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The Trial, Burning and Murder of Michael Servetus by John Calvin
This article will discuss the historical events and people which surround the trial of Michael Servetus. Michael Servetus to some is a hero, a martyr, while to others he is a heretic. The trial of Servetus is frequently used by those who dislike Calvinism or Calvin to discredit him, while at the same time Calvin’s supporters often tend to downplay this event. This article will endeavor to be as unbiased as possible when dealing these historical events. Some of the sources used may have their own built in biases, but enough sources will be used from different viewpoints to hopefully mitigate these biases. Since this historical event and topic seems to be often an inflammatory one, many sources take a strong stand either for or against Calvin, and the execution of Servetus. Too many historians and authors in the past have collected just those sources that ‘prove’ their viewpoint and not interacted with disagreeing viewpoints.
While I will attempt to be as unbiased as possible, it is not possible to be completely unbiased while discussing John Calvin, a leader of the Reformation whom many millions around the world still follow, who never repented. and who was ultimately responsible for the slow and tortured death of not just Michael Servetus, but others as well. Many attempt to blame this murder on the ‘culture’ of that time period, but are we supposed to be like the culture around us and are we still responsible for following the teachings of the Bible?
The Protestant and Catholic churches and governments during the time of Calvin integrated the State and Church. There was no concept of religious freedom for those that disagreed with each other. The government was called upon to protect orthodoxy and to rid the land of heretics. The Reformers, for the most part, were in agreement with the persecution of the Anabaptists and those they believed were spreading false doctrine. Discussing Martin Luther, Schaff for example says:
The idea or belief that it was ok (and even necessary) to kill heretics and those that were ‘wrong’ theologically was accepted by the majority of countries and churches of the time period. . The belief (justification) held by many was that the eternal soul is much more important than the temporal body. By torturing and executing heretics, they may repent and be saved, but even if they do not, at least they are not able to infect (and damn) others with their false teachings. (Would we as Christians accept this today though? Murder is murder!)
The events that eventually transpired with Servetus’ trial and execution were not out of the ordinary and had been (and were) being carried out throughout many countries in the world. The Reformers and most countries of that time period were favorably disposed to persecuting those they disagreed with theologically. While the Protestants wanted freedom for themselves to be able to believe and teach what they believed was the truth, they often denied others that right. Those who dissented were often drowned (especially the Anabaptists), or for heretics burned at the stake. I believe that this shows how many of the ideals, customs, and culture of the Catholic church were carried over into the Reformed/Calvinist movement. It comes as little surprise to me that those who would emphasize the sovereignty of God to an extreme while denying God’s nature as a loving God, would end up feeling and showing little love towards those Christians from other theological traditions.
An interesting fact surfaces when studying church history. Catholics and the Reformers (such as Calvin) very often treated those who disagreed with them the same way: persecution and putting them to death. Calvinists often emphasize that their theology is the most Biblical. Why is it then a fact that in history the Calvinists (and Catholics) often killed and murdered those they disagreed with, but Arminians did not? Anabaptists, Methodists, and others did not follow their culture in condemning to death those they differed on theologically.
John Calvin was born July 10th, 1509 in Noyon, Picardy. Calvin’s mother was very devout and she attempted to encourage Calvin to be devout also. Calvin’s father held both civil and ecclesiastical offices. Calvin was an eager student, and eventually he became a scholar with several published works including his first, a commentary on Seneca’s “On Clemency.” Calvin’s most well know work (which is still published today in several different translations) is his “Institutes.”
William Farel encouraged Calvin in July, 1536 to help his with his ministry in Geneva. Calvin was offered the position of “Professor of Sacred Scriptures” and he prepared a confession that those wanting to be citizens were to accept.
The moral discipline required by Calvin and Farel was strict and eventually in April of 1538 the city council ordered both reformers to leave the city. 
Calvin moved to Strassburg were he pastored and lectured. He married a widow, Idelette de Bure, in August 1540 (she died in March 1549). Idelette became an invalid from 1542 till her death, after the premature birth of Calvin’s son. The death of his wife was a painful event that hurt him badly. He received support from his friends which his letters show helped him significantly during this period of grief.
Calvin was invited back to Geneva in September, 1541 after his friends had regained power in the cities government. He was able to have instituted as strict moral code that all citizens of Geneva were to follow (if not they would be punished).
The church constitution accepted by the city put into practice Calvin’s leading ideas. Four offices governed the church: pastors, teachers, elders, and deacons. The twelve elders together with the ministers formed the Consistory, which was responsible for the moral supervision of the city. Offenses ranged from absences from public worship to drinking, adultery, gambling, and dancing.
Calvin published the first edition of his most famous work “Institutes of the Christian Religion” in 1536 and continued to revise and expand it till his definitive edition was published in 1559. The “Institutes” have been published in many languages. There are currently several English translations (some being more difficult to read than others because of English style and usage changes over the years).
Servetus (1509 (or) 1511-1553)
Servetus was born in what is now called Spain (then it was Villanova in Aragon) into a religious Catholic family. Early in his education he was interested in theology, philosophy, and the biblical languages. Servetus enjoyed traveling and visited several cities including Geneva, Strasburg, Basel, and many others.
During these travels Servetus came to believe that the doctrine of the Trinity was causing Jews, Muslims and others to reject the gospel. In 1531 he wrote “De Trinitatis Erroribus” and as a result both Reformers and Catholics attacked his teachings. Some have branded him as a Unitarian. Unitarians generally deny that Jesus is God. Servetus’ error was in teaching that Jesus is God, but not man.
Servetus had other interests such as medicine, theology and geography. He was one of the first to understand and publish information on the pulmonary circulation of blood.
Servetus had a deep interest in theology and as a result, began corresponding with Calvin in 1545 (they corresponded 1545-1546 for several years). From 1547 to 1553 he wrote his most well-known work, “Restitutio Christianismi” which was an attack on Calvin’s Institutes. This work eventually (published anonymously) resulted in both Catholic and Protestant hostility towards him. Calvin’s copy (sent to him by Servetus long before it was published in 1553) was eventually used as part of the correspondence and evidence against Servetus during his trial.
Christians generally agree that Servetus was theologically very much a heretic. He attacked vehemently the doctrine of the Trinity, Christ’s (human) Nature, and other doctrines. He also denied that circumcision in the Old Testament corresponded to baptism in the New. Because of this, he was against infant baptism (though he did believe in baptismal regeneration). Some have ‘lumped’ Servetus in with the Anabaptists, though he believed in baptismal regeneration and they did not.
Calvin documents in several different letters written to his friends his correspondence with Servetus over a several year period. Calvin appears to try to persuade Servetus of his error but as time went on Calvin became more and more convinced that Servetus would not repent and was hardened in his beliefs. Calvin went so far as to send Servetus a copy of his “Institutes” which Servetus then wrote negative remarks in and returned it to Calvin. This ‘marked up’ copy of the Institutes was also used as part of the prosecution’s case against Servetus during his trial.
Servetus, who went by the alias Villeneuve, maintained a secret correspondence with Calvin and argued that the Holy Spirit was a “power” of God, not a separate person, and that Jesus Christ was not truly divine. Servetus also denied infant baptism.
Calvin and Servetus corresponded several times over a significant period of time. Servetus was often obstinate and combative towards Calvin (though Calvin also was obstinate and angry at Servetus for not holding his teachings and writings (the Institutes) in as high a regard as Calvin did). He was often critical of the replies that Calvin sent back to him. Calvin mentioned or talked about Servetus many times with his friends in his personal letters. In one of the letters frequently quoted by those who disagree with Calvin, Calvin stated:
Many who take a negative view of the actions of John Calvin believe that Calvin eventually was able to carry through on this pledge to not let Servetus leave alive if he were to come to Geneva ("…for if he shall come, I shall never permit him to depart alive…").
Prior to and during the time that Servetus was on trial, Calvin’s enemies in Geneva were in the process of challenging his authority. This has led some to believe that Calvin may have taken a stronger stand against Servetus than he would have otherwise.
There is some disagreement about why Servetus decided to stay pass through Geneva, though Calvin did accept responsibility for having him detained:
Once Servetus was recognized, Calvin was the person responsible for having him detained. “But after he had been recognized, I thought that he should be detained. My friend Nicolas summoned him on a capital charge, . .
While there is some disagreement, most historians appear to believe that Servetus was just passing through Geneva and had planned on staying just a short time in Geneva. Some believe that Servetus meant to stay just a few days, but was detained against his will before he was arrested for several days. Most though agree that Servetus was in Geneva for approximately a month. Servetus some say had hired a boat to take him away from Geneva before he was captured.
Servetus was eventually apprehended while attending an evening church service. After being recognized, Calvin asked that he be detained. There is disagreement on why Servetus would have been in a public place. Some of the reasons given include: being tired of confinement in the Rose (sort of like an inn) and wanting to get out, the public law that all had to attend church service, or finally his interest in wanting to see Calvin ‘in person.’ He likely thought that he would not be recognized by the local citizens. This mistake would eventually cost him his life. Calvin though admitted that he was responsible for having Servetus detained and jailed.
Schaff states that Servetus asked for Counsel during the trial but was refused the representation of Counsel:
During the trial, letters were sent to different churches and Reformers in an effort to receive feedback on how they should proceed.  The responses from the churches and other reformers indicated that Servetus should be dealt with severely (though how he should be dealt with was not specified). Calvin was in agreement with their conclusion, though he sought to have the method of execution changed. Calvin thought he should be beheaded and not burned at the stake (though he was not against Servetus being put to death). Many historians believe Calvin did not do this out of compassion for Servetus. Calvin they believe knew the possible negative consequences of his having Servetus killed. Beheading was a punishment given for breaking Civil laws (not religious). In essence he may have been trying to shift the burden from himself to the state. Calvin was also responsible for providing most of the evidence during the trial that was used against Servetus (both letters and personal communications between the two men, as well as the copy of Calvin’s Institutes that Servetus had written notes in and returned to Calvin). His role in the trial of Servetus is compared by some to being the “chief witness for the prosecution (though some believe he was also the prosecutor – ultimately he later in his writings gladly accepted responsibility for putting Servetus to death):
While many of John Calvins supporters try to downplay Calvins role or ‘influence’ on the trial and execution of Servetus, Calvin was essentially ‘the protestant pope’ of Geneva. He was the ruler. If Calvin had objected to Michael Servetus being burned alive, the city rulers would very likely have done as John Calvin asked.
Calvin visited Servetus in prison in an effort to get him to repent. Servetus refused to repent and continued to insult Calvin. Many writers (especially reformed authors) state that the ultimate outcome and final punishment was not controlled by Calvin, but by the City Council of Geneva. According to them while Calvin had a significant influence in Geneva, he was not a king or ruler that could determine the outcome by decree. Unbiased writers and historians who are not trying to put Calvin in a ‘good’ light admit though that John Calvin really was the ‘ruler’ and person in charge of Geneva. His teachings influenced and impacted every area of the citizens lives. The laws he helped write control moral issues even in the citizens homes. There was no separation between church and state… the state and church were wedded together. There was little compassion or grace shown to those that transgressed these religious/civil laws (even over very minor issues). Many have called John Calvin the "Pope" of Geneva because of the amount of religious and civil control he exerted. Calvin states in several of his writings that he was the force behind the execution of Servetus. He never denied this, only his followers did years later when it became ‘unfashionable’ to kill those they disagreed with over religious issues.
Many (such as B.B. Warfield) defend Calvin strongly. Calvin for his part though accepted a significant amount of responsibility for Servetus’ arrest and prosecution (though not for the manner of death). In fact, in one of Calvin’s letters, he states bluntly that if Servetus ever comes to Geneva he (Calvin) would ensure Servetus would never leave alive. Many take this as one of the proofs that Calvin desired and wanted to have Michael Servetus killed (of cours Calvin admits he was responsible for Servetus’ death several times in his own writings).
Calvin admitted that he caused Servetus’ arrest in Geneva.
Calvin was responsible for this arrest, as he frankly and repeatedly acknowledged. It was a fatal mistake. Servetus was a stranger and had committed no offence in Geneva. Calvin ought to have allowed him quietly to proceed on his intended journey. Why then did he act otherwise? In his personal letters, Calvin admits repeatedly that he was responsible for Servetus being imprisoned. Here is an example:
Calvin also was responsible for providing the majority of the evidence that was used to convict Servetus. Servetus often did not help his case though as he was frequently negative and outspoken.
Farel (Calvin’s friend that had invited Calvin to come to Geneva) walked with Servetus to his execution. Farel attempted to get Servetus to repent along the way. A wreath of sulfer was placed on his head, and (according to some) the ‘half-green’ (slow burning) wood pyre burned Servetus for more than half an hour before he died. It should be noted that several sources document that ‘green wood’ was used to burn Michael Servetus at the stake. The green wood would have burned slower and at a lower temperature which ensured that Servetus would take much longer to die a cruel and agonizing death. Some documents state it took 1/2 hour of burning for Servetus to die, others say it took three hours. Either way the suffering of Servetus was horrible and extreme as the flesh slowly burned on his body. (Yet in the years and decade after Servetus’ death Calvin on multiple occassions defended his actions).
Calvin appears to have remained convinced for the rest of his life that Servetus’ execution was the right thing to do. In a letter written to Melanchthon about two years after Servetus’ death (also a supporter of Servetus’ execution) Calvin wrote:
Calvin admits that he displayed zeal in crushing the ‘impiety’ of Servetus.
Three years later, April 10, 1557, Melanchthon incidentally (in the admonition in the case of Theobald Thamer, who had returned to the Roman Church) adverted again to the execution of Servetus, and called it, a pious and memorable example to all posterity.”
Some authors have intimated that the death of Servetus may have been one factor that lead to a decline in the execution of heretics. The persecution (and executions) of heretics continued for many years despite what some have referred to as a growing movement against killing heretics. Even after the founding of the colonies in what was to become the United States, groups such as the Quakers were persecuted and some killed. The group that seems to have been persecuted by almost all of the state churches were the Anabaptists. While Servetus is often thrown into the same category as the Anabaptists, he had little in common with them.
Calvin’s actions with Servetus have placed a black mark on his history that Calvinists have continued to have to deal with form many, many years.
Christians have disagreed over why Servetus was executed for hundreds of years (that is to say, they have disagreed on the motives behind those who did the executing). There is general agreement that it was wrong for Calvin to have been involved in working towards and ensuring that Servetus be killed. There is significant disagreement at this point between Christians who have different viewpoints regarding the execution of Servetus. This divide seems to fall largely along theological lines. Calvinists generally support it, while other Christians say it was wrong.
Many who hold to reformed theology point out that Calvin was just doing what many others were also doing in countries all over the then civilized world. The lack of freedom of religion and persecution of heretics was a part of the culture and life during the time period. They point out that often these executions were not done out of hate, but trying preserve order and pure doctrine. They believed that those who were attempting to teach and spread false doctrine and dissent were a threat to society. They attempt to better understand the mindset of the early reformers (for example that the person might repent and be saved before they are executed, or that they are protecting other innocent people from believing the lies and going to an eternal hell). Yet is this really a good excuse? Many ‘Christians’ in todays churches are involved in Porn and other sins, does that make it right? I believe that we as Christians are responsible for following Biblical teachings and cannot use the excuse of "well others do it" or in the case of Calvin "well, it was just the culture of his time period."
John Calvin continues to have a very significant influence and impact upon Christianity. The Bible tells us specifically how we should treat those we disagree with. Jesus never taught His disciples that they should murder and slowly kill those who disagree with us. It is interesting to note that not only did John Calvin never repent during his lifetime, he several times (many years later) defended his actions and would have murdered him again. God has called us as Christians to be separate from the world and not to be influenced by our culture.
I have been told by Calvinists recently that I am not a Christian (that I am a heretic) because I do not believe in 5 point Calvinism. I would ask those reading this to please read this verse (and others like it). Let it sink in… and remember when you read this verse that John Calvin was proud of his having Servetus put to death and never repented:
1John 3:15 Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him. (1Jo 3:15 CSB)
The burning of Servetus has inflamed Calvin’s opponents for centuries. Those who defend the execution of Servetus often point to the fact that sentencing to death for heresy was a common and accepted event in that culture and time period.
One of Calvin’s strong supporters, Warfield, states:
Christians are impacted by the customs and cultures which they live in. Christians are called by God though to live a life dedicated to following God’s teachings as taught in the Bible, and to live a life of love and compassion towards others (even their enemies). If a Christian were to engage in adultery or pornography and attempt to justify it because ‘everyone else does it’, their argument would be rejected. In the same sense, to attempt to justify the execution of Servetus because ‘everyone else was doing it’ also falls short of the biblical teaching and love that God desires Christians to show others.
Calvin’s attackers though sometimes state the Calvin may not have been saved. He is accused by some as being unsaved, reprobate, and going to hell. A couple of books (as examples) that include large sections on Calvin and Servetus include books by Vance and Corner. Both give discuss some of the negative facts surrounding Michael Servetus’ death that are often ignored and overlooked by the majority of writers who are reformed and wish to defend their ‘hero’.
Many during the reformation period and during Calvin’s era lumped all of those they disagreed with into one ‘basket’ which they called the ‘Anabaptists.’ Servetus though disagreed with the Anabaptist’s on almost every teaching. While most Christians today would agree Servetus was a heretic, the Anabaptist in general held to orthodox beliefs. They did disagree with Infant Baptism (as Servetus did), but they did not believe in baptismal regeneration as Servetus did.
The Anabaptist were similar to modern day baptists. They disagreed with Calvinists and Catholics on the method of baptistm (sprinkling vs dunking). For this the Calvinists drowned, burned, and murdered many thousands of Christians. Just as Calvin thought it was OK to kill those he disagreed with, so did his followers. On a theological side note, I wonder if this may be related to Calvinistic Theology. Calvinism often teaches that God does not love those He has not elected. Calvinists often will say that God actively hates those who are not elect. Their view of God seriously distorts God’s nature as being a loving God. See this article for an example.
 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 8, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1979), 727.
 Rev. Philip Vollmer, John Calvin: Theologian, Preacher, Educator, Statesman (Philadelphia: The Heidelberg Press, 1909), 66-67.
 G. Coleman Luck, “Calvin and Servetus,” Bibliotheca Sacra 104, no. 414 (April 1947): 237.
 Mark Water, The New Encyclopedia of Christian Martyrs (Britain: John Hunt Publishing Ltd, 2001), 791.
 Benjamin B. Warfield, Calvin and Calvinism, vol. 5 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1932), 24.
 Bruce L Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 2nd ed. (Dallas: Word Books Publisher, 1995), 259.
 Hugh Reyburn,John Calvin: His Life, Letters, and Work (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1914), 91.
 Some have referred to her as an “Anabaptist Widow,” though this does not seem to be quite accurate. Idelete de Bure and her husband John Storder of Liege, attended Calvin’s church and after converting became members. One author put it “… whom he had been the means of rescuing from the fanaticism of the Anabaptists.” (Tweedie, p.27). If this is correct, her husband John was Reformed and not Anabaptist at his death. Calvin therefore did not marry an Anabaptist. See also: Reyburn, p. 91.
 Jules Bonnet and Marcus R. Gilchrist, Letters of John Calvin: Compiled From the Original Manuscripts and Edited With Historical Notes, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, n.d.), 202.
 Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 259.
 Warfield, Calvin and Calvinism, 5:7.
 Some historians place his birth in 1509, others 1511.
 David Cuthbertson, A Tragedy of the Reformation: Being the Authentic Narrative of the History and Burning of the "Christianismi Restitutio," 1553 (Edinburgh: Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier, 1912), 11. Cuthbertson has included actual photo copies of this work by Servetus.
 Donald K. McKim and David F. Wright, Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), 349.
 Reyburn, John Calvin: His Life, Letters, and Work, 170.
 Bonnet and Gilchrist, Letters of John Calvin: Compiled From the Original Manuscripts and Edited With Historical Notes, 2:19.
 Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 259.
 Bonnet and Gilchrist, Letters of John Calvin: Compiled From the Original Manuscripts and Edited With Historical Notes, 2:398.
 R. (M.D.) Willis, Servetus and Calvin: A Study of an Important Epoch in the Early History of the Reformation (London: Henry S. King and Co., 1877), 282.
 Ibid., 284.
 Thomas Dyer,The Life of John Calvin: Compiled From Authentic Sources, and Particularly From His Correspondence (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1855), 274.
 Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 8.
 W. K. Tweedie, Calvin and Servetus: The Reformers Share in the Trial of Michael Servetus (London: John Johnstone, 1846), 123.
 Calvin Memorial Addresses – Delivered Before the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (Richmond, VA: Presbyterian Committe of Publication, 1909), 280.
 Bonnet and Gilchrist, Letters of John Calvin: Compiled From the Original Manuscripts and Edited With Historical Notes, 2:416.
 Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 8.
 Mark R. Stevenson, “Whose Theology Is This? Dave Hunt’s Misrepresentation of Calvinsim” 15, no. 1 (2006): 15.
 Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 8.
 Bonnet and Gilchrist, Letters of John Calvin: Compiled From the Original Manuscripts and Edited With Historical Notes, 2:409.
 Daniel D. Corner, The Believers Conditional Security, 3rd ed. (Washington, PA: Evangelical Outreach, 2000), 41.
 Jules Bonnet and Marcus R. Gilchrist, Letters of John Calvin: Compiled From the Original Manuscripts and Edited With Historical Notes, vol. 3 (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, n.d.), 157.
 Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 8:730.
 Warfield, Calvin and Calvinism, 5:25.
 Laurence Vance, The Other Side of Calvinism, Rev. Ed. (Pensacola: Vance Publications, 1999), 89-99.
 Corner, The Believers Conditional Security, 36-48.
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