Unitarianism Begins I: Michael Servetus

In honor of the 456th anniversary of Michael Servetus’ martyrdom, we’re reposting this sermon which the late Rev. Frank Schulman deliverd at UUFF on Sept. 7, 2003:

Unitarian history is difficult to trace because we don’t begin with any one person. It can be traced back to Judaism and early Christianity. Modern Unitarianism, though, goes back to the early Reformation. It is an exciting story and it will unfold in two sermons. First, though, some background.


The Reformation began on October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the castle door at Wittenburg. He opposed many practices of the Roman Church, which he listed in those 95 statements. The Reformation was an advance in religious liberty but it was not ready for Unitarianism. Unitarianism, in the historical context, has meant five things:

first, one God in one person;
second, belief in the goodness of human nature;
third, the use of reason and conscience in matters of belief;
fourth, salvation for all people;
fifth, the obligation of moral responsibility.

Unitarianism has gone under many names but essentially it was a protest against two particularly hateful doctrines of Calvinism: total human depravity and predestination.

Calvin believed that we are totally depraved, capable of no virtue, no goodness, no salvation except by the grace of God. We are all miserable sinners. Luther agreed with Calvin. Luther said,

A man who has no part in the grace of God cannot keep the commandments of God, or prepare himself either wholly or partly to receive grace; he rests of necessity under sin.

The answer to that is that such a person, one who has no part in the grace of God, never existed. Seth Beach, a 19th century historian, said,

The doctrine of total depravity is perhaps the most revolting article ever formulated in the name of faith… It denied the name of goodness to the kindly instincts, generous impulses, and high minded endeavors which even in the savage it could not wholly ignore… These things come from a corrupt heart. In the sight of God they had not the smallest moral worth.

Predestination was the doctrine that whether a person was destined for hell or heaven was decided at the moment of creation. Nothing a person could do could alter that decision. It allowed no human freedom. Even in the words of Calvin it was “a horrible decree.” It gave people no moral or spiritual possibilities. It denied human power to shape our conditions and destiny. It repudiated moral responsibility and everything the prophets pleaded for. It denied God’s grace to the bulk of the species. Calvin said, “God, in saving some and condemning others, has no regard to their merits.” Erasmus argued,

It is written, “Choose you this day whom you will serve.” It would be ridiculous to say to anyone, “Choose,” when it was not in his power.

Actually, the Catholics against whom Luther and Calvin rebelled were more enlightened. Johann Eck, the Catholic prelate against whom Luther struggled, said to Luther in their debates,

Your doctrine converts a man into a stone or a log incapable of any reaction… By denying that the man has any natural ability you contradict all experience.

We must realize that Calvin and Luther were not reformers. They were reactionaries. Many improvements were being made in that time in theological circles. There was a growing tolerance and broadening of the definitions and interpretations of faith within the Catholic Church. Luther and Calvin reverted a thousand years back to the thinking of the fifth century.


Our story concerns two men. The first is John Calvin. He was born in Picardy on July 10, 1509. His father was an office holder of some importance in the community and held some ecclesiastical offices. The father, Gerard Calvin, was esteemed as a man of considerable wisdom and prudence and his wife was an attractive and godly lady.

John Calvin first was destined for the priesthood. At eleven he received a tonsure and was appointed chaplain of a cathedral. That required no duties, since he paid part of his handsome salary to a substitute to carry out his duties.

Calvin studied hard. He was especially good in grammar and philosophy. He advanced in the hierarchy. He had not been ordained and his mind began to change. He questioned certain Romish practices and doctrines. He turned to law and studied at the University or Orleans.

Luther had published his 95 theses and all Europe was rethinking its religious situation. There was no Reformation in France but multitudes sympathized with it. They wanted to improve the church by education, by purer morals, by better preaching, and a return to the primitive and uncorrupted faith.

Calvin was sympathetic with that trend. He began work on his Institutes of the Christian Religion. He became a powerful influence in France. He puzzled whether to try to reform the Roman Church or to break from it. He decided to break away. His decision became known. He was arrested and served two short terms in prison.

Calvin came into contact with a number of different heresies during that period, all of which nauseated him. First were the Anabaptists. They did not believe in infant baptism and preached that the soul slept after death. Calvin disagreed with those doctrines. Servetus, the Spanish physician, tried to persuade Calvin that the Trinity was unscriptural; but more of Servetus in a moment.

By 1534 Calvin was head of the Reformed movement in France. His life was in danger from the Inquisition and he had to flee. He went to Basle in Switzerland, a center of learning, the Athens of Europe. There he published his Christianismi Institutio—The Institutes of the Christian Religion, probably the greatest work in Protestant theology.

Calvin visited Geneva and was persuaded to remain. Farel, his friend, drew up 21 articles and the populace were required to swear to them as their confession of faith. So began the theocracy Calvin was to establish.

Schools for the young were established with Calvin’s principles taught. Parents were forced to send their children. Anabaptists were driven from the city. All who dissented were expelled.

The Catholic Church was abolished completely by brute force. Farel took a bodyguard of storm troops, burst into a Roman church while the priest was at the altar celebrating the mass. He forced his way into the pulpit and fulminated against Antichrist—that is, the Pope. Farel organized street gangs to raid the cathedral at service time and to disturb their devotions by screams, a quacking noise like that of ducks, and outbursts of laughter. The monasteries were violated, images of saints torn down and burned. History repeatedly has shown that a minority, even a small minority, can intimidate the majority by showing courage—providing that the majority lacks courage. In the end, the bishop handed over his see to the victorious Calvin and ran away without striking a blow.

Calvin was a man of tremendous strength of character. He wrote his Institutes at the age of 25 and never during his life did he change or repudiate a single statement of it. Never once did he retrace a step or make a move in the direction of compromise. People who associated with him were either completely subordinate to him or they were against him. Never during the next 30 years did Farel, many years his senior, venture to contradict a word uttered by his junior.


That was the city of Geneva in 1553. It was a city that loved freedom but then there was no trace of it. It was ruled by a brutal and ruthless man who would tolerate no differences on any point, however trivial. There was no more liberty in Geneva. One will ruled everyone and that will was John Calvin’s.

At that time, in the year 1553, Miguel Serveto passed through the city. He was on his way to Italy but he was compelled to stop overnight because of transportation difficulties. That involved a weekend and church attendance on Sunday was compulsory. Servetus went to church and he was recognized. He was arrested immediately and held for trial.

Who was Miguel Servetus, known also a Michael Servetus? Servetus was a Spanish physician, born in the same year as Calvin, 1509. Like Calvin, he trained for the priesthood and like Calvin he turned from the Roman Church. He was an erratic genius and he is credited with a number of significant discoveries. He was a physician, theologian, scholar, and astrologer—astrology was a reputable science then. We also know he discovered arterial circulation of the blood some hundred years before Harvey and medical science now credits Servetus with that discovery.

Servetus had written a book in 1531 titled De Erroribus Trinitatibus—Concerning the Errors of the Trinity. He maintained that the Trinity was completely unscriptural and thus should be expunged from Christian belief. The book infuriated Calvin beyond description. The fact is that Servetus was right. The Trinity, however ancient and venerable a belief, simply is not in the Bible. There is nothing in the Bible to indicate that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are both gods, much less that all three were one. His book was banned. Servetus replied with another book, Dialogues Concerning the Trinity, the next year and it, too, was banned.

Servetus then disappeared and changed his name to Michel de Villenueve. He studied medicine at the University of Paris and became Prof. of Anatomy. He was appointed physician to the Archbishop of Lyons and held that post for 12 years. He continued his theological studies and wrote Christianismi Restitutio—Christianity Restored. He sent a copy to Calvin, who recognized it as being by the same hand that wrote De Erroribus Trinitatibus. Calvin betrayed Servetus to the French Inquisition. Just before the trial Servetus escaped to go to Italy, a more enlightened country. He had to travel through Geneva and on that trip that he was apprehended.

Servetus was in Calvin’s power. Servetus had tried to convert the leader of the Reformed movement and Calvin had sworn to have him killed, should he ever come in his power.

Servetus was now in his power. He was imprisoned and brought to trial in due time. The prosecutor was not a man equal to Servetus and the trial was going in favor of Servetus. Then Calvin himself stepped in. Calvin avoided the limelight when it put him in bad, and had someone else arrest the Spaniard. But the brilliant Servetus was winning. That was the more remarkable when we learn how the trial was conducted.

It was no trial at all in our sense of the word. It was only a chance for Servetus to recant, which he would not do. The trial continued through the months. Servetus was left to rot in prison, given neither clothing nor decent food. The once proud man grew into nothing more than a skeleton. They would provide him with no books, no pen or paper, nor visitors with whom he might consult. No defense was allowed. Servetus argued against conducting a trial before the criminal courts when he was accused of nothing more than difference in theological speculation, but to that no attention was paid.

Servetus was not allowed to present his case, other than to answer yes or no to accusations and questions. Calvin stormed,

Anyone therefore that really and seriously reflects upon the matter will acknowledge that it was his purpose to extinguish the light of sound doctrine, and overthrow all religion.

A more utter distortion of Servetus’ purpose than that it would be impossible to make.

Finally, when Calvin took over the prosecution, he demanded that the trial stop and that sentence be rendered. Servetus had believed all along that right would triumph and he would be acquitted. Servetus had become more pitiable. His earlier petition for the plainest comfort and decencies of life had brought no response. He was more wretched than ever, shivering with cold and tortured by physical infirmities. His body was wracked with pain, eaten with vermin and lice. In a petition he besought the Syndics for the love of God to grant him some relief.

But the Syndics decreed otherwise. He was found guilty. On October 27, 1553 he was taken to the place called Champel, there fastened to a stake and burned alive, together with his written and printed books. Calvin related that when Servetus heard the sentence, Servetus stood like one stunned, drew deep sighs, wailed like a madman, and at length recovering himself kept beating his breast and moaning, “Misericordia, misericordia”—God have mercy on me.


Servetus had assumed that right would triumph. But the daily turn of existence does not heed such high principles when brought before the demoniacal ruthlessness of a man like Calvin. Justice and righteousness were submerged before the powerful will of John Calvin.

During Servetus’ last hours he was beseeched by Farel to recant, but he would not. Calvin said he had not persecuted him for any wrong, but had for many years had warned him as kindly as he could. That perhaps is the only time the word “kindly” was applied to Calvin. Calvin would not attend the execution. He said he had too tender a temperament and could not bear the cruelty.

Crowds accompanied Farel and Servetus to the execution. Along the way they kept urging Servetus to confess his fault. He replied that he was guilty of no fault, and prayed for God’s mercy on his accusers. At the place of execution he fell on his face and continued in long prayer. Farel seized the opportunity to make an edifying address to the spectators. Again exhorted to say something, Servetus cried out, “O God, O God; what else can I speak of but God?” He was seated on a log with his feet touching the ground, his body chained to a stake, and his neck bound to it by a coarse rope. His head was covered with leaves and sprinkled with sulfur. His book was tied to his thigh. When the torch met his sight he uttered a terrible shriek, while the horrified people threw on more wood. He cried out, “O Jesus, son of the eternal God, have mercy on me!” Farel said to him that if he would change one word in the sentence and say, “O eternal Jesus, son of God, have mercy on me!” he would withdraw the torch. But Servetus would not change a single word. After half an hour life was extinct. He had died and had not recanted.

And so justice and righteousness and mercy were trampled beneath the feet of Calvin. The noble Servetus, who wanted nothing more than to believe as his conscience dictated, now became one of the immortals. What the hemlock was to Socrates and the cross to Jesus, the fire was to Servetus.

The loving and gracious teachings of Jesus had been thrown aside in the name of Jesus. It would be good if it could be said that Calvin shortly received the judgment due him and that right quickly triumphed. But such was not the case. Calvin’s brutality was not at an end. There was much more to come. Yet as Thomas Carlyle said, “The first of all truths is this, that a lie cannot endure forever.”

We have seen something of the political and religious climate out of which Unitarianism began as an organized movement. Unitarianism began at that time because, unfortunately for Calvin, he had not been able to foresee the effect of his outrageous travesty on every standard of right. Calvin was undone by an obscure professor of Greek literature in the nearby town of Basle.

That is the subject of the next sermon, when the story will be finished and you will learn of the encounter of John Calvin with the scholarly and shy professor of Greek literature.