Vol 8, Chapter XVI . Servetus: His Life, Opinions, Trial, and Execution

136. The Servetus Literature


I. Theological Works of Michael Servetus


tatis Erroribus

Libri Septem.

Per Michaelem Serueto, alias

Reues ab Aragonia



This book was printed at Hagenau in the Alsace, but without the name of the place, or of the publisher or printer. It contains 120 pages.

Dialogo | rum de Trinitate | Libri duo. | De justicia regni Chri | sti, Capitula quatuor. | Per Michaelem Serveto, | aliâs Reves, ab Aragonia | Hispanum. | Anno MDXXXII. Likewise printed at Hagenau. It concludes with the words: “Perdat Dominus omnes ecclesiae tyrannos. Amen. Finis.”

These two works (bound in one volume in the copy before me) were incorporated in revised shape in the Restitutio.

Illustration, Facsimile of title page.

This work was printed at Vienne in Dauphiné, at the expense of the author, who is indicated on the last page by the initial letters M. S. V.; i.e. Michael Servetus Villanovanus. It contains in 734 octavo pages: 1) Seven books on the Trinity (the ed. of 1531 revised); 2) Three books on Faith and the Righteousness of the kingdom of Christ (revised); 3) Four books on Regeneration and the kingdom of Antichrist; 4) Thirty Epistles to Calvin; 5) Sixty Signs of the reign of Antichrist; 6) Apology to Melanchthon and his colleagues on the mystery of the Trinity and ancient discipline.

One thousand (some say eight hundred) copies were printed and nearly all burnt or otherwise destroyed. Four or five were saved: namely, one sent by Servetus through Frelon to Calvin; one taken from the five bales seized at Lyons for the use of the Inquisitor Ory; a third transmitted for inspection to the Swiss Churches and Councils; a fourth sent by Calvin to Bullinger; a fifth given by Calvin to Colladon, one of the judges of Servetus, in which the objectionable passages are marked, and which was, perhaps, the same with the fourth copy. Castellio (1554) complained that he could not get a copy.

At present only two copies of the original edition are known to exist; one in the National Library of Paris (the Collation copy), the other in the Imperial Library of Vienna. Willis gives the curious history of these copies, pp. 535-541; Comp. his note on p. 196. Audin says that he used the annotated copy which bears the name of Colladon on the title-page, and the marks of the flames on the margins; how it was rescued, he does not know. It is this copy which passed into the hands of Dr. Richard Mead, a distinguished physician in London, who put a Latin note at the head of the work: “Fuit hic liber D. Colladon qui ipse nomen suum adscripsit. Ille vero simul cum Calvino inter judices sedebat qui auctorem Servetum flammis damnarunt. Ipse indicem in fine confecit. Et porro in ipso opere lineis ductis hic et illic notavit verba quibus ejus blasphemias et errores coargueret. Hoc exemplar unicum quantum scire licet flammis servatum restat: omnia enim quae reperire poterat auctoritate sua ut comburerentur curavit Calvinus.” (Quoted from Audin.) This must be the copy now in Paris. Dr. Mead began to republish a handsome edition in 1723, but it was suppressed and burnt by order of Gibson, the bishop of London.

In 1790, the book rose like a phoenix from its ashes in the shape of an exact reprint, page for page, and line for line, so that it can only be distinguished from the first edition by the date of publication at the bottom of the last page in extremely small figures — 1790 (not 1791, as Trechsel, Staehelin, Willis, and others, say). The reprint was made from the original copy in the Vienna Library by direction of Chr. Th. Murr, M. D. (See his Adnotationes ad Bibliothecas Hallerianas, cum variis ad scripta Michaelis Serveti pertinentibus, Erlangen, 1805, quoted by Willis.) The edition must have been small, for copies are rare. My friend, the Rev. Samuel M. Jackson, is in possession of a copy which I have used, and of which two pages, the first and the last, are given in facsimile.

A German translation of the Restitutio by Dr. Bernhard Spiess: Michael Servets Wiederherstellung des Christenthums zum ersten Mal uebersetzt. Erster Bd., Wiesbaden (Limbarth), 1892 (323 pp.). The second vol. has not yet appeared. He says in the preface: “An Begeisterung für Christus und an biblischem Purismus ist Servet den meisten Theologen unserer Tage weit ueberlegen [?]; von eigentlichen Laesterungen ist nichts bei ihm zu entdecken.” Dr. Spiess, like Dr. Tollin, is both a defender of Servetus and an admirer of Calvin. He translated the first ed. of his Institutes (1536) into German (Wiesbaden, 1887).

The geographical and medical works of Servetus will be noticed in the next sections.


II. Calvinistic Sources

Calvin: Defensio orthodoxae fidei de sacra trinitate contra prodigiosos errores Michaelis Serveti Hispani, ubi ostenditur haereticos jure gladii coercendos esse, etc., written in 1554, in Opera, VIII. (Brunsw., 1870), 453-644. The same volume contains thirty letters of Servetus to Calvin, 645-720, and the Actes du procès de Mich. Servet., 721-872. See also the correspondence of Calvin from the year 1553 in vol. XIV. 68 sqq. (The Defensio is in the Amsterdam ed., vol. IX. 510-567.) Calvin refers to Servetus after his death several times in the last ed. of the Institutes (I. III. § 10, 22; II. IX. § 3, 10; IV. XVI. 29, 81), in his Responsio ad Balduini Convitia (1562), Opera, IX. 575, and in his Commentary on Joh_1:1 (written in 1554): “Servetus, superbissimus ex gente Hispanica nebulo.”

Beza gives a brief account in his Calvini Vita, ad a. 1553 and 1554, where he says that “Servetus was justly punished at Geneva, not as a sectary, but as a monster made up of nothing but impiety and horrid blasphemies, with which, by his speeches and writings, for the space of thirty years, he had infected both heaven and earth.” He thinks that Servetus uttered a satanic prediction on the title-page of his book: “Great war took place in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting with [not against] the dragon.” He also wrote an elaborate defence of the death-penalty for heresy in his tract De haereticis a civili magistratu puniendis, adversus Martini Bellii [pseudonym] farraginem et novorum academicorum sectam. Geneva (Oliva Rob. Stephani), 1554; second ed. 1592; French translation, 1560. See Heppe’s Beza, p. 38 sq.


III. Anti-Calvinistic

Bolsec, in his Histoire de la vie … de Jean Calvin (1577), chs. III. and IV., discusses the trial of Servetus in a spirit hostile alike to Calvin and Servetus. He represents the Roman Catholic view. He calls Servetus “a very arrogant and insolent man,” and a “monstrous heretic,” who deserved to be exterminated. “Desireroy,” he says, p. 25, “que tous semblables fussent exterminez: et l’église de nostre Seigneur fut bien purgée de telle vermine.” His more tolerant editor, L. F. Chastel, protests against this wish by an appeal to Luk_9:55.


IV. Documentary Sources

The Acts of the process of Servetus at Vienne were published by the Abbé D’artigny, Paris, 1749 (Tom. II. des Nouveaux Memoires). — The Acts of the process at Geneva, first published by J. H. Albert Rilliet: Relation du procés criminel intenté a Genève en 1553 contre Michel Servet, rédigée d’après les documents originaux. Genève, 1844. Reprinted in Opera, vol. VIII. — English translation, with notes and additions, by W. K. Tweedie: Calvin and Servetus. Edinburgh, 1846. German translation by Brunnemann (see below).


V. Modern Works

*L. Mosheim, the famous Lutheran Church historian (1694-1755), made the first impartial investigation of the Servetus controversy, and marks a reaction of judgment in favor of Servetus, in two monographs, Geschichte des beruehmten Spanischen Arztes Michael Serveto, Helmstaedt, 1748, 4° (second vol. of his Ketzergeschichte); and Neue Nachrichten von Serveto, 1750. He had first intrusted his materials to a pupil, Henr. Ab. Allwoerden, who published a Historia Michaelis Serveti, Helmstadii, 1727 (238 pp., with a fine portrait of Servetus and the scene of his execution) but as this book was severely criticised by Armand de la Chapelle, the pastor of the French congregation at the Hague, Mosheim wrote his first work chiefly from copies of the acts of the trial of Servetus at Geneva (which are verified by the publication of the original documents in 1844), and his second work from the trial at Vienne, which were furnished to him by a French ecclesiastic. Comp. Henry, III. 102 sq.; Dyer, 540 sq.

In the nineteenth century Servetus has been thoroughly discussed by the biographers of Calvin: Henry (vol. III. 107 sqq., abridged in Stebbing’s transl., vol. II.); Audin (chs. XL. and XLI.); Dyer (chs. IX. and X., pp. 296-367); Staehelin (I. 422 sqq.; II. 309 sqq.); and by Amédée Roget, in his Histoire du peuple de Genève (vol. IV., 1877, which gives the history of 1553-1555). Henry, Staehelin, and Roget vindicate Calvin, but dissent from his intolerance; Dyer aims to be impartial; Audin, like Bolsec, condemns both Calvin and Servetus.

*F. Trechsel: Michael Servet und seine Vorgaenger, Heidelberg, 1839 (the first part of his Die protest. Antitrinitarier). He draws chiefly from Servetus’s works and from the proceedings of the trial in the archives of Bern, which agree with those of Geneva, published afterwards by Rilliet. His work is learned and impartial, but with great respect for Calvin. Comp. his valuable article in the first ed. of Herzog, vol. XIV. 286-301.

*W. K. Tweedie: Calvin and Servetus, London, 1846.

Emile Saisset: Michael Servet, I. Doctrine philosophique et religieuse de M. S.; II. Le procès et la mort de M. S. In the “Revue des deux Mondes” for 1848, and in his “Mélanges d’histoire,” 1859, pp. 117-227. Saisset was the first to assign Servetus his proper place among scientists and pantheists. He calls him “le théologien philosophe panthéiste précurseur inattendu de Malebranche et de Spinoza, de Schleiermacher et de Strauss.”

J. S. Porter (Unitarian): Servetus and Calvin, 1854.

Karl Brunnemann: M. Serv., eine aktenmaessige Darstellung des 1553 in Genf gegen ihn gefuehrten Kriminal-processes, Berlin), 1865. (From Rilliet.)

*Henri Tollin (Lic. Theol., Dr. Med., and minister of the French Reformed Church at Magdeburg): I. Charakterbild Michael Servets. Berlin, 1876, 48 pp. 8° (transl. into French by Mme. Picheral-Dardier, Paris, 1879); II. Das Lehrsystem Michael Servets, genetisch dargestellt, Guetersloh, 1876-1878, 3 vols. (besides many smaller tracts; see below).

*R. Willis (M. D.): Servetus and Calvin. London, 1877 (641 pp.), with a fine portrait of Servetus and an ugly one of Calvin. More favorable to the former.

Marcelino Menendez Pelayo (R. Cath.): Historia de las Heterodoxos Espanjoles. Madrid, 1877. Tom. II. 249-313.

Don Pedro Gonzales De Velasco: Miguel Serveto. Madrid, 1880 (23 pp.). He has placed a statue of Serveto in the portico of the Instituto antropologico at Madrid.

Prof. Dr. A. v. d. Linde: Michael Servet, een Brandoffer der Gereformeerde Inquisitie. Groningen, 1891 (326 pp.). Hostile to Calvin, as the title indicates, and severe also against Tollin, but valuable for the literary references, distributed among the chapters.

(Articles in Encyclop., by Charles Dardier, in Lichtenberger’s “Encycl. des Sciences religieuses,” vol. XI., pp. 570-582 (Paris, 1881); in Larousse’s “Grand Dictionnaire universel,” vol. XIV. 621-623; Alex. Gordon, in “Encycl. Brit.” XXI. 684-686; by Bernh. Riggenbach, in Herzog2, XIV. 153-161.)

The theology of Servetus is analyzed and criticised by Heberle: M. Servets Trinitaetslehre und Christologie in the “Tuebinger Zeitschrift” for 1840; Baur: Die christl. Lehre v. d. Dreieinigkeit und Menschwerdung Gottes (Tübingen, 1843), III. 54-103; Dorner: Lehre v. d. Person Christi (Berlin, 1853), II. 613, 629, 649-660; Punjer: De M. Serveti doctrina, Jena, 1876.

The tragedy of Servetus has been dramatized by Max Ring (Die Genfer, 1850), José Echegaray (1880), and Albert Hamann (1881).

Servetus has been more thoroughly discussed and defended in recent times than any man connected with the Reformation.

The greatest Servetus scholar and vindicator is Dr. Tollin, pastor of a Huguenot Church in Germany, who calls himself “a Calvinist by birth and a decided friend of toleration by nature.” He was led to the study of Servetus by his interest in Calvin, and has written a Serveto-centric library of about forty books and tracts, bearing upon every aspect of Servetus: his Theology, Anthropology, Soteriology, Eschatology, Diabology, Antichristology, his relations to the Reformers (Luther, Bucer, Melanchthon), and to Thomas Aquinas, and also his medical and geographical writings. He has kindly furnished me with a complete list, and I will mention the most important below in their proper places.

Dr. Tollin assumes that Servetus was radically misunderstood by all his opponents — Catholic, Calvinistic, and Lutheran, and even by his Socinian and other Unitarian sympathizers. He thinks that even Calvin misunderstood him, though he understood him better than his other contemporaries. He makes Servetus a real hero, the peer of Calvin in genius, the discoverer of the circulation of the blood, the founder of comparative geography (the forerunner of Ritter), and the pioneer of modern Christology, which, instead of beginning with the pre-existent Logos, rises from the contemplation of the man Jesus to the recognition of Jesus Christ as the Messiah, then as the Son of God, and last as God. But he has overdone the subject, and put some of his own ideas into the brain of Servetus, who, like Calvin, must be studied and judged in the light of the sixteenth, and not of the nineteenth, century.

Next to Tollin, Professor Harnack, Neander’s successor in Berlin, has formed a most favorable idea of Servetus. Without entering into an analysis of his views, he thinks that in him “the best of all that came to maturity in the sixteenth century was united, if we except the evangelical Reformation,” and thus characterizes him: “Servede ist gleich bedeutend als empirischer Forscher, als kritischer Denker, als speculativer Philosoph und als christlicher Reformer im besten Sinn des Worts. Es ist eine Paradoxie der Geschichte, dass Spanien — das Land, welches von den Ideen der neün Zeit im 16 Jahrhundert am wenigsten berührt gewesen ist — diesen einzigen Mann hervorgebracht hat.” (Dogmengeschichte, Bd. III. 661.)


137. Calvin and Servetus

We now come to the dark chapter in the history of Calvin which has cast a gloom over his fair name, and exposed him, not unjustly, to the charge of intolerance and persecution, which he shares with his whole age.

The burning of Servetus and the decretum horribile are sufficient in the judgment of a large part of the Christian world to condemn him and his theology, but cannot destroy the rocky foundation of his rare virtues and lasting merits. History knows only of one spotless being — the Saviour of sinners. Human greatness and purity are spotted by marks of infirmity, which forbid idolatry. Large bodies cast large shadows, and great virtues are often coupled with great vices.

Calvin and Servetus — what a contrast! The best abused men of the sixteenth century, and yet direct antipodes of each other in spirit, doctrine, and aim: the reformer and the deformer; the champion of orthodoxy and the archheretic; the master architect of construction and the master architect of ruin, brought together in deadly conflict for rule or ruin. Both were men of brilliant genius and learning; both deadly foes of the Roman Antichrist; both enthusiasts for a restoration of primitive Christianity, but with opposite views of what Christianity is.

They were of the same age, equally precocious, equally bold and independent, and relied on purely intellectual and spiritual forces. The one, while a youth of twenty-seven, wrote one of the best systems of theology and vindications of the Christian faith; the other, when scarcely above the age of twenty, ventured on the attempt to uproot the fundamental doctrine of orthodox Christendom. Both died in the prime of manhood, the one a natural, the other a violent, death.

Calvin’s works are in every theological library; the books of Servetus are among the greatest rareties. Calvin left behind him flourishing churches, and his influence is felt to this day in the whole Protestant world; Servetus passed away like a meteor, without a sect, without a pupil; yet he still eloquently denounces from his funeral pile the crime and folly of religious persecution, and has recently been idealized by a Protestant divine as a prophetic forerunner of modern christo-centric theology.

Calvin felt himself called by Divine Providence to purify the Church of all corruptions, and to bring her back to the Christianity of Christ, and regarded Servetus as a servant of Antichrist, who aimed at the destruction of Christianity. Servetus was equally confident of a divine call, and even identified himself with the archangel Michael in his apocalyptic fight against the dragon of Rome and “the Simon Magus of Geneva.”

A mysterious force of attraction and repulsion brought these intellectual giants together in the drama of the Reformation. Servetus, as if inspired by a demoniac force, urged himself upon the attention of Calvin, regarding him as the pope of orthodox Protestantism, whom he was determined to convert or to dethrone. He challenged Calvin in Paris to a disputation on the Trinity when the latter had scarcely left the Roman Church, but failed to appear at the appointed place and hour. He bombarded him with letters from Vienne; and at last he heedlessly rushed into his power at Geneva, and into the flames which have immortalized his name.

The judgment of historians on these remarkable men has undergone a great change. Calvin’s course in the tragedy of Servetus was fully approved by the best men in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is as fully condemned in the nineteenth century. Bishop Bossuet was able to affirm that all Christians were happily agreed in maintaining the rightfulness of the death penalty for obstinate heretics, as murderers of souls. A hundred years later the great historian Gibbon echoed the opposite public sentiment when he said: “I am more deeply scandalized at the single execution of Servetus than at the hecatombs which have blazed at auto-da-fés of Spain and Portugal.”

It would be preposterous to compare Calvin with Torquemada. But it must be admitted that the burning of Servetus is a typical case of Protestant persecution, and makes Calvin responsible for a principle which may be made to justify an indefinite number of applications. Persecution deserves much severer condemnation in a Protestant than in a Roman Catholic, because it is inconsistent. Protestantism must stand or fall with freedom of conscience and freedom of worship.

From the standpoint of modern Christianity and civilization, the burning of Servetus admits of no justification. Even the most admiring biographers of Calvin lament and disapprove his conduct in this tragedy, which has spotted his fame and given to Servetus the glory of martyrdom.

But if we consider Calvin’s course in the light of the sixteenth century, we must come to the conclusion that he acted his part from a strict sense of duty and in harmony with the public law and dominant sentiment of his age, which justified the death penalty for heresy and blasphemy, and abhorred toleration as involving indifference to truth. Even Servetus admitted the principle under which he suffered; for he said, that incorrigible obstinacy and malice deserved death before God and men.

Calvin’s prominence for intolerance was his misfortune. It was an error of judgment, but not of the heart, and must be excused, though it cannot be justified, by the spirit of his age.

Calvin never changed his views or regretted his conduct towards Servetus. Nine years after his execution he justified it in self-defence against the reproaches of Baudouin (1562), saying: “Servetus suffered the penalty due to his heresies, but was it by my will? Certainly his arrogance destroyed him not less than his impiety. And what crime was it of mine if our Council, at my exhortation, indeed, but in conformity with the opinion of several Churches, took vengeance on his execrable blasphemies? Let Baudouin abuse me as long as he will, provided that, by the judgment of Melanchthon, posterity owes me a debt of gratitude for having purged the Church of so pernicious a monster.”

In one respect he was in advance of his times, by recommending to the Council of Geneva, though in vain, a mitigation of punishment and the substitution of the sword for the stake.

Let us give him credit for this comparative moderation in a semi-barbarous age when not only hosts of heretics, but even innocent women, as witches, were cruelly tortured and roasted to death. Let us remember also that it was not simply a case of fundamental heresy, but of horrid blasphemy, with which he had to deal. If he was mistaken, if he misunderstood the real opinions of Servetus, that was an error of judgment, and an error which all the Catholics and Protestants of that age shared. Nor should it be overlooked that Servetus was convicted of falsehood, that he overwhelmed Calvin with abuse, and that he made common cause with the Libertines, the bitter enemies of Calvin, who had a controlling influence in the Council of Geneva at that time, and hoped to overthrow him.

It is objected that there was no law in Geneva to justify the punishment of Servetus, since the canon law had been abolished by the Reformation in 1535; but the Mosaic law was not abolished, it was even more strictly enforced; and it is from the Mosaic law against blasphemy that Calvin drew his chief argument.

On the other hand, however, we must frankly admit that there were some aggravating circumstances which make it difficult to reconcile Calvin’s conduct with the principles of justice and humanity. Seven years before the death of Servetus he had expressed his determination not to spare his life if he should come to Geneva. He wrote to Farel (Feb. 13, 1546): “Servetus lately wrote to me, and coupled with his letter a long volume of his delirious fancies, with the Thrasonic boast, that I should see something astonishing and unheard of. He offers to come hither, if it be agreeable to me. But I am unwilling to pledge my word for his safety; for if he does come, and my authority be of any avail, I shall never suffer him to depart alive.” It was not inconsistent with this design, if he aided, as it would seem, in bringing the book of Servetus to the notice of the Roman inquisition in Lyons. He procured his arrest on his arrival in Geneva. He showed personal bitterness towards him during the trial. Servetus was a stranger in Geneva, and had committed no offence in that city. Calvin should have permitted him quietly to depart, or simply caused his expulsion from the territory of Geneva, as in the case of Bolsec. This would have been sufficient punishment. If he had recommended expulsion instead of decapitation, he would have saved himself the reproaches of posterity, which will never forget and never forgive the burning of Servetus.

In the interest of impartial history we must condemn the intolerance of the victor as well as the error of the victim, and admire in both the loyalty to conscientious conviction. Heresy is an error; intolerance, a sin; persecution, a crime.


138. Catholic Intolerance

Comp. vol. VII. §§ 11 and 12, and Schaff: The Progress of Religious Liberty as shown in the History of Toleration Acts. New York, 1889.

This is the place to present the chief facts on the subject of religious toleration and intolerance, which gives to the case of Servetus its chief interest and importance in history. His theological opinions are of far less consequence than his connection with the theory of persecution which caused his death.

Persecution and war constitute the devil’s chapter in history; but it is overruled by Providence for the development of heroism, and for the progress of civil and religious freedom. Without persecutors, there could be no martyrs. Every church, yea, every truth and every good cause, has its martyrs, who stood the fiery trial and sacrificed comfort and life itself to their sacred convictions. The blood of martyrs is the seed of toleration; toleration is the seed of liberty; and liberty is the most precious gift of God to every man who has been made in his image and redeemed by Christ.

Of all forms of persecution, religious persecution is the worst because it is enacted in the name of God. It violates the sacred rights of conscience, and it rouses the strongest and deepest passions. Persecution by word and pen, which springs from the hatred, envy, and malice of the human heart, or from narrowness and mistaken zeal for truth, will continue to the end of time; but persecution by fire and sword contradicts the spirit of humanity and Christianity, and is inconsistent with modern civilization. Civil offences against the State deserve civil punishment, by fine, imprisonment, confiscation, exile, and death, according to the degree of guilt. Spiritual offences against the Church should be spiritually judged, and punished by admonition, deposition, and excommunication, with a view to the reformation and restoration of the offender. This is the law of Christ. The temporal punishment of heresy is the legitimate result of a union of Church and State, and diminishes in rigor as this union is relaxed. A religion established by law must be protected by law. Hence the Constitution of the United States in securing full liberty of religion, forbids Congress to establish by law any religion or church. The two were regarded as inseparable. An established church must in self-defence persecute dissenters, or abridge their liberties; a free church cannot persecute. And yet there may be as much individual Christian kindness and charity in an established church, and as much intolerance and bigotry in a free church. The ante-Nicene Fathers had the same zeal for orthodoxy and the same abhorrence of heresy as the Nicene and post-Nicene Fathers, the mediaeval popes and schoolmen, and the Reformers; but they were confined to the spiritual punishment of heresy. In the United States of America persecution is made impossible, not because the zeal for truth or the passions of hatred and intolerance have ceased, but because the union between Church and State has ceased.

The theory of religious persecution was borrowed from the Mosaic law, which punished idolatry and blasphemy by death. “He that sacrificeth unto any god, save unto Jehovah only, shall be utterly destroyed.” (Exo_22:20; comp. Deu_13:5-15; Deu_17:2-5, etc.) He that blasphemeth the name of Jehovah, he shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as the home-born, when he blasphemeth the name of Jehovah, shall be put to death.” (Lev_24:16; comp. 1Ki_21:10, 1Ki_21:13.)

The Mosaic theocracy was superseded in its national and temporal provisions by the kingdom of Christ, which is “not of this world.” The confounding of the Old and New Testaments, of the law of Moses and the gospel of Christ, was the source of a great many evils in the Church.

The New Testament furnishes not a shadow of support for the doctrine of persecution. The whole teaching and example of Christ and the Apostles are directly opposed to it. They suffered persecution, but they persecuted no one. Their weapons were spiritual, not carnal. They rendered to God the things that are God’s, and to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. The only passage which St. Augustin could quote in favor of coercion, was the parabolic “Constrain them to come in” (Luk_14:23), which in its literal acceptation would teach just the reverse, namely, a forced salvation. St. Thomas Aquinas does not quote any passage from the New Testament in favor of intolerance, but tries to explain away those passages which commend toleration (Mat_13:29, Mat_13:30; 1Co_11:19; 2Ti_2:24). The Church has never entirely forgotten this teaching of Christ and always, even in the darkest ages of persecution, avowed the principle, “Ecclesia non sitit sanguinem”; but she made the State her executor.

In the first three centuries the Church had neither the power nor the wish to persecute. Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Lactantius were the earliest advocates of the liberty of conscience. The Toleration Edict of Constantine (313) anticipated the modern theory of the right of every man to choose his religion and to worship according to his conviction. But this was only a step towards the union of the empire with the Church, when the Church assumed the position and power of the heathen state religion.

The era of persecution within the Church began with the first Ecumenical Council, which was called and enforced by Constantine. This Council presents the first instance of a subscription to a creed, and the first instance of banishment for refusing to subscribe. Arius and two Egyptian bishops, who agreed with him, were banished to Illyria. During the violent Arian controversies, which shook the empire between the first and second Ecumenical Councils (325-381), both parties when in power freely exercised persecution by imprisonment, deposition, and exile. The Arians were as intolerant as the orthodox. The practice furnished the basis for a theory and public law.

The penal legislation against heresy was inaugurated by Theodosius the Great after the final triumph of the Nicene Creed in the second Ecumenical Council. He promulgated during his reign (379-395) no less than fifteen severe edicts against heretics, especially those who dissented from the doctrine of the Trinity. They were deprived of the right of public worship, excluded from public offices, and exposed, in some cases, to capital punishment. His rival and colleague, Maximus, put the theory into full practice, and shed the first blood of heretics by causing Priscillian, a Spanish bishop of Manichaean tendency, with six adherents, to be tortured, condemned, and executed by the sword.

The better feeling of the Church raised in Ambrose of Milan and Martin of Tours a protest against this act of inhumanity. But public sentiment soon approved of it. Jerome seems to favor the death penalty for heresy on the ground of Deu_13:6-10. The great Augustin, who had himself been a Manichaean heretic for nine years, justified forcible measures against the Donatists, in contradiction to his noble sentiment: “Nothing conquers but truth, the victory of truth is love.” The same Christian Father who ruled the thinking of the Church for many centuries, and moulded the theology of the Reformers, excluded all unbaptized infants from salvation, though Christ emphatically included them in the kingdom of heaven. Leo I., the greatest of the early popes, advocated the death penalty for heresy and approved of the execution of the Priscillianists. Thomas Aquinas, the master theologian of the Middle Ages, lent the weight of his authority to the doctrine of persecution, and demonstrated from the Old Testament and from reason that heretics are worse criminals than debasers of money, and ought to be put to death by the civil magistrate. Heresy was regarded as the greatest sin, and worse than murder, because it destroyed the soul. It took the place of idolatry in the Mosaic law.

The Theodosian Code was completed in the Justinian Code (527-534); the Justinian Code passed into the Holy Roman Empire, and became the basis of the legislation of Christian Europe. Rome ruled the world longer by law and by the cross than she had ruled it by the sword. The canon law likewise condemns to the flames persons convicted of heresy. This law was generally accepted on the Continent in the thirteenth century. England in her isolation was more independent, and built society on the foundation of the common law; but Henry IV. and his Parliament devised the sanguinary statute de haeretico comburendo, by, which William Sawtre, a parish priest, was publicly burnt at Smithfield (Feb. 26, 1401) for denying the doctrine of transubstantiation, and the bones of Wiclif were burnt by Bishop Fleming of Lincoln (in 1428). The statute continued in force till 1677, when it was formally abolished.

On this legal and theological foundation the mediaeval Church has soiled her annals with the blood of an army of heretics which is much larger than the army of Christian martyrs under heathen Rome. We need only refer to the crusades against the Albigenses and Waldenses, which were sanctioned by Innocent III., one of the best and greatest of popes; the tortures and autos-da-fé of the Spanish Inquisition, which were celebrated with religious festivities; the fifty thousand or more Protestants who were executed during the reign of the Duke of Alva in the Netherlands (1567-1573); the several hundred martyrs who were burned in Smithfield under the reign of the bloody Mary; and the repeated wholesale persecutions of the innocent Waldenses in France and Piedmont, which cried to heaven for vengeance.

It is vain to shift the responsibility upon the civil government. Pope Gregory XIII. commemorated the massacre of St. Bartholomew not only by a Te Deum in the churches of Rome, but more deliberately and permanently by a medal which represents “The Slaughter of the Huguenots” by an angel of wrath. The French bishops, under the lead of the great Bossuet, lauded Louis XIV. as a new Constantine, a new Theodosius, a new Charlemagne, a new exterminator of heretics, for his revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the infamous dragoonades against the Huguenots.

Among the more prominent individual cases of persecution, we may mention the burning of Hus (1415) and Jerome of Prague (1416) by order of the Council of Constance, the burning of Savonarola in Florence (1498), the burning of the three English Reformers at Oxford (1556), of Aonio Paleario at Rome (1570), and of Giordano Bruno (1600) in the same city and on the same spot where (1889) the liberals of Italy have erected a statue to his memory. Servetus was condemned to death at the stake, and burnt in effigy, by a Roman Catholic tribunal before he fell into the hands of Calvin.

The Roman Church has lost the power, and to a large extent also the disposition, to persecute by fire and sword. Some of her highest dignitaries frankly disown the principle of persecution, especially in America, where they enjoy the full benefit of religious freedom. But the Roman curia has never officially disowned the theory on which the practice of persecution is based. On the contrary, several popes since the Reformation have indorsed it. Pope Clement VIII. denounced the Toleration Edict of Nantes as “the most accursed that can be imagined, whereby liberty of conscience is granted to everybody; which is the worst thing in the world.” Pope Innocent X. “condemned, rejected, and annulled” the toleration articles of the Westphalian Treaty of 1648, and his successors have ever protested against it, though in vain. Pope Pius IX., in the Syllabus of 1864, expressly condemned, among the errors of this age, the doctrine of religious toleration and liberty. And this pope has been declared to be officially infallible by the Vatican decree of 1870, which embraces all his predecessors (notwithstanding the stubborn case of Honorius I.) and all his successors in the chair of St. Peter. Leo XIII. has moderately and cautiously indorsed the doctrine of the Syllabus.


139. Protestant Intolerance. Judgments of the Reformers on Servetus

The Reformers inherited the doctrine of persecution from their mother Church, and practised it as far as they had the power. They fought intolerance with intolerance. They differed favorably from their opponents in the degree and extent, but not in the principle, of intolerance. They broke down the tyranny of popery, and thus opened the way for the development of religious freedom; but they denied to others the liberty which they exercised themselves. The Protestant governments in Germany and Switzerland excluded, within the limits of their jurisdiction, the Roman Catholics from all religious and civil rights, and took exclusive possession of their churches, convents, and other property. They banished, imprisoned, drowned, beheaded, hanged, and burned Anabaptists, Antitrinitarians, Schwenkfeldians, and other dissenters. In Saxony, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark no religion and public worship was allowed but the Lutheran. The Synod of Dort deposed and expatriated all Arminian ministers and school-teachers. The penal code of Queen Elizabeth and the successive acts of Uniformity aimed at the complete extermination of all dissent, whether papal or protestant, and made it a crime for an Englishman to be anything else than an Episcopalian. The Puritans when in power ejected two thousand ministers from their benefices for non-conformity; and the Episcopalians paid them back in the same coin when they returned to power. “The Reformers,” says Gibbon, with sarcastic severity, “were ambitious of succeeding the tyrants whom they had dethroned. They imposed with equal rigor their creeds and confessions; they asserted the right of the magistrate to punish heretics with death. The nature of the tiger was the same, but he was gradually deprived of his teeth and fangs.”

Protestant persecution violates the fundamental principle of the Reformation. Protestantism has no right to exist except on the basis of freedom of conscience.

How, then, can we account for this glaring inconsistency? There is a reason for everything. Protestant persecution was necessary in self-defence and in the struggle for existence. The times were not ripe for toleration. The infant Churches could not have stood it. These Churches had first to be consolidated and fortified against surrounding foes. Universal toleration at that time would have resulted in universal confusion and upset the order of society. From anarchy to absolute despotism is but one step. The division of Protestantism into two rival camps, the Lutheran and the Reformed, weakened it; further divisions within these camps would have ruined it and prepared an easy triumph for united Romanism, which would have become more despotic than ever before. This does not justify the principle, but it explains the practice, of intolerance.

The Reformers and the Protestant princes and magistrates were essentially agreed on this intolerant attitude, both towards the Romanists and the heretical Protestants, at least to the extent of imprisonment, deposition, and expatriation. They differed only as to the degree of severity. They all believed that the papacy is anti-christian and the mass idolatrous; that heresy is a sin against God and society; that the denial of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ is the greatest of heresies, which deserves death according to the laws of the empire, and eternal punishment according to the Athanasian Creed (with its three damnatory clauses); and that the civil government is as much bound to protect the first as the second table of the Decalogue, and to vindicate the honor of God against blasphemy. They were anxious to show their zeal for orthodoxy by severity against heresy. They had no doubt that they themselves were orthodox according to the only true standard of orthodoxy — the Word of God in the Holy Scriptures. And as regards the dogmas of the Trinity and Incarnation, they were fully agreed with their Catholic opponents, and equally opposed to the errors of Servetus, who denied those dogmas with a boldness and contempt unknown before.

Let us ascertain the sentiments of the leading Reformers with special reference to the case of Servetus. They form a complete justification of Calvin as far as such a justification is possible.



Luther, the hero of Worms, the champion of the sacred rights of conscience, was, in words, the most violent, but in practice, the least intolerant, among the Reformers. He was nearest to Romanism in the condemnation of heresy, but nearest to the genius of Protestantism in the advocacy of religious freedom. He was deeply rooted in mediaeval piety, and yet a mighty prophet of modern times. In his earlier years, till 1529, he gave utterance to some of the noblest sentiments in favor of religious liberty. “Belief is a free thing,” he said, “which cannot be enforced.” “If heretics were to be punished by death, the hangman would be the most orthodox theologian.” “Heresy is a spiritual thing which no iron can hew down, no fire burn, no water drown.” “To burn heretics is contrary to the will of the Holy Spirit.” “False teachers should not be put to death; it is enough to banish them.”

But with advancing years he became less liberal and more intolerant against Catholics, heretics, and Jews. He exhorted the magistrates to forbid all preaching of Anabaptists, whom he denounced without discrimination as false prophets and messengers of the devil, and he urged their expulsion. He raised no protest when the Diet of Speier, in 1529, passed the cruel decree that the Anabaptists be executed by fire and sword without distinction of sex, and even without a previous hearing before the spiritual judges. The Elector of Saxony considered it his duty to execute this decree, and put a number of Anabaptists to death in his dominions. His neighbor, Philip of Hesse, who had more liberal instincts than the contemporary princes of Germany, could not find it in his conscience to use the sword against differences of belief. But the theologians of Wittenberg, on being consulted by the Elector John Frederick about 1540 or 1541, gave their judgment in favor of putting the Anabaptists to death, according to the laws of the empire. Luther approved of this judgment under his own name, adding that it was cruel to punish them by the sword, but more cruel that they should damn the ministry of the Word and suppress the true doctrine, and attempt to destroy the kingdoms of the world.

If we put a strict construction on this sentence, Luther must be counted with the advocates of the death-penalty for heresy. But he made a distinction between two classes of Anabaptists — those who were seditious or revolutionary, and those who were mere fanatics. The former should be put to death, the latter should be banished. In a letter to Philip of Hesse, dated November 20, 1538, he urgently requested him to expel from his territory the Anabaptists, whom he characterizes as children of the devil, but says nothing of using the sword. We should give him, therefore, the benefit of a liberal construction.

At the same time, the distinction was not always strictly observed, and fanatics were easily turned into criminals, especially after the excesses of Münster, in 1535, which were greatly exaggerated and made the pretext for punishing innocent men and women. The whole history of the Anabaptist movement in the sixteenth century has to be rewritten and disentangled from the odium theologicum.

As regards Servetus, Luther knew only his first work against the Trinity, and pronounced it, in his Table Talk (1532), an “awfully bad book.” Fortunately for his fame, he did not live to pronounce a judgment in favor of his execution, and we must give him the benefit of silence.

His opinions on the treatment of the Jews changed for the worse. In 1523 he had vigorously protested against the cruel persecution of the Jews, but in 1543 he counselled their expulsion from Christian lands, and the burning of their books, synagogues, and private houses in which they blaspheme our Saviour and the Holy Virgin. He repeated this advice in his last sermon, preached at Eisleben a few days before his death.



Melanchthon’s record on this painful subject is unfortunately worse than Luther’s. This is all the more significant because he was the mildest and gentlest among the Reformers. But we should remember that his utterances on the subject are of a later date, several years after Luther’s death. He thought that the Mosaic law against idolatry and blasphemy was as binding upon Christian states as the Decalogue, and was applicable to heresies as well. He therefore fully and repeatedly justified the course of Calvin and the Council of Geneva, and even held them up as models for imitation! In a letter to Calvin, dated Oct. 14, 1554, nearly one year after the burning of Servetus, he wrote: — 

“Reverend and dear Brother: I have read your book, in which you have clearly refuted the horrid blasphemies of Servetus; and I give thanks to the Son of God, who was the βραβευτής [the awarder of your crown of victory] in this your combat. To you also the Church owes gratitude at the present moment, and will owe it to the latest posterity. I perfectly assent to your opinion. I affirm also that your magistrates did right in punishing, after a regular trial, this blasphemous man.”

A year later, Melanchthon wrote to Bullinger, Aug. 20, 1555: — 

“Reverend and dear Brother: I have read your answer to the blasphemies of Servetus, and I approve of your piety and opinions. I judge also that the Genevese Senate did perfectly right, to put an end to this obstinate man, who could never cease blaspheming. And I wonder at those who disapprove of this severity.”

Three years later, April 10, 1557, Melanchthon incidentally (in the admonition in the case of Theobald Thamer, who had returned to the Roman Church) adverted again to the execution of Servetus, and called it, “a pious and memorable example to all posterity.” It is an example, indeed, but certainly not for imitation.

This unqualified approval of the death penalty for heresy and the connivance at the bigamy of Philip of Hesse are the two dark spots on the fair name of this great and good man. But they were errors of judgment. Calvin took great comfort from the endorsement of the theological head of the Lutheran Church.


Martin Bucer

Bucer, who stands third in rank among the Reformers of Germany, was of a gentle and conciliatory disposition, and abstained from persecuting the Anabaptists in Strassburg. He knew Servetus personally, and treated him at first with kindness, but after the publication of his work on the Trinity, be refuted it in his lectures as a “most pestilential book.” He even declared in the pulpit or in the lecture-room that Servetus deserved to be disembowelled and torn to pieces. From this we may infer how fully he would have approved his execution, had he lived till 1553.


The Swiss Churches

The Swiss Reformers ought to have been in advance of those of Germany on this subject, but they were not. They advised or approved the exclusion of Roman Catholics from the Reformed Cantons, and violent measures against Anabaptists and Antitrinitarians. Six Anabaptists were, by a cruel irony, drowned in the river Limmat at Zürich by order of the government (between 1527 and 1532). Other cantons took the same severe measures against the Anabaptists. Zwingli, the most liberal among the Reformers, did not object to their punishment, and counselled the forcible introduction of Protestantism into the neutral territories and the Forest Cantons. Ochino was expelled from Zürich and Basel (1563).

As regards the case of Servetus, the churches and magistrates of Zürich, Schaffhausen, Basel, and Bern, on being consulted during his trial, unanimously condemned his errors, and advised his punishment, but without committing themselves to the mode of punishment.

Bullinger wrote to Calvin that God had given the Council of Geneva a most favorable opportunity to vindicate the truth against the pollution of heresy, and the honor of God against blasphemy. In his Second Helvetic Confession (ch. XXX.) he teaches that it is the duty of the magistrate to use the sword against blasphemers. Schaffhausen fully agreed with Zürich. Even the authorities of Basel, which was the headquarters of the sceptical Italians and enemies of Calvin, gave the advice that Servetus, whom their own Oecolampadius had declared a most dangerous man, be deprived of the power to harm the Church, if all efforts to convert him should fail. Six years afterwards the Council of Basel, with the consent of the clergy and the University, ordered the body of David Joris, a chiliastic Anabaptist who had lived there under a false name (and died Aug. 25, 1556), to be dug from the grave and burned, with his likeness and books, by the hangman before a large multitude (1559).

Bern, which had advised moderation in the affair of Bolsec two years earlier, judged more severely in the case of Servetus, because he “had reckoned himself free to call in question all the essential points of our religion,” and expressed the wish that the Council of Geneva might have prudence and strength to deliver the Churches from “this pest.” Thirteen years after the death of Servetus, the Council of Bern executed Valentino Gentile by the sword (Sept. 10, 1566) for an error similar to but less obnoxious than that of Servetus, and scarcely a voice was raised in disapproval of the sentence.

The Reformers of French Switzerland went further than those of German Switzerland. Farel defended death by fire, and feared that Calvin in advising a milder punishment was guided by the feelings of a friend against his bitterest foe. Beza wrote a special work in defence of the execution of Servetus, whom he characterized as “a monstrous compound of mere impiety and horrid blasphemy.” Peter Martyr called him “a genuine son of the devil,” whose “pestiferous and detestable doctrines” and “intolerable blasphemies” justified the severe sentence of the magistracy.



The English Reformers were not behind those of the continent in the matter of intolerance. Several years before the execution of Servetus, Archbishop Cranmer had persuaded the reluctant young King Edward VI. to sign the death-warrant of two Anabaptists — one a woman, called Joan Becher of Kent, and the other a foreigner from Holland, George Van Pare; the former was burnt May 2, 1550, the latter, April 6, 1551.

The only advocates of toleration in the sixteenth century were Anabaptists and Antitrinitarians, who were themselves sufferers from persecution. Let us give them credit for their humanity.


Gradual Triumph of Toleration and Liberty

The reign of intolerance continued to the end of the seventeenth century. It was gradually undermined during the eighteenth century, and demolished by the combined influences of Protestant Dissenters, as the Anabaptists, Socinians, Arminians, Quakers, Presbyterians, Independents, of Anglican Latitudinarians, and of philosophers, like Bayle, Grotius, Locke, Leibnitz; nor should we forget Voltaire and Frederick the Great, who were unbelievers, but sincere and most influential advocates of religious toleration; nor Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison in America. Protestant Holland and Protestant England took the lead in the legal recognition of the principles of civil and religious liberty, and the Constitution of the United States completed the theory by putting all Christian denominations on a parity before the law and guaranteeing them the full enjoyment of equal rights.

Hand in hand with the growth of tolerance went the zeal for prison reform, the abolition of torture and cruel punishments, the abrogation of the slave trade, serfdom, and slavery, the improvement of the condition of the poor and miserable, and similar movements of philanthropy, which are the late but genuine outgrowth of the spirit of Christianity.