1572: Johann Sylvan, Antitrinitarian

Add comment December 23rd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1572, Antitrinitarian Calvinist Johann Sylvan lost his head in a Heidelberg market.

Sylvan — or Johannes Slyvanus — was a pastor and theologian in the service of Calvinist Elector Frederick III.

Frederick’s own Calvinist scruples were theoretically anathema in a Holy Roman Empire whose writ of tolerance did not extend past Lutheranism.

But Sylvan gravitated towards a circle of reformers whose concept of the divine left orthodox Calvinism far behind — “a group of ministers within the Palatine church, who were not only prepared to deny the eternal divinity of Christ, but secretly aspired to promote a further reformation of received doctrine with a view to restoring the pristine monotheism of the faith,” according to this pdf volume, The Heidelberg Antitrinitarians.

This rejection of the long-canonical Christian mystery of threefold godhead formed a recurring subtheme of Europe’s Reformations, its exponents — like Michael Servetus — forever prone to martyrdoms administered by any respectable sect.

This proved to be the case for Sylvan as well; given his dubious theological position within the empire, Elector Frederick might have felt it politically necessary to come down hard on these radicals.

Still, while Sylvan was made the example, others in his Antitrinitarian circle lived to expound their heresies in other lands. Matthias Vehe fled to Transylvania — where a Unitarian Church was founded in 1568, protected by a sympathetic prince — and then to other fellow-travelers in Poland. Adam Neuser also escaped, later converting to Islam and defecting to Ottoman Istanbul, an event that did a lot of lifting for anti-Anti-trinitarian propagandists.

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1528: Leonhard Schiemer, Anabaptist pacifist

Add comment January 14th, 2016 Headsman

Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin.

1 Peter 4:1, a verse very dear to this date’s principal*

Anabaptist Leonhard Schiemer was beheaded on this date in 1528 at Rattenberg.

Schiemer abandoned a Franciscan monastery, preferring to set his table with honest labor as a tailor, and to succor his soul with that that new heresy minting martyrs in northern Europe.

In 1527, Schiemer was both a vigorous missionary and an eloquent proponent of the pacificism for which the sect would eventually become known. In Schiemer’s time, before the catastrophe of Münster’s Anabaptist theocracy, this was quite naturally a hot dispute among the persecuted adherents trying to determine how to make their way in a world where they were considered heretical even by the other heretics: turn the other cheek, or come like Christ with a sword?

Schiemer’s answer was for the true Christian to give himself to the ordeal of Christ’s cross.

[The Holy Spirit] teaches no one, however, unless he despaired of all human comforting and wisdom first. He does not comfort or strengthen anyone unless he feels a horror and turns away from all comforting and power of man. This is why the Lord says, “Do not be called masters.” But this master, Christ, does not accept anyone as His pupil or disciple, unless he renounces and hates everything that he has, and follows Him and carries his cross daily. In doing this, one has to trust in the Lord’s comforting and keep still, as the Scriptures say in many passages, particularly in the Psalms, the Prophets, most of all in Isaiah and the Lamentations of Jeremiah.

The strength of all Christians consists in keeping still, by not forsaking the words of the Lord so quickly, by not losing courage so soon, but by being patient, waiting for the comfort of the Holy Spirit, in the midst of the greatest desolation and misery. This is true weakness of which the Scriptures speak, in particular Paul when he says, “For when I am weak I am strong.”

He also says, “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s suffering, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” That is what Christ means when He says, “A little while and you will see me no more, again a little while and you will see me.” And when the apostles asked Him what He meant by this, He answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn in to joy … Indeed the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.

The Threefold Grace

It is often suspected that Schiemer’s execution on January 14 might have inspired the Rattenberg grandee Pilgram Marpeck to convert — for he was dismissed from a post as a mining magistrate on January 28, and thereafter became an influential, itinerant Anabaptist “wandering citizen of heaven” crisscrossing southern Germany.

* According to an essay on Schiemer in The Anabaptists and Contemporary Baptists: Restoring New Testament Christianity.

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1559: The remains of David Joris, Anabaptist fugitive

Add comment May 13th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1559, the corpse of “Johann van Brugge” — recently exposed as underground Anabaptist leader David Joris, even though Brugge/Joris was three years dead — was burned in Basel.

The flame-bearded Joris (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed Dutch) was a glass-painter by trade who came to the fore of the Anabaptist movement following its catastrophe at Muenster.

His home city of Delft in 1528 had flogged him and bored his tongue for his religious scruples, but Joris maintained a strong following among the re-baptized in that city. Many of those followers had occasion to try their faith against the torturers’ tongs, and dozens of arrestees impressively concealed their leader’s whereabouts from his enemies. The man’s own mother was executed in 1539.

He could only duck in and out of Delft — once he had to slip out in a basket innocuously loaded onto a boat* — or any other city. From the 1530s, his was a life on the run in Reformation Europe, where Anabaptists were no safer from Protestants than they were from Catholics.

(Sample dangerous heresy: Joris was a very early adopter of the idea that the devil was best understood as an allegorical figure, not an actual entity.)

With a literal price on his head he wandered to Strassburg, to England, back to the continent in Westphalia and Oldenburg, Strassburg again, then Antwerp, and on to Basel, Switzerland in 1544.

In Deventer in 1542 his ecstatic Wonder Boeck was printed. (We recommend the engravings.)

In Basel our hunted man was able to settle in as Brugge and live out the balance of his life, still pouring out voluminous writings in secret — a very impressive retirement considering his notoriety and his distinctive facial hair. Joris was in his fifties when he died: the years of rough living on the run had done him no favors.

Three years after his death, his son-in-law — who disagreed with Joris theologically — exposed his real identity. Basel had nothing left to do about it but to visit on his bones the punishment David Joris’s living flesh escaped to the end of his days.

* From Gary Waite’s “Staying Alive: The Methods of Survival as Practiced by an Anabaptist Fugitive, David Joris” in the January 1987 Mennonite Quarterly Review.

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1553: Michael Servetus, but not to defend a doctrine

5 comments October 27th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1553, Calvinist Geneva showed it could keep up with the Inquisition by burning the theologian Michael Servetus as a heretic.

A generation or two into the Protestant Reformation, and the ministers of Rome were in full-throated I-told-you-so. The splintered religious authority had set all manner of alien doctrine afoot in the land. Adult baptism! No original sin!

Servetus believed all this queer stuff. He also believed in a unitarian — that is, not trinitarian — deity.

Catholics and Protestants both hunted him from pillar to post for heresy.

After busting out of the Inquisition’s clutches in France, Servetus fled towards Italy, but made an unaccountable stopover in John Calvin’s Geneva. He well knew that capture here would be fatal: he had had an acrimonious correspondence with Calvin. Was he seeking thrills? Martyrdom? A place in this blog?

“I will burn, but this is a mere event. We shall continue our discussion in eternity.”

He quaffed all those bitter cups when he was recognized hanging out at a church service and condemned to death for sundry heresies after a sensational trial heavy with theological artillery, personal vituperation, and municipal politics. Calvin, gracious in victory, requested beheading rather than burning. He was scorned as needlessly merciful.

Of course, all manner of Christian fauna were being martyred by other Christians in the 16th century. Still, the Spanish physician is an interesting dude.

His rejection of the Trinity has secured him honored consideration from various latter-day sects, from Jehovah’s Witnesses to Oneness Pentecostals to general humanists to Unitarian Universalists:

Besides all that stuff, in his day-job capacity as doctor, Servetus was apparently the first European to understand pulmonary respiration. Nobody even noticed that until decades after his death.

“To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine, but to kill a man.”*

The execution of this smart, odd duck for non-violent heresy is not generally considered the highlight of Mr. Predestination’s career, but you can get some of Calvin’s side of the story in this collection of his letters. It’s worth allowing that heretics were being burned by the thousand elsewhere in Europe at this time; Servetus is noticeable in part because what was routine in England or Spain was exceptional in Geneva.

Servetus’ ashes will cry out against [Calvin] as long as the names of these two men are known in the world. –Walter Nigg

* This observation, sometimes attributed to Servetus himself, was in fact uttered by Sebastian Castellio.

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Feast Day of Boethius

4 comments October 23rd, 2008 Jeffrey Fisher

(Thanks to Jeffrey Fisher [jeffreyfisher at me.com] for the guest post.)

Today is the feast day of Neoplatonic philosopher and Christian theologian Boethius (Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius), author of The Consolation of Philosophy, and according to tradition martyred in 524 or 525, or possibly 526, by the Ostrogothic king Theodoric.

Well, maybe.

We know roughly as much about why Boethius was killed as when or how. We do know that he came from a line of prominent Romans (including a couple of popes back there, depending on who you count as “pope”), was himself consul in 510, and his sons were rather astonishingly joint consuls in 522. At that time he moved up to Ravenna accepting an appointment at Theodoric’s court as the Master of Offices, something like the equivalent of chief of staff, managing the work of Theodoric’s officers.

But then things went horribly wrong.

There is a long tradition, going back at least to the eighth century, regarding Boethius as having been executed for maintaining the Catholic faith against the Arian Theodoric. While Theodoric was probably paranoid about spies representing the Catholic eastern emperor-in-waiting Justinian (who would, in fact, later “reconquer” the Italian peninsula), and Boethius claims in the Consolation that he was hated for being smarter than everyone else, the truth is probably that he was caught up in the usual machinations of an imperial court.

A member of the Senate was accused of treasonably conspiring with Justinian’s predecessor Justin I against Theodoric. Boethius defended the accused (apparently the only person to do so, although the charges were surely trumped up), and in the Consolation, Boethius says he was only defending the Senate (implying that the accusations were meant to undermine the authority of the Senate by challenging its loyalty to the king).

In any event, the sources we have say that Boethius was condemned by the Senate (who appear to have thrown him under the bus) without being able to speak in his own defense. After an indeterminate time of imprisonment, he was executed.

It was while he awaited death that he wrote his most famous and arguably most influential work, The Consolation of Philosophy.

A few of the many editions of The Consolation of Philosophy available. Others are available free at Project Gutenberg (here, here and a Latin one here), as is a podcast version.

Boethius’ translations of and commentaries on ancient Greek philosophy were the only such texts available in Europe for much of the Middle Ages, but the Consolation was translated and widely read even outside of the philosophical circles in which his other work was so important.

Written in the form of Menippean satire (alternating verse and prose) as a dialog between Boethius and Philosophy, the Consolation is Boethius’s attempt to think through and make sense of the sad state of his affairs.


Boethius and Philosophy, by Mattia Preti.

Ultimately, it was both the universal nature of the problem (why are these horrible things happening to me?) and the compelling way in which he tackled the problem (a combination of Plato, Aristotle, and Stoicism) that have made this text so widely read and imitated.

There is no way in this space to do justice to the Consolation, which addresses the very idea of philosophical discourse (“would you like us to clash together our arguments, for perhaps out of a conflict of this kind some beautiful spark of truth my fly out?”), the nature of time and God’s perspective outside of time, the difference between providence and fate, and the nature of and way to the Good itself.

But the gist of Boethius’s argument about the sufferings of the good person maybe be quickly summarized. In short, Boethius has forgotten his true nature, which never changes, and gotten caught up in the things of this world, which come and go. If he but remembers himself, he will have something no injustice, no turning of the wheel of fortune, can take away from him. And as for the unjust and the evil, they also have their “reward”:

But since goodness confers on each man his reward, he will only lack it when he has ceased to be good. [ . . . Now] since the good itself is happiness, it is clear that all good men are made happy for this reason, that they are good. But those that are happy, it is agreed, are gods; and therefore that is the reward of good men, which no time can lessen, no man’s power diminish, no man’s wickedness obscure, to become gods. These things being so for good men, no wise man can doubt either of the punishment inseparable from evil men; for since good and evil, and also punishment and reward, are directly opposite to one another, what we see added in the case of the good man’s reward must necessarily be reflected in an opposite manner in the evil man’s punishment. As therefore goodness itself is the reward for good men, so for wicked men wickedness is itself the punishment.

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1985: Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, progressive Islamic theologian

Add comment January 18th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1985 progressive Islamic theologian Mahmoud Mohamed Taha was publicly hanged at a prison in Khartoum North, Sudan.

Seventy-five years old at his death, Taha spent his youth in the nationalist movement against British control of Sudan where he emerged as the standard-bearer of the liberal/secular Republican Party.

After Sudan won independence in 1956, both Taha and his party maintained — in the face of official hostility that waxed and waned with the changing regimes — nonviolent support for political openness, national unity between Muslims and non-Muslims, and a theology pointing to reform within Islam. Specifically, Taha embraced a women’s movement and opposed the imposition of sharia, at least in the absence of a radical modernization of the Islamic religious law.

The introduction of sharia in 1983 brought matters to a head, and not only with Taha: civil war broke out — the conflict between the Muslim north and the Christian and animist south only recently and imperfectly abated.

Taha and four other Republicans were tried for their intransigence in a two-hour trial under a seemingly muddled mixture of secular and religious law.

Among the hundreds of attendees of Taha’s hanging this day were his four “co-conspirators.” They were themselves under sentence of death to be carried out January 20th, unless they should recant. All four recanted. Hundreds of other Republicans were held around the country on lesser charges until they did likewise.

The next year, with a new government in place, the Sudanese Supreme Court declared the proceedings against the Republicans to have been in error.

Little of Taha’s work has been translated, but his Second Message of Islam is available in English and presents a conception of the faith so unfamiliar in the west that one reviewer mitigates his praise with the regret that “it is nonsensical to talk of reforming Islam, a religion which is doctrinally irreformable.”

Taha’s thought also has a scholarly evaluation in Quest for Divinity: A Critical Examination of the Thought of Mahmud Muhammad Taha. More information by and about Taha and the Republicans is here.

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