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Agency Of Calvin In The Death Of Michael Servetus

It has long been the delight of both infidels and some professed
christians, when they wish to bring odium upon the opinions of Calvin,
to refer to his agency in the death of Michael Servetus. This action is
used on all occasions by those who have been unable to overthrow his
opinions, as a conclusive argument against his whole system. Calvin
burnt Servetus!--Calvin burnt Servetus! is good proof with a certain
class of reasoners, that the doctrine of the Trinity is not true--that
divine sovereignty is anti-scriptural,--and christianity a cheat. We
have no wish to palliate any act of Calvin's which is manifestly wrong.
All his proceedings, in relation to the unhappy affair of Servetus, we
think, cannot be defended. Still it should be remembered that the true
principles of religious toleration were very little understood in the
time of Calvin. All the other reformers then living, approved of
Calvin's conduct. Even the gentle and amiable Melancthon expressed
himself in relation to this affair, in the following manner. In a letter
addressed to Bullinger, he says, "I have read your statement respecting
the blasphemy of Servetus, and praise your piety and judgment; and am
persuaded that the Council of Geneva has done right in putting to death
this obstinate man, who would never have ceased his blasphemies. I am
astonished, that any one can be found to disapprove of this proceeding."
Farel expressly says, that "Servetus deserved a capital punishment."
Bucer did not hesitate to declare, that "Servetus deserved something
worse than death." The truth is, although Calvin had some hand in the
arrest and imprisonment of Servetus, he was unwilling that he should be
burnt at all. "I desire," says he, "that the severity of the punishment
should be remitted." "We endeavoured to commute the kind of death, but
in vain." "By wishing to mitigate the severity of the punishment," says
Farel to Calvin, "you discharge the office of a friend towards your
greatest enemy." "That Calvin was the instigator of the magistrates that
Servetus might be burned," says Turritine, "historians neither any where
affirm, nor does it appear from any considerations. Nay, it is certain,
that he, with the college of pastors, dissuaded from that kind of

It has been often asserted, that Calvin possessed so much influence with
the magistrates of Geneva, that he might have obtained the release of
Servetus, had he not been desirous of his destruction. This however, is
not true. So far from it, that Calvin was himself once banished from
Geneva, by these very magistrates, and often opposed their arbitrary
measures in vain. So little desirous was Calvin of procuring the death
of Servetus, that he warned him of his danger and suffered him to
remain several weeks at Geneva, before he was arrested. But his
language, which was then accounted blasphemous, was the cause of his
imprisonment. When in prison, Calvin visited him, and used every
argument to persuade him to retract his horrible blasphemies, without
reference to his peculiar sentiments. This was the extent of Calvin's
agency in this unhappy affair.

It cannot, however, be denied, that in this instance, Calvin acted
contrary to the benignant spirit of the gospel. It is better to drop a
tear over the inconsistency of human nature, and to bewail those
infirmities which cannot be justified. He declares he acted
conscientiously, and publicly justified the act. Cranmer acted the same
part towards the poor Anabaptists in the reign of Edward VI. This
doctrine they had learned at Rome, and it is certain, that, with a very
few exceptions, it was at this time the opinion of all parties. The
author of the Memoirs of Literature says, "If the religion of
protestants depended on the doctrine and conduct of the reformers, he
should take care how he published his account of Servetus; but as the
protestant religion is entirely founded on Holy Scripture, so the
defaults of the reformers ought not to have any ill influence on the
reformation. The doctrine of non-toleration, which obtained to the
sixteenth century, among some protestants, was that pernicious error
which they had imbibed in the Church of Rome; and I believe, I can say,
without doing any injury to that church, that she is, in a great
measure, answerable for the execution of Servetus. If the Roman
catholics had never put any person to death for the sake of religion, I
dare say that Servetus had never been condemned to die in any protestant
city. Let us remember, that Calvin, and all the magistrates of Geneva,
in the year 1553, were born and bred up in the church of Rome: this is
the best apology that can be made for them."--Biographia Evangelica,
vol. II. p. 42.

The apostles John and James would have called down fire from heaven;
Calvin and Cranmer kindled it on earth. This, however, is the only fault
alleged against Calvin; but "Let him that is without sin cast the first

"It ought, however," says a sensible writer, "to be acknowledged that
persecution for religious principles was not at that time peculiar to
any party of christians, but common to all, whenever they were invested
with civil power." It was a detestable error; but it was the error of
the age. They looked upon heresy in the same light as we look upon those
crimes which are inimical to the peace of civil society; and,
accordingly, proceeded to punish heretics by the sword of the civil
magistrate. If Socinians did not persecute their adversaries so much as
Trinitarians, it was because they were not equally invested with the
power of doing so. Mr. Lindsay acknowledges, that Faustus Socinus
himself was not free from persecution in the case of Francis David,
superintendent of the Unitarian churches in Transylvania. David had
disputed with Socinus on the invocation of Christ, and died in prison in
consequence of his opinion, and some offence taken at his supposed
indiscreet propagation of it from the pulpit. "I wish I could say," adds
Mr. Lindsay, "that Socinus, or his friend Blandrata, had done all in
their power to prevent his commitment, or procure his release
afterwards." The difference between Socinus and David was very slight.
They both held Christ to be a mere man. The former, however, was for
praying to him; which the latter, with much greater consistency,
disapproved. Considering this, the persecution to which Socinus was
accessary was as great as that of Calvin; and there is no reason to
think, but that if David had differed as much from Socinus, as Servetus
did from Calvin, and if the civil magistrates had been for burning him,
Socinus would have concurred with them. To this it might be added, that
the conduct of Socinus was marked with disingenuity: in that he
considered the opinion of David in no very heinous point of light; but
was afraid of increasing the odium under which he and his party already
lay, among other Christian churches.

It was the opinion, that erroneous religious principles are punishable
by the civil magistrate, that did the mischief, whether at Geneva, in
Transylvania, or in Britain; and to this, rather than to Trinitarianism,
or Unitarianism, it ought to be imputed.

The inflexible rigour with which Calvin asserted, on all occasions, the
rights of his consistory, procured him many enemies: but nothing daunted
him; and one would hardly believe, if there were not unquestionable
proofs of it, that, amidst all the commotions at home, he could take so
much care as he did of the churches abroad, in France, Germany, England,
and Poland, and write so many books and letters. He did more by his pen
than his presence; nevertheless on some occasions, he acted in person,
particularly at Frankfort, in 1556, whither he went to put an end to the
disputes which divided the French church in that city. He was always
employed, having almost constantly his pen in his hand, even when
sickness confined him to his bed; and he continued the discharge of all
those duties, which his zeal for the general good of the churches
imposed on him, till the day of his death, May 27, 1564. He was a man
whom God had endowed with very eminent talents; a clear understanding, a
solid judgment, and a happy memory: he was a judicious, elegant, and
indefatigable writer, and possessed of very extensive learning and a
great zeal for truth. Joseph Scaliger, who was not lavish of his praise,
could not forbear admiring Calvin; none of the commentators, he said,
had so well hit the sense of the prophets; and he particularly commended
him for not attempting to give a comment on the Revelation. We
understand from Guy Patin, that many of the Roman catholics would do
justice to Calvin's merit, if they dared to speak their minds. It must
excite a laugh at those who have been so stupid as to accuse him of
being a lover of wine, good cheer, company, money, &c. Artful slanderers
would have owned that he was sober by constitution, and that he was not
solicitous to heap up riches.

That a men who had acquired so great a reputation and such an authority,
should yet have had but a salary of 100 crowns, and refuse to accept
more; and after living 55 years with the utmost frugality, should leave
but 300 crowns to his heirs, including the value of his library, which
sold very dear, is something so heroical, that one must have lost all
feeling not to admire. When Calvin took his leave of Strasbourg, to
return to Geneva, they wanted to continue to him the privileges of a
freeman of their town, and the revenues of a prebend, which had been
assigned to him; the former he accepted, but absolutely refused the
other. He carried one of the brothers with him to Geneva, but he never
took any pains to get him preferred to an honourable post, as any other
possessed of his credit would have done. He took care indeed of the
honour of his brother's family, by getting him freed from an adultress,
and obtaining leave for him to marry again; but even his enemies relate
that he made him learn the trade of a bookbinder, which he followed all
his life after.

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