In addition to Servetus, Jerome Bolsec was arrested and imprisoned for challenging Calvin during a lecture, then banished from the city. Calvin wrote privately about the matter saying that he wished Bolsec were “rotting in a ditch.”
The documentation provided is, "Quoted in History of the Christian Church Volume VIII. p. 137 See online here. " This link doesn't go to the exact spot where Schaff discusses this. Here is the discussion in Schaff.
Historical Context Via Schaff
Schaff explains that Jerome Bolsec actually interrupted John de St. André who was speaking that day (hence, a public disturbance), and challenged this minister, not Calvin. According to Schaff,
On the 16th of October, 1551, Bolsec attended the religious conference, which was held every Friday at St. Peter's. John de St. André preached from John 8: 47 on predestination, and inferred from the text that those who are not of God, oppose him to the last, because God grants the grace of obedience only to the elect. Bolsec suddenly interrupted the speaker, and argued that men are not saved because they are elected, but that they are elected because they have faith. He denounced, as false and godless, the notion that God decides the fate of man before his birth, consigning some to sin and punishment, others to virtue and eternal happiness. He loaded the clergy with abuse, and warned the congregation not to be led astray.Calvin was in attendance, though Schaff says he “entered the church unobserved.” Calvin waited until Bolsec was finished, then had an impromptu debate with Bolsec, and refuted him. Schaff does not say Calvin had Bolsec arrested, nor was Bolsec arrested for challenging Calvin. Other church leaders were in attendance (for instance, Schaff says William Farel was also present). Schaff says, “The lieutenant of police apprehended Bolsec for abusing the ministers and disturbing the public peace.”
Schaff says the ministers of Geneva "drew up seventeen articles against Bolsec." Yes, Bolsec was eventually banished, but only after a number of other churches were asked to weigh in on what should be done with Bolsec (and not all of those churches were favorable to Calvin). Because of the collected work of all these churches, the milder sentence of banishment was imposed.
Rotting in a Ditch?
I’m not sure where the exact form of "Calvin wrote privately about the matter saying that he wished Bolsec were 'rotting in a ditch'" comes from. It’s similar to this from Called to Communion:
In 1551, Bolsec, a physician and convert to Protestantism, entered Geneva and attended a lecture on theology. The topic was Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, the teaching that God predetermines the eternal fate of every soul. Bolsec, who believed firmly in “Scripture alone” and “faith alone,” did not like what he heard. He thought it made God into a tyrant. When he stood up to challenge Calvin’s views, he was arrested and imprisoned.
What makes Bolsec’s case interesting is that it quickly evolved into a referendum on Church authority and the interpretation of Scripture. Bolsec, just like most Evangelicals today, argued that he was a Christian, that he had the Holy Spirit and that, therefore, he had as much right as Calvin to interpret the Bible. He promised to recant if Calvin would only prove his doctrine from the Scriptures. But Calvin would have none of it. He ridiculed Bolsec as a trouble maker (Bolsec generated a fair amount of public sympathy), rejected his appeal to Scripture, and called on the council to be harsh. He wrote privately to a friend that he wished Bolsec were “rotting in a ditch.”2
2 Letter to Madame de Cany, 1552.This Called to Communion snippet is fascinating. Notice how the author, David Anders, restates the facts to give off the appearance that Bolsec interrupted Calvin's lecture. It was also not simply "Calvin's view's," but rather, the view of John de St. André (the person lecturing), and the collective ministers of Geneva. Anders also leaves out that the entire affair was presented to a number of churches to weigh in on. Anders also presents the straw-man argument that Protestants have no right to church authority or discipline without an infallible church.
Anders does though provide a reference, "Letter to Madame de Cany, 1552." This letter can be found here. Calvin writes,
Madame,—I am very sorry that the praiseworthy act which you did about half a year ago, has met with no better return. This is because no good and true servant of God found himself within reach of such help, as that received by as wicked and unhappy a creature as the world contains. Knowing partly the man he was, I could have wished that he were rotting in some ditch; and his arrival gave me as much pleasure as the piercing my heart with a poniard would have done. But never could I have deemed him to be such a monster of all impiety and contempt of God, as he has proved himself in this. And I assure you, Madame, that had he not so soon escaped, I should, by way of discharging my duty, have done my best to bring him to the stake.Note the actual English translation is, “I could have wished that he were rotting in some ditch.” Note also, Bolsec is not named in this private correspondence. Bonnet, the translator of this letter, says
Who is the personage to whom these words refer, stamped at once by the inflexible spirit of the time and the stern rigour of the Reformer? The historian can only offer conjectures: can it be Jerome Bolsec? But a regular sentence had banished him from Geneva, and Calvin himself does not appear to have called for a more severe judgment against this innovator whom resentment bad transformed into a vile pamphleteer. "That fellow, Jerome, is driven out into perpetual exile by a public sentence. Certain revilers have spread abroad the falsehood, that we earnestly desired a much severer punishment, and foolishly, it is believed."—(Calvin to Bullinger, in the month of January 1552.) In that age of inexorable severity against unsound doctrine, Servetus only appeared at Geneva to expire at the stake, and Gentili only escaped the scaffold for a time, by the voluntary retraction of his opinions. To name Gentili, Servetus, Bolsoc, is to recall the principal victims of Calvinistic intolerance in the sixteenth century, but not to solve the mystery which attaches to the personage designated in the letter of Calvin to Madame de Cany.Bonnet says that “The historian can only offer conjecture” as to who is meant. Bonnet then goes on to say, "… can it be Jerome Bolsec? But a regular sentence had banished him from Geneva, and Calvin himself does not appear to have called for a more severe judgment against this innovator whom resentment had transformed into a vile pamphleteer.”
In this age of "fake news" is it any surprise that the internet is filled with fake history as well? A closer look at the facts show that Bolsec was not "arrested and imprisoned for challenging Calvin during a lecture." Yes, Bolsec was banished, but it was not simply at the whim of Calvin. Nor is it a certainty that Calvin "wished Bolsec were 'rotting in a ditch'.'"
It is shocking to our modern scruples that a person could be banished for a perceived heretical view. Calvin and Bolsec were part of a world in which this happened. There are still churches to today (though few probably few in number!) that practice a form of banishment: excommunication. While a person is not ostracized from an entire society, they could be ostracized from certain aspects of a spiritual community.
Yes, Calvin had an important influence in Geneva, yes he could be intolerant, yes, there were tragedies in Geneva that Calvin played a part in. While Calvin had his faults, flaws, and sins, this closer look shows there are those who wish to vilify Calvin and make him the tyrant of Geneva. The question though is... why? Why is it so important to characterize Calvin as a blood-thirsty dictator? That's a topic for a future blog entry!
For further reading, see: Robert Godfrey, Calvin, Bolsec and the Reformation. Godfrey says:
Jerome Bolsec, who was a Carmelite monk and doctor of theology in Paris, was drawn to the Reformation and so forced to leave France. By early 1551 he had settled in the canton of Geneva working as a physician. From early on he became a critic of Calvin's doctrine of predestination in a variety of ways and settings.And also:
The trial of Bolsec proceeded despite such advice, especially charging Bolsec with attacking the religious establishment of Geneva and bringing scurrilous charges against its doctrine. On December 23, 1551 he was banished permanently from Geneva. He eventually returned to the Roman Church and in 1577 wrote a vicious biography of Calvin which propagated many false stories about Calvin. Bolsec died in 1584.