In a recent question and answer panel Steve Lawson had this to say about Calvin’s role in the burning of Servetus. Nothing new here really, but it is helpful to have all the information in one place and stated so succinctly. Next time someone blames Calvin for burning Servetus, send this info on to them.
In 1553, the city fathers burned Servetus – Calvin did not. Calvin did not prosecute him, and had no powers of execution. Calvin wasn’t even a citizen of Geneva at the time. Calvin was only an expert witness, and argued for a more humane death. The RCC had already condemned Servetus to death, and Servetus begged not to be sent back to their hands. Servetus was given the option to leave Geneva, and refused. Servetus was executed by civil authorities, not elders or pastors or teachers. The civil authorities were Calvin’s enemies, not his supporters. They consulted other cities’ leaders, and they agreed to put him to death. Servetus would have been executed, regardless. Servetus defiantly ignored a warning not to come to Geneva. He was the only heretic to be executed for blasphemy, as opposed to the hundreds of thousands martyred by Rome during the Inquisition.