Who Was John Calvin? | Part Two

January 15, 2015

Dr. Marty Comer | Pastor
Sand Ridge Baptist Church, Lexington, TN

*This article was originally published HERE and was used by permission.

To many of his day Calvin was viewed as an agent of God who was working to reform a city and remake it as a Christian community. To others, he ruled as a tyrant who dominated the city. Many Protestants streamed into Geneva from other areas of Europe wanting to live and learn in a city like Calvin’s Geneva. Others were forced to flee for fear of being convicted of violating the laws governing Calvin’s political system.

Perhaps the most notorious act of Calvin’s rule involved the notorious Spaniard, Michael Servetus.  Servetus was a physician of some renown and not an orthodox Christian. His views on the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and other doctrines were outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. And Servetus took great exception to the teachings of John Calvin.

Servetus denied Calvin’s doctrine of original sin and infant baptism. And he stood in opposition to many other ideas promulgated by Calvin in his famous work Institutes of the Christian Religion. In fact, he and Calvin exchanged many letters in which they debated doctrine. One act that upset Calvin occurred after he sent Servetus a copy of his book Institutes of the Christian Religion. Servetus sent it back to Calvin with the margins filled with notes in which he pointed out what he believed were errors in Calvin’s arguments. [1]

As if sending Calvin’s book back with corrections wasn’t enough, Servetus then published a book in which he took issue with Calvin’s Institutes. This was more than Calvin could handle. Through an aide he informed the French Inquisition of Servetus’ heresy and even gave them what he viewed as evidence of his errors.

Servetus fled France and headed for Italy, but on his way he stopped off in Calvin’s Geneva, where he went to church, was recognized and arrested. The following quote from historian Clyde L. Manschreck describes what occurred.

“The Genevan Council found Servetus guilty of obstinately spreading heresy and sentenced him to death by burning. Seven years earlier Calvin had vowed that if Servetus ever came to Geneva he would not leave it alive. On the day after sentencing, Servetus was chained to a stake, his book (in which he opposed Calvin) fastened to his arm, sulphur and straw rubbed into his hair. But the straw and fagots (a bundle of sticks or twigs bundled together as fuel) were damp and Servetus died only after half an hour of agony and screaming. At the end he cried ‘O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!’” [2]

To be fair, Calvin and the Geneva Council were not the only ones of that period who believed that killing heretics was just. Many in the period thought that heresy was a poison to the people that must be dealt with severely.  However, we must not simply let those who acted in such a manner off the hook too easily.  As a Baptist we must remember that we too were once a persecuted people. Baptists in the early American colonies were persecuted for dissenting from the majority view of the colonial leaders. Henry Dunster, the first president  of Harvard College, was removed from that position in 1654 Harvard College when he became a Baptist. In 1651, Obadiah Holmes was beaten on the Boston Common for preaching as a Baptist in a state in which it was illegal to be a Baptists.

Persecution often occurs when the power of the government is used to enforce one religious group’s ideas upon others. The danger of integrating church and state is that it limits the freedom of those who don’t agree with the church that is supported by the state.  As a traditional Baptist, I believe in freedom of conscience and religious liberty for all. Let every person proclaim his views. Let us proclaim the gospel. And let the Holy Spirit use that proclamation to convict, convince, and call men and women into the kingdom. I believe so strongly in the gospel that I am willing to put it up against every man made philosophy and every religious idea ever presented and I am convinced the gospel will prevail!


[1] Clyde L. Manschreck.  A History of Christianity in the World. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1985), 191.
[2] ibid.

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Les Prouty


Thank you for your writing efforts. Far too many pastors these days don’t even attempt to write, especially about church history.

Two questions: 1) Besides A History of Christianity in the World, did you have any other sources? and 2) Have you ever read completely the Institutes?

Thanks brother.



Also, the Anabaptists like Hubmaier were persecuted by Reformers for rejecting infant baptism. Was it not Zwingli and his Followers, who put Hubmaier and his wife to death?



    Zwingli went after his own students like Felix Manz and Conrad Grebal because they baptized themselves in a secret illegal meeting– convinced of believers baptism. Manz was drowned in the Limmet for his “third baptism”. Grebel escaped to do an evangelistic mission.

    I know it sounds cliche but there is a sacredness to the stories of these courageous men. Tell your children and grandchildren about them so they will recognize the difference.

Dan Nelson

Excellent illustration of how Baptist were persecuted in this country in the same manner Calvin and the council handled those who disagreed with him. I used Dunster’s support and dismissal of Holmes who was beaten for preaching the gospel in Boston as an example of the persecution on Baptists in this countries earliest days in the articles I have published on this website on early Baptist history in America. I think you can go back a few months on this site to read it. Baptist have struggled for religious liberty and people who supported Calvin’s state church concept like Zwingli have been their persecutors. Church structure and the right to practice our faith, (particularly Believer’s baptism by immersion ) cannot be swept aside or lost in the shuffle of one man’s theologicl system no matter how popular it is today.


Oh and yes, Zwingli went after Hubmaier and had him burned. His wife had a stone thrown around her neck and drowned in the Danube.

Ron F.Hale

Bro. Marty,
Thanks for your two articles — great history and application for today.

If Baptists in early America had not been so stubborn about religious liberty and freedom of conscience — we would still be forced to have our babies baptized by a state-run church today. Many have suffered so that we can live with certain freedoms. Now, our political correctness “thought police” are trying to force everyone to bow down to the secular gods of moral relativism and multi-culturalism. Fire Chief Kent Cochran has been fired in Atlanta because he holds biblical teachings, wrote about them, and without committing any acts of discrimination was fired for the “beliefs” that he holds. Dangerous cultural waters lie ahead.

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