Reformers, although his efforts and approach differed, as we shall see. By comparing Francis with the Protestant Reformers, we can begin to gain a deeper respect for the medieval Church. Such a study can also hopefully demonstrate that, as much as the Reformation did bring light after darkness, it was not the first light to shine. And indeed, without the likes of Francis, the light of the Reformers may never have come.

Francis on Translation and Preaching

Before we begin, it is important to note that Francis was a devout churchman of his time; he took vows not only of poverty and celibacy, but also of obedience to the Church. However, he did unashamedly take issue with certain questionable practices in the Church, and his complaints would come to be shared by Reformers such as John Huss and Martin Luther.

Francis lived during a time when many clergy were corrupt. Priests would often neglect the poor and sick in order to minister to the rich and powerful, seeking comfort and security in a world which lacked them. Francis’ entire life and ministry was a rebuke to such a mentality. Famously, not long after Francis’ conversion, his father demanded that he choose between serving his family or serving the Church. Francis responded by publicly disowning his father, renouncing his sizable inheritance, social status, and any sort of familial care or protection.[3] Turning his back on the world, he busied himself with the work of the Lord.

Eventually, Francis and his initial twelve followers felt compelled to start a new Order within the Roman Catholic Church. Together, they traveled to Rome and eventually won the approval of Pope Innocent III.[4] The Franciscan Order began to send its friars out as itinerant preachers.[5] Having taken vows of poverty, they escaped the temptation towards material possessions to which many clergy had fallen prey, and they began ministering to poor communities that had typically been neglected by the church.

Francis’ Rule outlines the standards to which he and his friars were held when they preached. Their sermons were to be short, simple, and focused on four topics: “vices and virtues, punishment and glory” (Chapter IX).[6] Early biographies of Francis (most notably The Little Flowers) emphasized that Francis always preached his sermons in the common vernacular, being careful to translate the Scriptural text from Latin to the language of the common people as he taught.[7] Such preaching was not unheard of, but its prevalence increased significantly with the rise of the Franciscans and Dominicans.[8]

Francis further pushed for the Rule of his Order to be written entirely in Italian–including any Scriptural quotations in it–so that the common people could benefit from its instruction. The Church vetoed his request.[9] Francis was apparently ready to fight back on this point, before one of his friends humbly reminded him that the Waldensians, a group originating in France, had recently translated the Scriptures. Rome viewed the Waldensians as schismatics, so, if the Franciscans had begun to involve themselves in Scriptural translation, it might have damaged their reputation among faithful Roman Catholics throughout Europe.[10] Reluctantly, for the good of his Order, Francis relented.

“Francis always preached his sermons in the common vernacular, being careful to translate the Scriptural text from Latin to the language of the common people as he taught.”

From this, we can discern some obvious initial similarities between Francis and the likes of Huss and Luther. The Reformers emphasized the importance of vernacular Scripture and worship. Huss’ persecution and martyrdom largely centered around the fact that he had translated the Vulgate into the Czech language, and Luther–after working through the writings of Huss–turned to translating the Bible into German. Yet almost two hundred years before Huss’ Czech Bible became available, Francis saw the benefits of Bible translation.

Francis on Indulgences

Francis’ Rule strictly barred any of his friars from accepting money from anyone as they went about preaching the Gospel. Francis tried to make this command even stricter in his Rule, but a few of his guidelines were ultimately vetoed by Rome. Hugh of Digne, who lived in the generation after Francis, recorded a few of the statements that did not make it into the Rule, claiming that Francis taught them to his friars nonetheless. One is of particular note:

“Francis used to endure the fact that the friars would seek alms for the lepers in times of great necessity, yet in such manner that they would beware much of money. And although they loved the pious places, in which friars used to be guests and linger, he would not suffer them to seek money on behalf of any place or that they cause it to be sought, or that they go with those seeking it.”[11]

The friars would often travel from place to place, and as they traveled, they would be given shelter in monasteries or churches. These other holy men, having not taken vows of poverty, would often solicit offerings from the townspeople for the upkeep of the buildings. According to Hugh of Digne, Francis banned any of his friars from participating in such solicitations. Hugh does not explain why Francis had an aversion to this practice–he may have simply wished for his friars to avoid money unless it was absolutely necessary to handle it. However, his displeasure towards this practice could have run much deeper.

“Luther likewise saw indulgences as a threat to the poor.”

The practice of granting indulgences officially began in 1095, when Pope Urban I launched the first Crusade. By the time Francis lived (around a century later), the doctrine of Purgatory had developed and become ingrained in the medieval psyche. While the relationship between indulgences and Purgatory took time to mature, and was debated by theologians throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, there is evidence to suggest that indulgences were being abused by some clergymen to raise funds for the Church as early as the beginning of the thirteenth century (the time when Francis was alive). In fact, Pope Innocent III used indulgences to fund his crusading efforts and to encourage men to join his ranks.

While we cannot be certain that Francis kept his friars away from money because he feared them abusing indulgences to raise money for the holy places, it seems likely. If that is the case, we can see another clear connection between Francis and later Reformers. At his trial, Huss complained that indulgences hurt the poor:

“Is it right that the Princes of the Church order their subordinates to see that everybody, be it in days of health or such spent in sickness, but especially when on the deathbed, makes a last testament in favor of the church or of a monastery, disregarding even the poor orphans and then demand the teaching of this creed: ‘The larger the gift, the shorter the stay in the grave!’ and: ‘The more magnanimous the stipend, the better the position in heaven!’ ‘The richer the estate, the colder the fires of hell!'”[12]

Luther likewise saw indulgences as a threat to the poor. In Thesis 43 of his Ninety-Five Theses, he wrote, “Christians should be taught that one who gives to the poor, or lends to the needy, does a better action than if he purchases indulgences.” Perhaps Francis, a champion of the poor, was witnessing a similar practice. Knowing how the practice adversely affected the poor and robbed people of the opportunity to be charitable towards those in need, Francis taught his friars not to participate in collecting indulgences from the townspeople.

Francis on Ordinary Christians

We will note one final similarity between Francis and the Reformers: a respect and admiration for ordinary Christians.

Francis lived in an ecclesiastical climate that drew a hard line between the clergy and the laity. He, to some degree, blurred that line when he created his Third Order. The Third Order followed the Order of Friars Minor and the Poor Clares (an all-female Order). Typically, religious orders involved substantial removal from society into monastic life. Francis’ Third Order was entirely different. It was made for ordinary laypeople who could not responsibly lay aside their families or businesses, being created especially for Christians who were already married and could not join celibate monastic communities. Members of the Third Order met regularly and followed a rule of life similar to that of the Friars Minor. In creating this Order, Francis endowed ordinary Christians with a sense of dignity and worth. He validated their normal, “secular,” endeavors as work that glorified and pleased the Lord.[13]

G. K. Chesterton summarized the Third Order’s goal: “It was designed to assist ordinary men to be ordinary with an extraordinary exultation.”[14] At its heart, the Order was meant to encourage the laity that they too could live their lives in dedication and service to the Lord, even if they could not responsibly forsake all that they possessed like Francis and his friars had done. Chesterton noted that even though Francis had sacrificed so much for the sake of Christ’s kingdom, he never seemed to give in to the prideful urge to feel superior to ordinary laypeople. Chesterton described Francis as “the world’s one quite sincere democrat.”[15] Francis was deeply egalitarian, understanding that in the sight of God the greatest clergymen and the humblest layperson were equals.

“Francis endowed ordinary Christians with a sense of dignity and worth. He validated their normal, ‘secular,’ endeavors as work that glorified and pleased the Lord.”

This can be seen to anticipate the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Protestantism upholds a great egalitarianism between the clergy and laity. The clergy have a special vocation in leading and teaching God’s people, but this does not elevate them over the normal person in the pew.[16] Luther commented,

“There is no true difference between laymen and priests…between religious and secular, except for the sake of office and work, but not for the sake of status. They are all of the spiritual estate, all are truly priests, bishops, and popes. But they do not all have the same work to do.”[17]

Every Christian works on God’s “spiritual estate” and, therefore, has important work to do in the service of the Lord. All can interpret Scripture; all have direct access to the Lord. The Third Order and the doctrine of the priesthood of believers extraordinarily celebrate ordinary Christians.

A Tale of Two Reforms

For all their similarities, Francis and the Reformers approached the task of reform very differently. It is worth noting that neither Huss nor Luther wanted to leave the Roman Catholic Church: they sought reform, not revolt. However, when push came to shove, they were willing to stand their ground and say, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Francis took a very different route. In his Admonitions, he writes to his friars,

“The Lord says in the Gospel: ‘He who will not renounce all that he possesses cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14:33); and: ‘He who will have wanted to save his soul shall lose it’ (Luke 9:24). That man abandons all that he possesses, and loses his own body, who offers himself whole to obedience in the hands of his prelate. And whatever he does and says… which is not contrary to [the prelate’s] will, as long as what he does is good, is true obedience. And if at any time the subject sees better and more useful things for his own soul than those which the prelate precepts him, let him sacrifice these (good things) willingly to God; but those which are the prelate’s, let him strive to fulfill.”[18]

In other words, if the friar sees a way to serve the Lord, but his superior tells him not to do it, the friar should recognize that God put that authority figure in his life. He should obey God by obeying men, doing the good work of submitting to authority rather than whatever good work he had hoped to do.

Such considerations probably tempered Francis’ reform-minded temperament, restraining a more Hussite or Lutheran polemic (though I would recommend reading Francis’ short Letter to Clerics if you want to see him be a bit more fiery).[19] The Reformers–whilst broadly upholding the priorities of submission to authorities and maintenance of good order and stressing their continuity with the historic church over-and-against the papacy’s novel inventions in the Middle Ages–ultimately stressed the importance of directly obeying God rather than men. If one saw something good (e.g. translating Scripture), and Rome forbade it, then one should disobey the Church in order to obey God. Francis, however, stressed obedience to God via obedience to the Church authorities: if one saw something good (e.g. translating Scripture), but one’s superiors said not to do it, then one should obey God by submitting to his divinely instituted authorities.

A Protestant Assessment of Francis’ Approach to Reform

Francis and the Reformers both had biblical grounds for their approaches to reform. Both wanted to honor the Lord by obeying his word. For Francis, this meant: obey the Church, submit to authority, and pipe down when told. Honoring God meant honoring authority, even when the authority was dangerously wrong. Huss and Luther felt they could not stay silent in the face of clerical abuse and error. Is it possible to see both responses as admirable in their own ways?

Francis’ willingness to submit to the Church drew harsh criticism from some early Protestants. For example, the Italian Reformer Pier Paolo Vergerio (1498-1565) called for the destruction of Francis’ works and biographies, claiming that they were filled with “blasphemous and ridiculous fables,” complaining that they were instruments of popery.[20] Other early Protestants were more mild, however: the Lutheran Book of Concord listed Francis among the “holy men,” though they critiqued a number of Franciscan practices.[21]

This latter response to Francis seems far more appropriate. Looking back on the centuries of Christians who have gone before us, we will find plenty of people like Francis–godly men, earnestly desiring to serve the Lord, but with whom we might disagree on significant matters. It is quite possible to critique and appreciate such people simultaneously. Indeed, the study of church history pushes us towards such appreciative critique. And, as we come to appreciate such figures, we will find that the Lord cultivates within us grace and thankfulness towards modern-day Christians who belong to different traditions. Particularly in this study, comparing Francis with Huss and Luther gives Protestants and Catholics alike an insight into each other’s desire to obey Scripture. It highlights how the Bible informs both groups’ convictions and ethics, even when we find ourselves at odds with each other. This consideration, ideally, leads us to show grace and patience towards believers with whom we differ significantly.

Even as a Protestant, I can appreciate Francis’ aims and motivations. I do not fully agree with his approach, but I find myself encouraged by his humility. How much did Francis have to trust the Lord to hold his tongue, and quietly work and pray for change? How much did he have to trust that God would use his quiet, lowly obedience to bring about his desired reforms? Francis trusted in God’s sovereignty and lived a life of incredible faith. And, as we will see in our final section, history evidences that God used Francis to bring about remarkable, though short-lived reform among the clergy.

The Impact of the Franciscan Reformation

Francis’ efforts to reform the Church were successful in the short term. To explain how, it is helpful to consider how the clergy in Francis’ days approached the poor, sick, and dying. Two years before Francis was born, the Third Lateran Council (1179) was held. The Council dealt with a plethora of topics, and its 23rd Canon is of special importance. It addressed how priests should go about ministering to lepers. Although affirming the personhood and potential piety of lepers, the Canon also stated, “We do not wish that what is granted them on the score of piety should result in harm to others.” The Canon dictated that lepers “cannot dwell with the healthy or come to church with others.” It also suggested that lepers should “have their own churches and cemeteries” and, most noteworthy of all, “their own priests.” Leprosy was thought to be a highly contagious disease, and, at this point in history, it was incurable. The Third Lateran Council exempted priests from ministering to lepers, protecting them from contracting leprosy themselves.

Francis went against this decision. More than merely serving the poor and sick, he made one of his main ministries the care of lepers. And, according to the Rule of his Order, if one of the friars returned from the leper colony and fell ill, the other friars were bound to serve him, no matter the danger of contracting the disease themselves (Chapter VI).[22]

Francis died in 1226 after a lifetime of ministry. Through his travels and the spread of his Orders, he had become well known throughout Europe by the time of his death.[23] He knew three Popes personally: Innocent III, Honorius III, and Gregory IX. The coming generations of Christians would write a combined two biographies on these three men–one for Innocent, none for Honorius, and one for Gregory. Francis, on the other hand, was honored with at least eight biographies within two hundred years of his death. His missionary journeys into at least seven different countries made him a household name throughout Europe.[24] His Third Order soon dwarfed any other Order in the Roman Catholic Church. Other Orders began to utilize friars, following the example of the Franciscans. And, within two years of his death, Francis was canonized. His friend Dominic, founder of the Dominicans, was canonized six times slower.

“Francis’s life and ministry put into motion a whole host of events that shaped European identity and prepared the way for the work of men like Luther.”

All this highlights that Francis quickly became a central figure in the thought lives of European Catholics in the 13th and 14th centuries. And it seems that the radical, selfless lives of Francis and his friars made quite the impact on the clergy that Francis had so desperately wanted to reform. In the mid-1300s, the Black Death ravaged Europe, eventually killing around 30% of the population. Pope Clement VI declared that the dying could make their confession to anyone who was with them, and that this uncommon type of confession would still lead to salvation. The priests were essentially free from going to the sick and dying in hopes of preserving their own lives.

However, a vast majority of the clergymen laid aside this privilege, electing to go boldly to the dying. Compassionately, they laid down their own lives to minister to plague victims, even though it likely meant they would contract the disease as well. Scholars estimate that 42-45% of the clergy in Europe died in the plague, seemingly influenced by the sacrificial ministry of Francis and his friars.[25] Within a century-and-a-half, the clergy went from avoiding sick people to risking their lives to pray with people on their deathbeds.

What stands between these two poles? The life and ministry of Francis of Assisi. In many ways, the Black Death was the end of the Franciscan Reformation, but other “Franciscan” movements were just around the corner.

After the plague ended, Europe budded back to life with the Renaissance.[26] The Black Death had left the same amount of resources in Europe, but now shared among fewer people. This meant that the wealth of the average person in Europe (and especially Italy) was much higher after the plague than before. More of the common people thus had access to education, which spelled trouble for the Roman Catholic Church. Nearly half of the clergy had died in the plague, causing the church to quickly ordain individuals unfit for the job. Soon, the Church began to look like it had prior to Francis’ reform efforts, with clergy sliding back into corruption as well as being poorly educated (many could not even read Latin). The European populace was now more confident, more individualized, better educated, and more demanding. Before long, they began to feel that the clergy were not their intellectual superiors. If the clergy could read and interpret Scripture, why not them?

In many ways, the Renaissance made the Reformation inevitable. It is worth quoting from Alistair McGrath’s In The Beginning:

Christians became dissatisfied with approaches to their faith that stressed its external aspects – such as just attending church. They demanded a form of Christianity that was relevant to their personal experience and private worlds. They didn’t want just to be told what the Bible said – they wanted to own and read it for themselves. Religion was about personally appropriating the Christian faith, and making it a living reality in the experience of the individual lay person. A new confidence surged within the ranks of the laity. Why should the clergy have such power and influence, when the laity were now just as well educated as the former?”[27]

Soon, the Reformers, armed with the printing press, would arrive on the scene, and the rest would be history.

We see from this survey of history that not only did Francis share many of the same concerns as the Protestant Reformers, but his work of ministering to ordinary people, preaching in the common language, and reforming the clergy (even for a single generation) helped set the stage for their movement. His life and ministry put into motion a whole host of events that shaped European identity and prepared the way for the work of men like Luther. Of course, Francis would probably have never joined the Reformation himself –he valued obedience to the Church too much–but we can see thoroughly Franciscan themes within the movement. Without him, it is hard to imagine the Reformation would have ever occurred–certainly not in the way it did.

Protestants owe a great debt to Francis of Assisi, yet Francis was not the only medieval Christian who shone as a great light during the Middle Ages. God has always caused his light to shine into dark places. The history of the church catholic is our family history. Moreover, it is the history of how God has spoken, acted, and providentially cared for the world since the coming of Christ. And so we should all go to the sources, study these lights, and thank God for men like Francis of Assisi.

Jackson Gravitt (BA Christian Studies, Bryan College) is currently a MATS student at Erskine Theological Seminary. He teaches Bible, theology, and church history at Rhea County Academy in Dayton, TN.

  1. Indeed, the motto on the coat of arms of the Waldensians, a proto-Protestant group who originated in the late 1100s, was “Lux Lucet In Tenebris”.
  2. Dante, Paradiso, Canto XI.37. Interestingly, Dante chose to have Thomas Aquinas sing Francis’ eulogy. Dante’s Divine Comedy was greatly influenced by Thomas’ Summa Theologica (even being nicknamed “the Summa in verse”). By having his favorite theologian sing Francis’ praises, Dante showed what a high opinion he had of Francis.
  3. Paul Sabatier, Life of St. Francis of Assisi (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1902), 58-62.
  4. Sabatier, Life of St. Francis of Assissi, 88-102.
  5. Though far from being the first Monastic Order, the Franciscans were the first Order to use friars. Unlike monks, friars did not remove themselves from the world by cloistering themselves in monasteries. Though they lived together, friars would stay near the cities where ordinary people lived in order to minister and preach to the masses more readily.
  6. Francis of Assisi, “Regula Bullata,” in The Writings of St. Francis of Assisi, edited by Kajetan Esser (Franciscan Archive, 1999), 80.

  7. The Little Flowers of St. Francis, edited by Raphael Brown (New York, NY: DoubleDay, 1958).

  8. Pope Innocent III endorsed preaching in the common vernacular. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) emphasized the importance of giving the word of God to congregants in a way that they could understand (see Canon 10). Undoubtedly, though, this work was greatly furthered by Francis and his friars.

  9. Adrian House, St. Francis of Assisi: A Revolutionary Life (Mahwah, NJ: HiddenSpring, 2001), 87.

  10. Shortly after Francis’ death in 1226, the local Council of Toulouse (1229) expressly forbade the possession of vernacular Scripture in the region (except the Psalms and snippets in breviaries). Though this ruling was not made during Francis’ lifetime, the Church was already leaning towards this type of ban while the Franciscans were trying to get their Rule ratified.
  11. Francis of Assisi, “Fragments of Other Rules” in The Writings of St. Francis of Assisi, recorded by Hugh of Digne, edited by Kajetan Esser (Franciscan Archives, 1999), 116.

  12. Poggius the Papist, Hus the Heretic (Albany, OR: Ages, 1997), 35.

  13. “Secular” originally referred not to that which had nothing to with religion, but to non-monastic and non-beneficed clergy. It was specifically life outside the monastery which was “secular”, not life outside the Church.

  14. G. K. Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1923), 74.

  15. Chesterton, St. Francis of Assissi, 5.

  16. Mark Noll helpfully provides some balance on this point: “Luther, Calvin, and the other early Protestants wanted laymen and laywomen to read the Bible themselves, but they still expected biblical interpretations from learned, pious clergy (like themselves) to be accepted by the faithful” (Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 229).

  17. Martin Luther, “To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation,” in Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann (St. Louis, MO: Fortress Press, 1955-86), 44:129.

  18. Francis of Assisi, “The Admonitions” in The Writings of St. Francis of Assisi, edited by Kajetan Esser (Franciscan Archives, 1999), 21.

  19. Francis of Assisi, “Letter to Clerics,” in The Writings of St. Francis of Assisi, edited by Kajetan Esser (Franciscan Archives, 1999), 33-35.

  20. See Raphael Brown’s “Introduction” to The Little Flowers of St. Francis, 32.

  21. “Apology of the Augsburg Confession,” Book of Concord, III.90.

  22. Francis of Assisi, “Regula Bullata,” in The Writings of St. Francis of Assisi, edited by Kajetan Esser (Franciscan Archives, 1999), 78.

  23. House, St. Francis of Assisi, 243.

  24. House, St. Francis of Assisi, 3. See also the Little Flowers of St. Francis, 100.

  25. John Kelly, The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2006), 224.

  26. It should come as no surprise that the Renaissance began in Italy, not far from Francis’ hometown, the area in which he most frequently preached and ministered. While irreligious in some senses, it was throughout “Franciscan” in others, celebrating the inherent dignity and beauty of ordinary people. One way historians have connected Francis to the Renaissance is to explore his influence on the poet Dante. Dante was rumored to be a member of the Third Order, and he was buried in Franciscan garb. Equally interesting, Dante decided to write the Divine Comedy in Italian rather than Latin. This work of theological poetry was one of the first major works written in the Italian language. Dante followed in Francis’ footsteps in making this decision. Francis’ “Canticle of Brother Sun” was the first poem ever written in Italian (see Esser’s editorial notes on page 29 of The Writings of St. Francis of Assisi). Dante followed in Francis’ footsteps by writing his poetry in the Italian language.

  27. Alistair McGrath, In The Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture (New York, NY: DoubleDay, 2001), 39.


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