Antitrinitarianism at Geneva after Servetus, 15531566


    It might naturally be supposed that after the execution of Servetus opposition to the doctrine of the Trinity would have been at an end in Switzerland, or at all events at Geneva, and that any still entertaining doubts of that doctrine would have kept them profoundly to themselves.  Such did not at all prove to be the case.  Calvin and his sympathizers soon discovered that they had only “scotched the snake, not killed it.”  There was, as we have seen, a growing sentiment in favor of religious toleration, and the death of Servetus had without doubt caused persons of independent mind to inquire more widely and deeply than before whether the doctrine of the Trinity were true or not; and of all places it was right at Geneva itself, under Calvin’s very nose, that while the ashes of Servetus were still warm the discussion again broke out.

    This new outbreak took place among the Italian refugees, who were somewhat protected from Calvin’s observation by the fact that they formed a community more or less separate from the native Genevese, and that they spoke a foreign tongue.  When Ochino escaped from Italy to Geneva in 1542 he found already there a considerable number of his countrymen, refugees who had been kindly received by Calvin, and he preached to them in Italian until he left Geneva in 1545.  The sermons were followed by free discussion on the part of the members, and this must have opened dangerous opportunities for any heretic to express his mind.  A few years later an Italian church was regularly organized.  Though most of its members were strictly orthodox, some of them were inclined to be liberal; and during and after the trial of Servetus several of them leaned to his side and denounced his execution.  These latter were of course cautious about expressing their views too openly; but they did not conceal them when in conversation with trusted friends.  Their general objection to the doctrine of the Trinity was that it was incomprehensible and unreasonable, and that it was self-contradictory.  There were four persons who were prominent above the others in this movement, Gribaldo, Biandrata, Alciati, and Gentile; and we shall have separately to see what they did and what befell them.

    Matteo Gribaldo was regarded by Calvin as the source of the heresies in the Italian church at Geneva.  He was a native of Piedmont, and of his early life nothing is known; but in mature life he was a noted jurist, who lectured upon law at various universities of France and Italy, and especially at the University of Padua. Though he embraced the doctrines of the Reformation, he managed for some years to keep them to himself enough to escape the eye of the Inquisition.  At length in 1555 he found the heresy-hunters on his trail, and resisting every inducement of honor and distinction offered him if he would only conform to the Church, he gave up his profession at Padua and withdrew to Switzerland, where he had some years before purchased an estate at Farges near Geneva, which be had often visited in the summers.  He was at Geneva, as we have seen, while the trial of Servetus was in progress, and had then frankly expressed his disapproval of capital punishment for heresy, and had in vain sought an interview on the subject with which the latter, suspicious of Gribaldo’s orthodoxy, declined.  Being at Geneva again the following summer, at the Italian church he expressed his views as to the Trinity so freely as to cause no little offense, for it was clear that he was practically an Arian.

    Upon his withdrawal from Padua, a year later, Gribaldo had no sooner arrived in Switzerland than he was invited to the chair of law at the University of Tübingen.  On his way thither he again visited his friends at Geneva, and this time it was Calvin who sought a conference with him in the presence of some of the church officers; but when Calvin refused to shake hands with him, as a man under suspicion of heresy, Professor Gribaldo at once left the room in anger.  He was required, however, to make a statement of his views before the Council, and in this, despite his care not to compromise himself, he let fall some words which were construed as heretical.  Enough.  He was forthwith expelled from the city.

    Upon going to Tübingen he was received with great distinction; but the relentless Calvin pursued him thither, warning one of his colleagues against him as a conceited and dangerous enemy of the faith, and Beza did the same.  Complaint was made to his ruler, the Duke of Württemberg, and Gribaldo was brought to answer for his errors before the university senate.  He asked for three weeks in which to prepare his answer, but used the time to make good his escape.  He fled to his home at Farges, but the Duke got the authorities of Bern, in whose territory it lay, to arrest him.  At length, as the less of two evils, he consented to subscribe an orthodox creed and abjure his errors, after which he was required to leave the city within half a year.  Meanwhile his wife died, and he besought the government to allow him to remain with his seven motherless children.  The request was granted, on condition that he keep quiet.  A year or two later he was lecturing again at Grenoble, but it was only a short time before religious persecution drove him also from here; and after a few more troubled years he was carried off by the plague at Farges in 1564, the same year in which Calvin also died.

    While Gribaldo had been only an occasional and brief visitor at Geneva, Biandrata, Alciati, and Gentile were residents there and members of the Italian church.  They agreed substantially with Gribaldo and with one another in holding that the doctrine of the Trinity accords with neither Scripture nor reason, and they seem to have derived their views from Servetus.  Of these three the one by far the most distinguished in the history of Unitarianism was Dr.  Giorgio Biandrata.1  He was born of noble family at Saluzzo in Piedmont about 1515, studied medicine and taught it at the Universities of Montpellier and Pavia, and was renowned as one of the best medical writers of his time.  While yet a comparatively young man, his reputation was such that he was chosen court physician to the Italian Queen Bona Sforza of Poland, and later served her daughter, Princess Isabella of Transylvania, in the same capacity.  He was a very clever and crafty man, and won great personal influence at both courts.

    Returning from Poland to Italy in 1551 he practiced his profession for a time at Pavia, and later on in the Grisons he met Renato.2  But having become infected with the ideas of the Reformation he had in 1556 to flee from the Inquisition, and came to Geneva where he joined the Italian church and for a time lived quietly.  The discussion then in progress as to the Trinity seemed to trouble him, and he often resorted to Calvin for light.  He would come away each time apparently satisfied, only to return later with new questions.  At last Calvin’s patience was out, and half suspecting the sincerity of Biandrata’s questions he refused to have anything more to do with him.  This suspicion was probably justified; for after Gribaldo had been banished, Biandrata and Alciati assumed leadership in the attacks upon the doctrine of the Trinity. So many members of the Italian church became dangerously infected that the pastor on his deathbed in 1557 implored Calvin to take the matter in hand and root out the heresy.  Calvin willingly complied, and the next year, after other attempts had proved ineffectual, a very strict confession of faith was drawn up, directed especially against these errors; and after lengthy discussion, in which Biandrata and Alciati passionately opposed the Trinity, it was voted to require all the members to sign the confession and to promise to adhere strictly to it in future.  Six of the members refused to sign but afterwards yielded, Alciati and Biandrata apparently among them; they continued nevertheless secretly to discuss the matter with susceptible persons, and hence they together with others were ere long called before the officers of the church.  They were promised immunity from punishment if they would only preserve the peace; but soon afterwards Biandrata, scenting immediate danger, took hasty flight, going first to Gribaldo at Farges and then to Zürich, where he found so little sympathy that he was advised to leave the city.  He therefore returned to practice his profession in Poland; and we shall later see how he became practically the founder of the Unitarian movement in that country and in Transylvania.

    Giovanni Paolo Alciati, Biandrata’s companion in this controversy, was another Piedmontese of noble birth, who had formerly been a soldier in the service of Milan.  Before coming to Geneva he had been in the Grisons with Biandrata and Renato, and had also been a correspondent of Paleario.3  He was rude of speech, and in the discussion referred to above he declared that in the Trinity Calvin worshiped three devils, worse than all the idols of the Papacy.  He was about to be arrested when he fled with Biandrata, and when bidden to return he declared he would not set foot in Geneva so long as Calvin lived.  He was therefore deprived of his citizenship, and permanently banished from Geneva under pain of death.  Two others were also banished at about the same time.  Alciati soon joined Biandrata in Poland and assisted him in spreading antitrinitarian views there, and was later active in the same cause in Moravia.  The end of his life was spent at Danzig, which became one of the seats of Antitrinitarianism in Prussian Poland, where he was its first recorded adherent.

    One more of the Geneva Antitrinitarians remains to be mentioned, Giovanni Valentino Gentile, whom Beza considered the fountainhead of all the disturbances in the Geneva church, and who for his adventurous life and tragic death deserves to be considered as second only to Servetus among Unitarian martyrs.  He was a native of Calabria and was well educated, and had formerly been a teacher.  He too had been in the circle of Valdez at Naples.  Becoming too much of a Protestant to remain safely in Italy, he came to Geneva about 1556, attracted by the reputation of Calvin, and here became more and more inclined to the antitrinitarian faction in the church.  He was one of the six that at first refused to sign Calvin’s creed, and were later persuaded to do so; but after Biandrata’s flight from Geneva, Gentile felt driven by his conscience boldly to bear witness to the truth of God as he saw it.  He therefore made no secret of his opinion that Calvin’s doctrine really made a Quaternity of four divine beings, instead of a Trinity of three,4 and showed that he was himself fundamentally an Arian.  The Council took his case in hand, required a formal statement of his beliefs, imprisoned him, denied him (like Servetus) legal counsel, and finally declared him worthy of death as a heretic.  It was not until he had been condemned to be beheaded (Geneva was not likely now to invite further criticism by burning another heretic at the stake, and even this sentence of Gentile aroused general indignation) that he saw that if he would live he must unequivocally renounce all his errors.  Having at length done this he was recommended to the mercy of his judges.  He was therefore required to undergo a humiliating form of punishment in vogue at the time and known as the amende honorable: he was obliged barefoot and bareheaded, clad only in a shirt, and preceded by trumpeters, to march through the streets with lighted torch in hand, and then on his knees to confess his crime, burn his writings with his own hand, and beg the forgiveness of the magistrates; and he had to take oath not to leave the city without permission.

    At the first opportunity he broke the oath thus forced from him, and fled to Gribaldo at Farges, and soon after that to Lyon, where he published an Antidota to Calvin’s doctrine, which he attacked without reserve as fantastic and sophistical.  Ill health and his poverty soon caused him to go to Grenoble to seek the hospitality of Gribaldo who was now lecturing there.  Being soon called to account by the Catholic authorities here, he proved to them that his attacks had been made only against Calvin and the Reformed Church, whereat they were so well pleased that they let him go.  He thought it safer however to return to Farges, where he was soon arrested and imprisoned again, though upon giving his promise to remain quiet he was set at liberty.  Returning to Lyon he published another writing attacking the doctrine of Calvin, was again arrested on suspicion of heresy, and again satisfied the Catholic authorities that his opposition was rather against Calvin than against the doctrine of the Trinity (which was probably more than half the truth), and after fifty days’ imprisonment was once more set free.  After all these troubles he was ready to accept the invitation of Biandrata to come to Poland and help him spread Antitrinitarianism there, and thither he went in 1563 together with Alciati.

    The poor man could nowhere long escape persecution.  Calvin at once wrote letters warning the Polish churches against him, and in 1566 a severe edict against heretics was passed which made it necessary for him to flee to Moravia.  Here he sought an Anabaptist community in which many Antitrinitarians during this period found refuge, but he did not remain long.  Whether he was fatally attracted to danger as a moth to flame, or whether he thought that with Calvin now dead, and several of the other leading reformers lately carried off by the plague which in Switzerland had swept away some 38,000, he might now with better success proclaim the doctrine he had so much at heart, he returned again to Farges, only to find that his friend Gribaldo had died of the plague.

    With almost fanatical self-confidence Gentile now challenged all the Protestant theologians of France and Savoy to a public debate on the doctrine of the Trinity, the loser to be punished by death!  The challenge was ignored, but again, and for the last time, he was arrested as a heretic.  He claimed in defense that he had not attacked the true scriptural Trinity, but only the false Trinity of Calvin.  After five weeks in prison at Gex he was removed to the seat of government at Bern.  Feeling was very tense there on account of a recent outbreak of Anabaptism, and Gentile was suspected of being also an Anabaptist.  Various churches and universities in Germany had already publicly condemned his teachings as Arian.  Beza, who had now succeeded Calvin in Geneva, wrote to urge action against him, and the reformers of Bern and Zürich did the same.  He was charged with seven specific errors as to the Trinity, and confessed them all, but defended them as the truth.  He was charged also with disrespect for sacred things, and with having violated his oath at Geneva.  After a month’s time, as he could not be brought to renounce his errors, he was condemned to be beheaded.  Even on his way to execution he charged the clergy who attended him with being Sabellians,5 and declared that he died (1566) as a witness to the honor of the most high God.  But so thoroughly had all open sympathy with the doctrines of Servetus now been suppressed in Switzerland, that hardly a voice was raised in protest save at Basel; and even there it was perhaps as much because political feeling was then strained between Basel and the rest of Switzerland as because of any strong sentiment in favor of religious toleration; for it will be remembered that it was at Basel that only a few years before this the body of David Joris had been taken from its grave and burnt.6

    Thus in this part of Switzerland, as in the other countries of which we have spoken, Antitrinitarianism was violently put down, and nothing more was heard of it for many generations for in the same year in which Gentile perished, most of the Swiss Protestant churches adopted the Helvetic Confession which ere long was also adopted by the Reformed Churches of France, Hungary, and Poland; and thus these churches were henceforth committed to a strict and unchanging form of religious thought much as the early Christian Church had been at Constantinople in 381.7 There had been, however, during this same period, a milder struggle for freedom of belief going on in other Swiss cities than Geneva and Bern, and we must therefore next follow the story of that at Zürich and at Basel.


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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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