He lied about, betrayed, hounded and finally murdered a fellow Christian. John Calvin, the Frenchman, born Jean Chauvin, found a man he couldn’t bully and whose arguments he could not refute. The man he murdered was one of the greatest minds of the sixteenth century and a match for the equally brilliant John Calvin. The great reformer would not be satisfied with a simple execution, he demanded torture and slow burning with green wood to insure that his adversary suffer greatly.
It’s the remarkable story of a fearless scholar, a fatal heresy, and one of the rarest books in the world. Before Michael Servetus (1511-1553) met his fate at the hands of John Calvin, this rarest of men had accomplished truly amazing things. His life met at the junction of Johann Gutenberg’s invention moveable type, the Catholic Inquisition, and the Protestant Reformation. He used the expanding power of the printing press to publish his worthy research thus incurring the wrath of both the Spanish and French Inquisitions, and fatally, the wrath of reformer John Calvin.
Born of middle class parents in Spain, he excelled in learning. Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone in their new work, Out of the Flames, (Broadway Books, 2002) tell us that, “by the time he was thirteen, in addition to his native language, he could read French, Greek, Latin, and most significantly, Hebrew. In most of the Christian world Hebrew was a forbidden language. It was considered dangerous, mystical, and subversive. The Church was adamantly against it: knowledge of Hebrew meant that the Old Testament could be read in its original form…. Hebrew, when it was taught at all, was almost always taught in secret and by a Jew.”
The scholarly Servetus studied the Bible, an activity the Church regarded as subversive, caught reading it could lead to imprisonment or death – one of the many ways the Church for over a thousand years had maintained its control. Servetus’ scholarship took him another step forward as he added Arabic to his repertoire so he could read the Koran. He was still only seventeen years old. He attended and earned degrees at the best universities in France and Germany. His love was theology and he became very good at it.
Disgusted with what he called Roman corruption, Servetus wanted to see the Church returned to its original purity. He felt reformers like Luther had not gone nearly far enough. The Goldstones note, “Without a willingness to attack the fundamental precepts of Catholic dogma, Servetus thundered, no meaningful reform was imaginable – there could be no possible restoration of the simpler, more generous Christianity propounded by Jesus himself. Servetus came up with his own battle plan for purging Christianity of Roman corruption. Everything, he insisted, came back to the Trinity.”
The Church’s greatest debate was decided in 325, when at Nicaea, Emperor Constantine gave approval to a new understanding of the persons of God and Jesus, and added a third person, the Holy spirit into a unique Godhead. Gone was the pure monotheism of Moses, the Prophets, Jesus, and the Primitive Church. The Church hierarchy had created a new, three-God deity, united mystically into “one God.” Servetus set about to prove the entire doctrine unbiblical.
“Servetus, whose biblical scholarship even at nineteen was colossal, know that nothing of the Nicene Creed was stated or even hinted at in the Scriptures, which he had read in the original Hebrew and Greek. He found ‘not one word about the Trinity, nor about its Persons, nor about Essence, nor about a unity of Substance.’ The Trinity was a contrivance – sheer mysticism – and Christianity could never be purified until it was stripped.”
Servetus realized that people for their religion and worship according to their concept of God. A corrupt concept will produce corrupt religion. He found a printer, and his first book, De Trinitatis Erroribut (On the Errors of the Trinity), hit the world. It was a direct slap at the Church and its hero Saint Augustine. It was a rigorous work citing over thirty sources in Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic. He naively expected honest scholars to entertain his challenge to the holiest concept in Roman Christianity. It caused a great stir and led the Spanish Inquisition to issue an order for his arrest and execution.
The young scholar fled to France, changed his name, went back to university and became a medical physician. So good was he at his new profession he became personal physician to French royalty, pioneered new procedures, taught medical students, and wrote books on anatomy. But Theology remained his first love. Using his alias, he engaged John Calvin, offering a page by page critique of Calvin’s huge work, Christianae Religiouis Institutio (The Institutes of Christianity). Servetus attacked Calvinism on many fronts including the Trinity and his once-saved-always-saved doctrine that became a distinctive for the founder of Presbyterianism. The two scholars carried on a heated debate via letters for several years.
For six years Servetus worked in secret to produce his most important work, Christianismi Restitutio (The Restoration of Christianity) and it was a slap in the face to Calvin’s Institutes. He sent his 800-page book to Calvin asking response to its evidence. Calvin had clearly met his match and was incensed by the challenge to his authority (Calvin had people flogged for failing to address him as “Master”). Calvin found out the famous physician, his theological critic, was none other than the heretic Servetus. Calvin revealed this fact to the French Inquisitors who arrested and imprisoned Servetus (Calvin himself had escaped them and he labeled them Satan’s servants).
Servetus escaped prison, but couldn’t escape the agents of John Calvin.
Michael Servetus was on the run, wanted by the Spanish Inquisition for heresy, and more recently, by John Calvin for the same charge. The brilliant theologian and medical doctor had written books calling for the Catholic Church and the new Protestant movement to return to the scriptural beliefs and practices of the primitive church. He contended that since the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) the church had fallen into paganism with such unscriptural doctrines as the Trinity and infant baptism.
Chased by the Spanish Inquisition he fled from his native Spain to France where he acquired an alias, went to university and established a new profession as a medical doctor. His abiding love, however, remained the scriptures. He used his alias in initiating a spirited correspondence with the great reformer John Calvin, a Frenchman who had fled the Catholic French Inquisition and taken up residence in Geneva. Their back and forth dialogue by mail continued for many years.
Calvin, like Luther, is one of the Protestant Reformations larger-than-life heroes. His modern legacy is the Presbyterian Church. He was an intellectual giant, akin to his Catholic counterpart Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. Ironically, in their younger days Servetus, Calvin and Loyola attended the University of Paris at exactly the same time, although they traveled in far different circles and Servetus did not use his real name.
Loyola, in fact, was Calvin’s mirror image. “Physically, they were both small, thin, frail, short-tempered, and constantly beset by illness. Spiritually, both were intense, committed, indomitable, and utterly convinced of their godliness” (Lawrence & Nancy Goldstone, Out of the Flames, Broadway Books, New York, 202, p 204).
At one point Servetus sent Calvin a detailed critique of the Institutes of Christianity, Calvin’s magisterial theological work. Clearly, Calvin had met his intellectual match and chafed over his doctrine being challenged. Calvin did not brook criticism patiently. Servetus has also sent him his own work, the 800-page The Restoration of Christianity, asking Calvin to refute it.
Betrayed by Calvin
Later, Calvin was informed that his critical correspondent was none other that the great scholar and theologian – and heretic – Michael Servetus. He quickly notified the French Inquisition (which he’d previously labeled instruments of Satan and before which he’d fled to Geneva) who arrested and imprisoned Servetus. But Servetus escaped again and now headed to the Kingdom of Naples where he learned he might find protection and continue his writing.
But Servetus made the big mistake of traveling through Geneva on his way to Naples. Geneva was John Calvin’s city and his foes called him the Protestant Pope for he ruled with an iron hand. As chance would have it, he arrived on the eve of the “Sabbath” (Sunday) when there would be no boats crossing the lake to Zurich. Desiring to be inconspicuous, and since church attendance was mandatory, on the 13th of August in 1553 he attended the Madeleine church.
Of all the churches in Geneva he chanced to pick the one where Calvin was preaching. Was it accidental or was it on purpose, he wanting to actually see in person the man he had so actively debated the letter? Perhaps he believed he might even be welcomed by his protagonist. He wasn’t.
Arrested by Calvin
Calvin’s agents spotted Servetus in church, notified Calvin who promptly ordered Servetus arrested, his money and belongings confiscated, and thrown in prison. Calvin had him placed in a lice-infested cell and ordered the windows shuttered closed. Within hours all Geneva know of his arrest. The arrest, of course, was illegal since Servetus was neither a citizen of Geneva nor had he committed any crime there. But Calvin was calling the shots.
Local law required a formal charge to be presented within twenty-four hours of arrest. In order to meet the deadline Calvin worked through the night drawing up a list of thirty-nine charges. The list ranged from charges of publishing heretical literature attacking the Trinity, infant baptism, predestination, and the preexistence of Christ, to believing blasphemous doctrine, to lack of respect for accepted church doctrine (Calvin’s), to insulting disrespect for John Calvin personally. Perhaps the silliest of the charges was one that he had violated the law by escaping the Catholic Inquisition – a “crime” of which most citizens of Geneva were likewise guilty.
Accused by Calvin
The trial before the Council began quickly on August 14 with interrogations of Servetus and examinations of his writings. The trial would continue with frequent breaks until his death sentence was carried out on October 27th.
Servetus was denied council even though t5hat was the standard practice in trials. He was also denied a change of clothing being required to live in a cell full of filth and vermin. In the October cold he appealed for a change of clothing and warmer clothing, but was denied again.
Despite his pitiful circumstances he welcomed the face to face debate with his intellectual opponent and the leader of Protestantism. This was the climax of an almost twenty year correspondence contending over doctrine and the scriptures.
The stakes could not be higher for Servetus. He knew his life was on the line and Calvin was already famous for his cruelty to those who opposed him or were charged with heresy.
Calvin’s philosophy was that it was better to punish too harshly than too gently where “God honor” was concerned. In the most scholarly and exhaustive account of the Servetus case, Marian Hillar recounts some facts about Calvin (The Case of Michael Servetus – The Turning Point in the Struggle for Freedom of Conscience, Texts and Studies in Religion, Vol 74, Edwin Mellen Press, 1997, p. 288):
One burgher smiled while attending a baptism: three days’ imprisonment. Another tired out on a hot summer day, went to sleep during the sermon: prison. Two boatmen had a brawl, in which no one was hurt: executed. A man who publicly protested against the reformer’s doctrine of predestination was mercilessly flogged and expelled from the city. A book printer who, when drink, had railed at Calvin, was sentenced to have his tongue perforated with a red-hot iron before being expelled from the city. Jacques Gruet was racked and then executed for merely having called Calvin a hypocrite.
In this [Calvin’s] New Jerusalem during the first five years of his dictatorship thirteen people wee hanged, ten were decapitated, thirty-five were burned and seventy-six were expelled from the city.
Like Luther, Calvin often preached a theory of toleration and against vengeance, but in practice they turned out to be empty words. Luther once wrote at the beginning of his career, “The burning of heretics is contrary to the will of the Holy Spirit.” Such sentiments evaporated.
Of course, times were different in the sixteenth century, but the early reformers had apparently learned from the Catholic Inquisitors how to best deal with opposition.
Not only was there little doctrinal change among the reformers, the cruel practices against dissent continued. Catholics slaughtered Protestants sometimes by as many as thirty thousand at a crack. Wars erupted between small and large Protestant and Catholic kingdoms. From the Servetus trial forward the reign of terror accelerated.
Protestants and Catholics – Calvinists and Jesuits – dug ecclesiastic trenches, two great armies prepared to pound it out.
To know the history of Europe over the next hundred years is to marvel that the human race survived. From 16168-1648 [The Thirty Year’s War], Catholic fought Calvinist, Calvinist fought Lutheran, Hapsburg fought Bourbon, nationalist fought imperialist. The wreckage was unthinkable.
Cities were revisited again and again by a succession of marauding armies that killed, burned, raped, stole every bit of food in sight, then ruined the fields so that nothing further could be grown. In the Netherlands they had eaten rats and leather to survive; in Germany they ate each other. No statistic is more chilling than this: there were 21 million people living in Germany in 1618, at the start of the war; by 1648, the war’s end, only 13 million were left. The plague was not so efficient. (Goldstones, p. 210, 214)
Servetus had no illusions of mercy at the hands of Calvin and his court, but he hoped he could prevail on the issue of the illegality of the trial, or failing that, on the scriptural merit of his beliefs. Of course, he could recant his beliefs, demonstrate servility, and beg for Calvin’s forgiveness in hopes to receive a less than lethal punishment, an option Calvin apparently never considered.
Calvin’s court broke its own procedures by denying Servetus’ request for a defense counsel. Servetus was forced to act as his own defense and prepare for the trial from a dark and filthy prison cell. It was to be Servetus alone against the minions of Calvinism.
Trial of the Century
Calvin sat on the prosecutors’ bench with many of his ministers close at hand. They fired charges and questions at Servetus to shake the foundations of his positions. Servetus was more than equal to any of the lines of questioning and in time the prosecutors became frustrated.
Calvin then stood up and took over the questioning from his subordinates. As Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone write in their book, Out of the Flames,
The exchanges were sharp, fast, and erudite. There was perhaps no other person in Europe who could have matched up to either of them. … At every turn, Calvin attacked and Servetus countered.
The overall charge was heresy. Servetus taught that the Trinity was absent from scripture and a gross error; and he taught that infant baptism is likewise non-biblical. He also presented an impassioned plea for religious liberty – a revolutionary concept in those times.
On the last point he was criticized by the prosecutor that his notion of religious liberty and freedom of conscience was a political threat and subversion of justice:
It is quite manifest that Servetus is one of the most audacious, presumptuous, and pernicious heretics that had ever lived. Moreover, not being content with the evil he has wrought, he wants to subvert every order the justice and to deprive the magistrate of the right to punish by the sword, the right given to him by God. But one should not be mistaken for his conscience condemns him and argues for death. And in order to avoid this punishment he wanted to propound such a false doctrine that the criminals should be punished by death. (Hillar, p. 293)
The trial prosecutor characterized Servetus’ doctrine of religious liberty as the spreading of criminal behavior, i.e., heresy. If the state were to concede that people could believe what they want, it would put out of business the magistrates’ right to kill them – his “God-given right.” In their view, Servetus’ world would be a horrible world since heretics could no longer be burned, beheaded, or tortured.
The trial consisted of four phases with many sessions in each phase. In the last phase, Calvin was determined to make Servetus’ condemnation more serious so his death would be assured. He invoked the statement of Bucer, an associate, who said Servetus “deserved to have his entrails torn out.”
With his execution all but certain, Servetus begged Calvin to just behead him with a sword rather than death by burning, being worried that he might not remain faithful under the prolonged pain. Calvin would not honor his request; instead ordering green wood for the pyre for a slow burn and sulfur upon Servetus’ head so when the flames reached up it would ignite with intense burning and additional suffering.
In previous installments we presented the uncontested historical evidence that John Calvin had Michael Servetus burned at the stake. The charge against him, unproved, was heresy. What was Servetus’ heresy?
The Spanish theologian and physician taught against infant baptism and the doctrine of the Trinity. He engaged Calvin in spirited scholarly discussion by letter for over a decade. Servetus maintained that neither doctrine was rooted in Scripture; in fact, he provided detailed evidence that both doctrines were contrary to the scriptures and to biblical principles.
His scholarly book, Errors of the Trinity, was a frontal attack against the Catholic and Protestant doctrine of the nature of God and his Son. He said they “contrive three Gods or one threefold one,” a concept foreign to Scripture. Speaking of the Trinity doctrine, established in the fourth century, he said, “this plague of philosophy was brought upon us by the Greeks…they never understood the passages of the Scriptures which they adduced with regard to this matter.”
He also observed that, “The Jews also shrink from giving adherence to this [“Christian”] fancy of ours, and laugh at our foolishness about the Trinity, and on account of its blasphemies, they do not believe that this is the Messiah promised in their Law.” Servetus was quite familiar with Jewish thought as his native Spain was heavily influenced by centuries of Jewish culture. Servetus found Jews who would secretly tutor him in biblical Hebrew, its teaching having been forbidden by the Catholic Church.
Through a strange twist of fate Servetus finally came face to face with John Calvin, the great reformer, theologian, and founder of what would become the Presbyterian Church. Servetus had escaped from prison and was fleeing the long arm of the French Inquisition when he stopped in Geneva on his way to safe sanctuary in northern Italy.
It should be noted that it was Calvin who alerted the French Inquisition to Servetus’ whereabouts and true name (he was using an alias in France as he had a death sentence upon him from the Catholic Spanish Inquisition) which resulted in his imprisonment. Catholics had also labeled him a heretic for his anti-Trinity, anti-infant baptism beliefs.
Geneva was Calvin’s base and he ruled it with a rod of iron. All citizens were required to attend church. The fleeing Servetus, not wanting to be conspicuous, went to a church in Geneva. The preacher that Sunday was none other than The Reformer. Servetus was recognized by one of Calvin’s men, and when told his protagonist was in attendance, Calvin ordered him arrested on that Sunday, August 13, 1553, and tossed in prison.
Previous installments described Calvin’s prosecution and Servetus’ defense before a stacked court acting without legal jurisdiction (Servetus was not a citizen of Geneva, had committed no crime, and was just passing through town). The outcome was determined before any arguments were heard. During the entire proceedings, which lasted months, Servetus was kept in a filthy vermin filled cell and not allowed a change of clothes.
At one point in the trial the debate moved from the Trinity to other issues. Servetus went on the attack against Calvin’s doctrine of predestination which was the center of Calvin’s theology. He imputed to Calvin that he followed Simon Magus whom Servetus believed to be the father of that hateful doctrine.
Further, he said Calvin’s doctrine of original sin, total depravity and determinism, reduced man to a “log” and a “stone.” He would not yield to Calvin’s insistence that he confess to the eternal existence of the Son, maintaining that Jesus Christ was the Son of God but didn’t become so until he was begotten on earth as documented in the Gospel accounts.
Burned Without Mercy
When Servetus knew Calvin was going to have him killed regardless of the merits of his arguments (all of which Calvin could not refute), he asked for mercy. He pleaded with Calvin to just quickly cut off his head by sword rather than burning him at the stake, fearing he might not remain faithful under the anticipated pain.
Ignoring pleas for mercy, Calvin ordered Servetus to be burned with green wood so the suffering would be prolonged. He ordered sulfur be placed atop his head so when the flames finally reached high enough to ignite the sulfur an even more intense heat would burn his head.
Throughout the ordeal Michael Servetus did not recant his deeply held beliefs or his innocence. On October 26 the official Council of Two Hundred ordered Servetus “to be led to Champel and burned there alive on the next day together with his books.” Only two charges were mentioned in his sentencing – anti-trinitarianism and anti-pedobaptism.
The law under which Servetus was condemned was the Codex of Justinian that prescribed the death penalty for the denial of the Trinity. This law was instituted by the totalitarian ecclesiastical state, whose morality was defined by the interests of the ecclesiastical state.
The lengthy text of charges were formally read in his presence. The principle charge read: “Who [Servetus] is first accused to have printed about 23 to 24 years ago a book in Hagenau in Germany against the Holy and indivisible Trinity, containing several and great blasphemies against it in the churches of Germany.”
Two hours before his execution he requested an audience with Calvin who agreed and came with two of his lieutenants. We have only Calvin’s account of the meeting. He wrote of Servetus, “I reminded him gently that for more than 16 years I did not spare anything in order to gain him for our Lord.” Calvin’s self-righteous justifications were shameless. He acknowledged that Servetus became “irritated against my good and saintly admonishings…. Seeing that I do not accomplish anything by exhortations, I did not want to be wiser than my Master would permit me. Therefore following the rule of Saint Paul I separated myself from the heretic.”
Servetus was led to his place of martyrdom by a cortege of archers upon horses. People lined the way, some of whom taunted him to recant. Two witnesses wrote that Servetus responded that he was being unjustly killed and he would pray for his accusers. One notable accuser was the theologian Farel who traveled to Geneva from Neuchatel. Walking along he urged Servetus to the last moment to acknowledge errors and confess. Servetus answered him by asking for a single biblical passage showing the eternal sonship of Christ. For Farel and Calvin, Servetus was not a martyr for truth as were those Protestants burned by French Catholics, he was a martyr for error.
Calvin’s burning of “heretics” was moral; Catholic’s burning of Protestant “heretics” was immoral. Such was the religious wisdom and morality of sixteenth century Christianity.
Marian Hillar in his book on Servetus describes the martyrdom. “No cruelty was spared on Servetus as his state was made of bundles of the fresh wood of live oak still green, mixed with the branches still bearing leaves. On his head a straw crown was placed sprayed with sulfur. He was seated on a log with his body chained to a post with an iron chain, his neck was bound with four or five turns of a thick rope. This way Servetus was being fried at a slow fire for about half an hour before he died. At his side were attached copies of his book which he sent ‘confidentially’ to Calvin for ‘his fraternal opinion.’”
His last words were, “O God, save my soul; O Jesus of the eternal God, have mercy on me.”
A Counter-revolution Begun
Calvin succeeded in burning to death his innocent challenger, but in doing so ignited a greater fire of protest against both his doctrine and his intolerance of a free religious conscience.
Word of Servetus’ martyrdom spread and Calvin came under attack from several worthies who chastened him for so ruthless an act.
Servetus’ martyrdom became the spark and impetus for men to begin to cry out for the right to have freedom of conscience. What we now take for granted, a free religious conscience to openly believe what we choose, was a foreign concept to the religious world of Popes and Protestants.
The spark became a flame as the notion of religious freedom, often allied with antitrinitarianism, began to spread. It flamed brightest in Poland where a Catholic Polish King, Sigismund II, allowed Lutherans and Calvinists to live and pray unmolested, noting that he “wished to be king of both sheep and goats.” Even Jews were allowed to live and worship openly in Poland.
Italian reformers, Bernardino Ochino, Georgio Blandrata, and Laelius and Faustus Socinus fled persecution in Italy for the safer climes of Poland. They had embraced both the antitrinitarian doctrine of Servetus and his call for a new humanism that allowed freedom of religion. Under the leadership of Faustus Socinus the movement thrived in Poland and became known as Socinianism. The Unitarian movement would evolve from it.
King John II of Transylvania, a bright young monarch who spoke eight languages and read widely, met one of the Italian reformers and converted, becoming history’s first and only Unitarian king. In 1558 the king issued the Act of Religious Tolerance and Freedom of Conscience. In their history of Servetus, Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone comment that the king’s Act, “in light of what was going on everywhere else in the world (and has in large part gone on since), was astonishing for its perspicacity, intelligence, and sophistication.” It reads:
In every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like, well, if not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, according to the precious statutes, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching. For faith is the gift of God, this comes from hearing, which hearing is by the word of God.
In the next century oppression returned and Unitarians in Poland and Transylvania were officially suppressed. Most were forced to flee to Western Europe, England, and to America. They brought with them both their Unitarian beliefs and their burning quest for religious freedom. Some of the great thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries embraced Servetus’ plea for freedom of conscience, even if all did not embrace his doctrine. Some, like John Milton, Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, John Locke, and Montesquieu embraced both.
The great Voltaire (born Francois-Marie Arouet) made Servetus one of his favorite subjects and devoted an entire chapter in one of his books to him calling him “a very learned doctor” and rightly crediting him with the discovery of the circulation of blood and its function. He became the conscience of Europe and forced the entire Christian world to examine the foundations of its faith. He brought on the period called Enlightenment – for better or worse. His better acts were those where he threw himself into the defense of people under religious persecution.
His most famous case, the Calas affair, involved a hapless Huguenot who didn’t flee France, was falsely accused of crimes he didn’t commit. The innocent Jean Calas was strangled to death by Catholic authorities, tied to a stake and burned. His two daughters were forced into a convent. A son escaped and came to Voltaire for help. Voltaire began a defense fund among whose contributors were Catherine the Great of Russia, Caroline, wife of King George II of England, and Augustus III, king of Poland. Voltaire won the case resulting in Calas exoneration, the release of his daughters from the nunnery, and a large compensation for the Calas family.
The antitrinitarian movement that grew from the martyrdom of Servetus had spread to England where they were accepted buy called “dissenters.” They began their own schools which encouraged free inquiry in religion, science, history, politics, and other academic disciplines. “The result.” Writes the Goldstones, “was a disproportionate number of Dissenters who became leading scientific minds of the time. One man in particular embodied this quest to reconcile science and the spirit: the great English chemist Joseph Priestly. Born in 1733 and by the time he was sixteen had mastered Greek, Latin, and Hebrew in addition to French, Italian, and Dutch. Priestley followed Servetus’ path of tracing the roots of the Trinity to the Council of Nicea, rejecting the corrupt traditions outside Scripture, and believing in Christ as a man who was made divine by the One God.
While he is remembered for his brilliant scientific discoveries (he once met Benjamin Franklin in London in 1766 who encouraged him to write a history of electricity), he considered himself a theologian first. He opposed the lucrative slave trade and was an outspoken supporter of the American Revolution. Because he was the most famous Dissenter in England, an angry mob one night burned down his house including his extensive library and notebooks of all his unpublished scientific research. Chased by mobs, he and his family fled the area and later crossed the Atlantic to America.
Priestly founded a Unitarian Society in Philadelphia and was offered a professorship of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania and the presidency of the American Philosophical society.
Priestly and Thomas Jefferson met in 1797 and Jefferson became something of a mentor to him. They shared keen scientific interests and Priestley’s religious views also affected Jefferson’s own. Jefferson had always been antitrinitarian and had read of Servetus’ martyrdom, all of Voltaire’s works, and shared Priestley’s views on religious freedom.
Jefferson viewed John Calvin as one of history’s worst offenders, a tyrant who bred other tyrants in his name. The event that exposed Calvin for what he was, that most epitomized his hypocrisy, was the trial and execution of Michael Servetus.
One of the three things Jefferson wanted on his tombstone’s epitaph what he wanted to be remembered for was as “Author of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom.” The other two were “Author of the Declaration of American Independence” and the “Father of the University of Virginia.” He didn’t include his presidency or his role in drafting the Bill of Rights to the Constitution.
Jefferson once wrote, “I confidently expect that the present generation will see Unitarianism become the general religion of the United States.” By 1822, all but one of Boston’s churches were Unitarian and the movement was growing. Many famous Americans like Samuel F.B Morse, inventor of the telegraph, and poet and orator Ralph Waldo Emerson were Unitarians. But it peaked in the 1840s and ‘50s, but the spirit of inclusion and free inquiry lives on, thanks in part to Michael Servetus. No thanks to John Calvin.