From my past understanding regarding John Calvin's guilt of the Michael Servetus episode, I admit I was guilty of judgment without proper investigation into the act and circumstances of this horrible crime. I, like many, thought John Calvin sentenced and executed Michael Servetus, for speaking out against God, but, there is more to the story, with John Calvin being somewhat vindicated.
The people of Geneva were the ones who wanted to execute Servetus, the same people who kicked Calvin out of Geneva in 1537. Calvin did not want to execute him, but the evidence seems to indicate, he was forced into going along with the sentence. Calvin was not the final authority in Geneva.
The truth is, although Calvin had some hand in the arrest and imprisonment of Servetus, he was unwilling that he should be burnt at all. "I desire," says he, "that the severity of the punishment should be remitted." "We wndeavored to commute the kind of death, but in vain." "By wishing to mitigate the severity of the punishment," says Farel to Calvin, "you discharge the office of a friend towards your greatest enemy." "That Calvin was the instigator of the magistrates that Servetus might be burned," says Turritine, "historians neither anywhere affirm, nor does it appear from any considerations. Nay, it is certain, that he, with the college of pastors, dissuaded from that kind of punishment."
It has been often asserted, that Calvin possessed so much influence with the magistrates of Geneva that he might have obtained the release of Servetus, had he not been desirous of his destruction. This however, is not true. So far from it, that Calvin was himself once banished from Geneva, by these very magistrates, and often opposed their arbitrary measures in vain. So little desirous was Calvin of procuring the death of Servetus that he warned him of his danger, and suffered him to remain several weeks at Geneva, before he was arrested. But his language, which was then accounted blasphemous, was the cause of his imprisonment. When in prison, Calvin visited him, and used every argument to persuade him to retract his horrible blasphemies, without reference to his peculiar sentiments. This was the extent of Calvin's agency in this unhappy affair.
It cannot, however, be denied, that in this instance, Calvin acted contrary to the benignant spirit of the Gospel. It is better to drop a tear over the inconsistency of human nature, and to bewail those infirmities which cannot be justified. He declared he acted conscientiously, and publicly justified the act.
Foxes Book of Martyrs
That Calvin justified the execution was wrong, and contrary to the Law of Nature, but, in my humble opinion, his guilt was only manifested by the people's thirst for blood. This event would never have happened if Calvin had authority of the situation, as his writings indicate. The unfortunate actions of Christians should not be used against Christianity, no matter who supported that action. The blasphemies, no doubt, stirred up the city to fever pitch; the question of correct punishment is thus pondered.