Luther , Calvin , Zwingli and the reformation.....
I recently read a book in swedish about the reformation and about Luther , Calvin and so on, but
not from a "reformed" perspective but from the anabaptist perspective. And i find it horrifying
what i read. This article i found have "some" of the things i read about in it. Not to take away
any of the good that these men might have done for us, but should we overlook the horrifying
things they did?
I find these men, the anabaptist from 1500 to be very godly people, they loved Christ and their
Christcentered belif is really wonderful, yet the were slaughtered and martyred and hunted like
dogs and beaten to death by these "reformers"
yet i have found very litte people know or care about this.
Anyway, here is a short critical article. I will study this more closely.
-----------------------When I became a member of an Evangelical Protestant church, I began to read a lot about the
Leaders of the Reformation. However as I read about their lives, I began to grow more and more
concerned with what I read. I began to have doubts about whether they could truly be
considered Saintly or Holy men.
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?
Quite simply because a person's inner life and closeness to God should necessarily be reflected
in the way they live their outward life. The Reformers were men who made great claims. They
claimed to be led by God to challenge and even to tear down the existing structure of the
Church. They claimed the duty to expose a hypocrisy and falsehood at the very heart of the
Church of God. They claimed to be chosen leaders, authorised to establish new, cleansed and
reformed churches. Men who were truly being used by God for such a great work must surely
display a holiness of the highest standard?
This principle was set out by Jesus himself when advising how to test the genuineness of those
who claim teaching authority:
"A good tree cannot bear bad fruit and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit....Thus by their fruit
you will recognise them." Matthew 7: v!8 and 20.
Surely then the Reformers should have led lives of exemplary holiness - certainly comparable to
those of people like St Francis, Mother Theresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and other Christians who
claimed far less for themselves.
BUT AREN'T YOU SETTING TOO HIGH A STANDARD?
MANY IN THE CATHOLIC CHURCH WERE NOT EXACTLY MODELS OF HOLINESS THEMSELVES,
No they weren't. But every human institution is imperfect and attracts corrupt people. People
enter churches of all denominations for the wrong reasons, seeking power, influence and
worldly success more than they seek to serve God. Yet for every corrupt Catholic there were
many who lived good and holy lives.
The leaders of the Reformation, however, were not men who joined an existing institution for
venial reasons. They were men who claimed express authority from God to destroy the old
church and found a new church in its place. Surely it is not unjust to expect from such men lives
of outstanding and exemplary holiness?
Yet is this what we find? Let us look at the facts.
1. MARTIN LUTHER
Luther was well known for his hot temper, pride and violent language, rather than for his
saintliness and humility. He called the Pope the "Antichrist" and even heaped abuse on fellowreformers like Zwingli and Bucer who disagreed with him. He encouraged the German Princes to
seize church property in return for protection for the Reformation. Along with others, he issued
a licence permitting the Landgrave of Hesse to keep 2 wives simultaneously. However worse
was to come. His language grew in violence:
"If we punish thieves with the gallows . . . why do we not still more attack with every kind of
weapon . . . these Cardinals, these Popes, and that whole abomination of the Romish Sodom . . .
why do we not wash our hands in their blood?"
Inspired by the writings of Luther and others, which declared the Freedom of the Christian Man,
and led by Thomas Muntzer, an ex-pupil of Luther's, German peasants demanded to be freed
from Serfdom, joining in the Great Peasants Revolt. They hoped for Luther's support. But Luther
owed his protection and high position to the German aristocrats. So instead, in a pamphlet
entitled Against the Murderous Peasants, Luther told the princes and the nobility that it was
right and lawful to slay at the first opportunity a rebellious person, "just as one must slay a mad
Let all who are able, cut them down, slaughter and stab them, openly or in secret, and
remember that there is nothing more poisonous, noxious and utterly devilish than a rebel... For
we are come upon such strange times that a prince may more easily win heaven by the shedding
of blood than others by prayers.
Urged on by their spiritual leader, the nobles and their armies suppressed the revolts with great
savagery. Molten pitch and sulphur were poured upon the peasants. Some had their eyes
gouged out. The bodies of 5,000 retreating peasants were hung from trees across the
countryside. For the leaders of the rebels a special form of torture was devised where their flesh
was torn off with red-hot pincers. In all more than 100,000 peasants were slain.
Embittered with Luther, the German peasants named him Dr Lugner, or "Dr Liar" in English. The
advance of Lutheranism in Germany stopped.
Luther was no less inflamatory with regard to the Jews, as seen in the following excerpts from
his pamphlet: The Jews and Their Lies, (1543):
"First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not
burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honour
of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not
condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of his Son and of his
Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. For they pursue in them the
same aims as in their synagogues. Instead they might be lodged under a roof or in a barn, like
the gypsies. This will bring home to them that they are not masters in our country, as they
boast, but that they are living in exile and in captivity, as they incessantly wail and lament about
us before God.
Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies,
cursing and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them...
Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and
Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they
have no business in the countryside, since they are not lords, officials, tradesmen, or the like. Let
them stay at home
I wish and I ask that our rulers who have Jewish subjects exercise a sharp mercy toward these
wretched people, as suggested above, to see whether this might not help (though it is doubtful).
They must act like a good physician who, when gangrene has set in, proceeds without mercy to
cut, saw, and burn flesh, veins, bone, and marrow. Such a procedure must also be followed in
this instance. Burn down their synagogues, forbid all that I enumerated earlier, force them to
work, and deal harshly with them, as Moses did in the wilderness, slaying three thousand lest
the whole people perish. They surely do not know what they are doing; moreover, as people
possessed, they do not wish to know it, hear it, or learn it. There it would be wrong to be
merciful and confirm them in their conduct. If this does not help we must drive them out like
mad dogs, so that we do not become partakers of their abominable blasphemy and all their
other vices and thus merit God's wrath and be damned with them."
The Jews were soon expelled from Luther's native Saxony.
So jst how saintly was this first and greatest Reformer?
2. ULRICH ZWINGLI
Born at Wildhaus in Switzerland on the 1st of January, 1484, Zwingli came from a prominent
middle class family. Chosen as People's Priest in Zurich, he declared Zwingliin 1522 that the
fasting provisions for Lent were mere human commands, not in harmony with the Bible - the
sole source of faith. In1524, indulgences and pilgrimages were abolished, the sacraments of
Penance and Extreme Unction rejected, and all pictures, statues, relics, altars, and organs were
torn out of the churches.
Yet at the same time Zwingli was known to be immoral sexually. One historian writes: "He did
not let his sacerdotal vows exclude him from the pleasures of the flesh; he had some affairs with
generous women." Zwingli soon renounced his vows of celibacy living with Anna Reinhard for
some years before finally marrying her..
Like Luther, with whom he quarreled, Zwingli was a user of intemperate language, and refused
to come to any compromise with fellow-reformers on the matter of the Eucharist. Within Zurich
Catholicism was forbidden, but particular hatred was reserved for Anabaptists. From 1525
Zwingli persecuted them mercilessly with imprisonment, torture, banishment and death. The
Anabaptist leader, Felix Manz, was drowned. Under Zwingli's influence, penalties of drowning,
burning or beheading were decreed by the Council.
'It is our will,' they proclaimed, 'that wherever they be found, whether singly or in companies,
they shall be drowned to death, and that none of them shall be spared."
To compel the unwilling neighbouring Catholic cantons to accept his new doctrines, Zwingli
urged open war, and drew up a plan of campaign to conquer the mountain cantons and impose
his teachings by force. After provoking a conflict by cutting off food supplies to the Catholic
mountain cantons, Zwingli marched out of Zurich with an army. His protestant troops met the
catholics in battle at Kappel on the 11th October 1531. However Zwingli's plan for expansion
ended when he was killed in the battle.
3. JOHN CALVIN
Calvin, known for his harsh theology (see Free Will or Predestination), became the leading
Reformer of Geneva, where he established a virtual theocracy which ruled every aspect of
peoples' lives.In the constitution he drew up for the city, the death penalty was laid down for
blasphemy, heresy and witchcraft.
It did not take long for this to be applied. Within a few years fifty-eight sentences of death and
seventy-six of exile took place in Geneva. Two examples:
1. James Gruet, was alleged to have posted a note which implied that Calvin should leave the
He was at once arrested and a house to house search made for his accomplices. This method
failed to reveal anything except that Gruet had written on one of Calvin's tracts the words 'all
rubbish.' The judges put him to the rack twice a day, morning and evening, for a whole
month . . . He was sentenced to death for blasphemy and beheaded on July 26, 1547.
2. The Spanish Reformer Servetus had dared to criticize Calvin's "Institutes of the Christian
Religion" and began an angry correspondence with him. Calvin promised: "If he comes here and
I have any authority, I will never let him leave the place alive."
Servetus visited Geneva on 13 August, 1553. The next day Calvin, who had seen him in church,
had his critic arrested. Calvin drew up forty articles of charges concerning the nature of God,
infant baptism, and the attacks on his own teaching. On August 20, 1553, Calvin wrote: "I hope
that Servetus will be condemned to death"
On October 26, the Council ordered that he be burned alive on the following day.
Servetus took half an hour to die. Calvin noted: "'He showed the dumb stupidity of a beast . . .
He went on bellowing . . . in the Spanish fashion: "Misericordias!" . .
In1554 Calvin wrote the treatise Against the Errors of Servetus, in which he tried to justify the
execution: "Many people have accused me of such ferocious cruelty that (they allege) I would
like to kill again the man I have destroyed. Not only am I indifferent to their comments, but I
rejoice in the fact that they spit in my face."
The modern-day Congregational, Prebyterian, Reformed, Baptist and many of the Charismatic
churches, all look to this same Calvin as their founding spiritual authority.
4. THOMAS CROMWELL
The Reformation in England was brought about largely by state power. This was undertaken at
the instigation of King Henry Vlll. The story of Henry's marriages and of his many cruelties is
well-known. Yet it has been argued that Henry was not a Reformer at all - more a man greedy
for a new wife and to get his hands on the wealth of the Church.
So let us look at some of the other key figures of the English Reformation, and see whether they
were of a different stripe.
Cromwell as Earl of EssexIt often surprises people that the first leader of the Church of England
under Henry was not Archbishop Cranmer, but Thomas Cromwell - who was made the king's
Vicar-General, with direct authority over the Church and its Bishops. Cromwell was a Reformer,
and pushed through the main religious changes of the 1530s - the royal supremacy, the printing
of the English Bible, the closing of the monasteries, the destruction of shrines and images, and
the restriction of Holy Days.
Cromwell's methods however, were anything but holy. He was a genius of sorts, helping to
construct a tightly-controlled police-state, the type of which any 20th Century dictator would
have been proud. Cromwell erected a system built on fear, torture and death. Criticising the
king, his divorce, or failing to agree that Henry was head of the church, now became high
treason - to be punished by disembowelment whilst still alive, hanging and quartering. In the
end, even failing to denounce anyone else who criticised these things became treason. Guilty
verdicts were ensured by the introduction of the "Double Grand Jury" which made the jury
trying a case liable to face trial themselves by a second jury if they came up with the wrong
verdict. Acts of Attainder, allowing the execution of victims without any trial whatsoever, were
also introduced. All these things were needed to enforce the Reformation in England.
Churches, shrines and abbeys were plundered for funds to build Henry's palaces and
fortiffications. priceless ancient books and works of art were torn apart for their value in gold
Victims excuted by Cromwell included Thomas More and Bishop Fisher, as well as countless
lesser-ranked people such as the Carthusian Monks, Observant Friars and any who dared to
protest at the break with Rome. All of these suffered hanging, disembowelment and quartering.
Abbots who refused to surrender their monasteries also fell victim:
Letter of Richard Pollard to Thomas Cromwell, November 16, 1539
Pleaseth it your Lordship to be advertised that..[On November 15] the late abbot of Glastonbury
went from Wells to Glastonbury, and there was drawn through the town upon a hurdle to the
hill called the Torre, where he was put to execution; Afore his execution [he] was examined
upon divers articles and interrogatories to him ministered by me, but he could accuse no man of
himself of any offence against the king's highness, nor would he confess no more gold nor silver
nor any other thing more than he did before your Lordship in the Tower I suppose it will be near
Christmas before I shall have surveyed the lands at Glastonbury, and take the audit there .
Cromwell personally gained many of the monastic lands including all the lands of Lewes Priory,
and the Abbeys of Colchester, St Osith and Launde.
Jealousies led to him being accused of treason, and he was executed without trial under his own
laws in 1540.
5. THOMAS CRANMER
If Henry and Cromwell were seen as the dark side of the Reformation, then surely the martyr
Archbishop, Cranmer, who wrote the fine words of the English Prayer Book, must show its other
Thomas CranmerYet while Cranmer's acts cannot compare with the horrors his two
contemporaries performed, the Archbishop's own story is far from edifying.
He came to power with the Boleyns, writing an opinion in favour of the King's divorce from
Queen Catherine of Aragon. For a time he was the Boleyn family chaplain. With Anne Boleyn's
patronage, he became the first protestant Archbishop of Canterbury. Among his first acts was to
pronounce the king's divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and then marry Henry to Anne Boleyn.
At this time, despite his vows of celibacy, he kept a wife in secret, who he had smuggled into the
country from Germany.
As Archbishop, Cranmer presided over the executions of both Catholics and Protestant
extremists. He was quite happy to condemn Protestants to the stake even though they held
views similar to those that he himself revealed when it was safe to do so.
When Anne fell from favour with King Henry, Cranmer turned against his former patroness.
Three years after he had married Anne to Henry, and days before her execution, he pronounced
that the marriage had been invalid from the start. No reason was given. However this enabled
Anne's daughter to be removed from the succession, clearing the way for Jane Seymour's
marriage to the king - which Cranmer performed.
This was the period when the monasteries and friaries were being ransacked and destroyed.
Many were killed in this process. On 8 April, 1538, Friar Forrest was taken to Lambeth, where,
before Cranmer, he was required to state that King Henry was Head of the Church. This,
however, he firmly refused to do. Forrest was sentenced to death, and on the 22nd of May he
was taken to Smithfield and burned.
In 1540 when the king moved in a less protestant direction after Cromwell's fall, Cranmer was
quite happy to burn protestant protesters as well. However when the archbishop feared that
King Henry's fifth wife, 20 year-old Katherine Howard, might lead him in a more catholic
direction, he conspired to bring about her downfall. Learning rumours of Katherine's unchastity
before her marriage, Cranmer quickly brought these to the attention of the king. The Queen was
arrested at once, and Cranmer was put in charge of the investigation. He oversaw the torture of
the accused men and soon he had more than enough material to present a case against
Katherine. She and many others were sent to the block.
On Henry's death, Cranmer was placed on the Council of Regency for the boy king, Edward VI.
Allying himself with Suffolk, and "Lord Protector" Somerset, Cranmer was free to come out in his
true Protestant colours. The Latin Mass was abolished - replaced by Cranmer's own sonorouslyworded Book of Common Prayer - and another plundering of the Church began. However when
Suffolk fell in a coup to John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, Cranmer again turned his coat
and signed his former ally's death warrant.
The churches, guilds and chantry chapels were now stripped of their furnishings, and plate,
silver and gold - much of which ended up in Dudley's hands. Priceless books and missals were
burnt in great bonfires, little escaped. A final betrayal occurred when the boy King Edward came
near to death. Despite being first signatory to King Henry's will, guaranteeing the succession of
the princesses Mary and Elizabeth, Cranmer again broke his oath and backed the attempt to
place Jane Grey on the throne. It was for this act of treason as much as for his religious views
that he was condemned to death under Queen Mary. In fact Cranmer recanted his
protestantism when he thought this would save his life, but un-recanted when told he would
still be burned.
6. HUGH LATIMER
LatimerLatimer was a close associate of Cranmer, and rose to the rank of Bishop of London
under King Henry. He was burnt with Cranmer under Queen Mary. But was even he the holy and
innocent man of legend?
Once again when we look beyond the official gloss, we find this man that some have called a
"saintly martyr" approving the burning of Anabaptists and obstinate Franciscans under Henry
Latimer was involved in the case of John Forrest, one of the friars who denied the Royal
Supremacy over the Church. Far from feeling any respect for the friar's stand, he wrote to
Cranmer that the condemned prisoner was too well treated in Newgate prison, and that he,
Latimer, would have to "play the fool" overseeing the friar's execution. To add to the ironic
humour of this public spectacle, the friar was to be burnt over a bonfire of religious statuary.
Forrest was chained across a large holy statue which had been brought from the church of
Llanderfel in Wales, and burned alive. Latimer expressed no remorse.
In the 1548, under King Edward, Latimer was again involved in heresy trials and condemnations.
He joined Cranmer in justifying the execution of Lord Seymour after the Dudley coup. In April
1549 Latimer joined Ridley in condeming the anabaptist Joan Bocher, better known as Joan of
Kent, to death by burning. Young King Edward at first refused to sign the death warrant, but
Cranmer pursuaded him to do so.
So when Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer were burned under Queen Mary, they were following a
road along which they had sent many others before them.
7. JOHN KNOX
Founder of the Presbyterian and Established Church of Scotland.
John KnoxBorn at Haddington, Scotland, in 1513; he was a priest and went to Rome before
becoming a follower of Calvin. He spent time in Geneva, which he considered "The most perfect
school of Christ that ever was on earth since the days of the Apostles."
Returning to Scotland in the 1540s, he became involved in a plot to murder Cardinal Beaton at
St Andrews. The murder took place on 29th May 1546. The assassination was approved and
applauded by Knox, who describes the deed with a gleeful and mocking levity. He remained with
Beaton's murderers in the castle of St. Andrews, which they held for some months until a large
French fleet forced their surrender. Knox was imprisoned for nineteen months on board a
French galley. In other writings he reiterated his views that every Christian man (i.e. Protestant)
had a right to slaughter every idolater (i.e. Catholic), if he got an opportunity.
In 1560, following the withdrawal of French troops from Scotland, Knox returned to lead a
campaign of reform by riot, moving from town to town accompanied by the Protestant lords
and urging his supporters to destroy all "Popish" images in churches and drive out Catholic
clergy, monks, nuns and friars. The Catholic population were intimidated whilst most of the
country's monasteries and cathedrals were razed to the ground. Finally reaching Edinburgh, an
unofficial "parliament" was called which banned Catholicism on pain of death.
Knox feared the return of Catholic Queen Mary, despite her declared policy of religious
toleration, and became her sworn enemy.
In March 1564, aged 51, he married Margaret Stewart, a girl of sixteen.
When, on the 9th March 1566, Queen Mary's Italian counsellor, Rizzio was brutally stabbed to
death in a conspiracy by Protestant Lords before the pregnant queen's very eyes, Knox stated
that "..the act was most just and worthy of all praise."
"Foolish Scotland", the founder of the Presbyterian church said when the plotters failed to kill
Mary, "hath disobeyed God by sparing the queen",
From the above it can be seen that, almost without exception, the Leaders of the Reformation,
had an appalling record. They quite simply failed to live anything that could reasonably be called
an exemplary Christian life.
SO WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE THEIR TEACHING, AND THEIR CLAIM TO HAVE BEEN INSPIRED BY
THE HOLY SPIRIT?
[url=http://www.geocities.com/aprofaith/leaders.htm]Source : Reformation
Was John Calvin a Mur der er?
QWas John Calvin a Murder?
Jim This is a question that shows up in my email from time to time. It's a claim that is leveled by
those who seek to besmirch Reformed Theology. Usually, the claim that Calvin was a murderer
is an attempt to make all Calvinistic doctrine wrong through "guilt by association."
However, historically speaking, the so-called "Doctrines of Grace" - which go by the nickname of
Calvinism - did not originate with Calvin. They are the result of a Synod held in Dort, Holland in
1618/19, after Calvin was long dead. Those of us who hold to Reformed Theology do so not
because we are attempting to replicate the theology or ecclesiology of John Calvin, but because
we are convinced that the Biblical arguments and conclusions stemming from that Synod are
valid and our own exegesis confirms the five points.
If it could be proven that John Calvin was indeed a murderous wretch, it would have no effect
on the theology that sprung from the pen of the Reformers. In other words, the "guilt by
association" tactic has no teeth. That being said, let's clear up the history and let the proverbial
chips fall where they will.
The person most often referenced by the "Calvin was a murderer" crowd is a fellow named
Michael Servetus. Here's the Wikipedia entry describing him:
Michael Servetus (also Miguel Servet or Miguel Serveto; 29 September 1511 - 27 October 1553)
was a Spanish (Aragonese) theologian, physician, cartographer, and humanist and the first
European to describe the function of pulmonary circulation. His interests included many
sciences: astronomy and meteorology, geography, jurisprudence, study of the Bible,
mathematics, anatomy, and medicine. He is renowned in the history of several of these fields,
particularly medicine and theology. He participated in the Protestant Reformation and later
developed a non-trinitarian Christology. Condemned by Catholics and Protestants alike, he was
burnt at the stake by order of the Protestant Geneva governing council as a heretic.
Events in history have a context. We must remember the time period during which Calvin and
contemporaries lived. The thousand years that preceded them are commonly known as the
"Dark Ages," owing to the general ignorance and illiteracy of the populous and the near
monolithic influence of the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Church was intertwined in every
aspect of social and political life. For instance, a child's baptism record was tantamount to his
birth certificate. And the church wielded the sword of governmental authority to suppress
schismatics, dissenters, and those deemed heretics. This practice was known as "Sacralism" - a
merger of church and state until the two are virtually indistinguishable. As the Latin saying
described it, "Cuius region, eius religio." In other words, "Who has region, decides religion." It
was common for the ruler of an area to determine the religion of his realm based on his own
The Reformers were not initially intending to create a new religion. As their name implies, their
aim was to reform the Church at Rome; correcting its theology and abuses "from the inside."
However, facing the brick wall of a thousand years of entrenched power and tradition, they
moved to safer territories and established churches in accordance with their convictions: Luther
to Germany, Zwingli to Switzerland, Calvin to Geneva, etc. However, they carried many of the
trappings of Rome with them, such as Sacralism.
This is not surprising. The Reformation was not a start-from-scratch project. The only church
governance they had known was the combination of church and state. In their effort to establish
the theology of salvation by grace (in opposition to Rome's works-based soteriology), they failed
to fully and utterly reform every aspect of Christian life and ecclesiastic behavior. Hence, the
motto passed to future generations - "Ever Reforming."
So, back to Servetus. What was Calvin's relationship with Servetus? In his essay "John Calvin and
Reformed Europe" J.I.Packer wrote:
The anti-Trinitarian campaigner Servetus was burned at Geneva in 1553, and this is often seen
as a blot on Calvin's reputation. But weigh these facts:
1. The belief that denial of the Trinity and/or Incarnation should be viewed as a capital crime in a
Christian state was part of Calvin's and Geneva's medieval inheritance; Calvin did not invent it.
2. Anti-Trinitarian heretics were burned in other places beside Geneva in Calvin's time, and
indeed later -- two in England, for instance, as late as 1612.
3. The Roman Inquisition had already set a price on Servetus' head.
4. The decision to burn Servetus as a heretic was taken not only by Calvin personally but by
Geneva's Little Council of twenty-five, acting on unanimous advice from the pastors of several
neighboring Reformed churches whom they had consulted.
5. Calvin, whose role in Servetus' trial had been that of expert witness managing the
prosecution, wanted Servetus not to die but to recant, and spent hours with him during and
after the trial seeking to change his views.
6. When Servetus was sentenced to be burned alive, Calvin asked for beheading as a less painful
alternative, but his request was denied.
7. The chief Reformers outside Geneva, including Bucer and the gentle Melanchthon, fully
approved the execution.
The burning should thus be seen as the fault of a culture and an age rather than of one
particular child of that culture and age. Calvin, for the record, showed more pastoral concern for
Servetus than anyone else connected with the episode. As regards the rights and wrongs of
what was done, the root question concerns the propriety of political paternalism in Christianity
(that is, whether the Christian state, as distinct from the Christian church, should outlaw heresy
or tolerate it), and it was Calvin's insistence that God alone is Lord of the conscience that was to
begin displacing the medieval by the modern mind-set on this question soon after Servetus'
History is not specific concerning the number of people who were executed in Geneva during
Calvin's time. Modern critics try to give the impression that the number was high and there was
non-stop bloodshed as Calvin oversaw the wholesale elimination of anyone who opposed to
him. But, this is simply not the case. According to Matthew Gross of ReformedAnswers.org There is a number that is oft-repeated but rarely footnoted of 57 executions during 4 years "at
the height of Calvin's power". I am unable to locate the source of this number, and a more
moderate anti-Calvin source, Calvin: A Biography, by Bernard Cottret, puts the number at 38.
In considering these executions, it is important to note that Calvin never held any formal power
outside the Church during his time in Geneva. The government of the church in Geneva was
Presbyterian ?- it had a pastor and a consistory, or board of ruling elders. Contrary to popular
portrayal, the government of the church was not the government of the city. The government of
the city was called "the Council." The consistory handled moral matters, and the maximum
penalty it could impose was excommunication. However, for many years they could not even
excommunicate someone without the prior approval of the Council. The maximum penalty that
the Council could impose was death; however, even the Council's decisions could be appealed
to another body called "The Council of Two Hundred" - so named because it consisted of two
hundred citizens of Geneva. Calvin himself was not a citizen of Geneva during the upheaval in
Geneva, and thus was disqualified from voting, holding public office, or even serving on the
Council of Two Hundred until very late in his life, and at least four years after he achieved "the
height of his power" to which so many Calvin detractors refer. Thus, it is with this
understanding, the understanding that Calvin held no formal secular power, and that any power
he did have was subject to the review of two different citizen's councils that we turn to the
discussion of the executions in Geneva.
Of the 38 executions accounted for in Calvin: A Biography, by Bernard Cottret, Calvin himself
writes about 23, and the justification given is that they spread the plague by witchcraft. This is
often given as mocking proof that Calvin really must have been an ignorant tyrant - after all, we
know that witchcraft isn't real, etc. But if you read the primary source, the actual letter to
Myconius of Basel (March 27, 1545), you see that witchcraft, if it was a charge, was in addition
to the charge of committing other malicious acts:
"A conspiracy of men and women has lately been discovered, who, for the space of three years,
had spread the plague through the city by what mischievous device I know not. After fifteen
women have been burnt, some men have even been punished more severely, some have
committed suicide in prison, and while twenty-five are still kept prisoners,?the conspirators do
not cease, notwithstanding, to smear the door-locks of the dwelling-houses with their poisonous
ointment. You see in the midst of what perils we are tossed about. The Lord hath hitherto
preserved our dwelling, though it has more than once been attempted. It is well that we know
ourselves to be under His care."
When you read this quote, you see that these people were accused of actually trying to spread
the plague, not by casting spells, but by smearing "the door-locks of the dwelling-houses with
their poisonous ointment". Once again this seems innocuous, but it is possible that their
"ointment" was spreading the disease if it contained blood or bodily fluid from someone
infected with the disease. Even if it didn't work, the people putting the ointment on the door
handles apparently thought it would. Thus, at the very least these inept bioterrorists would be
guilty of what we call "conspiracy to commit murder". This is in addition to the charge of
witchcraft, itself a capital crime in the Old Testament, which Calvin thought was directly
applicable in Geneva.
Of the other executions, several are named to be executions for serial adultery, also a capital
crime in the Old Testament. Contrary to what is commonly implied, this was not a group of all
women or all poor people who were executed. Among the executed was a prominent Genevese
banker who went to his death proclaiming the justice of the judgment - Geneva did not
discriminate on the basis of sex or class, as is often implied. It is debatable whether or not
adultery should ever be or have been a capital offense. Many people who think that it should
not be one today think that it should not have been a capital offense in ancient Israel either.
Thus, they reject the Old Testament law as unjust even when it was originally given. This is an
error we should be careful to avoid as we debate whether or not these executions were just.
So the bulk of the executions were for conspiracy to commit murder and for adultery. In
addition to these, there was one girl who was executed for striking her mother - another capital
crime in the Old Testament which could be, at least in ancient Israel, justly enforced by the
penalty of death in certain instances. We are not told by history whether Calvin approved of this
execution, but if he did, it was because he believed that it was the proper application of Old
Testament law. Of the other executions, history has only given us details of two - the beheading
of Jacques Gruet and the burning of Michael Servetus. Gruet was executed for heresy and
sedition. He attached an anonymous note to Calvin's pulpit threatening to kill Calvin and
overthrow the government of Geneva if they did not flee the city. He was arrested, tortured for
30 days, and, upon confession, beheaded. History does not tell us whether Calvin approved of
the torture; if he did he was wrong to do so. The execution, for conspiring to overthrow the
government, may have been justified given the danger to the citizenry that such a conspiracy
entailed. Either way, Calvin did not have the authority in Geneva to arrest, torture, or execute
anyone. Those were the decisions, not of Calvin or the church Consistory, but of the Council and
of the Council of 200.
This brings us to Servetus. He was arrested for heresy, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death
by the Council. After escaping from prison when he was on trial for heresy in Lyons, Servetus
traveled to Geneva on his way to Italy. According to Schaff's Church History, Servetus stayed at
Geneva for about a month, taking few pains to conceal his identity. After attending services in
Calvin's church one Sunday, Servetus was arrested on charges of heresy. Calvin believed that it
was just and right for heretics to be put to death. In this regard, he was not different from
Servetus who also believed that heretics, specifically the heretic John Calvin, should be put to
death by the Genevese Council.
During the trial it was Calvin's job as expert witness to prove that Servetus was a heretic. Calvin's
expert reason and clear thinking triumphed when Servetus chose to hurl insults at Calvin rather
than offer a defense. It is important to note that at this time the Council was not controlled by
friends of Calvin but by his enemies, the patriots and libertines. This is probably why Servetus
felt that he did not have to offer a substantive defense against charges of heresy. We have a
written record of the debate because each was required to write their statements and
responses for review by the churches of four other prominent protestant cities.
During the time that the other cities were reviewing the debate Lyons requested extradition, but
Servetus pleaded to stay in Geneva and protested that he would accept the judgment of the
Genevese Council rather than be sent back to Lyons. He had reason to believe that the libertines
on the council were on his side, given their intense hatred of Calvin. However, in the end, after
receiving recommendations of guilt from the four cities, and in light of the publicity the trial had
generated throughout Europe, the libertines and the patriots on the Council decided that
Servetus was not worth saving. In a show of bravado intended to send a message that they
could be just as "tough on crime" as John Calvin was, they sentenced Servetus to death by
burning. When Servetus heard, he could not believe it. Despite Calvin's intercession on behalf of
Servetus that he be put to death humanely, the Council refused and Servetus was burned on
October 27, 1553.
So, what are we to make of all this? Times have changed and certainly no one would argue that
executing heretics is justifiable behavior in our modern context. Here in America we live under a
constitution that creates a wall of division between the church and the state. And it is
shortsighted to judge the actions of John Calvin through our modern spectacles. Calvin held to
the end of his life that the execution of Servetus was just because he was a blasphemer, a
heretic, a murderer of souls.
While John Calvin and I certainly have areas of agreement in questions of theology and
soteriology, we have significant differences in our ecclesiology. My understanding of the New
Covenant causes me to argue that the crimes of Servetus required excommunication, but the
Church has no authority to put a man to death. But, my understanding of the historic context
and political situation surrounding the execution of heretics in Geneva also forces me to
conclude that John Calvin was not a murderous man, nor was the Council acting against its
conscience or its laws. Any effort to paint John Calvin as a power mad authoritarian who ruled
the church and the city with an iron fist and the threat of death simply belies the ignorance and
lack of historical research on the part of the man who makes such a biased claim.
Additional resources (both positive and negative)
www.ccel.org/s/schaff/history/8_ch13.htm- this link is from Schaff's Church History. If you want
the background and the big picture, this is good.
www.ccel.org/s/schaff/history/8_ch16.htm- this is Schaff's chapter on Servetus.
www.christainhistory.com/articles/death_penalty.html- this link is basically a compilation of
history-text quotations that put Calvin in a bad light.