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§ 154. Condemnation of Servetus.
On the 23d of October the Council met for a careful examination of the replies of the churches, but could not come to a decision on account of the absence of several members, especially Perrin, the Chief Syndic, who feigned sickness. Servetus had failed to excite any sympathy among the people, and had injured his cause by his obstinate and defiant conduct. The Libertines, who wished to use him as a tool for political purposes, were discouraged and intimidated by the counsel of Bern, to which they looked for protection against the hated régime of Calvin.
The full session of the Council on the 26th, to which all counsellors were summoned on the faith of their oath, decided the fate of the unfortunate prisoner, but not without a stormy discussion. Amy Perrin presided and made a last effort in favor of Servetus. He at first insisted upon his acquittal, which would have been equivalent to the expulsion of Calvin and a permanent triumph of the party opposed to him. Being baffled, he proposed, as another alternative, that Servetus, in accordance with his own wishes, be transferred to the Council of the Two Hundred. But this proposal was also rejected. He was influenced by political passion rather than by sympathy with heresy or love of toleration, which had very few advocates at that time. When he perceived that the majority of the Council was inclined to a sentence of death, he quitted the Senate House with a few others.
The Council had no doubt of its jurisdiction in the case; it had to respect the unanimous judgment of the Churches, the public horror of heresy and blasphemy, and the imperial laws of Christendom, which were appealed to by the attorney-general. The decision was unanimous. Even the wish of Calvin to substitute the sword for the fire was overruled, and the papal practice of the auto-da-fé followed, though without the solemn mockery of a religious festival.
The judges, after enumerating the crimes of Servetus, in calling the holy Trinity a monster with three heads, blaspheming the Son of God, denying infant-baptism as an invention of the devil and of witchcraft, assailing the Christian faith, and after mentioning that he had been condemned and burned in effigy at Vienne, and had during his residence in Geneva persisted in his vile and detestable errors, and called all true Christians tritheists, atheists, sorcerers, putting aside all remonstrances and corrections with a malicious and perverse obstinacy, pronounced the fearful sentence:—
"We condemn thee, Michael Servetus, to be bound, and led to the place of Champel, there to be fastened to a stake and burnt alive, together with thy book, as well the one written by thy hand as the printed one, even till thy body be reduced to ashes; and thus shalt thou finish thy days to furnish an example to others who might wish to commit the like.
"And we command our Lieutenant to see that this our present sentence be executed."11931193 Opera, VIII. 827-830. See also Rilliet, and Henry (III., Beilage, pp. 75 sqq.). The sentence was in the usual legal form, like that of Vienne.
Rilliet, who published the official report of the trial in the interest of history, without special sympathy with Calvin, says that the sentence of condemnation is "odious before our consciences, but was just according to the law." Let us thank God that those unchristian and barbarous laws are abolished forever.
Calvin communicated to Farel on the 26th of October a brief summary of the result, in which he says: "The messenger has returned from the Swiss Churches. They are unanimous in pronouncing11941194 "Uno consensu pronunciant omnes," etc. Opera, XIV. 657. that Servetus has now renewed those impious errors with which Satan formerly disturbed the Church, and that he is a monster not to be borne. Those of Basel are judicious. The Zürichers are the most vehement of all … They of Schaffhausen agree. To an appropriate letter from the Bernese is added one from the Senate in which they stimulate ours not a little. Caesar, the comedian [so he sarcastically called Perrin], after feigning illness for three days, at length went up to the assembly in order to free that wretch [Servetus] from punishment. Nor was he ashamed to ask that the case be referred to the Council of the Two Hundred. However, Servetus was without dissent condemned. He will be led forth to punishment to-morrow. We endeavored to alter the mode of his death, but in vain. Why we did not succeed, I defer for narration until I see you."
This letter reached Farel on his way to Geneva, where he arrived on the same day, in time to hear the sentence of condemnation. He had come at the request of Calvin, to perform the last pastoral duties to the prisoner, which could not so well be done by any of the pastors of Geneva.
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