Review: The Trial of the 16th Century: Calvin and Servetus By Jonathan Moorhead

Jonathan Moorhead (PhD, Dallas Theological Seminary) has taught at The Master’s Academy International in Russia and the Czech Republic. He specializes in church history, theology, and apologetics. Drawing from his expertise, his recent monograph on the trial of Michael Servetus and Calvin’s involvement in it makes progress on the history of the affair.

At the outset, Moorhead clearly describes his purpose in writing the book: “To give a faithful narrative of the role of John Calvin in the execution of Michael Servetus” (8). In support of this thesis, Moorhead divides the book into six chapters. The first lays the background of Servetus’s education and publications. The second provides additional context on the execution of heretics in church history, including sixteenth-century Geneva, as well as depicting Servetus’s arrest and escape from Vienne (France). The third chapter establishes the background of Calvin’s authority in Geneva around the time of the execution of Servetus. In chapter four, Moorhead traces the events of the arrest, trial, and execution of Servetus in Geneva. Chapter five, “Final Considerations,” argues for Calvin’s innocence by appealing to the approval of Servetus’s execution given by many of Calvin’s contemporaries. The conclusion moves more into the realm of theology and apologetics, which is probably necessary given the vast chasm between Calvin’s actions and the sensibilities of the twentieth century. A clear, concise, and numbered summary follows the conclusion as an appendix.

One of the most astute modern atheists, the late Christopher Hitchens, wrote that “Calvin’s Geneva was a prototypical totalitarian state, and Calvin himself a sadist and a torturer and killer, who burned Servetus (one of the great thinkers of the day) while the man was still alive.”1 Moorhead uses the quotation as a starting point, showing the relevance of the trial and execution of Servetus in the present day. I too experienced something similar when I was a student at the University of Geneva. Several of my fellow students and I went to visit the monument to Servetus at Champel; most of the bunch deplored the heinous deed of the “authoritarian” Calvin, using it as an excuse to discard religion altogether. Were these atheists justified in their remarks, or is there more to the story of Calvin and Servetus? Moorhead is convinced his historical work will silence the mouths of the blasphemers and open a dialogue to win their souls for Christ.

In 1531 Servetus published his On the Errors of the Trinity, and in 1532, Two Books of Dialogues on the Trinity, in which he rejected the Trinity and infant baptism—both of these rejections happened to be punishable by death according to the law of the Holy Roman Empire (12–13). Shortly after being expelled from Basel and Strasbourg, Servetus changed his name to Miguel de Villanueva and pursued a doctorate in medicine at the University of Paris. From 1540 to 1553 he served as personal physician to the Archbishop of Vienne, France (14–15). Servetus tried to correspond with Calvin on doctrine from 1546 to 1548, but the correspondence ended after Servetus used cruel and abusive language toward Calvin (16–18). About that time, Calvin sent Servetus a copy of his Institutes of the Christian Religion and wrote two very different letters about the fate of Servetus: To William Farel, Calvin said he could not promise safety to Servetus if he came to Geneva. To John Frellon, he said that he wished above all that God would grant Servetus repentance so that he would come to reason (18–20).

In January of 1553, Servetus published The Restoration of Christianity, which again attacked the Trinity and infant baptism—both denials meriting execution according to imperial law—and was consequently arrested on April 4, 1553 in Vienne (23–25). He escaped custody on April 7, but was nevertheless given a death sentence on June 17 of burning, which was carried out in effigy (26). The practice of burning of heretics by fire stretches back to ancient times and was enforced whenever the Roman Empire embraced Christianity as the state religion. Theodosius the Great, Jerome, Augustine, Leo I, Aquinas, and Erasmus of Rotterdam all promoted the execution of heretics. It was codified into law by the Codex of Justinian and Carolingian law (26–29). The Diet of Speyer (1529) imposed the death penalty on all Anabaptists, and Charles V adopted it as Carolingian law (30). Moorhead points out that Geneva did not universally apply imperial law to heretics: “Specifically, anti-Trinitarianism and Anabaptism, both crimes of which Servetus was guilty, and both of which were punishable by death under Imperial law, were not universally punished by execution in Geneva before or after Servetus’s execution” (38). There were other anti-Trinitarians and Anabaptists who were either expelled from the city or excommunicated, or even not arrested at all (38–42).

As a French immigrant to Geneva, Calvin only held habitant status and not that of citoyen or bourgeois. As such, he did not have the right to vote, sit on a city council, or carry a weapon. This was Calvin’s status during the time of Servetus’s trial (43–44). The magistrates had expelled Calvin from the city in 1538 over issues related to the Lord’s Supper, though they then asked him to return in 1541 (46–49). Calvin faced growing opposition in the 1540s, because of his establishment of ecclesiastical ordinances and the consistory (49). The ordinances outlined the duties of the church and the state, with Calvin attributing the control of crime to the magistrates, including the responsibility “to defend sound doctrine of piety and the position of the church” (49–51). The consistory was a church council that oversaw matters of discipline in the churches in Geneva (52). But opposition came from Ami Perrin and his followers (Perrinists, also known as Libertines). In 1548, the Perrinists gained control of the government, electing him mayor in 1549. They rebuked Calvin for his criticism of them, and he feared that he may be banished from Geneva again (55–57). Indeed, in 1552, just a year before Servetus’s trial in Geneva, Calvin was so overcome by his opponents that he tried to resign (59). On the eve of the Servetus trial, the Perrinists formally resisted Calvin in the Philibert Berthelier affair, wherein the magistrates overlooked the consistory’s excommunication of Berthelier and hired him as assistant to the Lieutenant of the city (61–66).

After Servetus’s escape from Vienne, he decided to stop by Geneva and attend a church service there on Sunday, August 13, 1553 (69). Calvin recognized him and reported him to the authorities, who arrested Servetus immediately (71). On August 17, the magistrates asked Calvin to draw up the theological charges against Servetus. He did so, producing thirty-eight articles against Servetus’s theology (73). Calvin served as a witness for the prosecution. After the ministers debated Calvin’s theses as well as Servetus’s defense, the matter was handed over to the attorney general, who began the criminal phase of the trial (73). Servetus defended himself to the attorney general, who appealed to church tradition for the execution of heretics (74). During the trial, Servetus hurled all sorts of insults and abusive language at Calvin and the other participating ministers, even calling for the execution of Calvin (74–76). On August 21, the Little Council of Geneva wrote to Vienne, asking for information regarding Servetus’s arrest, trial, and escape. They also wrote to the cities of Zürich, Bern, Basel, and Schaffhausen to seek advice on what to do with Servetus; they did not, however, seek the advice of the pastors who had participated in the trial (77). At about the same time, Calvin wrote to Farel that he hoped the death penalty would be carried out, but that it would be by the sword instead of by fire (78). Vienne wanted Servetus extradited from Geneva so they could execute him, but Geneva denied their request after asking Servetus his preference (79). By October 25, Geneva had received letters back from the Swiss cities, all of which unanimously condemned Servetus’s teachings; they served as a jury of sorts to the magistrates of Geneva, who on October 27 condemned Servetus to be led to Champel and burned alive (82–83). Calvin did not vote on the sentence of Servetus, but he did make an appeal to the magistrates for a more humane form of execution (84). Shortly after Servetus’s sentence was delivered, Calvin went to him and pled for him to seek pardon from God—to save his eternal soul. Farel walked Servetus to Champel, pleading with him to repent, and there Servetus was burned alive (85).

Moorhead believes that Servetus would not have been executed in Geneva if it had not been for pressure from Catholic Vienne and Servetus’s arrogance and abrasive language during the trial (87). Moorhead makes the case for Calvin’s innocence by appealing to a host of other Reformers who defended the execution of Servetus. That list includes Theodore Beza, Heinrich Bullinger, Philip Melanchthon, Martin Bucer, Peter Martyr Vermigli, John Knox, John Owen, Samuel Rutherford, and Francis Turretin (88–92). In his conclusion, Moorhead ventures into historiographical ethics: “Anachronistic judgments are unethical. Each time period must be judged by the prevailing laws of the time, not those of the future” (97). I disagree with this, because truth is universal, transcending time and space. It does not matter if you lived five hundred years ago or live today—if you are wrong, you are wrong. But he is right to point to the gospel. Even the greatest saints are tainted with sometimes grievous sins; we cannot rest in their works, but only in our perfect high priest, Jesus Christ (98).

While this is clearly an apologetic piece to defend Calvin, I think Moorhead succeeds in presenting a well-documented account of the Servetus affair. The book shows that Calvin was not the judge, jury, and executioner of Servetus, which many of Calvin’s detractors, including Hitchens, imply. It closes the mouths of those who would detract from God’s glory based on a misunderstanding of a historical situation surrounding one of his saints. As such, this is a book readers of all sorts should take up, especially those with an interest in Calvin.

Jonathan Moorhead, The Trial of the 16th Century: Calvin & Servetus (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2021).


  1. Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2009), 233.

©Casey Carmichael. All Rights Reserved.


Heidelberg Reformation Association
1637 E. Valley Parkway #391
Escondido CA 92027
The HRA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization

    Post authored by:

  • Casey Carmichael
    Author Image

    Casey Carmichael holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Geneva. He is the author of A Continental View: Johannes Cocceius’s Federal Theology of the Sabbath (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2019). He is also the coeditor of the Classic Reformed Theology series, published by Reformation Heritage Books. He has translated various works from the Reformed tradition, including J. H. Heidegger’s Concise Marrow of Christian Theology and John Calvin’s Necessity of Reforming the Church.

    More by Casey Carmichael ›

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Am I misreading? It sounds as if the civil authorities (Calvin’s political opponents, at least), managed to snare him into engagement in a civil process in which he had little to no rights (as a legal immigrant, but w/o a vote), and then constructed a conclusion that laid all the blame on Calvin.

    Admittedly, no evidence of a political conspiracy. But given the unbiquity of man’s wickedness, one can’t help but imagine some of those magistrates, after signing Servetus’ death warrant, opining, “and if we’re really lucky, Calvin will get blamed for it!”

    • Reed,

      I don’t think that Calvin was set up. There was no conspiracy. People have, however, willfully ignored, basic historical facts. The Unitarians, especially, have used this episode as a cudgel with which to beat Calvin and Christian orthodoxy generally.

Comments are closed.