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Did John Calvin Burn Michael Servetus at The Stake?

Church history question: Did John Calvin murder people? More specifically, did he have Michael Servetus burned at the stake?

Calvin's 5 Rules for Right Prayer

I’ve had many interactions with Calvin haters over the years, and it’s almost always because of this issue.

So … did Calvin have Servetus burned at the stake?

What Really Happened Between John Calvin and Michael Servetus

When I first told a pastor friend of mine that I started a twitter account dedicated to the Reformer’s words, the first thing he said was, “You mean the guy who burned people at the stake?”

This was coming from an elder.

How much more would the average Christian layperson accuse Calvin unjustly?

When people think about Calvin burning people at the stake, the person that usually comes to mind is Michael Servetus. I won’t go into full details, but I’ll give you the gist here.

Note: Watch the video below for a more in-depth look at this issue.

So, this Michael Servetus guy. He was born the same year as Calvin. Born of Spanish notability, he was utterly brilliant, and had experience in astronomy, medicine, mathematics, and theology. Had he not gone Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, he probably would shine in our minds as a prominent figure of the renaissance era.

Instead, we’ll forever remember him as a heretic.

Where things started to go wrong was in 1531, when Servetus released a book called, On the Errors of The Trinity, in which he maligns traditional, orthodox Christianity for having embraced the Trinitarian understanding of God – that is, One God in three distinct persons; equal in divinity, but distinct in ministry. Servetus did not hold the traditional Christian position. A few years later, Servetus began to write Calvin letters. Again: Michael Servetus is the one who started this whole thing.

Servetus wrote to Calvin. And Calvin wrote back. This happened repeatedly for many years as they debated and discussed various theological matters. At first, Servetus’ tone was respectable, as if he wrote general inquiries. He seemed interested in learning from Calvin. Over time, however, Servetus became accusatory, cutting, and dismissive of Calvin. And at some point, Calvin stopped writing back.

In 1553, Servetus published another work. This book had two purposes: to further attack the doctrine of the Trinity, and personally slander the character of John Calvin. Problem is, Servetus is in France, and France is a catholic country. And at that time, open heresy was against the law (both in Geneva, Protestant communities, in Catholic communities, and all over). When authorities found out about the book, Servetus was charged and arrested for open heresy. Hersey was a crime, and if you break the law, you pay the price – burning at the stake, the standard punishment at the time.

They tried Servetus and eventually sentenced him to be burned at the stake. So now Servetus is in jail, waiting to be burned. The governing authorities were so mad at him that they demanded he should be burned slowly. There he was in jail, with no lively prospect of escape. John Calvin actually opposed people being burned at the stake. In fact, he even wrote a letter to the city council begging them not to burn Servetus.

Let me be clear: Calvin wasn’t opposing that Servetus be executed (as the law says) but was opposing that he wouldn’t be burned at the stake. What did the city council say to Calvin? The city council said no, and they burned Servetus at the sake. Calvin did not burn Michael Servetus at the stake. It was not Calvin’s fault at all.

So, that’s it. That’s what happened.

Sure, Calvin had many faults. You can say he was an arrogant man. You can say he was short with his critics. You can also make fun of him for being shy and awkward. All of these things are true. But you can’t say that Calvin had Michael Servetus burned at the stake, because that simply didn’t happen.

Video: Discussion of the John Calvin and Michael Servetus Incident

Check out this video. It’s a discussion of the Calvin and Servetus incident. It took place at a Desiring God conference several years ago. This discussion will add to your understanding of what truly happened.

You may also like:

  1. 3 Common Misconceptions of Calvinism
  2. How John Calvin Suffered More Than You Realize
  3. Calvin’s 5 Rules for Right Prayer

About David Qaoud

David Qaoud (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is associate pastor of Bethesda Evangelical Church in St. Louis, Missouri, and founder of gospelrelevance.com. His work has appeared on The Gospel Coalition, For the Church, and Banner of Truth. He lives in St. Louis with his wife and son. Learn more>

11 Replies

  1. Thank you very much for this timely and informative article.

    1. My pleasure, James. Glad it was helpful.

  2. ericnovak

    Could we see the letter or something, I mean not that I don’t trust you, but it’s just a little flippant to say, “then Calvin wrote a letter and that’s that.”

  3. egamboa

    Calvin had enough authority to save Servetus’ life…I recommend Roland Bainton’s book “Hunted Heretic”…the argument had to do with the nature of God and Man…and don’t forget: a civilian court condemned Servetus. Calvin was a sinner saved by God’s grace, outside of his position in Christ, he had his faults, as we all do…

  4. jyearsley

    Here’s my take: Servetus had it coming.

  5. Jiminey

    Calvin did happen to be the prosecuting attorney in Servetus’s case though. And when he asked that Servetus not be burned, it was because he thought it’d be kinder to decapitate him.

  6. James Wesley Johnson

    Same thing not try to prevent is the same as participation

  7. James Wesley Johnson

    20 Again, When a righteous man doth turn from his righteousness, and commit iniquity, and I lay a stumblingblock before him, he shall die: because thou hast not given him warning, he shall die in his sin, and his righteousness which he hath done shall not be remembered; but his blood will I require at thine hand.

  8. James Wesley Johnson

    Brain washed believes a false teaching sorry but no other way to put it.