Michael Servetus: To Kill a Man Does Not Defend an Idea

October 27th is a time to mark the impact of the United Nations 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. The Declaration was the result of the untiring effort of a relatively small number of governments and non-governmental organizations of both a religious and secular nature. The freedom of conscience, sometimes defined as religion or belief, necessitates international protection as seen by a world history of persecution and intolerance. At a time when there is increasing sectarian violence in Iraq, when the Baha’i are banned in Iran, when questions of belief are increasingly part of political debate, it is useful to mark those milestones on the long road to freedom of conscience.

October 27, 1553 was such a milestone, even if at the time it was more an example of fear of diversity of views and narrow intolerance, for October 27th was the day Michael Servetus was burned at the stake on a hill outside the walls of the Republic of Geneva. His crimes were heresy and blasphemy. He had faced a long trial and examination of his ideas. The intellectual prosecution was led by John Calvin, the leading Protestant thinker in Geneva along with his close associates as Theodore de Bese, Rector of what later became the University of Geneva and second only to Calvin in his influence on religious thought in the city. The analysis of the trial along with Servetus’ comments was sent to the other leading Protestant churches in Switzerland for their comments. All the church leaders agreed with the theological points of the Geneva court, and none protested the sentence of death by burning. Thus the trial and death of Servetus was not the result of a mob caught up in momentary passion, but is rather the reflection of the demand of a society and its intellectual leaders for consensus and uniformity. Individual conscience and belief was seen as undermining society.

Michael Servetus was a Spaniard, born in 1511 at Villanueva in the Kingdom of Aragon. He later took the name of the town to practice as a medical doctor near Lyon in central France when the name Servetus became too associated with radical religious ideas. In his youth, he had seen the Inquisition at work in Aragon against Jews and Muslims and so knew well to what lengths religious dogmatism could lead. His brother was a Catholic priest working for the Archbishop of Santiago de Compostella, an important pilgrimage site. At 17, Servetus left Spain for the life of a travelling student, studying law for a while in Toulouse, spending time with religious studies in Basle. He learned to be a proof reader for leading printers and finally studied medicine, though he fell foul of the medical faculty for associating medical cures to astrology. Astrology had already fallen out of favour as a guide to medical practice.

However, Servetus had a long-standing interest in the thinkers of the Neo-platonist schools of Alexandria which combined Greek and Oriental thought. From his Spanish background, he was knowledgeable with the esoteric teachings of the Jewish Kabbala and with different interpretations of the Koran. Many of these esoteric traditions stressed a correspondence between the cosmic and the body, and so astrology was for Servetus a guide to healing. Servetus believed that the "vital spirit", which was the nature of God, was also in each person and resided in the blood. By intuition, he described the manner in which blood is carried by the pulmonary artery through the lungs, confirmed by experimentation much later with the work of Harvey.

Servetus had published some early writings on his religious ideas, especially against the idea of the Trinity, which were attacked by both Catholics and Protestants. So when he started practicing medicine in Vienne, an important cultural center near Lyon, he changed his name to Villeneuve – the French spelling of his birth place in Spain. However, he was by nature a debater who wanted to challenge the religious ideas of his time. He had met Calvin in Paris, before Calvin was called to lead the Reform in Geneva, and had already started to debate with him. Servetus wrote the Restitution of the Christian Religion as an answer to John Calvin’s major work the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Servetus sent a manuscript copy of his book to Calvin in Geneva, as well as printed copies to other Protestant thinkers there.

In complicated ways, it became known that Michael Servetus and Villeneuve was the same person, and he was arrested by the Catholic authorities in Vienne. However, as Dr Villeneuve had many friends more interested in good health than theological debate, after a short time they helped him escape from prison. There was, no doubt, an "asking for trouble" aspect to Servetus’ personality because on escaping from jail he went to Geneva where he knew that his ideas were not welcome. Not only did he go to Geneva, but the first day there he went to the chapel where everyday, John Calvin would lecture on a passage of the Bible. Since it was a small chapel, there were only a few persons present, and any newcomer was easily spotted. Since Calvin had known Servetus in Paris, he recognized him and had him arrested.

There then follow a trial of five weeks in which Servetus was examined on the subjects considered heresy: the Trinity, original sin, and infant baptism. There were hot and angry debates led by Calvin and his close colleague Nicolas Colladon. Servetus maintained his position and always referred to Calvin as the mage Simon Magnus, who was considered the father of the doctrine of predestination.

The Court finally tired of theological debate and asked Calvin and Servetus to put their ideas into writing. The Court also asked that the main points of the debate be sent to the other leading Protestant churches in Bern, Basle, Zurich, and Schaffhausen for their comments. Thus Calvin wrote a summary of Servetus’ ideas, his own refutation, followed by the comments of Servetus on Calvin’s presentation – all of which was then sent off. After which the trial took a more political turn.

The government of the Republic of Geneva was led by an enemy of Calvin – although a Protestant – Ami Perrin who had been head of the small army – city guards before becoming the president of the governing council. Perrin was largely unconcerned with theological debate but was concerned with "law and order." He feared that Servetus’ ideas would subvert the consensus on which public order was based. Geneva was under constant military threat from the Catholic Duc de Savoie whose lands began only three miles from Geneva across a small river. Thus, the Public Prosecutor of the trial, Claude Rigot, turned the questioning to public order. Servetus replied that his aim was theological debate with theologians and that he opposed the views of the Anabaptists, strong in the Zurich area, who refused to recognize civil government and preached putting all goods in common. Then, the Court case returned to theological questions, though the leaders of the government of Geneva hoped that Calvin’s thinking would be proved wrong.

However, the comments of the other churches followed the reasoning of Calvin. The Court was divided on what to do as the old Catholic laws against heresy had been swept away in 1535 and the only punishment recognised was banishment. However, the Court which reflected the anti-Calvin position of the political leadership, could not be less "law and order"-minded than Calvin. Thus the Court condemned Servetus to be burned to death, as he had "with malicious and perverse obstinacy sown and divulged even in printed books opinions against the fundamentals of the Christian religion."

On the morning of October 27th, Calvin went to see Severtus in his cell and told Servetus that he bore him no ill-will and reminded him of how in their early days in Paris, he had worked to convert Servetus from his errors. Servetus did not make a deathbed revision. Servetus was burned on a small hill about a mile outside the city walls of Geneva.

Servetus was the only case of a man put to death for his religious opinions in Calvin’s Geneva. However, other victims followed him in nearby Protestant states: Bern beheaded the famous anti-Trinitarian Gentilis in 1566, and Zurich had been drowning Anabaptists since the 1520s. But the Servetus case created debate throughout Europe as a test case on the punishment of heretics, led by the strong attack on Calvin by his one-time associate as head of the Geneva school system, Sebastien Castellion, then living in Basle, who wrote "To kill a man does not defend an idea; it only kills a man."

Rene Wadlow is the Editor of http://www.transnational-perspectives.org/ and an NGO representative to the United Nations, Geneva.