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.