Calvin wrote King Henry VIII, "It is better to burn a few [Anabaptists] at the stake, than for thousands to burn in hell."
This particular version of this quote comes from the web-page, Fathers of the Reformation put together by a fringe group referring to themselves as "The Twelve Tribes." They assert Calvin had a "reign of terror" in Geneva, which is perhaps the least of their charges hurled at Calvin. The quote is typically found in similar polemical web-pages critical of Calvin's view of capital punishment for heresy. The quote can actually be found here on this blog, left by an anonymous comment back in 2007! We'll take a closer look at this quote to see what (if anything) Calvin wrote to King Henry VIII. We'll see that the quote may be spurious. If it's something John Calvin actually wrote, there's very little evidence to support it.
As far as I can tell, all the on-line uses of this quote stem from one source: the 1986 book, Renaissance and Reformation by William Estep. Estep was an authority in Anabaptist history and in no way a supporter of either Calvin or Calvinism (see his article here in which he claims Calvinist doctrines lead to a "dunghill"). On page 241, the author states:
The author includes a footnote for the quote:
here and here). Neither appears to provide any such quote.
The next avenue to pursue is Calvin's correspondence with King Henry VIII. Henry was king from 1509 until 1547 which would overlap with some periods of Calvin's reforming work (particularly the years 1536-1547). I didn't recall that Calvin had ever written to Henry VIII (or, vice versa). Typically it's Luther's interactions with Henry that garner the most attention. I checked the extant editions of Calvin's letters available to me, and I could find no evidence that Calvin corresponded with King Henry VIII. Even a simple Google search of the terms "John Calvin" and "Henry VIII" did not produce any information about their correspondence. I'm not the first to come up empty looking for this quote. This author refers to Estep's Calvin quote and states, "Ein solches Schreiben konnten wir bisher nicht finden."
First, I find it very suspicious that the correspondence of two infamous people, King Henry VIII and John Calvin, would be so obscure, particularly in this age of Internet information. This leads to me to question if any such correspondence actually exists.
Second, given the hostile polemic against Calvin that's gone on for centuries, I also find it very suspicious that such a Calvin quote as "it is far better that two or three be burned than thousands perish in Hell" would be so obscure. Calvin's detractors have sifted his work over and over, searching for any nugget that would paint him a the tyrant of Geneva. Only one person found this tidbit? That's really difficult to believe. It's true that Estep was knowledgeable in Anabaptist history, so this sort of blunder is also peculiar given his pedigree.
Third, according to Beveridge and Bonnet, "Calvin condemned with great severity the spiritual tyranny of Henry the Eighth, and the endeavours of that prince to substitute a sanguinary imperial popedom for that of Rome." Consider Calvin's statement about Henry VIII in his commentary on Hosea:
In short, the reformation under Jehu was like that under Henry King of England; who, when he saw that he could not otherwise shake off the yoke of the Roman Antichrist than by some disguise, pretended great zeal for a time: he afterwards raged cruelly against all the godly, and doubled the tyranny of the Roman Pontiff: and such was Jehu.
When we duly consider what was done by Henry, it was indeed an heroic valour to deliver his kingdom from the hardest of tyrannies: but yet, with regard to him, he was certainly worse than all the other vassals of the Roman Antichrist; for they who continue under that bondage, retain at least some kind of religion; but he was restrained by no shame from men, and proved himself wholly void of every fear towards God. He was a monster, (homo belluinus — a beastly man) and such was Jehu.
These negative comments about Henry VIII do not necessarily prove that Calvin would not offer him counsel on suppressing anabaptists, but it does suggest that Calvin did not have an amicable relationship of counsel with the king, as Estep's quote suggests, that Calvin made recommendations to the king for the benefit of "other Englishmen."
Finally, lest I be chastised for missing the forest for the trees, yes, it is true that Calvin believed in the death penalty for heresy. In his letter to the Protector Somerset (October 22, 1548) Calvin states,
From what I am given to understand, Monseigneur, there are two kinds of rebels who have risen up against the King and the Estates of the Kingdom. (1) The one, a fantastical sort of persons, who, under color of the Gospel, would put all into confusion. (2) The others are persons who persist in the superstitions of the Roman Antichrist. Both alike deserve to be repressed by the sword which is committed to you, since they not only attack the King, but strive with God, who has placed him upon a royal throne, and has committed to you the protection as well of his person as of his majesty.
Calvin's support of capital punishment goes beyond the scope of this entry. My concern here is with a particular quote that I believe paints Calvin in a worse light than I think is fair. Calvin is purported to have flippantly said, "it is far better that two or three be burned than thousands perish in Hell." If Calvin really did say such a thing, I'd like to see the proof. I'm going to keep an active search for this quote, until more proof emerges, I remain skeptical.