The Heretic from Navarre


Michael Servetus is one of the intellectual forefathers of Unitarian ideas. He was a scholar, a courtier and secretary to princes, a writer, an editor, a physician, and a theologian.

Servetus was born Miguel Serveto Conesa alias Revés, in the town of Villanueva de Sijena, in northern Spain. (It was common, at that time, for intellectuals to take a Latin form of their given names, which is why he is Servetus to history).   In 1511, the year Miguel was born, there was one church in Europe – the Catholic church. Six years later, in 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenburg, Germany. Luther intended to reform the existing church, but in short order he had set in motion the Protestant Reformation.

Sixty years earlier, a German inventor named Gutenberg had mastered the steps needed to produce books using movable type. Little Miguel Serveto grew up in an amazing new world, where ideas, suddenly, could be widely disseminated, and where institutions like the Church could be effectively threatened by their spread. The 16th century was a century in which literacy and access to written materials exploded. It was also a century of brutal suppression of those who advanced unwelcome ideas.

Michael Servetus was not a Unitarian. But he is considered by many to be one of Unitarianism’s founders. In 1531, he published a small book called De Trinitatis Erroribus (On the Errors of the Trinity).   In 1553, he completed another work, Christianismi Restitutio, (The Restoration of Christianity). In both, he critiqued tenets of both Catholic and the new Lutheran and Calvinist doctrines, including the Trinitarian understanding of God as “one substance in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Both books were based on careful, scholarly examination of biblical evidence.

His story is part mystery, part intellectual and political history, part drama of passion and revenge, and ultimately, a tragedy where vanity and pride play a lead role in a cruel death.


What beliefs really matter? What, to you, is of ultimate value? What if thoughts, expressed, were not free? Do you have beliefs you are willing to work for? to die for?

Michael Servetus expressed his thoughts and died for his beliefs.

His story includes theological history, and mystery. Part of the mystery, to 21st century minds, might be how so many people could have found the question of the Trinity and other theological controversies so important.

Imagine living at a time when most people’s lives were harsh and short. Infant mortality was high; women often died in childbirth; plague and famine always loomed; war was a constant. Earthly life was hard. And there was life after death – an undisputed, indisputable fact, and a source of hope. You could look forward to a life of eternal bliss, in heaven, or a life of eternal torture, in hell.

The only way to heaven was through the Church. What if it was corrupt, or wrong? Imagine that eternal bliss or eternal torture are at stake. And if you were part of the establishment – what if your power to scare people with ideas gets challenged?

Miguel Serveto was a brilliant child. By the time he was thirteen he had learned to read Spanish, French, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. [i]

The young prodigy went off to university. There he was exposed to the newest ideas of the day. He read the Bible in Greek and Hebrew, its original languages, and studiously compared what he had read in the originals to the Church-approved Latin translations. He noticed, and noted, differences.

In 1530 Servetus was serving as a personal secretary in the court of Charles, emperor of Spain. He witnessed Charles’ coronation, with its ceremonial blessing by the Pope. Later he wrote:

I have seen with my own eyes how the Pope was carried with pomp on the shoulders of princes…adored as a God upon earth. … the most evil of beasts, harlots most shameless.” [ii]

Servetus had developed a passion for “true Christianity” – a Christianity purged of corruption and of non-Biblical dogma. He had read the works of the Protestant reformers, Martin Luther and others, and found hope there. He quit his imperial post and headed for Basel, in Switzerland, where reform minded scholars were abundant.

At first he was welcomed – this young, brilliant Spaniard with high connections seemed like an excellent recruit. He spent ten months in the home of one of the leaders of Protestant reform. His host was first intrigued, then piqued, and finally infuriated, as his young guest insisted on lecturing whoever would listen on God and the Trinity.

“Everyone is born of the spirit of God.” Servetus argued constantly that he could disprove the notion of the Trinity as proclaimed by the Catholic church. [iii] By the end of the stay he and his host were writing letters to each other rather than speaking face to face. (Imagine having a house guest you can’t stand, with whom you communicate only by texting.)[iv]

Servetus discerned he was wearing out his welcome and might actually be in danger. Since blogging had not yet come into its own, he found a printer. The printer left his printer’s mark and place of printing off the book.   Servetus proudly listed his name as author on the cover page. In 1531, when he was still only 19, his Errors of the Trinity appeared. [v]

The run of a thousand copies sold almost instantly. It was widely discussed, and found favor with some liberal priests, both Reformers and Catholics. But clergy leaders on all sides denounced it.

The Catholic church banned it immediately. The Inquisition in Spain branded Servetus as a heretic, and sent agents to find him, to bring him back to Spain for trial and execution. The agents returned empty-handed. Michael Servetus was gone. Rumors circulated that he had died in a dungeon.[vi]

Michael Servetus was not a Unitarian. He was, however, a brilliant biblical literalist who opposed the Church’s teachings on the Trinity. The essence of the Christian faith, for Servetus, was that belief in Jesus as the son of God was essential to salvation. He believed that Jesus was literally the son of God, having been conceived “supernaturally” as is told in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. He taught that the Holy Spirit was an “activity or power working within” human beings. [vii]

Michael Servetus was not a Unitarian. But the great Unitarian historian Earl Morse Wilbur devoted seven chapters of his two volume history to him, and three more chapters to the followers of Servetus, who took his ideas further.[viii]

Two years after the publication of the now contraband Errors of the Trinity, a 22 year old named Michel de Villeneuve, supposedly from Navarre, enrolled in the University of Paris to study mathematics. For a brief time, Protestant ideas were discussed and debated. De Villeneuve found like-minded men among the most radical of the students, and to some he confessed (or more likely bragged about) his true identity.

Among those was a young, equally stubborn and brilliant reformer named John Calvin. At least in Calvin’s mind, the two were bitter rivals. Soon the French authorities cracked down on Protestants. Calvin and de Villeneuve were among the reformers who fled, Calvin to Geneva, de Villeneuve to southern France.[ix]

The authorities had no French equivalent of a central FBI database. Michel de Villeneuve, now 23, appeared in the provinces and applied for work at a printer’s shop, where his education and knowledge of languages were valued. A respected and wealthy physician became his patron and introduced him to the higher strata of local society.

In 1536 he went back to Paris to study medicine, then went to Lyon to a successful practice. He was an upstanding citizen, and a much loved and valued doctor.

Ten years later – who knows why – he was again inflamed with passion for church reform. In 1546 he began a correspondence with Calvin, now the leader of his own religious city-state in Geneva. Servetus wrote asking questions about Calvin’s theology. Calvin at first replied politely, but it soon became clear that de Villeneuve was issuing a challenge, rather than seeking Calvin’s wisdom. Calvin became annoyed, and broke off communication. Servetus continued to badger Calvin, in language that became abusive. He sent copies of Calvin’s own books, rudely and extensively annotated. Calvin was furious. He wanted Servetus dead.

Servetus seemed to give up on trying to convince Calvin of his theological errors. He returned to the only other way he had to promote his ideas – and readied another book for publication. Christianismi Restitio, or Christianity Restored, was printed in 1552. It contained some of the same ideas as the earlier Errors of the Trinity, as well as some heretical notions about the nature of God as indwelling in all living things, and other ideas that contradicted doctrine of both the Protestants and the Catholics. Somehow Calvin got hold of an early copy. (How is another mystery – did Servetus provide it?)[x]

This is the outrageous part of the story: Through an intermediary, John Calvin notified the authorities in France that Michel de Villeneuve, upstanding citizen and beloved physician of Lyon, was in fact the heretic Michael Servetus. John Calvin, the pious reformer, who, had he himself returned to France, would have been arrested for heresy and put to death. The Inquisition moved in on Servetus. Nearly all of the copies of his new book were confiscated. He was arrested and held for trial.

With the help of friends, he managed to escape. Having lost the chance to burn him in person, the Inquisition had him burned in effigy.

Servetus had adequate money to get himself to Poland or Transylvania, where he could have been safe. But, inexplicably, instead of heading south, he went north, by way of Geneva. He arrived there on a Saturday night.

And then, equally inexplicably, the church he chose to attend the next morning was the one where Calvin was preaching.

This is a mystery, and a story about vanity and pride.

Servetus was recognized, arrested and charged with heresy. His trial dragged on for months. Calvin himself took on the role of chief prosecutor. Servetus would not recant, and was finally convicted. On October 27, 1553, as half of Geneva’s citizenry looked on, Michael Servetus was burned at the stake with a copy of his Christianity Restored tied to his leg. Spectators reported that he lived for about a half hour after the fire was lit.[xi]

Do you have beliefs you are willing to die for?

In 1633, 80 years after Servetus’ death, Galileo was found by the Inquisition to be "vehemently suspect of heresy," because, among other wrong-headed beliefs, he supported the notion that the earth moves around the sun. He signed a confession in which he “adjured, cursed and detested” that opinion, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

Undoubtedly Galileo knew the material truth would out. The earth either was or was not at the center of the universe. But for Servetus, and for Calvin, the stakes were higher.

Earl Morse Wilbur wrote, it is so nearly impossible for one now to attain … a firm grasp of the mental and spiritual background of the age in which the Servetus tragedy was enacted: its presuppositions, its prejudices, its intensity of convictions, its scale of values, all taken for granted, and all so different from those today.

Of Servetus, he writes: When speaking from strong conviction of truth, he could show himself intolerably conceited toward an antagonist; and when impatient or irritated that others could not or would not see what seemed to him as clear a daylight, he displayed a mastery of the language of abuse …

On Calvin: It has been well said of him that as a man he was not cruel, but as a theologian he was merciless; and it was as a theologian that he dealt with Servetus. … Any deviation from … (his well-thought-out Institutes) he regarded … as a repudiation of the word of God, of which he was only the transmitter. [xii]

Both were men of large egos, who genuinely, passionately believed their own truths, not merely as a matter of life or death, but as a matter of a person’s fate throughout eternity. Neither displayed the least bit of tolerance for the other’s ideas.

Both left their legacies. Servetus planted seeds. His seeds were ideas that others took further into early Unitarianism – in parts of Italy, in Poland and in Transylvania. And, although leaders of other Swiss city-states had actually supported Servetus’ execution, in the aftermath of his horrible and cruel death attitudes about burning heretics began to change. Male heretics, anyway. Educated heretics. Tens of thousands of accused witches, 80% of them women, were still burned for another century and beyond, mostly in Switzerland and Germany.[xiii]

The story of Michael Servetus – mystery, drama, intellectual history and tragedy – is a good one, one worth learning more about. It could remind us to be grateful for the right of conscience and freedom of speech that the U.S. Constitution guarantees. It might call us pay attention when those rights are violated. It might make us wonder if there are beliefs or values so important we’d be willing to die for them. And to wonder how we would know.

Today is Earth Day. I must have been off schedule in my planning, since I preached an Earth Day sermon just a few weeks ago. So today I read the children the story of Johnny Appleseed, to acknowledge it. I imagine Johnny Appleseed as someone who didn’t talk much, certainly someone who, although reputedly religious, did not write impassioned theological tracts. Instead, he planted trees, and taught others how to care for them.

The living tradition of Unitarian Universalism draws on many sources, including the words and deeds of prophetic women and men. There are many ways to be prophets. Many ways to plant seeds. And many legacies to leave: legacies of hope, challenge, ideas, knowledge, commitment and faith – even legacies of orchards, their trees bearing fruit both tart and sweet.


[i] Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, Out of the Flames, Broadway Books, 2002, page 31.

[ii] Ibid, page 60.

[iii] Ibid, page 69.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Earl Morse Wilbur, A History of Unitarianism: Socinianism and its Antecedents, Beacon Press, 1945, page 60.

[vi] Wilbur, page 75.

[vii] Wilbur, page 63.

[viii] Wilbur, table of contents.

[ix] See Goldstone and Goldstone, chapter 6.

[x] Wilbur, page 139.

[xi] See Wilbur, chapter IX and Goldstone and Goldstone, chapters 11-13.

[xii] Wilbur, pages 197 and 198.



Both volumes of Wilbur’s highly readable History of Unitarianism are available in a pdf version on the website of the Starr King School of Ministry. The Goldstone biography draws on more recent scholarship about Servetus’ life and contains a fascinating account of the three copies of Christianismi Restitio that survived the censors.