John Calvin — whatever his commendable qualities were — seems to have had a bit of a cruel, sadistic streak. I have noted in another paper how he seemed to be quite pleased in 1555 that the sufferings of (wrongly) condemned men were prolonged by the ineptitude of an executioner (“it is not without the special will of God that, apart from any verdict of the judges, the criminals have endured protracted torment at the hands of the executioner”), and noted condescendingly (in the same situation) how rack torture would be productive of useful information.
It is a particularly outrageous touch that he connects and ascribes this extra torment to the “special will of God.” He was at least consistent: this is the sort of horrific conclusion that the denial of human free will inexorably leads to.
In the famous case of the pantheist heretic Michael Servetus, we know that Calvin favored (and indeed actively sought) the man’s execution for heresy (a common opinion of those times from Catholics and Protestants and Catholics alike). Calvin at least mercifully tried to have him beheaded rather than burned at the stake (which was his sentence). But what I find chilling (and sadly revealing) is his callous account of how Servetus reacted to the announcement of his impending execution:
At first he was stunned and then sighed so as to be heard throughout the whole room; then he moaned like a madman and had no more composure than a demoniac. At length his cries so increased that he continually beat his breast and bellowed in Spanish, “Mercy! Mercy!” (in Bruce Gordon, Calvin, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009, p. 223; cited from Roland H. Bainton, Hunted Heretic; the Life and Death of Michael Servetus“, 1511-1553, Boston: Beacon Press, 1960, p. 209)
But lest idle scoundrels should glory in the insane obstinacy of the man, as in a martyrdom, there appeared in his death a beastly stupidity; whence it might be concluded that, on the subject of religion, he never was in earnest. When the sentence of death had been passed upon him he stood fixed; now as one astounded, now he sighed deeply; and now he howled like a maniac, and at length he just gained strength enough to bellow out after the Spanish manner, misericordia! misericordia! (William Hamilton Drummond, The Life of Michael Servetus, London: John Chapman, 1848, p. 144; primary source information and the original Latin rendering of the above are included in a footnote on the same page)
(originally posted on 3-25-10)