Michael Servetus: why mankind is in debt with him?

Michael Servetus is, in many aspects, one of the most notable human beings of the European 16th Century. From a historical standpoint, his tragic death makes him appear as the first and most outstanding martyr of Unitarianism. The documents about Servetus' life are scarce, and sometimes inconsistent. The gaps that exist have been used to make up all sorts of incorrect speculations about him.  As more historical evidence comes to light these misconceptions are proved wrong. Nonetheless, some biased stereotypes and information still remain among the general public.

Michael Servetus (Villanueva de Sijena, 1511 - Geneva 1553), Spanish theologian and physician born in Aragon, was executed by the government of Geneva, at the instigation of John Calvin, because of his religious beliefs. He was born in Villanueva de Sijena, currently located in Aragon, province of Huesca (Spain). He studied law in the University of Toulouse (France) and medicine in the University of Paris. As of 1540, he practiced medicine in Charlieu and later in Vienne (near Lyon, France), where he also was the personal doctor of the Archbishop, the humanist Pierre Palmier. The theological thoughts of Servetus were long time hardly criticized by both Catholics and Protestants. In his 1531 book, De Trinitatis Erroribus (On the Errors of the Trinity), he rejected the tri-theistic personality of God. In 1532 he wrote Dialogorum de Trinitate Libri Duo (Two Books of Dialogues on the Trinity) where he confirmed his anti-trinitarian thinking.

Years later, during his stay in Vienne, he wrote his main theological work: Christianismi Restitutio (The Restoration of Christianity), printed early in 1553. Servetus was a thorough reader of the original sources of the Holy Scriptures. He managed to develop a rational interpretation of the dogma of the Holy Trinity and a complete theological system, which was an alternative to the Roman Church and to the Protestant reforms. His vision of Christianity was endowed with a deep spiritualism and was devoid of the ritualism and pomp of some long-standing religious celebrations and traditions. The practical effects of the Servetian theology had its historical expression in the creation of the  Unitarian religion.

" ... the new human being in within us, hidden in our own heart"

For Servetus, Faith is a gift and, therefore, it cannot be imposed upon us. It can only be sown in the human being through preaching or through divine grace. Therefore, we find in his theological system something very scarce at the time, the principle of freedom.

" ... no thing can be loved by coercion, nor with those who provide it with hatred"

The reading of the Christian holy texts also led him to reject  infant baptism. He tried to discuss some theological ideas with the reformers of his time. Remarkably, this included John Calvin, the reformer of Geneva who was fighting to establish a theocracy in this city-state. Servetus was arrested, accused of heresy and blasphemy against Christianity, and burned at the stake on October, 27th 1553.

His scientific contributions were also noteworthy. He was the first  in Western Europe to describe the pulmonary (lesser) circulation of the blood in Christianismi Restitutio. While Servetus was a significant theologian and scientist, he stands out for his contribution to the development of the inalienable right to freedom of conscience. His attitude and writings defended the right to interpret the Holy Scriptures with absolute freedom. His moral example and later death shook the conscience of some of his contemporaries, like Sebastian Castellio and Matteo Gribaldi, who, with renewed strength, advocated publicly the acknowledgement of an individual sphere of freedom of speech shielded from retaliation and repression by the established religious and political powers. Servetus' death marked an unstoppable turning point in the discussion that later led to the recognition of freedom of responsible thought and speech as an inalienable human right in the modern legal texts.

" ... I consider it a very serious mistake to kill a man just because he may be in error due to his interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, when we know that even the chosen ones can be mistaken"

Michael Servetus is one of the most international and universal Spaniards, but also one of the most forgotten and unknown. Therefore, we have an ethical duty to spread his legacy, so that the values that inspired his life and teachings are metabolized into our "social body", which is more and more devoid of the principles.


The celebration in 2011 of the 500th Anniversary of the birth of a humanist with the personal and intellectual allure of Michael Servetus demands the preparation of a multidisciplinary program of activities in order to endow this event with the enduring relevance that Michael Servetus deserves. In a project of these characteristics, local, regional and national public administrations, the cultural institutions directly associated to the spreading of Servetus' works and legacy (such as the Michael Servetus Institute of Villanueva de Sijena), and the official entities entrusted with the commemoration of the anniversary of relevant historical events in Spain (such as the Spanish Agency for Cultural Action) need to be involved in closely coordinated efforts.

Moreover, an Anniversary of this magnitude cannot be celebrated without the real participation of civil society that normally, tends to not to take an interest or simply chooses to be absent from these types of celebrations.

The "Servetus Year 2011" has as its mission to attain the following objectives:

1. To make Spanish society aware of the importance of the historical role played by Michael Servetus in modern Western history. The aim is to mitigate the enormous ignorance that still exists of this man both in Aragon as well as in the rest of Spain.

2. To spread the life and the work of Michael Servetus among primary, secondary, and university students.

3. To create an environment to find new researchers of Michael Servetus through specialized courses taught in the Region of Aragon or abroad. 

4. To catalyze and to spread the new academic contributions on the life, the works and the legacy of Michael Servetus through lectures and a Servetus International Congress.

Besides these objectives of cultural character, the 500th Anniversary of the birth of Michael Servetus must serve to bolster the values that are associated with his legacy, such as:  

• The importance of freedom as a unique human value.

• The development of the values and dignity inherent to each individual, with special focus on the respect of all ideologies and beliefs.

• The affirmation of freedom of conscience and speech as a source of individual and collective development, as Servetus taught us, and that today are symbols of modernity in the European Union.

• The affirmation of tolerance and justice in human relations, which Servetus practiced, and the maintenance of a positive attitude towards difference and interculturalism.

• The affirmation of reason, corrected by common sense, against all forms of dogmatism.

*We thank Mr. Thomas Clayton for proof-reading the above text.

Official posters of the 500th Anniversary, designed by the member of the Michael Servetus Institute, Mr. César Calavera.

Poster 1
Poster 2



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