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Christian Apologist, Alister McGrath on Atheism's “twilight” and Aldous Huxley's “lie” about Calvinists in Geneva beheading a child

Christian Apologist, Alister McGrath

I always wanted to ask Christian apologist, Alister McGrath, if he felt the least bit chagrined after writing his book, The Twilight of Atheism, only to discover within a few years not just one but several books advocating atheism climbing to the top of the bestseller lists for the first time in human history? (Personally, I am not an atheist, though I do doubt the validity and authority of “revealed religions” and “holy writings” in general.)

Aldous Huxleyʼs “Lie” About Calvinists in Geneva, Switzerland, Beheading a Child During the Reformation

After reading McGrathʼs biography of Calvin I could not help but notice how he opened one chapter by denouncing Aldous Huxleyʼs claim that a child was executed by Calvinist Genevans for not honoring their parents. But after researching the topic beyond the mere Huxley quotation I discovered several notable Protestant historians who agreed with Huxley rather than with McGrathʼs anti-Huxley rant. I wonder if McGrath would be willing to acknowledge that Huxley was merely repeating what was already acknowledged, even by Protestant historians?

But first a little background: In 1563, Calvinʼs Commentary on the Five Books of Moses was published in Geneva and it reiterated what he had previously taught in his sermons in 1555 concerning the necessity of following Godʼs rules of discipline and the necessity of magistrates to obey and enforce Biblical laws, including the physical discipline and/or execution of rebellious children. The passages from the Bible concerning such matters are these:

“He that strikes his father or his mother shall die the death.” Exodus 21:15

“He that curses his father or his mother shall die the death.” Exodus 21:17

“If any man has a son that is stubborn and disobedient, which will not hearken unto the voice of his father, nor the voice of his mother, and they have chastened him [The Hebrew word for ‘chasten’ means literally ‘chasten with blows.’], and he would not obey them, Then shall his father and his mother take him, and bring him out unto the Elders of his city, and unto the gate of the place where he dwells, And shall say unto the Elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and disobedient, and he will not obey our admonition; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. Then all the men of the city shall stone him with stones unto death: so thou shalt take away evil from among you, that all Israel may hear and fear.” Deuteronomy 21:18-21

Even Jesus allegedly cited the above “law of Moses” in the earliest Gospel, Mark 7:10, and not in terms of wanting to overthrow it.

Below are admissions made by Protestant biographers of Calvin:

“In the year 1563 (the same year in which Calvinʼs Commentary on the Five Books of Moses was published in Geneva that reiterated what he had previously taught in his sermons) a young girl who had insulted her mother was kept confined, fed on bread and water, and obliged to express her repentance publicly in the church. A peasant boy who had called his mother a devil, and flung a stone at her, was publicly whipped, and suspended by his arms to a gallows as a sign that he deserved death, and was only spared on account of his youth. Another child in 1568, for having struck his parents was beheaded. A lad of sixteen, for having only threatened to strike his mother, was condemned to death; on account of his youth the sentence was softened, and he was only banished, after being publicly whipped, with a halter about his neck.”

Source: Paul Henry, D.D. [Protestant minister and seminary-inspector of Berlin], The Life and Times of John Calvin, The Great Reformer, Vol. I (Translated by Henry Stebbing, D.D., F.R.S., author of “The Church and Reformation” in Lardnerʼs Cyclopaedia; History of the Church of Christ From the Diet of Augusburg; Lives of the Italian Poets, etc.) (London: Whittaker and Co., 1849), p. 361 [The “Translatorʼs Preface” in Vol. I states: “The present work affords ample details on the main points connected with Calvinʼs history, and with that of his age. They have been derived from Sources now, in great part, for the first time made public… Dr. Henryʼs admiration of Calvin is almost unbounded. But devoted as is his veneration for the great reformer, he has been too candid to conceal either his faults or his errors.”

Johannes Calvin, Leben und ausgewahlte Schrijten, by Ernst Stahelin, a pastor in Basel, published at Elberfeld in two volumes, in 1863, is considered among the best of the older biographies of Calvin. It (along with Paul Henryʼs biography) is cited as a Source for the beheading incident in Henry Clay Sheldonʼs History of the Christian Church, Volume 3. In that volume Sheldon states:

“A peasant boy, for reviling his mother and casting a stone at her, was publicly whipped, and suspended by the arms from the gallows as a token that he deserved death. Another child was beheaded for striking his parents. Another, for simply attempting to strike his parents, was condemned to death, but the capital sentence was afterwards exchanged for whipping and banishment.” “History of the Christian Church,” Volume 3, By Henry Clay Sheldon

Meanwhile Picot says:

“In 1563, a girl named Genon Bougy, who had insulted her mother by calling her “japa,” was condemned to three days in prison on bread and water, and she had to make a public apology after worship services. In 1566, Damian Mesnier, a child from the village of Genthod, for insulting his mother by calling her “diablesse,” ‘hérège, larronne’ and by throwing stones at her, was whipped in public and then hanged from the gallows with the rope passed under his arms, as a sign of the death he had deserved, but which was spared him because of his youth. Philippe Deville was beheaded in 1568 for having beaten his father and step-mother. Four years later, a 16-year-old child tried to strike his mother, and was also condemned to death; but the sentence was reduced in light of his young age, and he was only banished, after being whipped in public with a rope around his neck.

Source: Jean Picot [Professeur dʼhistoire dans la faculte des lettres de lʼAcademie de cette ville] Histoire de Geneve, Tome Second (Published in Geneva, i.e., A Geneve, Chez Manget et Cherbuliez, Impreimeurs-Libr. 1811) p. 264

And Schaff says:

“A child was whipped for calling his mother a thief and a she-devil (diabless). A girl was beheaded for striking her parents, to vindicate the dignity of the fifth commandment.”

Source: Philip Schaff [Professor of Church History in the Union Theological Seminary, New York] Modern Christianity: The Swiss Reformation = Vol. VIII of History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmanns, third edition revised, 1910) This particular citation is even available online.

Added Reflections: Schaff does not footnote the “beheading” incident, though he does provide on that page and the next a few footnotes regarding other incidents of prohibitions and their penalties in Geneva. He also lists the Sources he consulted when writing his book (Sources are listed at the beginning of each section). Judging by nearby footnotes and by his Source list for that particular section, he might have obtained his information about the beheading from either the Registers of the Council of Geneva, or, “Amedee Roget: Lʼeglise et lʼetat a Geneve du vivant de Calvin. Etude dʼhistoire politico-ecclesiastique, published in Geneve, 1867 (pp. 92). Compare also his Histoire du people de Geneve depuis la reforme jusquʼa lʼescalade (1536-1602), 1870-1883, 7 vols.” Or perhaps Schaff derived his information from the Calvin biographies by Paul Henry and Ernst Stahelin already mentioned.

Picot and Schaff do not agree on the gender of the beheaded child, and Paul Henry, only mentions that it was a “child,” not specifying its gender. Picotʼs History of Geneva provides the most complete information concerning the incident, including the childʼs name and the date of the beheading. The archives of Geneva are vast and include not only the Registers of the Council and the Registers of the Consistory, but many other records as well (that the Calvin scholar, Robert Kingdon, lists by category in Vol. 1 of his English translation of the Registers of the Consistory). Though massive, the Genevan archives could probably be searched by focusing on the year of the beheading and the childʼs name that Picot has given, and they could probably supply more information, such as the childʼs age when s/he was beheaded.

Modern Day Calvinist Minister on the “Execution of Children”

In January of 1998 the Rev. William Einwechter, apparently a great friend of Calvinism, composed an article titled, “Stoning Disobedient Children,” that was published in Chalcedon Report. The Reverendʼs article raised some eyebrows in the world of “church and state news” since it advocated the execution of rebellious children who were “in their middle teens [15-17?] or older.” The Reverend responded to his critics in a second article. Both of his articles can be googled easily since they are posted at various websites. I emailed the Reverend, asking him why he chose the “mid-teens” as a cut off point for execution when Exodus mentions executing children twice, once for “cursing” their parents, and once for “striking” their parents, but in neither case does it specify the “age” of “executable” children. In fact in some places the Bible says God himself killed, or commanded his people to execute, infants and pregnant women. Therefore, the “age” of a child does not appear to have played a very large factor when it came to the necessity of removing “evil” from the sight of God:

Their fruit shalt Thou destroy from the earth, and their seed from among the children of men.
- Psalm 21:10

The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they are born… let every one of them pass away: like the untimely birth of a woman, that they may not see the sun.
- Psalm 58:3,8

As for Israel, their glory shall fly away like a bird, and from the womb, and from the conception… Give them, O Lord: what will Thou give? Give them a miscarrying womb and dry breasts… they shall bear no fruit…
- Hosea 9:11-16

Every living thing on the earth was drowned [which no doubt included pregnant women and babies]… Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.
- Genesis 7:23

Thus saith the LORD… Slay both man and woman, infant and suckling.
- 1 Samuel 15:3

Joshua destroyed all that breathed, as the LORD commanded.
- Joshua 10:40

The LORD delivered them before us; and we destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones.
- Deuteronomy 2:33-34

Kill every male among the little ones.
- Numbers 31:17

The wind of the LORD shall come up from the wilderness, and his spring shall become dry, and… Samaria shall become desolate… they shall fall by the sword: their infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up.
- Hosea 13:15-16

With thee will I [the LORD] break in pieces the young man and the maid.
- Jeremiah 51:22

Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.
- Psalm 137:9

I added in my email to Rev. Einwechter that Calvinist Christians whose “fear of God” ran deep could cite scriptures like those above and argue for executing rebellious children of a far younger age than he suggested in his article. Apparently the Reverend did not wish to argue the question of “age” any further with me, since he never replied to the second email I sent him.

This subject also brings to mind the related question of the Bibleʼs rules for the disciplining of children:

Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying.
- Proverbs 19:18 (The Hebrew word for “chasten” means literally “chasten with blows.”)

The blueness of a wound cleanses away evil: so do stripes the inward parts of the belly.
- Proverbs 20:30 (The Hebrew word translated “stripes” means “beating.”)

Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beats him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shall deliver his soul from Sheol.
- Proverbs 23:13-14

As a man chasteneth his son, so the Lord thy God chasteneth thee (with blows).
- Deuteronomy 8:5

For whom the Lord loves he chasteneth, and scourges every son whom he receives.
- Hebrews 12:6 (The Greek word translated “chasteneth,” also means “beating.”)

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