The Trial and Execution of Servetus at Geneva, 1553


    Although escaped from his imprisonment at Vienne, Servetus found the world by no means a place in which he might feel free to go or be wherever he would.  He dared not stay in France for fear of recapture.  It was hardly more safe for him to return to the Rhine country whence he had fled years before, and where he might still be recognized.  Still less could he think of returning to his native land in fanatical Spain.  He therefore determined to go to Naples in order to practice his profession among his countrymen, of whom many had fled thither for the sake of enjoying greater religious liberty.  He thought at first of crossing the Pyrenees and going through Spain, but danger of arrest on the border deterred him, and after wandering like a hunted thing for four months he at length turned to the route through Switzerland into northern Italy as the safest one for him.  Fortunately for him, he was well provided with money.

    Thus it was that Servetus at length arrived at an inn in Geneva one evening about the middle of August, intending as soon as possible to get a boat up the lake on his way to Zürich and Italy.  He had meant to keep out of sight as much as possible, hoping thus to escape discovery; but unhappily for him the next day was Sunday, when the laws required every one to attend church, and he may indeed even have been curious to hear Calvin preach.  Here he was recognized before ever the sermon began.  Calvin felt that Servetus had long deserved death as a blasphemer and heretic, and he may have suspected that he had come in order to spread his heresies in Geneva itself, and thus to endanger the success of the Reformation there.  He was the more keenly alive to this danger since he had but lately had a letter telling him how rapidly and widely the diabolical teachings of Servetus had spread in the cities of northern Italy.  He therefore felt bound to do all in his power to rid the world of Servetus, now that the Inquisition at Vienne had failed of doing so, and he at once caused him to be arrested and thrown into prison.  The law required that the accuser in such a case should be imprisoned with the accused until the charges were established, and since this would be inconvenient for himself Calvin got a student named Nicolas de la Fontaine, who was living in his household as his secretary, to enter the prison in his stead as the accuser.

    Before proceeding to speak of the long trial that followed, it will be necessary for a clear understanding of it to say something of Calvin himself, and of conditions in Geneva at this time.  John Calvin had been born in 1509, two years before Servetus, at Noyon in Picardie, and had been well educated and designed for the priesthood.  Later falling out with the Church, he had, like Servetus, studied law; and he was becoming converted to the views of the Reformation at the very time when Servetus was publishing his first books against the Trinity.  In 1536 he had published his Institutes of the Christian Religion, a clear, logical, and able presentation of the Protestant system of belief, much the strongest work yet written in defense of the Protestant cause; and this had at once caused him to be recognized as the intellectual leader of the Reformed religion outside Germany. Obliged to flee from France, where no Protestant’s life was quite safe, he had happened to come to Geneva at the very moment when the cause of the Reformation, which had been adopted earlier that year, hung trembling in the balance for want of a powerful leader.  Quite against his inclination he was pressed into service there, and although never in name more than one of the city pastors and a preacher and teacher of theology, he soon became in fact, and by the force of his character, practically dictator.

    Geneva in 1553 was a cosmopolitan little city of about 20,000 inhabitants.  Before the Reformation it had been gay and dissolute, and even now its people were much given to pleasure, and none too strict in their morals.  Calvin determined to change all this, and to make Geneva a model for the Protestant world, with its life strictly conformed to the Word of God.  He soon brought order out of chaos, reformed the code of laws, and aimed by strict laws strictly enforced, even as to the small details of private life, to root out vice and make religion and good morals universal among the inhabitants.  The Genevese, however, resenting that a mere foreigner should thus interfere with their old habits and customs, rose in indignant opposition, and after two years drove Calvin and his fellow reformer, Farel, into exile, forbidding them ever to return.  Thereupon things drifted from bad to worse until after three years it was necessary to recall Calvin.  He returned in 1541 to remain at Geneva for the rest of his life, ruling with a more absolute hand than ever, though not without great and persistent opposition.  The Libertines (as the strong party opposed to Calvin came at a later time to be called) found him in the way of their political ambitions, and determined if possible to destroy his power.  After he had caused one of their number to be beheaded in 1547 they became doubly infuriated against him.  They insulted him in every way: named their dogs Calvin, and called him Cain.  The struggle was hard and hot, and the outcome of it was long uncertain.  After gaining some temporary victories over his opponents, Calvin had had to face renewed opposition, and in the summer of 1553 he seemed to be all but defeated.  This was the critical state of things when Servetus arrived upon the scene, with the Libertines ready, if opportunity offered, to take any advantage of his presence in order further to thwart Calvin’s influence.  The trial of Servetus was thus not merely a trial of an individual for heresy, but one in which political and personal interests were also deeply involved; and on its outcome seemed to depend not simply the life of the accused, but also the fate of the Reformation in Geneva, and perhaps even in all Switzerland and France.

    On the day after his arrest Servetus was brought for preliminary examination before the proper authority, to whom de la Fontaine, his formal accuser, presented a complaint against Servetus, drawn up by Calvin under thirty-eight articles.  These were based mainly on the Restitutio, and after charging that some twenty-four years ago Servetus had begun to trouble the churches with his heresies, and had since then continued his mischief by his notes on the Bible and on Ptolemy, and by a recent book full of infinite blasphemies, and that he was an escaped prisoner from Vienne; they went on to charge him with destroying the very foundations of Christianity by various heresies as to the Trinity, the person of Christ, the immortality of the soul, and infant baptism; and finally led up to the climax by charging that he had defamed Calvin by heaping all possible blasphemies upon him, and had concealed his scandalous views from the printer at Vienne.  Some of these charges Servetus at once admitted as true, some he denied as false, and some he explained away; adding, however, that if in anything he had fallen into error he was willing to stand corrected.  But on the whole the charges were held to be well taken, and it was ordered that he be held for trial.

    On the following day trial was begun before the Little Council of Geneva, and conducted by the Prosecuting Attorney.  Servetus being duly sworn was re-examined on the charges made the previous day.  He now made his admissions and denials rather more distinct than before, but took a fling at Calvin by saying that it was no fault of his that he had not been burned alive at Vienne, and that he was ready before a full congregation to give Calvin the reasons and scripture proofs for his teachings.  A little later one of Calvin’s most prominent supporters entered the case as counsel for the prosecution, while on the other hand one of his most active political opponents took a hand in defense of Servetus. This threatened to turn the case into a phase of the political struggle to overthrow Calvin, so that he now resolved to take no chances, but threw off the mask and came into court himself as openly the accuser, and assisted in the prosecution of the case.  In the further examination of Servetus little new evidence was brought out, save that Servetus had applied to those that believed in the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity the term Trinitarians,1 at which Calvin took the greatest offense.  The prosecution now maintained that the charges against Servetus had been sufficiently proved to show him a criminal, and asked that de la Fontaine be discharged from his imprisonment as accuser, and this was granted.  The Attorney General therefore took charge of the prosecution in the name of the State, and opened a new stage of the trial by bringing in an entirely new indictment; while Calvin soon retired again into the background, though from the pulpit he appealed to public feeling by making bitter attacks against Servetus. Meanwhile it had been voted to request the authorities at Vienne to send a copy of the evidence they had against Servetus, and then to lay the case before the other churches of Switzerland for their information.

    Now that the regular state trial was about to commence, Servetus came before the court with a motion that he be discharged.  His grounds were that it was not the custom of the Apostles nor of the first Christian Emperors to treat heretics as guilty of capital crime, but only to excommunicate or at the most banish them; that he had committed no crime either in their territory or elsewhere; that the questions he had treated were only for scholars, and he had never spoken of them to others; that as for the Anabaptists, with whom they had sought to identify him as a person dangerous to public order, he had always disapproved of them; and finally, since he was a stranger and ignorant of the customs of the land and of the forms of legal procedure, he asked for legal counsel to conduct his case for him.

    The items in the new indictment touched but lightly on the doctrinal matters which had been so prominent in the original charges, but instead were designed to show that Servetus had long been spreading doctrines opposed to Christianity as commonly received, and had led a criminal and immoral life; that his very teaching led to immorality and favored other religions; that his doctrines were those of heretics long ago condemned; and that he had come to Geneva in order to disturb that city with them.  When he was examined, Servetus’s answers to these questions were so frank and clear that he must have created a very favorable impression upon his judges.  The Attorney General, however, apparently coached by Calvin, at once sought to counteract this impression by taking up Servetus’s petition of a few days before and arguing that all the reasons urged for his discharge were unsupported by fact; that it was therefore evident that Servetus was one of the most audacious, rash, and dangerous heretics that had ever lived, since he wished to have the very laws annulled under which heretics might be punished; that his Anabaptist teachings were the least of his errors; that in his testimony he had lied and contradicted himself; that it had never been heard of that such criminals should be represented by counsel;2 and moreover that he was so clearly guilty that he needed no attorney.  His request was therefore denied, and the trial went on to further examination of the prisoner.

    In due time a reply was received from the authorities at Vienne, sending a copy of the sentence there passed against Servetus, but claiming jurisdiction over him as an escaped prisoner for crimes committed in their territory, and therefore asking that he be returned to them for punishment.  They also begged to be excused from forwarding evidence for anyone else to try him on.  Upon being asked whether he chose to be tried here or to be sent back to Vienne, Servetus threw himself upon the ground and begged them with tears not to send him back, but to try him here and do with him as they would.  This fell in well with the ideas of Calvin and his friends, for if the heretic were to be burned at all they wished the credit of it, in order to prove that Protestants were not less zealous than Catholics to preserve the purity of the Christian faith.  They therefore politely declined to grant the request from Vienne, though they promised that justice should be done.

    When the heretical teachings of Servetus next came up for discussion, it was felt that the discussion might take up too much time if carried on in court, and besides the subject was one too intricate for the judges to pass upon.  It was therefore agreed that the necessary books should be furnished Servetus in prison, and that he and Calvin should discuss in writing the points at issue between them.  The papers thus written, together with the rest of the documents in the case, were then to be submitted to the Swiss churches for their advice as to what to do; though this reference of the case can have been little to Calvin’s liking, and may even have been proposed by his enemies in order to foil him; for two years before, when Bolsec was on trial for opposing Calvin’s teaching on predestination, and Calvin wished that he, too, might be condemned to death, a similar appeal had resulted in Bolsec’s favor.

    Now it happened that on the very morning of the day that the Council ordered the written discussion between Calvin and Servetus, Calvin’s enemies had scored a notable point against him in the Council.  This seems to have elated Servetus with the belief that he should certainly win his case, and to have bred in him a false sense of security.  The written discussion lasted four days.  In the name of the Geneva ministers Calvin first drew up a collection of thirty-eight extracts from the books of Servetus, which he offered as “partly impious blasphemies, partly profane and insane errors, and all wholly foreign to the Word of God and the orthodox faith.”   These were submitted on their face and without comment.  Servetus replied explaining and justifying his positions.  Calvin wrote in refutation, and Servetus ended by merely penciling brief notes between the lines or on the margin of Calvin’s manuscript.  The discussion began on a fairly dignified plane, but Servetus, regarding Calvin as already defeated, soon lost his head, and at length abandoning argument fell into violent abuse and invective, much to the prejudice of his case.3  Calvin on the contrary kept his poise, and correspondingly strengthened his case.  The papers were then submitted to the Council, and were duly forwarded to the churches and Councils of Zürich, Bern, Basel, and Schaffhausen, while Calvin had anticipated this step by writing to the several pastors in order to prepossess them against Servetus.

    It was four weeks before the answers were received, and all this time Servetus was languishing in prison.  He addressed to the Council an indignant appeal.  Calvin, he said, was at the end of his rope, and was keeping him there for spite.  Vermin were eating him alive, his clothes were in rags, and he had no change of garments.  He again demanded counsel, and appealed his case to the Council of Two Hundred.  The leader of the opposition to Calvin supported his appeal, but nothing came of it.  A week later Servetus, still sure of his cause, demanded that Calvin himself be imprisoned as a false accuser, on pain of death if found guilty, and he brought six charges against him.  This request was ignored like the rest.  Finally, after waiting more than three weeks, he again made a pitiful appeal for the clothes he needed, being now ill and suffering from the cold; and this request was at last granted.

    The replies from the churches at length arrived.  The Councils had with one accord referred the matter to their pastors, and the latter, though expressing themselves in differing terms and in guarded language, urged that Servetus was plainly guilty, and that all due means ought to be used to rid the churches of him, especially lest they get a bad reputation for harboring heretics.  In the face of such unanimous advice there was but one action to be taken, and after a few days’ delay it was voted that Servetus be condemned to be taken to the suburb of Champel and there be burned alive the following day, together with his books.  Burning had for centuries been the penalty for heresy under the law of the Empire, and when Calvin revised the laws at Geneva he had let this law stand unchanged.  In the present case he tried to get beheading substituted for burning, but the matter had passed beyond his control.  When the sentence was announced to Servetus he broke down completely, for he had expected acquittal, or at the worst only banishment; but he soon regained composure, sent for Calvin, and begged his forgiveness.  Farel, minister at Neuchatel, had that morning arrived at Calvin’s desire.  He tried to get Servetus to renounce his errors and thus save his life.  But Servetus remained true to his convictions, only begging for another form of death, lest the suffering at the stake cause him at last weakly to recant.  Farel accompanied him to the place of execution, where a large crowd had gathered, and there he died with a prayer upon his lips (October 27, 1553); but the details are too horrible to be related here.

    Even during the trial of Servetus a few voices had been raised in his behalf, one of them that of an Italian jurist, Gribaldo, who was in Geneva at the time, and of whom we shall hear more in the next chapter; while David Joris wrote from Basel to the governments of the Protestant cities of Switzerland urging them to avert his fate.  But only the Anabaptists as yet disapproved the repression of heresy by force; and anything that Erasmus, Luther, Zwingli, or Calvin might earlier have said in favor of the milder treatment of heretics, or that had this very year been urged by Calvin in behalf of five young Protestants from Lausanne on trial for their life before the Inquisition at Lyon, was assiduously forgotten.  The leading reformers without exception strongly approved the execution of Servetus, and Melanchthon called it “a pious example, which deserved to be remembered to all posterity.”  Calvin himself never expressed the slightest regret for it; but Catholics did not forget, and for generations afterwards whenever Protestants complained of Catholic treatment of Protestant heretics, they retorted by pointing to Calvin’s treatment of Servetus.

    Servetus’s ashes were not cold before there began a general revulsion of public feeling over the affair, and a bitter indignation against Calvin for his part in it.  The Council at once dismissed the charges pending against the printer of the Restitutio, who had fallen into their hands.  Calvin was naturally the object of the bitterest attacks, even in Geneva: “the dogs are now barking at me on all sides,” he wrote; and in Protestant Basel he was said to be detested almost more than in Catholic Paris.  Within two months from Servetus’s death, Calvin was driven almost to the point of leaving Geneva.  Forced to defend himself, he published early the next year a Defense of the Orthodox Faith on the Holy Trinity, against the Prodigious Errors of Michael Servetus,4 in which after defending the capital punishment of heretics on general grounds he undertook to set forth Servetus in the most odious light.  This did nothing to raise Calvin in general esteem, and it was soon far more than offset by an anonymous work on the punishment of heretics, a noble plea for tolerance generally attributed to Chatillon (Castellio), who some years before had had friction with Calvin at Geneva and was now at Basel; while this in turn was followed by an answer from Calvin’s admiring friend Beza.  In fact, by these and other writings, the whole question of the punishment or the toleration of hereties was now opened for discussion, and with the most salutary result. For while heretics were for a long time still occasionally put to death in Protestant countries, from this time forth opposition to the practice steadily increased.  Thus it may be said that if the writings of Servetus had a great and lasting influence toward undermining belief in the Athanasian doctrine of the Trinity, his death had a yet more important influence in opening the way for religious liberty of thought and speech.

    In judging this whole affair one must take care not to be unjust toward Calvin, by being as narrow and unsympathetic toward him as he was toward Servetus.  For he deserves to be judged by the standards of his own age rather than of ours, even though we condemn those in comparison with our own.  Besides being a man of extraordinary ability, he had many of the finest traits of personal character.  He has been called the father of popular education and the inventor of free schools.  Protestantism owes him more than any other man after Luther, and for more than three centuries he remained the leader of its thought outside the Lutheran churches.  But he took his office very seriously, and so wholly identified himself with his cause that he took attacks upon himself as equivalent to attacks upon the Christian religion; and when one had seemed to him to commit an offense against the honor of God, or to endanger the salvation of immortal souls, he would never forgive nor make allowances, but would pursue his opponent vindictively, relentlessly, and without pity.  This should help us to explain, if not to excuse, his attitude toward Servetus, and even his willingness so treacherously to betray him to the authorities at Vienne.

    Servetus, on the other hand, was in controversy self-conceited, obstinate, fanatical, insulting, and exasperating to the last degree, and by his own manner brought upon himself no small part of what he suffered.5  Though a man of brilliant and versatile talents, he held, along with the most advanced ideas, others that bordered on the superstitious and made some think him half mad.  Yet at bottom he was a sincere and reverent Christian, prizing the Bible far above all other books, devoutly attached to Jesus, who to him was all in all, and willing for the sake of what he held true to be faithful even unto death.  Three centuries and a half have squared accounts between him and Calvin.  Persecution has been condemned and toleration vindicated.  Servetus’s heresy has steadily gained upon Calvin’s orthodoxy until at Geneva itself Calvin’s creed has long since been laid aside, and an expiatory monument has been erected by Calvin’s followers near the spot where Servetus perished;6 while in four cities of Europe7 where in 1553 he would not have been permitted to live, statues of him now stand to honor his memory.


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Text taken from a 1925 original copy of Earl Morse Wilbur's Our Unitarian Heritage.
Copyright released by Wilbur's grandchildren.
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