Who Was Michael Servetus?

Block print of Michael Servetus

Michael Servetus was born in Spain most likely on September 29, 1511 (his patron saint's day), although no specific record exists. He was a Spanish (Aragonese) theologian, physician, and humanist.*

His interests included many sciences, astronomy, meteorology, geography, jurisprudence, study of the Bible, mathematics, anatomy and medicine. He is renowned in several of these fields, particularly medicine and theology.

Servetus was very gifted in languages and studied Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. At the age of fifteen, Servetus entered the service of a Erasmian Franciscan friar, Juan de Quintana. He read the entire Bible in its original languages from the manuscripts available at the time. Servetus later attended the University of Toulouse in 1526 where he studied law. There he became suspected of participating in secret meetings and activities with Protestant students.

In July 1531, he published De trinitatis erroribus ("On the Errors of the Trinity"). The next year he published Dialogorum de Trinitate ("Dialogues on the Trinity") and De Iustitia Regni Christi ("On the Justice of Christ's Reign"). He took on the pseudonym Michel de Villeneuve (i.e., "Michael from Villanueva"), in order to avoid persecution by the Church because of these religious works.

Servetus built a theology which maintained that belief in the Trinity was not based on biblical teachings but rather on what he saw as the deceitful teachings of Greek philosophers. In part he hoped the dismissal of the Trinitarian dogma would make Christianity more appealing to Judaism and Islam which had remained as strictly Monotheistic religions. In 1553 Servetus published yet another religious work with further Antitrinitarian views. It was entitled Christianismi Restitutio ("Christianizing Restitution"), a work that sharply rejected the idea of predestination and the idea that God had condemned souls to Hell regardless of worth or merit. God, insisted Servetus, condemns no one who does not condemn himself through thought, word or deed.

Servetus was the first European to describe the function of pulmonary circulation, although it was not widely recognized at the time for several reasons. One reason was the description appeared in a theological treatise, Christianismi Restitutio ("Christianizing Restitution"), not in a book on medicine. Further, most copies of the book were burned shortly after its publication in 1553. Three copies survived, but they remained hidden for decades. It was not until William Harvey performed dissections in 1616 that the function of pulmonary circulation was widely accepted by physicians. It is increasingly recognized that the discovery of pulmonary circulation was made 300 years earlier by Ala-al-Din Abu al-Hasan Ali Ibn Abi al-Hazm al-Qarshi al-Dimashqi (known as Ibn Al-Nafis) who was born in 1213 A.D. in Damascus.

Due to his rejection of the Trinity and his eventual execution by burning for heresy, Servetus is often regarded as the first (modern) Unitarian martyr. His strong influence on the beginnings of the Unitarian movement in Poland and Transylvania has been confirmed by scholars. One Unitarian Universalist congregation in Minnesota is named after him. A church window is dedicated to Servetus at the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn, NY. In 1984, a Zaragoza public hospital changed its name from José Antonio to Miguel Servet. It is now a university hospital. Most Spanish cities also include at least a street, square or park named after Servetus. The Geneva district Servette is also named after Servetus.

On October 27, 1553 Servetus was burned at the stake just outside Geneva with what was believed to be the last copy of his book (Christianismi Restitutio) chained to his leg. Historians record his last words as: “Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have mercy on me.