The Burning of Michael Servetus
Emanuel Stickelberger's Calvin
An Authentic Account of the Life & Ministry of John Calvin
What follows is the bulk of Stickelberger's account of incidents leading up to and including the legendary burning of Michael Servetus. Interested readers will want to read the authors entire account of Calvin's life. In addition to being accurate and well researched using original sources found in the Genevan archive it is a captivating "read." Stickelberger has a rare ability to usher you into the times of John Calvin, to see the way things truly were.
Read how the eminent Swiss biographer Emanuel Stickelberger recounts Calvin's last words with Servetus, based upon firsthand accounts of their prison meeting, shortly before the latter's execution:
Filled with emotion [Servetus], the other [Calvin] spoke lovingly to him, "Believe me, never did I have the intention to prosecute you because of some offense against me. Do you remember...", he spoke now with a tender voice and not in a tone of reproach, "...how, in danger of death, I wanted to meet you in Paris sixteen years ago in order to win you to our Lord? And afterwards when you were a fugitive was I not concerned to show you the right way in letters until you began to hate me because you were offended by my firmness? But let's not talk about me, nor of the past! Are you thinking of asking forgiveness of the everlasting God whom you have blasphemed on so many occasions? Are you thinking of being reconciled to the Son of God? If you deny that He became man as we are, you are destroying the bond of brotherly union which binds us to the Saviour, you are destroying our only hope . . ."
Calvin looked expectantly into the eyes of the one doomed to death now, now the moment must come in which the angels in heaven rejoice!
But Servetus shook his head. Indeed, he spoke a different language now. Not one more unkind word could be heard from him. But he retracted nothing ...
THE DISCONTENT of the citizens over the Church discipline grew steadily stronger. It was no respecter of persons, not even of the nobility. It was known that the Libertines and others complained much and misinterpreted the facts. But the offenders were rarely caught. Only with severity could loose tongues be checked in their derogatory talk about the discipline. One had to keep his eyes open.
A Councilman, Peter Ameaux, a playing-card manufacturer, felt that the strict mandates impaired his business. He also had to bear a hard domestic cross. His wife had embraced Anabaptist doctrines of most hazardous hue. She considered herself sinless and understood by the communion of saints things which her husband, because she practiced them, considered conclusive cause for divorce. Despite the fact that in view of the peculiar case, Calvin recommended separation, the Council decided otherwise. Peter Ameaux had to take his man-crazy wife back. Only when, after repeated warnings, she continued the scandal, was she imprisoned for half a year and the husband permitted to marry someone else. The long-drawn-out proceedings lasted a year and a half. Is it any wonder that with the declining business and the domestic troubles the good man's blood boiled over?
One day when he had invited four good friends, he opened up. "What do you think I hold of the new doctrine?" He wagged his finger and used the strong word which almost three centuries later made Cambronne at Waterloo historic. "So much, now you know it! And this foreigner from Picardy, this liar and seducer of the people, who wants to make himself bishop it's a laugh, were it not so tragic! No one in the Council any longer dares to speak his frank opinion, without having first inquired about his views. Look out! If things continue to go that way, the city will yet be played into the hands of France . . ." And his complaints continued until God and the whole boring Church were included.
To show their gratitude for the hospitality received, the four good friends ran straight to the Council and gave a red-hot report of the edifying words of its member. Next day, half the city knew about it. Those opposed to the new discipline winked at each other and rubbed their hands. "He certainly told them off! Yes, Peter doesn't mince words!"
If he had aimed at Calvin only, the perpetrator might have come off unhurt. But the taunts against the Council of which he himself was a member, what a disrespectful thing ...
Peter Ameaux was seized. Calvin wanted to visit him in order to speak to his conscience, but he was not permitted. He entreated the judges not to employ the full severity of the law. Only let the punishment be public, a warning to all mockers.
Instead, to spite the Reformer, the loud mouth was to be acquitted if he would apologize before a closed session of the Council.
This produced holy anger in him who had for five years now given his entire strength to win the city for God. The blasphemies and the slanderings against himself were known throughout the city. And for that, Ameaux's act of acquittal was to take place in secret? Never! All the preachers supported Calvin.
The opponents of the Church discipline got together. They wanted to exert pressure upon the Council's decision to reconsider the decision in the light of the letter of the law. The excitement took on a dangerous character. In serious sermons Calvin called for reason. Farel and Viret, who answered his cry in distress, assisted him therein. They were partially successful. But the enemies of the clergy excited and fanned the passions of the populace. Only after, in the presence of the Council and police, a gallows had been erected on the main square of Saint-Gervais, which was the center of the unrest, did the excitement subside.
They realized now that Calvin, who did not want any halfway measures, was right. And now the Council reached its verdict. Peter Ameaux who pleaded guilty to having spoken ill of God, the Council, and Master Calvin, had, clad in a penitential garment and carrying a torch in his hand, to be led through the streets of the city and in an open place, kneeling before the judges, ask pardon.
Once again there is an opportunity to deal the Reformer a blow. And none of his biographers, unfriendly toward him, lets this chance pass. The material is especially suited to their purposes. From the point of view of religious liberty which has become so much a matter of course today, and which even rejects legal apology for blasphemy, it is cheap to put Calvin in the wrong. I cite Doumergue: "One ought not to criticize Calvin's attitude towards Ameaux alone, but his entire attitude, his concept of state and of religion. A priori, Calvin was always wrong. He should not have had to carry out the Reformation in the sixteenth century. He should have waited for the 'true philosophy' of the eighteenth or the customs of the twentieth in order to accomplish it. That can only mean to place one's self outside of history . . ."
FIRST CASTELLIO, the ambitious opponent in thought, next Ameaux, the noisy, narrow-minded fellow. Now a third type: the sneering literary Epicurean.
Strictly speaking, Jacob Gruet does not even belong in a short biography of Calvin, for the Reformer had almost no active part in his destiny. Letters to Calvin's friends touch upon the incident as a matter in which he is present as a spectator only. I mention it briefly so as not to be reproached for having hushed up an unpleasant matter concerning Calvin's reputation. For that is what the incident has been called.
There was found on the pulpit of St. Peter's a libelous pamphlet, written in Savoy dialect. Gruet, who had in addition been seen suspiciously sneaking around the church, was one of the few who knew how to write in this dialect. With it he had often swayed laughter to his side. When his house was searched, large stacks of peculiar stylistic exercises were found which showed the bachelor, heretofore known only as an immoral person, from a new angle. Infamous slanders were here made against the Council, the Church, the clergy, primarily against Calvin, of course.
Everything was filled with blasphemies of things which are sacred to every Christian. There were also outlines of mysterious letters which smelled of state treason. In short, a scandal of the worst sort. They requited him in 1547 by beheading the libeler.
It is a sentence which at that time any other power would have pronounced as severely. Catholic judges would without hesitation have prepared the stake for him. Nevertheless, the incident gives occasion to the aforementioned biographers of Calvin to wash the dirty linen. A judicial murder-perhaps the man was not the author of the pamphlet on the pulpit at all!
At any rate, three years after his death, a piece written by him was found in a crack in the wall of the house in which he used to live by himself. Leo Taxil later on did not write anything more lewd than what could be found here. Gruet called Christ a crazy good-for-nothing, an evil seducer and a wretched visionary, a conceited churl, a drunkard, hypocrite, and traitor who was rightly executed. The Apostles were rogues and rascals, the Virgin Mary a harlot.
This man, offended by the constraint of his habitual loose living, did psychological groundwork for the hoped-for Libertine revolution which was to free him and his party from uncomfortable Church discipline.
AND THERE is one more enemy whom I cannot neglect to mention: Jerome Bolsec.
A former Carmelite friar from Paris wheedled himself into the good graces of the Court of Ferrara where the Duchess Renate took him for her Evangelical pastor. In reality he was a spy of the duke. He cooked up much mischief; without his tittle-tattle the noble Olympia Morata would not have been expelled from her native home only to meet a miserable death abroad. Finally, when his double-dealing was discovered, the ground in Ferrara became too hot for him. We find him in 1550 and 1551 in the vicinity of Geneva and in the city itself pretending to be a traveling physician.
Here he was pleased to play the part of a theologian, attacking the doctrine of election by grace. The belief was that he had been induced to do this by political opponents of the Reformer. Perhaps. Or it was conceit in play, the desire to attack the Reformer in his own bailiwick and in his favorite doctrine. One day, as a visitor at the Friday meeting he began to draw his sword. He called election by grace a preposterous heresy which made God a tyrant and idol. It was a new invention based on distorted Bible passages. Just then Calvin entered the room, unnoticed. No doubt it was his absence that had given Bolsec the boldness to speak so freely. As soon as he had concluded, Calvin rose and refuted the attack with Scripture passages and citations from Augustine so convincingly that the disconcerted aggressor lacked words to defend himself. Once again the phenomenal memory of the Reformer, which held in readiness for him every necessary proof, won him a splendid victory. The impression of this victory upon his hearers was tremendous. A judge-advocate who was present in the assembly ordered the immediate seizure of the Parisian. He saw in his address a revolt against religion and the Church
A trial followed which resulted in the quack's exile. The sentence was mild, for he was not a Genevan and therefore had nothing to lose. Later we find the former Carmelite as a Reformed preacher in France after having recanted his errors. However, he was forced to resign the position in shame and rebuke as an "infamous liar." Finally, in 1563, the restless spirit returned to the fold of the Roman Church. He settled down in Autun as a physician and in his old age wrote a "History of the life, the customs and the teachings ... of John Calvin."
If one wants a friendly judgment of the "Carmelite, learned in Scriptures and firm in conviction, and of the irreproachable scholar," the "poor man upon whom Calvin, with the superiority of his rich biblical and patristic knowledge, pounced," then one ought to read the corresponding sections in Kampschulte's book. If one is interested, however, in forming an independent opinion of Bolsec, then one ought to leaf through his works. The servants of Rome have repeatedly cared for new editions and their distribution. Even to the ignorant in history, the lies and slanders found in these pages are so tangible, as big as a fist, that even decent opponents of Calvin are disgusted. The baseness of the author goes so far as to accuse his irreproachable enemy of unnatural unchastity!
Of all the Reformers, Rome hated none worse than Calvin; for among them he was the pre-eminent theologian and the most logical thinker. Therefore the defenders of the Papal chair have thrown themselves with voracious appetite upon these "memoirs" of one of Calvin's contemporaries. And where Calvin is mentioned in an anti-Reformation writing the reference is spiced with Bolsec's coriander. A priest has molded these "memoirs" under false colors into a Calvin novel which has also been translated into German and may cause confusion in many minds.
Galiffe, a Genevan Protestant, followed in the footsteps of Bolsec in order rightly to make room again for a Catholic. Nevertheless, the biased yet earnest historian Kampschulte is not to be compared with his backbiting first predecessor,
EVEN BEFORE the starring performance of Bolsec, at about the time of the execution of Gruet, the party of the Libertines was so strong that in the Council of the Two Hundred it equipoised the supporters of the Church discipline. In the Council hall and in the assemblies, on the street and everywhere, the Libertines fought the innovators and above all Calvin, their leader. The dissatisfied were the old Genevans who called themselves patriots. They saw in the preachers, who had mostly immigrated from France, foreign oppressors of their personal liberties.
For many years, until 1555, the Reformer had to swallow so many humiliations that a healthier one than he would have had to become sick of them. His propositions were rejected, his warnings scorned. He could not walk across the street without being mocked, "There he goes, neighbor. I prefer to hear three dogs barking than to listen to him preach." "Did you know, hell has only two devils, and there goes one of them!" Children called after him, twisting his name, "Cain, Cain!" More than one dog answered to the name "Calvin". . .
Ami Perrin, his former friend in high position, the same who traveled as ambassador of the city of Geneva to Strasbourg in order to convince him that he should return, joined the Libertines and became their leader. He was not able to take it. His wife and his brother-in-law, Franz Favre, were punished. She had taken part in forbidden dances; he had committed adultery. It was dear the Church discipline respected no persons. The Mayor, Come, had found that out. Because he danced at a wedding, he was summoned. However, different from the conceited Perrin, he humbled himself and "gave due thanks for the admonitions received according to the Word of God and the law."
But Perrin's wife wanted to dance now more than ever to spite the clergy. She behaved like a dragon before the Council of the elders. "You pig," she screams at Calvin, "you lowdown Hart " Her sister-in-law was no more reserved.
Calvin remained firm. No halfway measures, no giving in, or breaking down. "So long as they are in Geneva, they try in vain to defy the discipline; even if this house contained as many devils as raving heads, that would not impede the victory of the Lord."
But the rift cut deep. As zealously as Ami Perrin once supported the demands of the Reformer, so he now stoutly opposed them with the entire weight of his influence.
Having laid himself open to attacks during an ambassadorial trip to Paris, he was even temporarily placed under arrest. But soon he was on top again. The son of a small crockery dealer, as the people's leader he bore all the signs of those rising to fame.
"Our comical Caesar," so Calvin referred to him in letters to friends. Philibert Berthelier, a son of a martyr for the freedom of the city, and Peter Vandel who, according to the report of a contemporary, must have been deuced in his mother's womb, formed with Ami Perrin a triumvirate. It was a sort of side-government which sought to cross all decrees of the Elders' Council.
ONE DAY the glowing spark in the Council of the Two Hundred exploded. Calvin, coming from the Elders' Council, perceived confused screaming in the City Hall. He ran to the scene and found the Councilmen with drawn swords in an ugly scuffle in the courtyard. And now the unimaginable took place. He who by nature was timid, withdrawing even at the thought of battle, without thinking of himself plunged with outstretched arms into the thickest knot. Petrified, they all moved back. Immediately he was surrounded by his supporters who, frightened to death, wanted to protect him with their lives. He motioned them away. "I am here to place myself between your swords. If there is to be blood, begin with me!"
The words worked wonders. The fighting cocks were cooled off. They returned to the Council chamber. Calvin was even asked to sit in on the deliberations. Again minds clashed and again he had to mediate and settle the dispute. Finally he made a stirring, heart-searching address. With the exception of a few, they were marvelously moved by it. Even his worst enemies congratulated him for his intervention, which avoided great bloodshed. But he was deeply discouraged. The letter to Viret' in which the event was described it is also found in other contemporary reports closed with these words: "Wickedness has grown to such proportions that I scarcely hope that an orderly condition of the Church can be preserved, particularly through my service. I am a broken man if God does not stretch out His hand to me."
But he persevered through all trials and tribulations. Another eight years had to pass after this moving incident in the court of the Geneva City Hall before the biographers terminate the years of struggle and note the beginning of the era of triumph.
In 1549, Idelette de Buren died. Through the death of his life partner his life not only became lonelier, but again and again he showed the need of the assuaging, steadying encouragement of a gracious wife.
MERLE D'AUBIGNΙ makes a remarkable comment about the Reformer:
"The man of God has been charged with despotism. That is quite understandable: because he was an enemy of excess he has been made an enemy of freedom. No one opposed the ethical and social anarchy which threatened the sixteenth century, and which has infested every century that did not know how to defend itself against it, more resolutely. This courageous battle of Calvin is one of the greatest services he performed for freedom. For freedom has no more dangerous enemies than immorality and anarchy."
"Of course when it comes to the means to check these evils, he does not stand above his century, which in all communities with one accord attacked them with the heaviest penalties. One who errs in the knowledge of God is accountable to God alone. When man makes himself God's avenger, our conscience revolts. Three hundred years ago people had not advanced this far the most superior spirits in some ways are always subject to human frailty. Nevertheless, during a famous affair when a wretched individual, whose doctrine threatened the community, stood before the secular court of Geneva, one lonely voice in all of Europe was raised on behalf of the accused, demanding mitigation of the sentence of Servetus. It was the voice of Calvin."
I am glad to place this comment ahead of that part which for every Protestant of our time is the most painful and shameful in the life of the Reformer. Perhaps the famous Church historian is considered biased-I do not think so. At any rate he is far less so than the propagators of the customary, factually incorrect assertion that Calvin ordered Servetus burned.
WE ALREADY ENCOUNTERED Michael Servetus in the year 1534, when he avoided a debate with Calvin which he himself suggested. This foresight continued to pair itself with the passion for introducing daring ideas into the religious movement. As early as at the age of five he had been emasculated. Perhaps therein lies the explanation of his divided personality.
In one of his works, Servetus discussed the mental disposition of his fellow countrymen. "The spirit of the Spaniard is restless and dreams great things. He knows by dissimulation and a certain verbosity to pretend a greater erudition than he really has. Sophistry appeals to him more than is profitable. Among all mortals, he is the most superstitious." With this he may well have characterized his own nature.
Without any doubt, in the realms which he tried to penetrate, Servetus was a blusterer averse to the conventional. As successor to Vesals he became assistant to the famous Paris physician Jehan Winter and soon was an esteemed physician and teacher of medicine himself. A passage in his later published principal work gave temporary recognition to him as the discoverer of the circulation of the blood. Of late, however, a question mark has been placed there. He wrote an astrological apology in which he described astrology and medicine as inseparable. Since the doctors got off poorly in this work, he was sued and yielded, humbly asking pardon. This brought his stay in Paris to an unglorious end in 1537.
Then he practiced in French country towns under the name of Michel de Villeneuve, first in Charlieu, then in Vienne, where the Archbishop made him his physician in ordinary. In the mornings he attended Mass; in the afternoons, in the habitation which the prince of the church had prepared for him in a side wing of the palace, the alleged Catholic wrote about the Roman Church, "O monster, most despicable of all animals, most shameless of all wenches ... Synagogue of Satant"
And the good Archbishop, who was particularly concerned with preserving the faith unspotted, had no idea what an arch heretic had settled down in his quarters, and he was not aware of the giant cuckoo egg which was being laid here in all quietness. Flattered, he accepted the edition of Ptolemy, made by his doctor and dedicated to him. It praised him as a benefactor and friend ... Oh, the good Archbishop! In complete secrecy his guest was writing a work which was supposed to make an end to the teachings of Rome as well as those of the Reformation.
CALVIN HAD WRITTEN the Institutes. Servetus wanted to outwit him with the Restitutes, "Christianissimi Restitutio" a restitution of Christianity. The preface itself reveals the fantastic mystic: "We endeavor to reveal the secret of faith from the earliest times, a faith which stands above all disputation. We will take away the veil from the countenance of God that we may behold it and it may illumine us."
The work is divided into five books and two dialogues on the Trinity, followed by three books on faith, justification, and the kingdom of Christ, and three more books on regeneration and the kingdom of the Anti-Christ. The closing chapters contain twenty open letters to Calvin, sixty "signs of the power of the Anti-Christ," and a polemical treatise against Melanchthon. For the author, the Trinity was a red flag. No word was strong enough for him in deriding this hallowed concept. He opposed justification by faith and infant baptism. All the arguments were presented with such bluntness that Rome, Wittenberg, and Geneva would feel equally injured. His speech was not without the sweep of the prophets: "Already heaven and earth are moving against the dragon and Anti-Christ, already mankind, which heretofore slumbered in the dust of this earth, is being awakened to eternal life, already the lamb that was slain begins to open the book which has been closed with seven seals!"
All Servetus' hopes, an almost superstitious confidence, were set on the transformation which his work was supposed to bring about in the entire Christian world.
He prepared the printing with special care. A publisher from Basel whom he had contacted returned the manuscript to him at first he did not want to get into any trouble. He was, however, able to win two printers in Vienne to this rash enterprise. To each he promised one hundred Taler in addition to their regular wages. During the winter of 1552 the book was printed in all secrecy in a remote house outside of the city walls. The author's name did not appear in print. He was careful, however, to identify himself later on as the author of this work. In the middle of the volume, which has seven hundred and thirty-four pages, in one of the dialogues, a certain Peter greets his friend Michael with these words, "Look, here is Servetus, for whom I am looking!" One may also discover at the end of the volume, above the year of publication, the letters M.S.V. (Michael Servetus, Villanovanus.)
A FEW Of the thousand copies of the Restitutes found their way to Geneva. And from here out fate overtook the author, for he was recognized. For many years he had corresponded with the preachers of that city and returned to the author of the Institute his work filled with mocking marginal notes. He wrote to Abel Poupin, a minister, "Your Gospel is without true faith, without good works; instead of the one God you have a trinitarian Cerberus, instead of the true faith an imagined fate ... Woe to you, woe, woe!"
No one was in doubt as to the author of the book, which was received with horror. And when Guillaume de Trie, a religious refugee from Lyon, was admonished in letters by his cousin in France, who had remained a Catholic, to return to the bosom of the only saving Church because the Reformation was creating nothing but disorder, confusion, and moral and religious depravity, he answered him: "I see that vice is punished here better than where you are! And concerning the faith, no one allows the name of God to be abused. Let me speak frankly; it is a shame that the men who confess the one God and Jesus Christ are cruelly burned at the stake, while Michael Servetus, living in your midst, in Vienne, calls Christ an idol and destroys every foundation of the faith, yet he is not punished for it . . ."
One has to understand this man. The prisons in Lyon were overcrowded with Evangelicals, all of whom were waiting to be burned at the stake. He had friends there. Among the prisoners were five students from southern France. They were trained in Geneva and Lausanne as Reformed preachers and their fate was now awaited with anxious concern. People hardly talked about anything else, and yet he who was held the most godless was unmolested by the forces of the Pope. The writer of this letter aired his honest indignation.
His cousin did not believe him and answered that for such a terrible accusation proof was needed, otherwise he knew what to think of it. Immediately after the first report, the personal physician of the Archbishop of Vienne was given a special hearing. He angrily denied every charge and swore to being a faithful son of the truth. Ory, the inquisitor, was behind the demand for such a hearing.
What proofs might de Trie be able to give? Only Calvin was able to confirm the evidence. After much hesitation, against his will, he gave him several of the Spaniard's letters. De Trie sent them to his relative, writing: "It took a lot of pain to get these letters from Calvin. He wishes that the blasphemies by Servetus would be punished; but he says it was not in his province to wield the sword of judgment. Rather he would prefer to check the erroneous ideas by teaching than by persecution. He finally gave in when I told him that without his help I would be accused of blackmailing."
The entire mob of Calvin's despisers concludes from this incident with delight that the Reformer gave his opponent over to the Inquisition. Such accusations are not only found among those who despise him, but even in unbiased writings. With shaking of the head one reads in the biography of a Reformed author, "At least Cardinal Toumon laughed heartily that here one heretic was denouncing another. We do not have to apologize." No, not to apologize, but to contest. The lone star witness whom the Bernese theologian has for the hearty laughter of Cardinal Tournon, who reports it, is it is amazing the slanderer, Bolsec, the same whom the Reformer describes as immoderate and immoral, a thief of funds for the poor, afflicted with shameful diseases, who invoked the Devil on his deathbed. Calvin's greatest student has written eighteen folio pages filled with a discerning historical and psychological investigation of the entire matter, the perversion of which has done so much damage to the memory of Calvin. After examining all sources and after carefully weighing the pros and cons, he arrived at the rejection of this malicious interpretation. The French scholar, Bossert, indifferent in matters of faith, arrives at the same conclusion, "Calvin has been accused of having handed the letters over to de Trie. It is sufficient to read them in order to be convinced by the untenableness of this opinion." Finally, Calvin knew for years Servetus' whereabouts and his assumed name. Therefore he could have done away with him long before by giving his name to the Inquisition. Swiss and German biographers of Calvin may henceforth cease repeatedly to copy this fairy tale from each other, even though most of them state that Calvin himself declared, "Nothing is true of this slander."
Can one really know Calvin and think him capable of a cowardly lie? His word ought to be sufficient even if all proofs in circumstantial evidence spoke against it. But these "proofs" cannot withstand rigid examination, and thus another stain has been effaced with which the picture of the great seeker of truth has been marred.
THE PHYSICIAN, Villanovanus, was now seized and put on trial. One has to read how masterfully he attempted to lie himself out of the difficulty. He claimed not to be Servetus, but since Calvin called him Servetus by mistake as a boyish trick he had accepted this name and answered him as Servetus. He must have been fifteen or sixteen years old at that time and somewhere in Germany.. . . As a precaution the letters had not been dated. For the rest, with tears of outrage he pretended to be no other than the staunch Catholic doctor who was a friend of so many clergymen.
The court was only partially convinced. At any rate, one morning when the prison warden and his helpers left for work in the vineyards, the opportunity was at hand. Servetus, who was not closely guarded, jumped from a balcony to a roof and from there into the court whose door was luckily unlocked. His subsequent flight into the territory around Lyon was also successful. After the disillusioned people of Vienne had condemned him to a fiery death, nothing remained for them except to pronounce the sentence of execution in front of his picture, under which they had piled five bales of his books.
SERVETUS WAS FREE. The five students who had equipped themselves in Geneva and Lausanne to preach the Gospel in France languished in the prison in Lyon. They returned to their home country as enthusiastic followers of Calvin, meeting a citizen of Lyon not quite three hours beyond the border. The fellow traveler invited them into his house where they were immediately apprehended. He had betrayed them. Merchants from St. Gall, Hans Liner, and the brothers Zollikofer, took care of their room and board and helped them as much as they could. Zurich, Basel, and Schaffhausen intervened on their behalf with the king of France through a legation because, having lived within the confederacy for some time, these men were recognized as half citizens. Berne undertook special steps and Geneva, too, sent an ambassador to Paris. Archbishop de Tournon of Lyon, on his way through Lausanne, gave assurance after pressing entreaties to do his best in the matter, without giving any thought to keeping the promise which he had made to a heretic government. Henry 11 remained under the influence of his mistress, Diana of Poitiers, and that of the Guise, who fanned his zeal for persecution.
Steadfastly, the five young men confessed their faith. Their example did not induce backsliding, but on the contrary strengthened the congregation at Lyon inwardly and outwardly. Even a highway robber imprisoned with them renounced his wild and evil ways and because of their witness became a confirmed follower. Such was the strength of the seedsown by Calvin.
The Reformer himself left nothing undone to save these unfortunates; his letters of consolation belong to the dearest and most precious testimonies from his pen. In May, 1553, when their fate appeared already sealed, he wrote them, ". . . our heavenly Father has so expressly proved by action how much His strength is mighty in you that we doubt not that He will perfect His work. You know that in leaving this world we do not go away on an uncertain venture; in addition to the confidence of eternal life, you have the assurance as children of His gratuitous adoption to enter your inheritance. That God should have appointed you His Son's martyrs should be an added sign of this ... Beloved brethren, act according to the word of David, 'My soul is continually in my hand: yet do I not forget Thy law, ' ' and be ready to give your life at any time. Seeing that the Lord employs your life in so worthy a cause as is the witness of the Gospel, doubt not that it is precious to Him. The hour draws nigh when the earth shall disclose the blood which has been hid, and we, after having been disencumbered of these fading bodies, shall rise. Meanwhile be the Son of God glorified by our shame. Let us be consoled with the sure testimony that we are persecuted and mocked for no other reason than that we believe in the living God. This is sufficient cause to despise the whole world with its pride, till we be gathered into that everlasting Kingdom where we shall fully enjoy those blessings which we now only possess in hope."
A few days after receiving this last letter of their master, on May 16, 1553, the five young martyrs were led to the stake which had been erected on the Place des Terreaux in Lyon. Clad in gray shirts and chained, they began joyously to sing the Ninth Psalm as they were riding on the cart which carried them to the place of execution, "I will praise Thee, O Lord, with my whole heart; I will show forth all Thy marvelous works. I will be glad and rejoice in Thee, I will sing praise to Thy name, O Most High . . . for Thou hast maintained my right and my cause; Thou satest in the throne judging right." Harshly they were commanded to cease, whereupon they called out passages of Scripture to passers-by so as to sow the good seed even until their last hour. Then they began with the Apostles' Creed, each taking a portion, so that it could be seen that they were of one faith. The one who came to the sentence, "Conceived by the Holy Ghost: Born of the Virgin Mary," spoke even louder that people might perceive how wrongly they had been accused of having denied the miraculous conception.
Joyfully they mounted the faggot pile. While the four younger ones were stripped of their clothing and tied to the stake, Martial Alba, the oldest, prayed on his knees. When the hangman grabbed him also he turned to the royal procurator, "Sir, grant me one wish still!" The other raised his eyebrows, asking, "What?" "That I may kiss my brethren once more before death." The procurator could not refuse the petition. Then Martial stepped to each one bound to the stake, saying, "May God keep you, my brotherl" They followed his example, stretching their necks as best they could to the front and to the back in order to give the parting kiss. They too said to each other, "May God keep you, my brother!"
The oldest having now been tied to the stake as well, all five of them were bound with a heavy chain around their bodies. Then the fire was lit. It leapt into the air. Those consecrated to death stood fast. And for a little while longer they could be heard mutually consoling and strengthening each other, saying, "Courage, brother, couragel"
Thus died Calvinists.
This is one example. History knows thousands of its kind. Only two months later there was a letter of Calvin to Farel reading, ". . . Last Saturday a merchant was burned at Lyon who marched to the place of execution full of courage and self-control although his relatives and the people were trying to make him recant by every possible means. Even his mother approached him three times, falling down upon her knees and begging him with tears in her eyes to save his life. In vain . . ."
This digression seemed to me important in this connection: not because in the bloody acts of Rome there lies a justification of the sentence pronounced upon Servetus, but to prove that the Calvinist who desired unflinchingly to bring about the rule of the Word of God was himself ready, at all times, to give his life for this cause. Moreover, no Catholic was ever executed in Geneva for the sake of his convictions.
MICHAEL SERVETUS hid himself. No one knows anything about the four months which lay between his flight from Vienne and the day on which he was recognized in Geneva. What he himself testified in the course of his trial hardly shed any light upon the matter, for as one could observe in Vienne, he was never at a loss for false evidences. Castellio and Bolsec, enemies of Calvin, reported that Servetus had been seized in Geneva on his way to Italy the morning after his arrival in the city. Most of the biographers accept this theory without question. Other biographers figure that he must have hidden himself for a month before he was discovered in the city. To know the truth would be important to evaluate the intention which brought the Spaniard to Geneval To presume, as it has been a favorite way, that he came here by chance, is untenable. The way from Vienne or Toulouse, where he may have gone first, leads through Grenoble, Modane, and Turin. Why then such a wearisome detour? Moreover he had every reason to avoid Geneva because Calvin had warned him for many years. As early as 1546, he wrote to Farel that should Servetus come to Geneva he would not leave alive, provided his authority was still respected. From the connection of the letter, I conclude he must have written to Servetus in like manner. According to the documents of the trial, Servetus. seemed to be of the opinion that Calvin himself served notice on him in Vienne. Did this man really have so much self-confidence in his so frequently successful craftiness that he moved into the territory of him whom he considered his deadly enemy?
One suspicion lies at arm's length. One of the pair of Vienne printers of the Restitutio was a Libertine from Geneva. Is it otherwise possible than that the Spaniard frequently conversed with him about the conditions in his native city? He found out that the Libertines, Calvin's fierce opponents, for the time being held the majority in the Council and that they had the upper hand among the citizens. He heard of the many hardships that Calvin daily experienced. How would it be, then, if he who was himself far superior in knowledge and mind to the Reformer, would take his place, and then, getting hold of the threads already stretching from this city into distant lands, he could substitute for the Reformation his own system of beliefs, exchanging the Institutes for the Restitutes!
Calvin had no doubt whatsoever as to the danger that threatened his life work from this angle. He was about to make the city entrusted to him a fortress for the pure doctrine. Servetus was intent upon undermining this structure. Calvin was well acquainted with the ambiguous plans which the former had written to him in letters for many years. He knew that the fantastic doctrine had already gained a foothold in Italy. From there he had been entreated, "to be the hammer which would crush the proud, devilish Servetus."
As soon as he found out that the dread man was actually in the city, he anticipated everything which the other might want to carry out. He had him apprehended and put on trial.
IT IS STRANGE that in Vienne the defendant, Servetus, behaved like a coward, a liar, and a hypocrite. His eyes filled with tears, he submitted to the Church and desired henceforth to believe nothing else than what it commanded him; he wanted to live and die like a good Catholic Christian. A few months later as he stood before the judges of Geneva this submissive humility changed into a daring joy of confession. He would rather die than retract one sentence!
The answer to this noticeable change of mind is easy to find, in spite of the fact that certain historians are unsuccessful in it. In Vienne, the heretic found himself before a closed Roman court which knew no mercy for a heretic; in Geneva he found a strong party under the leadership of Ami Perrin, Berthelier, and Vandel, who were intent on overthrowing the head of the Church. He got assurance that this party would back him up and out of it there would come defenders and persons to go bail for him willing to help him as if they were "his real cousins."
In Geneva it never occurred to him to deny his name or his work. On the contrary, during the first hearing he assumed a challenging stand and pretended to be the indicter. He was aware of the fact that Calvin was just then in the most difficult position he had experienced in Geneva since 1538, the time of his exile. Calvin also knew that everything hung in the balance.
And since Berthelier took the matter of the one under arrest into his own hands and defended him personally before the court, the Reformer, despite initial hesitation, had to enter the battle himself, a battle which would either bring victory or defeat to his Church. Orally and through the written word the two opponents daily fought. Servetus spared no words: "Simon Magus, criminal, killer ... wretch who judges things which he does not understand ... liar, evil wrangler ... Your impudence is so great that you dare to contest that snow is white ... Ridiculous dwarf ... Do you believe yourself able to deafen the cars of the judges with your canine barking?" "Wretch, wretch," he repeated again and again. One must not blame him too much for his recklessness of expression. Strong words among ecclesiastics of that day were common. That he dared to use them in his position shows, however, that he had great confidence in final victory.
Modestly, humbly, as if he were the prisoner who had to defend himself for his doctrine, Calvin frequently stood before him. In spite of the invective he kept his peace; in fact, many times he preferred to be silent. He and the other clergymen had done everything to assure the Spaniard a free discussion of his teaching, so much so that voices were already heard charging him with too much yielding and weakness. Only rarely did the attacks of the frantic Servetus make his blood boil so that he lost his temper, branding the other's "deceit, ignorance, a wild assumption, ugly stupidity."
And yet the battle was fought solely for the cause, not the person of Servetus whom he did not hate. He testified to this several times. Even during the first days of the trial, Calvin wrote to Farel that he wished to spare the people's seducer from a painful death. And he did everything to lead the mistaken man to the truth. He was certain that, motivated by external reasons only, he would grasp the saving hand, did he not live under the presumption of soon being free, honored, and a leader ...
One would think that this exciting battle with his rabid opponent and the powerful party behind him would demand of the tired Reformer, so averse to fighting, his whole attention. The fact of the matter is, however, that none of his activities was neglected. He watched the progress of the Reformation in France and England, wrote to the martyrs the glorious letters of consolation which are still a comfort to us today, and everywhere used his influence on behalf of those in danger.
The Libertines were not idle, either. Calvin had to fight against constant threats to place the trial upon another basis. For this reason the attempt to take it before the Council of the Two Hundred, where their majority was even greater than in the Small Council.
THE OPPONENTS of the Reformer sought to injure him most decisively where he and the elders had the authority, placed in them by the people themselves. That would cut an opening in the iron wall of the Church discipline. Philibert Berthelier, the main patron and attorney of Servetus, was under the Church ban. This many-talented and quarrelsome man who wielded his great influence and popularity on behalf of the prisoner, had not been found worthy to receive the Lord's Supper because of moral and other offenses. For during a mighty drunken brawl he and some armed fellows with threats pursued a preacher right up to his home. His friends resolved at this very time to obtain his rights.
Calvin was called to meet With the Small Council where it was decided, in spite of his pleas, that Berthelier was not to be prohibited to receive the Lord's Supper. Ami Perrin chaired this memorable meeting. With the encroachment upon the rights of the congregation, the entire discipline which had been established with so much labor was shaken. The legislative body showed open disrespect for its author.
Once again Calvin was summoned and brought before the Council opposite Servetus who could now witness for himself the dissension between his despised opponent and the Council members. The Spaniard could now laugh in his sleeve.
The next day-it was the day before the Lord's Supperthe Council gathered for a special meeting. In a deeply moving speech, with the, whole power of his conviction, Calvin spoke for the reconsideration of the resolution passed the day before. He trembled in agitation as he said, "I swear rather to die than to have the Lord's Supper defiled ... I would rather be dead a hundred times than to commit such terrible mockery to Christ."
To no purpose. Perrin anticipated the stormy protest and attended to its failure. The majority of the Council decided to leave the resolution as it stood. Calvin was dismissed.
His words, however, had not fallen under the table, and his features revealed an unflinching determination. On the other hand, everyone knew Berthelier was a daredevil who was not afraid to cause an uproar in the House of God. A few of the Council members suddenly became worried. And Perrin unexpectedly hit the table heavily with his fist, "Once and for all, let us have a purifying thunderstorm at St. Peter's. Only thunder and lightning can free us from this pressure. Geneva belongs to the Genevans."
This time, however, he could not muster a majority. The cautious among Perrin's followers agreed with the followers of Calvin. They did not want a repetition of the events of 1538 with the ensuing confusion. The result of the meeting was that Berthelier was secretly ordered not to partake of the Lord's Supper.
Calvin knew nothing about it, when, overtired yet with rapid steps, he ascended the pulpit on Sunday morning. The news of the decision of the Council and the opposition of the Reformer had spread through the whole city like wildfire. The large sanctuary was filled to the last place. And in view of the rows of Councilmen whose faces stared at him malevolently out of the Golhic choir stalls, after a powerful sermon he began a very serious address: "I asked that God would give me firmness and my prayer was answered. Therefore know that whatever may occur, I shall act according to the clearly revealed command of my Master. Should there be anyone during the Lord's Supper which we are about to celebrate approaching the table of the Lord who has been denied this privilege by the Elders, I shall take the stand that is required of me."
The emotion of the preacher was conveyed to all the people. In hushed silence they awaited the next move. "Slowly he descends the pulpit and places himself before the Lord's table. There he stands, the sickly, pale, slight, and exhausted man whom any breeze threatens to blow over and whose eyes with a feverish glow search for him who, unworthy, will be pressing himself to the Lord's table. The congregation, moved by the solemnity of the hour, is searching with him. Berthelier is not among them . . ."
Doumergue to whom we owe the picturesque description of this scene rejoices, "Let Ambrose be celebrated who bars the Emperor from entering the Cathedral of Milan; let Luther be celebrated who defied Charles I at the Diet ... My admiration belongs in like manner to him who at St. Peter's in Geneva hurls against the alarmed Council members and the frightened people, 'You may kill me, but you will not force this hand to administer the bread of God to an unworthy man.'
Calvin had obeyed God. He acted, however, against the express order of the authority of the state and he was convinced after the last Council meetings that he would be expelled from the city for the second time. His heart was almost breaking because his leaving meant not only a triumph for Ami Perrin, Berthelier, and Vandel, but was at the same time a victory for Servetus. The heretic would reap what he himself had sown.
With a heavy heart he ascended the pulpit for the afternoon sermon, his parting sermon. He read the passage of Paul's address to the elders at Ephesus; expounded it with stirring words and ended as he closed the Bible, saying, "You, however, remember, that for years I have labored day and night, often under tears, for the salvation of your souls. Remain faithful to the pure doctrine which I have preached unto you. And now, beloved brethren, with the Apostle I commend you to God and to the word of His grace."
It did not come to that. The Council, convinced of the firmness of the head of the Church for whom a great part of the congregation had boundless respect, was more divided and undecided than ever. The members were not anxious to press the matter to extremes. Kampschulte the "objective and unbiased" twists his thumbs, "the sense of honor and dignity ... seems to have left the first city government." The battle for the maintenance of the discipline continued and became a terrible problem for the Reformer who refused to compromise.
FOR THE LIBERTINES the attacks upon the Church discipline constituted ways and means: Calvin had to be overthrown. The means seemed to fail. The ways, however, the acquittal of Servetus, was to humiliate the despised head of the Church and bring his downfall.
Clear-eyed, Calvin realized the danger threatening his work. The letters of his friends were full of sympathy and lovingly sought to-console him in his distress. Theodore Beza, the young French scholar and poet who after Calvin's death became his successor, wrote during these difficult days to Bullinger, the prelate of Zurich, "His enemies are so many, they press upon him in such manifold ways, that I can hardly understand his power of resistance ... He suffers it all with an amazing constancy. Nevertheless, if the Lord does not intervene, then his labors and his sorrows will take him from us. What would become of usl lie needs our prayers and our encouragement." The darker Calvin saw the situation, the more jubilant was Servetus. The certainty of the coming triumph gave him strength and new encouragement for ever new attacks. Despite the decree of the Council that he was not to have contact with the outside world, he must have been well informed about the desperate condition of his enemy. Not in vain was his prison warden a Libertine who transmitted information so well that he had to be replaced. The letters of the prisoner were written according to the mood and condition in which he found himself, sometimes haughty, challenging, the next time eliciting sympathy. The poor man suffered from cold and noxious insects. Now, however, he saw himself at the threshold of the fulfillment of his wishes. Soon he would stand in the place of the one whom he so bitterly despised. It was the twenty-second of September when the Council received Servetus' famous writing:
"Therefore, gentlemen, I demand that my false accuser be punished, poena talionis, and that he, like me, be imprisoned until the trial be decided either by his or my death or by some other punishment."
He demanded even more that the property of the opponent be adjudged to him. At the reading the Councilmen lost their seriousness. The Reformer's poverty was known throughout the city. He kept nothing for himself, absolutely nothing!
SERVETIS' friends in the Council unswervingly labored in his behalf. The latest plan was to ask the opinion of the Reformed Swiss states. During Bolsec's trial they advised moderation, and it was believed that in this case they would again dampen the fiery spirit of the Reformer. This applied especially to Berne, which was favorably inclined toward the Libertines and let slip no opportunity to play Calvin a trick. It seemed, therefore, quite plausible that with the opinion of the confederates the desired direction might be given to the trial.
This time, however, the enemies of the Reformer miscalculated. The answer from Zwingli's city was clear-cut: "No severity is too great to punish such an offense. Our preachers are in total agreement with what Calvin thinks of his doctrine." Schaffhausen followed, "Stop the evil, otherwise his blasphemies, like a crawfish, will eat away the members of Christ!" Basel wrote, "Do what lies in your power to convince him of his error. If he pergists in his folly, then use the power which is entrusted to you by God to prevent him by force from any further injury to the Church of Christ."
There still remains Berne, the most powerful neighbor state, bound to Geneva by treaty. It would certainly not answer to please Calvin. The Libertines placed their entire hope upon its influential reply, which counted as much with them as the other three combined. But the people by the Aare judged no differently. "We pray that God may give you wisdom and courage to expunge this pest from the churches, from yours as well as from others."
These opinions, accompanied by supporting letters of individual personalities from the cities to which inquiries had been sent, gave the matter a sudden sharp twist. Since all of them with one accord condemned the doctrine, the Council did not trust itself to make an independent decision. An acquittal would not be understood anywhere in all Christendom. That he who had been stigmatized from all sides should become the Reformer's successor was now absolutely out of the question. It was the opinions of the German-Swiss confederates which, although they shrewdly circumvented the word execution, sealed Servetus' death sentence. Down in the mouth, the Libertines had to acquiesce.
IT WAS STRANGE how rapidly everything now happened. On October eighteenth the last opinions arrived and were translated by the twentieth. Ami Perrin, none the less, was attempting to gain time; he pretended to be ill. On the twenty-sixth, the Council members were called under oath to the meeting in which the destiny of the prisoner should be decided. Twenty of the twenty-five members were present. Under the leadership of Ami Perrin the meeting proceded with excitement. He opened it with the cold-blooded proposal to let Servetus go scot-free, and when this was not accepted, put forth a second, to leave the decision up to the Council of the Two Hundred. But that, too, was rejected. The Small Council was jealous of its rights and had once before refused to bring Servetus' case before the Two Hundred.
As any parliament of today, so the Council of Geneva consisted of three main groups. Between the left wing, the Libertines, and the right wing, the Calvinists, stood the center party. This last group had shown itself hostile to the Reformer in the deliberations thus far. However, it could not reject the opinion of all the sister churches of the country. Even the conservatives among the Libertines may have been frightened by the fact that their city might be brought under the influence of a heretic who was generally despised. They feared a civil war would be the inevitable consequence if no sentence were pronounced.
Thus the decision was made by a secular court the majority of whose members were opposed to Calvin. This is the decision which after almost four centuries is the only familiar fact in the life of Calvin to countless "educated" people: ". . . Inasmuch as you, Michael Servetus of Villanueva in the Spanish kingdom of Aragon, have been accused of terrible blasphemies against the holy Trinity, against the Son of God and other principles of the Christian faith, whereas you have called the Trinity a devil and a monster with three heads, whereas you went about to destroy poor souls by your horrifying mockery of the honor and majesty of God, too wicked to be mentioned, whereas refusing to be taught in any way, you called faithful Christians atheists and magicians, whereas, whereas, whereas . . .
"We, the mayor and judges of this city, having been called to the duty of preserving the church of God from schism and seduction, and to free Christians of such pestilence, decree that you, Michael Servetus, be led to the place Champel and be bound to a stake and with your book be burned to ashes, a warning to all who blaspheme God."
CALVIN WAS DEEPLY PERPLEXED by the harshness of the sentence. With his faithful contemporaries he held that the death of this violent enemy of the Reformation was necessary, but that the execution by fire was an unnecessary severity. He remembered the burning of the martyr Pointet at Paris which made such a terrible impression upon him as a youth. Should Geneva imitate the thousandfold example of Rome, should it give to the world the spectacle of a stake upon Evangelical soil?
He made every possible effort, gathered the preachers in order to bring about by unanimous petition a moderation of the death penalty. They showed the Council that the old canonical law which demands the fire penalty for heresy was a hangover from the Catholic era. Yet their efforts were vain. In the evening, Calvin wrote hurriedly to his friend in NeuchAtel, "We endeavoured to change the manner of execution; why we achieved nothing, I shall tell you orally."
It is not difficult to discover the reason for this. Resentful at Calvin's disobedience in not admitting Berthelier to the Lord's Supper [because he was a known adulterer], piqued at his firm stand in regard to the discipline, perhaps also angry about the justification which would be his because of the sentence pronounced, the Council showed not the slightest intention of granting the Reformer his wish. God forbid!
THE NEXT DAY when Servetus was informed of the decision, he was speechless, stunned. To this very hour, having been strengthened by the Libertines in his opinion, he not only believed that he would be acquitted but that Calvin would be sentenced.
The outburst of despair lasted for hours until he recovered his senses when Farel spoke with him. This old man had come in haste to stand at the side of his friend during these difficult days, before he had received this short letter. Upon his entreaty, the condemned agreed to see Calvin. The Council gave its permission but not without sending along two of its members as witnesses.
Now there came a change in the life of the Spaniard, a change which the certainty of impending death frequently produces in man. Having abandoned his conceited, injurious ways, he asked him who entered for forgiveness. Filled with emotion, the other spoke lovingly to him, "Believe me, never did I have the intention to prosecute you because of some offense against me. Do you remember," he spoke now with a tender voice and not in a tone of reproach, "how, in danger of death, I wanted to meet you in Paris sixteen years ago in order to win you to our Lord? And afterwards when you were a fugitive was I not concerned to show you the right way in letters until you began to hate me because you were offended by my firmness? But let's not talk about me, nor of the past! Are you thinking of asking forgiveness of the everlasting God whom you have blasphemed on so many occasions? Are you thinking of being reconciled to the Son of God? If you deny that He became man as we are, you are destroying the bond of brotherly union which binds us to the Saviour, you are destroying our only hope . . ."
Calvin looked expectantly into the eyes of the one doomed to death-now, now the moment must come in which the angels in heaven rejoice!
But Servetus shook his head. Indeed, he spoke a different language now. Not one more unkind word could be heard from him. But he retracted nothing ...
His dying could not be compared with the joyful going home of the Evangelicals for whom in all the surrounding Roman lands stakes had been set ablaze; yet greatness belongs to such dying. The last twenty-four hours of his life were climaxed by his exclamation, "Jesus, Son of the eternal God, have mercy upon me!" These words made up for many things in the restless life of this highly gifted man whom fatal ambition led to the obstinacy of a heretic.
Calvin went to see him again. It must have been an extremely bitter walk for this sensitive man. Ami Perrin did not again visit Servetus, who through his promises had come to ruin. Early the next day the sentence was executed. It was impossible for Calvin to be present at the execution which he so desperately tried to prevent. He was spending the hour on his knees, collecting the thoughts which broke powerfully in on him. In his stead, Farel accompanied the condemned on his last walk.
IN HIS OWN CENTURY aside from Calvin's personal enemies, like Castellio the execution of Servetus was generally approved. Among these many voices we mention only one, that of Melanchthon who wrote to Calvin: "The Church of Christ will be grateful to you today as well as in the future . . . your government has proceeded in the death of this blasphemer according to all laws." In other words, Calvin objected to the cruel death sentence; the gentle Wittenberger found it just.
Our age is of a different opinion. Still it sounds strange when of all people Catholics in this connection turn so sharply against the "cruelty" of Calvin. His Romanist contemporaries politely refrained from such criticism. Had Servetus been burned in Vienne exactly according to the sentence pronounced, a petit feu, the little smoke from his stake would hardly have been noticed among the tens of thousands of stakes which continually caught fire in Spain, in the Netherlands, in the England of the bloody Mary, in France the land of immoral bigoted kings, for the followers of the pure doctrine.
Moreover, had Calvin's wish been granted and the fire penalty mitigated to an execution by sword, little fuss would have been made about it. Even in the Lutheran Church, and much later, beheadings for the sake of belief took place. It is the stake taken over from Rome, which Calvin did not want, to which Servetus' case owes its tragic fame. The Libertines inflicted far greater injury to the Reformer by denying his wish than they dreamed of. They have thereby seriously vilified his memory.
And as a conclusion to this painful section:
It is wrong to accuse Calvin of intolerance. Scattered every where throughout the Institutes are edifying passages which prove the contrary. Book IV, chapter twelve, paragraph 8, begins with these words: "The severity becoming the Church must be tempered with a spirit of gentleness. For there is a constant need of the greatest caution, according to the injunction of Paul, respecting a sinner; lest such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow; for thus a remedy would become a poison." And the tenth paragraph in the same chapter concludes with this admonition:
"Count him who has become disobedient to the Word not your enemy, but admonish him as a brother, says the Apostle." Calvin did not want the Church to be overly severe, to go to unmerciful extremes; but to anticipate the offender and extend its arms to him. "Unless this tenderness is diligently observed by the congregation and its members, there exists the danger that we make of the Church a hell and we ourselves become hangmen instead of monitors."
It is wrong to call Calvin an enemy of freedom of instruction, which in his writing against the Council of Trent he expressly defended. He was intolerant only about blasphemy and the determined destruction of the faith. If one calls his Genevan Reformation intolerant, what then will one call the French Revolution, this "cradle of freedom," which squeezed everyone's neck under the guillotine who did not agree with the people's benefactors?
Michelet, the great historian who has been quoted once before, himself a free-thinker, confessed, "I went to Geneva myself to form an opinion. As a follower of freedom of thought I was inclined toward Servetus and his friends, the Libertines. However, research in the Geneva archives shows the matter in a different light from what I had conceived it to be through historical works. I gained the conviction from the Council meetings that the Libertines would have surrendered the city to France. This would have been an immeasurable misfortune for Europe" says the Frenchman, Michelet! "Servetus counted upon the victory of the Libertines; therefore his stay in Geneva which became his doom. No doubt, Calvin was determined to save the faith, the homeland, the European transformation of the spirits ... This was the most burning moment of the school of martyrdom. In an unpublished letter which was at my disposal, Calvin describes his embarrassment at having to choose among the petitioners who are crowding in front of his door and who are quarreling. What about? To be sent into certain death as messengers of the faith!"
Thus the honest scholar who investigates the sources corrects his prejudice. While a Jewish author, absolutely incapable of comprehending the Reformer, draws his wisdom out of muddy waters and serves it to his well-meaning readers in these words, "Calvin, God's bloodhound, to whom Melanchthon, Bucer, and other proclaimers of the German Gospel bark their approval . . ."
Let us not be disheartened! In four hundred years our own leaders will also find critics who will be ignorant and imaginative about the spirit of a past age. At that time will conscientious historians be able to match them with as much genuine greatness as the experts on Calvin and his time are able to do today?
ON THE PLACE of Champel where the stake was set afire for the unfortunate Spaniard there stands today a monument of reconciliation. It was inspired by Doumergue, the great admirer of Calvin. He it was who drew up the following inscription:
"As reverent and grateful sons of Calvin,our great Reformer, repudiating his mistake, which was the mistake of his age, and according to the true principles of the Reformation and the Gospel holding fast to the freedom of conscience, we erect this monument of reconciliation on XXVII October MCMIII" It is placed here not to please or hurt anyone, but in keeping with Calvin's Reformation, although or rather because it confesses an error which violated its spirit.
Protestantism has erected a stone of reconciliation at the place where its only stake stood. When will the first stone of reconciliation of the Roman Inquisition follow?
I have allowed an unduly large space for the Servetus episode in this biography. Other, more edifying, incidents lose out thereby. It is really a shame that he who wants to make the Reformer known in his true nature has to undertake a vindication in order to eradicate from the world prejudices which by this time have become deeply rooted. A Reformed Swiss pastor was greeted during a meeting of the Gustaf Adolf-Association by a Lutheran colleague with the following friendly suggestiveness, "In which year was it now that Calvin burned Servetus?"