Popular Science Monthly/Volume 12/November 1877/Sketch of Michael Servetus
|SKETCH OF MICHAEL SERVETUS.|||
THE publication of an elaborate life of Servetus in English at the present time will be welcome to many readers, who at present know little more of the man than that he was burned at the stake at Geneva, at the instigation of John Calvin, three hundred and twenty-five years ago. The progress of the world from polytheism to monotheism has had many tragic passages, but perhaps the most unique was this roasting alive of the Unitarian Servetus with green wood by a leader of the Protestant Reformation.
Dr. Willis, the author of the work, had edited an edition of the writings of William Harvey, accompanied by a biography of the great demonstrator of the circulation of the blood. His researches into this interesting subject led him to investigate the claims of Servetus to a share in this grand discovery, when it was established that he was "the first who proclaimed the true way in. which the blood from the right reaches the left chambers of the heart by passing through the lungs, and even hinted at its further course by the arteries to the body at large." His study of the subject deepened the interest of Dr. Willis in the character of Servetus, not only as a physiologist, but as a philosopher and scholar; as a practical physician, freed from the fetters of mediaeval routine; an eminent geographer and astronomer, and a liberal Biblical critic in days when criticism, as we understand the term, was unimagined.
Servetus was a Spaniard, born at Villanueva, in Aragon, in 1509, of an old family in independent circumstances. He entered the University of Saragossa when about fourteen years old, and there perfected himself in the study of the classics, in the Greek and Hebrew tongues, as well as in the ethics of Aristotle, scholastic philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and geography. From Saragossa he appears to have passed to the law-school of Toulouse, but theology had more attractions for him than law. A rational exposition of God's revelation of himself in Nature seems to have been a craving in the ardent and religious temperament of the thoughtful young Spaniard. While at Toulouse he read the Bible, the writings of Luther, the rational theology of Rymund de Sabunde, and the works of Erasmus. The effect of these studies was that, at eighteen years of age, he had already framed a theological system of his own, far in advance of the ideas of his time. Leaving Toulouse, Servetus entered the service of Juan Quintana, a Franciscan friar, and confessor of the Emperor Charles V., whose coronation he attended in Aix-la-Chapelle, and also the Diet of Augsburg, which closely followed it. Servetus was in sympathy with the Reformers of the Lutheran Reformation, and, in fact, came into conflict with them, because he did not think they were sufficiently rational and thorough-going, and what he saw of the pomp and tyranny of princes and bishops was not calculated to quiet the spirit of protest that early took a powerful hold upon his mind. At the age of twenty he writes: "For my own part. I neither agree nor disagree in every particular with either Catholics or Reformers. It would be easy enough, indeed, to judge dispassionately of everything, were we but suffered without molestation by the churches freely to speak our minds; the older exponents of doctrine, in obedience to the recommendation of St. Paul, giving place to younger men, and these, in their turn, making way for teachers of the clay, who had aught to impart that has been revealed to them. But our doctors now contend for nothing but power. The Lord confound all tyrants of the Church! Amen."
With such views, and a constitutional temperament that knew no fear, and led him to the free expression of his opinions, he was, of course, soon dismissed from the service of Quintana. He then threw himself, body and soul, into the study of theology, and in 1530 we find him at Basle, Switzerland, disputing with Œcolampadius and other theologians on the consubstantiality and coeternity of the Son with the Father, and other points in connection with the idea of the Trinity then prevailing among Catholics as well as Reformers. Being unable to make his views acceptable to the Reformer of Basle, he proceeded to Strasburg to propound histo Martin Bucer and W. F. Capito, but with no better results. Meanwhile, he had not been otherwise idle; he had written a book in which his new opinions concerning Christianity were fully explained, and he resolved upon having it printed, to make the world judge between him and the other Reformers. He was in Germany, the land of free thought, as he imagined, and among men who had thought freely: why should he not avail himself of the same right? The names of Luther, Calvin, etc., appeared on the title-pages of their works: why should his name be withheld from the world? Accordingly, the "Seven Books on Mistaken Conceptions of the Trinity" appeared with the author's full family name, and the name of the country that called him son.
As he appears in this book, Servetus may be considered as the founder of the doctrine of real monotheism, as it was possible to conceive it in the sixteenth century. We are sorry to be unable to give more than a passing notice of the chief points discussed in this work. He believed in a kind of Trinity, but modal and formal, not real and personal in the usual sense of the word. "God cannot be conceived as divisible," he says; he acknowledges a Son of God and a Holy Ghost, finding them in the Scriptures, no word of which he would overlook, though putting his own interpretation on all they say. "The word Trinity," he writes, "is not to be found in Scriptures. The Son and the Holy Ghost are no more than so many forms or aspects of Deity. . . . To believe," he continues, "suffices, it is said (to salvation); but what folly to believe aught that cannot be understood, that is impossible in the nature of things, and that may even be looked on as blasphemous! Can it be that mere confusion of mind is to be deemed an adequate object of faith?" Speaking of the Holy Ghost, Servetus forgot what is due to a subject that has engaged the serious thoughts of so many pious and learned men. He saw some portions of the Catholic Christian dogma so unreasonable as to be unable to refrain from ridiculing them. Yet the idea of God to which Servetus had attained is unquestionably pure and grand—the only one, in fact, as we see the subject, that can be reasonably held by a true idealist. He also deals heavy blows at the doctrine of justification by faith, the leading feature of Luther's theology, in terms neither complimentary nor respectful to its author; nor less roughly dealt with is the leading Calvinistic theory of predestination and election.
The book seems to have caused a considerable stir both in Germany and Switzerland, to have found proselytes in Italy, and to have been read by every one of liberal education. Some of the antagonistic Reformers themselves could not forbear being strongly impressed with it. Œcolampadius, writing to Martin Bucer, July 18, 1531, says: "Read the book, and tell me what you think of it; as the writer does not acknowledge the coeternity of the Son, I can in no wise approve of it as a whole, although it contains much that is good." Melanchthon writes to a friend, "I read Servetus a great deal." He does not agree with the author, but "I have little doubt," he continues, "that great controversies will one day arise on this subject as well as on the distinction of the two natures in Christ."
"The Reformers of the sixteenth century," Dr. Willis says, "went little way in freeing the religion of Jesus of Nazareth from the accretions which metaphysical subtilty, superstition, and ignorance of the laws of Nature, had gathered around it in the course of ages. Their business, as they apprehended it, was to reform the Church—the task Servetus had set himself, in the end, was to reform religion, with little thought of a church, in any sense as it was conceived in his clay either by papists or Protestants." How could a book in this direction be welcome to the Reformers? It was too far in advance of their ideas; Servetus's dialectics were too stringent, and his arguments too conclusive against them.
After writing a splendid letter to Œcolampadius, for which we regret to have no room, he quitted Switzerland, whither he had returned after the publication of his book at Hagenau; and here he seems to have again taken up his quarters for some weeks or months, to write and superintend the printing of the "Two Dialogues on the Trinity." Under color of modifying some of the views enunciated in his first work, he now cast the concluding anathema against all tyrants of the Church, as a parting shot, and off he went to France, reaching Paris toward the end of 1532.
If Switzerland and Germany "were too hot for him," Roman Catholic France would have proved still hotter; but during the time he lived in that country he never made himself known save as "Monsieur Michel Villeneuve," from the town of his nativity. He entered as a student of mathematics and physics at one of the colleges of Paris, and lived very quietly. At a later period he took his degree of M. A. in the University of Paris.
But the study of mathematics had soon to be abandoned for present means of subsistence. After a short stay at Avignon and Orleans, Villeneuve betook himself to Lyons, then a great centre of learning. There he seems to have found ready employment as reader and corrector of the press, first, and afterward as editor in the celebrated printing-establishment of Trechsel Brothers. Among the works he edited for them, the "Geography of Ptolemy," enriched by extensive comments from him, can by no means be overlooked, connected as it is with the charges imputed to its editor, later on, in his trial at Geneva.
The reading-room of the printers of Lyons, and the acquaintance Servetus formed there with the great physician and naturalist, Dr. Champier, brought the former back from the empyrean of metaphysics to the earth, and put him in the way of becoming the geographer, astrologian, Biblical critic, physiologist, and physician, with whom we are made familiar in his subsequent life and writings. With the money he had saved in the two years spent with Trechsel, he went back to Paris (1536), and gave himself to the study of medicine. He became at once associated with scientists as distinguished as Andreas Vesalius, the creator of modern anatomy, and Joannes Guinterus; and in a singularly short time he obtained the degree of M. D. With the stimulus of necessity upon him, for he was poor, and the excitement of ambition, with which he was largely endowed, as he found it hard to earn a living by his profession, Servetus appeared before the world as lecturer on geography and astrology—which then embraced the true doctrine of the heavenly bodies, as well as the false one of their influence on the life of man; and in this capacity he achieved an enormous success. Next he came forward in connection with his profession by writing a book on "Medicinal Sirups and their Use," thus winning fame also as a physician. A fiery struggle was going on during the early part of the sixteenth century between the Averrhoists and the Galenists. Like his initiator into medical matters, Dr. Champier, Servetus was himself a Galenist; but in this character, too, he showed the independence of his nature, by having open eyes for any truth which the Arabian writers and their followers might present.
Servetus's fate on starting in life was opposition. Through superior endowment and culture, he found himself antagonistic to almost all around him; his convictions were deep, and the haughtiness and violence of his disposition made it impossible to suppress them. The physician, therefore, met the fate of the theologian. It seems that he had gone out of the way, in his lectures, to accuse his fellows of ignorance, at least, of astronomy. The doctors of the faculty retaliated by denouncing him from their chairs as an impostor and a windbag. Servetus then wrote a pamphlet, in which he laid hare the sore places in the characters of his adversaries, even holding them up, in their ignorance, as the pests of society. His intentions being made known, the Senate of the University and the Parliament of Paris were petitioned to forbid the publication of the pamphlet; hut Servetus outwitted them—before the day of citation came, the dreaded pamphlet was distributed to the public. The faculty of medicine had him summoned before the inquisitor of the king as an enemy of the Church, on the score of heresy, implied in the practice of judicial astrology. So thoroughly, however, did he satisfy the inquisitor that he was a good Christian, that he left the court with flying colors, absolved even of all suspicion of heresy. The doctors, however, in the end, won the day. The award of the Parliament ordered Michael Villanovanus to call in his pamphlet and deposit the copies in the court; to pay all honor to the faculty and its members; and he was expressly forbidden to appear in public or in any other way as a professor of astrology.
Villeneuve now moved to Charlieu, near Lyons, where he resumed the practice of medicine. While at Charlieu (1539), having attained his thirtieth year, according to the religious tenets he professed, he had himself baptized.
Pierre Paumier, one of his Paris admirers and friends, and now Archbishop of Vienne, hearing of his whereabouts, invited him to quit the narrow field of his practice for a wider one. Villeneuve accepted, and for the next twelve years he lived in Vienne, under the immediate patronage of the eminent prelate.
Besides practising medicine, he resumed his connection with the publishers of Lyons, and among other works edited the Latin Bible for Trechsel, with comments of his own. From his long studies in the Scriptures he had come to the conclusion that, while the usual prophetical bearing ascribed to the Old Testament was ever to he kept in view, the text had a primary, literal, and immediate reference to the age in which it was composed and to personages, events, and circumstances, among which the writers lived; and, according to this plan, he carried out the work. Yet Spinoza, Astruc, and others, who lived a century later, are called the founders of the modern school of Biblical exegesis, and Servetus is not even named as a Biblical critic and expositor!
We have now arrived at a momentous event in the life of Servetus —his theological correspondence with John Calvin. It seems to have been entered upon at the suggestion of John Frelon, one of the Lyons publishers.
Servetus has been accused of having provoked the Genevese Reformer by addressing him in a style calculated to wound, if not to insult, him; and the character of the man gives likelihood to the charge. But, had Calvin's letters been preserved, we doubt whether the accusation would hold good; we know for a certainty that the great Reformer applied very freely the lowest epithets to his opponents—"rascal, dog, ass, and swine, being found of constant occurrence among them—had there been any stronger than scoundrel and blasphemer, they would have been hurled at Servetus." Calvin's own letter to Frelon, their go-between, throws a great light on the subject. Among other things, he writes: "I have been led to write to him more sharply than is my wont, being minded to take him down a little in his presumption; and, I assure you, there is no lesson he needs so much to learn as humility." At any rate, Villeneuve approached the Reformer, at first, as one seeking aid and information from another presumed most capable of giving both. Calvin replied in a concise, dogmatic way which, indeed, could not satisfy a mind as thoroughly made up as that of Servetus. Moreover, the Reformer soon grew weary of the correspondence, so that Frelon had to interpose in behalf of the Spaniard in order to make the former answer his letters. Nor is this all: thinking he might escape further molestation, Calvin referred Servetus to his book, "Institutions of the Christian Religion," as though he had been a schoolboy who had entered upon a discussion with the Reformer, with no knowledge of his doctrines. Villeneuve now became his critic. The copy of the "Institutions" was sent back, copiously annotated in the margin. There was hardly a proposition in the text that was not taken to pieces by him and found untenable on the ground of Scriptures and patristic authority, and this he did with the freedom of expression in which Villeneuve indulged. Calvin, in writing to a friend, indignantly says, "There is hardly a page that is not defiled by his vomit." "The liberties taken with the 'Institutions,' "Dr. Willis says, "were looked on as a crowning personal insult by Calvin; and reading, as we do, the nature of the man, it is not difficult to conclude that it was this offense, superadded to the letters, which put such rancor into his soul as made him think of the life of his critic as no more than a fair forfeit for the offense done." As a matter of course, the correspondence was soon dropped by Calvin, but not so by Servetus, who seemingly could not bear his opponent's neglect; over thirty letters of his, embracing a period of more than two years, are still extant.
Servetus meanwhile had prepared another book, "Christianismi Restitutio" (The Restoration of Christianity) with which he intended to bring religion back to more winning simplicity and purity. Having made a MS. copy of it, he sent it to Calvin, requesting an opinion on its merits. It was on its reception that, writing to his friend Farel, Calvin made use of the following language: "Servetus wrote to me lately, and besides his letter sent me a great volume full of his ravings, telling me with audacious arrogance that I should there find things stupendous and unheard of until now. He offers to come hither if I approve; but I will not pledge my faith to him: for, did he come, if I have any authority here, I should never suffer him to go away alive." "We see already by what feeling Calvin was animated: he hates the man who did not acknowledge his superiority, as he was accustomed to see others do, and who dared to criticise his opinions. Not only did he not even condescend to offer any strictures upon Servetus's work, but he never sent back the MS., although repeatedly asked for it.
Servetus, who had kept another copy for himself, determined to have the book printed anonymously. Arrangements were made with Balthasar Arnoullet, printer at Vienne, and, as secrecy was of capital importance, a small house away from the known printing-establishment was taken; type, cases, and a press, were there set up, and in a period of between three and four months an edition of 1,000 copies was successfully worked off. The whole impression was then made up into bales of 100 copies each, and confided to friends at Lyons, Frankfort, etc., for safe-keeping, until the moment of putting them in the market abroad had come.
The book on "The Restoration of Christianity" comprises a series of disquisitions on the speculative and practical principles of Christianity as apprehended by the author; thirty of the letters he had written to Calvin; and other writings of minor importance. It is in this book that Servetus shows himself the most far-sighted physiologist of his age, by anticipating the discovery of the circulation of the blood.
Through Frelon a copy of the book, "hot from the press," was especially addressed to "Monsieur Johann Calvin, minister of Geneva." We leave for the reader to imagine what additional anger must now have entered the Reformer's heart, when, besides the offensive and, as he regarded it, heretical matter of the book, he found the letters written to him made public, himself publicly schooled, his most cherished doctrines proclaimed derogatory to God, and some of them as barring the gates of heaven! What the reader, perhaps, could not imagine is, that the "high-minded" man who had emphatically denounced the "right of the sword" in dealing with heresy, was now ready to become instrumental in having it applied to Servetus. He became the denunciator of Servetus to the Catholic authorities of Vienne; he betrayed friendship and trust by furnishing them with
the documents (letters and leaves from the printed book as well as the MS. copy which he had kept) that would bring about his conviction, and consequently his death. And this was not done openly. Calvin sent the wanted information through a convert to the Reform, a young man by the name of William Trie. Did not the style of Trie's letters and the documents show plainly the part played by the Reformer in the treason, he might be easily absolved from the charge—so cautiously had he worked to keep his treachery a mystery. Servetus was arrested and tried; he only avoided being burned alive by making good his escape from prison (April 17, 1553), in which he seems to have been aided by some devoted friend. All the books, however, that could be found, were seized and burned, together with his effigy.
Escaped from the prison of Vienne, after rambling some weeks through Southern France, he fled to Geneva. His choice of this place can hardly be accounted for. Perhaps, though he knew that Calvin had been his denunciator, it never entered his mind that the Reformer would now take the knife in hand himself. In the early morning of some day after the middle of July, he entered Geneva and put up at a small hostelry on the banks of the lake, where he seems to have lived very privately for nearly a month. On Sunday, August 13th, he ventured imprudently to show himself at the evening service of a neighboring church. Being recognized, Calvin was informed of his presence, and without a moment's delay he again denounced him, and demanded his arrest. Servetus was at once thrown into the common jail of the town.
According to the laws of Geneva, grounds for an arrest on a criminal charge were to be delivered within twenty-four hours thereafter. Calvin worked all night, and thirty-eight articles drawn from the "Christianismi Restitutio" were in due time presented in support of the charge. Another law prescribed that criminal charges should be made by some one who avowed himself aggrieved, and was contented to go to prison with the party he accused, the law of retaliation disposing of him in case his charges were not made good; and Calvin complied with this law, too, by means of a substitute. His cook, Nicolas La Fontaine, was the man who now came forth as "personally aggrieved by," and prosecutor of, Michael Servetus!
The main charges against the Spaniard were: his having troubled the churches of Germany, about twenty-four years previously, with his heresies and with an execrably heretical book, by which he had infected many; having continued to spread poison abroad with his "Comments to the Bible," the "Geography of Ptolemy," and lately with his "Restoration of Christianity;" having blasphemed against the Trinity, the Sonship of Christ, his consubstantiality with the Father, and proclaimed infant baptism a diabolic invention; having escaped from the prison of Vienne; and, finally, "of having in his printed books made use of scurrilous and blasphemous terms of reproach in speaking of Monsieur John Calvin and his doctrines."
Servetus's reply in his preliminary interrogatory was: that he was not conscious of having caused any trouble to the churches of Germany, and defied any one to prove it; that he was unaware that the book he owned to have had printed at Hagenau had produced any evil; that it was true he had commented on the above-mentioned books, but he had said nothing in them that was not the truth; and in the book lately printed he did not believe that he blasphemed, but if it were shown that he had said anything amiss, he was ready to amend it; that in the book he wrote on the Trinity he had followed the teaching of the doctors who lived immediately after Christ and the apostles; that previous to the Council of Nicæa no doctor of the Church had used the word Trinity; that his strong language against the Trinity, as apprehended by the modern doctors, was suggested by the belief that the unity of God was by them denied or annulled; that as regards infant baptism it was his belief that none should be baptized who had not attained the years of discretion; but he added, as ever, that if he were shown to be mistaken, he was ready to submit to correction; that Calvin had no right to complain of the respondent's abusive language, as he had been himself publicly abused by Calvin: he had but retaliated, and shown him from his writings that he was mistaken in many things.
On August 15th the council was formally installed as a court of criminal judicature, and the trial commenced; the answers of the prisoner to the articles being generally in the terms of his previous examination. The court closed the meeting with making good a petition of Nicolas La Fontaine to be discharged from prison, Servetus himself having given sufficient prima-facie evidence of his guilt. Bail was, however, required; and this was immediately forthcoming in the person of Monsieur Antoine Calvin, brother of the Reformer. The chef de cuisine was discharged, while Servetus was remanded to jail. About this time, in a letter to his bosom friend Farel, after relating the events of Servetus's arrest and of the proceedings against him, Calvin wrote, "I hope the sentence will be capital at least."
It would be most interesting to follow this unprecedented sham-trial in all its details, as Dr. Willis has done; but want of space limits us to mere outlines of it. The party of free thought, or Libertines, showing sympathy for the prisoner, the trial assumed the character of a struggle between the two factions in Geneva. It was necessary for Calvin to nip in the bud the new growth of rebellion against his authority; and, throwing aside disguise, he now came forward as prosecutor of Servetus. The Spaniard's opinions differed so obviously from all they had ever been led to believe, that it was easy for Calvin to satisfy the majority of the judges of Servetus's culpability on theological grounds. It seems, however, that a feeling in favor of the prisoner prevailed in the court; the Swiss churches, which on a similar occasion had decided against Calvin, were appealed to for advice, and the proceedings were postponed. It is pitiful to see how Calvin had set his heart on the condemnation of Servetus. He interfered with the course of justice by threatening the weakest among the judges, by stirring the feelings of his party in the council; he denounced and vilified his opponent from the pulpit in no measured terms, exposing his opinions in their most glaring and repulsive aspects; lie tampered with the ministers of the Swiss churches; he formulated new and more elaborate articles of accusation, and to these, besides his own, had the signatures of thirteen of his fellow-ministers appended—in one word, he left no stone unturned to wreak his revenge. He wanted Servetus's death! The arguments and authorities piled against him by Calvin were so many, and the proceedings became so intricate, that Servetus was forced to request that he might be furnished with books, and have pen, ink, and paper, supplied, in which to epitomize his defense. The jailer was directed to give him the books he wanted, and a single sheet of paper!
On this "famous" sheet, Servetus, after demonstrating that civil tribunals are incompetent to decide on questions bearing on religion only, and that heretics were either to be brought to reason by argument, or punished by banishment, and not by prison, concludes:
"Secondly, my lords, I entreat you to consider that I have committed no offense within your territory; neither, indeed, have I been guilty of any elsewhere: I have never been seditious, and am no disturber of the peace. During all the time I passed in Germany, I never spoke on such subjects" (his theological views), "save with Œcolampadius, Bucer, and Capito; neither in France did I ever enter on them with any one. I have always disavowed the opinions of the Anabaptists, seditious against the magistrate, and preaching community of goods. Wherefore, as I have been guilty of no sort of sedition, but have only brought up for discussion certain ancient doctrines of the Church, I think I ought not to be detained a prisoner, and made the subject of a criminal prosecution."In conclusion, my lords, inasmuch as I am a stranger, ignorant of the customs of this country, not knowing either how to speak or to comport myself in the circumstances under which I am placed, I humbly beseech you to assign me an advocate to speak for me in my defense."
If a shadow of justice had ruled the trial, this petition would have met with success; but the court took no notice of it. "Skilled in lying as he is," said the attorney-general, Calvin's tool, "there is no reason why he should now demand an advocate."
After the sitting of September 1st, in compliance with a wish previously expressed by the court, Calvin, surrounded by a staff of ministers, proceeded to the jail to visit the prisoner. Calvin having then opened upon him with a bigoted lecture, the consequences are easily imagined: the interview' ended as it could only end—with increased irritation on both sides. From this time (and we cannot but excuse the man), Servetus became more intemperate and aggressive on Calvin; not only indisposed to yield one jot or tittle, but negligent also of opportunities to defend his conclusions. Perhaps he knew it was useless to argue, for, as a Spanish proverb says, "No man is so deaf as he who will not hear." Perhaps Perrin and Berthelier, the leaders of the Libertines, too, had fed his brain with false hopes and promises.
The trial was now interrupted through differences between Calvin and the city fathers about municipal affairs. On September 15th Servetus wrote to the council a letter, from which we quote the first paragraph:
On the 22d of September, perhaps instigated by Berthelier, Servetus took a bold step: he accused Calvin as his calumniator, and asked him to be declared subject to the law of retaliation; but the council took no more notice of this than they had of the previous petition. The appeal to the churches of Switzerland caused another pause in the proceedings, and Michael Servetus, October 10th, forwarded the following letter to the council:
This appeal of the prisoner, as far as his needs were concerned, met with an immediate response; but the audience was never granted. The answers of the Swiss churches arrived at last, and as Calvin had been their inspirer, and they had been taken in concert, they unanimously condemned Servetus's theological views. On the 26th of October the council solemnly assembled and condemned Servetus to be burned alive with his books; the sentence to be carried into effect on the morrow! In a letter to Farel, alluding to the vain attempts made by Perrin, the first syndic, by delay and entreaty, to save the prisoner's life, Calvin speaks of the merciful man by the nickname under which he was wont to characterize his great Libertine opponent, and says:
The sentence was imparted to Servetus in the early morning of the following day—his last. Encouraged by the Libertines, and knowing himself guilty of no intentional blasphemy, he had never thought it possible that he would be condemned to death. He was at first as if struck dumb by the intelligence. He did but groan and sigh, as though his heart would burst, and cry, in his native language, "Misericordia!" Having by degrees recovered self-possession, he requested to see Calvin. Accompanied by two councilors, Calvin entered the prison and asked what he wanted of him. Servetus had the heroic virtue to ask pardon of him—the man who had brought him to his death! Hard to say: the intolerant despot of Geneva, devoid of all humanity, had not a word of mercy for his victim, when a word of his would have saved him!
An hour before noon of October 27, 1553, Servetus was taken from his jail to receive his sentence from my lords the councilors and justices of Geneva. The tribunal, in conformity with custom, assembled before the porch of the Hôtel-de-Ville, and received the prisoner, all standing. The proper officer then proceeded to recapitulate the heads of the process against him, "Michael Servetus, of Villanova, in the kingdom of Aragon, in Spain," in which he is charged—
"Now we, the syndics and judges in criminal cases within this city, having reviewed the process carried on before us, at the instance of our lieutenant having charge of such cases, against thee, Michael Servetus, of Villanova, in the kingdom of Aragon, in Spain, whereby guided, and by the voluntary confessions made before us, many times repeated, as well as by thy books produced before us, we decree and determine that thou, Michael Servetus, hast, for a long time, promulgated false and heretical doctrine, and, rejecting all remonstrance and correction, hast maliciously, perversely, and obstinately, continued disseminating and divulging, even by the printing of books, blasphemies against God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, in a word, against the whole foundations of the Christian religion, thereby seeking to create schism and trouble in the Church of God, many souls, members of which, may have been ruined and lost—horrible and dreadful thing, scandalous and contaminating in thee, thou, having no shame nor horror in setting thyself up in all against the Divine Majesty and the Holy Trinity, and having further taken pains to infect, and given thyself up obstinately to continue infecting, the world with thy heresies and stinking heretical poison—case and crime of heresy grievous and detestable, deserving of severe corporal punishment."These and other just causes moving us, desiring to purge the Church of God of such infection, and to cut off from it so rotten a member, we, sitting as a judicial tribunal in the seat of our ancestors, with the entire assent of the General Council of the state, and our fellow-citizens, calling on the name of God to deliver true judgment, having the Holy Scriptures before us, and saying, In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, we now pronounce our final sentence, and condemn thee, Michael Servetus, to be bound and taken to Champel, and there bound to a stake, to be burned alive, along with thy books, printed as well as written by thy hand, until thy body be reduced to ashes. So shall thy days end, and thou be made an example to others who would do as thou hast done. And we command you, our lieutenant, to see this our sentence carried forthwith into execution."
The staff, according to custom, was then broken over the prisoner, and there was silence for a moment. The terrible sentence pronounced, the silence that followed was first broken by Servetus; not to sue for mercy, for he knew there was no appeal, but to entreat that the manner of carrying it out might be commuted for one less dreadful. "He feared," he said, "that, through excess of pain, he might prove faithless to himself, and belie the convictions of his life. If he had erred, it was in ignorance; he was so constituted, mentally and morally, as to desire the glory of God, and had always striven to abide by the teachings of the Scriptures." His appeal to the humanity of the judges, however, met with no response. He prayed God to forgive his enemies and persecutors, and then exclaimed: "O God, save my soul! O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have compassion upon me!" From the Hôtel-de-Ville he was taken to Champel. While on the way thither, Farel, the minister who accompanied him, tried to wring from him an avowal of his error, and the prayer, "Jesus, thou Eternal Son of God!" The unhappy Servetus, with a martyr's faith, only replied in broken invocation, "Jesus, thou Son of the Eternal God, have compassion upon me!"
Thus perished a noble man of whom his age was not worthy—the victim of murderous religious bigotry. But the crime that had been committed shocked the humanity of Geneva, even in that dark period, and, before the year was out, Calvin was driven to self-defense, and displayed the remorseless traits of his character by libeling the man whom he had slain. It is said that, in this persecution unto death, he only manifested the spirit of his age, and must be judged by that standard. While this may be true, it is also happily true that in the lapse of centuries better standards have arisen, by which the character of Calvin will be given over to execration, while that of Servetus will be increasingly honored as that of an heroic Christian martyr.
- "Servetus and Calvin: A Study of an Important Epoch in the Early History of the Reformation." By R. Willis, M.D. 541 pages. London: Henry S. King & Co.
- The "Christianismi Restitutio" of Servetus is one of the rarest books in the world. Of the thousand copies printed, two only are now known to survive: one among the treasures of the National Library of Paris, the other among these of the Imperial Library of Vienna.
- Germain Colladon was introduced as counsel for Nicolas La Fontaine, and continued all through the trial as Calvin's champion.