Michael Servetus: Unitarian Martyr

Speaker: Rev. Carolyn R. Brown

Michael Servetus is one of those names that we hear now and then and realize that it’s an important name, but we may not be able to remember many details of its importance. This changed for me in November when Will and I visited his birthplace in Villanueva de Sijena, Spain with about 100 other Unitarians and Universalists. We were attending the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists near Barcelona at the mountain town of Montserrat. The ICUU planners set up a day trip through the mountains to the village of Servetus’ birth, now the home of a fledgling institute dedicated to the study of his writings.

The ICUU was celebrating its tenth anniversary and just missed by two years the 450th anniversary of the death of Servetus. This event brought scholars from all over the world to Servetus’ birthplace and today more than ever before his name is one that is finding its way into the consciousness of liberal religion and the scientific world.

Since few of us can travel to Spain and visit the institute, there is another solution to learning about Servetus: read the book Out of the Flames, The Remarkable Story of a Fearless Scholar, a Fatal Heresy and One of the Rarest Books in the world. Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone have put together an elegant story of the fifteenth century and the heritage of Servetus.

Servetus lived from 1511 to 1553 in Spain, France, and Switzerland. He was a child prodigy who became what we call today “a Renaissance man,” a person of enormous versatility. At different times in his short life he was a geographer, mathematician, astronomer and astrologer. He was also a pharmacist, legal expert and minor member of the emperor’s court. And he was a linguist, translator, theological biblical scholar. After his first book was published, he was known as a condemned heretic who lived the second half of his life hidden away under assumed names.

His brilliance, charisma and persuasiveness; his arrogance, obstinance and naivité; his extremism and, above all, his belief in himself were both his strengths and his weaknesses. They cost him his life, but they created a lasting legacy — a legacy which we share today.

The “fatal heresy” in the subtitle of Goldstones book is summed up neatly in the report of the final words of Servetus, as he suffered death at the stake: “Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me.” These were not the words Calvin wanted to hear. They reflect one of the oldest heresies, the Arian heresy, which countered the Catholic church’s 4th century decision to define Jesus as co-equal with the father, as the same stuff as God. The Arian view was that Jesus was the son, designated by God as such, but less than God. Had Servetus cried out “Jesus, Eternal Son of God,” his life might have been spared.

The Arian heresy did not begin with Servetus. Arius was present at the Council of Nicea in 325 of the common era, and he debated for this theological position against Athanasius, the point man for the Emperor Constantine. It is important for modern UUs to remember that the theological positions represented by the names of our denomination have been present in religious discourse for two thousand years. Our Unitarian theological heritage holds that there is at most One God, and our Universalist theological heritage holds that this One God is a God of love who provides an eternal home for all of humanity, also known as universal salvation.

The “fearless scholar” part of the subtitle of the Goldstones’ book about the life of Servetus is remarkable for several reasons. Servetus was indeed a super kid and was fortunate to be able to study in France. His facility with languages was impressive but as they tell the story of Servetus, they also tell of other scholars knowing many languages living at the same time indicating that many young people of this historical period learned many languages.

Perhaps this was the result of the rigors of “scholasticism” which was the philosophy of education of the time. Rigid and focused on religion, philosophy, medicine and the law, scholasticism limited the subject matter available for study.
Beginning with ancient texts, it concentrated on exhaustive study of small details, perhaps the meaning of a single phrase.

By the early fifteenth century, the humanism of the past two centuries broke away.While humanists also began with the study of the ancients, they encouraged the breadth of scholarship including matters of secular interest. Humanist scholars promoted free inquiry and found support in the more sophisticated elements of society at large, bringing a demand for books. Printing was the province of the venture capitalists of the early sixteenth century, and people were making huge fortunes. It was a time when writing books and suppressing books took place in a highly charged environment, leading to many public bonfires.

At the same time, the old order seemed to be breaking apart as the Catholic church struggled to maintain control against new reformers asking for the end of the corruptions of the church’s sales of indulgences and relics. Luther asked, “If the pope does have the power to release anyone from purgatory, why in the name of love does he not abolish purgatory by letting everyone out?”

In the midst of this, Servetus, having taken this Latin name after the fashion of scholars and humanists, published his heretical book, On the Errors of the Trinity. The first thousand copies sold out immediately. While Servetus was trying to correct his faith, the leaders of the Catholic church through the zeal of the Inquisition sentenced him to death. This began a life of mystery and trust, as Servetus, now known as Michel de Villeneuve began work as an editor of ancient scientific texts, studied mathematics and then medicine. He became an excellent physician serving the rich and poor alike.

In 1542 he cared for the plague victims in Lyon and with his rising reputation as a physician, began leading a double life. For some reason, not entirely clear to me, he continued to write to his arch enemy, John Calvin, who by the way had studied in Paris at about the same time Servetus did.

Servetus’ new book that led to his capture and death was “The Restoration of Christianity.” It was printed in secrecy during a time of very strict control of what got printed. The printers themselves risked their lives and new books had to be reviewed before getting permission to print. A shipment of the book arrived in Geneva. Nothing missed the notice of Calvin and he soon had a copy. Calvin tried to convince authorities in Lyon that Villeneuve was in fact the missing heretic, Servetus. Thanks to Servetus’ many personal friends among these authorities, Calvin’s efforts failed.

As you know from the reading, Servetus was captured in Geneva, tried there even though he had committed no crime in Geneva. He was on his way to safety in Italy, but stood out among the fair skinned Swiss when he attended church, which was compulsory, and was arrested. Calvin’s two goals were to mete the ultimate punishment to this heretic and destroy all his books.
While it wasn’t noticed at the time, Servetus included in Restoration a clear and accurate description of pulmonary circulation, having sorted out the roles of the heart and the lungs. Since the books were lost, William Harvey is credited with this discovery some 75 years later.

The books were lost, destroyed, with the last copy tied to Servetus as he burned on the green branches of his funeral pyre. The third phrase in the subtitle of the Goldstone book is “one of the rarest books in the world.”

The Collodon copy of Servetus’ Restoration of Christianity, had been used as evidence in the trial and was apparently kept in the legal documents that courts retain after trials. Goldstones write the history of this copy, which was at one time sold for the equivalent of $2 Million today. A Hungarian count and book-collector uncovered a second copy in a simple bookseller’s stall in London in 1665.
He knew the importance of the book and knew that a version of it had been made from an original copy. The Hungarian Unitarians received this copy, thanks to the count, and kept it in Kolozsvar, unknown to the rest of the world, but influencing the thought of every Transylvanian Unitarian minister and scholar for over a century. This copy was eventually given to Joseph II of Austria in a time of trouble, a gift that served as a payment for protection of Transylvania.

The third copy that survived strangely enough has been proven to be the copy that Servetus sent to Calvin. Despite the acrimony and hatred Calvin held for Servetus, apparently he could not destroy his copy of Restoration. Calvin had torn out the first 16 pages, in order to send them to the French Inquisitors in Lyon as evidence.

This is part of why you must read the book – “Out of the Flames, The Remarkable Story of a Fearless Scholar, a Fatal Heresy, and One of the Rarest Books in the World.” The story of the three copies that survived is intertwined with the historical developments of the following years, along with the value and meaning of books for the rich and poor alike. It brings us a deepened awareness of how fragile our liberal faith really has been over the centuries.

After the execution of Servetus, there was a reaction from many parts of the religious community. Oddly enough, Calvin’s extreme action brought attention to the ideas of Servetus and to ideas of religious tolerance. Sebastian Castellio was a learned and fearless Frenchman who had worked alongside Calvin in Geneva until, because of his liberal views, he was forced to leave the city. Now a professor at Basel, the centre of Swiss liberalism, he decided to speak out against persecution and to reassert the right of conscience in religion. Castellio found that the church fathers and the Reformers – including Luther – were almost unanimous in condemning the death penalty for heretics. So he collected their opinions into a book entitled Concerning Heretics, whether they are to be persecuted and how they are to be treated.

Castellio declared that “to kill a man is not to protect a doctrine; it is but to kill a man. When the Genevans killed Servetus, they did not defend a doctrine; they but killed a man.” He said that “if Servetus had wished to kill Calvin, the Magistrate would properly have defended Calvin. But when Servetus fought with reasons and writings, he should have been repulsed by reasons and writings.”

After the death of Servetus, forces were at work in Transylvania that led to the first edict of religious tolerance in 1568. While the edict was only in force for a few years, it had long lasting effects on many who continued to work for the possibility of a world where religious tolerance can exist side by side with dogmatic faith.

Some people have wondered whether it is appropriate for us to claim Michael Servetus as a Unitarian. Servetus grew up in the Catholic Church. When he read the Bible, he noticed that nothing from the Nicene Creed was supported by Biblical writing. At the age of 19, Servetus was well known as a Biblical scholar, having the ability to translate all the languages of the Bible, including the forbidden Hebrew. He never experienced a Church that was not corrupt. He was disgusted by the lives of decadent opulence led by most church leaders in his time. Like Luther and every other Reformer, Servetus was deeply shocked by Pope Leo the Tenth’s practice of selling high-priced sweeping indulgences that claimed to completely remit all one’s sins, past and future. In Italy, Servetus was horrified by the way Pope Clement VII was clearly worshipped as a diving being.

He felt compelled to speak out. Books were flooding Europe. Most popular were the books by young, outspoken authors who commented on the pressing issues of the day, and for Servetus, no issue was more pressing than the state of the Church. By disproving the idea of the Trinity, Servetus believed he could wrest power from Rome.

He didn’t give up easily. After years in hiding once again he wrote in an attempt to return to religion more like the original Christianity. He urged a return to classical Biblical scholarship and thought it could save the church. We would not find this totally in the realm of Unitarian and Universalist views today.

Perhaps where he was most “Unitarian” was that as a great scientific thinker he asserted that rather than basing one’s beliefs on established traditions and accepted understandings, one must develop one’s own understandings through direct observation and actual experience. He supported intellectual curiosity. It is, of course, only a short step from this to relying on your own reason and conscience rather than depending upon a priest or pope to decide for you what you should do or believe. Like the Unitarians who followed after him, Servetus placed moral responsibility with each individual.

Insofar as Servetus wanted to return to the religion of Jesus rather than the religion about Jesus, many UUs share this as their goal. We live by the values of loving our neighbor as ourselves, honoring the ethical teachings of Jesus, and sharing in a religious community. Servetus held these goals and values and demonstrated his ability to live well within them.

Servetus models for us the value of faith and reason being used together. He brought his considerable intellect to the reading of the Bible in Greek and Hebrew and discovered that his interpretations differed greatly from those taught in the Catholic Church. While we would not agree with these interpretations, we can claim him as our spiritual father, a heretic who through his insistence on challenging the status quo, stood up for his truth and hoped for reform or at least tolerance of his views. The result of his life and death was in fact the development of religious tolerance in fits and starts, with an eventual end to burning at the stake, and the beginning of our liberal faith.

We stand in the shadow of this man, who pursued his goals despite extraordinary odds, who established himself as both a caring healer and an outspoken antagonist. Perhaps he is more like us than we imagine.