Why Autos-da-fe --- “Acts of Faith” --- Were Anything But
Many Protestants and students of church history in general will know the term “auto-da-fe,” Portuguese for “act of faith.” If you knew nothing about it, what would you expect an “act of faith” to be? A pilgrimage? A religious procession? A church ceremony? Not quite. Autos-da-fe were perhaps one of the best known institutions of the Spanish Inquisition, which was ironically known at the time as the “Santa Oficio” or “Holy Office.” An auto-da-fe was a public burning of those who had been condemned for Protestant or Jewish beliefs, as well as a time to burn effigies.
I have often wondered how burnings at the stake got started. There were many ways for Renaissance man to show violence: who came up with such an odd and horrific punishment? Burnings had already been around for over a thousand years. Under the domain of the Inquisition, however, they took on new meaning. The concept that fire “purified” was applied to victims’ souls. It was also a common belief that those who suffered this fate could not enjoy bodily resurrection in the world to come. Officials purposely chose such a “chastisement” as the ultimate means of punishment.
Spain was not the only nation to use this “preferred” method of execution for those condemned for their faith. France also made much use of the practice (concerning Protestant believers; Joan of Arc, you might remember, died the same way in the 1400s), rampantly throughout the early 16th century and briefly in the late 17th century when Louis XIV revoked the freedom-giving Edict of Nantes that once protected his Protestant subjects. Burning at the stake was greatly feared --- and sadly expected --- in countries with Protestant populations.
The practice first came to England in the 1550s after Mary I married Philip II of Spain, and during her reign about three hundred Protestants of varying ages died in this manner. I cannot even imagine the pain that sufferers of this fate must have undergone. That they could know what would be their end and still uphold their faith! Modern-day Protestant believers, with such a powerful Reformation heritage, must always remember these brave souls.
In the 16th century there were actually some who believed that killing a man for his beliefs, if done in a “more humane” way, was a mercy. For instance, in 1565 after the French Huguenots killed at Matanzas in Florida had been bound and dispatched by the sword, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés’ chronicler said: “. . . he nobly and honorably put them to the sword, when by every right he could have burnt them alive." And this is the sort of world in which our ancestors lived! It never ceases to amaze and upset me when I read that such men said they had the “right” to do such things. And to think death by sword was a mercy!
Having thought about all this, I decided to research how the concept of fire was used in the Bible. That is when the astonishment began. The emphasis is my own.
“He makes winds His messengers, flames of fire His servants.’ (Psalm 104:4)
“. . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.’ (Matthew 3:11, Luke 3:16)
“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what appeared to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.” (Acts 2:1-3)
“If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Chronicles 13:3)
“In speaking of the angels he says, ‘He makes His angels winds, His servants flames of fire.’” (Hebrews 1:7)
There are other references as well, such as “burnt offerings” and “Refiner’s fire” with which many have made a connection. I find it fascinating that while the Inquisitors and officials attempted to demonize Protestant believers by reserving this most horrific punishment for them, they succeeded only in making the connection between God’s Word and His holy martyrs and those who were being burned. Christians had long associated primitive believers with such fates. Emperor Nero, for example, was responsible for burnings.
Though it is difficult to comprehend at times, everything in history --- even the suffering of our spiritual ancestors, who perished for following their faith and their consciences --- had a deeper connection and a deeper meaning than we could ever hope to understand.
(c) 2012 Joyously Saved