Sunday, October 28, 2007


a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday October 28, 2007

One of the great joys about my job in general, and about this job here at First Parish in particular, is that I literally get to go to work each day surrounded by history. I get to witness it, I get to be a part of it, and who knows? -- in time, working together, we may even get an opportunity to make a little of it ourselves. A few weeks ago I shared with you some words by author Lesley Poles Hartley, just at they were shared with me by one of my professors when I was beginning my doctoral studies: "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." And as a terminally-educated historian, I am also an avid and enthusiastic armchair tourist— I delight in exploring what the past has to show me, simply for the experience of seeing the world through different eyes.

Of course, there is also a practical side to this exploration. "Those who cannot remember the past," Harvard philosopher George Santayana once observed,"are condemned to repeat it." And Santayana himself was merely echoing the sentiments of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, who wrote his history of the Peloponnesian War out of a belief that an exact knowledge of the past was a useful aid to the interpretation of the future. Thucydides understood the real reason that history repeats itself. Times may change, but people seldom do — the same passions, ambitions, weaknesses and appetites that motivated human behavior in the ancient world are still very much with us today. In its essence, history is simply the story of what it means to be human: how we have reacted to the challenges of the past, and how we might be expected to react to the challenges of the future.

Of course, as a Unitarian Universalist minister, I have yet another interest in a very specific of kind of history. Because for a denomination as theologically diverse and pluralistic as our own, our history — that is to say, our shared heritage and our living tradition — is one of the few things that we all have in common, and in many ways is the “glue” that binds us together as single religious movement. Our history reveals the common elements that have come together to make us what we are today. Through the lives and experiences of our spiritual forebearers, we see reflected many of the same purposes and principles Unitarian Universalists aspire to live by today. Yet we often see them in a context dramatically different from our own, which by its mere strangeness can help us to see and understand ourselves from a radically different perspective.

And when I say that I get to come to work each day literally surrounded by history, I literally mean literally. For example, when I climb these pulpit steps each week, it’s difficult not to notice the memorials here on the wall to three of my illustrious predecessors in this pulpit: Thomas Smith, Samuel Deane, and Ichabod Nichols, who collectively served and led this congregation for a total of 132 years (from 1727 to 1859), an era which included some of the most significant events in this congregation’s history, including both its gradual theological evolution from Puritan Calvinism to Unitarianism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as well as the construction of this Meeting House in 1825, at a total cost of slightly more than $18,000 (which, believe me, was a lot more money back in those days than it sounds like today).

But if you look closely at these memorials, you’ll notice that they all end the same way: “Died in this Ministry” followed by a date...which is a pretty morbid thought to have in mind as one enters this pulpit, until you stop to do the math. Thomas Smith was “ordained over” this congregation in 1727 at the age of 25, and “died in this ministry” 68 years later at the age of 93. Samuel Deane was called here at the age of 31 to serve as Parson Smith’s colleague in 1764 (when Smith himself was still a mere spring chicken in his 62nd year of life), and “died in this ministry” in 1814 at the age of 81, after a 50 year term of service. And Ichabod Nichols (whose openly professed Unitarianism caused such a stir in the community when he first arrived here in 1809) was ordained as Deane’s colleague one month shy of his own 25th birthday, and served this congregation a mere 40 years before dying in this ministry at the relatively young age of 74.

You can read a lot more about these ministers (as well as the many others who have served this congregation) on the First Parish Website. So far my own contribution to that history is merely one sentence, basically acknowledging that I’ve arrived; but I hope (with your help) that we can accomplish a few things more worthy of remembrance before writing the final word on my tenure in this pulpit.

And the person whose life (and death) I really want to talk about today actually comes from a very different era of our history altogether. Michael Servetus is known to historians by his literary Latin nom de plume, but he probably would have been known to his closest friends (if he’d had any) as Miguel Serveto alias Michel de Villeneuve: humanist and reformer, author and editor, physician, astrologer, heretic and martyr... it makes for an interesting business card, to say the least. He is often identified as the "founder" of Unitarianism, yet I doubt many contemporary Unitarian Universalists would find much comfort in his doctrine or even much pleasure in his company today. He was arrogant, at times even obnoxious, smug in his abundant intellectual gifts and uncompromisingly certain of his religious convictions. In a word, he was a typical 16th century reformer, filled with mystical confidence and passionate in his heady quest for the restitution of an uncorrupted Christian faith.

As best historians can tell, Migual Serveto was born in the year 1511 in the Spanish town of Villanueva. The name Servetus, as I mentioned earlier, is the Latin form of his Spanish surname, and comes to us from his books, which were, of course, written in Latin. His father, Antonio, was a minor noble and public notary; his brother Juan a Catholic priest. For centuries the Iberian peninsula had boiled with religious strife: Sephardic Jews, Moslem Moors and Castilian Catholics all inhabiting the same land, at times co-existing, at others fighting ruthlessly for political and cultural dominance. The Catholics eventually emerged on top, at about the same time Columbus sailed for the New World in 1492; and two decades later the influence of the Spanish Inquisition, which attempted to root out those remaining Jews and Moslems who refused to convert to Christianity, was still very much in evidence during Servetus's boyhood.

At the age of 14, Servetus went to work as a secretary to the Franciscan scholar Juan de Quintana, and two years later took a sabbatical from this service in order to undertake the study of Law at the University of Toulouse in France. It was doubtlessly here that he began the theological speculations that were eventually to lead him to his place in history. Servetus was evidently very much troubled by the "problem" of the Moslems and Jews in Spain. If Christianity represented a true revelation from God On High, why were the Moors and the Jews so reluctant to convert? The answer, obviously, lay in the doctrine of the Trinity, which a pious Moslem or Jew could only understand as the worship of three Gods.

At Toulouse, Servetus was exposed for the first time to the text of the Scriptures in their original Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, as well as the writings of some of the early Church fathers, particularly Irenaeus and Tertullian, which were starting to become available through the scholarship of Renaissance humanists like Erasmus. While Servetus could find reference to "the father," "the son," and "the holy spirit," in his readings, nowhere in the Bible could he find their relationship described in the terms used by the Council of Nicea in 325 to define the limits of Christian Orthodoxy. The Greek word homousia (in Latin, consubstantial) — "one essence" or "substance" — simply does not occur anywhere in the New Testament; and for Servetus its absence from Scripture was highly significant. Was it not possible that God the Father alone was Eternal, and that Christ his Son was a created being, a manifestation of the divine Godhead but not co-equal with it? Would not this kind of theology allow Christians, Moslems and Jews to worship together, as common children of the same Creator?

We can’t be sure exactly how far Servetus had developed this line of thought while a student at Toulouse, but in 1529 he returned to the service of Quintana, whom he accompanied to the lavish Papal coronation of Charles the Fifth as Holy Roman Emperor in the spring of 1530. Servetus was evidently shocked by the corruption and affluence of the Papacy, just as many other would-be Protestant reformers had been shocked before him. That summer he slipped away from the royal court, and shortly afterwards surfaced in the Protestant town of Basel. And a year later, when Servetus was still only 20 years old, he published his first book, De Trinitatis Erroribus or "On The Errors of the Trinity," a work which was to brand him as a hunted heretic for the remainder of his life.

Servetus may have been arrogant, but he was not stupid. He knew that he had written a controversial book, and therefore arranged to have it secretly printed in Strasbourg. He honestly (or perhaps naively) hoped and believed that the truth of his ideas would be readily perceived and quickly accepted, and therefore he sent complimentary copies to all of the prominent reformers and humanists of the day. Initial response was mixed, but as the months passed the criticisms became more and more negative. Servetus had managed to come up with something to offend just about everyone: not only had he done away with the doctrine of the Trinity, but he also had taken issue with the efficacy of infant baptism, and with Luther's doctrine of Justification by Faith.

By June of 1532, only a year after its publication, sale of Servetus's book had been banned in the towns controlled by the Reformers, and a warrant for his arrest had been issued by the Catholic Inquisition as well. His own brother Juan was instructed by the Spanish authorities to travel to Germany and lure Servetus back into Catholic hands, so that justice against heretics might appropriately be carried out. Meanwhile, Servetus himself apparently even contemplated fleeing incognito to the New World in order to escape the repercussions of his writing.

But instead he fled to France, taking on the assumed name Michel de Villenueve. He eventually settled in Lyon, where he took up work as an editor for the publishers Melchior and Gaspard Trechsel. Servetus lived secretly in France for some 20 years, editing editions of Ptolemy's Geography and of the Bible itself, studying medicine for a time at the University of Paris, and lecturing on Astrology in order to support his studies, a practice which nearly lead to the discovery of his true identity.

Servetus was also evidently quite successful as a physician, and made a name for himself in the history of medicine as the first to note the aeration of blood in the lungs. He never married, possibly out of fear that he would be unable to keep his past a secret from his wife. His passion for theology never waned. When John Calvin's Institutes started to appear in publication, Servetus obtained copies and read them eagerly. He initiated a secret correspondence with Calvin (whom he may actually have met in person earlier in Paris in 1533), and they exchanged some 30 letters, which over time grew increasingly heated and abusive in tone. Both men wrote under assumed names to protect their identities: Calvin used the name Charles Despeville; while with characteristic boldness, Servetus used his own name as a pseudonym, in order to hide his identity as Michel de Villenueve. When Calvin started to refer Servetus to the Institutes for answers, instead of bothering to answer his questions directly, Servetus responded by returning pages of Calvin’s book with every paragraph marked with insulting marginal annotations. He also sent Calvin a manuscript of his own work-in-progress, The Restitution of Christianity, the Latin title of which, Christianismi Restitutio, was an obvious pun on Calvin's own Institutio. When Calvin finally broke off the correspondence, Servetus wrote again asking for the return of his manuscript; Calvin never responded, and the manuscript would eventually surface in evidence at Servetus's trial.

Having learned his lesson in 1531, Servetus took even greater precautions to insure that his new book could not be traced back to him. The presses were set up secretly in an abandoned house on the outskirts of town, the printers themselves had no knowledge of what they were printing, and the new manuscript (Calvin was still in possession of the original draft) was burned page by page as soon as it was set in type. The printing was completed on January 3rd, 1553. A few copies were sent to a sympathetic bookseller in Frankfort, and the remainder moved secretly to the home of a friend in Lyon.

A printed copy somehow came into the hands of Calvin during the month of February; perhaps it was sent by Servetus himself. By now Calvin had figured out that the Servetus with whom he had earlier corresponded was indeed the notorious heretic of two decades earlier, and he promptly conspired to deliver Servetus into the hands the Inquisitors in Lyon, having an associate write a letter in which were included the first four pages of Servetus's book.

Let me take a moment to explain the significance of this. While the various reformers often bickered among themselves, never before had they betrayed one of their own to agents of the Pope. It simply wasn't done. Moreover, when this initial evidence proved inadequate for the Inquisition's needs, Calvin forwarded parts of Servetus's earlier correspondence with him, which being in Servetus's own handwriting were not so easily denied. By this time Servetus was already under arrest, but having successfully practiced medicine in the community for some years he was not without friends, and with their help he was able to effect an escape. But the copies of his book were discovered and burned, along with an effigy of his body. So complete was the destruction that only three of that original printing of a thousand still exist today.

The final chapter of the story is perhaps the most interesting of all. On Sunday August 13th, 1553, Michael Servetus was arrested as he left church in the city of Geneva. The preacher that day was John Calvin. Servetus was accused of heresy, blasphemy, immorality and sedition, to list the major charges. He languished in a dungeon for several months, subjected to frequent "vigorous" interrogation, afflicted by vermin, denied decent food or even an occasional change of clothes, his spirit and morale gradually withering away, yet his religious convictions never faltering. He was at last formally tried and found guilty on the 26th of October, and sentenced to be burned to death at the stake the following morning, 454 years ago, yesterday, in only his 42nd year of life. It is reported that his final words were "O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me." More than one historian has noted that had he merely changed the position of the adjective and prayed for deliverance to "Jesus, the eternal son of God," his views would have been considered acceptable by the court.

It has also been noted that Servetus had a far greater impact on the shape of Protestant Christianity in death than he ever made during his lifetime. Never before had one Reformer been responsible for the execution of another for reason of religious belief, and John Calvin lost a great deal of respect and credibility among his peers by having become the first. Reformers who had been harsh in their condemnation of Servetus's theological opinions while he was alive now found themselves defending his right to hold them against Calvin's obvious abuse of secular power. The widespread acceptance of the ideal of religious tolerance was still centuries away — in fact, I often wonder whether it has yet to be achieved. But in the aftermath of the martyrdom of Servetus, all of Western Civilization took its first hesitant steps towards its realization.

The standard narrative histories of the life and death of Servetus routinely emphasize the importance of the latter at the expense of the former. They tend to characterize Servetus personally as a brilliant yet idealistically headstrong young heretic, and an outspoken firebrand who nevertheless maintained the courage of his convictions even unto death, and thus became a martyr to the cause of Religious Freedom. But it seems to me that this dramatic narrative needs to be read alongside those of people like Thomas Smith, and Samuel Deane, and Ichabod Nichols, who also gave their lives in the pursuit of Spiritual Truth and in defense of Religious Liberty, and whose faithful service has also made it possible for us to enjoy those same freedoms today....

Michael Servetus.
Died in this Ministry,
October 27, 1553....