I’ve been doing some digging on historical Christians and wanted to post my findings. I grew up Baptist, which was in essence non-catholic. I’ve learned through my studies that God was very much in the life of the early church catholic or not. Of course there are issues that leave us wondering about that because of the inquisitions and crusades. It is hard to look at the church’s history and not question if that was a move of God or not. Needless, there is much to learn and I hope my findings are a blessing to you.
Rich Mullins is a Christian artist that I’ve always looked up to. While he was living he formed the Kid Brothers of St. Frank based off of the life of St. Francis of Assisi. He had a mobile monastery where he (Rich) challenged his co-riders to the rule of St. Francis, which was a commitment to chastity, poverty, and silence. I highly recommend watching the links above to discover more about the life and ministry of Rich Mullins. Below I’ve broken up my research into 4 categories including context, background information, ministry involvement, and present-day applications. Enjoy!
Up until the thirteenth century, a time of relative peace and order was experienced in Western Europe. Trade increased which brought greater wealth to cities, and new developments in architectural skills. There was a construction boom that left visible effects of the Church on culture and the arts between 1050-1350. These were seen in the outstanding works of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. “It produced was has been deemed the “cathedral crusade.” Eighty cathedrals, not to mention thousands of Parish and monastery churches, were built in France alone.”
This is a snapshot of the church in the West before it was eventually led into an era noted by the blood and blaze of the crusades. The cause was made slow in part by the Church’s drift away from a solid witness to Christ in their culture. Anti-Catholicism and treachery were high and violent as a result of the reigning prince, Raymond IV, in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries (c. 1194 – 1222). “Pope Innocent III relied on persuasion, preaching, missionaries, and resorted to auxiliary help in the Cistercians” for delivery from tyranny when previous efforts failed. His legates were murdered and the hostility had reached a point of inconceivable peace and the propagation of Christ’s rule. All other efforts were seemingly exhausted when the Pope decided to launch a crusade against the Province of France.
This crusade was for the reforming of heretical Catholics engaged in the lax practices of their contemporaries. It was common in those days for people to believe in two gods (a good god and a bad god) as opposed to one, sexual promiscuity was tolerated as “free love” between people who had rejected marriage, and starvation was seen as commonplace as well as suicide and abortion. Asceticism was widely practiced but had become a degenerate twin outside of orthodox Christianity. It would be the Monastics that would set the tone for private and corporate devotion through the “disciplines of reading (lectio), meditation (meditatio), and prayer (oratio).” They would engage the powers of the day by prayer and penance, which would prepare a way for the pious zeal behind the exponential growth of monastic life.
In 1182, Pietro Bernardone returned from a trip to France to find out his wife had given birth to a son. He was not in the least “excited or apologetic because he’d been gone. Pietro was furious because she’d had his new son baptized Giovanni after John the Baptist.” The last thing he wanted was a son who would become a minister. Pietro was a cloth merchant and wanted a son who would be a man of business, one who would especially reflect his infatuation with French culture. He would change his sons name from Giovanni to Francesco, which is the equivalent of calling him “Frenchman.” Francesco, or Francis, would become most of the sum of his father’s wishes in that he would display affection for French culture and also become a man of the cloth – not as a merchant, but a minister.
Lay movements to live a life of consecration and poverty, and to preach that life to others, were not uncommon in the thirteenth century. It was in 1208 when Francis of Assisi would come before Innocent III and seek a blessing on this new apostolic expression of monastic life. Francis had an average education but he had an advantage over his peers with access to other cultures through his father’s business travels. He personally displayed courtesy, generosity, quick wit, poetical and musical giftedness, and a spirit that made him a natural leader among his peers. He and a handful of friends lived in huts built with clay and twigs. He preached repentance of sin, and happiness gained by a literal following of the life and teachings of Jesus.
This movement, unlike other ascetics of that time, was completely orthodox. There was a remarkable commitment to the Church, it’s officers, and the sacraments. It was a pleasant and stimulating blend of the austere life of the Waldensians, the poetry of the troubadours, and the most conservative brand of Catholicism. When they received the Pope’s blessing they were sent to preach throughout the villages and towns of Central Italy. The newly formed ministry was focused mainly on “preaching and caring for the poor and sick… A society for women, the Poor Clares, or Order of St Clare, began in 1212 when Clare, an heiress of Assisi, was converted and commissioned.” Francis courageously tried to encourage missionaries in Syria, Morocco, and Egypt but was mostly unsuccessful due to misfortune.
His influence was deep and timely. “In this hour of her need Rome was saved not so much by the genius and energy of her popes, great as pontiffs of this evil time as they undoubtedly were, but by the labors of two of her sons. Dominic and his brethren preachers revived once more the forgotten duty of preaching, while Francis and his ‘Little Brothers’ showed an astonished Europe how to remove mountains by faith wedded to love.”
He did not have a strong foreshadowing as a young man to become the legacy that he had become. His conversion was not a ‘Damascus road’ experience but none the less radical. His eyes were opened at the age of 21 after a “divine restlessness in seeking to satisfy his hungering soul.” After spending days in a cave, he emerged and borrowed rags from a beggar and then spent time on the street begging. His heart was arrested for the poor based on that experience and his ministry would be most noted by his contagious concern for them. He was a living example by choosing to live as and among those in poverty.
One recounting by Francis himself mentions a journey with another Friar “according to the role, begging bread for the love of God; But because [I] was small of body, and esteemed a vile mendicant, [I] got only some mouthfuls of dry bread; whereas to Friar Masseo, because he was tall and beautiful of body, were given good pieces and large and in plenty and fresh cut from the loaf.” He and his compatriots lived on the outskirts of town and lived purposely off of the people’s goodwill. Francis most ubiquitous words were “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words when necessary.”
Present Day Applications
It seems as if the stunning beauty in the church leading up to the thirteenth century made a counterintuitive statement to the people of wealth and self-reliance. This was, in the words of the crusader in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade movie, “not the cup of a carpenter.” The Brethren Church has historically been committed to plain simplicity and I do believe that Francis has had more of an impact than we consciously give him credit for. The church also drifted morally because of being divided by loyalty to the powers of the land and Christ. You cannot serve two masters.
Innocent III had incredible influence but without Francis it would have been severely limited. I believe this represents a need for some form of functional, but flexible, oversight in our churches from an aspect of national accountability. Francis didn’t necessarily need Innocent’s blessing but came in handy in terms of top-down influence. Churches don’t necessarily need a denomination’s approval for missions, but God still uses proper channels of authority to help the church in its missional efforts.
Francis was in a class of his own in terms of influence, but he was also the result of a blend of cultures, timing, and divine appointment. He exemplifies John Wesley’s famous quote “Give me one hundred men who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not whether they be clergyman or laymen, they alone will shake the gates of Hell and set up the kingdom of Heaven upon the earth.” It only takes a few committed zealots to shape generations for the Kingdom.
This last one may be pure conjecture but there is no doubt that Francis grew wings instead of roots. This was in part because of the ability to travel with his father on business. Seeing other cultures can open our minds and hearts to movements of God outside our general locale.
Dowley, Tim. Introduction to the History of Christianity Second Edition. Lanham: Fortress Press, 2013.
Estep, William Roscoe. Renaissance and Reformation. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1986.
Ferguson, Everett, John D. Woodbridge, and Frank A. James. Church History: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context.
Heywood, William, Filippo Graziani, and Leone P. Bracaloni. The Little Flowers of the Glorious Messer St. Francis and of His Friars. Place of Publication Not Identified: Casa Editrice Francescana, 1982.
Hughes, Philip. A Popular History of the Catholic Church. New York: Macmillan, 1947.
“St. Francis of Assisi – Saints & Angels – Catholic Online.” St. Francis of Assisi – Saints & Angels – Catholic Online. Accessed February 10, 2015. http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=50.
Workman, Herbert B. The Church of the West in the Middle Ages. London: Charles H. Kelly, 1912.