“Out of the Flames” by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone

The scholar who enraged Calvin and inspired the Unitarians was gruesomely executed for writing a book.

Topics: Books,

The next time someone tries to persuade you that Islam (for instance) is a “backward” religion, you can refer them to Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone’s “Out of the Flames: The Remarkable Story of a Fearless Scholar, a Fatal Heresy, and One of the Rarest Books in the World.” The Goldstones’ rousing title reflects both the style and confidence of their work: Bigots don’t stand a chance against this brisk and wonderfully readable account of perfidy and murder in the Protestant Reformation.

The “Fearless Scholar” of “Out of the Flames” is the 16th-century Spanish physician, philosopher and mystical theologian Michael Servetus (1511-1553), the guiding spirit, though not an actual founder, of the Unitarian Church. The “Fatal Heresy” is Servetus’ denial of the doctrines of the trinity and original sin. And the very rare book, thought at the time of Servetus’ death to be the last copy in existence, is his “Christianismi Restitutio” (“The Restoration of Christianity”), which was strapped to his side when he was burned alive in Geneva in 1553, more or less at the connivance of his sworn enemy and Protestant rival, John Calvin.

You thought you knew about burning at the stake? You’ve haven’t read the Goldstones’ account. In the 16th century, burning was reserved exclusively for the crime of heresy, the worst on earth. “It was never over quickly,” the Goldstones write. Hollywood has it all wrong: “The whole point of burning at the stake was to subject the condemned to prolonged, horrible, unendurable pain.” Chained to a post, his neck bound with rope, Servetus was also forced to wear “a crown of straw, doused in sulphur,” at his execution. Green wood was used for the pyre, fresh-cut branches with the leaves still on them:

“The fire was lit. Green wood does not burn easily, does not roar up. It smokes and sputters, burning unevenly and slowly. And so Michael Servetus’ life was not extinguished quickly in a blazing wall of fire. Rather, he was slowly roasted, agonizingly conscious the whole time, the fire creeping upward inch by inch. The flames licked at him, the sulphur dripped into his eyes, not for minutes but for a full half hour. ‘Poor me, who cannot finish my life in this fire,’ the spectators heard him moan. At last, he screamed a final prayer to God, and then his ashes commingled with those of his book.”



Don’t the Goldstones write well? I guarantee you won’t read a more entertaining story this season — part biography, part history, part mystery and part plea for justice, told in a style so cheerful and clear that you can almost forget the hideous nature of Servetus’ fate. Other witnesses at his execution heard him cry out, “Jesu, thou Son of the eternal God, have mercy on me!” leading his enemies to say that if he’d only reversed the order of his words, from “Son of the eternal God” to “Eternal Son of God,” his heresy would have been resolved on the spot. Servetus would still be horribly dead, but the souls of the living would be safe from his error.

Mercifully, the Goldstones tell the story of Servetus’ death upfront, in their prologue; by the time he dies again, halfway through the book, they pass lightly over the details. The Goldstones are book collectors who write about books, and “Out of the Flames,” as promised, is as much about the fate of Servetus’ “Restitutio” as it is about Servetus himself. It’s also about the history of printing and publishing. It’s about humanism, scientific research and religious tolerance. It’s about Gutenberg, Luther, Erasmus, Voltaire, Catherine de’ Medici and Thomas Jefferson. “Out of the Flames” has something in it for everyone, including a happy ending — or beginning, since again the authors tell us, right off the bat, that three copies of Servetus’ work did escape the fire.

Indeed, without the survival of his writing, Servetus might have accomplished nothing in life apart from enraging Calvin, putting both the French and Spanish Inquisitions on his tail and earning himself a terrible fate. Born to the Spanish Catholic gentry in 1511 — at a time, the Goldstones report, when “the medieval world, the Renaissance, the Inquisition, the New World, and the modern world all met” — Servetus was marked in childhood as a prodigy and a brilliant mind: “By the time he was 13 years old, in addition to his native language, he could read French, Greek, Latin and, most significantly, Hebrew,” a forbidden language in most of Europe. “Knowledge of Hebrew meant that the Old Testament could be read in its original form,” the Goldstones explain — a dangerous idea, ultimately, on both sides of the Catholic-Protestant line.

Growing up in Spain, with its large population of Jews and Muslims, Servetus’ doubts about the Trinity took shape early — three gods in one, he thought, made the infidel harder to convert. Later, as feared, he read the Bible and discovered “not one word about the Trinity, nor about its Persons, nor about Essence, nor about a unity of the Substance.”

In time, Servetus would compare the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost to Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the entrance to Hell in classical mythology. All his life, he was frank with his opinions and brash in his remarks — it was a mocking correspondence with Calvin that later got him burned. “Servetus was so smart,” the Goldstones assert, “that it never seemed to occur to him that his arguments would be more effective if he didn’t imply that anyone holding an opposing view was an idiot.” From the beginning, “he learned to identify with the outcast.”

Servetus’ career followed the same veering course of all religious reformers and iconoclasts, taking him first to the University of Zaragossa, where he entered the service of the Franciscan friar Juan de Quintana, and later to Italy, when Quintana was appointed confessor to the Habsburg emperor Charles V. Having recently put Rome to the torch, Charles chose Bologna for his coronation, “the largest, grandest, most lavish affair of its time, a kind of inaugural ball, millennium party, and royal wedding all rolled into one.”

The sack of Rome was widely regarded as the judgment of God visited on a Catholic hierarchy that had teemed with corruption for centuries, and in Bologna Servetus saw all he could stand of popes and princes. The pope was an agent of Satan, he would shortly conclude, and the papacy the devil’s way of preventing the return of Christ. “Oh, the most evil of beasts,” Servetus cried, “harlots most shameless.” He joined the Protestant movement more or less on the spot.

For most of the rest of his life, Servetus was either in hiding or on the run: “Any remaining moderation he felt had been excised.” Heading first to Basel, a Protestant stronghold where his penchant for reckless religious argument ultimately forced his departure, Servetus moved next to Strasbourg, in mainly Catholic France, where he wrote “De Trinitatis Erroribus” (“On the Errors of the Trinity”) and got himself sentenced to death by the Spanish Inquisition.

“Not yet understanding the degree of animosity he had evoked,” the Goldstones note ruefully, “but seeing only how his book was on everyone’s lips, Servetus, like any new author buoyed by success, began sending out review copies. He tried to get quotes from Erasmus and Luther.” In Servetus’ day, however, buzz could kill.

When the Inquisition sent his own brother to entice him back to Spain, however, Servetus got the point — “I was sought up and down to be snatched to my death,” he complained. The Spanish heretic “Miguel Serveto” now moved to Paris and changed his name to “Michel de Villeneuve,” an identity that served him well for 20-odd years, until the publication of his “Restitutio,” his entrapment by Calvin and his death at the stake.

In the end, Servetus’ heretical pronouncements argued less for a rejection of the trinity than for its reevaluation. He rejected the dual nature of Christ, arguing that he had one nature, at once divine and human, and was not a separate aspect of the godhead but was God come to earth. Unlike Calvin, Servetus didn’t think that human beings are born depraved; thus, he couldn’t accept the redemptive meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection. Grace, moreover, wasn’t available to only a preselected few, as Calvin believed, but to all people with intelligence and will. “I say therefore that God himself is our spirit dwelling in us,” Servetus declared, “and this is the Holy Spirit … There is in our spirit a certain working latent energy, a certain heavenly sense, a latent divinity and it bloweth where it listeth and I hear its voice and I know not whence it comes nor whither it goes.”

It was this liberal line of thought, combined with the cruelty and injustice of his death, that endeared Servetus to the nascent Unitarian movements in Poland and Transylvania and later crossed the ocean to inspire the Deists and freethinkers of America’s Colonial age. “I confidently expect that the present generation will see Unitarianism become the general religion of the United States,” Jefferson predicted in 1822 — wrongly, of course.

According to the Goldstones, years of liberal religion in America left its practitioners still combing the Scriptures for guidance: “They had gotten so used to dissecting, parsing, and endlessly reinterpreting biblical phrases that they stopped doing anything else.” It was Emerson, say the Goldstones, who turned this trend around and “shifted the emphasis back from the mind to the soul.”

I’m leaving out big chunks of the story here. The Goldstones have built their narrative like a wheel, with the spokes aiming outward from Servetus at the center. No sooner are they through with Gutenberg, who died broke, than they’re on to Fust and Schoeffer, early printers in Mainz, who produced the first Gutenberg Bible and made a bundle on the deal. Next comes public literacy and the sudden dissemination of printed material in Europe, which leads the Goldstones to humanism, Luther, Paracelsus and, after Servetus’ death, to the Great Fire of London, the Empress Maria Theresa, the French revolution and those later physicians who, long after Servetus first discerned it, confirmed his observations about the circulation of blood through the lungs. This was “perhaps the single most important statement about the workings of the human body in 1500 years,” and a discovery for which Servetus rarely receives his full share of credit.

But Servetus had “a genius for indiscretion,” as the Goldstones know. He also believed that the devil entered the body through the lungs and that there were “Satanic” rituals of human sacrifice at the root of infant baptism. He practiced astrology, finding it “laughable that medical professors were too shortsighted to grasp that the stars affected the timing of cures.” And it’s doubtful that any contemporary Unitarian, no matter how ardent or New Age-y, could accept Servetus’ staunch belief that his patron and namesake, Michael the Archangel, would end the world himself and redeem its souls, sometime around 1585. The Goldstones can’t really be faulted for minimizing the loopier qualities of this astonishing martyr: They have so many interesting stories to tell, it’s hard to know where to begin.

Peter Kurth, a regular contributor to Salon Books, is the author of "Isadora: A Sensational Life." He lives in Burlington, Vt.

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