The Sad Case of Francis Spira
In his little work on Spiritual Desertion, Gisbertus Voetius mentioned the case of Francis Spira as an example of those who have experienced the sense of being abandoned by God. He says that his “history is well known. This history ought to be read and can be read, since it is available in more than one language” (35). I don’t think the name of Francis Spira is very well known today anymore. It’s too bad that the editor of this modern edition didn’t provide a footnote with some background information. I did the digging for myself and it is a sad story.
Francis Spira was an Italian lawyer from Venice. In 1548, he converted to Protestantism. Some sources claim that he was a Lutheran, but it may be that this was just a blanket-term for “Protestant.” He was enthusiastic about his new religion and became an advocate for it. However, he soon caught the attention of the Inquisition and before long they were turning the screws down on him and pressuring him to recant. He did. Afterwards he apparently began to hear the voice of Christ accusing him of apostasy and abandoning the gospel. He became convinced that he was a reprobate, condemned to hell. Despite the efforts of priests and exorcists, Spira could not abandon that conviction. In this troubled state, he died — some think he may have committed suicide.
The case was well-known in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For instance, John Calvin wrote a preface to a Latin account of Spira’s story. Calvin saw “the wreteched Spira” as an “example of divine justice.” Voetius did not follow the same approach. Just because Spira believed himself to be reprobate, it does not follow that he was. Said Voetius of Spira and cases like his, “For certainly one must not give credence to their cries or confessions of despair, because that voice is not a voice of credibility or truth but of weakness; it is not making a statement but expressing a doubt” (53). There is a lot more to this account and I hope to soon write something more substantial about it. Stay tuned…
Calvin certainly called a spade a spade, didn’t he? No soft and measured words for him!
Hey – I just completed a dissertation about the reception of the Spira story among the Reformed in England. I’ll let you know if / when it is available to read.
[…] Sad Case of Francesco Spiera Some time ago I wrote a short blog post on Francis Spira (a.k.a. Francesco Spiera). I later reworked that post into a full-length article for Clarion. […]
I have been given permission, from the Dutch Translation Society, to narrate the book by Voetius and Hoornbeeck. (one of the advantages of living in Grand Rapids, MI) I am in chapter 2 that details the account of Spira. I have been narrating this morning. The reason I chose to narrate this – I have been narrating Puritan and Reformed books for 32 years, is that the analysis in this book is unequaled.
IMHO taking Calvin’s Word as Gospel and equating it with Scriptural authority is dangerous! NO ONE knows the intents of the heart of a man except God! A man deep into depression cannot make right judgments about himself.