Excerpts from the Preface to “The Man from Mars: His Morals, Politics, and Religion, by William Simpson, 3rd ed., Beattle, San Francisco, 1900.
The persecution of Michael Servetus by John Calvin, one of the leaders of the Reformation, was one of the most unjust and inhuman exercises of religious authority that the world has seen. There were many features in this tragedy of burning at the stake, that were out of the common. The victim was a man of unblemished character, of great learning, and a scientist, with a genius for investigation. He was a skilled practitioner of medicine out of which profession he derived his income. He had made some advances in medical science, coming so near to a discovery to the circulation of the blood, that it is quite likely, but for his untimely death, he would have reached it instead of Harvey, many years afterward. His active mind led him to devote much of his leisure to the study of theology, and, laboring among its problems, he strove to reconcile a number of orthodox beliefs and doctrines with the scientific knowledge of his time, not combating them or contriving at their destruction, but by changing the sense of the words, to make them apparently accord with known elements of truth. He was an ardent supporter of the Reformation, and a friend and admirer of Calvin, and he began and maintained for some time, a correspondence with him, with the view of obtaining his advice and support. The proposed modification in the sense of scriptural texts was not favorable received by Calvin, and the two were drawn into a controversy which finally became acrimonious. The world, at present, partially recovered from its long period of hypnotized reason, is able to appreciate the small value of the questions which engaged these two men, and which led one to strike the other down to death, and it is also able to judge how much Servetus was in advance of his adversary in their discussions.
Calvin maintained, that under instructions from God through the Bible, an infant, dying without baptism, could not escape the tortures of Hell, a locality described by the same authority, as a place of horrors, of endless burning amid sulphurous fires, of never ending thirst, and of a “weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth” through all time to come. Servetus expressed his doubts of the justice of this infliction upon sinless infants, and attempted to show that it was not authorized by the Sacred Book. He also denied the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, as it was commonly received. He did not deny a kind of Trinity in the unity of God, but believing that it was merely formal, and not personal, mere distinctions in the divine essence, and that, as generally understood, it was a dream, and an invention of the Fathers of the Church. He also asserted, upon good authority, that there was a Christian doctrine before there was any adoption of the Hebrew legends; that these legends did not become a part of the church, until nearly a century after the great moral teacher had met his cruel death. He also came as near as he dared, to expressing his belief, that the Son was merely a man, with the divine inspiration in a large degree. Such advanced ideas as these, asserted with the positiveness of conviction, and backed with answerable argument, were the cause of his undoing.
Calvin, at this time, was at the head of a church already powerful. He ruled it with autocratic will, and upon all questions of doctrinal beliefs, he was the last court of appeal. He had long accepted the homage of his followers, as one selected by the Almighty for their spiritual guidance, and, with the common weakness of humanity, he became arbitrary and despotic in his management of church affairs. He was always ready to advise and direct, and in his first letters to Servetus, assumed some show of argument while denying his doctrines. Servetus answered him, not with that deference that his adversary usually received, but in all the spirit of earnest debate. Nothing more exasperating to Calvin could have occurred, and to cap the climax of affront, his adversary, a mere layman, published a book of “Christianity Restored” setting forth his advanced views and with a reckless temerity, sent the reformer a copy.
The controversy between them immediately degenerated into mutual recrimination and abuse. Calvin’s anger was raised to a white heat, when he saw the errors and blasphemies, as he regarded them and which he had vainly sought to combat, confided to the printed page, and thrown broadcast upon the world. Besides the alleged heretical matter of the book, he found himself taken to task, declared the error, and in his most cherished doctrines controverted. But he discovered withal some matter in the book which pleased him. His enemy had committed himself in abusing the Papacy: evidence sufficient to convict him at once of blasphemy in the Roman Catholic city of Vienne in France where Servetus then resided, and he proceeded at once to put the cruel scheme of his death into execution. By information to the authorities at Vienne through dictated letters, he succeeded in having Servetus thrown into prison there, from whence he escaped, and became an outcast for months. The malignant and inhuman manner in which this Christian leader followed his innocent victim, could scarcely have occurred upon any other question, but a religious one, and his murderous intent, form the first, is shown by a letter from Calvin to a friend in which he says “Servetus wrote to me lately, and besides his letter sent me a great volume of his ravings, telling me, with audacious arrogance, that I should find there things stupendous and unheard of until now. He offers to come thither if I approve; but I will not pledge my faith to him; for, did he come, if I have any authority here, “I SHOULD NEVER SUFFER HIM TO GO AWAY ALIVE.” And he proved himself, in this instance, true to his word.
The Roman Catholic authorities of Vienne, discovering after a while the connivance of Calvin, in putting the execution of his enemy on them, contrived, it is said, to make his escape easy. They had no mind to have this work thrust upon them. They probably felt that the reformers should take care of their own heretics. Servetus, after his escape, wandered about from place to place, all the time his life in imminent danger, and finally brought up in Geneva, the home of Calvin, disguising himself, and hiding on the outskirts. What induced him to take such desperate chances is not positively known. His intention is supposed to have been to go to Naples, and to be gone from Geneva on the first favorable opportunity. Weary of confinement, and always piously inclined, he ventured imprudently to show himself, at the evening service of a neighboring church, and being there recognized, intimation of his presence was conveyed to Calvin, who, without loss of a moment, demanded his immediate arrest, making his arraignment himself, and industriously working until the end, as chief prosecutor and witness. The barbaric cruelty during imprisonment to this famous man, in an eminently Christian community, and by a Christian leader is shown by the following letter from his prison cell. “Most noble Lords, it is now three weeks since I petitioned for an audience, and I have to inform you that nothing has been done, and I am in a more filthy plight than ever. In addition, I suffer terribly from the colic, and from colic and my rupture, which causes me miseries. It is very cruel that I am not allowed to speak, nor not have my most pressing wants supplied; for the love of God sirs, in pity give orders on my behalf.” And here is another one: “My most honored Lords, I humbly entreat of you to put an end to these great delays, or to exonerate me of the criminal charge. You must see that Calvin is at his wits ends, and knows not what more to say, but for his pleasure, would have me rot here in prison. The live eat me up alive, my breeches are in rags, and I have no change, no doublet, and but a single shirt in tatters.”
Thirty-eight articles of impeachment were drawn up by Calvin, and after a protracted trial, wherein he acted as chief interrogator, this unhappy victim was sentenced to be burnt at the stake. Servetus, during his whole examination, showed himself to be a brave, conscientious, religious man. His answers to each one of the articles was able, consistent, and would have been considered in this day unanswerable, and what is more his views have since been adopted by the most advanced of Christian sects. The following is a description of his execution recorded at that time.
“When he came in sight of the fatal pile, the wretched Servetus prostrated himself on the ground and for a while was absorbed in prayer. Rising and advancing a few steps he found himself in the hands of the executioner, by whom he was made to sit on a block, his feet just reaching the ground. His body was then bound to the stake behind him by several turns of an iron chain, whilst his neck was secured in like manner by a coil of a hempen rope. His two books, - the one in manuscript sent to Calvin in confidence six or eight years before for his stricture, and a copy of the one lately printed at Vienned were fastened to his waist, and his head was encircled in mockery with a chaplet of straw and green twigs bestrewed with brimstone (sulfur). The deadly torch was then applied to the fagots and flashed in his face; and the brimstone catching, and the flames rising, wrung from the victim such a cry of anguish as struck terror in the surrounding crowd. After this his was bravely silent; but the wood being purposely green, although the people aided the executioner in heaping fagots upon him, a long half hour elapsed before he ceased to show signs of life and suffering. Immediately before giving up the ghost, with a last expiring effort he cried aloud, “Jesus, thou Son of the Eternal God, have compassion upon me!” All was then hushed, save hissing and crackling of the green wood, and by and by there remained no more of what had been Michael Servetus, but a charred and blackened trunk, and a handful of ashes.”
So died in advance of his age, this victim of religious fanaticism and personal hate, a fitting triumph of the theological over the scientific methods of thought, the result among many thousands like it of the adoption of the Jewish Legends by Christianity, and in this case, brought about by a Christian leader, the founder of a creed, in which to this day, enough of his spirit remains to make it the greatest enemy of free thought and liberal opinion, among all the creeds of Protestantism. Of this disgraceful tragedy was it the spirit of the Master which led the inhuman crowd to vie with each other in piling on the fagots, or was it the malign influence of a vindictive and cruel Hebrew God?
Every conflict between science and theology since the days of Copernicus has resulted in an unequivocal victory of the former. Both churches resisted the truth of the rotundity and movement of the earth as though their existence depended on it. They fought each question as it arose in the same spirit. The Mosaic account of the creation, the age of the world, the deluge, the length of man’s sojourn upon the earth, are questions as effectively settled adversely to the “truths of scripture” as the one for which Galileo suffered. (…)
…The intention of the new church (reformed church) was to do away with those rituals and ceremonies, which had been adopted from paganism a compromise in the second and third centuries, and to bring their church back as far as possible, to that simplicity which characterized the first teachings of Christianity. But the leaders of the Reformation never attempted nor had they any desire to bring back that entire freedom of thought and expression which existed in the early days. No one with immunity would be allowed to deny the doctrine of the Holy Trinity…as the Greek philosophers were wont to do. Such vital questions it was torture and death to adversely consider, Servetus being an early victim to such temerity. There were questions enough however within the limits of safe discussion, to set agoing those unending controversies which distinguished Protestantism to this day. The newly acquired privilege of discussing sacred affairs among laymen as well as others, were indulged in to such an extent that the debate between the sects, in defense of their several interpretations of scriptural texts, monopolized in society its hours of intercourse and conversation...Questions that had been settled centuries before by authority in the old church were dragged forth to renewed discussion.
In these beliefs the two churches (Catholic and Protestant) were in entire accord and must equally answer for the miseries and cruelties they have inflicted upon humanity in enforcing them. Theories and doctrines so persistently advanced and upheld by both churches, and which have proved so disastrous to humanity do not properly belong, and should have no place in Christianity. They are not only without the authority of the Master (Jesus Christ), but are mostly in opposition to his teaching and example. The most harmful of them owe their origin to the fables and myths introduced…
In these days of enlightenment and higher thought, the vestiges are everywhere of our fifteen centuries of misdirection. Almost every life bears the impress of these cruel traditions. If we have, for more than fifteen centuries, yielded ourselves to doctrines conveyed to us through all the highways of life, so assiduously, that neither infancy, youth, manhood, or old age, have escaped their tireless importunities for acceptance’ doctrines, which consign seven eighths of humanity to eternal torture for no faults to most of them but a lack of opportunity, which under (Calvin’s) Providence has been denied, it is not unreasonable to conclude, with this experience of the mutability of human understanding, that there are other beliefs fastened on our minds by ages of custom and mistaken thought, equally untenable, which may be as justly placed in our catalog of errors.
We shall never know how much the industrious promulgation of error is due to the selfish love of corporate, power. But for all that, we shall never arrive at the extremity of despair; for the cultivation of the mind, the deductive use of positive knowledge, and the untrammeled exercise of reason, lead to truth, as directly, as the line of gravity points to the center of the earth, and only by these will its reign be established in the world.