History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 139. Protestant Intolerance. Judgments of the Reformers on Servetus.

The Reformers inherited the doctrine of persecution from their mother Church, and practised it as far as they had the power. They fought intolerance with intolerance. They differed favorably from their opponents in the degree and extent, but not in the principle, of intolerance. They broke down the tyranny of popery, and thus opened the way for the development of religious freedom; but they denied to others the liberty which they exercised themselves. The Protestant governments in Germany and Switzerland excluded, within the limits of their jurisdiction, the Roman Catholics from all religious and civil rights, and took exclusive possession of their churches, convents, and other property. They banished, imprisoned, drowned, beheaded, hanged, and burned Anabaptists, Antitrinitarians, Schwenkfeldians, and other dissenters. In Saxony, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark no religion and public worship was allowed but the Lutheran. The Synod of Dort deposed and expatriated all Arminian ministers and school-teachers. The penal code of Queen Elizabeth and the successive acts of Uniformity aimed at the complete extermination of all dissent, whether papal or protestant, and made it a crime for an Englishman to be anything else than an Episcopalian. The Puritans when in power ejected two thousand ministers from their benefices for non-conformity; and the Episcopalians paid them back in the same coin when they returned to power. "The Reformers," says Gibbon, with sarcastic severity, "were ambitious of succeeding the tyrants whom they had dethroned. They imposed with equal rigor their creeds and confessions; they asserted the right of the magistrate to punish heretics with death. The nature of the tiger was the same, but he was gradually deprived of his teeth and fangs."10081008    Decline and Fall, ch. LIV. It should be remembered, however, that the most intolerant form of intolerance is the intolerance of infidelity as manifested in the French Revolution during "the reign of terror."

Protestant persecution violates the fundamental principle of the Reformation. Protestantism has no right to exist except on the basis of freedom of conscience.

How, then, can we account for this glaring inconsistency? There is a reason for everything. Protestant persecution was necessary in self-defence and in the struggle for existence. The times were not ripe for toleration. The infant Churches could not have stood it. These Churches had first to be consolidated and fortified against surrounding foes. Universal toleration at that time would have resulted in universal confusion and upset the order of society. From anarchy to absolute despotism is but one step. The division of Protestantism into two rival camps, the Lutheran and the Reformed, weakened it; further divisions within these camps would have ruined it and prepared an easy triumph for united Romanism, which would have become more despotic than ever before. This does not justify the principle, but it explains the practice, of intolerance.

The Reformers and the Protestant princes and magistrates were essentially agreed on this intolerant attitude, both towards the Romanists and the heretical Protestants, at least to the extent of imprisonment, deposition, and expatriation. They differed only as to the degree of severity. They all believed that the papacy is anti-christian and the mass idolatrous; that heresy is a sin against God and society; that the denial of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ is the greatest of heresies, which deserves death according to the laws of the empire, and eternal punishment according to the Athanasian Creed (with its three damnatory clauses); and that the civil government is as much bound to protect the first as the second table of the Decalogue, and to vindicate the honor of God against blasphemy. They were anxious to show their zeal for orthodoxy by severity against heresy. They had no doubt that they themselves were orthodox according to the only true standard of orthodoxy—the Word of God in the Holy Scriptures. And as regards the dogmas of the Trinity and Incarnation, they were fully agreed with their Catholic opponents, and equally opposed to the errors of Servetus, who denied those dogmas with a boldness and contempt unknown before.

Let us ascertain the sentiments of the leading Reformers with special reference to the case of Servetus. They form a complete justification of Calvin as far as such a justification is possible.


Luther, the hero of Worms, the champion of the sacred rights of conscience, was, in words, the most violent, but in practice, the least intolerant, among the Reformers. He was nearest to Romanism in the condemnation of heresy, but nearest to the genius of Protestantism in the advocacy of religious freedom. He was deeply rooted in mediaeval piety, and yet a mighty prophet of modern times. In his earlier years, till 1529, he gave utterance to some of the noblest sentiments in favor of religious liberty. "Belief is a free thing," he said, "which cannot be enforced." "If heretics were to be punished by death, the hangman would be the most orthodox theologian." "Heresy is a spiritual thing which no iron can hew down, no fire burn, no water drown."10091009    In his book Von weltlicher Obrigkeit wie weit man ihr Gehorsam schuldig sei (1523), in Werke XXII. 90: "Ketzerei kann man nimmermehr mit Gewalt wehren, es gehoert ein ander Griff dazu, und ist hie ein ander Streit und Handel, denn mit dem Schwert. Gottes Wortsoll hie streiten; wenn das nicht ausreicht, so wird’s wohl unausgerichtet bleiben von weltlicher Gewalt, ob sie gleich die Welt mit Blut füllet. Ketzerei ist ein geistlich Ding, das kann man mit keinem Eisen hauen, mit keinem Feuer verbrennen, mit keinem Wasser ertraenken. Es ist aber allein das Wort Gottes da, das thut’s, wie Paulus sagt 2 Cor. 10:4, 5: ’Unsere Waffen sind nicht fleischlich, sondern maechtig in Gott.’" To burn heretics is contrary to the will of the Holy Spirit."10101010    Conclus. LXXX. in the Resol. de Indulgentiis, 1518. This is one of the theses which the Sorbonne of Paris condemned in 1521. False teachers should not be put to death; it is enough to banish them."10111011    His last liberal utterance on the subject is in his letter to Link, 1628: Nullo modo possum admittere, falsos doctores occidi: satis est eos relegari." Briefe, III. 347 sq. (De Wette’s ed.). In the same year he wrote his book Von der Wiedertaufe an zwei Pfarrherrn (Erl. ed. vol. XXVI) in which he treats the doctrines of the Baptists without mercy, but at the same time expresses sincere regret at the cruel treatment of them, saying: "Es ist nicht recht und mir wahrlich leid, dass man solche elende Leute so jaemmerlich ermordet, verbrennet und graeulich umbringt; man sollte ja einen jeglichen lassen glauben, was er wollt; glaubt er unrecht, so hat er genug Strafen an dem ewigen Feuer in der Hoellen. Warum will man sie denn auch noch zeitlich martern, so ferne sie allein im Glauben irren und nicht auch daneben aufruehrerisch sind oder sonst der Obrigkeit widerstreben! Lieber Gott, wie bald ist’s geschehen, dass einer irre wird und dem Teufel in Stricke faellt? Mit der Schrift und Gottes Wort sollt man ihnen wehren und widerstehen, mit Feuer wird man wenig ausrichten." I have quoted this and other passages in vol. VI. 59 sq., but could not well omit them here on account of the connection.

But with advancing years he became less liberal and more intolerant against Catholics, heretics, and Jews. He exhorted the magistrates to forbid all preaching of Anabaptists, whom he denounced without discrimination as false prophets and messengers of the devil, and he urged their expulsion.10121012    Von den Schleichern und Winkelpredigern, addressed to Eberhard von der Tannen on the Wartburg, 1531. Werke, XXXI. 214 sqq. He raised no protest when the Diet of Speier, in 1529, passed the cruel decree that the Anabaptists be executed by fire and sword without distinction of sex, and even without a previous hearing before the spiritual judges.10131013    "Dass alle und jede Widertaeuffer und Widergetaufte, Mann und Weibspersonen verstaendigs Alters vom natürlichen Leben zum Tode mit Feuer, Schwert oder dergleichen nach Gelegenheit der Personen ohne vorgehende der geistlichen Richter Inquisition gerichtet oder gebracht werden." This was the same Diet in which the Lutheran Protestants entered their protest against the decision of the majority (hence their name); but they assented to the cruel decree against the Anabaptists, and also to the exclusion of the Zwinglians from toleration, with the exception of the Landgrave of Hesse, who protested also against this intolerance. The Elector of Saxony considered it his duty to execute this decree, and put a number of Anabaptists to death in his dominions. His neighbor, Philip of Hesse, who had more liberal instincts than the contemporary princes of Germany, could not find it in his conscience to use the sword against differences of belief.10141014    In 1540 he boasted that no Anabaptist had been executed for opinion’s sake by him, whereas in other German lands the number of such martyrdoms was, up to 1530, hard upon two thousand. "Wir koennen in unseren Gewissen nicht finden," he said to the elector, "jemanden des Glaubens halben, wo wir nicht sonst genugsam Ursache der Verwirkung haben moegen, mit dem Schwert richten zu lassen. Denn so es die Meinung haben sollte, müssten wir keinen Juden noch Papisten, die Christum am hoechsten blasphemiren, bei uns dulden und sie dergestalt richten lassen." G. L. Schmidt, Justus Menius, der Reformator Thüringens (Gotha, 1867), vol. I. 144. Comp. Corpus Reform. IX. 757. But the theologians of Wittenberg, on being consulted by the Elector John Frederick about 1540 or 1541, gave their judgment in favor of putting the Anabaptists to death, according to the laws of the empire. Luther approved of this judgment under his own name, adding that it was cruel to punish them by the sword, but more cruel that they should damn the ministry of the Word and suppress the true doctrine, and attempt to destroy the kingdoms of the world.10151015    He wrote beneath the judgment of the Wittenberg theologians: "Placet Mihi Martino Luthero. Wiewol es crudele anzusehen, dass man sie mit dem Schwert straft, so ists doch crudelius, dass sie ministerium verbi damniren und keine gewisse Lehre treiben, und rechte Lehre unterdrücken, und dazu regna mundi zerstoeren wollen." The last sentence refers to the chiliastic views held by many of the Anabaptists, for which they are condemned in the Augsburg Confession. Seidemann, in the sixth vol. of De Wette’s "Correspondence of Luther," p. 291. He assigns this document to the year 1541. Comp, Corp. Ref. IV. 737-740.

If we put a strict construction on this sentence, Luther must be counted with the advocates of the death-penalty for heresy. But he made a distinction between two classes of Anabaptists—those who were seditious or revolutionary, and those who were mere fanatics. The former should be put to death, the latter should be banished.10161016    "Anabaptistae occidendi. D. dixit. Duplices sunt. Quidam aperte sediotiose docent contra magistratus; eos jure occidit elector. Reliqui habent fanaticas opiniones, ii plerumque relegantur." G. Loesche, Analecta Lutherana et Melanchthoniana. Tischreden Luthers und Aussprüche Melanchthons, Gotha, 1892, p. 137. In a letter to Philip of Hesse, dated November 20, 1538, he urgently requested him to expel from his territory the Anabaptists, whom he characterizes as children of the devil, but says nothing of using the sword.10171017    "Es ist nicht allein mein Bedenken, sondern auch demüthiges Bitten, E. F. G. wollten sie [die Wiedertaeufer] ernstlich des Landes verweisen, denn est ist gleichwol des Teufels Samen," etc. Luther’s Briefe, Sendschreiben und Bedenken, vol. VI. by Joh. Karl Seidemann (Berlin, 1856), p. 216. We should give him, therefore, the benefit of a liberal construction.10181018    This is the conclusion of my friend, Dr. Koestlin, of Halle, the distinguished biographer of Luther. In reply to a letter, March 12, 1892, he communicated to me his careful opinion as follows: "Nirgends, auch nicht in seiner spaeteren Zeit, that Luther Aeusserungen, in welchen er den Grundsatz des damaligen allgemeinen Rechts (auch der Carolina), dass z. B. Bestreitung der Trinitaetslehre oder andere bloss dogmatische Irrlehre schon als solche mit dem Tod bestraft werden sollte, sich angeeignet hatte. So weit wir sehen, hat er darin doch immer sehr von Calvin und auch von Melanchthon, ja von allen anderen Hauptlehrern der Reformation sich unterschieden. Insbesondere beschraenkt er sich, z. B. einem Antitrinitatier wie Joh. Campan gegenüber (’filium Satanae, adversarium Dei, quem plus etiam quam Arius blasphemat’), doch auf den Wunsch, dass die Obrigkeit ’tales furias non vocatas’ nicht zulassen moege. Briefe v. De Wette IV. 321. Auch die schaerfsten Ausserungen der Tischreden (cf. auch die Colloquien ed. Bindseil) gehen nie weiter, soweit sie dogmatische Irrlehren betreffen."

At the same time, the distinction was not always strictly observed, and fanatics were easily turned into criminals, especially after the excesses of Münster, in 1535, which were greatly exaggerated and made the pretext for punishing innocent men and women.10191019    See L. Keller: Geschichte der Wiedertaeufer und ihres Reichs zu Münster, Münster, 1880, and his Die Reformation, p. 451, where he speaks of new sources discovered since 1880. The whole history of the Anabaptist movement in the sixteenth century has to be rewritten and disentangled from the odium theologicum.

As regards Servetus, Luther knew only his first work against the Trinity, and pronounced it, in his Table Talk (1532), an "awfully bad book."10201020    "Ein graeulich boes Buch." When Melanchthon informed him that the opinions of Servetus found much applause in Italy, he remarked that "Italy was full of pestilential opinions, and that if such errors as those of Servetus should get there, horrible abominations would arise" (horribiles abominationes ibi orituras). Bindseil, Martini Lutheri Colloquia, Tom. I. 376. Comp. Tollin, M. Luther und M. Servet, Berlin, 1875, and M. Servet und Martin Butzer (or Servet und die oberlaendischen Reformatoren, Berlin, 1880, vol. I. 105 sq.). Tollin tries to prove in both these books, on the strength of an obscure passage in a letter of Servetus to Oecolampadius, that Servetus accompanied Butzer as amanuensis in September, 1530, from Augsburg to Coburg to see Luther. But neither Bucer nor Luther say a word about it. Fortunately for his fame, he did not live to pronounce a judgment in favor of his execution, and we must give him the benefit of silence.

His opinions on the treatment of the Jews changed for the worse. In 1523 he had vigorously protested against the cruel persecution of the Jews, but in 1543 he counselled their expulsion from Christian lands, and the burning of their books, synagogues, and private houses in which they blaspheme our Saviour and the Holy Virgin. He repeated this advice in his last sermon, preached at Eisleben a few days before his death.10211021    Erlangen ed., vol. XXII. 558 sq.


Melanchthon’s record on this painful subject is unfortunately worse than Luther’s. This is all the more significant because he was the mildest and gentlest among the Reformers. But we should remember that his utterances on the subject are of a later date, several years after Luther’s death. He thought that the Mosaic law against idolatry and blasphemy was as binding upon Christian states as the Decalogue, and was applicable to heresies as well.10221022    Corpus Reformatorum, vol. VIII. 520. He mentions among the heresies worthy of death the deliramenta Samosateni andManichaei. He therefore fully and repeatedly justified the course of Calvin and the Council of Geneva, and even held them up as models for imitation! In a letter to Calvin, dated Oct. 14, 1554, nearly one year after the burning of Servetus, he wrote:—

"Reverend and dear Brother: I have read your book, in which you have clearly refuted the horrid blasphemies of Servetus; and I give thanks to the Son of God, who was the brabeuthv" [the awarder of your crown of victory] in this your combat. To you also the Church owes gratitude at the present moment, and will owe it to the latest posterity. I perfectly assent to your opinion. I affirm also that your magistrates did right in punishing, after a regular trial, this blasphemous man."10231023    Corpus Reformat. vol. VIII. 362 (also in Calvin’s Opera, XV. 268 sq.): Reverende vir et carissime frater: Legi scriptum tuum, in quo refutasti luculenter horrendas Serveti blasphemias: ac Filio Dei gratias ago, qui fuit βραβευτήςhuius tui agonis. Tibi quoque ecclesia et nunc et ad posteros gratitudinem debet et debebit. Tuo judicio prorsus assentior. Affirmo etiam vestros magistratus juste fecisse, quod hominem blasphemum, re ordine judicata, interfecerunt."
   (The rest of this letter is an answer to Calvin’s request that he should define his views on the predestinarian and eucharistic controversies. Melanchthon declined to do this for prudential reasons, but intimated his dissent from the carnal theory of the real presence by calling it ἀρτολατρία, and expresses the hope of conversing with him once more, "antequam ex hoc mortali carcere mens discedat.")

A year later, Melanchthon wrote to Bullinger, Aug. 20, 1555: —

"Reverend and dear Brother: I have read your answer to the blasphemies of Servetus, and I approve of your piety and opinions. I judge also that the Genevese Senate did perfectly right, to put an end to this obstinate man, who could never cease blaspheming. And I wonder at those who disapprove of this severity."10241024    Corpus Reform. VIII. 523. After thanking Bullinger for a number of books, he adds: "Legi etiam quae de Serveti blasphemiis respondistis, et pietatem ac judicia vestra probo. Judico etiam Senatum Genevensem recte fecisse quod hominem pertinacem et non omissurum blasphemias sustulit. Ac miratus sum, esse [aliquos], qui severitatem illam improbent. Mitto de ea quaestione breves pagellas, sed tamen sententiae nostrae testes." This refers to his consilium on the rightfulness of the punishment of heretics by the civil magistrate (1555).

Three years later, April 10, 1557, Melanchthon incidentally (in the admonition in the case of Theobald Thamer, who had returned to the Roman Church) adverted again to the execution of Servetus, and called it, a pious and memorable example to all posterity."10251025    Commonefactio de Thammero, vol. IX. 133: "Dedit vero et Genevensis Reipublicae Magistratas ante annos quatuor punitae insanabilis blasphemiae adversus Filium Dei, sublato Serveto Arragone pium et memorabile ad omnem posteritatem exemplum." It is an example, indeed, but certainly not for imitation.

This unqualified approval of the death penalty for heresy and the connivance at the bigamy of Philip of Hesse are the two dark spots on the fair name of this great and good man. But they were errors of judgment. Calvin took great comfort from the endorsement of the theological head of the Lutheran Church.10261026    He wrote to Melanchthon, March 5, 1555: "Your letter, most reverend sir, was grateful to me, not only because whatever comes from you is dear to me, and because it has assured me that the affection, which you entertained for me in the commencement of our intercourse, still remains unaltered; but above all because in it I find a magnificent eulogy, in which you commend my zeal in crushing the impiety of Servetus. Whence also I conjecture that you have not been offended with the honest freedom of my admonitions." He referred to Melanchthon again in his reply to the Reproaches of Baudouin, 1562. See above, § 137.

Martin Bucer.

Bucer, who stands third in rank among the Reformers of Germany, was of a gentle and conciliatory disposition, and abstained from persecuting the Anabaptists in Strassburg. He knew Servetus personally, and treated him at first with kindness, but after the publication of his work on the Trinity, be refuted it in his lectures as a "most pestilential book."10271027    So he wrote to Ambrosius Blaurer, Dec. 29, 1531: "Pestilentissimum illum de Trinitate librum novi, proh dolor, et hic in publicis praelectionibus nostris confutavi." He even declared in the pulpit or in the lecture-room that Servetus deserved to be disembowelled and torn to pieces.10281028    Dignum esse, qui avulsis visceribus discerperetur." So reports Calvin Sept. 8, 1553. This is confirmed by a letter of Professor Frecht of Tübingen to Capito, dated Nov. 25, 1538. See Tollin, Michael Servet und Martin Butzer, in the "Magazin für die Lit. des Auslandes," Berlin, 1876, and Servet und die oberlaendischen Reformatoren, Bd. I. (Michael Servet und Martin Butzer), Berlin, 1880, pp. 232 sqq. Tollin thinks that Bucer meant the book, not the person of Servetus; but books have no viscera. From this we may infer how fully he would have approved his execution, had he lived till 1553.

The Swiss Churches.

The Swiss Reformers ought to have been in advance of those of Germany on this subject, but they were not. They advised or approved the exclusion of Roman Catholics from the Reformed Cantons, and violent measures against Anabaptists and Antitrinitarians. Six Anabaptists were, by a cruel irony, drowned in the river Limmat at Zürich by order of the government (between 1527 and 1532).10291029    See above, § 26, pp. 87 sqq. Other cantons took the same severe measures against the Anabaptists. Zwingli, the most liberal among the Reformers, did not object to their punishment, and counselled the forcible introduction of Protestantism into the neutral territories and the Forest Cantons. Ochino was expelled from Zürich and Basel (1563).

As regards the case of Servetus, the churches and magistrates of Zürich, Schaffhausen, Basel, and Bern, on being consulted during his trial, unanimously condemned his errors, and advised his punishment, but without committing themselves to the mode of punishment.10301030    The judgments of the magistrates and ministers of Zürich, Schaffhausen, Basel, and Bern are printed in Calvin’s Opera, VIII. 808-823 (in German and Latin). The judgment of the pastors of Zürich, dated Oct. 2, 1553, is also inserted in Calvin’s Defensio, ibid. fol. 555-558.

Bullinger wrote to Calvin that God had given the Council of Geneva a most favorable opportunity to vindicate the truth against the pollution of heresy, and the honor of God against blasphemy. In his Second Helvetic Confession (ch. XXX.) he teaches that it is the duty of the magistrate to use the sword against blasphemers. Schaffhausen fully agreed with Zürich. Even the authorities of Basel, which was the headquarters of the sceptical Italians and enemies of Calvin, gave the advice that Servetus, whom their own Oecolampadius had declared a most dangerous man, be deprived of the power to harm the Church, if all efforts to convert him should fail. Six years afterwards the Council of Basel, with the consent of the clergy and the University, ordered the body of David Joris, a chiliastic Anabaptist who had lived there under a false name (and died Aug. 25, 1556), to be dug from the grave and burned, with his likeness and books, by the hangman before a large multitude (1559).10311031    See Nippold, Ueber Leben, Lehre und Sekte des David Joris, in the Zeitschrift für historische Theologie," 1863, No. I., and 1864, No. IV.

Bern, which had advised moderation in the affair of Bolsec two years earlier, judged more severely in the case of Servetus, because he "had reckoned himself free to call in question all the essential points of our religion," and expressed the wish that the Council of Geneva might have prudence and strength to deliver the Churches from "this pest." Thirteen years after the death of Servetus, the Council of Bern executed Valentino Gentile by the sword (Sept. 10, 1566) for an error similar to but less obnoxious than that of Servetus, and scarcely a voice was raised in disapproval of the sentence.10321032    See above, § 131, p. 658.

The Reformers of French Switzerland went further than those of German Switzerland. Farel defended death by fire, and feared that Calvin in advising a milder punishment was guided by the feelings of a friend against his bitterest foe. Beza wrote a special work in defence of the execution of Servetus, whom he characterized as "a monstrous compound of mere impiety and horrid blasphemy."10331033    "Monstrum ex mera impietate horrendisque blasphemiis conflatum." Vita Calv. (Annal. XXI. 148). Peter Martyr called him "a genuine son of the devil," whose "pestiferous and detestable doctrines" and "intolerable blasphemies" justified the severe sentence of the magistracy.10341034    See the whole passage in Trechsel’s Zusaetze to vol. I.


The English Reformers were not behind those of the continent in the matter of intolerance. Several years before the execution of Servetus, Archbishop Cranmer had persuaded the reluctant young King Edward VI. to sign the death-warrant of two Anabaptists—one a woman, called Joan Becher of Kent, and the other a foreigner from Holland, George Van Pare; the former was burnt May 2, 1550, the latter, April 6, 1551.

The only advocates of toleration in the sixteenth century were Anabaptists and Antitrinitarians, who were themselves sufferers from persecution. Let us give them credit for their humanity.

Gradual Triumph of Toleration and Liberty.

The reign of intolerance continued to the end of the seventeenth century. It was gradually undermined during the eighteenth century, and demolished by the combined influences of Protestant Dissenters, as the Anabaptists, Socinians, Arminians, Quakers, Presbyterians, Independents, of Anglican Latitudinarians, and of philosophers, like Bayle, Grotius, Locke, Leibnitz; nor should we forget Voltaire and Frederick the Great, who were unbelievers, but sincere and most influential advocates of religious toleration; nor Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison in America. Protestant Holland and Protestant England took the lead in the legal recognition of the principles of civil and religious liberty, and the Constitution of the United States completed the theory by putting all Christian denominations on a parity before the law and guaranteeing them the full enjoyment of equal rights.

Hand in hand with the growth of tolerance went the zeal for prison reform, the abolition of torture and cruel punishments, the abrogation of the slave trade, serfdom, and slavery, the improvement of the condition of the poor and miserable, and similar movements of philanthropy, which are the late but genuine outgrowth of the spirit of Christianity.

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