Why Accurately Handling History Matters – Part III

Servetus versus “Jihadi Jean”

Tyler Vela
Freedthinkerpodcast.blogspot.com

INTRODUCTION

In the previous two articles in this series, I have been responding to an article by anti-Calvinist
Leighton Flowers dealing with the Servetus affair in the life of Calvin, in which Flowers argues that the
theological determinism of Calvin and others, serves as a petri dish that will lend itself to the growth of
religious intolerance. Flowers finds the execution of Servetus to be Exhibit A to evidence this claim. So
far we have shown in part 1 that Flowers’ methodology and baseline assumptions that he used to
approach the issue were biased and skewed, and in some ways, downright deceptive and misleading. In
part 2, I began to lay a far more researched and academically informed background of the period leading
up to the arrest, trial, and execution of Servetus in Geneva, and revealed that there was far more
happening during that series of events than Flowers would have his readers believe would lead to
Servetus being arrested for heresy. In this third installment, I will turn my attention to period spanning
Servetus’ arrival in Geneva leading up to his execution. It is the purpose of this article not to necessarily
exonerate Calvin, but simply to give a far more realistic and historiographically responsible picture of the
events than what is presented by anti-Calvinists like Flowers, Viola, and others who attempt to present
Calvin as a tyrant, a beast, a despot of Geneva, or as one blogger called him, “Jihadi Jean.” We have seen
in the prior articles that Servetus was wanted for heresy by authorities across the continent at that time,
that he had already been burned in effigy in Vienne, and his pseudonym that had previous kept him in
hiding in the service of an archbishop in Lyon, had been exposed by someone familiar with his
correspondences with Calvin. Having been unmasked, Servetus was a wanted man again and he took
flight. It appeared that he had planned on fleeing to Italy where he had a group of followers, via Zurich,
but for some unknown reason, he decided to take a detour and visit Calvin in Geneva. And it was this
decision that would lead to his ultimate arrest, trial and execution.

CONFLICT (August 13th – October 27th, 1553)

On August 13th, 1553, Servetus attended a public church service at La Madeleine where a largely
disenfranchised Calvin was preaching.1 He was promptly identified by Calvin and arrested. This action by
Servetus is one of the most puzzling aspects of the entire affair. Why did Servetus think that he would
fare any better in freedom in Geneva than he did in Vienne – especially if he incorrectly thought that

1
We must remember that starting in July 1553, we have letters from Calvin, so at his wits end with dealing with
the Petit Conseil and having been banished twice, and with very little say even over the administration of the
sacraments in the church, expressing that he was seriously considering resigning the pastorate and moving away.

1
Calvin was the man who had turned him in to the authorities in Vienne, as Servetus claimed? We know
that Servetus had intended to head toward Zürich and then ultimately to Italy where some of his ideas
had gained a favorable reception. This would make Geneva a rather unusual and unnecessary detour,
rather far out of his way. What seems plausible considering his connections to Guérout, was that he
expected the assistance from the Libertines who had been in power in Geneva for some time by then,
such as Perrin, Berthelier, and Vandel, and who were effectively giving Calvin quite a hard time. Some
have wondered if Servetus had possibly been invited by the Libertines, or a subset of them, to try and
have Calvin embarrassed and removed from the ministry there. This is conceivable given the fact that
the very day of his arrest, a Libertine named Philebirt Berthelier immediately signed on as defense for
Servetus.2 During the early stages of the trial, the support of the Libertine party for Servetus appeared
so strong that apparently both he and Calvin thought that he would be vindicated.3

There may even be some pride in going to the city of one of his longest intellectual rivals who had
spurned him and stopped responding to his letters, and he knew that Calvin was at one of his most
challenging times in Geneva – he possibly was aware that Calvin was considering leaving Geneva himself
because it was so hard on him during that time. This would be a chance for Servetus to finally defeat the
great Reformer Calvin and perhaps embarrass him, or even cause him to go into hiding as he had been
forced to do for so long. He likely knew that Calvin had been banished before and with the Libertines
now in control of the Petit Conseil, the time would be right for Servetus to gain a foothold in such a pillar
of the Reformed areas and finally be free to publicly advance his ideas. Whatever his exact reasons, the
miscalculation to come to Geneva would prove fatal. On top of this, Servetus had no reason to think that
he would be executed as he certainly would have been in Catholic or Lutheran controlled municipalities.
Up until this time, Geneva had never executed anyone for heresy. In the same here that Servetus arrived
in Geneva, 1553, there had been two previous heresy trials and both merely resulted in banishment
from Geneva. It is likely that Servetus assumed that even if his scheme failed, that the most that would
happen would be banishment from Geneva, in which he would simply continue on with his journey to
Zürich and Italy. What Servetus had not counted on was that the heresies that he proposed were so
serious, that they would be found appalling to degrees never before seen in Geneva, and his apparent
undermining of Christian society so serious that even the Libertines could not let it abide. It is a
somewhat shocking thing for many non-Calvinists to discover that Servetus was the first, and only,
heretic executed in Geneva in Calvin’s almost 20 years ministering there.4

In accordance with the Caroline code which guided Genevan law, since Servetus had been arrested,
he needed to be charged within twenty-four hours or else must be released. One would think that Calvin
would be the prime person to bring those charges, yet he was not. Naphy notes the overall secular
nature of the trial, in that the consistory was completely sidelined during the entire judicial process.5
Instead, Nicholas Fontaine was appointed as the lead prosecutor an on August 14th and brought official
heresy charges against Servetus to the Petit Conseil and the lord lieutenant, Pierre Tissot. Something to

2
Berthelier had previously been excommunicated by Calvin for repeated immoral behavior and was fighting to get
the excommunication overturned when Servetus arrived in Geneva.
3
McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism (London: Oxford University, 1954) 175.
4
Matthew Pereira, “In the name of the Three Headed Monster: The Contours of the Judicial Process in Servetus’
Trial,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review, 60 (2007); 14. This is confirmed by William Naphy in Calvin and the
Consolidation of the Genevan Reformation, (New York: Manchester University Press), 183.
5
Naphy, Calvin and the Consolidation of the Genevan Reformation, 183.

2
note is that Tissot was replaced by the Berthelier just two later, obviously to the relief of Servetus. While
the consistory was to remain outside of judicial affairs, since this was a heresy trial, the prosecution
would need a theological expert, and Fontaine naturally turned to Calvin. It should also be noted that
under Genevan law, the prosecutor must be imprisoned during the initial charging period, such that
Fontaine was imprisoned while Calvin was free to access all of his resources and books to prepare the
theological case against Servetus and sustain the charge. For this, Calvin produced the so-called Thirty-
Eight Articles, which was merely thirty-eight passages drawn from Servetus’ writings, mostly the
Restitutio, to serve as theological exhibits against Servetus reflecting some of his most foul heresy.6
From August 13th to August 14th, the lieutenant questioned Servetus about these statements which
Calvin had provided and found the initial charge of heresy to have enough merit to proceed to trial the
following day. During the questioning, Servetus had attempted to reverse roles, saying that he had
merely written to Calvin to correct his errors, when Calvin viciously and vociferously attacked him in
writing, that Calvin was the one in theological error on “several passages,” then he demanded a public
debate with Calvin. This course would have probably been favorable to Calvin since he had rather easily
dispatched previous heretics, like Hyeronimus and Bolsec. The Libertines of the Petit Conseil seemed to
agree that Calvin would have certainly prevailed in public debate, and so prevented it from taking place.
Fontaine, having sustained the merits of the charge, was released from jail.

During the first stage of the trial, the case by the prosecution, had largely started on theological
grounds to sustain the heresy charge. However, by August 23rd, in their closing statement the focus had
adeptly shifted to a political theory of the trial concerning the impact that heresy, more specifically,
stubborn, dogmatic, and subversively articulated heresy like that of Servetus, would have on Christian
society. They argued that Servetus’ opinions and his tenacity in defending them against the advisements
of nearly every province he had lived in, would pose a clear and present danger for Geneva as well –
something of interest to the Council since the power structure of Geneva was fractured by nearly any
account and could not sustain much more upheaval. This shift in Fontaine’s rhetorical strategy is likely
what initially shifted the success of the case in the long run and began to swing the support of the
Libertines and the Petit Conseil away from Servetus. Essentially, Fontaine took Calvin’s view that his
public heresy was a means to spiritually murder people by placing their very souls at risk, and
transformed it to a far more concrete concept of sedition and social subversion where the soul of the
city herself was at risk. He moved it out of the realm of abstract theological debate, to the realm of real
social importance which even the Libertines sought to protect. To aid with this strategy even further,
Fontaine had previously included a member of the Libertine party by the name of Claude Rigot to his
team and had Rigot deliver this closing statement. This maneuver had two effects: 1) it appeared to split
the powerbase of the Libertines, and 2) pushed the personal conflict between Servetus and Calvin to the
background of the trial. It would no longer be a show trial between two chief personalities, but would be
a trial about the societal harmony and peace of Geneva.

In his closing statement, Servetus did nothing to help his cause. In order to down play the idea that
he was trying to subvert Genevan social order, he claimed to have never communicated his ideas to
anyone in Geneva. This was a known falsehood since everyone was aware of his letters to Calvin and to

6
Most of the articles concerned Servetus’s rejection of the Trinity as imaginary gods and phantasms, and how he
labeled Trinitarians as the “real atheists.” Calvin, Declaration, 99; Calvini Opera VIII, 501. They also included
citations to show Servetus’ erroneous teaching on Christology, that God is made up of physical parts, his strange
views on the human soul, the Holy Spirit, and his rejection of infant baptism.

3
another minister named Abel Poupin. He then claimed that he was not aware of anyone following his
ideas and that he was only interested in doing Christendom a favor. This was also recognized by all to be
dishonest since his book was a clear assault on all orthodox churches and he had been known to
correspond with his followers in Italy. He also continued to call protestant martyrs “atheists” and their
God “Cerberus with threeheads,” which doubtfully won him much sympathy considering that the
number of those dying at the stake in Catholic territories was increasing every day. Thus, his attempt to
appear innocent and harmless gave the impression instead of being deceptive. At this same time, a jailor
from the courts of Vienne had been sent to Vienne to retrieve Servetus. He was given the option to stay
and be judged in Geneva or to return to Vienne. At the mention of returning to Vienne, Servetus fell on
his knees and begged to stay in Geneva, a reasonable position considering that he had already be tried
in abstenia and burned in effigy in Vienne. A return to Vienne would mean certain death without trial,
whereas a stay in Geneva may have meant exoneration, or perchance only banishment.

It was during this time that the Libertines and the Petit Conseil attacked Calvin on a separate
ecclesiastical front. On Friday September 1st, Philibert Berthelier, who had originally been representation
for Servetus and now the lord lieutenant presiding over the trial, and who had been excommunicated
from the Church of St. Pierre for repeated immorality, petitioned Ami Perrin, the head of the Petit
Conseil to mandate Calvin to allow him to partake of communion again on Sunday, just three days later.
Perrin approved the petition if Berthelier felt at peace with his conscience over taking communion, a
move that completely bypassed the authority of the consistory over ecclesiastical matters. At this same
meeting they agreed, despite Calvin’s protests, to have the case proceed in written Latin and to agree to
Servetus’ petition to seek the decision of the four major surrounding protestant municipalities on his
case.7 Calvin protested giving communion to Berthelier, even if it meant his own arrest and death
because he would not willfully profane the Lord’s table. Berthelier and Servetus surely saw this is a
favorable wind, that the Petit Conseil was on their side and opposed to Calvin. On Saturday, September
2nd, the Council convened again and heard Calvin’s petitions against giving communion to Berthelier, but
upheld their decision from the prior day. What Calvin did not know, is that after he left, they weakened
their stance and recommended that for peace in the city, Bethelier should not go through with taking
communion. Sunday morning drew upon Calvin, and with the members of the Council sitting before
him, Calvin preached the following:

As to me, while God will have me stay here, since he has given to me constancy, and since I
have taken it from Him, I shall make use of it, whatever happens, and I shall not govern myself
in any other way than according to the rule of my Master, which is quite clear and well known.
Since we now are going to receive the Supper of our Lord Jesus Christ, if anyone tries to
intrude on this table, though he has been defended by the Consistory to do so, it is certain that
at the cost of my life I will prove to be what I am commanded to be.8

Thankfully, Berthelier took the recommendation of the Council and did not approach the table so
the crisis was avoided. However, by this time Servetus had completed his responses to Calvin’s Thirty-
Eight Articles from Servetus’ writings. He had been told by the Council that he could recant of any

7
Servetus likely knew of the favorable and lenient outcome of such a request in the recent heresy trial of Jerome
Bolsec, and was seeking a similar outcome. See Naphy, Calvin and the Consolidation of the Genevan Reformation,
171-172. This fact will be important further along in the trial.
8
Cf. Doumergue, vi, 334.

4
teaching that he no longer held to and could then plead his case against anything that he believed Calvin
misrepresented him on, or was incorrect about. His reply was full of insults such as, “Simon the Sorcerer,
liar, you have lied, muddle-headed mind, criminal and murderer accuser, you are a wretch…”

By September 9th, the Council had not yet sent their request to the surrounding cities and Calvin
sent the following letter to Bullinger:

In a short time, the Council will send you the opinions of Servetus, in order to get your advice
about them. It is in spite of us that they cause you this trouble. But they have come to such a
point of madness and fury that they hold suspicious anything that we say. Thus, if I were to
claim that there is daylight at noon, they would immediately start doubting my words.

What is so interesting about this statement, is that peels back the layers of conflict between Calvin
and the consistory on the one hand, and the Libertines and the Petit Conseil on the other. It clearly calls
into question any reading of the event that casts Calvin as the unopposed dictator of Geneva. The
outcome of the trial, and indeed even the course of the trial was completely out of his control, and, in
many ways, ran how it did despite anything that Calvin said or wrote. Part of what may help to
perpetuate this myth of Calvin being the brutal despot punishing Servetus, may be Servetus’ own
misreading of the situation himself. The couriers would not be dispatched from Geneva to Bern, Zürich,
Basel, and Schaffouse until September 21st and were sent to both civil and ecclesiastical authorities. This
means that Servetus languished in jail for quite some time with no response from the other cities. In his
response to the Council on September 15th, he wrote, “You can see that Calvin has run out of ideas, not
knowing what to say, and just for his pleasure he wants me to rot away in this jail… The lice eat me alive,
my chausses are torn, and I have no pourpoint nor shirt to change, except a bad one.” He rails against
Calvin as the sole party responsible for the miserable conditions of the cell he suffered in. The problem
with this protestation is that Calvin had no say or control over the jail or it’s conditions. We know from
Council records that it was the syndic of Geneva who made those determinations, and during this time
the person holding that post was Ami Perrin himself, a Libertine opposed to Calvin. The Council was
moved by his pleas and agreed to have clothes made for him. However, to add to Servetus’ delusion to
be sure, they forgot to commission anyone to make the garments and so Servetus continued in his
dismal condition for some time longer. Many have likely read the words of Servetus and simply taken
them at face value, also blaming Calvin for his supposed cruel treatment of Servetus, and simply ignored
the delusion of the situation under which he suffered.

In a letter to the Council on September 22nd, he continued demanding the lex talionis be applied to
Calvin should he be found innocent. He demanded that Calvin be,

a detained prisoner like me, until the case is settled by the death of me or him, or any other
penalty. And for so doing, I put myself down for the lex talionis against him, and will be
content to die if he is not found guilty of this, as well as of other things I will charge him with. I
beg for justice, my lords, justice, justice, justice… That is why, as the sorcerer that he is, he
must not only be condemned, but also exterminated and chased away from your city. And his
possessions must be attributed to me, as a compensation for the possessions that he made me
lose.9

9
O.C. VIII, 805.

5
Ironically, in this same letter, Servetus conceded that if he was to be found guilty, that he would be
deserving of the death penalty. He writes, “And I am willing to die if he is not proven guilty.” He agreed
that death was a valid punishment under poena talionis, so long as it was the magistrates and the not
the ministers who handled the proceedings and the punishments.10 Those, like Flowers, who claim that
it was Calvin’s theological determinism that made him so brutally treat heretics and condemn Servetus
to death, not only is utterly ignorant of Calvin’s theology and the history of these matters, but also
ignore that it was the Anabaptist Servetus who equally demanded the death penalty, and not just for
heresy, but for charging him with heresy. This irony of this seems lost on anti-Calvinists at exactly the
point where it becomes relevant.

It was during this time that an anecdote concerning a cross examination of Servetus by Calvin
occurred which helps to expose the kind of interactions between Calvin and Servetus in the courtroom.
In order to expose the extreme form of Pantheism propounded and ardently defended by Servetus,
Calvin set him up by asking about his views on the nature of all creation. Servetus responded that since
all things were created by God, that all things have attributes of God and thus are part of God. Calvin
then shuffled, jumped up and down and stomped on the floor and asked Servetus if the majesty of God
is subjected to such unworthy usage. Servetus, triumphantly declared that he had no doubt that the
table, the bench, the chair, and anything Calvin could point to, were all of the substance of God. To
which Calvin asked if the devil himself is of the substance of God. Servetus smiled and replied, “Do you
doubt it? For my part, I hold it as a general proposition that all things whatsoever are part and parcel of
God, and that nature at large is His substantial manifestation.” The heretical genie was out of the bottle
at this point, and would be nearly impossible for Servetus to place back in. He had publicly declared,
with a smile, that the devil himself is a manifestation of God.

On October 10th, in failing health, Servetus plead with the Council one more time for clothes and
the prior oversight was corrected and clothes were made and brought to him. It was also during this
time that the opinions of the surrounding protestant cities began to arrive in Geneva. It must be kept in
mind that all around the continent, protestants were being mocked, persecuted, and condemned as
being soft on theology and permissive of the Anabaptists. The reputation of being soft on sin and
heresy, as well as allowing downright anarchy (in light of the Münster rebellion), was still a fresh wound
on the minds of the protestant authorities at that time. The first response to arrive was Bullinger’s from
Zürich. He stated that it would be necessary to deal severely and swiftly with Servetus, and called for the
death of Servetus, though left the means up to the Genevan Council. On October 6th, Schaffouse replied
and agreed with the estimation of Bullinger. Bern, which had been generally opposed to Calvin in the
past, responded via minister Haller: “But what need is there to speak? This man is absolutely heretical,
and the church must be delivered from him.” In a letter to Bullinger on October 19th, Haller wrote, “Our
response completely agrees with yours. When they heard the errors of Servetus, all the members of the
Council shuddered, and I do not doubt that had he been detained in their prison, they would have sent
him to the stake.” Basel too agreed that Servetus was demonstrably one of the worst heretics in living

10
Here, Servetus and Calvin were likely in agreement. Muller notes, “the two separate spheres [church and state]
are ‘widely separated’ yet, because they both have their origin in God and both must serve the purpose of God,
they ought to be related to one another.” William A. Muller, Church and State in Luther and Calvin, (Nashville:
Broadman Press, 1954), 138.

6
memory and called for execution.11 The ministers of Zürich, aware of the tensions between Protestants
and Rome, wrote,

We think in this case you ought to manifest much faith and zeal, inasmuch as our churches
have abroad the bad reputation of being heretical, and of being particularly favorable to
heresy. Holy Providence at this time affords you an opportunity of freeing yourself and us from
that injurious suspicion, if you know how to be vigilant and active in preventing the further
spread of that poison, and we have no doubt but that your seigneurs will do so.

One can only imagine that Servetus regretted being so bold as to demand that the Council seek the
decisions of the other protestant municipalities around them, for this had now placed them in an
obvious bind. They had sought the decisions of the other cities and if they did not dismiss their attempt
to humiliate Calvin, they would humiliate themselves as being sympathetic on heresy and boarding,
even supporting, one of the most contemptable heretics in Christendom. They even had Servetus
demanding that this case should be a capital case, he merely thought it would be Calvin that would fall
under lex talionis instead of him. The power that the Council had exerted over Calvin during the conflict
concerning communion shows that they could have spared Servetus had they desired to. They had the
power and authority to do so, even in an ecclesiastical trial such as a heresy trial was. Servetus went
from being a whip with which they sought to scourge Calvin, to a scapegoat used escape appearing
weak on heresy. Servetus went from being a merely a heretic to a political tool.

On October 26th, before the Petit Council, Perrin made one last attempt in favor of Servetus and
asked the matter to go before the Council of Two Hundred before arriving at a verdict. His request was
denied and Servetus was unanimously found guilty and condemned to death. He would be taken to
Champel the next day and burned alive with his books. Apparently, Calvin had quickly petitioned to
change the mode of execution to one more humane and swift. He had previously written to Bullinger,
that though he thought Servetus should die, it should be done in temperance and moderation, not with
the fiery fury of Rome – no doubt a reference to the horrors of being tortured and burned alive at the
stake, which many protestant martyrs were suffering at the time and for whom Calvin continually
intervened and petitioned for their release. There is an urban legend among anti-Calvinists that Calvin
not only orchestrated the whole trial and execution, but that he also called for wet, green wood to be
used for the fire to make it burn cooler and slower, thus prolonging Servetus’ suffering. This is simply a
gross fabrication meant to malign the character of Calvin. Calvin wrote to Farel on the day of the
sentencing, “Tomorrow, Servetus will be executed; we endeavored to change the mode of execution,
but in vain.” This is not surprising given that Calvin was opposed by the vast majority of the Council. This
also undermines the narrative of Calvin being the unopposed despot of Geneva. He could not even alter
the mode of execution to be more humane, so why would anyone think he had enough authority to be
the shadow power controlling the entire Council which had opposed him at every turn and drove him to
considering retirement and leaving Geneva?

The night before the execution, Farel and Calvin went to minister to Servetus in prison. Servetus
asked for mercy from Calvin, apparently still thinking Calvin was in charge of it all. Calvin stated that he
never had any real feelings of hatred toward Servetus the man, only his heresy, and plead with him to

11
The decisions of these churches held up the prior statements by men like Bucer, who wrote, “Servetus deserves
to be torn to pieces, after having has his entrails ripped out,” and Zwingli who wrote that the persistence of
Servetus “would upset all our Christian religion.”

7
recant, beg mercy from God, for he was the one whom Servetus had blasphemed. Calvin stayed a long
while, praying for Servetus, begging him to repent and be saved but to no avail. He finally left, feeling he
had done all he could. At approximately 11:00am the following morning, Servetus was led to the site of
the execution and read a long death sentence that recounted all his errors. When the pronouncement of
death by fire was read, he wept and shouted that if he had erred it was by mistake as he was only
teaching what he thought the Scriptures taught. He begged the mode of execution to be assuaged. It is
unclear if he knew that Calvin had already requested this on his behalf, but to no avail. By 1:00pm,
everything was over. Servetus died without renouncing his theological conviction.

One thing that marked Servetus’ behavior during the trial was a very arrogant, and downright
hostile attitude toward Calvin. Whereas in Vienne he was marked, moderate, humble, and willing to
make concessions to his opponents to spare his life, in Geneva he made no concessions and seemed at
times to stubbornly refuse to do so. Is it possible that it was just brut pride that would not allow him to
commit any retraction in the presence of his arch-opponent? Some have wondered if his trust in the
Libertines had given him an unwarranted confidence to act as if he already had the upper hand.12 Calvin
himself wrote that had Servetus been able to make concessions and show a teachable spirit, he likely
would have spared his life at the hands of the Council.13 While throughout his life he had shown
cowardice and recanted his views for self-preservation, it was in Geneva, likely believing the Libertines
would be his liberators, that he held to his convictions to the very end. In comparison to the view that
“Calvin was a furious tyrant, thirsting for the blood of his opponents,” Ephraim Emerson of Harvard
University writes, “A calmer judgment, however, shows us that seldom, if ever, was a trial for opinions
conducted with larger guarantees of fairness, more openly, or more in accordance with the principles
which the soundest leaders of thought at the time would approve.”14

CONCLUSION

Servetus was the first, and last, heretic executed in Geneva during Calvin’s tenure there.15 For those
who attempt to see Calvin as a tyrant, a despot, a dictator out to suppress any who disagreed with him
with a thirst for bloody vengeance, this series should heavily moderate that view. Calvin was indeed a
man of his times, and while we have thankfully progressed beyond that point, we should not hold Calvin
singularly guilty or at fault for the prevailing cultural, civil, and ecclesiastical beliefs that permeated
Christendom of the 16th century. We must remember that nearly all churchmen, councils, magistrates,
and civilians, believed that headstrong heretics ought to be capitally punished. It did not matter if they
were theological determinists, dyed in the wool proponents of Molinism, or advocates of absolute
Libertarian freedom of the will. The overwhelmingly dominant view was that the state was to protect
the purity of the church. Servetus himself believed this, and called for it. While he called for tolerance in

12
Doumergue, vi, 320.
13
Calvin, Declarations, 55.
14
Ephraim Emerson, “Calvin and Servetus,” The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 30, No. 4, Supplement: Index Vol.
1 (1908)-Vol. 30 (1937) (Oct, 1937), pp. 3-15.
15
Matthew Pereira, “In the name of the Three Headed Monster: The Contours of the Judicial Process in Servetus’
Trial,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review, 60 (2007); 14. This is confirmed by Naphy in Calvin and the Consolidation
of the Genevan Reformation, (New York: Manchester University Press), 183. This was the only heresy execution
under Calvin’s tenure, but even beyond Calvin’s time, Geneva was no more bloody than any other protestant city.
See Monter, “Heresy Executions in Reformation Europe, 1520-1565,” 49.

8
doctrinal matters, he called for the death penalty for Calvin’s views, and even for himself if found guilty.
Those like Nicolaus Zurkinden, who generally would be viewed as a progressive in favor of religious
toleration, believed that Servetus ought to be excluded from that toleration because he was too far off
the reservation and a danger to the peace of Christendom. One could ask where the voices of
moderation were calling for toleration against Servetus during the trial? 16 In fact, during this period,
such a view was so novel and so marginal, that it is hard to imagine it existed at any trial anywhere on
the continent during a heresy trial, and would only arise after – sometimes long after. The Protestants
were still in the process of redefining themselves in contrast to Rome. And just as the Protestant
problem colored the way Rome handled events like the Galileo affair, which smacked of personal
interpretation against priestly interpretation posing a threat to Rome’s ecclesiastical authority, so too
the Roman problem colored the way that Geneva and the surrounding territories viewed the Servetus
affair. This was a matter of world politics across Christendom. Not only are the caricatures of Calvin’s
involvement in the trial so mistaken, but the typical anti-Calvinistic telling of the events so biased, so
myopic, so ill-informed, that it beggars belief that anyone should accept it who is not already committed
to demeaning Calvinists. Thankfully history is not silent on this, and the truth can easily be found.

16
There does appear to be a letter written by David Joris, a follower of Sebastian Castellio, who wrote a letter to
Geneva, though there is no evidence that the Petit Conseil ever received it, or even that he wrote it during that
time and not after in response to the verdict. In the letter, however he calls Servetus “good and pious Servetus”
which likely would have not found much favor anyway considering the overwhelming evidence of heresy. The
letter also was entirely idealistic – that the church should only plead with Servetus. Considering that the dominant
view of the time was that heresy, and obstinate heresy at that, was actually a scourge on the church that risked
countless souls to hell and so there was more at stake than simply the soul of the one man as Joris seemed to
believe. See, Bainton, Hunted Heretic, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1953), 206-207.

9
TIMELINE

1509 Calvin is born in Noyon in Picardy, France

1511 Servetus is born in Villanova

1531 Servetus enters into discussion with Oecolampadius and publishes De Trinitate
Erroribus

1532 Servetus publishes Dialogorum de Trinitate

1532 - 1553 Servetus leaves Basil and assumes the pseudonym Michel de Villenueve

1533 Calvin experiences a sudden conversion

1534-1535 The horrors of the Münster Rebellion shock Christendom

1536 Servetus writes condemning Fuchs as a heretic and defending Roman orthodoxy
Calvin publishes the first edition of the Institutio Christianae
Servetus fails to show for a his secret meeting with Calvin in Paris
Calvin travels to Geneva and is convinced by Farel to stay in the city as pastor

1538 Publishes work defending astrology and recants in order to evade conviction
Calvin and Farel are banished from Geneva

1541 Calvin is welcomed back to Geneva

1546 Servetus begins sustained correspondence with Calvin

1552 Jerome Bolsec banished from Geneva

October 1552 Libertines win election and gain power in Petit Conseil

1553 Servetus publishes the Restitutio

April 1553 Servetus is arrested in Vienne

June 1553 Servetus was burned in effigy in Vienne

July 1553 Calvin considers resigning his pastorate in Geneva

August 1553 Servetus arrested in Geneva

October 1553 Servetus convicted and burned at the stake for heresy

1559 Calvin granted citizenship in Geneva

1564 Calvin dies May 27th.

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