The 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 3, part 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.”