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Calvin and Servetus

Category Articles
Date August 11, 2009

A calm and impartial view of this sad subject has been reserved for this place, and for a chapter1 of its own. The immense advantage of having been able to consult and to weigh the evidence of the principal writers – certainly not fewer than forty – about the case of Servetus, besides several biographies of the man himself, will greatly aid the writer.

It is very common to hear the remark, ‘What about Servetus?’ or, ‘Who burned Servetus?’ There are three kinds of persons who thus flippantly ask a question of this nature. First, the Roman Catholics, who may judge it to be an unanswerable taunt to a Protestant. Second, those who are not in accord with the great doctrines of grace, as taught by Paul and Calvin, and embraced and loved by thousands still. Then there is a third kind of persons who can only be described as ill-informed. It is always desirable, and often useful, to really know something of what one professes to know.

I shall narrow the inquiry at the outset by saying that all Roman Catholics are ‘out of court.’ They burn heretics on principle, avowedly. This is openly taught by them; it is in the margin of their Bible; and it is even their boast that they do so. And, moreover, they condemned Servetus to be burned.

Those who misunderstand or misrepresent the doctrines of grace call for pity more than blame when they charge the death of Servetus upon those views of divine truth known as Calvinistic. Perhaps a little instruction would be of great value to such. It is very desirable to have clear ideas of what it is we are trying to understand. In most disputes this would make a clear pathway for thought and argument. Most controversies are more about terms than principles.

The third sort of persons are plainly incompetent to take up this case, for the simple reason that they know nothing whatever about it. Pressed for their reasons, they have to confess that they never at any time read a line about the matter.

The duty of the historian is not to plead, but to narrate facts. I shall do this as impartially as possible. One writer need not be imitated (W. H. Drummond, D.D.), who is not ashamed to disfigure his title-page: Life of Michael Servetus, who was entrapped, imprisoned, and burned by John Calvin. Less scurrilous, but equally prejudiced, is Dr. R. Willis. It is a weak case that needs the aid of ink mixed with abusive gall.

The simplest method of arranging my material will be to ask and to answer three questions. First, why was Servetus burned? Second, who burned him? Third, what part in the matter was taken by John Calvin?

Michael Servetus was born at Villanueva, in 1509. After a liberal education, he studied medicine, and anticipated Harvey in the discovery of the circulation of the blood. It appears that he had a lively genius, but was unstable, erratic, and weak. In 1530 he published a book On the Errors of the Trinity. His views need not be given here; one specimen will suffice to give an idea of them. He said that the doctrine of the Trinity was ‘a three-headed Cerberus, a dream of Augustine, and an invention of the devil.’ The book, however, on which his trial was based was his Restitutio Christianismi. Only two copies of this are known to exist, and both are out of England. I have seen a copy of the reprint of 1790. Servetus sent the manuscript of this to Calvin for his perusal, and a lengthy correspondence took place between them, extending from 1546 to 1548. Of this Calvin says: ‘When he was at Lyons he sent me three questions to answer. He thought to entrap me. That my answer did not satisfy him I am not surprised.’ To Servetus himself he wrote: ‘I neither hate you nor despise you; nor do I wish to persecute you; but I would be as hard as iron when I behold you insulting sound doctrine with so great audacity.’

And now occurs what foundation there is on which is built the accusation against Calvin. It occurs in his well-known letter to Farel, dated February 13th, 1546.

Servetus wrote to me a short time ago, and sent a huge volume of his dreamings and pompous triflings with his letter. I was to find among them wonderful things, and such as I had never before seen; and if I wished, he would himself come. But I am by no means inclined to be responsible for him; and if he come, I will never allow him, supposing my influence worth anything, to depart alive.

There lived at Geneva at this time a Frenchman of Lyons named William Trie; and he had a relative at Lyons named Arneys, a Roman Catholic. After the publication of this book by Servetus, Trie wrote to his friend Arneys a letter in which he said that it was base for Protestants to be burned who really believed in Christ while such a man as Servetus should be permitted to live to publish his vile errors. Arneys placed this letter before the Inquisition at Lyons, and Cardinal Tournon arrested Servetus at once. Without giving the mass of details, it will be sufficient to say that Servetus escaped from prison one night by a pretext. His trial, however, proceeded in his absence; and on June 17th, 1552, the sentence of death, namely, ‘to be burned alive, at a slow fire, till his body he reduced to a cinder,’ was passed upon him by the Inquisition. On the same day, his effigy was burned, with five bales of his books.

After wandering for a time, he suddenly turned up in Geneva in July, and was arrested by the Council, which was at this time opposed to Calvin. What Calvin desired from Servetus was his recantation: ‘Would that we could have obtained a retractation from Servetus, as we did from Gentilis’. The thirty-eight articles of accusation were drawn up by Calvin. Two examinations took place. At the second of these, Servetus persisted in one of his errors, namely, that all things, ‘even this footstool,’ are the substance of God. After further examinations, these articles, with the replies of the accused man, were sent to the churches of Zurich, Berne, Basle, and Schaffhausen, with a request for their opinion. Farel’s reply is worthy of record: ‘It will be a wonder if that man, suffering death, should at the time turn to the Lord, dying only one death, whereas he has deserved to die a thousand times.’ In another letter, written from Neuchatel, September 8th, 1553, Farel says: ‘Your desire to mitigate the rigour of punishment is the service of a friend to one who is your mortal enemy. But I beseech you so to act as that no one shall hereafter seek with impunity to publish novel doctrines, and to embroil us all as Servetus has done.’

All these circumstances prove that his trial was lengthy, deliberate, and careful; and quite in harmony with the requirements of the age. All the Reformers who were consulted approved of the sentence that was pronounced. At the last stage of the trial, the discussion lasted for three days. The ‘lesser Council’ were unanimous; and the majority of the Great Council were in favour of capital punishment, and so decided on the last day. Sentence of death by fire was given on October 26th, to be carried into effect on the following day.

And now one man alone stands forth to plead for a mitigation of the sentence, namely, that another form of death be substituted for the stake. That one man was John Calvin. He interceded most earnestly with the judges for this, but in vain. Both Farel, who came to Geneva for the purpose, and Calvin, prayed with the unhappy man, and expressed themselves tenderly towards him. Both of them pleaded with the Council for the substitution of a milder mode of death; but the syndics were inflexible. The historian Paul Henry writes of this matter:

Calvin here appears in his real character; and a nearer consideration of the proceeding, examined from the point of view furnished by the age in which he lived, will completely exonerate him from all blame. His conduct was not determined by personal feeling; it was the consequence of a struggle which this great man had carried on for years against tendencies to a corruption of doctrine which threatened the church with ruin. Every age must be judged according to its prevailing laws; and Calvin cannot be fairly accused of any greater offence than that with which we may be charged for punishing certain crimes with death.

The main facts therefore may now be summarized thus:

1. That Servetus was guilty of blasphemy, of a kind and degree which is still punishable here in England by imprisonment.
2. That his sentence was in accordance with the spirit of the age.
3. That he had been sentenced to the same punishment by the Inquisition at Vienne.
4. That the sentence was pronounced by the Councils of Geneva, Calvin having no power either to condemn or to save him.
5. That Calvin and others visited the unhappy man in his last hours, treated him with much kindness, and did all they could to have the sentence mitigated.

Three hundred and fifty years after the death of Servetus, a ‘monument of expiation’ was erected on the spot where he suffered death at Champel, near Geneva. It bears the date of October 27th, 1903; but the unveiling ceremony was postponed until November 1st. On one side of this monument are recorded the birth and death of Servetus. On the front is this inscription:

Dutiful and grateful followers of Calvin our great Reformer, yet condemning an error which was that of his age, and strongly attached to liberty of conscience, according to the true principles of the Reformation and of the Gospel, we have erected this expiatory monument. October 27th, 1903.

Should the Roman Catholic Church desire to follow this example, and erect ‘monuments of expiation,’ let her first build one in Paris, and unveil it on August 24th (the date of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of the Huguenots – Ed.) And doubtless sites would gladly be given for the same purpose in Oxford, Coventry, Maidstone, Lewes, and other places in England. And should Romanists desire the alteration or abrogation of any oath, instead of tampering with the Coronation Oath of Great Britain, let them first annul the oath taken by every bishop at his consecration that he will pursue heretics to the death. All persecution on account of religion and conscience is a violation of the spirit of the gospel, and repugnant to the principles of true liberty.


  1. This is from Chapter 15 of William Wileman’s (1848-1944) John Calvin: His Life, His Teaching and His Influence (London: Robert Banks & Son, ca. 1909).

Taken from Peace and Truth 2003:3; this was originally posted in Banner ‘Articles’ in October 2003.

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