St. Francis, the preacher

Mark Galli sets the record straight on the saying famously attributed to St. Francis, “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.”  Galli doesn’t believe that St. Francis said it and reminds us that he was known for his preaching as well as his voluntary poverty.  In fact, preaching is what the friars of the Middle Ages were supposed to do.

Here is Galli’s description of Francis’ preaching:

He began preaching early in his ministry, first in the Assisi church of Saint George, in which he had gone to school as a child, and later in the cathedral of Saint Rufinus. He usually preached on Sundays, spending Saturday evenings devoted to prayer and meditation reflecting on what he would say to the people the next day.

He soon took up itinerant ministry, sometimes preaching in up to five villages a day, often outdoors. In the country, Francis often spoke from a bale of straw or a granary doorway. In town, he would climb on a box or up steps in a public building. He preached to serfs and their families as well as to the landholders, to merchants, women, clerks, and priests—any who gathered to hear the strange but fiery little preacher from Assisi.

He apparently was a bit of a showman. He imitated the troubadours, employing poetry and word pictures to drive the message home. When he described the Nativity, listeners felt as if Mary was giving birth before their eyes; in rehearsing the crucifixion, the crowd (as did Francis) would shed tears.

Contrary to his current meek and mild image, Francis’s preaching was known for both his kindness and severity. One moment, he was friendly and cheerful—prancing about as if he were playing a fiddle on a stick, or breaking out in song in praise to God and his creation. Another moment, he would turn fierce: “He denounced evil whenever he found it,” wrote one early biographer, “and made no effort to palliate it; from him a life of sin met with outspoken rebuke, not support. He spoke with equal candor to great and small.”

Another early biography talked about how his preaching was received: “His words were neither hollow nor ridiculous, but filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, penetrating the marrow of the heart, so that listeners were turned to great amazement.”As a result, he quickly gained followers, and it wasn’t long before he told his most devoted adherents to preach as well. In the fall of 1208, he sent the brothers out two by two to distant reaches. What did he tell them to say? In an early guide written during this period, Francis instructed his brothers to tell their listeners to “do penance, performing worthy fruits of penance, because we shall soon die … . Blessed are those who die in penance for they shall be in the kingdom of heaven. Woe to those who do not die in penance, for they shall be children of the devil whose works they do and they shall go into everlasting fire.”

This last quote raises questions about the content of Francis’ preaching. He was clearly a product of his age and his church. It’s hard to tell sometimes if “penance” for Francis meant something more akin to biblical repentance, or to the medieval version of “works righteousness” that the Reformers eventually and rightly condemned.

The point is this: Francis was a preacher. And the type of preacher who would alarm us today. “Hell, fire, brimstone” would not be an inaccurate description of his style.

I just used this famous (mis)quotation a couple weeks ago.  Guess I won’t be doing that anymore.

Hat tip: Justin Taylor

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4 comments

  1. Inclusion or Exclusion

    Some people have an Idea that God is inclusive for mans eternal destiny, that all religions and all people will be saved. That God will allow all of mankind to enter into heaven because everybody is good so God must be fair and include everyone! It is true God does love the whole world but God is exclusive about mans eternal destiny without the Savior. To keep this simple man has a problem called sin in which man refuses to believe that there are eternal consequences for having sin, which is a one way ticket to hell. God is holy and he will not allow anyone with sin to enter into heaven. God is hurt and angry about our sin, we have broken his laws. But God is just and good and he knows our need so he provided a solution to our problem. His solution to our problem is to have our sins removed by having our sins placed on someone else, a sacrifice for us; paying for the penalty of the sin we have in our lives. So that someone else would get the penalty of Gods wrath and separation on him that was meant for us. So God sent his son Jesus on a mission from heaven to earth as our sacrifice to die on the cross on our behalf after this happened three days later Jesus came back from the dead, alive. But that’s not all remember I wrote that God is exclusive about mans eternal destiny without the Savior? The only way that Gods promise can be applied to your life is for you to turn from your way of thinking and know that your sin offends and hurts God and call on the Lord Jesus who’s alive to save you. Your sins are then transferred to Jesus for what he did at the cross, dying and being abandon by God because of your sins, for you and because Jesus arose from the dead he is alive you can now enter into a relationship with God. Will you call out to Jesus to save you? It’s your choice to enter in exclusively with God’s grace for you. Where will you want to spend eternity after hearing Gods promise for you?
    If the answer was yes that you do want Jesus as your sin bearer, Savior, and you do believe God raised Jesus from the dead you can pray with your voice.

    “Dear Lord Jesus save me.”

    Acts 20:21 Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance towards God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.

  2. I still like the quote since I interpret it as meaning that preaching the gospel subsumes words, not that words are unnecessary or meaningless. It advocates practicing what you preach and does so in a surprising way since preaching is expected to be verbal by definition.

    Moreover, I suspect that whenever you’ve used that quote it has been in the above sense rather than in Galli’s less common (I’d guess) interpretation where the quote advocates that words of the gospel are relatively unimportant or obviated by action.

  3. Kevin,

    I still like the spirit of the quote too, although I thought it was good to get the truth out there that Francis probably didn’t say it and that he was a great preacher.

    Like you, I hadn’t thought about the more negative interpretation of the quote that Galli argues for, although it can fit in with my natural unwillingness to speak about the gospel. I think that there can be a temptation to hide behind the “actions first” attitude and neglect the necessity of words to point specifically man’s sin and Christ’s death and resurrection. Actions can make people willing to hear, I think, but they eventually have to be explained with words.

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