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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 150. State of Political Parties at Geneva in 1553.


Calvin’s position in Geneva at that time was very critical. For in the year 1553 he was in the fever-heat of the struggle for church discipline with the Patriots and Libertines, who had gained a temporary ascendency in the government. Amy Perrin, the leader of the patriotic party, was then captain-general and chief syndic, and several of his kinsmen and friends were members of the Little Council of Twenty-five.11681168    Pernet de Fosses, Gaspard Favre, Claude Vandel, Pierre Vandel, and Baptiste Sept. See Opera, VIII. 737, note 6. During the trial of Servetus the Council sustained Philibert Berthelier against the act of excommunication by the Consistory, and took church discipline into its own hands. The foreign refugees were made harmless by being deprived of their arms. Violence was threatened to the Reformer. He was everywhere saluted as "a heretic," and insulted on the streets. Beza says: "In the year 1553, the wickedness of the seditions, hastening to a close, was so turbulent that both Church and State were brought into extreme danger …. . Everything seemed to be in a state of preparation for accomplishing the plans of the seditious, since all was subject to their power." And Calvin, at the close of that year, wrote to a friend: "For four years the factions have done all to lead by degrees to the overthrow of this Church, already very weak. Behold two years of our life have passed as if we lived among the avowed enemies of the gospel."

The hostility of the Council to Calvin and his discipline continued even after the execution of Servetus for nearly two more years. He asked the assistance of Bullinger and the Church of Zürich to come to his aid again in this struggle.11691169    Letters of Nov. 26 and Dec. 30, 1553, in Bonnet-Constable, II. 422-430. He wrote to Ambrose Blaurer, Feb. 6, 1554: "These last few years evil disposed persons have not ceased on every occasion to create for us new subjects of vexation. At length in their endeavors to render null our excommunication, there is no excess of folly they have left unattempted. Everywhere the contest was long maintained with much violence, because in the senate and among the people the passions of the contending parties had been so much inflamed that there was some risk of a tumult."11701170    Ibid. III. 17. Comp. also his letter of Oct. 15, 1554, quoted in § 108, p. 496, and his letter to John Wolf of Zürich, Dec. 26, 1554.

We do not know whether Servetus was aware of this state of things. But he could not have come at a time more favorable to him and more unfavorable to Calvin. Among the Libertines and Patriots, who hated the yoke of Calvin even more than the yoke of the pope, Servetus found natural supporters who, in turn, would gladly use him for political purposes. This fact emboldened him to take such a defiant attitude in the trial and to overwhelm Calvin with abuse.

The final responsibility of the condemnation, therefore, rests with the Council of Geneva, which would probably have acted otherwise, if it had not been strongly influenced by the judgment of the Swiss Churches and the government of Bern. Calvin conducted the theological part of the examination of the trial, but had no direct influence upon the result. His theory was that the Church may convict and denounce the heretic theologically, but that his condemnation and punishment is the exclusive function of the State, and that it is one of its most sacred duties to punish attacks made on the Divine majesty.

"From the time Servetus was convicted of his heresy," says Calvin, "I have not uttered a word about his punishment, as all honest men will bear witness; and I challenge even the malignant to deny it if they can."11711171    Opera, VIII. 461: "Ex quo convictus est, me nullum de poena verbum fecisse, non solum boni omnes viri mihi testes erunt sed malis etiam concedo ut proferant si quid habent." Servetus complained of hard treatment in prison, but for this the Council and the jailer alone were responsible. One thing only he did: he expressed the wish for a mitigation of his punishment.11721172    In his letter to Farel, Aug. 20, 1553: "Spero capitale saltem judicium fore; poenae vero atrocitatem remitti cupio." And this humane sentiment is almost the only good thing that can be recorded to his honor in this painful trial.



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