Nathaniel Bacon
The Fearefull Estate of Francis Spira
(London, 1638)

Edited from the original text by Frank Luttmer.

Among English Puritans, the most common and the most feared of Satan's temptations was the temptation to despair, the loss of hope in one's own salvation. Perhaps the most widely-known example of despair in the sixteenth and seventeenth century was the case of an Italian lawyer Francis Spira. In 1548, Spira converted to Lutheranism and began to spread the Lutheran message to others. Under pressure from the Catholic Church, however, he renounced his Protestant faith. He then became convinced that he was a reprobate, destined for hell. The story of Spira spread throughout Europe, surfacing in sermons and treatises dealing with despair. In England, an account of Spira's case by a first-hand witness, Matteo Gribalde, appeared in 1550. The most influential English account of Spira, however, was written by Nathaniel Bacon in 1638. Bacon's Fearefull Estate of Francis Spira, based on the original Latin records, became an instant best-seller and was reissued ten times in England and eight times in the American colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For anti-Puritans, Spira's case exemplified the dangers of the Calvinist teachings of predestination and human corruption. Puritans, however, empathized with Spira, seeing Spira's condition as simply an extreme example of the experience of all godly Christians. William Perkins, the preeminent Puritan theologian wrote:
[O]ft it will fall out that the conscience of Gods child shall bee so exceedingly tormented in temptation, that hee shall cry out, he is forsaken of God, and shalbe damned; when as indeed he stil remains the deare child of God, as Christ our Saviour did Gods welbeloved in the deepest assaults of Satan. And therefore the relation published of Francis Spira his desperation, doth inconsiderately taxe him for a cast-away; considering that nothing befel him in the time of his desperation but that which may befall the child of God: yea our owne land can afford many examples which match Francis Spira, whether we regard the matter of his temptation, or the deepnesse of his desperation, who yet through the mercy of God have received comfort. And therefore in this case Christian charity must ever bind us to thinke and speake the best.

Francis Spira, a Civill Lawyer, an advocate of greate rank and esteeme being of knowne learning, & eloquence; of great experience; of carriage circumspect and severe; his speech grave & composed, his countenance sharpe and austere; every way befitting that authoritie whereunto hee was advanced; endowed with outward blessings, of wife, & eleven children, & wealth in abundance: what his worst parts were, I have no other warrant, then his owne words, which (if not tainted overmuch with the bitternesse of a desperate minde, and bearing the countenance rather of passion, then of sober confession) may seeme to adde a period to all further commendations. . . .

I was (said hee) excessively covetous of money, and accordingly I applied my selfe to get by injustice corrupting justice by deceit inventing tricks to delude justice: good causes I either defended deceitfully, or sold them to the adversary perfidiously; ill causes I maintained with all my might; I wittingly opposed the knowne truth; and the trust committed unto me, I either betrayed or perverted.

When he encountered Lutheran ideas, the self-described covetous man converted and proceeded to spread the Lutheran heresy to others.

[IN 1548, the] opinions of Luther coming into those parts . . . presented an object of noveltie unto him; who being as desirous to know as he was famous for knowledge . . . . he began to taste their nature so well, as he entertaines, loves, and ownes them at length . . . . [H]e became a professor; yea a teacher of them, first to his wife, children, and family, and after to his friends, and familiar acquaintance; & in comparison, seemed to neglect all other affaires; intending ever to presse this main point, that We must wholly, and onely depend on the free, and unchageable love of God in the death of Christ, as the onely sure way to salvation. [He] continued in this private way for about six years, but at length it brake forth into publique meetings; so as the whole Province of Padua dawned by the lustre thereof. The Clergie finding the trade of their pardons to decay . . . [began] striking at Spira with grievous accusations.

The Venetian Senate gave John Casa, the Papal Legatine in Venice, the authority to examine Spira. Because Spira had been so successful in spreading Lutheran ideas, Casa demanded that Spira publicly recant his Lutheranism. Spira must weigh the option of recanting (thus committing apostasy, accepting the fate due heretics, or "falling away" from the faith) or fleeing Italy.

[H]is enemies wanted (lacked) neither power nor occasion to call him to account in Publique, when he must either Apostatize, and shamefully give his former life, yea his own conscience the lye, or indure the utmost malice of his deadly enemies, or forsake his wife, children, friends, goods, authoritie, yea, his deare Country, and betake himselfe to a forraigne people, there to endure a thousand miseries.

Being thus distracted, and tossed in the restlesse waves of doubt, without guide to trust to, or haven to flye to for succour; on the sudden Gods Spirit assisting, he felt a calme, and began to discourse with himselfe in this manner: "Why wandrest thou thus in uncertainties, unhappy man; cast away feare, put on thy shield, the shield of faith" . . .Now was Spira in reasonable quiet, being resolved to yeeld to these weightie reasons; yet holding it wisedome to examine all things, hee consults also with flesh and bloud; thus the battaile doth renew, and the flesh beginnes in this manner: Bee well advised, fond man, consider reasons on both sides, and then judge . . .thou shalt lose thy substance . . . undergoe the most exquisite torments . . . die shamefully . . bring thy friends also into danger . . .Thus did the cares of this world, and the deceitfullnesse of riches, choke the good Seed that was formerly sowne . . .

Spira went to the Papal Legate, abjured Lutheranism, begged for forgiveness, and promised never to depart again from the Catholic faith. Casa, however, is determined to exact the most from Spira.

The Legate perceiving Spira to faint, he pursues him to the utmost; hee causeth a recitation of all his Errours to be drawne in writing, together with the Confession annexed to it, and commands Spira to suscribe his name there, which accordingly he did; then the Legate commands him to return to his own Towne; and there to declare this Confession of his, and to acknowledge the whole doctrine of the Church of Rome to be holy, and true; and to abjure the Opinions of Luther, and other such Teachers, as false, and hereticall.

On his journey home, Spira began to reconsider his decision to abjure his faith. In the midst of doubt, he believes that he hears the voice of Christ.

[He considered his] constancie in Christs cause; and to be plaine, how impiously hee had denyed Christ . . . and thus partly with fear, and partly with shame being confounded; he though he heard a voice speaking unto him in this manner.

Spira, What doest thou here . .. doest thou indeed thinke eternall life so meane, as that thou preferrest this present life before it . . .

Now was Spira in a wildernesse of doubtes . . [He] consults friends, who all confirm that he needs to go through with the second abjuration [and] not to betray his wife and children [especially since] already [the] greatest part [is] performed. . . .This was the last blow of the battell, and Spira utterly overcome, goes to the Praetor, and proffers to performe his foresaid promise.

Spira went through with his public recantation, as he had been instructed by the Papal Legate. On his way home, he again thought that he heard the voice of Christ.

No sooner was he departed, but he thought he heard a direfull voice, saying to him; Thou wicked wretch, thou hast denied me, thou hast renounced the covenant of thy obedience, thou hast broken thy vow; hence Apostate, bear with thee the sentence of thy eternall damnation: he trembling and quaking in body and minde; fell down in a swoun; reliefe was at hand for the body, but from that time forwards he never found any peace or ease of his minde; but continuing in uncessant torments, he professed that he was captived under the revenging hand of the great God: that he heard continually that fearfull sentence of Christ that just Judge: that he knew he was utterly undone: that he could neither hope for grace, nor Christs intercession with God the Father in his behalfe. . . .

Convinced that he was reprobate, Spira fell into a deep depression, refusing to eat or drink.

Now began his friends some of them to repent too late of their rash counsell; others not looking so high as the judgement of God, laid all the blame upon his Melancholicke constitution; that overshadowing his judgement, wrought in him a kinde of madnesse: everie one censured as his fancie led him, yet for remedie all agreed in this, to use both the wholesome helpe of Physicians, and the pious advise of Divines, and therefore thought it meet to convey him to Padua, an Universitie of note, where plenty of all maner of meanes was to be had. . . .

His friends took him to see three physicians at the University of Padua in search of a cure for his "Melancholicke constitution."

[T]hey could not discern that his body was afflicted with any danger or distemper originally from it self, by reason of the over-ruling of any humour; but that this Maladie of his did arise from some griefe, some passion of his minde, which being overburthened, did so oppresse the spirits, as they wanting free passage, stirred up many ill humours, whereof the body of man is full, & these ascending up into the braine, troubled the fancie; shadowed the seat of the judgement, and so corrupted it: this was the state of his disease, and that outward part that was visible to the eye of nature, this they endeavoured to reforme by purgation, either to consume, or at least to divert the course of those humours from the braine; but all their skill effected nothing.

Spira continued in his depression. He told the physicians that his malady was not physical but spiritual, that he had been condemned by Christ. The physicians were finally convinced of Spira's story and they urged him to consult with priests. By this time, Spira's case was attracting a lot of attention. Priests and students of divinity began to flock to his bedside to have conversation with the convinced reprobate. Spira had almost daily conversations with two people, a Bishop, Paulo Vergerio (Paulus Vergerius), and a professor of law at the University of Padua, Matteo Gribalde (Mattheus Gribauldus).

[Gribauldus said to Spira], Sir, this is but an illusion of the devil, who doth what he can to vexe you.

[As Spira spoke] the violence of his passion and action sutable, did amaze many of the beholders; insomuch as some of them said with a whispering voice, that he was possessed; hee over-hearing it, said: Doe you doubt it? I have a whole Legion of devils that take up their dwellings within me, and possesse me as their owne; and justly too, for I have denyed Christ. . . .

Heere Gribauldus said, I do verily beleeve, Spira, that God having so severely chastised you in this life, correcteth you in mercie here, that he may spare you hereafter, and that he hath mercies sealed up for you in time to come.

Nay (said Spira) hence do I know that I am a reprobate, because hee afflicteth mee with hardnesse of heart: Oh that my body had suffered all my life long, so that hee would bee pleased to release my soul, and ease my Conscience, this burthened Conscience.

Gribauldus, asked Spira to say the Lord's Prayer with those present.

Our Father which art in heaven,) then breaking forth into teares, he stopped; but they said, it is well, your griefe is a good signe: "I bewaile (said he) my miserie, for I perceive I am forsaken of God, and cannot call to him from my heart, as I was wont to do"' yet let us go on, said Vergerius. Thy Kingdome come;) "O Lord (said Spira) bring mee also into this Kingdome; I beseech thee shut mee not out." Then coming to those words; Give us this day our daily bread; he added, "O Lord, I have enough and abundance to feed this carcasse of mine, but there is another bread, I humbly beg the bread of thy grace; without which, I know I am but a dead man." Leade us not into temptation;) "seeing Lord that I am brought into temptation, helpe mee Lord that I may escape; the enemie hath overcome; helpe mee, I beseech thee to overcome this cruell Tyrant." These things hee spake with a mournfull voice, the teares trickling down abundantly.

Gribauldus and Vergerius tell Spira that his calling upon the Lord, as he had in the prayer, was a sign of the Holy Sprit working within him. His prayer was proof that he was not bereft of the spirit. Spira, however, denies it. He compares himself to Judas.

Then he began to reckon up what fearefull dreames and visions, hee was continually troubled withall; that hee saw the devils come flocking into his Chamber, and about his bed, terrifying him with strange noises; that these were not fancies, but that hee saw them as really as the standers by, and that besides these outward terrors he felt continually a racking torture of his minde, and a continuall butchery of his conscience, being the very proper pangs of the damned nights in hell.

Cast off these fancies (said Gribauldus) these are but illusions, humble your selfe in the presence of God, and praise him. . . . You must not, O Spira, seeke out the secret counsels of Gods election and reprobation, for no man can know so long as hee lives, whether by his good or bad deeds, hee bee worthie of Gods love or anger.

[Spira said] my heart hates God, and seekes to get above him. . . .For as the Elect have the Spirit testifying that are the sonnes of God, so the Reprobates even while they live, do often feele a worme in their conscience, whereby they are condemned alreadie.

Unable to make progress in comforting Spira, Gribaldus and Vergerius decide to call for an exorcist.

Afterwards came in a Priest called Barnardinus Sardoneus: bringing with him a booke of Exorcismes, to conjure this devill: whom when Spira saw, shaking his head hee said: "I am verily perswaded indeed that God hath left mee to the power of the devills: but such they are, as are not to bee found in your Litanie: neither will they be cast our by spels." The Priest proceeding in his intended purpose; with a strange uncouth gesture, and a loud voice, adjured the Spirit to come into Spira's tongue, and to answer. Spira deriding his fruitlesse labour, with a sigh turned from him.

The exorcism failed. Spira remained convinced that he was damned.

[Spira said] that Faith that works not a holy and unblameable life, worthie of a beleever; credite mee, it will faile, I have tried it: I presumed I had gotten the right faith . . . living impiously and carelesly, behold now the judgements of God have overtaken mee, not to correction, but to condemnation.

Eventually, Spira was allowed to return home, where he soon died. The text is not clear about the cause (or time) of his death. Some assumed that he died of thirst or hunger, others that he committed suicide.

Thus hee went homewards . . . hee lay about eight weekes in this case, in a continuall burning . . . so spent, that he appeared a perfect Anatomie [skeleton] . . . nothing but sinewes and bones; vehenemntly raging for drinke.

[W]ithin a few dayes after his arrivall at his owne home, he departed this present life. Yet an occasion to make us remember, that secret things belong unto the Lord our God; but charitie to man, to teach him to hope all things.

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