The 454th Anniversary of the Burning of Michael Servetus




by Nick Gier, Professor Emeritus, University of Idaho (


On October 27,
1553, Michael Servetus, after being tried by the top religious
authority in Geneva, John Calvin, was found guilty of heresy and burned at the stake.
Calvin and Servetus were two of the most brilliant leaders of the
Protestant Reformation. Both were trained in the new humanistic methods of the
European Renaissance, and both were committed to returning Christianity to a
fully scriptural basis.


In addition to
several European languages, Servetus was an expert in Hebrew, Greek, and
Arabic.  The fact that he could read the Qu’ran in the original was later used
against him. He was also one of the greatest doctors of his time, discovering
pulmonary circulation long before William Harvey.


Servetus was the
first scholar to point out that doctrine of the Virgin Birth was based on a
mistranslation.  The Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14 says that a "young woman [not a
virgin] shall conceive and bear a son. . . ."  The context of the verse also
indicates a birth in the near future, not 500 years later.


Even before
Servetus, scholars had noticed that translations of 1 John 5:7 were heavily
doctored to support the Trinity when in fact the original Greek reads "Spirit,
water, and the blood."  Unfortunately, the King James translation still has
the Trinitarian phrasing and that is why newer translations are preferred.


Servetus and all
religious liberals who follow him were the only Christians who actually
embraced Luther=s
dictum that all believers should be their own priests.  What this meant was
that religion should be a strictly personal matter, one unencumbered by
external authority. Sadly, Luther and Calvin very quickly broke this great
promise of religious freedom and started asserting their own authority in
ruthless and violent ways.


Certain death now awaited
Anabaptists, who searched in vain for infant baptism in the New Testament, and
Unitarians, who confidently declared that the Trinity was not biblical,
especially now that 1 John 5:7 could not be used. Anabaptists were sewn into
sacks and thrown into rivers for their perverted desire to
be baptized again ("ana");
and the response to Servetus’ first book
rejecting the Trinity was so vicious that he decided to live under an assumed
name and pursue a very successful medical practice.



Calvin read
Servetus’ book and the two exchanged some acrimonious letters. Calvin joined
Luther and Roman Catholics in condemning Servetus’ rejection of infant
baptism, and Calvin was particularly incensed that Servetus rejected his
doctrine of predestination. Calvin wrote to
religious authorities in France reminding them that they had a duty to punish
this great sinner. At first they ignored his entreaties, thinking that it was
rather odd for one heretic to be turning in another.


Servetus was
finally arrested, but he managed to escape from prison. He decided to join
some Italian Unitarians in Naples, but instead of taking a much safer sea
route, Servetus chose to travel through Switzerland instead.  Mysteriously
drawn to his new adversary, he made the fatal error of overnighting in
Geneva.  Servetus was a Spaniard of Jewish descent that made him easily
recognizable.  He was arrested and thrown into a lice infested dungeon.


Defenders of
Calvin claim that he gave Servetus due process and he did only what the Catholic
authorities would have done in France.  But Calvin did not allow Servetus legal
counsel, and besides Calvin had no legal authority to try Servetus for heresy. 
After finding him guilty on two counts�denying the Trinity and infant
baptism�Calvin handed him over to civil leaders to be executed.  Right at the
last minute, Calvin proposed to have Servetus beheaded instead, but Geneva’s
civil authorities stood by the standard form of execution for heresy of this


dramatizes burning at the stake as a quick affair with dry wood piled high
around the neck of the wretched heretic.  Servetus begged for a quick death, but
his executioners followed the tradition of their Catholic enemies: using the
greenest wood for the slowest fire.  It took a full thirty minutes for Servetus
to die, unrepentant, as a martyr for all those who support full religious


Religious wars and
persecution went on for another 250 years before American religious liberals
such as Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Paine, some
rejecting the Trinity and the deity of Christ, made sure that freedom of
conscience was written into the U.S. Constitution.


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