Girolamo Savonarola, the Almost Reformer

Girolamo Savonarola, the Almost Reformer

Brian Borgman


Girolamo (Jerome) Savonarola was born in 1452 in Italy.   As he grew to adulthood, he was deeply concerned about the health of the church.  However, the doctrinal issues that were raised by Wycliffe, Huss and others, were not his concern.  His concern was the moral apostasy he saw in the Church.  He spent some time in a Dominican monastery and then went to Florence where he began to preach powerfully on the necessity of repentance and a moral life.  He was bold, his oratory was captivating, and he fearlessly identified corruption in the church and called for moral reformation.  His messages were fiery and apocalyptic.  He was a sensation.  He was wildly popular.


During this time, the powerful and famous House of Medici ruled Florence.  Lorenzo de Medici hated Savonarola with a passion.  He attempted to silence Savonarola through bribery, but to no avail.  Lorenzo later fell ill and called for Savonarola (men do desperate things when they think they are dying).  When Savonarola saw that Lorenzo had no desire for repentance, he withheld his blessing and left him to die.  After Lorenzo died and his son became his successor.  However, Savonarola’s popularity with the people was so widespread that they wanted him to rule Florence over de Medici.  The people got their wish and Savonarola was in the role of civil servant, holding political power.


Savonarola was a brilliant administrator and a tireless reformer.  His zeal, however, made his popularity short-lived.  He sought to implement moral reforms and abolish vice anything connected with moral laxity (dancing, drinking, gambling, make-up, etc.).  Opposition grew up like a weed.  People are usually happy to have someone denounce someone else’s sins, but when it touches home, the sentiment shifts.  Unscrupulous Pope Alexander offered him a position as Cardinal to get him out of Florence.  He refused.  Savonarola remained undaunted by the criticism and opposition and continued to move ahead full steam.


The Papacy lost out when the corrupt House of Medici lost power. With Florence spinning out of control and the corrupt House of Medici no longer able to rule Florence, the Pope intervened.  He had Savonarola excommunicated and arrested.  He was tortured and burned at stake at age 45 (1498).


I cannot help but admire one who defied a wicked Pope and stood up to a corrupt church and ruling House.  There is something attractive about courage and determination that is not side-tracked by greed and the love of praise.  But no matter how much virtue Savonarola demonstrated in his efforts to bring about moral reform, he was a reformer without the Gospel and he was a preacher without Christ.  Let us remember that winning the culture wars of morality is not Christianity.  Let us not be deceived, moral reformation is not salvation.