by Joanna Crawford
When I think of my Unitarian heritage, generally the first thoughts in my head are of our American Unitarian Universalist history. I of course think of our countries founding fathers and mothers such as Thomas Jefferson and Abigail Adams, and of course, the Transcendentalists.
But our pre-American history is some of the most colorful. Along with boasting of many Unitarian presidents, we can boast of a Unitarian king ... King of Transylvania, to be exact. But I'm getting ahead of myself ...
Before I can talk about the very tolerant King Sigismund of Transylvania, I need to tell you about Michael Servetus. And in order to talk about Servetus, we have to first talk about John Calvin.
From everything I have read about Calvin, he comes across ... well, a lot like Bill Gates. (I should mention that I am not a Gates fan.) Physically small, not much of a sense of humor ... Calvin was what my generation called a geek. A nerd. Shy, taciturn, pious and even as a student, a "severe censor of his comrades' morals." Not the most popular kid at U.P. (University of Paris.)
But he was ambitious. Went to Law School and got his degree, then began studying literature. He read some of Martin Luther's sermons and became very interested in the new religious movement. At the age of twenty-six, he wrote a book that would affect the world -- kind of like Microsoft Windows. In 1536 he published The Principles of the Christian Religion, a book that Michael Servetus would ultimately die for refuting.
"Principles" detailed, among other things, his belief that before creation, God decided who was going to go to heaven, and who would go to hell. So, no matter the good works that you accomplished during your life, they would have no bearing on your fate. It was already decided. And no Purgatory in Calvin's view ... no way to work your way to heaven. If you weren't one of the chosen ones -- you were toast.
Incidentally, Calvin had complete confidence that He was one of the chosen, or the "elect." Go figure.
Calvin also felt that the Bible was complete in its every word and should be our final authority, not only in religion or morals, but in history, politics, everything. Church should regulate all details of faith, worship and morals and State should act as the physical arm of the church, enforcing these details.
Despite his professed beliefs in the Bible as a whole, Calvin could ignore the parts he didn't like with the best of them. He sternly ignored the conception of God as a loving deity, as well as any parts discussing man's freedom to create his own destiny.
Calvin would most probably not have become the power that he was ... indeed, he was referred to as the Protestant Pope ... were it not for his Svengali, William Farel.
William Farel was an independent preacher, and is described as having fiery eyes and a beard of flaming red. He was passionate about the Protestant movement, denouncing the Pope as the Antichrist. He saw in Calvin, 20 years his junior, the person who could advance the Reform.
Calvin -- not a people person. Wanted to stay home and write books. So, Farel threatened to lay a holy curse on him if he refused to preach. Calvin took the pulpit.
Then, Farel and Calvin decided to clean up Dodge -- err, Geneva, Switzerland. They created a moral code which became law. Any show of Catholicism would of course subject the offender to punishment ... as would gambling, adultery ... women were even imprisoned for wearing improper hats. Kind of makes Mayor Guiliani look like a pussycat.
The people of Geneva didn't like this turn of events. A party of people, demanding liberty of conscience and worship, called Libertins, or Liberals, joined with other groups in the city, captured a majority in the Great Council and told Farel and Calvin to stay out of politics, and banished them. The people of Geneva -- literally -- celebrated in the streets.
Unfortunately, Geneva returned to its licentious ways. Gambling, drunkenness, street brawls, lewd songs, (and this was before rap) ... the Council began to wonder if banishing Farel and Calvin was such a good idea. So, they finally called them up, said, "Gee, sorry we banished you, maybe you were on to something, please come back."
Calvin returned. He labored there as a preacher, administrator, professor of theology, superintendent of churches and schools, adviser to municipal councils and regulator of public morals and church liturgy. "Conflict of interest" was a term not yet in use.
He reorganized the Reformed Church, with himself as the head. The essential features of this reorganization are still accepted today in the Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Part of this reorganization was a program to control the lives of all the citizens, and any separation of church and state went out the window. Religious worship was enforced and any arguments about having a different or private religious creed were not allowed. Individualism of belief was not tolerated.
To regulate lay conduct, a church elder would visit yearly each home in his division and question the occupants on all phases of their lives. Prohibited was gambling, card-playing, profanity, drunkenness, dancing, irreligious songs, extravagance in living, immodesty in dress ... Then, specified by law, there was allowable color and quantity of clothing, number of dishes permissible at a meal ... in fact, a woman was jailed for arranging her hair to an immoral height. Yes, Virginia, there is a fashion police.
And now, let us turn to his most famous challenger -- our patron saint, Michael Servetus.
Just a couple of years younger than Calvin, Servetus grew up in Spain, which was at that time, going through a transition of tolerance. Like many Unitarians today, he was influenced by the literature of the Jews and the Moslems, read commentaries by rabbis and was impressed by the Semitic criticism that Christianity, with its prayers to a Trinity, to Mary and to saints, was polytheistic. He studied law, and discovered Protestantism, and liked it.
At only 20 years old, Servetus wrote "On the Errors of the Trinity." He detailed what is now basic Unitarian (as opposed to Trinitarian) thought, that Jesus was divinely inspired by God, but was not God. He added that those believing in the Trinity were actually "tri-theists."
Well, the Inquisition at Toulouse issued a warrant for his arrest after this, so, like Roman Polanski, he went to Paris but began using a different name. While there, he studied mathematics, geography, astronomy and medicine. Little bit of trivia -- at some point in his life -- it is not known when -- he discovered the pulmonary circulation of the blood, which he would later publish in his final work.
This final work was called the Restitution of Christianity, and it was a direct rebuttal of Calvin's book, Principles of the Christian Religion. Along with his non-trinitarian belief, he also rejected as blasphemy the notion that God predestines souls to hell regardless of their merits or guilt. (Ah, talking like a Universalist, now.)
Now, bless his heart, Michael Servetus was a Unitarian not only in terms of being a Non-Trinitarian, but he also had the distinctly Unitarian belief in the power of discussion. He was excited about his theories, so he sent his manuscript directly to Calvin.
Calvin's response was to merely send Servetus a copy of HIS book. Servetus returned Calvin's copy, filled with insulting annotations, following that up with a series of letters so contemptuous that Calvin wrote to Farel saying "If that boy shows his face around here, he's dead meat." But I paraphrase ...
Servetus, angered that Calvin would not continue in their correspondence, wrote to one of Calvin's ministers that, quote, "Your gospel is without God, without true faith ... this is the third letter that I have written to warn you that you may know better. I will not warn you again ..."
Because of the book that he had written, Michael Servetus was arrested -- he escaped from his prison, but the civil court condemned him, if found, to be burned alive by a slow fire. So, he bounced around France for 3 months, then headed to Naples ... via Geneva.
Oh, one other thing about Servetus -- a little insane.
While in Geneva, he went to church ... to the same church, in fact, where Calvin was preaching. He was identified, and promptly arrested.
He stayed for a couple of months in prison while his trial was carefully conducted, his indictment having been written up by Calvin personally. In court, he defended his beliefs boldly. He was frequently invited to recant and go free ... he refused, believing still that if they just sat down and talked about it, surely these people would see the wisdom in what he was saying.
He was not allowed to have a lawyer, so he presented to the Council a written reply to each of Calvin's 38 charges. He met each point with keen argument and scriptural references and questioned Calvin's right to interfere in the trial in the first place.
Nonetheless, the Council passed sentence of death for two counts of heresy: Rejection of infant baptism, and Unitarianism.
The sentence was carried out the next morning on a hill south of Geneva. They bound his book to his side, placed a crown of sulfur on his head, and heaped green wood at his feet. As they prepared him for this gruesome death, Farel invited him to recant. Servetus, disbelieving this was happening for sharing his religious beliefs, refused, saying, "I am not guilty, I have not merited death." After half an hour of burning, he finally died.
But his death became a cause celebrate, and forced a dialogue about religious tolerance. Influenced by these discussions, and by his friend Francis David, King Sigismund of Transylvania issued the first public decree of religious toleration. David himself would fit in nicely with today's Unitarian -- it was he that responded to opponents who threatened him with death that "I shall defend to the death your right to be wrong."
And, in 1903, the spiritual heirs of Calvin's Reformed Church raised a monument to Michael Servetus, one which states that the gospel can only be preached authentically where freedom of conscience is respected.
Michael Servetus is not the only Unitarian martyr, in fact, there was another put to death 14 years before he was. Her name was Katherine Vogel, she freely admitted to being a Unitarian, and she was imprisoned for 10 years. (The Bishop who imprisoned her would periodically bring her out, invite her to change her beliefs ... and she would refuse.) When at last she was led out into the square, to be burned at the stake, the white-haired woman of 80 boldly stated that neither in this life or the next can anything evil befall the soul of one who stands loyal to the truth as one is given to know it.