by William Wileman
A calm and impartial view of this sad subject has been reserved for this
place, and for a chapter 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
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 lam 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
After wandering for a time, he suddenly turned up in Geneva in July; and was
arrested by the Council, which, as we have seen, 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
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
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 Bartholomew 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.
Peace and Truth 2003:3 www.sgu.org.uk