Schaff writes (and it’s all worth repeating and the bit about Zwingli in bold italics is my emphasis)-
Let us ascertain the sentiments of the leading Reformers with special reference to the case of Servetus. They form a complete justification of Calvin as far as such a justification is possible.
Luther, the hero of Worms, the champion of the sacred rights of conscience, was, in words, the most violent, but in practice, the least intolerant, among the Reformers. He was nearest to Romanism in the condemnation of heresy, but nearest to the genius of Protestantism in the advocacy of religious freedom. He was deeply rooted in mediæval piety, and yet a mighty prophet of modern times. In his earlier years, till 1529, he gave utterance to some of the noblest sentiments in favor of religious liberty. “Belief is a free thing,” he said, “which cannot be enforced.” “If heretics were to be punished by death, the hangman would be the most orthodox theologian.” “Heresy is a spiritual thing which no iron can hew down, no fire burn, no water drown.” “To burn heretics is contrary to the will of the Holy Spirit.” “False teachers should not be put to death; it is enough to banish them.”
But with advancing years he became less liberal and more intolerant against Catholics, heretics, and Jews. He exhorted the magistrates to forbid all preaching of Anabaptists, whom he denounced without discrimination as false prophets and messengers of the devil, and he urged their expulsion. He raised no protest when the Diet of Speier, in 1529, passed the cruel decree that the Anabaptists be executed by fire and sword without distinction of sex, and even without a previous hearing before the spiritual judges. The Elector of Saxony considered it his duty to execute this decree, and put a number of Anabaptists to death in his dominions. His neighbor, Philip of Hesse, who had more liberal instincts than the contemporary princes of Germany, could not find it in his conscience to use the sword against differences of belief. But the theologians of Wittenberg, on being consulted by the Elector John Frederick about 1540 or 1541, gave their judgment in favor of putting the Anabaptists to death, according to the laws of the empire. Luther approved of this judgment under his own name, adding that it was cruel to punish them by the sword, but more cruel that they should damn the ministry of the Word and suppress the true doctrine, and attempt to destroy the kingdoms of the world.
If we put a strict construction on this sentence, Luther must be counted with the advocates of the death-penalty for heresy. But he made a distinction between two classes of Anabaptists—those who were seditious or revolutionary, and those who were mere fanatics. The former should be put to death, the latter should be banished. In a letter to Philip of Hesse, dated November 20, 1538, he urgently requested him to expel from his territory the Anabaptists, whom he characterizes as children of the devil, but says nothing of using the sword. We should give him, therefore, the benefit of a liberal construction.
At the same time, the distinction was not always strictly observed, and fanatics were easily turned into criminals, especially after the excesses of Muenster, in 1535, which were greatly exaggerated and made the pretext for punishing innocent men and women. The whole history of the Anabaptist movement in the sixteenth century has to be rewritten and disentangled from the odium theologicum.
As regards Servetus, Luther knew only his first work against the Trinity, and pronounced it, in his Table Talk (1532), an “awfully bad book.” Fortunately for his fame, he did not live to pronounce a judgment in favor of his execution, and we must give him the benefit of silence.
His opinions on the treatment of the Jews changed for the worse. In 1523 he had vigorously protested against the cruel persecution of the Jews, but in 1543 he counselled their expulsion from Christian lands, and the burning of their books, synagogues, and private houses in which they blaspheme our Saviour and the Holy Virgin. He repeated this advice in his last sermon, preached at Eisleben a few days before his death.
Melanchthon’s record on this painful subject is unfortunately worse than Luther’s. This is all the more significant because he was the mildest and gentlest among the Reformers. But we should remember that his utterances on the subject are of a later date, several years after Luther’s death. He thought that the Mosaic law against idolatry and blasphemy was as binding upon Christian states as the Decalogue, and was applicable to heresies as well.3 He therefore fully and repeatedly justified the course of Calvin and the Council of Geneva, and even held them up as models for imitation! In a letter to Calvin, dated Oct. 14, 1554, nearly one year after the burning of Servetus, he wrote:—
“Reverend and dear Brother: I have read your book, in which you have clearly refuted the horrid blasphemies of Servetus; and I give thanks to the Son of God, who was the βραβευτής [the awarder of your crown of victory] in this your combat. To you also the Church owes gratitude at the present moment, and will owe it to the latest posterity. I perfectly assent to your opinion. I affirm also that your magistrates did right in punishing, after a regular trial, this blasphemous man.”
A year later, Melanchthon wrote to Bullinger, Aug. 20, 1555:—
“Reverend and dear Brother: I have read your answer to the blasphemies of Servetus, and I approve of your piety and opinions. I judge also that the Genevese Senate did perfectly right, to put an end to this obstinate man, who could never cease blaspheming. And I wonder at those who disapprove of this severity.”
Three years later, April 10, 1557, Melanchthon incidentally (in the admonition in the case of Theobald Thamer, who had returned to the Roman Church) adverted again to the execution of Servetus, and called it “a pious and memorable example to all posterity.” It is an example, indeed, but certainly not for imitation.
This unqualified approval of the death penalty for heresy and the connivance at the bigamy of Philip of Hesse are the two dark spots on the fair name of this great and good man. But they were errors of judgment. Calvin took great comfort from the endorsement of the theological head of the Lutheran Church.
Bucer, who stands third in rank among the Reformers of Germany, was of a gentle and conciliatory disposition, and abstained from persecuting the Anabaptists in Strassburg. He knew Servetus personally, and treated him at first with kindness, but after the publication of his work on the Trinity, be refuted it in his lectures as a “most pestilential book.” He even declared in the pulpit or in the lecture-room that Servetus deserved to be disembowelled and torn to pieces. From this we may infer how fully he would have approved his execution, had he lived till 1553.
THE SWISS CHURCHES.
The Swiss Reformers ought to have been in advance of those of Germany on this subject, but they were not. They advised or approved the exclusion of Roman Catholics from the Reformed Cantons, and violent measures against Anabaptists and Antitrinitarians. Six Anabaptists were, by a cruel irony, drowned in the river Limmat at Züerich by order of the government (between 1527 and 1532). Other cantons took the same severe measures against the Anabaptists. Zwingli, the most liberal among the Reformers, did not object to their punishment, and counselled the forcible introduction of Protestantism into the neutral territories and the Forest Cantons. Ochino was expelled from Züerich and Basel (1563).
As regards the case of Servetus, the churches and magistrates of Zuerich, Schaffhausen, Basel, and Bern, on being consulted during his trial, unanimously condemned his errors, and advised his punishment, but without committing themselves to the mode of punishment.
Bullinger wrote to Calvin that God had given the Council of Geneva a most favorable opportunity to vindicate the truth against the pollution of heresy, and the honor of God against blasphemy. In his Second Helvetic Confession (ch. XXX.) he teaches that it is the duty of the magistrate to use the sword against blasphemers. Schaffhausen fully agreed with Zuerich. Even the authorities of Basel, which was the headquarters of the sceptical Italians and enemies of Calvin, gave the advice that Servetus, whom their own Oecolampadius had declared a most dangerous man, be deprived of the power to harm the Church, if all efforts to convert him should fail. Six years afterwards the Council of Basel, with the consent of the clergy and the University, ordered the body of David Joris, a chiliastic Anabaptist who had lived there under a false name (and died Aug. 25, 1556), to be dug from the grave and burned, with his likeness and books, by the hangman before a large multitude (1559).
Bern, which had advised moderation in the affair of Bolsec two years earlier, judged more severely in the case of Servetus, because he “had reckoned himself free to call in question all the essential points of our religion,” and expressed the wish that the Council of Geneva might have prudence and strength to deliver the Churches from “this pest.” Thirteen years after the death of Servetus, the Council of Bern executed Valentino Gentile by the sword (Sept. 10, 1566) for an error similar to but less obnoxious than that of Servetus, and scarcely a voice was raised in disapproval of the sentence.
The Reformers of French Switzerland went further than those of German Switzerland. Farel defended death by fire, and feared that Calvin in advising a milder punishment was guided by the feelings of a friend against his bitterest foe. Beza wrote a special work in defence of the execution of Servetus, whom he characterized as “a monstrous compound of mere impiety and horrid blasphemy.” Peter Martyr called him “a genuine son of the devil,” whose “pestiferous and detestable doctrines” and “intolerable blasphemies” justified the severe sentence of the magistracy.
The English Reformers were not behind those of the continent in the matter of intolerance. Several years before the execution of Servetus, Archbishop Cranmer had persuaded the reluctant young King Edward VI. to sign the death-warrant of two Anabaptists—one a woman, called Joan Becher of Kent, and the other a foreigner from Holland, George Van Pare; the former was burnt May 2, 1550, the latter, April 6, 1551.
The only advocates of toleration in the sixteenth century were Anabaptists and Antitrinitarians, who were themselves sufferers from persecution. Let us give them credit for their humanity.*
*Philip Schaff and David Schley Schaff, History of the Christian Church (vol. 8; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), 702–711.