How could the crowd that cheered Jesus on Palm Sunday have crucified him on Friday? How can public opinion turn so quickly? That’s what Jerome Savonarola asked on April 7, 1498. He lived in Florence during the height of the Italian Renaissance. His flashing dark eyes and blazing sermons electrified the city. Throngs waited for hours for cathedral doors to open, and thousands clung to his every word. “I preach the regeneration of the church,” he thundered, “taking the Scriptures as my sole guide.”

Eventually Savonarola became city-manager and made Florence a republic. He initiated tax reforms, aided the poor, cleaned up the courts, and changed the city to a virtual monastery. He inspired the populace to build bonfires for burning pornographic books and gambling equipment. Having reformed Florence, he rebuked the clergy, denouncing papal corruptions. When Pope Alexander VI excommunicated him, he demanded the pope’s dismissal.

A Franciscan proposed an “ordeal by fire” to settle the matter. In this medieval custom a man was forced to walk between walls of fire, and his survival or death was deemed to indicate God’s favor or disfavor. Savonarola’s close friend Fra Domenico agreed to walk through the fire, and the ordeal was set for April 7. Great preparations were made as the news spread across Italy. Two rows of wood, laid out for 60 feet, were soaked with oil. The two feet between them was just wide enough for a man to pass. The excitement was tremendous, and people began to arrive the night before. Windows and roofs adjoining the square overflowed with people. The ordeal was set for 11 a.m.

But the hour came and went. The impatience of the crowds increased as Savonarola delayed sending Domenico out. A storm rose and fell. Evening came, and the crowd rioted when the ordeal was called off. Savonarola’s power was gone. He was arrested, tortured, and shortly afterward executed on the same public square where the ordeal was to have occurred. The crowd who honored him as a prophet and appointed him a statesman made him in the end a martyr.

These unfaithful prophets claim that I have given them a dream. … Their dreams and my truth are as different as straw and wheat. But when prophets speak for me, they must say only what I have told them. My words are like a powerful fire; they are a hammer that shatters rocks. (Jeremiah 23:25a,28,29)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). April 7.

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