Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Faith Like a River: A Program on Unitarian Universalist History for Adults

Leader Resource 2: Michael Servetus

Michael Servetus (pronounced Sir-VEE-tus) (c. 1511-1553) was the most celebrated martyr of the 16th century. His writings include the first systematic description of antitrinitarian thought. He challenged both the Catholic and Protestant churches to return to a pre-Nicene purity; "restoration," not "reformation." As with many martyrs, he is remembered more for his death than for his accomplishments.

Servetus was tried before the Calvinst Council of Judges (Syndics) in Geneva. He was found guilty of heresy on October 26, 1553, and was burned at the stake the following day at noon. Here is an excerpt from the sentence as pronounced:

Wherefore we Syndics, judges of criminal cases in this city, having witnessed the trial conducted before us at the instance of our Lieutenant against you "Michel Servet de Villeneufve" of the Kingdom of Aragon in Spain, and having seen your voluntary and repeated confessions and your books, judge that you, Servetus, have for a long time promulgated false and thoroughly heretical doctrine, despising all remonstrances and corrections and that you have with malicious and perverse obstinacy sown and divulged even in printed books opinions against God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in a word against the fundamentals of the Christian religion, and that you have tried to make a schism and trouble the Church of God by which many souls may have been ruined and lost, a thing horrible, shocking, scandalous and infectious. And you have had neither shame nor horror of setting yourself against the divine Majesty and the Holy Trinity, and so you have obstinately tried to infect the world with your stinking heretical poison... For these and other reasons, desiring to purge the Church of God of such infection and cut off the rotten member, having taken counsel with our citizens and having invoked the name of God to give just judgment ... having God and the Holy Scriptures before our eyes speaking in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we now in writing give final sentence and condemn you, Michael Servetus, to be bound and taken to Champel and there attached to a stake and burned with your book to ashes. And you shall finish your days and give an example to others who would commit the like.

Highlights of Michael Servetus' life:

  • Born in Spain, c. 1509-1511
  • While studying law in France, read the Bible, found no reference to the Trinity
  • In 1529, in service to a Franciscan monk, saw first-hand the riches of the Church, the exaltation of the Pope; turned to the Protestants in Basel
  • In 1531, at about age 20, published De Trinitatis Erroribus (On the Errors of the Trinity)
  • In 1532, published Dialogorum de Trinitate (Dialogues on the Trinity) without much success; books were confiscated; Servetus was run out of Protestant towns; the Supreme Council of the Inquisition in Spain took interest in him
  • Studied mathematics and medicine in Paris while that city was going through turmoil of Protestant/Catholic upheaval
  • Lived for many years under alias Michel de Villeneuve, Doctor of Medicine; described pulmonary respiration for the first time
  • In 1546, began a secret correspondence with John Calvin
  • In 1553, published Christianism Restitutio (The Restoration of Christianity) including letters written to Calvin; arrested, escaped, and arrested again by Protestant authorities in Geneva
  • Convicted Servetus of antitrinitarianism and opposition to child baptism by the Council of Geneva; burned at the stake October 27, 1553
  • Servetus' death unleashed a heated debate within Protestantism about what should be done with heretics; while Calvin defended the Council's decision because "to spare Servetus would have been to endanger the souls of many," Sebastian Castellio argued "to kill a man is not to protect a doctrine; it is but to kill a man ... when Servetus fought with reasons and writings, he should have been repulsed by reasons and writings."

Summary of Servetus' beliefs:

  • No original sin
  • Jesus had one nature: fully human and fully divine, God came to earth
  • All people, regardless of religion, are able to improve; grace is available to all
  • All things are a part of God.