Monday, August 15, 2016
The Murder of Michael Servetus by Frank B. Cressey 1903
The Burning of Servetus by Rev. Frank B. Cressey 1903
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The time of the burning of Servetus, in Geneva, Oct. 27, 1553, was a time of thorough thought, of compelling conviction, of religious renovation. The renaissance, or revival, of the preceding century witnessed a return in architecture to the classic simplicity and boldness of great Grecian times; witnessed the revival of sculpture under Michael Angelo, witnessed the birth and power of Leonardo da Vinci, and the birth but not the power of Raphael, master painters for even the artists of to-day. Most of all, as to the interest which now clusters about Servetus, the fifteenth century witnessed what may be called the culmination of the work of John Wycliffe, in giving the Bible to the people in their own language and for their individual reading. True, Wycliffe died in 1384, but it was in 1428 that, by order of Clement VIII., his grave was desecrated, his bones burned and their ashes cast into the river Swift.
The sixteenth century opened with one of the world’s largest religious reconstructions growing rapidly to the full. In 1517 Martin Luther nailed to the church door at Wittenberg his ninety-five theses—propositions which struck at the vitals of the Roman Catholic Church, and from which at the Diet of Worms, four years later, he would make no retreat; and yet, Luther was permitted to live, and to die a natural death in 1546. Not so with Michael Servetus; he was to die for his religious belief, to die at the stake, and to be sent to it practically at the command of a Protestant.
This Protestant was none other than John Calvin, the author, or compiler, of that system of belief called Calvinism, and which in some of its parts has so much to do with the denominational strength of Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists, and of which Methodists are the chief denominational antagonists. Calvin was born in France in 1509; he died in Switzerland in 1564. The fifty-five years of his life were years full of political and religious trouble for all Europe. Less than three months before Calvin's birth, Henry VIII ascended the throne of England. Henry VIII, the royal sensualist and wife murderer of history, the deceptive, whirligig religionist, now Catholic now Protestant as best subserved the passions of his soul. In Germany and Spain Charles V., as emperor of the one and king of the other, was moving mightily to satisfy a political ambition which seemed insatiable, and at the same time was trying to crush the work of Luther; but he met his match when, at the council of Suires in 1529, the Reformed princes made the protest which gave rise to the word Protestant. Especially, when speaking of Calvin, is it to be noted that the king of France was Francis I., “an unhesitating libertine,” a soldier who on historic “cloth of gold” sought alliance with Henry VIII of England only that he might satisfy his cravings for conquest, and who, when he had “no more need to maintain his Protestant alliances carried out a most cruel decree against the Vaudois, desolating the country and killing the inhabitants by thousands.”
Into times of blood and peril to Protestant principles like these John Calvin was born, born a Roman Catholic. In that faith he remained during childhood and youth, meantime enjoying the best of school opportunities, and showing himself possessed of great powers of mind. At one time he seemed destined for the priesthood. But when twenty years of age he came into contact with a relative who was translating the Bible. This helped on the Protestant thoughts which already possessed him, and a year later he began to preach the new faith, and passed into the ranks of Protestantism. This at Bourges, whence, after another year or two, he went to Paris, which, strangely enough, had become a center of the "new learning," as it was called.
Paris was the home of the king, Francis I, in whose intensely Catholic heart it was to destroy every one of Protestant faith, and who, in 1535, established the Chambre Ardente (“fiery room”) for their arrest and burning. But his hand was for a time withheld by his sister, Margaret, the titular Queen of Navarre. This Margaret was of far greater ability than her brother, and was withal a wit and linguist of rare abilty, thus giving her influence in the court of the King, which influence she used in favor of Calvin and his fellow Reformers. Catholic writers have questioned the sincerity of Margaret’s seeming Protestantism, charging that she protected the Reformers more out of woman’s sympathy with the suffering than out of loyalty to personal convictions. None the less, it remains true that in 1533 she wrote a book containing Protestant doctrines, which book was condemned by the Sorbonne, or principal school of theology in the then University of Paris, and that Francis was told that if he wished to destroy the heretics he must begin with his sister. The Protestants of France may possibly yet deem it their privilege to erect in Paris a monument with this inscription: “To Margaret of Navarre, Protector of Protestants, 1533.”
But the time speedily came when even the mantle of Margaret was not sufficient as a protection of Protestants in France, and Calvin was compelled to flee from Paris for his life. Indeed, it is said that the danger was so imminent that, somewhat like Paul when escaping from the Jews at Damascus, Calvin was let down from his window by means of sheets tied together. He took refuge in Basle, Switzerland. There, in 1536, when only twenty-seven years of age, he gave to the world his “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” which remain to this day as the great theological bulwark of Protestantism, even as the writings of Thomas Aquinas are the great theological bulwark of Catholicism.
Calvin remained in Switzerland during the most of the remaining twenty-eight years of his life-Geneva his home—a bitter, crushing, dictatorial man, religionist and theologian, and yet a Christian of fervent piety. Confessedly, he, near the border of France, was a man for the religious times, even as was Luther in the midst of Germany. But for Calvin's penetration of mind, intensity of conviction and bold determination as to the things of God, the Reformation of the sixteenth century would have been materially hindered in its final attainments. All honor, then, to John Calvin for his work both as a theologian and a reformer. No name stands higher; after three and a half centuries his work still abides. And yet, on the name and the work of John Calvin rests one of the foulest blots of all history—the burning of Servetus.
And who was Servetus? The answer is: A gentleman and a scholar, born in Spain in 1509, the very year in which Calvin was born in France. Servetus, like Calvin, was a man of rare mind; also, like Calvin, a man who though born and brought up a Roman Catholic, in early manhood became a Protestant. Again, like Calvin, he was obliged to flee from Catholic France to Protestant Switzerland, finding refuge in Basle four or five years before Calvin. At Basle, Servetus, like Calvin, published a book on the Trinity-but it did not please the Protestants any more than the Catholics; therefore, for the book he was banished from Basle.
Banished from Switzerland, Servetus changed his name, returned to France, became a distinguished physician, lived for several years in the palace of his former pupil the Catholic archbishop of Vienne, where he wrote a book on the Restoration of Christianity. "this book, as in his book on the Trinity, there were views objectionable to Catholics, objectionable to Protestants. The Catholics brought him to trial (April, 1553), during which Servetus escaped from Vienne. None the less, the trial went on, and Servetus was sentenced to pay a heavy fine and to be burned to death by a slow fire. Also, the edition of his book was destroyed, only three copies being saved.
In his flight Servetus went to Geneva, for years the home and refuge of Calvin, for whom he had something of a fellow martyr’s regard, and from whom he had reason to expect something of brotherly protection, though previously Calvin had treated him in most unbrotherly manner, and had even threatened his life. But this going from Vienne to Geneva was like escaping from the paw of the bear only to rush into the mouth of the lion. Calvin, in deceitful, self-hidden manner, had him arrested and brought to trial on charges of heresy before the municipal court, which sent him to the stake.
The burning of Servetus was a strange and outrageous affair from more than one point of view. The stiff fight waged by Calvin and other Reformers had helped to secure, in 1531, to every canton, or state, in Switzerland the right to favor or oppose the Reformation, to be Protestant or Catholic. Geneva chose to favor the Reformation, and, in 1536, seventeen years before the burning of Servetus, became a Protestant republic. Therefore, Calvin fled there and was safe; therefore, Servetus fled there, expecting safety. But, singularly enough, there still remained in force at as elsewhere in Switzerland, certain laws against heretics promulgated by the emperor, Frederick II, three centuries before, under which laws the execution of Servetus was made possible. And so we have the amazing, self-contradictory circumstance of a Protestant court condemning a man to death under Catholic law.
A yet stranger and more outrageous feature of this affair was the part which Calvin played in securing its bloody consummation. In 1546, in a spirit of brother confidence and desire to be set right, Servetus sent to Calvin the manuscript of his book on the Restoration of Christianity, asking his corrections and suggestions; this in acceptance of Calvin’s previous promise to help him in his religious investigations. But Calvin most unjustly kept the manuscript, and used it as the basis of accusations against Servetus, in letters written to others of the Reformed clergy. Nor was this all. When Servetus, seven years later, was brought to trial, first at Vienne and second at Geneva, Calvin helped the Catholics of France, as also the Catholics of Switzerland, by furnishing the accusations and so-called proofs of his heresy. Indeed, at Geneva he went further—he appeared before the court as Servetus’ public prosecutor.
Calvin succeeded in his undertaking, and Servetus was led forth to die the most cruel of all deaths; though in fact Calvin sought to have him decapitated rather than burned. On a hill outside the city, as though God would have all the world see the crime, a stake was firmly set. To it the well-born, highly-educated, eloquent-voiced, Bible-loving, truth-seeking, Christ-adoring Servetus was bound. And as if to mock, insult and degrade him even in death, Calvin had fastened to the burning man’s girdle the manuscript which he had practically stolen in that he never returned it. Thus Servetus the Protestant was burned by Calvin the Protestant, and this simply because the Protestantism of Servetus was not in satisfactory harmony with the Protestantism of Calvin.
In 1431 Catholicism in France burned Joan of Arc as an alleged sorceress, and in 1553 Protestantism in Switzerland burned Michael Servetus as an alleged heretic. To-day Catholicism practically confesses its wrong by canonization of Joan, while Protestantism confesses its wrong by a monument of expiation as to Servetus. The proposed inscription on this monument is as follows: “To Michael Servetus, burned for his convictions at Champel, October 27, 1553, victim of the religious intolerance of his time. The Protestants and friends of Calvin have erected this expiatory monument to repudiate all coercion in matters of faith, and to proclaim their invincible attachment to the gospel and to liberty, October 27, 1903." How remarkable the fact of such a monument. In all the world, past or present, nothing like it can be found. Also, how historically accurate is its inscription. Servetus was “burned for his convictions;” he was a “victim of the religious intolerance of his time.” Some, indeed, there are who would make it appear that Servetus was burned for political rather than religious reasons, and so in a measure excuse Calvin, but the combined facts of history are against them. The burning of Servetus was the crime of Calvin. Protestantism must still bear the blame for the awful Genevan tragedy.