There are many Christians who vilify John Calvin as the one who “murdered” Michael Servetus and many others. They do so without knowing anything about how this developed and ended, and just parroting what they have heard others say. Why this outrage against Calvin? Simply because the evangelical and liberal world cannot live with who he was and what he taught. They can tolerate Arminianism and even Catholicism, but his Reformed teaching? No, they cannot. So they concocted these five myths about Calvin and his involvement in the execution of Servetus.
1. Calvin was the hated tyrant of Geneva. Calvin’s first pastorate in Geneva lasted just over two years (1536-38). Why? Because the city council and noblemen resisted Calvin’s reforms, especially a weekly Lord’s Supper and the church’s power of excommunication of wayward citizens. So in 1538, Calvin was asked to leave Geneva, and he went to Strasbourg and became the pastor there. He was satisfied with his ministry in the church in Strasbourg, but Geneva called him back after the church experienced even more problems. So in 1541, Calvin reluctantly returned to Geneva, and was pastor there until he died in 1564. Still, he met continued opposition from the city council and noblemen until his death. What kind of tyrant was he, who was tyrannized by his enemies in the city?
2. Calvin was the prosecutor, judge and executioner of Servetus. This is impossible, because Calvin was not even a citizen of Geneva, so he had no right to vote, carry weapons, or hold public office, except as a pastor. The only influence he had was in the church council. Calvin’s role was as a witness against Servetus’ heretical teaching against the Trinity. Servetus was arrested by the Genevan authorities, and tried and sentenced by the city council to be burned at the stake, the same sentence meted out by the Roman Catholics in Spain.
3. Servetus did not deserve being sentenced to death. Servetus was a Spanish doctor who was condemned to be burned at the stake by the Roman Catholic Church there. Somehow, he escaped and made his way to Geneva, thinking that he would convince Calvin of his anti-Trinitarian teaching. The Genevan city council asked counsel from the cities of Berne, Zurich, Schaffhausen and Basel. All these cities recommended that Geneva execute the heretic by burning.
4. Servetus was only one of many that Calvin executed. Although thousands who also were not sound in doctrine sought refuge in Geneva because of Catholic persecution, Servetus was the only heretic burned there during Calvin’s years as pastor. Compare this with the burning of 39 heretics in Paris and other mass executions of “heretics” in Spain, Italy, France, England and many other European cities. Death by burning at the stake was the usual sentence against heretics during the medieval period. Burning was symbolic of a heretic being burned in hell.
5. Calvin was just happy to get rid of Servetus. After the city council sentenced Servetus to death by burning, Calvin unsuccessfully pleaded with the city council to execute Servetus in a more humane manner such as beheading instead of burning. And while Servetus waited for his execution, Calvin visited him, pleaded with him to recant to save his life, and prayed with him.
For a more comprehensive study, read:
“Was Geneva a Theocracy?” by Michael Horton
“John Calvin’s Geneva” by W. J. Grier