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]
From the Archives: Calvin the Reluctant Recruit
Resolved to remain obscure, Calvin could not stand his ground with William Farel.John Calvin
From the Archives: To Luther
Full text of a letter Calvin sent to Martin Luther.John Calvin
From the Archives: Selections from Confessions of Faith
Selections From Confession of Faith which all the citizens and inhabitants of Geneva and the subjects of the country must promise to keep and hold.Council of Geneva
From the Archives: On the Advantages of an Inventory of Relics
What got Calvin riled enough to indulge in biting satire?John Calvin
Subscribe to magazine
Subscription to Christian History magazine is on a donation basisSubscribe
Christian History Institute (CHI) is a non-profit Pennsylvania corporation founded in 1982. Your donations support the continuation of this ministryDonate