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Pioneer of Tolerance (Uwe Plath)

When the Reformer John Calvin gave the order to burn the scholar Michael Servetus as a heretic in 1553, the humanist Sebastian Castellio - once an employee of the reformer - was stunned. Castellio condemned Calvin in his writings and appealed to Christians to be more tolerant.

(This text was first published in "DAMALS - Das Magazin für Geschichte", issue 10/2015,

Sebastian Castellio, whose 500th birthday we celebrate this year, was a man of the spirit of Erasmus: Christian humanist, philologist, pedagogue, theologian; especially fighter for religious tolerance. His pedagogical writings and his Latin translation of the Bible were reprinted up to the 18th century and used for Latin and religious education in many European countries. His arguments for freedom of religion and conscience are currently relevant. Nevertheless, this man is still widely unknown in Germany. Even though his biography was written by the French Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Ferdinand Buisson, and the Swiss historian, Hans R. Guggisberg; and his controversy against John Calvin was mainly known due to the novel of Stefan Zweig "A conscience against violence" - the book has been translated into many languages and been sold 100,000 times in Germany alone.

We do not know much about Castellio's youth. We do not even know the exact date of his birth, only the year of birth 1515. He was born in Saint-Martin-du-Fresne (Duchy of Savoy). His parents were simple, honest peasants, who conveyed him no great education, but a pious lifestyle and a sense of justice. Nowadays, Saint-Martin-du-Fresne is located in the French department of Ain, halfway between Lyon and Geneva. Both cities have influenced the life of the young man. In Lyon, an intersection of French and Italian culture, he received the basic principles of humanistic education. Here he became a classical philologist; here he witnessed, probably in January 1540, the first “burning of heretic” of Protestant Christians.

In Lyon, Castellio may have also read Jean Calvin's first "Institutio", published in Basle in 1536. In any case, he left Lyon in the spring of 1540 and went to Strasbourg, where Calvin lived until 1541 after his banishment from Geneva. Between both men a good relationship must have developed. Castellio even lived in Calvin’s house for a short time; and before the latter returned to Geneva, he entrusted the 26-year-old with the management of the Geneva school, which was of special significance for the development of an evangelical community and for the education of the theological offspring within the church constitution.

But very soon disagreements arose in Geneva, as Calvin refused permission to print Castellio’s French translation of the New Testament. They got worse when Castellio requested a ministry to improve his financial situation, and, in this context, contradicted the canonical character of the Song of Songs and Calvin's interpretation of the descent of Jesus Christ into hell. Already at this point, Castellio’s spirit of doubt and questioning became apparent, which emerged clearly in his later work, the "De arte dubitandi".

This was a kind of spirit which Calvin certainly did not need to build a Protestant Geneva. Therefore, he rejected Castellio "due to heretical mood" for a church office. The final break occurred in 1544 at a parish assembly, when Castellio interrupted the Biblical interpretation of Calvin and violently criticised the administration and the moral conduct of the Geneva clergy.

Castellio had to leave Geneva. He went to Basle, where he lived from 1545 to 1563 and died at the age of 48 years.

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