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§ 155. Execution of Servetus. Oct. 27, 1553.


Farel, in a letter to Ambrosius Blaarer, December, 1553, preserved in the library of St. Gall, and copied in the Thesaurus Hottingerianus of the city library of Zürich, gives an account of the last moments and execution of Servetus. See Henry, vol. III. Beilage, pp. 72–75. Calvin, at the beginning of his "Defence," Opera, VIII. 460, relates his own last interview with Servetus in prison on the day of his death.


When Servetus, on the following morning, heard of the unexpected sentence of death, he was horror-struck and behaved like a madman. He uttered groans, and cried aloud in Spanish, "Mercy, mercy!"

The venerable old Farel visited him in the prison at seven in the morning, and remained with him till the hour of his death. He tried to convince him of his error. Servetus asked him to quote a single Scripture passage where Christ was called "Son of God" before his incarnation. Farel could not satisfy him. He brought about an interview with Calvin, of which the latter gives us an account. Servetus, proud as he was, humbly asked his pardon. Calvin protested that be had never pursued any personal quarrel against him. "Sixteen years ago," he said, "I spared no pains at Paris to gain you to our Lord. You then shunned the light. I did not cease to exhort you by letters, but all in vain. You have heaped upon me I know not how much fury rather than anger. But as to the rest, I pass by what concerns myself. Think rather of crying for mercy to God whom you have blasphemed." This address had no more effect than the exhortation of Farel, and Calvin left the room in obedience, as he says, to St. Paul’s order (Tit. 3:10, 11), to withdraw from a self-condemned heretic. Servetus appeared as mild and humble as he had been bold and arrogant, but did not change his conviction.

At eleven o’clock on the 27th of October, Servetus was led from the prison to the gates of the City Hall, to hear the sentence read from the balcony by the Lord Syndic Darlod. When he heard the last words, he fell on his knees and exclaimed: "The sword! in mercy! and not fire! Or I may lose my soul in despair." He protested that if he had sinned, it was through ignorance. Farel raised him up and said: "Confess thy crime, and God will have mercy on your soul." Servetus replied:, I am not guilty; I have not merited death." Then he smote his breast, invoked God for pardon, confessed Christ as his Saviour, and besought God to pardon his accusers.11951195    "Ut Deus accusatoribus esset propitius." Farel. This is certainly a Christian act. Henry (III. 191) admits that Servetus in his last moments showed some noble traits towards his enemies.

On the short journey to the place of execution, Farel again attempted to obtain a confession, but Servetus was silent. He showed the courage and consistency of a martyr in these last awful moments.

Champel is a little bill south of Geneva with a fine view on one of the loveliest paradises of nature.11961196    It is now covered by a beautiful villa, gardens, and vineyards. The pleasant road of half an hour from the city to Champel is called "the Philosophers’ Way," on which Arminius, when a student of Beza, is said to have begun his meditations on the mysteries of predestination and free-will, which immortalized his name. So Henry reports in his small biography of Calvin, p. 346, and in his large work, III. 198, note 1. There was prepared a funeral pile hidden in part by the autumnal leaves of the oak trees. The Lord Lieutenant and the herald on horseback, both arrayed in the insignia of their office, arrive with the doomed man and the old pastor, followed by a small procession of spectators. Farel invites Servetus to solicit the prayers of the people and to unite his prayers with theirs. Servetus obeys in silence. The executioner fastens him by iron chains to the stake amidst the fagots, puts a crown of leaves covered with sulphur on his head, and binds his book by his side. The sight of the flaming torch extorts from him a piercing shriek of "misericordias" in his native tongue. The spectators fall back with a shudder. The flames soon reach him and consume his mortal frame in the forty-fourth year of his fitful life. In the last moment he is heard to pray, in smoke and agony, with a loud voice: "Jesus Christ, thou Son of the eternal God, have mercy upon me!"11971197    Farel does not mention this, nor some other circumstances which are more or less apocryphal (and omitted by Rilliet): for instance, that the executioner did not understand his business, and piled up green oak-wood; that many threw dry, bundles into the slow-burning fire, and that Servetus suffered nearly half an hour. See the anonymous Historia deMorte Serveti, ascribed to a Genevese, who was an enemy of Calvin. Henry, III. 200 sq.

This was at once a confession of his faith and of his error. He could not be induced, says Farel, to confess that Christ was the eternal Son of God.

The tragedy ended when the clock of St. Peter’s struck twelve. The people quietly dispersed to their homes. Farel returned at once to Neuchâtel, even without calling on Calvin. The subject was too painful to be discussed.

The conscience and piety of that age approved of the execution, and left little room for the emotions of compassion. But two hundred years afterwards a distinguished scholar and minister of Geneva echoed the sentiments of his fellow-citizens when he said: "Would to God that we could extinguish this funeral pile with our tears."11981198    Jean Senebier (b. at Geneva, 1742; d. 1809), Hist. litter. de Genève (Gen. 1786, 3 vols.), I. 215: "Il seroit àsouhaiter que nos larmes eussent pu éteindre le bûcher de cet infortuné." Quoted by Henry, III. 207. Dr. Henry, the admiring biographer of Calvin, imagines an impartial Christian jury of the nineteenth century assembled on Champel, which would pronounce the judgment on Calvin, "Not guilty"; on Servetus, "Guilty, with extenuating circumstances."11991199    Leben Joh. Calvin’s, III. 209 sq.

The flames of Champel have consumed the intolerance of Calvin as well as the heresy of Servetus.



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