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Torturing the World's First Megachurch Pastor

01/23/2012 04:34 pm ET | Updated Mar 24, 2012

The world's first "megachurch" -- defined as a church with weekly worship attendance of 2,000 or more, a charismatic founder and leader, a top down authority structure, a tendency to draw members away from other churches, and sustained power and influence in a community -- did not originate in 1950s America. Instead, by this definition, the first megachurch sprouted in 15th century Florence. It was called San Marco and was led by a fiery preacher and friar named Girolamo Savonarola.

Savonarola was an Italian Catholic priest, a member of the Dominican Order, and he ruled Florence for four years, from 1494 until just before his death in 1498. He made Florence a republic, a theocracy governed by the laws of Savonarola, which he defined through his sermons at mass. He claimed that God revealed the truth to him, that he was God's appointed prophet, and the people of Florence could not argue with God.

If you've seen the Showtime series, "The Borgias," with actor Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander VI, you have some idea of what Savonarola was preaching about and against. He built his megachurch and influence decrying the corruption of the Church itself. This pope kept mistresses, openly fathered children despite his vow of chastity, oversaw a thoroughly corrupt papal curia and gave God's blessing to the Spanish government to enslave peoples abroad.

So, Savonarola had some good points to make. But he also made sodomy a crime punishable by death. And he called for the infamous "Bonfire of the Vanities," which took place on Feb. 7, 1497 when Savonarola and his followers burned all sorts of household objects that Savonarola declared to be paths to sin: mirrors, cosmetics, playing cards, sculptures that showed accurate human anatomy and certain books, including poetry.

After a few years of this, Pope Alexander VI had had enough. Excommunicating Savonarola had not succeeded in shutting him up. And so, from Rome, the Pope wrote to leaders in Florence saying that something had to be done about Savonarola. He convinced them to have their leader arrested.

Now, all of these maneuverings reek with lust and power. No one was blameless. They were all -- how shall I say it? -- bad. But Alexander VI did ask a decent question of Savonarola, one that the people who followed his every word from the pulpit had not. Basically, it was this: You claim to be divinely inspired, a prophet of God, who is only communicating to your congregation what God has told you to say. Is that true?

They tortured him in Florence, steps away from where Savonarola used to rule the city. The method was called la corde, the rope. The person's hands were tied behind his back with one end of the rope, which was then fed through a pulley high above his head into the ceiling, so that when they pulled down on the other end of the rope it would raise one's arms backwards over the head. Usually, arms would break.

Savonarola was raised off his feet three times during his week of torture -- at times when his interrogators believed that he was being less than revealing in answering their questions. On one other occasion, they raised his arms with the rope without him leaving his feet. Even this must have hurt. Indeed, one of his arms was broken, and then he answered their questions.

What did he confess during this time? Donald Weinstein, a professor emeritus of Italian history at the University of Arizona, and author of a new biography titled "Savonarola: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Prophet," summarizes it this way:

He had pretended to divine revelation, deceiving the many who believed in him; his motives were glory, reputation and influence; his prophetic apostolate was thus based on a lie.

A few days later, he confessed also to lying about experiencing divine visions, including a famous one where he told the people of Florence that God had showed him how God's sword was pointing down from heaven at their city, poised to destroy it, if they did not heed Savonarola's teachings.

Now, I abhor torture. I am against it in every instance. But I wonder what would be revealed if every one of us who write, preach or teach others about what God says, what God wants, and who God is (starting with me), were forced to really fess up and speak for ourselves, and not God.

Jon M. Sweeney is the author of 'The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation,' being published by Image Books on Feb. 14.