THE RIGHT TO HERESY OR, HOW JOHN CALVIN KILLED A CONSCIENCE
The Murder of Servetus
FOR some months after his escape from prison, Servetus vanished without leaving a trace. It is unlikely that we shall ever learn what sufferings the hunted man endured until that August day when, upon a hired hack, he rode into Geneva and put up at the "Rose." Nor are we likely to find out why Servetus, prompted by an evil star ("malis auspiciis appulsus"), should have sought refuge in Geneva. Was it his intention to stay one night, and continue his flight by taking boat across the lake? Did he perhaps expect to conciliate his greatest enemy at a personal interview, since correspondence was unavailing? Or, perhaps, was his journey to Geneva one of those foolish actions characteristic of invalids whose nerves are overstrained, one of the pleasurable toyings with danger not infrequent in persons whose situation is desperate? We do not know; probably we never shall know. None of the official reports of what happened in Geneva explains why Servetus came to the place where he could expect only the worst from Calvin.
But the unhappy fugitive did something even more foolish, more challenging. Almost immediately after his arrival, on the same Sunday morning, August 13, 1553, Servetus attended service at the cathedral of St.-Pierre, where the whole Calvinist congregation was assembled, and where Calvin was to preach, Calvin, who could recognize Servetus because the two had been students together long before in Paris. No reasonable explanation of such conduct is possible, save that some mysterious impulsion, by a fascination like that which brings a serpent's victims to their doom, must have been at work.
It was inevitable, in a town where everyone spied on everyone else, that a stranger should be the cynosure of all eyes. What ensued was likewise inevitable. Calvin recognized the ravening wolf among his pious flock and inconspicuously gave orders to his minions. Servetus was arrested as he left the cathedral. Within an hour the fugitive was in chains. This arrest was a breach of international law, and also of the laws of hospitality generally accepted throughout the world. Servetus was not subject to Genevese jurisdiction, unless for an offence committed in that city. He was a foreigner, a Spaniard, who had only just arrived, and who had committed no crime that could justify his seizure. His books had been written and printed across the frontier, so that his heretical views could not have harmed any of the pious Genevese. Besides, a "preacher of God's word" had no right to order a man to be arrested and chained when no charge had been brought, and when no trial had taken place. From whatever angle we regard the matter, Calvin's seizure of Servetus was an outrageous exercise of dictatorial power, which, in its open contempt of laws and treaties, can only be compared to Napoleon's arrest and murder of the Duc d'Enghien. In this case, as in that, the arrest was to be followed, not by a properly constituted trial, but by an illegal homicide.
Servetus was arrested and thrown into prison without any charge having been brought against him. Surely then a charge must subsequently be invented? Would it not be logical to expect that the man who had instigated the arrest--"me auctore," "at my instigation," is Calvin's own admission--should himself come forward as Servetus's accuser? But the laws of Geneva were exemplary and gave little encouragement to informers. They prescribed that any burgher who accused another of a crime should himself be arrested, and should be kept in prison until he had justified his accusation. Calvin, therefore, if he accused Servetus, would have to place himself at the disposal of the court. The theocratic dictator of Geneva did not relish the prospect. He would be in an unfortunate position if the Town Council were to declare Servetus not guilty, and if he himself were to remain under arrest for having brought an unjustifiable charge. What a blow that would be to his prestige, and what a triumph for his adversary! Calvin, diplomatic as ever, assigned to his secretary--or cook--Nicholas de la Fontaine, the thankless task of accuser. The worthy Nicholas went quietly to prison instead of his master, after he had handed the authorities an indictment consisting of twenty-three points (a document compiled, of course, by Calvin). Such was the comedy which served as curtain-raiser to a horrible tragedy. After a gross breach of law, the affair was given a legal complexion. Servetus was examined, and the various counts in the indictment were read aloud to him. His answers were calm and shrewd, for his energies had not yet been undermined by long imprisonment. Point by point he rejected the accusations. For instance, in answer to the charge that he had attacked Calvin in his writings, Servetus declared this to be erroneous, for the attack had opened on Calvin's side, and all that he, Servetus, had done was to reply that Calvin was not infallible. If Calvin accused him of obstinately sticking to certain theses, he could rejoin that Calvin was no less stubborn. All that was at odds between Calvin and himself was a difference of opinion about certain theological matters, with which a secular court had no concern; and if Calvin had nevertheless arrested him, this was the outcome of spite. The leader of Protestantism had denounced him to the Inquisition, and if this preacher of God's word had had his way, he (Servetus) would have been burned long ago.
The legality of Servetus's contentions was so indubitable that the prevailing mood of the Council was very much in his favour, and it seemed likely that there would be no harsher decision than the issue of an order for deportation. Calvin, however, got wind of the fact that things were going well for Servetus, and he feared that in the end his victim might give him the slip. On August 17, the dictator appeared before the Town Council and took a line which made an end of the pretense of non-participation. He showed his colours, no longer denying that he was Servetus's accuser; and he begged leave of the Council to attend the proceedings henceforward, on the pretext that "thus the accused could be better convinced of his errors." Calvin's real reason obviously was the wish to throw his whole influence into the scale in order to prevent his victim's escape.
From the moment when Calvin autocratically thrust himself in between the accused and the judges, Servetus's cause was lost. Calvin, a trained logician and learned jurist, was much more competent to press home the charge than his servant de la Fontaine had been; and Servetus's confidence was shaken. The Spaniard was obviously unmanned now that his enemy sat among the judges, cold, severe, making a pretence of dispassionateness, as he asked one question after another--but, as Servetus felt in the marrow of his bones, moved by an iron determination to send the accused to doom. The defenceless man grew irritable, nervous, aggressive, bitter, and wrathful. Instead of tranquilly sticking to his legal standpoint, instead of insisting that as a foreigner he was not subject to Genevese jurisdiction unless he had broken the laws of the town, he allowed Calvin to entice him onto the treacherous ground of theological discussion, thus giving abundant justification for the charge of heresy. For even one of his contentions, such as that the devil likewise was part of the substance of God, sufficed to make the pious councillors shudder. But as soon as his philosophical vanity had been affronted, Servetus showed no restraint in the expressions he used about the thorniest and most dangerous problems, forgetting that the councillors were not able theologians before whom he could unconcernedly expound the truth. His very eloquence, his eagerness for discussion, made Servetus suspect to his judges. More and more they inclined to Calvin's view, that this foreigner, who, with gleaming eyes and clenched fists, railed against the doctrines of their Church, must be a dangerous disturber of the spiritual peace, and was probably an incurable heretic. Anyhow it was a good thing that he was being subjected to thorough examination. The court decided that he should remain under arrest, while his accuser, Nicholas de la Fontaine, was to be set at liberty. Calvin had got his way and wrote joyfully to a friend: "I hope he will be condemned to death."
Why was Calvin so eager to obtain a capital sentence upon Servetus? Why was he not satisfied with the more modest triumph of having his adversary expelled from the country, or humiliated in some similar way? Calvin did not detest Servetus more than he detested Castellio, and everyone who defied his authority. He loathed all those who tried to teach others in a different way from that which he advocated, such a detestation being instinctive in a man of his tyrannical disposition. So here, if he was particularly enraged against Servetus and wished to take extreme measures at this particular moment, his motives were not private but political. The rebel against his authority, this Miguel Servetus, was to be the scapegoat for another opponent of Calvin's orthodoxy, the sometime Dominican monk, Hieronymus Bolsec, whom he had also tried to destroy as a heretic, and who, greatly to his annoyance, had escaped. Bolsec, generally respected as family doctor to the leading patricians in Geneva, had openly attacked the weakest and most vulnerable point of Calvin's teaching, the rigid doctrine of predestination, using the argument that Erasmus had used against Luther. It was impossible, declared both these "heretics," that God, as the principle of all good, could wittingly and willingly impel human beings to perform their worst deeds. Everyone knows how infuriated Luther was by Erasmus's reasoning, and what a flood of abuse the most noted champion of the Reformation, this master of coarse invective, let loose against the elderly sage. Still, rough, ill-tempered, and violent as Luther was, he nevertheless used logical considerations against Erasmus, and never thought of having Erasmus haled before a secular court for challenging the doctrine of predestination. Calvin, with his mania of infallibility, regarded and treated every adversary as a heretic, objections to his religious doctrine being for him equivalent to a crime against the State. Instead, therefore, of answering Bolsec with theological arguments, he had his critic clapped into jail.
Unexpectedly, however, his attempt to make a terrible example of Hieronymus Bolsec was a failure. There were too many in Geneva who knew the learned physician to be a god-fearing man; and, just as in the Castellio affair, so also in that of Bolsec, Calvin's behaviour aroused the suspicion that he desired to rid himself of one who was not completely subject to his will, that he might reign henceforward alone in Geneva. Bolsec's plaint, penned while he was in prison, passed from hand to hand in numerous manuscript copies; and, despite Calvin's clamours, the Town Council was afraid of condemning the prisoner for heresy. To evade this painful decision, they declared themselves incompetent to deal with religious matters, and refused to transcend their powers by adjudicating in a theological affair. At any rate, the councillors declared, in this thorny question they must demand the formal opinion of the other Reformed Churches of Switzerland. This demand was Bolsec's salvation, for the Reformed Churches of Zurich, Berne, and Basle--being in their hearts ready enough to give their fanatical colleague in Geneva a set-back--unanimously refused to regard Bolsec's utterances as blasphemous. The accused was acquitted by the Town Council; Calvin was refused his victim and had to content himself with the municipal authority's decree that Bolsec should leave the town.
Nothing but a new and successful charge of heresy could make people forget that Calvin's theological supremacy had been successfully impugned. A victory over Servetus must compensate the dictator for his failure to make an end of Bolsec; and against Servetus the chances of success were enormously more favourable. Servetus was a foreigner. He had not, like Castellio and Bolsec, many friends, admirers, and helpers in Geneva. Besides, the reformed clergy everywhere had for years been outraged by his bold attacks on the Trinity and by his challenging ways. It would be much easier to make an example of this outsider who had no backing. From the first the trial was pre-eminently political, was a question of whether Calvin was or was not to rule, was a tug of war to show whether he would be able to enforce his will as spiritual dictator. If Calvin had wanted nothing more than to rid himself of Servetus as a private and theological adversary, he could have done so easily enough. Hardly had the Geneva inquiry opened, when an envoy from the French judicial authorities arrived, to demand the handing over to Vienne of a refugee already sentenced in France, where the scaffold was ready for him. The Town Council of Geneva need merely approve the extradition, and, as far as Geneva was concerned, the tiresome affair of Servetus would be over and done with. For centuries the odium of condemning and burning this independent thinker would attach to the Catholic Inquisition. Calvin, however, opposed extradition. For him, Servetus was not a subject, but an object, with whose aid he would give an indubitable demonstration of the inviolability of his own doctrine. Servetus was to be a symbol, not a man. The French emissary, therefore, was sent back unsatisfied. The Protestant dictator intended to have the trial carried through under his own jurisdiction, that all might be convinced how disastrous it was to contradict Maitre Calvin.
Calvin's friends in Geneva, as well as his enemies, were not slow to realize that the Servetus case was nothing more than a test of the dictator's power. Naturally, therefore, the latter all did what they could to prevent Calvin's getting his way. To these politicians the unhappy Servetus was nothing more than an instrument, a crow-bar with which the tyrant could perhaps be unseated. Little did any of them care whether this crow-bar might break in their hands. Those who were most friendly to Servetus did their protege a very bad turn, for the false reports they circulated served only to increase his hysterical exaltation; and their secret missives to the prisoner urging him to stiffen his resistance could not fail to work mischief. All that interested them was to make the trial as sensational as possible. The more Servetus defended himself, the more rabid his onslaught on Calvin, the better.
Really, alas, there was no need to incite Servetus to fill the cup of his heedlessness. The hardships of his long imprisonment inflamed the wrath of a man already prone to neurotic frenzy, since, as Calvin could not but know, Servetus had been treated with refined harshness. For weeks, though in his own eyes he was innocent, he was kept like a condemned murderer in a cold and damp cell, with irons on hands and feet. His clothes hung in rags upon his freezing body; he was not provided with a change of linen. The most primitive demands of hygiene were disregarded. No one might tender him the slightest assistance. In his bitter need Servetus petitioned the Council for more humane treatment, writing: "Fleas are devouring me; my shoes are torn to pieces; I have nothing clean to wear."
A secret hand (we cannot but guess whose hand it was that gave the screw-press another turn) interfered when the Council proposed to better Servetus's lot. The result was that this bold thinker and independent scholar was left to languish in his cell as a mangy dog might have been left to die upon a dunghill. Still more lamentable were the cries of distress uttered in a second letter, dated a few weeks later, when the prisoner was, literally, being suffocated in his own excrement. "I beg of you, for the love of Christ, not to refuse me what you would give to a Turk or a criminal. Nothing has been done to fulfil your orders that I should be kept clean. I am in a more pitiful condition than ever. It is abominably cruel that I should be given no chance of attending to my bodily needs."
Still nothing was done! Can we be surprised that when, once more, he was brought into court out of his befouled lair, he should explode with fury? A man in irons, clad in stinking rags, was confronted by his arch-adversary on the judge's seat; by Calvin, wearing a spruce black gown, calm and cool, thoroughly prepared for the fray; by Calvin, with whom the prisoner now wished to discuss matters, mind against mind, scholar against scholar, but who reviled Servetus as a criminal and an assassin. Was it not inevitable that Servetus, teased by the basest and most malicious questions and insinuations relating to the most private affairs of his sexual life, angered and tormented, should lose his self-control, and answer the outrageous queries with invectives, should rail coarsely against his accuser? Servetus was wearied beyond endurance by sleepless nights. Now the man to whom he owed so much inhuman treatment had to listen to a volley of abuse.
"Do you deny that you are an assassin? I will prove it by your actions. As regards myself, I confide in the justice of my cause and am not afraid of death. But you scream like a blind man in the desert, because the passion for vengeance burns in your heart. You lied, you lied, ignorant calumniator that you are. Wrath boils up within you when you are hounding anyone to death. Would that all your magic were still hidden away within your mother's womb, so that I could have a chance to recount your errors."
In this outburst of wrath the unhappy Servetus forgot the powerlessness of his position. His chains clanking, foaming at the mouth, he demanded of the Council, of his judges, that, instead of condemning him, they should pass sentence upon Calvin the law-breaker, upon the Genevese dictator.
"Magician that he is, you should not only find him guilty and sentence him, but should banish him from your city, while his property should be made over to me in compensation for mine, which, through him, I have lost."
It need hardly be said that the worthy councillors were horrified at such words and at the spectacle before them, that of a lean, pallid, emaciated man, with a tangled beard, who, with glowing eyes and speaking foreigner's French, hurled abominable accusations at their Christian leader. They could not but consider him a man possessed, a man driven by the promptings of Satan. From hearing to hearing their feelings towards him grew more and more unfavourable. Really the trial was over, and nothing left but to condemn the accused. But Calvin's masked enemies wanted the affair to be long drawn out, still doing their utmost to deprive the dictator of the triumph he would secure from the condemnation of his adversary. Once more they did their utmost to save Servetus, arranging, as in Bolsec's case, to secure the opinion of the other Swiss Reformed synods, actuated by the secret hope that in this instance, likewise, the victim of Calvin's dogmatism would be torn from the zealot's claws.
Calvin, however, was only too well aware that his authority was shaken and might fall. It was essential for him to avoid a second reverse. He took measures accordingly, dispatching, while his victim still rotted in prison, missive after missive to the synods of Zurich, Basle, Berne, and Schaffhausen, to influence the opinions of these bodies. Messengers were speeded to all points of the compass; friends were set in motion to warn his colleagues against helping so wicked a blasphemer to escape judgment. He was aided in his machinations by the fact that Servetus was known to be a disturber of the theological peace, and that, since the days of Zwingli and Bucer, the "impudent Spaniard" had been loathed throughout Protestant Europe. The result was that the Swiss synods unanimously pronounced Servetus's views to be erroneous and wicked. Even though not one of the four religious communities frankly demanded or even approved capital punishment, they nevertheless endorsed on principle any severe measures that might be taken.
Zurich wrote: "We leave it to your wisdom to decide how this man should be punished." Berne answered that the judges in Geneva should "borrow the spirit of wisdom and strength," so that their Church and the other Swiss Churches should be well served, and they should all be freed "from this plague." Still, the reference to settling the matter by violence was weakened by the exhortation: "We trust that you will decide to act in such a way as to do nothing which might seem unbecoming to Christian municipal authorities." Not one of those whose counsel Calvin sought ventured openly to urge the passing of a death sentence. Nevertheless, since the Churches had approved the legal proceedings against Servetus, Calvin felt they would also approve the inevitable sequel; for, by their studied ambiguity, they left him a free hand. Whenever Calvin's hand was free, it struck hard and resolutely. Vainly now did those who secretly desired to help Servetus endeavour at the last hour, when the opinions of the synods had been sent in, to avert the doom. Perrin and other republicans proposed an appeal to the Council of Two Hundred, the supreme authority. But it was too late; even Calvin's opponents felt it would be perilous to resist. On October 26, by a majority vote of the Little Council sitting as High Court of Criminal Justice, Servetus was sentenced to be burned alive, this cruel verdict to take effect next day on the plateau of Champel.
Week after week, Servetus, shut away from the outer world, had indulged in extravagant hopes. He was a highly imaginative man; he had been yet more disordered by the whisperings of his alleged friends; and he clung more and more desperately to the illusion that he had convinced his judges of the soundness of his theses; so he felt assured that within a few days Calvin, the usurper, would be shamefully expelled from Geneva. How terrible was his awakening when, with an inscrutable expression, the secretary of the Council entered his cell early in the morning of the twenty-seventh and ceremoniously unrolled a parchment to read the sentence. Servetus was thunderstruck. He listened as if unable to understand the words which informed him that this day he was to be burned alive as a blasphemer. For a few minutes he stood as if deaf and unconscious. Then the unhappy man's nerves gave way. He began to sob and to groan, until at length in his Spanish mother tongue he cried aloud: "Misericordias!" His arrogance gave way before these terrible tidings. Crushed, almost annihilated, he succumbed to overwhelming discouragement. The domineering preachers, likewise a prey to illusion, believed that the hour had come in which, after gaining a secular triumph over Servetus, they would gain a spiritual triumph as well, that despair would wring from the prisoner a voluntary avowal of error.
Yet, marvellously enough, as soon as the poor, broken wretch was asked to repudiate his theses, as soon as his innermost faith was challenged, his pride flamed up anew. If his body was to be burned, his body was to be burned; but he would not abate a tittle of his beliefs; and during his last hours the knight errant of science rose to the stature of a martyr and hero of conviction. Though Farel hastened over from Lausanne to share in Calvin's triumph, Servetus contemptuously rejected Farel's promptings, declaring that a secular legal decision could never be accepted as proof of a man's rightness or wrongness in divine concerns. You might murder a man without convincing him. His mind had not been convicted of error, though his body was to be put to death. Neither by threats nor by promises could Farel extract from the chained and doomed victim as much as a word of recantation. Still, since he held firmly to his conviction that he was no heretic but a believing Christian whose duty it was to reconcile himself even with the fiercest of his enemies, Servetus expressed a wish to see Calvin.
The only report of Calvin's visit is Calvin's own. Dead men tell no tales. Calvin's report of Calvin's behaviour admirably discloses Calvin's rigidity and harshness. The triumphant dictator came down into the cold, dank, and dark cell, not to offer consolation to the doomed man, not to say a brotherly or Christian word of kindness to him who was about to die in torment. Quietly, in the most matter-of-fact way, Calvin opened the conversation by asking why Servetus had summoned him. Plainly he expected Servetus to kneel, to urge from the almighty dictator a cancelment, or at least a mitigation of the sentence. Servetus answered simply, so that anyone with a human heart in his breast must be touched by the record, that his only object in sending for Calvin had been to beg forgiveness. The victim offered reconciliation to the inquisitor who had sent him to his doom. Calvin, however, stony of visage, could never regard a political and religious opponent as either a Christian or a man.
Read the words of his frigid report: "My only answer was to say that I had never (this being the truth) regarded him with personal animus."
Calvin could not or would not understand the eminently peaceful nature of Servetus's last gesture. There could, said Calvin, be no reconciliation between him and Servetus. The latter must cease thinking of his own person, and frankly acknowledge his errors, his sinfulness towards God, whose Trinitarian nature the condemned man had denied. Wittingly or unwittingly the ideologist in Calvin refused to recognize as a man and a brother this poor wretch, who that day would be committed like a worthless billet to the flames. As a rigid dogmatist, he could see in Servetus nothing more than one who had rejected his (Calvin's) conception of God, and thus had denied God. The only use Calvin wanted to make of his dictatorial power was to extract from Servetus during these last hours the avowal that Servetus was wrong and Calvin right. Since, however, Servetus recognized that this iron zealot wanted to deprive him of the only thing still left alive in his wasted body, that which the prisoner regarded as the immortal part of him--his faith, his conviction--Servetus stubbornly resisted, and resolutely refused to make the cowardly avowal. He had voluntarily declared his willingness to become reconciled with his adversary, man to man, Christian to Christian; but nothing would induce him, whose life was counted by minutes, to sacrifice the convictions to whose advocacy he had devoted a lifetime. The attempt at conversion failed. To Calvin it seemed that further speech was needless. One who in religious matters would not unhesitatingly comply with Calvin's will was no longer Calvin's brother in Christ, but only one of Satan's brood, a sinner on whom friendly words would be wasted. Why show a trace of kindness to a heretic? Calvin turned away, leaving his victim without a syllable and without a friendly glance. Here are the words with which this fanatical accuser closes his report, words which condemn him for all eternity: "Since I could achieve nothing by argument and warning, I did not wish to be wiser than my Master. I followed the rule laid down by St. Paul, and withdrew from the heretic who had passed judgment on himself."
Death at the stake by roasting with a slow fire is the most agonizing of all modes of execution. Even the Middle Ages, famous for cruelty, seldom carried out this punishment to an extremity. In most cases those sentenced to such a fate were not left to the mercy of the flames. They were strangled, or benumbed in some way. But this abominable death had been decreed for the first heretic sentenced to it by Protestants; and we can well understand that Calvin, when a cry of indignation rose from the humane persons still left in the world, would endeavour, long afterwards, very long afterwards, to shuffle off responsibility for the exceptional cruelty of Servetus's execution. He and the other members of the Consistory, so he tells us years after Servetus's body had been reduced to ashes, tried to obtain that the sentence of death by slow fire should be commuted into the milder one of death by the sword. Their labours had been vain. ("Genus morris conati sumus mutare, sed frustra.") In the minutes of the Council we cannot find a word about such frustrated endeavours; and what unprejudiced person will believe that Calvin, who throughout the trial had put the screw upon the Council to pass a death sentence on Servetus, and had gained his end, should have suddenly become no more than an uninfluential private citizen in Geneva, and should have been unable to ensure a more merciful method of execution? As far as the latter is concerned, it is true that Calvin had contemplated a mitigation of the sentence--but only if Servetus were to purchase this mitigation by a spiritual sacrifice, by a last-hour recantation. Not from human kindliness, but from crude political calculation, Calvin would then, for the first time in his life, have shown himself gentle to an adversary. What a triumph it would have been for Genevese doctrine if Servetus, just before going to the stake, had admitted himself to be wrong and Calvin to be right! What a victory to have compelled the Spanish blasphemer to acknowledge that he was not dying on behalf of his own doctrine, but must admit before the whole population that Calvin's was the only true doctrine in the world!
Servetus, however, knew the price he would have to pay for any concession. Stubbornness was faced by stubbornness, fanaticism by fanaticism. He would rather die in unspeakable torment on behalf of his convictions than secure a more merciful death to favour the dogmas of Maitre Jehan Calvin. He would rather suffer agonies for half an hour, winning thereby the crown of martyrdom, and attaching to Calvin for all time the stigma of utter barbarism. Servetus bluntly refused to comply, rallying his forces to endure his awful fate.
The rest is a tale of horror. On October 27, at eleven in the morning, the prisoner was brought out of prison in his befouled rags. He was looking his last, with blinking eyes, at the light of day. His beard tangled, his visage dirty and wasted, his chains rattling, he tottered as he walked, and his ashen tint was ghastly on that clear autumn day. In front of the steps of the Town Hall the officers of the law, having hustled him along (since weeks of inaction had almost robbed him of the power of walking), thrust him onto his knees. With lowered head he listened to the sentence, which a syndic now read aloud to the assembled populace. It ended with the words: "We condemn thee, Miguel Servetus, to be conveyed in bonds to Champel, there to be burned alive, and with thee the manuscript of thy book and the printed volume, until thy body is consumed to ashes. Thus shalt thou end thy days, as a warning to all others who might wish to repeat thine offence."
The doomed man's teeth chattered with cold as he listened. In his extremity he crawled on his knees nearer to the municipal authorities, assembled on the steps, and implored that by their grace he might be decapitated before his body was burned, "lest the agony should drive me to repudiate the convictions of a lifetime." If he had sinned, he went on, it had been unwittingly; for he had always been impelled by the one thought of promoting the divine honour.
At this moment Farel pushed between the judges and the kneeling man. In a voice that could be heard far and wide, he asked whether Servetus was prepared to renounce the teaching he had directed against the Trinity, and thus to secure the boon of a milder form of execution. Servetus, however, though in most respects he was but a mediocre man, contemptuously rejected this offer, thus showing his moral greatness, his willingness to fulfil his pledge, his determination to suffer the worst on behalf of his convictions.
Now the procession moved on towards the place of execution. It was led by the lord lieutenant and his deputy, wearing the insignia of their rank and surrounded by a guard of archers. The crowd, eager for sensation, followed. All the way across the city, past numerous affrighted and silent spectators, Farel clung to the side of the condemned man, keeping step with Servetus, whom he continually asked for an acknowledgment of error and for repudiation of false doctrine. When Servetus, with genuine piety, answered that, though he was being put to death unjustly, he nevertheless implored God to be merciful to his accuser, Farel replied with dogmatic wrath: "What? After having committed the most abominable sin, do you still try to justify it? If you remain obstinate, I shall leave you to God's judgment, and shall go no farther beside you, although I had determined not to leave you before you should draw your last breath." Servetus made no further reply. He was nauseated by the executioners and the disputations theologians, and would not vouchsafe them another word.
Unceasingly this alleged heretic and atheist murmured, as if for his own comfort: "O God, save my soul; O Jesus, Son of the eternal God, have pity on me." Then, uplifting his voice, he begged all present to pray with him and for him. On reaching the place of execution, within sight of the stake. he kneeled once more to collect his thoughts in pious meditation. But the fanatical Farel, fearing lest this purehearted demeanour of a reputed heretic might make an impression upon the people, cried to them over the head of the condemned: "You see what power Satan possesses when he has a man in his claws! This fellow is most learned, and believed himself to be acting rightly. But now he is in Satan's grip and the like may happen to any of you."
Meanwhile the loathsome preparations were begun. The wood was piled round the stake to which the clanking chains had been nailed. The executioner bound the victim's hands. Then Farel, for the last time, pressed nearer to Servetus, who was only sighing, "O God, my God," and shouted fiercely: "Have you nothing more to say?" The contentious pastor still hoped that the sight of the post where he was to endure martyrdom would convince Servetus that the Calvinist faith was the only true one. But Servetus answered: "What else can I do than call on God?"
The disappointed Farel quitted his victim. Now it only remained for the other executioner, the official one, to perform his hateful task. The chains attached to the stake were wound four or five times around it and around the poor wretch's wasted body. Between this and the chains, the executioner's assistants then inserted the book and the manuscript which Servetus had sent to Calvin under seal to ask Calvin's fraternal opinion upon it. Finally, in scorn, there was pressed upon the martyr's brow a crown of leaves impregnated with sulphur. The preliminaries were over. The executioner kindled the faggots and the murder began.
When the flames rose around him, Servetus uttered so dreadful a cry that many of the onlookers turned their eyes away from the pitiful sight. Soon the smoke interposed a veil in front of the writhing body, but the yells of agony grew louder and louder, until at length came an imploring scream: "Jesus, Son of the everlasting God, have pity on me!" The struggle with death lasted half an hour. Then the flames abated, the smoke dispersed, and attached to the blackened stake there remained, above the glowing embers, a black, sickening, charred mass, which had lost human semblance. What had once been a thinking earthly creature passionately straining towards the eternal, what had been a breathing fragment of the divine soul, was now reduced to a vestige so offensive, so repulsive, that surely the sight of it might have made even Calvin aware how inhuman had been his conduct in arrogating to himself the right of becoming judge and slayer of one of his brethren.
But where was Calvin in this fearful hour? Either to show himself disinterested or else to spare his nerves from shock, he had remained at home. He was in his study, windows closed, having left to the executioner and to Farel (a coarser brute than himself) the odious task of witnessing the execution. So long as no more was needed than to track down an innocent man, to accuse him, browbeat him, and bring him to the stake, Calvin had been an indefatigable leader. But in the hour of performance he left matters to Farel and the paid assistants, while he himself, the man who had really willed and commanded this "pious murder," kept discreetly aloof. Next Sunday, however, clad in his black cassock, he entered the pulpit to boast of the deed before a silent congregation, declaring it to have been a great deed and a just one, although he had not dared to watch the pitiful spectacle.
Chapter Six: Manifesto on Behalf of Toleration
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