October 3rd 1226: Francis of Assisi dies
On this day in 1226, the Italian friar and preacher Francis of Assisi died aged 44 while listening to a reading of Psalm 142 he had requested. Francis had a privileged upbringing being the son of a prosperous silk merchant, but after a vision moved away from materialism and took up a life of poverty. Francis is best known for his attempts to encourage Catholics to be more humble and empathetic with the poor. Inspired by this work Francis founded the Franciscan Order, made up of several smaller orders. He was made a saint in 1228 by Pope Gregory IX and remains one of the most influential and venerated figures in religious history. The current Pope took his name from St. Francis and like his namesake Pope Francis has been emphasizing the importance of abandoning materialism.
September 22nd 1827: Smith finds the golden plates
On this day in 1827, Joseph Smith Jr. claimed to have found the golden plates on which the third book of the Bible is written. Smith said he was visited by an angel called Moroni who told him where they were buried. He then supposedly translated the golden plates and had them published as ‘The Book of Mormon’ and thus founded the Latter Day Saint movement. Mormons believe that Jesus came to America and the Book tells the history of an ancient Judeo-Christian civilisation in America. Smith never allowed anyone to see the golden plates, and so many question whether they ever existed. Smith led his followers West, but along the way encountered much hatred from Christians and Smith was eventually killed by a mob in 1844 aged 38.
June 27th 1844: Joseph Smith murdered
On this day in 1844, the founder of Mormonism Joseph Smith Jr and his brother Hyrum were killed by an anti-Mormon mob in Carthage, Illinois. They were attacked at the prison where they was held on charges of conspiracy and treason. Smith claimed to have had visions telling of Golden Plates which contained the true gospel, which he translated and published as the Book of Mormon in 1830. Many feared his power and criticised his practice of polygamy. Tensions came to a head when, in 1844, a mob repeatedly shot Smith at the prison, and he died when he fell from his window. The Church of the Latter Day Saints consequently saw the brothers as martyrs.
"Oh Lord, my God!"
- Joseph Smith’s last words
May 27th 1564: Calvin dies
On this day in 1564, the French theologian John Calvin died in Geneva aged 54. Calvin, born in France in 1509, is best known for his formulation of the Protestant doctrine known as Calvinism. Calvinism advocates the view of predestination - that God chooses who will be saved and who will be damned even before their birth; there is thus nothing one can do in this life to alter their fate in the next. Whilst there is nothing one can do to alter their fate, Calvinists hold that those who live a godly life show evidence of being one of God’s elect, and so there is a point to living righteously. The elect had to prove their status by giving a narrative of their conversion before the church (which at this point meant the congregation of the elect). It was these views that provided the foundation of Puritan belief in Britain and colonial America. Calvin’s views made him a controversial figure in his lifetime, and he was an early supporter of Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation. In the last years of his life, Calvin was the ruler of Geneva where he relentlessly promoted Protestantism, even resorting to executing and exiling religious dissenters.
"We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which He determined what He willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is ordained for some, eternal damnation for others.”
- John Calvin
April 13th 1919: Jallianwala Bagh massacre
On this day in 1919, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre occurred in the Jallianwala Bagh public garden in the Indian city of Amritsar in the Punjab region. The crowd gathered were non-violent Indian nationalists, protesting British conscription of Indians and heavy war tax, and pilgrims celebrating the holiday of Baisakhi. Fifty British soldiers, under the leadership of Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, opened fire on the gathering; Dyer told his men to shoot to kill. The Jallianwala Bagh garden had only a few narrow entrances, and the stampedes to flee at these narrow pathways caused a number of deaths as well. A curfew was in place, and thus no-one could attend to the wounded, who were left to die overnight. The British Raj claimed 379 fatalities but the Indian National Congress put the figure much higher at around 1,000. The brutality of the unwarranted attack and initial praise for Dyer from the British government caused outrage in India. It seemed emblematic of the issues of rule by a foreign power, and the massacre is seen as an important step on the path to Indian independence.
February 18th 1954: Church of Scientology established
On this day in 1954, the first Church of Scientology was established in Los Angeles. Scientology is a religion (though some have labelled it a cult) which was founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. Its main teachings are that humans are in fact immortal beings who have lost their true nature and need help to recover it through counselling. Members have to pay for these sessions during which they recount painful memories, which is intended to be therapeutic. The higher up in the levels a member gets, the more teachings they are told. One of the most famous of these is the belief that millions of years ago the intergalactic tyrant Xenu dropped people into volcanoes on Earth. The thetans (souls) then stuck to the bodies of the living, and continue to do so today. The organisation has a considerable celebrity following, with actors such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta as famous advocates of the Church. Scientology is very controversial; those who claim it is a cult maintain it exploits its members for financial gain, whereas its defenders insist it is a valid religion.
January 18th 1769: Ekaku dies
On this day in 1769, the Zen Buddhist master Hakuin Ekaku died. He was one of the most important masters of the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism. Hakuin was born on January 19th 1686 in Hara, a small town at the foot of Mt. Fuji on the Tokkaido Road between Edo (modern day Tokyo) and Kyoto. Rinzai is known for its rather eccentric teaching methods, favouring shouting and sometimes physical violence in order to encourage a student to experience satori (instant enlightenment). Thus Rinzai was the religion of the samurai warriors, and Soto (the other main Zen school) was for the farmer and the peasant. He died on 18th January 1769, aged 83. Now, Hakuin is probably best known for one particular koan (riddle-like question) he invented for use in Rinzai training:
"What is the sound of one hand clapping?"
December 7th 1965: Catholic-Orthodox Joint Declaration
On this day in 1965 Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I issued the Catholic-Orthodox Joint Declaration. The Declaration simultaneously revoked the mutual excommunications made by the Holy See and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1054. This event was known as the Great Schism and contributed to the medieval separation of the East and West churches, the former being Greek and the latter Latin. The Declaration represented an important moment in the reconciliation of the two churches, with both being represented by their respective leaders.
September 28th 551 BC: Confucius born
On this day in 551 BC, the Chinese philosopher Confucius (or, K’ung Fu-tzu in Chinese) was supposedly born. His philosophy, based on social correctness, respect and sincerity, was very influential in China and aimed to promote a way of living where everyone could live in peace. He is attributed to many classic Chinese texts and is considered one of the greatest thinkers in Chinese history. Confucianism shaped China and the surrounding area for thousands of years, and continues to do so today. One of the main principles of Confucianism is “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself”, which is similar to Jesus’s Golden Rule. Confucius died in 479 BC aged 71 or 72.
August 26th 1910: Mother Teresa born
On this day in 1910, Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu (now best known as Mother Teresa) was born to an Albanian family in Skopje, Macedonia which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. She became a nun when she was 18 and joined the Sisters of Loreto. In 1946 she claimed that she had a vision of God telling her to leave the convent and help the poor. She obeyed and lived among the poor in India and it was during this time that she went from Sister Teresa to Mother Teresa. In 1950 she established Missionaries of Charity, a Catholic congregation which helps the poor, the ill and the homeless. Members of the order, which still continues to do good works, make four vows, the last of which is to give “Wholehearted and Free service to the poorest of the poor”. Her work drew great international attention and in 1979 she received the Nobel Peace Prize. While being praised by many she was also a figure of controversy partly due to her opposition to contraception and for the large donations from disreputable sources her organisation accepted. Towards the end of her life Mother Teresa began to feel doubts about her religious convictions, and died in Calcutta on 5th September 1997, aged 87.
"I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order. To fail would have been to break the faith."
- Mother Teresa on her message from God
June 7th 1099: Siege of Jerusalem begins
On this day in 1099 the Siege of Jerusalem began, an event which was a major moment of the First Crusade. The Crusade was called by Pope Urban II in 1095 in order to rid the Holy Land of what he considered a dangerous Muslim presence. The siege of Jerusalem lasted until July 15th and saw the Crusaders capture the Holy City from Fatmid Egypt. It was after this siege that the Crusaders massacred much of Jerusalem’s population, with some sources from the time claiming the blood in the streets reached the Crusaders’ ankles and even the bridles of their horses. This grisly scene was one of many that characterised the Crusades which followed the first, most of which revolved around religious struggles for the Holy Land or against supposed Christian ‘heretics’.
May 25th 1085: Pope Gregory VII dies
On this day in 1085 Pope Gregory VII died in Salerno. He became Pope in 1073 and was known for his advocacy of Church reform such as ending the practice of simony (selling Church offices) and ensuring clerical celibacy. Gregory VII was crucial in the Investiture Controversy which was a dispute between the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV over who had the power to invest bishops with the symbols of their office. Gregory VII excommunicated Henry IV twice, leading the Emperor to wait outside Canossa Castle for the Pope for three days in the snow, begging for his excommunication to be rescinded, which Gregory granted. Gregory’s excommunication of Henry was considered by some as an over-extension of papal power over secular matters
March 26th 1830: The Book of Mormon published
On this day in 1830, the Book of Mormon was first published at E.B Grandin’s New York bookstore. The founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith Jr, claimed that he had been visited by an angel called Moroni who told him of ancient writings on golden plates which described people God led to the Western hemisphere before the birth of Jesus. These plates were supposedly found by Smith buried by a tree on a hill in his back yard. Smith said he was told by Moroni to translate the plates into English and publish them. Smith initially struggled to find someone to publish the book as many considered it risky, fraudulent and blasphemous. Smith and his friend Martin Harris began work on translating the Book of Mormon, with Smith dictating by either reading directly or using seer stones placed in a top hat (accounts vary). It took eight men and boys working 12 hours a day, six days a week, for almost eight months to print the initial 5,000 copies, which went on sale in March 1830. The building in New York where the Book of Mormon was first published and sold is now the Book of Mormon Historic Publication Site.
February 17th 1600: Giordano Bruno executed
On this day in 1600, the Italian friar, astronomer and philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for heresy. His ideas were controversial for his day, but are now hailed as precursory to modern scientific understanding. Bruno proposed the concept of an infinite universe populated by other intelligent life and rejected traditional geocentric astronomy. He agreed with Copernicus that the planets revolve around the Sun, but expanded on this by suggesting that the Sun is just another star. For these unorthodox views (and others beyond astrology) which challenged traditional Christian ideas about the universe, Bruno was found guilty of heresy by the Roman Inquisition and burned at the stake. For his refusal to renounce his beliefs, Giordano Bruno is often remembered as a martyr for free thought.
“Perhaps your fear in passing judgment on me is greater than mine in receiving it”
- Giordano Bruno to the judges upon hearing his death sentence
January 3rd 1521: Martin Luther excommunicated
On this day 1521, Pope Leo X issued the papal bull ‘Decet Romanum Pontificem’ which excommunicated Martin Luther. Luther was a German monk who became disillusioned from the Catholic Church due to its corruption, such as taking money from people as a guarantee into heaven. Luther protested this corruption by famously writing his ‘95 Theses’ in 1517, an event which symbolically began the Protestant Reformation. The Pope did not accept Luther’s anti-Catholic writings and eventually expelled him from the church in 1521.