corner graphic   Hi,    
Facebook image
Finding the new version too difficult to understand? Go to

The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 14 — Rise and Establishment of Protestantism at Geneva

Chapter 21 — Apprehension and trial of Servetus

Resource Toolbox

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24  25  26  27  28  29  30

"Here I stand," etc.—Calvin expects to be Banished—Takes Farewell of his Flock—Servetus—Resume—Servetus asks to Dispute with Calvin— The Magistrates Refuse—Nicholas de la Fontaine—Enters himself as Prosecutor for Calvin—Examination of Servetus—Defended by Berthelier—Calvin comes forward—The Council take the Prosecution into their own hands—Indictment of the Attorney-General—Sedition the Main Charge against Servetus—Servetus pleads for Free Inquiry—His Cause Mixed up with the Libertines'—Boldness of Servetus—Calvin's Struggle with the Council—Shall the Reformer Quit Geneva?—His Influence with the Magistrates at Zero.

IT seemed, indeed, a small matter whether Calvin should give the Sacrament to Berthelier or withhold it. But the question in another form, as Calvin clearly saw, was whether he should maintain the Reformation or abandon it. The moment he should put the consecrated elements into the hands of the Libertine, that moment he would lay the spiritual prerogative at the feet of the civil power, and Geneva would fall as the bulwark of Protestantism. To Berthelier, therefore, with the edict of the Council in his hand, and his Libertine hordes at his back, Calvin said, "No". It was the "Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. So help me, God," repeated over again, at a moment equally critical, and in the face of a danger equally great.

The Reformer had escaped the greater danger, even death, which the Libertines hinted would be the penalty of refusal, but exile still hung over him. In the evening of the same Sunday he ascended the pulpit, to take farewell of the flock from which he expected the coming day would see him parted probably for ever. He chose as the subject of his discourse Paul's farewell address to the elders of the Church of Ephesus, and the scene witnessed that night on the banks of the Leman was almost as touching as that enacted fifteen centuries before on the shores of the AEgean. [1] Closing his sermon and spreading out his hands over his loving flock, for the last time as he believed, he said, "I commend you to God and to the word of his grace." The words were mingled with the sobs and tears of those to whom they were spoken.

But no order of banishment came on the morrow, though he waited hour after hour for it. The Reformer perceived that so far the victory remained with him. Left undisturbed, he turned his thoughts to the other matter which was then engrossing him, for he was grappling with two foes at once. We shall now turn with him to this, in every view of it, sad affair.

In order to an accurate idea of the trial, and of the various interests that combined to guide it to its deplorable issue, we must briefly review the steps already taken. On the 13th of August, Calvin, having learned that Servetus was in Geneva, demanded his arrest. But Genevese law required the accuser to go to prison along with the accused till he had shown reasonable grounds for his accusation. Nicholas de la Fontaine, the secretary of Calvin, gave himself up in the stead of the Reformer. Next day a complaint in thirty-eight articles, drawn up, as we have said, by Calvin, was presented against Servetus. On the morrow the Council assembled in the Criminal Audience Chamber in the prison, and Servetus, having been interrogated on the articles, demanded a public disputation, promising to confute Calvin from Scripture and the Fathers. The prisoner further urged that it did not become a civil court to adjudicate on such matters. Here was a door opened for the Council to escape responsibility, had it chosen.

"But," says Rilliet, "the magistrates refused to entertain the proposal, though Calvin for his part agreed, and protested that, as far as regarded him, 'there was nothing that he more desired than to plead such a cause in the temple before all the people.'" Why, we ask, this refusal on the part of the magistrates? Rilliet answers, "The Council feared, no doubt, that it would thus dispossess itself of the cognisance of an affair which stood connected with the prerogatives of which it had recently appeared so jealous;" [2] that is, the Council was then struggling to shut out the Consistory, and to secure to itself the spiritual as well as the civil government of Geneva.

The preliminary examination of Servetus ended, the Council, having regard to "his replies, "found that the charges were true, and accordingly Nicholas de la Fontaine was discharged from prison, under obligation to appear as often as he might be called, and to prosecute his case. The Council, in coming to the conclusion that Servetus was guilty, appear to have been influenced less by his opinions on the Trinity than by his views on baptism. The frightful excesses of the Anabaptists in Germany and Switzerland, which were fresh in their memory, made the Council, doubtless, view this as the most dangerous part of his creed.

Tomorrow (16th August) when the Council assembled to prosecute the affair, two new parties appeared on the arena. These were Philibert Berthelier, the Libertine opponent of Calvin, and M. Germain Colladon, a Protestant refugee, and a man learned in the law. Colladon was associated with Fontaine in the defense and prosecution. These two—Berthelier and Colladon, were representatives of the two parties into which Geneva was divided, and their appearance indicated that the affair was tending to wider issues than any personal to Servetus; in short, it was becoming the battle-ground on which the question was to be determined whether Libertine Pantheism or the Protestant faith should hold possession of Geneva. Such is the inference of Rilliet, who says: "Each of the antagonists saw behind the proceedings carried on in the bishop's palace, the interest of the parties who disputed for Geneva." [3]

It appears from the minutes that, at this meeting of Council, Berthelier undertook the defense of Servetus, and strongly argued in favor of his peculiar doctrines as well as of himself; Colladon attacked with equal

ardor both the errors and their author; the violence of the debate extended itself to the Council, and the sitting, which was a stormy one, was abruptly terminated. [4]

This scene brought forward a more powerful man than any who had hitherto appeared in the prosecution. Berthelier was at that moment under excommunication by the Consistory, and he had a petition lying on the table of the Council to have the sentence of the spiritual court cancelled. It was thus tolerably plain that his championship of Servetus was inspired not so much by the wish to defend the prisoner, as by his desire to overthrow the Consistory. "Calvin felt," says Rilliet, "that the moment had arrived for him to appear, and boldly to resist the hostilities against himself, of which Servetus was about to become the occasion," [5] if he would not see his whole work in Geneva swept away; accordingly the very next day he declared that he would appear as accuser. "The Reformer was now invited by the Council to assist, 'in order that his errors might be better demonstrated,' and to have 'whomsoever he chose with him' at the examinations of the prisoner.'" [6] At the first meeting after this, at which Calvin was present, a sharp debate took place between him and Servetus.

The issue was that the Council found that the charges contained in the indictment were proven from the books given in, in evidence, and the prisoner's own confessions. [7] Fontaine had previously been discharged from prison; now he was released from his obligation to prosecute, and the affair was taken entirely into the hands of the Attorney-General. [8]

The second act of the trial opened on the 21st of August. Their Exeellencies in Council assembled resolved as follows:—"Inasmuch as the case of heresy of M. Servetus vitally affects the welfare of Christendom, it is resolved to proceed with his trial." [9] At this sitting, Calvin and the ministers, his colleagues, were introduced by the Attorney-General. They were wanted to give their evidence as to the meaning of the word person, as used in certain passages of the Fathers. Servetus taught that the person of the Son of God had no existence prior to the Incarnation. He held that Christ existed from all eternity only as an idea, not as a person, in the essence or bosom of God, and that the term Son of God is applied in Scripture to Christ Jesus as a man. [10] He cited passages from Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Clement, favorable as he thought to this opinion; and it was to give judgment on Servetus' interpretatin of these passages that the pastors were now summoned. The service asked of them they rendered.

At the meeting on the 23rd, the Attorney-General produced a new indictment against Servetus. It differed considerably from that which Fontaine had given in when the prisoner was first arrested, and which had been drawn up by Calvin. This new indictment dropped the theological errors of Servetus out of view altogether, well-nigh, and gave marked prominence to his offenses against society. Its title ran thus:—"These are the interrogations and articles upon which the Attorney-General of this city desires to question Michael Servetus, a prisoner, guilty of blasphemies, of heresies, and of disturbing Christendom." "If Servetus had had, in the eyes of Genevese justice," says Rilliet, "no other fault than that of which De la Fontaine had declared him guilty in regard to Calvin, his acquittal had been sure." "If Calvin alone," he continues, "had been concerned in the affair of Servetus, all his efforts would have been unavailing to secure the condemnation of his adversary." "Servetus was tried," says he again, "and, as we shall mention below, condemned by the majority of his judges, not at all as the opponent of Calvin—scarcely as a heretic—but essentially as seditious. Politics acted a much more important part than theology, towards the close of this trial—they came on the stage with the Attorney-General." [11] Servetus saw the new position in which he stood, and strove to defend himself against the charges of the Attorney-General, not by denying that his opinions were theologically false, but by trying to show that they were not socially dangerous. This defense he followed up with a petition to the magistrates, in which he labored to convince them that his opinions at the worst were only speculative errors, and not practical seditions; and, adds Rilliet, had he been able to make it appear that they were "divested of all practical results, the issue of his trial would not have been fatal." [12]

There came, at this stage of the business, a series of discussions on points which we cannot help thinking were irrelevant. Servetus was interrogated respecting his persistency in publishing his opinions, seeing he knew they were condemned by ancient Councils and imperial decrees, and the evil he had done or wished to do society by maintaining them. He replied, with ability and apparent frankness, that believing it to be the truth which he held, he would have offended God if he had not published it; that the ecclesiastical edicts and imperial decrees, which menaced him with death for these opinions, dated from a period when the Church had become more or less corrupt, and that the Church in apostolic times knew no such edicts, nor approved the doctrine of repelling opinion by force. These were truths, and the only mistake about them—to Servetus a very serious one—was that they came three centuries too soon, and were addressed to judges who were incapable of feeling their force. But when the prisoner affirmed that he had hardly ever spoken to any one on his peculiar opinions, he stated what it was impossible to reconcile with the known fact of his twenty years' active diffusion of his sentiments in Germany and France.

This was the very week in which the struggle between Calvin and the Libertines came

to a crisis. [13] The authority, and it might be the life of the Reformer, hung upon the issue of that contest. Servetus from his prison watched the ebb and flow of the battle, and was humble and bold by turns, as victory appeared to incline now to Calvin and now to the Libertines. The approaching Sunday was that of the September Communion, and Berthelier, as we have seen, held an order from the Council, authorising him to appear at the holy table.

This seemed the death-warrant of Calvin's power. We can trace the influence of this turn of affairs upon Servetus. The Council had ordered Calvin to extract from his works, and to present without note or comment, those propositions in them which he deemed false. In obedience to the order, the Reformer drew up thirty-eight articles, [14] which were given to the prisoner to be answered by him. But Servetus' reply bore the character of a bitter attack upon the Reformer, rather than that of a defense of himself. "Wretch," said he, apostrophising Calvin, "do you think to stun the ears of the judges by your barking? You have a confused intellect, so that you cannot understand the truth. Perverted by Simon Magus, you are ignorant of the first principles of things—you make men only blocks and stones, by establishing the slavery of the will." [15] To write thus within the walls of a prison, was to be very sure of victory!

Nay, Servetus, looking upon Calvin as already fallen, no longer has recourse to subterfuges; he no longer seeks to show that his doctrines are innocuous. Throwing aside the veil, he openly avows that he held the opinions imputed to him in his indictment. He had drawn up his self-accusation with his own hand.

Calvin instantly wrote an answer to the paper of Servetus, as the Council had required. His strong hand thrust back the unhappy man into his former position. "Injurious words against Servetus," says Rilliet, "are not spared, but these were a coin so current in those days that, instead of being deemed excessive, they fell from the pen without observation." The Reformer's answer was given in to the judges, signed by all the ministers of the Church of Geneva, fourteen in number. No sooner has Calvin laid down the pen than, seeing his own position and work are at that moment trembling in the balance, he turns to the other and graver conflict. On Saturday, the 2nd of September, he appeared before the Little Council to demand the cancelling of the warrant given to Berthelier to receive the Lord's Supper. The Council declined to comply. It retained in its own hands the power to admit or to exclude whomsoever it would from the Communion-table. It stripped Calvin and the Consistory of all ecclesiastical authority and power, and, of course, of all responsibility for censures and punishments of an ecclesiastical kind. This power the Council took solely upon itself. The use it made of it will afterwards appear.

The scene that took place in the Cathedral of St. Peter's the very next day we have already narrated. But the Reformer did not account it enough that he refused to obey in a matter which the laws of the State gave no right to the Council to command; he resolved, although at the risk of life, to maintain the battle, and reconquer the lost prerogative, without which he would not remain in Geneva.

On the 7th September, Calvin and his colleagues went to the Little Council, with the text of the Ecclesiastical Ordinances, and appealing to the letter of the law he showed the Council that the Ordinances gave it no power concerning excommunication, and that what it had done was a subversion of the Constitution of Geneva. He further craved the Council to make known its final determination upon the point, that he and his colleagues might be able to regulate their conduct as regarded resigning or retaining their functions in Geneva. The Council took three days to consider the matter, and, adds the Register, it "commanded that meanwhile M. Calvin must preach and do his duty." On the 18th September, the Council passed a resolution declaring that "it would adhere to the edicts as it had hitherto done." [16] This reply, in point of ambiguity, was almost Delphic. Interpreted by recent edicts, it meant that the Council saw nothing inconsistent with the edicts in what they had done, and would still retain in their own hands the ecclesiastical government. Still the Reformer did not view it as justifying him in abandoning his work in Geneva, and Farel and other friends wrote at this crisis earnestly beseeching him not to quit his post.

Meanwhile Servetus was busy in his prison with his annotations on Calvin's reply. The unhappy man, believing that his friends, the Libertines, who communicated with him through the jailer, were on the eve of triumphing, and that the Reformer was as good as fallen, was no longer at pains to conceal his intense hatred of the latter. Writing between the lines and on the margin of Calvin's document, he expressed himself in the following melancholy terms— "You howl like a blind man in desert places, because the spirit of vengeance burns in your heart. You lie, you lie, you lie, you ignorant calumniator." [17] There followed a good deal more in the same vein. The Reformer was shown the writing, but leaving to Servetus the last word, he deigned no reply.

At this stage of the affair the magistrates of Geneva resolved (19th September) to consult the Helvetic Churches. Servetus himself had expressed a wish to that effect. A messenger of State, Jacquemoz Jernoz, was dispatched on the 21st to the Churches of Bern, Zurich, Schaffhausen, and Basle. He carried letters to the magistrates as well as to the pastors of the four cities, as also the requisite documents—namely, the articles of accusation, the papers exchanged between

Servetus and Calvin, and a copy of the Christianismi Restitutio.

From this moment Calvin quits the scene. The course of the affair was precisely what it would have been although he had not been in Geneva at all. His influence with the Council was then at zero. We think we can see the end served thereby, though Calvin could not. To him it was only mortifying as betokening impending overthrow to the Reformation in Geneva. Writing to Bullinger at Zurich, on the 7th of September, he says: "Were I to declare that it is day at high-noon, they [the Council] would immediately begin to doubt it." That is all which he could put on paper, but, adds he, "our brother Walther [the son-in-law of Bullinger] will tell you more." This shows that the idea entertained by some that the Reformer was at that time all-powerful with the Council, and that he dictated the sentence it was to pronounce, is an entire misapprehension.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, March 20th, 2018
the Fifth Week of Lent
There are 12 days til Easter!
Search Historical Writings
Enter query in the box below
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology