looking back

 Contents: UU World Back Issue

Michael Servetus: Martyr to religious freedom

by Jaume de Marcos

On October 27, 1553—four hundred and fifty years ago this fall—Michael Servetus was burned alive in Geneva with copies of his last book at his feet. Christianismi Restitutio (“The Restitution of Christianity”) contained one of the most complex theological systems designed by a single individual. Fatefully, it aggressively challenged the most sacred dogma of Christianity—the Holy Trinity. It also included—in the midst of a theological argument—the first European description of the pulmonary circulation of blood.

In his forty-two years, Servetus excelled in biblical scholarship, medicine, pharmacology, geography, astrology, and other sciences of his time. His books aroused controversy throughout Europe. His death inspired the first real moves to end the practice of killing heretics.

Such a unique and multifaceted figure had a rather humble beginning. Born in 1511, Miguel Serveto y Conesa grew up in Villanueva de Sigena, a rural village in the Spanish kingdom of Aragon. A few years earlier, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille had joined their medieval nations to form a new and ambitious European power. They decided to strengthen the newly unified Spain in three ways: by conquering Granada, the last Muslim kingdom; by sending Columbus to find a new sea trade route; and by imposing Roman Catholicism on the whole country, forcing the conversion of Jews and Muslims and killing or sending into exile any who opposed it.

In that context of increasing intolerance, young Servetus was sent to France to study law. There he first encountered Protestant ideas. A few years later, the pomp of the pope’s coronation of the new Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, scandalized the idealistic young man. Shortly afterwards he wrote his first book, De Trinitatis Erroribus (“On the Errors of the Trinity”). In it, the 21-year-old Servetus detailed his own interpretation of the scriptures about the nature of Christ, supporting his controversial arguments with a long series of Greek and Hebrew quotations.

Servetus has sometimes been portrayed as a stubborn, arrogant man who was intolerant of any differing opinion. Although he was certainly capable of arguing forcefully with his adversaries—particularly John Calvin, one of the Protestant leaders with whom he corresponded—Servetus always asked for tolerance in religious matters. In a letter to another reformer, he wrote: “I consider it a very serious matter to kill a man simply because he may be mistaken in some question of interpretation of the scripture, knowing that even the most knowledgeable ones may also fall into error.” The distinguished contemporary Servetus scholar Ángel Alcalá has said that the two greatest legacies of Servetus are the right to freedom of conscience and the conviction that nobody possesses truth in its totality.

After Servetus’s death, his family paid for a new chapel in the local church to ask forgiveness for his horrible sins. For centuries, Servetus was conveniently forgotten in the country where he had been born. When his medical discovery of the pulmonary circulation was finally acknowledged, his theological opinions were carefully silenced and Servetus was depicted as a scientific hero who perished under Protestant fanaticism.

Only in recent years has Servetus been recognized in Spain as a theological giant and a pioneer in the struggle for religious freedom. In October, an international congress will take place in Aragon, Servetus’s homeland, to honor his memory. Servetus is at last being acknowledged as one of the brightest and most fascinating personalities of the Renaissance.

Jaume de Marcos Andreu founded the Sociedad Unitaria Universalista de España in Barcelona, Spain, in 2000. The group is now part of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists, which will hold a Servetus conference in Geneva in October. He is also the author or translator of several Unitarian Universalist resources in Spanish.

Voices from the Past

A Heretic's Legacy

His was a very contemporary problem. What does a man do when he finds himself thinking what the rulers of society regard as “dangerous thoughts”? . . . Michael Servetus, prosperous and respected, was not able to remain silent. He spoke the truth that was in him, and paid with his life for doing so. His was the problem of the ages, and so it is ours.

— The Rev. Duncan Howlett,
The Christian Register (Unitarian), October 1953

 Contents: UU World Back Issue

Unitarian Universalist Association | 25 Beacon Street, Boston MA 02108 | 617-742-2100
Copyright © 2002-2003 Unitarian Universalist Association | Privacy Policy | Contact Us | Search Our Site | Site Map