The Servetus Affair

Michael Servetus (1511–1553)

THERE WAS ONE TRAGIC EVENT during Calvin’s tenure in Geneva which brought him not only heartache, but also condemnation. If Calvin is remembered for anything beyond his doctrine of predestination, it was his part in the trial of Michael Servetus. No one should excuse Calvin for consenting to the execution of this confessed heretic, but one should understand that men of the sixteenth century viewed blasphemy as a capital offense. This was no less true of Catholics than of Protestants.

Servetus had been condemned to death in absentia throughout Catholic and Protestant Europe for his vehement denial of the Trinity. In an extraordinarily foolish move, Servetus, having just escaped from a Roman Catholic prison, decided to go to Geneva. He knew full well that Geneva was not likely to be hospitable. With some uncontrollable urge pushing him forward, Servetus boldly took a seat in the Cathedral of St. Pierre while Calvin was preaching. He was recognized immediately and arrested.

There was a certain inevitability that Servetus would one day find himself surrounded by burning faggots. The only uncertainty was by whose hands would it come—Protestants or Catholics? Despite his angry denunciations of Calvin at his trial, Calvin visited Servetus in jail and earnestly sought to persuade him of his errors. Servetus dismissed Calvin with a laugh.

The confrontation at Servetus’s trial was not the first time the two men had encountered each other. Nearly twenty years earlier, Calvin jeopardized his life by returning to a hostile Paris in order to share the gospel with a young heretic named Michael Servetus. Years later Calvin wrote, “I was even willing to risk my life to win him to our Lord, if possible.” But Servetus’s erratic behavior was evident even then. After arranging this meeting with Calvin, Servetus did not appear.

When the sentence was passed upon Servetus, Calvin requested that the Genevan city government grant Servetus a more humane death. The judges remained adamant, and Calvin’s request was denied. Servetus was burned at the stake in Geneva on October 27, 1553.

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #12 in 1986]

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