Life & Soul Life and Soul

Heretic of the week: Michael Servetus

Michael Servetus (1509-1553) was a Spanish theologian, scientist and scholar, who had a talent for meeting the rich and famous, and an ultimately unfortunate knack for annoying them.

He was born in Villanueva de la Sigena, Aragon, to a family of lower nobility. As a young boy, he studied Latin, Greek and Hebrew under Dominican Friars, and then went to the University of Toulouse. He then entered the employment of a Franciscan friar, Juan de Quintana, who in 1530 became confessor to Emperor Charles V. The imperial entourage toured through Germany and Italy, arriving at Bologna for Charles’s coronation by Pope Clement VII. The pontiff’s splendid household disgusted Servetus, who shortly thereafter left the imperial service, and declared for the new “Reformed” religion.

Of course, that new religion seemingly had as many forms as it had adherents: Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and many others were all proclaiming their own views very strongly. Servetus joined the throng of voices, rejecting infant baptism, predestination and the Trinity. Roundly condemned on all sides, he kept writing pamphlets. But in 1533 he went to Paris to study medicine. Five years later, he went to Vienne, from whence he also wrote religious tracts and corresponded with Calvin. Initially friendly, the tone of this correspondence grew increasingly shrill as their disagreements multiplied. Calvin at last broke it off and resolved that Servetus would have to die if he ever fell into Calvin’s hands.

Servetus’s pseudonymous anti-Trinitarian tracts were finally linked to him, and in 1553, the Inquisition connected him to his work. He was arrested but managed to escape and headed to Geneva. But instead of refuge, Servetus found himself again arrested; and Calvin had him burned at the stake. Oddly enough, in Transylvania, the British Isles and New England, the Unitarian churches all arose from disaffected Calvinists, as though giving Servetus the last laugh.