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Michael Servetus

Michael Servetus (1511-1553) was a Spanish physician, mathematician, translator, and theologian. Although he was neither the first nor the last martyr to religious intolerance, his death served to mobilize opposition in Western Europe to executions for religious beliefs.

Born as Miguel Serveto in Aragon, he was truly a renaissance man. He edited a new edition of Ptolemy’s Geography in 1535; served as a doctor for twelve years in Vienne, France; and was the first to publish a description of the circulatory system and the role that the lungs play in oxygenating the blood.

But Servetus is best-known for his challenge to Christian reformers, most notably John Calvin of Geneva, Switzerland. He wrote a treatise that denied the Christian doctrine of the Trinity according to reason. Accused of being a heretic, he had to flee both the Spanish inquisition and the French inquisition. A correspondence he had with Calvin led to personal animosity on both sides. When Servetus appeared in Calvin’s church, he was identified, arrested, imprisoned, and tried as a heretic under various religious laws. Although secular magistrates and opponents of Calvin attempted to defend Servetus, they could not prevail over his religious enemies.

Servetus suffered greatly in prison, but never recanted his offensive religious views. Calvin recommended beheading as a more humane form of execution, but Servetus was condemned to die at the stake for “blasphemies against the Holy Trinity, the Son of God, the baptism of infants, and the foundations of the Christian religion” (Roland Bainton, The Hunted Heretic, 1953). He was executed on October 27, 1553.

Reaction to Servetus’ death was swift, with a rise in opposition to the power of the church to execute those whose views were unpopular or blasphemous. His death transformed the history of Europe in at least four significant ways:

  1. Anti-Trinitarianism arose within Christianity leading eventually to the birth of Unitarianism, rational religion, and atheism.

  2. A rationalistic approach to interpreting the Bible arose, which allowed scholars and others to read the text within its historical, social, and cultural contexts.

  3. A belief in religious liberty, freedom of thought, conscience, and speech arose.

  4. The concept of religious toleration arose.

Sebastian Castellio wrote the best epitaph for Michael Servetus when he said: "To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine, but simply to kill a man."

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