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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 14 — Rise and Establishment of Protestantism at Geneva

Chapter 22 — Condemnation and death of Servetus

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The Swiss Churches Consulted—Servetus Demands Calvin's Impeachment—Answer of the Swiss Churches—Their Verdict Unanimous—Council Condemns Servetus to be Burned—Calvin Intercedes that the Sword be Substituted for the Stake—Sentence Communicated to Servetus—Farel—Interview between Servetus and Calvin—Servetus Summoned to Execution—his Terror—The Procession—View from Champel—Farel's Last Conversation with Servetus—The Pile Kindled—Servetus Dies—Gibbon—Jurisprudence of the Age—No Romanist can Condemn Calvin.

IN the resolution to which the magistrates of Geneva had come, to lay the affair of Serveins before the Swiss Reformed Churches, we see the Churches of Helvetia formed into a jury. Pending the verdict, which it would seem Servetus did not for a moment doubt would be entirely in his favor, the accused took another step against Calvin. From his prison, on the 22nd of September, he sent to the Council a list of "articles on which M. Servetus wishes J. Calvin to be interrogated." He there accuses Calvin of having falsely imputed to him the opinion that the soul is mortal. "If I have said that—not merely said it, but publicly written it—to infect the world, I would condemn myself to death. Wherefore, my lords, I demand that my false accuser be punished, poena talionis, and that he be detained a prisoner like me, till the cause be decided for his death or mine, or other punishment." [1] Servetus had formerly declined the civil jurisdiction in matters theological; he now, in the hope of placing the Reformer in the same hazard as himself, accepts that jurisdiction in those very matters in which he had before declined it. And further, he makes it plain that he was not more liberal than his age, in holding that a conviction for heresy ought to draw after it the punishment of death.

Meanwhile the State messenger was making his circuit of the four cities, sojourning long enough in each to permit the magistrates and pastors to consider the documents, and make up their minds. At the end of nearly a month, the messenger returned. The answers of the cities and pastors were given in to the Council on the 18th of October: they were eight in all, there being a deliverance from the Government and a deliverance from the Church in each case. The verdict eight times pronounced, with awful unanimity, was death. Thus, outside the territory of Geneva, was the fate of Servetus decided. [2] About the same time that the suffrages of the Swiss Churches were given in, an officer arrived at Geneva from the tribunal of Vienne. This man carried an order from his masters empowering him to demand the surrender of the prisoner, and bring him to Vienne, that he might undergo the sentence that had been passed upon him. Their Lordships of Geneva replied that it was not their custom to give up one charged with a crime till he had been either acquitted or condemned.

However, confronting Servetus with the Viennese officer, they asked him whether he would remain with them or go back with the person who had come to fetch him. The unhappy man with tears in his eyes replied, "Messieurs of Geneva, judge me according to your good pleasure, but do not send me back with the hangman." This interference of the Roman Catholic authorities of Vienne hastened the fate of the prisoner. [3]

The Council of Geneva assembled on the 26th of October to give judgment. The discussion was a stormy one. Perrin, with the Libertines, fought hard to save the accused; but the preponderating majority felt that the case could have but one issue. Servetus had already been condemned by the Popish tribunal of Vienne; the tribunal of the Swiss Reform had unanimously condemned him; the codes of Theodosius and Justinian, which still formed the basis of the criminal jurisprudence of Geneva, condemned him; and the universal opinion of Christendom, Popish and Protestant, held him to be worthy of death. To these considerations was added the horror his sentiments had inspired in all minds. Not only did his opinions outrage the fundamental doctrines of the then common creed of Christendom; they assailed with atrocious blasphemy the persons of the Trinity; and they tore up, in their last consequences, the roots of society, by striking down conscience within man, and the power of law without him. What day the Council acquitted Servetus, it pronounced the dissolution of the State, political and religious, and opened the flood-gates on Christendom of those horrible impieties and massacring crusades which had already inflicted fearful havoc in many of the provinces of Germany.

Europe, they believed, would not hold them guiltless if they let loose this plague a second time. Therefore, without consulting Calvin, without even thinking of him, and viewing the question as a social rather than a theological one, and dealing with it as sedition rather than heresy for, says Rilliet, "the principles of order, as then understood, did not permit them longer to hesitate as to whether or not they should see in them [i.e., the opinions of Servetus] the crime of treason against society" [4] —the magistrates of Geneva closed their Diet of the 26th of October with a decree condemning Servetus to death. "Let him," so ran the decree of the Council, as described in the Register, "be condemned to be led to Champel, and there burned alive, and let him be executed tomorrow, and his books consumed." [5]

We record with horror the sentence, but it is the sentence not of the magistrates of Geneva only, nor of the magistrates and pastors of Reformed Switzerland only: it is the sentence of the Christendom of that age, for the Inquisition on one side, and Melancthon on the other, are heard expressing their concurrence in it. At this supreme hour one man alone comes forward to attempt a mitigation of the punishment of Servetus.

Who is that man? He is John Calvin. He earnestly interceded with the Council, not that the unfortunate victim might be spared, but that the

sword might be substituted for the fire; but he interceded in vain. "It is to him, notwithstanding," says Rilliet, "that men have always imputed the guilt of that funeral pile, which he wished had never been reared." [6]

We must pursue this affair to its appalling and scandalous termination. Farel, who had been watching from Neuchatel the progress of the trial, came suddenly to Geneva at its close. He was present with the unhappy man when the message of death was brought him. Up till that moment Servetus had clung to the hope of acquittal. He was horror-struck when the dreadful reality disclosed itself to him. "He was at intervals," says Calvin, "like one mad—then he uttered groans, which resounded through his chamber—anon he began to howl like one out of his senses. In brief, he had all the appearance of a demoniac. At last his outcry was so great that he without intermission exclaimed in Spanish, striking his breast, 'Mercy! mercy!'" A terrible picture! and one cannot but wish that, with its graphic touches, there had mingled a little more of that pity which it needs must awaken for the sufferer in the heart of every one who reads it. When his first paroxysm had subsided, Farel, addressing Servetus, besought him "to repent of his sins, and confess the God who had thrice revealed himself." [7] This appeal but rekindled the polemical pride of the unhappy man.

Turning to the aged evangelist, he asked him to produce a single passage from Scripture where Christ was called the Son of God previous to his coming in the flesh. Farel quoted several such passages; but Servetus, though he had nothing to reply, remained unconvinced, and continued to mingle cries for mercy, and appeals to Christ as his Savior, with his disputation with Farel, in which he maintained that Christ was not eternal, nor otherwise the Son of God except as regards his humanity. [8]

After this he requested, or at least consented, to see Calvin. The Reformer was accompanied to the prison by two members of Council, for it was just possible that the condemned would make a retractation, and the terrible necessity of his death be avoided. Being asked by one of the councillors what he had to say to Calvin, Servetus answered that he desired to ask his pardon. "I protest," replied the Reformer, "that I have never pursued against you any private quarrel." Mildly, yet with the utmost fidelity, Calvin went on to remind Servetus of the pains he had been at to prevent him plunging into these destructive errors; and he counselled him, even now, to turn to God, and cast himself by repentance and faith on his Son for pardon. [9] But Calvin had no better success than Farel; and, finding that he could effect nothing, he withdrew.

Whose heart does not bleed for the unhappy man? We feel a compassion and sorrow for Servetus such as we feel for no martyr. The men who died for the Gospel were upheld by the greatness and justice of their cause. Instead of falling prostrate before their judges, they stood erect, their faces shining with the light of faith. They trod the path to the fire, not with serenity only, but with songs of holy triumph, knowing that "one like unto the Son of Man" would descend and stand beside them in the midst of the flames. But, alas! where shall Servetus look for consolation in his hour of agony? On whose arm shall he lean when he goes forth to die? and who will be his companion when he stands at the stake? The Trinity was to him "a Cerberus." From that Son to whom the Father said, "Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever," and who is "able to save to the uttermost," and from that Holy Spirit "who is the Comforter," his creed shut him out. And now, when the storm comes down upon him in a violence so terrific, he is without a shelter. No rock can he find on which to stay his feet amid the surging billows. At the gates of the new dispensation on which Christendom is entering stands Servetus, a monument of salt, to show the world how little power there is in a creed emptied of all the great verities of revelation, to sustain the soul amid the grand and dread eventualities of existence.

As yet Servetus was ignorant, that he was to die by fire. Calvin had earnestly besought the Council that the miserable man might be spared this terrible surprise, but he had pleaded in vain. The magistrates would not permit him to influence their proceedings in the matter, even to the extent of substituting the sword for the stake. It was the morning of the 27th of October, the day named for execution; Farel and some country ministers were with Servetus as early as seven o'clock. The precious hours would seem to have passed in wretched polemical discussions on the part of the condemned, who seemed more intent on triumphing in the argument with the pastors, than prevailing in his suit at the gates of the Eternal Mercy. It was now eleven o'clock in the forenoon. The Lord Lieutenant, accompanied by the Secretary of Justice, entered the prison, and addressed Servetus in the customary words, "Come with me and hear the good pleasure of my lords." [10] He was led before the court. "The staff was broken over his head," [11] as was the wont with criminals adjudged to death, and the sentence was then read by the presiding syndic. Scarcely had the last words, which doomed him "to be fastened to a stake, and burned alive, till his body be reduced to ashes," fallen on his ears, when he cast himself at the feet of his judges, entreating that he might be permitted to die by the sword," [12] saying that if he had erred, he

had erred through ignorance, and that his opinions were conformable to the Word of God. The syndics remained inexorable. Turning to the prisoner, Farel said that he must first disavow his errors, and then ask forgiveness. Again Servetus obtested his innocence, saying that he was being led to death as a sacrifice, and that he prayed God to forgive his accusers. Farel, with a sternness which is at least remarkable, threatened, should Servetus persist in these protestations of innocence, to leave him, and not go with him to the stake. The wretched man, feeling that in parting with Farel he was parting with the last poor remnant of human sympathy and comfort left him, held his peace. [13]

Doom has been spoken, and now the procession is marshalled and descends the steps of the town-hall. The Lord Lieutenant and the Herald, in the insignia of their office, head the way on horseback. Aghast, trembling, and pallid with terror, the white-haired Farel by his side, Servetus appears in the midst of the archers that form his escort. A crowd, smaller than usually assists at such sights, brings up the rear. The executioners had gone on before to prepare the funeral pile. The procession issued from the city by the gate of St. Anthony. They leave on the left the spot, now bare, where stood the celebrated Faubourg and Church of St. Victor, razed in 1534 for the defense of the city; on the right are the downs of Plain Palais, the Campus Martius of Geneva. The one recalled the sacrifices of the citizens for liberty, the other their gala-days of civic festival and military pomp. In the south, about a mile from the city gates, rose the little eminence of Champel, on the summit of which the stake had been fixed [14] Sobs and ejaculatory prayers burst from Servetus as he pursued his brief and bitter pilgrimage to the fire. "O God!" he cried, "deliver my soul. Jesus, Son of the Eternal Father, have mercy on me."

Farel has no word of solace to offer; he moves along by the side of Servetus, half in sorrow, half in anger; this to us looks heartless—nay, cruel; but Farel doubtless felt that consolation he could not offer without being insincere, and doing violence to his own convictions. It was his uprightness that made him look so stern, for the more earnest he was for the true welfare of the unhappy man he was accompanying to the stake, all the more did he strive to bring him to place his eternal hopes, not upon the man-God, but upon the God-man. [15]

The melancholy procession had now arrived at Champel. The stake that rose on its summit was the one dark object in a scene otherwise full of light and beauty. The vast plain, which lay outspread around the spot, wore a carpet of the richest foliage, now beginning to be chequered with the autumnal tints. The far-off mountains were tipped with the first silver of winter. In the center of the immense picture gleamed the blue Leman, a mirror of polished steel. On the south of it were seen, rushing along in their winding course, the snow-grey waters of the Arve. On the north was the mighty amphitheatre of the woody Jura, which, entering France and sweeping down towards Savoy, showed its massy rampart cleft in the southwest to give passage to the Rhone. In this assemblage of riches one object alone appeared in naked desolation. At some distance rose the steep, barren, rocky Saleve, its blackness typical of the tragedy transpiring on the summit of the little Champel, on which it looked down.

Farel asks him whether he has wife or child, and would wish to make his will? Servetus makes him no answer. [16] He asks again whether he has anything else to say, hoping till the last moment to hear him confess a Divine Redeemer. Sighing deeply, Servetus exclaims, "O God! O God!" Farel bids him ask the prayers of the people. He does so; Farel uniting his own exhortations to the same effect to the bystanders. [17] While these supplications are being offered in silence, Servetus mounts the pile and seats himself on the log of wood which had been placed there for that purpose. He was fastened to the stake by an iron chain put round his body, and a rope twisted round his neck. The executioner now kindled the torch, and, approaching the pile, set fire to the wood. At the first glare of the flames Servetus gave a shriek so terrible that it made the crowd fall back. [18] On his head was a wreath, woven of straw and leaves, sprinkled with brimstone, the sooner to suffocate him. His book, Restitutio Christianismi, was bound to his side, to be consumed with him. [19] The fire burned but slowly, and he lived for half-an-hour at the stake. [20] Some narrators say that a little before expiring he cried aloud, "Jesus, Thou Son of the Eternal God, have mercy upon me!" Farel says, on the other hand, that he protested "in the midst of the flames, and in defiance of the whole Christian world, against the doctrine of the Trinity."

A great historian exclaims that the stake of Servetus caused him greater horror than all the autos-da-fe of Rome. A signal inconsistency—as the burning of Servetus in a Protestant republic was—may no doubt strike one more than does a course of crime steadily and persistently pursued; but surely that mind is strangely constituted which is less moved to commiseration by thousands of victims than by one victim. The same century which witnessed the pile of Servetus saw some thirty or forty thousand fires kindled by the Church of Rome [21] for the burning of Protestants. But we by no means plead the latter fact as a vindication of the former. We deplore—we condemn—this one pile. It was a

violation of the first principles of Protestantism. To say more on this head, writing as we do in the nineteenth century, would be simply to declaim.

But let us not commit the injustice of Gibbon and those who have followed him. Let us not select one of the actors, and make him the scapegoat of his age. We have striven to give an impartial statement of facts, that the reader may know the precise share which Calvin had in this transaction, and the exact amount of condemnation to mete out to him.

Calvin informed the Council of Servetus' arrival in Geneva; he drew up the articles of indictment from the writings of Servetus, the first time at his own instance, and the second time at the Council's order; and he maintained these when face to face with Servetus before the syndics. All this he could not decline to do without neglect of duty as president of the Consistory. All this he was bound to do by the law of the State. If we are to be discriminating in our censure, we must go farther back than the denunciation given in to the Council, and come to the order of things established at Geneva, which rendered this form of procedure in such cases imperative. It was a vicious jurisprudence; but it was the jurisprudence of former ages, and of that age, and the jurisprudence freely adopted by the citizens of Geneva. Those who condemn Calvin for conforming to it in a matter of public duty, are in reality condemning him for not being wiser in judicial matters than all previous ages, his own included, and for not doing what there is no proof he had power to do, namely, changing the law of the State, and the opinions of the age in which he lived. Beyond what we have stated Calvin had no influence, and tried to exert none.

We further grant that Calvin wished a conviction, and that he approved of the sentence as just—nay, expressed his satisfaction with it, having respect to the alternative of acquittal—namely, the expulsion of the Reformation from Geneva. We condemn him for these views; but that is to condemn him for living in the sixteenth and not in the nineteenth century, and we condemn not him alone, but his age, for all who lived with him shared these views, and believed it a duty to punish heresy with death; although even already Calvin, as appears from his book of the following year, had separated himself from the Romish idea that heresy is to be punished as heresy—is to be smitten by the sword, though it should exist only in the depth of one's bosom. He would have the heretic punished only when he promulgates his opinions to the disturbance of society. This is to come very near—nearer perhaps than any other man of his day came—to the modern doctrine of toleration.

But further, it is only Protestants who are entitled to find fault with Calvin. No Romanist can utter a word of condemnation. No Romanist of Calvin's's own age did condemn him, [22] and no more can any Romanist of ours. The law of the Romish world to this day awards death by burning to heresy; and the Romanist who condemns the affair of Servetus, condemns what his Church then accounted, and still accounts, a righteous and holy deed; and so condemns his Church, and himself not less, as a member of it. He virtually declares that he ought to be a Protestant.

To Calvin, above all men, we owe it that we are able to rise above the error that misled his age. And when we think, with profound regret, of this one stake planted by Protestant hands, surely we are bound to reflect, with a gratitude not less profound, on the thousands of stakes which the teaching of Calvin has prevented ever being set up. [23]

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, October 22nd, 2020
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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