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
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.
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