CHAPTER IV
ANTITRINITARIAN ANABAPTISTS IN HOLLAND

AT THE TIME when the Anabaptist cause in southern Germany, Switzerland and along the Rhine was being steadily crushed under relentless persecution, it spread into a fresh field in Holland, where the Lutheran Reformation had failed to take vigorous root. Its leader here was Melchior Hofmann,(1) who has been called the father of the Dutch Anabaptists. He was born at Hall in Swabia in 1498, was a furrier by trade, and self-taught. He accepted the Reformation and became an earnest student of the Bible. He was a follower of Luther, to whom he went at Wittenberg, and by whom he was chosen to go to promote the Reformation at Dorpat in Russia, and as preacher to King Frederick of Denmark at Kiel. Later breaking with Luther on account of the Sacrament he was driven away by the Lutherans, and at length made his way to Strassburg, where he found himself at home in the company of the Anabaptists, and was baptized into their brotherhood in 1529. He soon became one of their leaders, and took their teaching to the North. He traveled widely in Germany and Holland, where he had wide influence and made great numbers of converts, who came to be known from him as Melchiorites. He was a lay-preacher par excellence; but he became increasingly obsessed with the conviction that the world was very soon to come to an end, and that he was the Elijah appointed to herald the impending doom. Amid the distressing social conditions then existing in Europe, this doctrine ran like wild-fire among the humbler classes, and helped to precipitate the terrible catastrophe at Münster in 1535. After four years of missionary preaching he returned to Strassburg in 1533, where he was soon arrested as an Anabaptist, tried and imprisoned for life. He died, after ten years’ imprisonment, about 1543. As to his beliefs, the judges at his trial found that he denied both the divinity and the humanity of Christ, for he held a peculiar view of the incarnation. He held that Christ had only one nature, and at his trial he said that prayer should be offered only to the Father, and not separately to the Son and the Holy Spirit.(2)

There was no part of Europe in which the Anabaptist movement became so widespread, or was so terribly persecuted, or has had so deep and permanent an influence, as in what was then northwestern Germany, in a territory of which a large part is now included in Holland. After the bloody collapse of the fanatical wing of their movement at Münster in 1535, persecution of the Anabaptists was so fierce that no fewer than 30,000 of them had by 1546 been put to death in Holland and Friesland.(3) Those that still survived in these parts, chastened and sobered, were gathered together into an organized body by Menno Simons and Dirk Philips, and came to be known first as Mennonites, and later as Doopsgezinden or Baptists. It is in the early history of this body that we find Adam Pastor,(4) the most brilliant man and scholar among the Dutch Anabaptists of his time, one of the two chief leaders of their movement, liberal, fearless, devout, the first real Unitarian in Europe, anticipating by twenty years the most advanced positions of the Unitarians in Poland and Transylvania.

Pastor was born at Dorpen in Westphalia about 1510, and originally bore the name of Roelof (Rudolf) Martens, which he probably changed when he left the Catholic priesthood and adopted his new faith. He was unusually well educated, and in 1543 became an elder, or missionary preacher, in Menno’s brotherhood, where he was very active in opposing the wild and fanatical teachings of Hendrik Nicklaes and David Joris which were then infecting the movement. But in a discussion at Emden in 1547 he differed from Menno on the incarnation, and a little later in the same year in another disputation at Goch he expressed such open antitrinitarian views that with Menno’s approval Philips deposed him from his ministry and excommunicated him from the brotherhood. He sought reconciliation in vain, and never ceased to feel injured at the treatment he had received, which Menno himself lived to regret. An influential minority of the congregations took his side, and he became leader of the liberal Anabaptists, and was long active in the Duchy of Cleve, where he made many converts. He died at Emden (or perhaps at Münster) about 1552.(5)

Adam Pastor was little but a name until early in the twentieth century, when the only extant copy of his sole surviving work (published probably in 1552) was unearthed and republished with a valuable introduction.(6) It is from this that we get authentic knowledge of his teachings. While he may have been influenced by his contemporary Campanus who wrought in the same territory, his system of thought is essentially original, derived from his independent study of texts of Scripture, of which he had an extensive knowledge. His significance in this history lies in the fact that he represented and defended the Unitarian tendency of Anabaptism in northwestern Germany at a time when all the other leaders of the movement there had in general readopted the orthodox view. Passing by the whole traditional doctrine of the Trinity and avoiding its terms, he defends the simple unity of God, and the distinction of Christ from him. Trinitarianism is tritheistic. Christ is Son of God, miraculously born, and possesses all power; but he is later in time than the Father, and subordinate to him in power. The divinity of Christ is the Father’s wisdom, word, will, power, and working in him. To regard him as co-eternal and co-equal with God and to worship him as such is to be guilty of idolatry. The Holy Spirit is not a separate or personal being, but only a breathing of God, inspiring in us everything good. It is possible that Budny, Dávid and others in Poland and Transylvania twenty years later, who held similar views, derived them from Pastor. At all events, the later Socinians claimed that he was the first to teach their doctrines in the Low Countries, and he certainly prepared the way for Socinianism there, especially among the Mennonites.

The persons thus far spoken of were on the whole representatives of the more sober and conservative element in the Anabaptist movement. It remains now to speak finally of two others who, while holding similar doctrines of God and Christ, were in nature and temperament radically different from them, embodying the fanaticism and the loose social views that brought Anabaptism into such ill repute. The first of these was David Joris (or Georg).(7) His career is one of the most extraordinary, and his character one of the most puzzling, in modern Christian history. Between the accounts given by his opponents and by his apologists there is the widest discrepancy; and in his own conduct and character there seem to have been, either simultaneously or in succession, the most glaring contradictions. If we may trust the record, he combined in one person the characters of a sincere and earnest Christian and a calculating impostor, a profound mystic and a wicked blasphemer, a devout pietist and a rank antinomian, a self-denying ascetic and a self-indulgent sensualist, an intrepid hero and a visionary fanatic, a prudent man of the world and a mad millenarian.

He was born about 1501 probably in Flanders, perhaps at Bruges, though his early life was spent at Delft. His father seems to have been now a merchant at Delft, now a traveling showman. The son had a delicate, sensitive temperament and a keen intelligence, but he had not much better than an elementary education, and was always rather inclined to despise learning in favor of inward revelations of truth. For a trade he learned glass-painting, in which he became expert. At the age of twenty-two he first read the German Bible and passionately embraced the Reformation; but his zeal against the Roman Church carried him too far. He was arrested and publicly flogged, had his tongue pierced with an awl as a punishment for alleged blasphemy, and in 1528 was banished from Delft. During the wandering, hunted life that he now led for several years he saw much of the Anabaptists, who were just then arising in Holland as a result of Hofmann’s mission; and though their disorderly doings at first repelled him, their behavior under persecution and in the face of martyrdom impressed him so much that he at length joined their sect in 1534 and was ordained to their ministry. Returning to Delft as preacher, he worked in greatest secrecy and made many converts.

After the Anabaptist débacle at Münster in 1535 the movement seemed in imminent danger of falling to pieces, so that a convention of the leaders of all parties was held at Bocholt in 1536. Joris took a prominent part in it, trying to moderate the extremists and to bring the separate divisions together; but though he won much reputation he failed in his effort and was finally repudiated by them all. The excitement of these strenuous years now began to tell upon his nature. Cut off from communion with the rest of the Anabaptists,(8) and living an extremely ascetic life, he began to see visions and to report them to his followers, and was soon surrounded by a sect of his own. They came to be known as Jorists, many of them too began to see visions, and all had a fanatical belief in their leader. Edicts were issued against them, persecutions increased, several score were put to death at Delft and the Hague, and among them Joris saw his own mother beheaded, while a price was set upon his head. He was constant in comforting his people in their sufferings, though to escape discovery he had often to change the style of his dress, appearing in turn as nobleman, peasant, merchant or priest, and with such success that it was believed that he had the power to render himself invisible. As his sense of his mission increased he came gradually to believe that he had been divinely appointed to herald the coming of the kingdom of God upon earth. His followers greatly increased in number, and looking upon him as a new embodiment of Christ they sold their property and brought the money to him. He expected to set up his kingdom after fifty years. Hunted in Holland, he sought to make converts in Strassburg, but in vain. As persecutions multiplied he appealed to various rulers for toleration, but they did not recognize his claims. He had an earnest discussion with Menno Simons, who would none of him. To give his notions wider currency he published the Wonderbook, his chief work,(9) a confused jumble of enthusiastic fancies and mystical interpretations of Scripture. He carried on a mission in East Friesland, and made approaches to John a Làsco, who was organizing the Reformation there; but persecutions made it impossible for him to stay. He wrote to Luther, only to be rebuffed. Nowhere could he make headway; and as it was unsafe for him to stay longer in Holland, and as he was everywhere baffled in efforts to spread his religion, he resolved upon a totally different course.

Counseling his followers to avoid further persecution by concealing their beliefs, he avoided it for himself by removing to another land and changing the form of his name, and then proceeded to wait patiently for the coming of the kingdom in which he had now come fervently to believe. In the spring of 1544 he left Holland and appeared at Basel as Johannes von Bruck (or Brügge), ostensibly a gentleman of high birth and great wealth, exiled from his own land for his religious faith. His stately person, lordly bearing and rich possessions commended him to the Council as a highly desirable citizen, and they granted him citizenship without hesitation or investigation. With the wealth he brought with him, constantly increased by rich gifts that his followers despite his protests kept sending him from Holland, he purchased a stately town house and several suburban estates,10 lived in handsome style, was generous to the poor, regularly attended public worship, and was held by all in the highest esteem. Behind the scenes, with his family and the numerous followers in his train, who were solemnly pledged not to betray their secret, he was reverenced as a holy prophet; while he kept in communication with his sect in the Low Countries through incessant correspondence, and instructed and encouraged them by a succession of tracts which ran into the hundreds. Thus for twelve years until 1556 when he died, three days after his wife, and was buried with honor in St. Leonhard’s church where he had used to worship.

Two years later dissension broke out among his followers, and a servant betrayed the secret. Basel was scandalized. The family were arrested, the house was searched, and large quantities of writings were found and examined. The family and other followers at first denied, then evaded, and finally confessed all. The writings were laid before the university faculties of theology and law for an opinion and for instructions how to proceed. They were judged to be full of dreadful heresies. Under the imperial law a heretic might still be tried and sentenced within five years after his death, and of such a procedure there were numerous instances. A public trial of David Joris was therefore held, and he was found guilty. Sentence was given that his body should be disinterred and burned together with his writings and portrait, as he himself would have been if still living. The sentence was solemnly carried out, and his ashes were thrown into the Rhine. Joris now became more famous than ever, while the Catholics made merry with a mocking rhyme which ran: ‘Basel verbrennt die toten Ketzer, und die Lebenden nit.’ Joris’s family and servants were required not long afterwards to appear in the Minster and publicly to renounce their errors and ask forgiveness, after which they were reconciled to the church. Some of his followers continued to reside at Basel, but the most of them removed to East Friesland. The Jorists long survived in the Netherlands, and continued to make converts and to reprint the works of their prophet; and they had followers also in France, Sweden and Holstein until nearly the middle of the eighteenth century, when the last remnants of their sect vanish from the scene.

Dramatic as is the story of Joris’s life, our main concern here is with the teaching that he spread so widely.11 He held that God is a simple and indivisible being. Of the Trinity he speaks very confusedly, but the sum of it is that in the Divine Being there is no distinction of persons except the embodiment of three periods of history in three historical persons, Moses, John the Baptist, and himself. In the strictest sense only the Father is God, and the word person should not be applied to him at all. He was well called the arch-heretic of the Anabaptists.

The last of the Anabaptists to be mentioned is Hendrik Nicklaes (Henry Nicholas).12 Of his youth little is known, save that he was born about 1502 at Münster and in early manhood became a Lutheran. He was a merchant, but deeply interested in the Reformation, and was repeatedly arrested on suspicion of heresy. In 1540 he began to get what he regarded as divine revelations, and removed from Amsterdam to Emden in East Friesland, where he spent twenty years in preaching, writing and publishing his many works. He taught a mystical system, in which visions played an important part; and in trying to give Christianity a social application he held that all true Christians should be united in one ‘Family of Love.’ His doctrines seem to have been mainly derived from Joris, who was a kindred spirit, and they easily ran into fanaticism on the one hand and loose morals on the other. The sect that gathered about him came to be known as Familists; and he won perhaps more converts in England, where he spent some time, than on the Continent. While he often spoke of the Trinity, he used his words in a sense quite different from the usual one, and he thus transformed most of the other church dogmas. His teaching easily led to Antitrinitarianism. He died about 1580.

The persons whose history and teaching have here been passed in review represent widely different phases of that broad and vague movement known as Anabaptism, and include the most of the leaders of its thought during the first eventful generation of its history. But however widely they differ from one another in certain respects of temper or teaching, they agree substantially in this: that they all departed more or less widely from the historical doctrines of the Trinity and the deity of Christ; some of them still keeping the old terms but using them in a new and unauthorized sense, some virtually ignoring these doctrines or passing them by without emphasis as of no vital importance, some rejecting or denying them outright as unscriptural, unreasonable or misleading.

There is no sufficient warrant, however, for considering them doctrinally as pioneers of the general movement with which we are concerned in this work, in the sense that the movement which eventually arose was the direct outcome of their teaching. The contrary is the case. Not one of these pioneer thinkers, so far as we can see, had confessed disciples among those that organized the first Socinian or Unitarian churches, or appreciably stimulated their origin or influenced their development. Their significance in this history is rather this: that they bear witness that in a large and influential, though oppressed and persecuted, minority of the Protestant world in its first generation, there were great numbers on whom the doctrines named had lost their hold, who had escaped from the rigorous bondage of traditional dogmas into the freedom of a religion of the spirit which laid its emphasis not upon theological beliefs but upon personal religious experience and practical Christian life, and which while not as yet emphasizing the value of reason in religion, did emphasize as fundamental the importance of tolerance.

In this respect these liberal Anabaptists took a long step toward realization of the principles which we said at the outset are to be regarded as the distinctive marks of the movement with which we are here concerned. In the countries where the Protestant Reformation first took root, bitter and persistent persecution by the civil power prevented Anabaptism from developing normally. But we shall presently see that when it was allowed to exist under conditions of even moderate toleration, it furnished fertile soil in which that further development might take place whose history is to be our theme. In the meantime, however, we must turn to a different quarter and trace another phase of pioneering, in which the characteristic contribution to our movement is to come from the intellectual side, and to place a permanent stamp upon it.

 

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