How to Avoid Getting Burned at the Stake
October 26, 2008
Douglas Taylor

In our reading from The Lutheran Handbook, we learned of three tried and true methods to avoid being burned at the stake: avoid public heresy, avoid practicing witchcraft, and avoid being nabbed in a political uprising. This clearly will not be much help to us as Unitarian Universalist as I preach now to a room full of heretics, witches, and political dissidents. Luckily for us, the practice of burning people at the stake is out of fashion, what with the Enlightenment and Amnesty International. Today, burning someone, usually without the stake, is not done with the official sanction of governments as it used to be. Nowadays it is an act of mob violence or guerrilla warfare. But back in the day, burning people at the stake was a popular, if sensational, tool used by those in power to suppress different voices. Burning someone at the stake was a governmentally sanctioned secular punishment imposed for the crimes of treason, witchcraft, and heresy. Yet that list was really the façade for governments to suppress dissident voices, to keep control over populations.

And so, other ways we might avoid being burned at the stake would include: agree with whomever is in power, avoid speaking truth to power, take no risks in the name of your faith, and when in doubt – be quiet and pretend you have no doubt. Don’t get involved and don’t speak up. Again, this is not advice that sits well with the majority of Unitarian Universalists. Indeed, if it were still in practice, we here gathered would have cause to fear being burned at the stake.

Among the best-known individuals to be executed by burning were: Jan Hus (1415), for suggesting similar things that the major Protestant Reformers suggested only 100 years to soon; St Joan of Arc (1431), for claiming to have divine guidance and for being a better general than the boys; Patrick Hamilton (1528), for being a Lutheran in Scotland; William Tyndale (1536) for translating the Bible into English and claiming the Scripture should be available to the common people; Giordano Bruno (1600), for promoting the scientific idea of a heliocentric universe and other general heresies; and our very own Michael Servetus (1553), for denying the trinity. Interestingly, the bulk of these heretics were sentenced and executed either directly or indirectly by the Catholics except for Servetus who was taken out by his fellow reformers.

Part of the reason for this topic today is for Reformation Sunday. The last Sunday in October, across the world, is Reformation Sunday. This Sunday, our Lutheran, Presbyterian and other Protestant Christian brothers and sisters in faith are celebrating the Protestant Reformation of the 1500’s. The Reformation is generally considered to have begun on October 31 of 1517 when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the doors of the Wittenberg church to debate the doctrine and practice of indulgences. It is not insignificant that this precedes the holiday we call Halloween. Halloween is the Eve of All Saint’s Day and the churches on Luther’s time would have been open for All Saint’s Day for the viewing of holy relics which is an activity that has a similar impact as that of buying indulgences: it reduces the amount to time one would spend in purgatory.

The focus of the Unitarian part of the story involves not Luther, but another prominent reformer: Calvin. John Calvin, founder of the Reform Church – which in the United States is known as the Presbyterians – was the man who orchestrated the trial and execution of Michael Servetus on October 27th, 1553 – over four hundred and fifty years ago tomorrow! Servetus was born in the within a few years of each other. Like Calvin, Servetus trained for the priesthood and like Calvin he turned from the Roman Church. Each man took up the work of re-forming Christianity (which points to a certain bent of personality that they must also have shared, some mix of genius and egomania to take on the Catholic Church as they did.) Yet there the significant similarities end.

Servetus dug into a core doctrine of Christianity: the person of Jesus Christ and the nature of the Trinity. The Trinity is the belief that God is three-in-one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – three distinct persons as the same essence. Servetus refuted the Trinity. He knew Latin, Greek, and Hebrew; and at the age of 15 he read the entire Bible in its original languages. One obvious thing leapt out for him: the concept of the Trinity was not scripturally based. He saw the emphasis on the doctrine of the Trinity to be an incomprehensible corruption of the Church. As a “brash youth of twenty”, as one biographer put it (Parke) Servetus set out to convince the other Protestant Reformers to take up the effort to cleanse Christianity of this wicked corruption. “He presented his case in a learned, shrewd, and impertinent book, On the Errors of the Trinity.” (The Epic of Unitarianism, David Parke, p2)

His book did not go over well with the other Reformers, in no small part for political reasons: they recoiled from his overtures so as to keep some peace with the ever-powerful Catholic authorities. The Spanish Inquisition sought to bring him to trial. John Calvin, among the leading Reformers, made a particular statement against it. So Servetus went into hiding from both the Catholics and the Protestants. I might add, the book was very popular, a best-seller in its day, sparking great interest among other anti-Trinitarian sentiment throughout Europe. He became a physician in France for a number of years before publishing a second book in 1553 The Restitution of Christianity, which proposed a complete overhaul of both Catholicism and the newly developing Protestant Christianity. Servetus had sent a copy of the work to John Calvin in Geneva in hopes of convincing Calvin of the truth about the errors of the trinity and the numerous other ways in which Calvin was wrong. Calvin, among others, did not take kindly to the suggestions and issued a statement that if Servetus were to ever come to Geneva he would not be allowed to leave alive. Calvin also alerted the French Inquisition that Servetus was residing in France and was guilty of certain egregious heresies. This accusation is reported to have caused the French Cardinal to laugh that one heretic should accuse another. (A History of Unitarianism Earle Morse Wilbur, p137)

This is when the story seems to suddenly turn into a soap opera or spaghetti western! While fleeing the France Inquisition, unable to return to is homeland for fear of the Spanish Inquisition, our intrepid hero decides to go to Naples via the Swiss Confederation. Specifically, he decides to pass through Geneva. Except that in Geneva there is a law on the books saying if you are in town on Sunday morning, you need to be in church. And Servetus is in town of Sunday morning, so he has to go the church … John Calvin’s church. Servetus is recognized, arrested, imprisoned, tried, sentenced, and summarily burned at the stake with what was believed to be the last surviving copies of his most recent book strapped to his legs. Interestingly it turns out that there were three copies, and only three copies of his book The Restitution of Christianity that survived that time. Exciting stuff.

“‘Scarcely were his ashes cold before there arose a controversy over the punishment of heretics.’ So wrote the reformer Beza. The image of Servetus dying in flames, just because his views of the Trinity differed from Calvin’s, caused a storm of outrage. Calvin cried that ‘the dogs are barking at me on all sides,’ and was almost forced to leave Geneva. To justify himself he hastily wrote a Defense of the Orthodox Faith respecting the Holy Trinity, against the prodigious errors of … Servetus early in 1554. Believing heresy to be worse than murder, Calvin argued that Servetus had to be put to death, else his heresy contaminate all Christendom.” (The Epic of Unitarianism, David Parke, p9)

We Unitarian Universalist have first claim on him as a spiritual ancestor. He is our most sensational martyr. The Jehovah’s Witnesses and a few other groups also claim him. But we have at least two UU churches, one in Minnesota and one in Washington, named after Servetus, and there is a window dedicated to him at the UU Church in Brooklyn, NY. Much of this affinity we have for Servetus is based almost more on his chutzpah than on the mere fact that he was against the trinity. We like that he stood up to the people in power and said: no, it doesn’t say that in the book. We like that his death was a rallying point in the conversation toward greater religious tolerance. We also, as a side note, like that he was eventually made famous in medical science.

Servetus, while being a theologian and scholar, was also a physician. As a physician he discovered arterial circulation of the blood some hundred years before a fellow named William Harvey discovered the same thing in 1616. Harvey was given credit for the discovery for a few centuries before medical science turned the credit over to Servetus. In fairness, however, recognition needs to go to Ibn Al-Nafis of Damascus who was born in 1213 and discovered the workings of pulmonary circulation about 300 years before either of our two European contenders. This sort of spoils the story, because Servetus had published his medical discovery not at a medical discovery but as an analogy to make a theological point. He wrote that the spirit enters the body like breath enters the blood stream flowing throughout the whole body. So, we’ll just need to be satisfied with extra credit for creative theological use of medical truth.

We must admit, however, as modern day Unitarian Universalists, the fuller theology of Michael Servetus would be rather out of place. He maintained that Jesus was God in that the Logos, which was the eternal God, came into the womb of the Virgin Mary. In this way, Christ was not the Eternal Son of God; rather he was the Son of the Eternal God. One driving reason to do away with the corrupt doctrine of the Trinity is that he felt it would make it easier to convert the Jews and Muslims. Near the end of his life, Servetus grew convinced that the millennium was nigh, that the reign of the Antichrist (which began when Emperor Constantine merged the church and the state) was about to end, and that Archangel Michael would be coming with the host, and Servetus intended to be on the proper side of that fight when it broke out. (A History of Unitarianism Earle Morse Wilbur, p143) We don’t tend to talk about that part of Servetus’ theology in our churches. He was certainly an anti-Trinitarian; he was not a Unitarian even in the classic sense of the term.

So, as an object lesson for us today: a healthy amount of personal humility may be as important as avoiding public heresy when it comes to strategies we can use to not get burned at the stake. I would, however, urge you to hear in the life of Servetus a challenge to us today. I would point out the part of the story that still offers – not the cautionary tale of what to avoid – rather the part that heralds the strength and courage of those who would stand up and speak out for truth. The threat of being burned at the stake is now rendered moot by modern society for all but the most chaotic scenarios. I invite you to find another way to burn: burn a passion for the truth, burn with the courage of inner conviction tested in the bounds of a loving community such as is found here; burn with the inspired faith that we can speak truth to power, but we can speak the truth in love – for the day may come when you are the one in the position of power. And suppressing disparate voices with force is to abandon truth for fear. The truth crushed down will rise again. No lie can live forever. So speak truth to power, strive to stay humble and speak the truth in love. But by all means, speak the truth.

In a world without end
May it be so.