THE TRIAL AND DEATH OF SERVETUS
AFTER HIS ESCAPE from the prison at Vienne, the world completely lost track of Servetus during more than four months. Legends naturally sprang up, and within less than a month the rumor was accepted at Wittenberg that he had already died in Paris in a state of horrible insanity.1 Calvin, however, drawing a mistaken inference from a correspondent lately returned to Zurich from Italy, and greatly concerned over the wide spread of Servetus’s views there, wrote to another friend that Servetus after his escape had been wandering in Italy for almost four months.2 Again, a Geneva historian writing nearly two centuries later, though without giving any authority, stated that Servetus lay hidden at Geneva a month before he was discovered.3 Neither of these views was well founded. On the contrary, the earliest evidence states that Servetus was discovered and arrested on the very day of his arrival at Geneva.4
Not knowing which way to turn, he had spent over eighteen weeks as a man without a country, skulking in out-of-the-way France, before he ventured to cross its borders into another land.5 He had at first started to go into Spain, but he turned back for fear of the gendarmes, 6 and as he dared not return to the Rhine cities whence he had fled twenty-one years before and where he might still be recognized, he finally decided to go to the Kingdom of Naples where there were many of his countrymen, and to practice his profession among them.7 Two routes thither were possible: either that through Piedmont which, though the more direct, offered greater danger of arrest while still on French soil; or the more roundabout way through Geneva, Zurich and the Grisons into northern Italy where, as he perhaps knew, he had many disciples. This was the favorite route for Protestant refugees from Italy, and was taken this very summer by Gribaldi returning from Geneva to Padua;8 and it would bring him at once into relatively safe Protestant territory. Thus it was that, having spent the night at the little Savoy village of l’Eluiset, a few miles west of town, and disposed of his horse, he arrived at Geneva on foot and alone on August 13, and turned in at the Rose d’Or, at the corner of the place du Molard and the rue du Rhone, at that time the most comfortable hotel at Geneva.9 He did not intend to stay at Geneva, and he had already requested his host to procure him a boat for conveyance up the lake on the way to Zurich. In order not to be recognized, he kept out of sight as well as he could, and had no communication with any one.10 Unfortunately the day was Sunday, when even a stranger might not absent himself from church without inviting trouble. He therefore attended afternoon worship (at the Madeleine, it is said), and there he was recognized by persons who went forthwith to report him to Calvin.11
Calvin had no idea why Servetus had come to Geneva,12 but lest the contagion of his heresy spread further, he thought it his duty to have him taken into custody as one that, in obstinate contempt of all warnings, had for over twenty years been spreading the poison of his prodigious errors.13 He therefore at once had Servetus denounced to the magistrate that he might be arrested on the charge of heresy. The magistrate replied that this might not be done legally unless some one at the same time submitted to imprisonment as accuser.14 For the laws of the republic provided, as a bar to malicious or unwarranted accusation of crime subject to corporal punishment, that the accuser should be held together with the accused until a case had been made out, and that if it were not established he should himself suffer the penalty for the crime charged — the so-called poena talionis.15 As it would have been impracticable for the chief of the company of the city’s pastors to meet this condition, he got one Nicolas de la Fontaine, a servant in his employ,16 to stand as nominal accuser in his stead. Servetus was then called out of church and lodged in the city prison, where he was held incomunicado (save to those friendly to Calvin), and he never left it except to be led to the stake.17 Although Calvin had shrunk from acknowledging any responsibility for the arrest of Servetus at Vienne, he repeatedly avowed that he had caused that at Geneva,18 being fully persuaded that thereby he had done God service.
Before proceeding to an account of the trial of Servetus, it is important to have a clear understanding of the situation existing at Geneva in the summer of 1553, since political and religious factors furnish the background against which the trial must be seen. Geneva had become Protestant in 1535; but the reform was at first less a religious movement than a political revolution, in which Geneva threw off the oppressive yoke of the Duke of Savoy and the Bishop. The religious leadership of Farel had been accepted as a means to this end, and the form of worship was changed and the Protestant faith adopted. But many citizens were still Catholic at heart, and many more interpreted the Reformation as a guarantee of the largest personal freedom in conduct, no less than of freedom from political oppression. The reformed pastors, however, took the movement with the utmost seriousness, and in their efforts to make Geneva a model of what a Christian city should be, they adopted and enforced ordinances applying to the last details of social and private life.19 As the Genevans had long been a gay and pleasure-loving people, with rather loose standards of private morals, they regarded the new regime as an encroachment on personal liberty. A powerful party, including many of the most prominent families as well as a large number from the humbler classes, took form against the strict discipline enforced by the pastors. They called themselves Patriots, but by the stricter party were called Libertines. In 1538 they succeeded in gaining control of the government, and banished both Farel and Calvin who had come in 1536 to assist him. After two years and a half of civil and moral chaos, when there was grave danger that the Catholics would regain control, the government of the city asked Calvin to return. After a year of urging he reluctantly did so in 1541. His church discipline was adopted as law, and henceforth, though in name only one of the city’s pastors, he was in effect dictator in both the religious and the civil life of Geneva.
Opposition to Calvin’s strict form of government did not cease, however, despite many fines, imprisonments, banishments and even executions of recalcitrants, and it had never been more active and determined than in the summer of 1553. Calvin was doubtless the best hated man in Geneva. Four new members of the’ Council had lately been elected who were opposed to him, and his leading opponent was made Chief Syndic. Dr. Jerome Bolsec, who had been banished for persistent opposition to Calvin’s doctrine, was attempting to get reinstated, and bid fair to succeed. A distinguished citizen named Philibert Berthelier, who had been excluded from the Lord’s Supper by the Consistory, won the support of the Council, which reversed the sentence of excommunication. The pastors were excluded from participation in the general assembly of citizens. The rights of citizens of alien origin, who sided with Calvin, were abridged. Anabaptists were troublesome to public order. Calvin was all but ready to confess himself defeated and his cause lost, had he not been encouraged by leaders of the Reformation in the other Swiss cities.
It was at just this juncture, when the contest between Calvin and the Libertines was culminating, and the very fate of the Reformation at Geneva seemed to be at stake, that Servetus unexpectedly appeared on the scene. There is no ground for thinking (although it has often been assumed) that during the past four months Servetus had been in communication with the Libertines, or indeed that he had any knowledge of how things were going. So far as can be known, his coming at this critical time was a pure co-incidence. But Calvin did not know this, nor that Servetus meant to pass on as soon as possible; and there was at least the possibility that if Servetus learned of the situation he might seize the opportunity to stay and spread his heresies here, relying upon protection from the Libertines. This indeed they actually gave during his trial in a small and ineffectual way, not indeed to favor him, but to undermine the power of Calvin. Beside the known fact of Servetus’s long-continued activity as a persistent heretic, Calvin therefore had additional reason to cause his arrest as soon as he was discovered; and a further spur to his action had been furnished only a few days before in Gaddi’s letter reporting the alarming spread of Servetus’s heresies in northern Italy, and begging him in the name of the faithful there to write against him.20 The trial of Servetus must therefore be regarded in two distinct though related aspects: the trial of an individual for grave and persistent heresy, and a phase of the struggle between those that would enforce a high and strict standard of doctrine and morals as art essential part of the Reformation at Geneva, and those that opposed such a movement.
The law required that within twenty-four hours after arrest the charges against the accused should be given him to answer.21 Calvin therefore proceeded to extract from the writings of Servetus a list of incriminating passages for de la Fontaine to present.22 The complaint thus drawn up by Calvin was on the following day (August 14) preferred by de la Fontaine in thirty-eight articles,23 based upon heretical teachings found in the manuscript draft of the Christianismi Restitutio sent to Calvin by Servetus several years before.24 This was read to Servetus in prison at a preliminary examination conducted by the assistant prosecuting attorney. After reciting the long heretical career of Servetus and his wicked publications, the complaint set forth in detail his denial of the doctrines of the Trinity, the eternal divinity of Christ, and infant baptism, and also his defamation of Calvin and his doctrine. Servetus then answered the charges one by one, admitting some, denying some, making qualified answers to others. They were, in fact, so stated that he could not in justice to himself answer them with a simple yes or no, as had been demanded. It was significant, however, that in two of his answers he made a rather spirited attack upon Calvin. This gives support to the conjecture that even in the short time since his arrival he had, at the hotel or elsewhere, learned of the political situation at Geneva, and was willing in this way to make a bid for support from Calvin’s enemies in the Council before which he was to be tried. De la Fontaine then refuted Servetus’s answers, offered from his writings proof of the charges made, and asked to be discharged from custody. The two were then remanded, and Servetus’s money and valuables were taken in charge by the jailer.25
On the following day the attorney reported to the Little Council26 the result of the examination, and it was voted to proceed with the case. That same afternoon the Council met in the hail of the old Bishop’s palace, now the prison. Servetus was again put under oath and examined on the same points as before, and answered more fully and definitely than previously. About half of the charges he denied outright, and of the rest he admitted about half, while he made it clear that in the others his meaning had been misunderstood or misrepresented. He expressed belief in three persons in the Godhead, but showed that the form of his belief in the Trinity was not the one currently held. He also declared his belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, supernaturally born, though he differed in details from the received doctrine. He stoutly rejected the practice of infant baptism; and he repeated and confirmed his previous charge that Calvin had sought to bring about his death at Vienne. He declared that Calvin had been the first to use insulting language toward him in their correspondence, which he had repaid only in self-defence. He challenged Calvin to meet him in public debate of the questions at issue between them, apparently thinking that thus he might gain public support from Calvin’s opponents. Calvin declared that he should like nothing better,27 but the Council did not consent to the proposal. The result of the session satisfied the Council that there was a case. De la Fontaine was released from custody, with Calvin’s brother Antoine as his surety, and was directed to present evidence in support of his cause. The Council then adjourned.
At the next day’s session two new figures appeared at the trial, Germain Colladon, confidential friend of Calvin, to represent de la Fontaine as prosecutor in the case, and Philibert Berthelier as attorney representing the State. Berthelier embodied better than any one else in Geneva the Libertine opposition to Calvin, for the struggle was just then on to remove the ban of excommunication which Calvin had laid upon him, in which Calvin said he would die a hundred times sooner than yield.28 His intervention in the case therefore brought into relief the fact that this was to be not merely the trial of an individual for heresy, but a contest for supremacy in the government of Geneva between Calvin’s party and the Libertines. The session was brief and stormy, and before it had proceeded far it was interrupted and the case put over to the next day.
Seeing the critical turn the case was assuming, Calvin now came forward and asked permission to fill the r6le of prosecutor, and was allowed whatever assistance he might wish. The proceedings were resumed, and the examination continued, now directed by Calvin. It went into further detail, as evidence was introduced from Servetus’s writings to sustain the charges. His notes on the Bible and on Ptolemy were examined, and especially his attack upon belief in the doctrine of the Trinity. He countered this by saying that what he attacked was a distorted doctrine, which destroyed the unity of God by making a division in his being. Those that did this he called Trinitarians 29 and atheists; and it was such an idea of God that he had called a three-headed Cerberus.30 In the course of the examination he revealed that the printer had sent some of his books to Frankfurt, and it was upon this clue that Calvin, as previously related, sent a messenger with a letter to the ministers there and had the books destroyed. Calvin had pursued the examination with unrelaxing severity, giving Servetus no quarter,31 and he was evidently well satisfied with the result; for at the end of the session it was judged that the preliminary examination had sufficiently established the items in the charge to warrant a formal trial, and de la Fontaine and his surety were therefore discharged from further responsibility. This was on August 17. Three days later Calvin, writing to Farel, his fellow-reformer at Neuch reported progress to date, and added, ‘I hope that he will at least be sentenced to death, though it is my wish that he be spared needless cruelty.32 Farel replied that this would be showing friendship to his bitterest enemy,33 since Servetus was a most obstinate and dangerous heretic. Calvin later insisted that he had never thirsted for Servetus’s blood, and that his life might have been spared had he only showed some modesty.34
Now that de la Fontaine as complainant had been excused from taking further part in the case, it fell to the Attorney-General Rigot to prosecute it in the name of the State, and Calvin henceforth took no further active hand in the prosecution. Ten days intervened before Rigot appeared in court to conduct the trial. Meantime a session was held, given over to discussion of the theological questions involved, in which Calvin and his brother ministers undertook to refute the citations from the early Fathers of the Church to whom Servetus had appealed as his authorities. The records of this discussion are scanty. Calvin afterwards wrote of it that he and his colleagues were ready to discuss the points at issue quietly, and even took a defensive position, offering to answer any objections that Servetus might propose; but that Servetus at once heaped so many insults upon him that the judges themselves were ashamed and disgusted, and he refrained from making any reply. He declared, moreover, that Servetus was in no danger of serious punishment had he only shown some sign of amendment; but that, far from doing this, he showed himself so boastful and fierce as to scorn any sound or helpful advice.35 The appearance of Berthelier at the trial the previous week, as in some sense Servetus’s champion, had evidently quite gone to his head, and led him to the mad conclusion that his case was already as good as won. At the close of this session it was ordered that he be provided with the books he required to use in defence, and with ink and a sheet of paper on which to write a petition to the Council; and that he be held in strict confinement — evidently to cut him off from any communication with sympathizers in the Libertine party opposed to Calvin.36
On the following day (August 22) two new steps were taken. The Council addressed a letter to the court that had tried Servetus at Vienne, asking that a copy be furnished them of the evidence and other documents in the recent trial of Servetus there;37 and on the same day Servetus on his part addressed to the Council a petition that further indicates how confident he was as to the outcome of his trial. He requested, first, that he be set free from any criminal charge, on the ground that both in the Apostolic Age and in the early Church religious questions were not determined in criminal courts, but only by the churches themselves; and that in any case the punishment of heresy was only banishment. Secondly, that as he had not created any sedition or disturbed the peace at Geneva or elsewhere, had never discussed doctrinal questions save with theologians, and had always condemned the Anabaptists for their views on civil government, he should no longer be charged with crime on these grounds. Thirdly, that as he was a foreigner, and ignorant of the customs of the country, he might be granted legal counsel.38
This petition was filed with the other documents in the case; but the prosecution had by now proceeded too far for the case to be thrown out of court as Servetus had requested. Three days later the Attorney-General answered his petition and its arguments at length. He refuted in detail the points that Servetus had drawn from history, and charged him with wilful misrepresentation of facts in order to predispose the judges in his favor. He called him one of the boldest, most rash and dangerous heretics that had ever lived, and a conscious and deliberate liar who showed not the least trace of being innocent and of therefore deserving counsel.39 The refusal to grant him legal counsel seems by the standards of to-day to be the height of injustice; but under the law as it then stood at Geneva (and also in various other lands until long afterwards) the accused was not allowed to plead in defence except by special permission; and it was not until 1734 that he could legally claim the right to be represented by counsel.40
Meanwhile the Attorney-General had prepared new articles of impeachment to take the place of the preliminary ones of de la Fontaine, as a basis for the formal trial. They were thirty in number, and very different in content from the former ones. Those had dealt largely with points in speculative theology, and were designed to show that Servetus’s doctrines were calculated to undermine the Christian religion. The new ones paid no attention to these matters, which might not impress the members of the Council nearly so much as they had Calvin, but were devoted to the more practical purpose of showing the dangerous effects of such heresies in leading him into a criminal and dissolute life, encouraging the young in crime and immorality, favoring the teaching of Jews and Turks, and reviving ancient heresies long since condemned by the Church. As is often the case in criminal prosecutions, they took the guilt of the accused for granted as undoubted, and sought to set his case in the worst possible light. The contents of the articles suggest that Calvin may have assisted in the framing of them, though no reference is made to attacks on him or his doctrine. Calvin on his part was not disposed to neglect any opportunity to counteract any sympathy for Servetus that might be taking place in the popular mind; and on the next Sunday, before a crowded congregation, he exposed the errors of Servetus and treated them at length.41
The new examination brought out many new and interesting details in his life, which on the whole agree well with what we know of it from other sources. His answers seemed for the most part to be straightforward, and they were made with great skill, conciliatory in tone, and calculated to create a good impression upon unprejudiced minds, and to show that he had tried to live as a sincere and virtuous Christian, 42 desiring only to correct some long-standing errors in which the faith and practice of the Church had departed from the standards of its early ages. The persistent attempts of the prosecution to discredit his character were crowned with little success.
After about a week a reply was received from the court at Vienne, begging in politest terms to be excused from furnishing the documents asked for, to be used in the prosecution of one whom they had already sentenced to death, and requesting that he be returned to them to suffer his penalty. A copy of the sentence was enclosed.43 The Council, having read these communications, after a due exchange of compliments, regretted their inability to comply with the request made, but gave assurance that justice should be done to the prisoner. Before this, Servetus had been faced and identified by the jailer who had come from Vienne; and when asked whether he would rather remain here or be sent back there, he begged on his knees that he might stay here and be dealt with as seemed best. He also furnished a written statement relieving the jailer of any responsibility for his escape. Yet another communication followed from Vienne, from the royal Governor de Maugiron, from attendance at whose sick-bed Servetus had been haled away to prison, expressing much pleasure that he had been captured, and the hope that he would not again escape punishment (perhaps hoping thus to allay the well-grounded suspicion that he had facilitated his escape). He also reported that the King had awarded the property of Servetus to his (Maugiron’s) son, amounting, it was said, to 3,000 or 4,000 écus, and requesting that a list of his debtors and the sums owing be obtained from Servetus and forwarded, that collections might be made.44 Servetus declined to furnish the information, saying that it had nothing to do with his case, and that it might embarrass many poor people that were indebted to him.
Servetus was now called in again to continue the discussion with Calvin that had been broken off ten days before; but he professed to feel too sad and troubled in mind,45 and the oral discussion promised to be tedious to the Council. It was therefore voted that instead it be conducted in writing and in Latin.46 This last condition was doubtless made in view of the vote passed early in the trial, that when the data were all in hand a full report should be furnished the Councils and churches of other Swiss cities, where Latin would be better understood than the French used at Geneva.47
In opening this written discussion, Calvin submitted in quotations from Servetus’s book, with page references given, thirty-eight ‘Statements or propositions extracted from the books of Michael Servetus, which the ministers of the Geneva church assert are in part wicked and blasphemous toward God, in part full of impious errors and madness, and all wholly foreign to the Word of God and the generally accepted teaching of the orthodox church.’48 It would be tedious to the reader to rehearse these in detail, further than to say that they covered in general substantially the same ground as the articles originally offered by de la Fontaine, and that they were submitted without comment or argument. Servetus in return submitted passages from Tertullian, Irenaeus and the Clementines supporting the passages complained of, and besides made some further comments, in terms of which some were insulting to Calvin.49 Calvin rejoined, still in writing, with a ‘Brief Refutation of Servetus’s Errors.’50 This was composed with much skill, and was carried out, with few exceptions, in the dignified tone of serious discussion; and it concludes with the statement, calculated to be extremely prejudicial to Servetus: ‘Any one therefore that really and seriously reflects upon the matter will acknowledge that it was his purpose to extinguish the light of sound doctrine, and overthrow all religion.’51 A more utter distortion of Servetus’s purpose than these last three words express it would be impossible to make.
Calvin’s affairs at Geneva now came to a critical turn. On the morn ing of the very day on which the written discussion was ordered, the Libertines scored a conspicuous triumph over him, when despite the utmost opposition from Calvin the Council voted to annul the excommunication under which the Consistory had long held Berthelier, and he had again appeared at the session of the Council at which Servetus was to debate with Calvin. In some way unknown to us,52 Servetus must soon have learned of the turn things had taken, and have leaped to the conclusion that now his case was as good as won. For when, some ten days later, he made his final rejoinder to Calvin’s Refutation, it was only in the form of brief comments noted on the margin or between the lines.53 In these he abandoned all attempt at serious argument, and apparently in mad elation over the victory that he felt sure was to be his, he heaped upon Calvin a torrent of abuse and invective that could not but have a damaging effect upon his case in the minds of those that were bound to judge it upon the basis of the arguments submitted. He passes the lie direct some sixty times, calls Calvin Simon Magus 54 nearly a score of times, and repeatedly assails him as impudent, ignorant, know-nothing, ridiculous, sophist, crazy, sycophant, rascal, beast, monster, criminal, murderer.55 Calvin was wise enough to say nothing in reply, but let the case rest here.56
Twelve days had passed since Servetus wrote his reply to the articles presented by Calvin, and he had had no response. The reply and Calvin’s Refutation had in fact lain for ten days in the hands of the Council,57 which was at the time too much preoccupied with the major struggle now at its height between the Libertines and Calvin to have any attention left for the minor one between Calvin and Servetus. All this time Servetus lay impatiently in prison. Having received no reply, he concluded that Calvin was at the end of his rope and had none to give. He therefore addressed to the Council on September 15 a second petition,58 complaining of the long delay. He was being eaten alive by vermin, his shoes were ragged, he had but one poor shirt and no change. For five weeks Calvin had kept him in prison without proving a single point. He renewed his demand for legal counsel, which had been allowed to his opponent who had now been set free. He appealed his case to the Council of 200, and if his appeal were granted he invoked the poena talionis against both de la Fontaine and Calvin. The Council took notice, gave order that his wants be supplied, at his own cost (though the order was not obeyed), and that Calvin’s Refutation be communicated to him for any final reply he chose to make.
A week later, the items in the written discussion now being all in hand, the Council despatched them, as had been voted a month before, to the ministers and the Council at Zurich, Bern, Bagel, and Schaffhausen, with a letter to each, a copy of Servetus’s book, and a request for their advice. Two years before, when a similar step had been taken in similar conditions in the trial of Bolsec for heresy, and Calvin was rumored to have desired Bolsec’s death,59 the advice of the churches consulted had been disappointing to him. Though without expressing approval of Bolsec’s views, Zurich advised trying to come to a better understanding, and using greater moderation, and Bern recommended attempting conciliation.60 Consequently Bolsec was punished only with banishment. Calvin was therefore opposed to the present step,61 and for the same reason the councillors unfriendly to him will have favored it. He therefore took the prudent step of prepossessing the minds of the judges before the documents in the case reached them. Early in the written discussion he wrote to Bullinger, leader of the Reformation at Zurich, and two days later he wrote an adroitly composed letter to Suizer at Basel;62 later yet to Hailer of Bern that they should treat Servetus as a blasphemer deserved. At the same time there was no one to say a word in extenuation of Servetus, 63 so that the verdict of the churches was a foregone conclusion.
Bullinger needed no persuading. Three weeks previously he had written to Beza that if the Geneva Council knew and did its duty, it would put Servetus to death. He also wrote Calvin in great concern, encouraging him, and urging him not to yield to his enemies, but to remain at Geneva.64 His answer and Suizer’s showed that they both could be depended upon to support Calvin’s cause. Bullinger also exchanged letters on the subject with Hailer and Musculus of Bern and Suizer of Basel, and all manifested the liveliest interest in the case.
The letters to the four Swiss churches were sent by special messenger on September 21. On the following day Servetus presented to the Council another petition in which, on entirely new ground, he assumed a vigorous offensive against Calvin. He had evidently been persuaded, or persuaded himself, that his victory was assured; and he now came forward as the accuser of Calvin for the crime of making false charges against him. He demanded therefore that Calvin should be imprisoned along with him until the case should be decided, with death to one or the other under the poena talionis; and as de la Fontaine had done with him, he presented articles on which Calvin should stand examination. To this petition the Council paid no attention. It would indeed hardly have done so until replies had come from the churches, and these were not received for three weeks. All this time the condition of Servetus was growing more pitiable. His earlier petition for the plainest comforts and decencies of life had brought no response, and he was more wretched than ever, shivering with the cold, and tortured by physical infirmities. In a new petition 65 he besought the Council for the love of God to grant him some relief. This was at length done.
In another week the messenger returned with the answers from the four churches.66 In each case the Councils of the cities had referred the matter to their ministers as the more competent judges in such matters. Zurich took the lead, and the correspondence between the various ministers shows that the other churches looked to Bullinger for guidance before expressing their own judgment.67 There was therefore a notice able similarity in the answers given. In slightly differing words they all spoke with the voice of Bullinger. The ministers of Zurich noted Servetus’s wicked and horrible blasphemies against the Trinity and the Son of God, and his insulting impudence to Calvin; and Schaffhausen briefly subscribed to their whole judgment. Bern received a copy of Zurich’s reply and agreed with it wholly; while Hailer wrote Bullinger that when the Bern Council heard what errors Servetus had tried to spread, they were all so enraged that, had he been their prisoner, he would undoubtedly have been burned.68 The Bern ministers made a digest of Servetus’s heresies, noting that many of them were simply old ones revived, and that he put them forth without showing due modesty; and Basel echoed the same opinion. None of those consulted committed the impropriety of suggesting to the Geneva Council what sentence should be imposed; though it was not difficult to divine what they had in mind. Zurich concluded, ‘How your Excellencies are to restrain this man, we leave to your wisdom to determine,’ but they called especial attention to the evil reputation the Swiss churches were getting abroad for their indulgence to heresy and heretics, and to the providential opportunity now offered for clearing them from such a suspicion.69 Schaffhausen had no doubt that Servetus’s efforts would be repressed lest his blasphemies spread further like a cancer. Bern wrote, ‘We pray the Lord to grant you a spirit of prudence, understanding and firmness to remove this plague from both your own churches and others, and also at the same time to let nothing be done that can be deemed unbecoming in a Christian magistrate.’70 Basel urged that all diligence be used to cure him if curable, but if not, and he remains perverse, then to employ whatever power the Lord has granted to keep him from giving the Church further trouble.71
Now that their replies had been sent to Geneva, the leaders in the other churches were on a tiptoe of suspense to know what action would be taken at Geneva. Vergerio at Chur, indeed, who like many of his fellow-countrymen had lately fled before the terrors of the Italian Inquisition, had already written Bullinger72 that though he held Servetus and his sort in abhorrence he did not think that fire or sword ought to be used against them; and he now wrote again: ‘I have seen the letter that you wrote to the Senate of Geneva. You do not say in so many words that the heretic should be put to death, but you so state the case that the reader can easily see that that is your opinion. I wrote you what I thought.’73 But Suizer wrote to Bullinger expressing the hope that no ill-timed mercy would be shown,74 and Bullinger begged Calvin to relieve his anxiety by writing him what had been done in the case.75 Calvin was well content with the answers, especially with the decisive ones from Zurich and Bern.76
The Council proceeded with all due deliberation, no doubt reluctant to take the fateful step. The replies from the churches were in hand for at least a week before sentence was passed, and in the meantime it was voted to look into the matter more fully. The advice of the churches was read and the evidence in the case reviewed. The Libertine Syndic Amied Perrin appeared in Council after an absence of several days, and attempted at least to delay action by having the case transferred to the Council of 200; but the Little Council were in no mood at this late day to relinquish jurisdiction.77The records of proceedings in the Council at this juncture are scanty, but from another source78 it is related that Perrin, seeing that a death sentence was evidently to be passed, was unwilling to be present, saying that he refused to be a partaker of his blood, 79 and that some others followed him; while of the rest some favored banishment, and some life imprisonment, though the majority were for the stake unless he would recant. Calvin and the other ministers tried to have the form of death changed, but to no purpose. 80 A phrase in the sentence indicates that before passing it the Council sought the advice of other citizens, perhaps of the Council of 60.81 Whatever difference of opinion there may have been about the manner of punishment, there could, in face of the consenting views of the churches to which appeal had been made, hardly have been any question of acquittal, and the sentence was passed without debate 82 on October 26.
After formally reciting at length the false and heretical doctrines that Servetus, despite warning and correction, had for many years been spreading, to the ruin of many souls thus infected by their poison, it condemned him to be bound and taken to the place called Champel, there fastened to a stake and burned alive together with his written and printed book.83 Although the orthodox writers of the time habitually insisted on speaking of Servetus not as a mere heretic, but as a blasphemer, the sentence was not for the odious crime of blasphemy (of which it makes no mention), nor for holding heretical views, but for spreading heresy;84 and the heresies most emphasized in the preamble related to the Trinity, the eternal deity of Christ, and infant baptism. Servetus had of late been in a state of elation, having been misled into expecting, if not acquittal, at least a light punishment. When now informed that he must die, so Calvin relates, he stood like one stunned, drew deep sighs, wailed like a madman, and at length recovering himself kept beating his breast and moaning in Spanish (or was it not in Latin?), Misericordia, misericordia.85 Farel, whom Calvin had desired to have at his side for moral support at so critical a juncture,86 opportunely arrived on the very day on which the sentence was passed by the Council, and he was with Servetus constantly from seven the next morning until the execution at noon, endeavoring to bring him to a state of repentance.87 Together with some ministers that had come in from the country, Farel urged him that on his last day on earth he should acknowledge his errors and confess the truth. He replied by asking to be shown a single passage proving the eternal sonship of Christ, and could not be shaken. They then persuaded him to ask Calvin for an interview, that he might become reconciled to him.88 Calvin dared not go without the Council’s leave, but when this was given, he went to the prison accompanied by two councilmen. Servetus asked his forgiveness. Calvin replied that he had never persecuted him for any personal wrong, but had for many years warned him as kindly as he could, and had been answered only with rage. He ought rather to ask God’s forgiveness, whom he had so outrageously insulted. Seeing that he was accomplishing nothing by his admonitions, Calvin then withdrew, two hours before Servetus’s death, and left him to his fate. 89 Farel and the other ministers stayed with him to the end. When brought to the Hotel de Ville to hear his sentence formally pronounced, he begged the magistrate for death by the sword, lest the great suffering of death by fire should lead him in desperation to retract what he believed to be true, and so to lose his soul; and he said that if he had sinned it was in ignorance, for he had meant and tried to promote the glory of God. Farel interceded for him, but the magistrate was inexorable, and he was therefore led away crying, ‘O God, save my soul; O Jesus, Son of the eternal God, have mercy on me.’90
The via dolorosa led from the Hotel de Ville out through the city gates to about three quarters of a mile south.91 On the way they kept urging him to confess his fault and disavow his errors, but he replied that he was suffering unjustly, and prayed for God’s mercy on his accusers. Upon this, Farel threatened to leave him if he went on thus. He desired forgiveness of his mistakes and ignorance and sins, though he could never be got to confess Christ as the eternal Son of God; and to the end he held true to his convictions. Arrived at the place of execution he fell upon his face and continued long in prayer, while Farel seized the opportunity to make an edifying address to the spectators. Again exhorted to say something, he cried, ‘O God, O God; what else can I speak of but God.’ Then he asked the people to pray for him. Being led to a pile of wood made up of small sticks and bundles of green oak with the leaves still on,92 he was seated on a log with his feet touching the ground, his body chained to a stake, and his neck bound to it by a coarse rope; his head covered with straw or leaves sprinkled with sulphur, and his book tied to his thigh. He besought the executioner not to prolong his torture; and when the torch met his sight he uttered a terrible shriek, while the horrified people threw on more wood and he cried out, ‘0 Jesus, Son of the eternal God, have mercy on me.’ After about half an hour life was extinct. He had died and made no sign. 93
The fact of the execution of the sentence was duly entered on the records of the Council, and Servetus’s valuables were delivered over to the public treasurer. 94 Farel also rendered his report of the event, and requested that the facts be published. It was voted to reimburse Calvin from Servetus’s money for the expenses he had incurred in the case. Two weeks later, on Calvin’s motion, it was voted that he prepare and have printed an account of Servetus’s opinions, as requested by the cities of Germany. With this the case was officially concluded. 95
Writers on this subject have made much of a supposed collusion between Servetus and the Libertine opponents of Calvin, to explain the great bitterness that Calvin showed in the prosecution of the case. Calvin thought it reasonable to suspect that Servetus was buoyed up from some source by a vain assurance; Farel wrote Blaurer that some led him to hope there was no danger; Beza in his life of Calvin says that one of his opponents was believed to have whispered something in Servetus’s ear that gave him courage; Bullinger heard (probably from Calvin) that the Libertines were supporting Servetus out of hatred of Calvin; Calvin wrote the ministers of Zurich that the friends of Berthelier vociferously supported the cause of Servetus; and four years later the Council wrote to the Swiss churches that the then banished Libertines had given protection and favor to Servetus at his trial.96 Evidently all these testimonies rest only upon more or less probable conjecture, or upon mere suspicion. The only indication appearing above the surface was the appearance of Berthelier in the earlier proceedings, and of Perrin at the end of them.97 On the other hand, Jean Trollier, repentant Libertine formerly Perrin’s closest confidant, testified in 1558 that so far as he knew, the leading Libertines had never supported Servetus and other heretics in opposing ‘our religion’ and the ministers. 98 The whole truth, therefore, seems to be no more than this: that the Libertines had no interest in Servetus or his doctrines as such, but that they simply made a tool of him, secretly encouraging his defiant attitude as a means of annoying Calvin, while another case was pending in which they were much concerned; but that though they had a majority in the Council, they were entirely unwilling to come out into the open and bear the burden of his heresies, and actually took not a single effective step in his behalf. Even if some of them voted against conviction, at all events none of them had the hardihood to speak against it. 99
It is well-nigh impossible to remain impartial in considering the case between Servetus and Calvin. When two persons are pitted against each other in mortal combat, each having such strongly marked and sharply contrasted characters, each uniting in a single individual outstanding abilities and admirable qualities together with lamentable defects, and each shamelessly displaying his worst side, one’s sympathies can hardly remain quite neutral. Writers dealing with these two can nearly all be labeled according to their ill-concealed bias; by which those whose prime office as historians should be simply to present and interpret the facts, are yet irresistibly drawn to pronounce judgments of praise or blame. Moreover, the difficulty of coming to a just judgment is immensely increased since also it is so nearly impossible for one now to attain, and to retain for any length of time, a firm grasp of the mental and spiritual background of the age in which this tragedy was enacted: its presuppositions, its prejudices, its intensity of convictions, its scale of values, all taken for granted, and all so different from those of the modern man.
Servetus shows himself at heart, and when not engaged in controversy, a devout and profoundly religious man, as deeply concerned as Calvin himself to have the Christian religion firmly grounded in the teachings of the Bible, and conformed to the ‘uncorrupted’ practice of the Ante-Nicene Church; and he was far more ready than Calvin to forsake even the most cherished doctrines and customs if they were found to lack scriptural support. But he had an eager, impetuous, almost fanatical temperament, in which feeling and passion played a much larger part than calm reason. When speaking from strong conviction of truth, he could show himself intolerably conceited toward an antagonist; and when impatient or irritated that others could not or would not see what seemed to him as clear a daylight, he displayed a mastery of the language of abuse which, in an age when courteous controversy was unknown, equaled if it did not surpass even that of Calvin himself.
Calvin, on the other hand, while a man of deep personal affections, and boundless in kindness to those that went his way, was in another aspect a cold-blooded logician, who never shrank from carrying out to the farthest limits whatever consequences followed from the premises he had adopted. In such a case, any feelings or sympathy he may normally have had were sternly repressed, and he acted with the relentless precision of a machine. It has been well said of him that as a man he was not cruel, but as a theologian he was merciless;100 and it was as a theologian that he dealt with Servetus. In his Institutes he had wrought out with logical precision a systematic statement of Christian doctrine as he saw it, buttressed at every point by scripture authority. Any deviation from this he regarded not as a difference from him on a mere matter of personal opinion, but as a repudiation of the word of God, of which he was only the transmitter. Hence denial of the doctrines of Christianity as he taught them was not merely heresy, it was no less than blasphemy against God. To speak against these doctrines as Servetus did was to contradict God himself as well as to defame his messenger. When Servetus denied the accepted form of the doctrine of the Trinity and the deity of Christ, and rejected the hitherto universal practice of infant baptism, and sought to spread abroad his own views on these subjects, Calvin therefore looked upon him as committing the greatest conceivable crime, endangering the eternal welfare of countless souls. When to his denials Servetus added an exasperating manner in controversy and a profusion of insulting language, when he spoke of Calvin’s God as a three-headed Cerberus, and of those that believe in him as atheists, and of infant baptism as an invention of the Devil, it can excite no wonder that Calvin, temperamentally irritable, bigoted in mind, and nervously worn to the point of exhaustion from his incessant struggle with the Libertines, should have declared war to the death with one who, as he believed, was at once attempting to undermine man’s hope of eternal salvation, and apparently plotting for the overthrow of the Reformation at Geneva.
Nevertheless Calvin was, in theory, for toleration in religion. In his annotations to Seneca’s work on Clemency, published when he was but twenty-three, as a warning against religious persecution, he said, ‘It belongs to the nature of the merciful man that he not only uses opportunities of vengeance with moderation, but does not avail himself of even the most tempting occasions to take revenge.’101 Again, in the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), in his dedicatory epistle he addressed to King Francis I. of France brave words against persecution for differences of religious belief and practice; and in the treatise itself he says of the excommunicate ‘We are bound to try in every possible way, whether by entreaty and instruction, or by mercy and kindness, or by our prayers to God, to bring them to a better life... nor are the means to be anywise approved which many have employed hitherto, forbidding them water and fire and the common necessities of life, refusing them all acts of kindness, and pursuing them with the sword and arms. 102 Also in the very year before the death of Servetus, addressing King Christian III. of Denmark, he wrote that ‘wisdom is driven from among us, and the holy harmony of Christ’s kingdom is compromised, when violence is pressed into the service of religion.’103 Calvin had thus in theory long believed in the use of reasonable persuasion rather than force as a general policy in religion.’ 104 But when confronted with an actual and critical situation in which he believed that the eternal welfare of many souls was at stake, and the fate of the Reformation was threatened, he threw theory to the winds, and sought the shortest way to compass his ends.
It was thus inevitable that, if ever these two antipathetic characters, after their earlier approaches, came into personal contact, there would be a conflict without compromise or concession, or even any effort at mutual understanding. At any time before the passing of the sentence, Servetus might have escaped serious punishment by retracting, as Gentile did five years later. But unfortunately misled by hope of support from Calvin’s opponents, and wholly overestimating the extent of it, he assumed an attitude increasingly defiant and insulting to Calvin, and thus threw away whatever chance of mercy he might have had. As Coleridge wrote of him: ‘If ever a poor fanatic thrust himself into the fire, it was Michael Servetus. He was a rabid enthusiast, and did everything he could in the way of insult to provoke the feeling of the Christian Church.’105 On the other hand, Calvin, wholly convinced that the system of Christian theology as he had stated it was ultimate truth, seems never seriously to have tried, perhaps would have been quite unable, fairly to understand Servetus’s purpose as being, not to undermine Christian faith, but to place it on firmer foundations of Scripture, uncorrupted by hair-splitting philosophical speculation. Servetus, there fore, working single-handed at his project of reform, and in his impatience often resorting to weapons of the crudest and most offensive sort, was from the outset foredoomed to defeat. Whatever transformation Christian theology was to experience was to come about far more gradually and slowly, and under the mellowing influence of long periods of time.
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