THE EVANGELIZATION & REFORMATION OF HOLLAND
Christianity's arrival in the Netherlands was delayed until the late 7th Century. Julius Caesar had conquered the areas south of the Rhine, but he never entered what is now the Netherlands. The Roman Emperor Augustus who ruled at the time of Jesus' birth subjected the dozen or so tribes who lived in these lowlands to tribute payments, but he never posted Roman soldiers or governors there. It was simply too wild an area to interest Rome further. It was swampy (the name "Netherlands" means "low areas," i.e. below sea level and therefore swampy) and difficult for Roman troops to march in and overcome with horses and chariots, and the people were thought to be too backward to be of any conceivable usefulness to the Empire. During the early expansion of the church in the apostolic era, the gospel was carried via Roman commercial routes (as it was also eastward along the silk road), but these routes did not extend into the Netherlands.
In A.D. 410, Rome was sacked and burned by the Germanic tribes. Shortly thereafter a new "empire" replaced the old one, and the bishop of Rome was its spiritual (and sometimes political) head. Missionaries of this old catholic church continued to press out to new areas with their message of salvation. The first record of missionaries being accepted into the Netherlands area is in A.D. 679. A certain "Wilfred" and his companions were en route to France from England, but their ship was blown off course. They considered this God's providence and proceeded to preach the gospel to the Netherlanders to whom God had led them. Thus the first converts were won among the Woden and Thor worshipers in the lowlands of northwestern Europe. Later on, Boniface was martyred when leading a Mass in the Friesian territory (circa 754). The area remained rather wild with strong pockets of resistance to outside rule and religion. There are even some accounts of cannibalization of outsiders by the wilder tribes (such as the Friesians who were my ancestors!).
Eventually however, Christianity became the prevailing faith of this area as well as of the rest of Europe. The converted lowlanders retained something of their earlier independent-mindedness even as they grew into a civilized and "Christian" society. As their country developed, it became an important crossroads between England and northern Europe. The nation developed as part of the Holy Roman Empire under the rule of the Hapsburgs. Perceiving the superior learning and technology of the rest of the "world" (which for them was the West), the Dutch seem to have rushed to catch up in these areas and eventually exceeded neighboring countries to some extent in zeal for enlightenment and development.
NW EUROPE WITH NETHERLANDS/BELGIUM AREA AT CENTER
The kind of Christianity which came to prominence throughout Europe accepted the Constantinian synthesis. Famous old Catholic missionaries like Boniface in the West and Xavier in the East were formalists and sacramentalists, and more often than not the tribes they "converted" were in fact not educated at all in the Scriptures but simply acceded to the superiority of the Empire the missionary represented. Whole tribes might be led through rivers while the priest spoke the baptismal formula. The tribe and eventually the nation was then pronounced "Christian" and took its place in the "corpus Christianum" under the Bishop of Rome. This kind of Christianity became entrenched in the Middle Ages, and the conception of Constantine that all his subjects belonged to the family of Christ became the common notion of all. This thinking also prevailed in the Netherlands, with the result that church and state became identified. Baptizing the children of all citizens was the natural duty of the church. Whether or not the parents were godly was irrelevant. Jews were at times tolerated and at times persecuted, but at any rate, they were an anomaly and never received recognition as full citizens, and were sometimes not even treated as human (This thinking concerning the Jews carried into the 20th Century and helps explain how the Nazis could justify the holocaust and the churches turn a blind or even approving eye to it!).
It was in this religious/political atmosphere that the Reformation occurred. This is important to remember as it helps to explain not only the Anabaptist movement but also the earlier revivals and the later schisms with which we are particularly concerned. It will not be until the mid-20th century that the last remnants of Constantinianism are eliminated from the confessions of the Dutch churches!
Amid the nominalism and sacramentalism of the Roman Catholic Church of the late Middle Ages, there are some refreshing breezes which blow from time to time and remind us that God does preserve for himself a remnant in all ages. Some pre-reformational activities in the Netherlands include the formation of "The Brethren of the Common Life" by Gerard Goote ( circa A.D. 1370), a non-traditional monastic group which emphasized the schooling of youth and the study of the Scriptures. Thomas à Kempis, best known for his book, The Imitation of Christ (early 1400's), is a well- loved example of Dutch piety from the late Middle Ages. Thomas was born in Germany but spent most of his life in Holland as a member of the Brethren order. The activities of the Englishman, John Wycliff, who was martyred for his emphasis on the authority of the Bible and his activities of translating that book and placing it in the hands of the people, and in Eastern Europe, the activities of John Huss, who preached justification by grace through faith, became well known among the Dutch.
The events in Germany of 1517 were known everywhere throughout Europe and were certainly not lost on the Netherlanders. Printing presses (the first ones to which the Dutch lay claim as the inventors, though most of the world credits Gutenberg) produced copies of Luther's pamphlets, and in 1522, the New Testament was published in the Holland language. The whole Bible in Holland came out in 1527. In the 1530's Calvin's writings began to appear. The independent-minded Dutch received the Enlightenment and the Reformation gladly, and many were converted to the evangelical faith.
During the 16th Century, Luther's influence in the Netherlands gradually waned and Calvin's ascended, perhaps because the Netherlands was crossed more and more frequently by those traveling between Switzerland and England, many of these being Reformed refugees who were fleeing from France into the Netherlands, bringing their Calvinism with them. Since persecution was so severe in France, the Netherlands became the transit point of choice for protestants traveling between England and the continent. Also, at this time what is now Belgium was still part of the Netherlands Provinces, and this French-speaking area was very much under Calvin's influence, with many of Calvin's young trainees zealously proclaiming the Reformed faith wherever they could find safety and a hearing. Documents like the catechisms (especially the Heidelberg in German) were quickly translated into the Holland language and distributed, and these proved to be powerful weapons in the arsenal of those propagating the true teachings of the Bible.
At any rate, the Reformed faith was embraced by many of the Netherlands' citizens, much to the chagrin of Charles V, the Spanish Hapsburg Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and nominal ruler of the Netherlands, who under an alliance with Henry II of France, ordered a severe repression, sending the infamous Duke of Alva to enforce the awful Inquisition. Prince William, a Hapsburg relative of Charles but of German Lutheran parents, was governing 3 provinces of the Netherlands at the time. He had become aware of Henry's designs on the French-speaking provinces and the conspiracy with Charles to consolidate a united empire by crushing the Reformation. Because of William's sympathies with the protestants and his refusal to enforce the Inquisition, Alva persecuted him also, and he had to flee for his life to Germany. He organized a mercenary/refugee army, which fought unsuccessfully against Alva, beginning the Eighty Years War in 1567 ( 1567-1647). In 1573 William proclaimed himself a Calvinist. In 1584, William was assassinated, but his son Maurice continued the warfare until his death in 1625. Finally in 1648, the war of attrition, now being fought against Philip II, as Charles had died and Philip had succeeded his father, finally ended, and the Netherlands was granted independence. Spanish forces were simply overextended and busy with conquests and exploration of the New World and with hostilities with England. This gave the northern areas of the Netherlands quite a bit of freedom, despite the formal condition of war with Spain.
Just prior to the start of the 80 Years War, the Confession of Faith was written by Guido de Brès (1561) and the Heidelberg Catechism was produced by Ursinus and Olevianus (1563) and translated into the Holland language along with the Genevan Psalter. During the Eighty Years' War, the School of Leiden was established to train Reformed preachers (1574), and the Synod of Dordrecht met to produce the great statements on the Reformed doctrine of the sovereignty of God too counter the movement of Arminianism ( 1618-1619). The Church Order produced at the Synod of Dort recognized in almost medieval fashion the authority and obligations of the state towards the church (incorporating the corpus Christianum thinking which prevailed at this time). As previously mentioned, this matter would later become the source of much trouble for the Reformed.
With the independence of the Netherlands and establishment of the Republic, the Reformed faith was proclaimed the official faith of the state, though there was to be tolerance towards those of other persuasions, in contrast to the previous era of religious persecution. The state operated the religious schools and paid salaries to the Reformed pastors, all of whom were required to indicate subscription to the doctrines of the church summarized in the above mentioned Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. The golden age of Dutch culture begins here, a period of great commercial and colonial expansion, as well as of artistic endeavor by the likes of Rembrandt van Rijn. The Netherlands continued to embrace religious refugees, the Puritans who were fleeing England, the Huguenots fleeing France, and also many Jews from throughout Europe. Some of these converted to Christianity and were later to become influential leaders of the secession-minded churches.
Things continued to go fairly smoothly in these times of prosperity, though the interference of the state in religious affairs was troubling, until the invasion of Napoleon in 1795. Under the nominally Catholic Napoleon, state sponsorship of the Reformed churches was ended and all religions were to be tolerated. Enlightenment ideas (particularly the rationalism which undergirded the French Revolution) were in increasing ascendancy at this time throughout Europe, and the thinking of Descartes and Spinoza came to dominate higher educational institutions of the Netherlands as it did elsewhere in Europe as well.
When William of Orange was successfully installed as the King of a liberated Netherlands (1815), the Reformed church was once again made the official state church, but under his "enlightened" rule, the state increasingly meddled in the affairs of the church. It must be kept in mind that the divine right of kings and their consciousness of ruling by God's mandate as his ministers was the common thinking. In 1816, the Reformed Church was changed into a government institution called the State Department of Religion, effectively removing control of religious affairs from the local church and transferring them to a civil bureaucracy. Subscription to the doctrines of the confessions was no longer required, as William viewed the binding of ministers to the confessions unreasonable and the cause of division among his subjects. The decisions of Dort against the Remonstrants were considered especially divisive. Synodical delegates and ministers were now appointed by the civil authorities, who sometimes elected to continue paying the stipends to deposed ministers, effectively nullifying the spiritual authority of the consistories. Humanism came to dominate the schools at all levels and "reason" was promoted above Scripture. The union of all protestants was the goal of the state (in accord with the corpus Christianum ideal).
During the late 17th Century, Spinoza, Descartes and Savonarola came to be more widely read and respected than Calvin. Besides the philosophy of doubt of Descartes (truth is not measured by Scripture; on the contrary, Scripture is subject to the court of Reason) and the rationalism of Spinoza (religion equals ethics; philosophy equals truth), Arminian remnants among the Dutch Christians, libertine tendencies among the Huguenot refugees, "inner light" mysticism, Deism (separating the material and spiritual realms), Socinianism and Unitarianism all served to undermine the Reformed doctrinal consensus and weakened the church. By the end of the 18th Century, nearly every doctrinal aberration was being tolerated, while Reformed orthodoxy came under increasing attack, especially in the academic world. Needless to say, those who held to traditional Reformed orthodoxy felt a great deal of alienation. Now all these different groups were forced into one ecclesiastical institution under the authority of the state.
Around the time of Napoleon's defeat, the winds of revival began to sweep through Europe, and a refreshing breeze came also to the Netherlands. The revival encompassed both Lutheran & Reformed and also the churches of England and Scotland. This revival is perhaps best understood as a response to the substitution of reason for revelation as the source of truth and a reaction against the excesses of the "revolution" whose French ideals had been spread forcibly by Napoleon. It also was a rebellion against the widespread nominalism fostered by the marriage of church and state and a seeking of fellowship among the truly converted. The revival was at first a movement among the intellectual elite and somewhat reactionary (negative in tone), but soon spread to all levels and eventually gained more momentum among the poor and uneducated, many of whom were like the proverbial "sheep without a shepherd," having been alienated by their unconverted leaders.
Within the Netherlands, this "Reveil" had the concrete effect of strengthening the formation of conventicles, groups of evangelically-minded believers who usually met together inside of or along side of their churches to pursue Bible study and spiritual exercises. These conventicles, sometimes tolerated and sometimes persecuted, were very pietistic in their focus, with the greatest emphasis being placed on the themes of human worthlessness, total dependence on Christ's redemption, the experience of rebirth and progress in sanctification as seen in rejecting the "things of the world" (specifically, those things to be avoided were seasonal fairs, liquor, theater, dance, etc., all of which were seen as fostering immorality) and in increasing subjection to the law of God (especially but not only things like Sabbath observance). The culmination of this revival movement for our purposes is seen in the Secession (Afscheiding) of 1834.