John Calvin and Michael Servetus

Michael ServetusThe following is part 7, concluding an excerpt from Presbyterians: Their History and Beliefs by Walter Lingle (John Knox Press, 1950). Click here to read part 1, part 2, part 3part 4 ,part 5 and part 6.

Calvin and Servetus. It is sometimes said that John Calvin burned Michael Servetus at the stake. Servetus was burned at the stake just outside Geneva on October 27, 1553. John Calvin had some connection with the affair, and the part he played is not excusable in the light of the twentieth century, but it is not accurate to say that Calvin did the burning. Let us look at the facts.

Michael Servetus was a Spaniard with a brilliant but erractic mind. He renounced Roman Catholicism, but did not embrace Protestantism. He was a prolific writer and wrote vehemently against some of the most chedrished doctrines of Christianity. Both Catholics and Protestants considered his writings not only heretical but horribly blasphemous.

In 1553 Servetus was arrested by the Roman Catholic authorities in Vienne, France, and sentenced to be burned. While awaiting execution he escaped, and went direct to Geneva. With all the world before him, why did he go to Geneva when he had been warned to stay away? He knew that Calvin had many bitter enemies, and probably knew that at that particular moment the majority of the City Council were opposed to Calvin. The City Council had banished him once, and might be induced to do it again. Servetus probably went to Geneva to ally himself with the enemies of Calvin and thus help to overthrow Calvin and his work. When Calvin heard of the presence of Servetus in Geneva he reported the matter to the City Council. Bear in mind that Calvin was not a member of the City Council and that the majority of the Council were opposed to him. The Council arrested Servetus and put him on trial for heresy and blasphemy. John Calvin appeard as a witness against him.

After a long trial the City Council found Servetus guilty of heresy and blasphemy, and sentenced him to be burned. Accoring to the Old Testament, blasphemy was punishable with death. John Calvin urged the Council not to burn Servetus, but to take a more humane method of executing him. The Council refused. The whole story is a sad one, and Calvin does not appear at his best in it, but we should judge him by the light of the century in which he lived. The large majority of both Protestants and Catholics in that century approved of the death penalty for heresy and blasphemy.

Notwithstanding this blot and other blots on the name of Calvin which might be mentioned. Ernest Renan, the French skeptic and critic, had this to say aobut Calvin: “He succeeded more than all, in an age and in a country which called for reaction towards Christianity, simply because he was the most Christian man of his century.”

The Closing Years. The trial of Servetus was in reality a contest between Calvin and his enemies. Calvin won. The backbone of the opposition was broken. The last ten years were the most peaceful and in many respects the most fruitful years of his life.

John Calvin died on May 27, 1564, the year in which Willam Shakespeare was born. A noted scoffer intimates, in language which is none too reverent, that it was a blessed exchange for the world. But many informed and thoughtful people, with a full appreciation of Shakespeare, do not agree with the scoffer. Here is what Philip Schaff, the distinguised church historian, says: “Calvin’s moral power extended over all the Reformed Churches, and over several nationalities–Swiss, French, German, Polish, Bohemian, Hungarian, Butch, English, Scottish, and American. His religious influence upon the Anglo-Saxon race of both continents is greater than that of any native Englishman, and continues to this day.”


15 responses

  1. Thanks for this series John. I thought also that Calvin was more lenient to Baptists than the other reformers. Do you remember anything on that?

    One other thing, what nationality is Butch again? 😉

  2. I’m not familiar enough with Calvin’s biography to be able to compare his attitude toward Baptists with other Reformers.

    What nationality is Butch? What else? That’s Dutch women! But seriously, I was half asleep when I transcribed many of these posts. I’m sure there are a lot of little nuggets to be enjoyed throughout the whole series.

    Apologies to Dutch women.

  3. Calvin also wrote to Servetus and told him not to come…Servetus also was given one of Calvin’s early manuscripts of the Institutes…and Servetus marked it all up…(a hand written document) no less. Calvin didn’ become a citizen of Geneva until 5 years before his death…so as far as his role in politics…(not a citizen.)


  4. Now John, you realize that if you are ever nominated to a Cabinet post or to the Supreme Court, that word will undoubtedly be used against you, no matter how loud you protest the mistaken use of Butch? 🙂

    But, a word of advice, if you are going to be tarred and feathered and carried out of the public discourse for such error, for the Lord’s sake, be all awaken and not half asleep! 🙂

    1. Good advice. Thanks for caring.

  5. Well, hmmmmm, maybe I was being a bit precocious as a child though?

    But I am glad your maturity is such that you took it as good advice! 🙂

  6. I tend to agree the issue with Servetus gets overplayed. But on the other hand: Sebastian Castellio gets underplayed. The huge number of people who were killed for witchcraft (a religious crime) gets underplayed. I did a post on Anne Le Fert where he doesn’t come off great either.

    1. Thanks for the references, CD-Host, I’m reading up on it and will get back to you at another time.

  7. John,

    One of your guys is currently being taken to school by God’s Word.

    It seems you’re missing the boat, as I don’t see you following it here.

    Do some searching, I’m confident you’ll find it. I know it’s Calvin week, but you’re missing out on a huge event.

    A clue, when you first met me, you delivered to me an internet printed out book (one which I had already owned for 3 or 4 years) which I immediately discarded in the nearest waste bin.

    Think back, and I’m sure you’ll find what I’m speaking of. Then I fully expect your blog to light up with this.

    May the Lord richly bless you.


    1. I suppose you’re referring to the debate between Camping and White on Iron Sharpens Iron. I’m following it. Thanks for the notice.

      Unfortunately I don’t recall the book I printed out and gave you. If you already had it, you could have told me so back when I offered it to you, whatever it was. Then you wouldn’t have to sound rude by informing us all how quickly you sought an opportunity to discard it. A simple, “No, thank you,” would have sufficed.

      Have a great week, Mark, and I’ll see you at shift change.


  8. It is interesting that one would brag about tossing books in the bin…

    Reminds me of a famous Erasmus quote about Luther- “By burning Luther’s books you may rid your bookshelves of him, but you will not rid men’s minds of him.”
    -Desiderius Erasmus

    Another one I thought of was…”There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”
    -Brodsky, Koseph

    John in my daily studies this evening I was reading the end of 2nd Timothy. I found it interesting tonight after reading your blog and one of the posts about tossing a book. It is amazing to me that the Apostle Paul, who knew he was about to die, and even stated he had finished the race…thought in his last days to get Timothy to bring the books…especially the parchments. Cap’n, when anti-intellectual sentiments are all the rage in the 21st century…be encouraged that even when the Apostle was about to die…he thought to ask Timothy to bring the books to him. Never tire of reading.

    2nd Timothy 4:13 When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.


    1. Thanks for the encouragement, my brother! And I’ll see you at church.

  9. Gage,

    that makes so much practical sense now doesn’t it? You are caged like an animal yet there is sufficient Grace that your handlers allow you reading material, if ever there was some good material in that cage to read! 🙂

    “Oh Timothy”! and bring that cloak before winter cause it’s looking like a cold spell is a coming!

  10. The trial of Servetus was in reality a contest between Calvin and his enemies. Calvin won. The backbone of the opposition was broken.
    Care to explain how sending Michael Servetus to the stake would have helped John Calvin “win” his “contest” with his enemies? Thanks.

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