CHAPTER XLI

PRECURSORS OF SOCINIANISM IN HOLLAND. A KINDRED MOVEMENT IN THE REMONSTRANTS’ STRUGGLE FOR TOLERATION

IT WILL BE RECALLED from the preceding chapters that apart from the two colonies that permanently established themselves in Transylvania and East Prussia, all the other scattered exiles tended sooner or later to find their way to Holland.1 It was on various accounts quite the most natural place for them to seek refuge. The most frequent line of communication between Poland and western Europe was by sea from Danzig to Amsterdam, and students and other travelers had been taking this journey since before the beginning of the century; various Socinian scholars had formed friendly relations with liberal theologians there; a number of Socinians had for various reasons already taken up their residence there; for more than a generation efforts had from time to time been made to arrange some sort of union between the Socinians of Poland and the Mennonites or the Remonstrants of Holland; and the tradition of religious toleration which had long been more or less observed there made Holland the only remaining land in Europe where the exiles might hope to enjoy at least a fair measure of religious free dom. For ever since William (the Silent) of Orange had thrown off the yoke of Spain in 1578, it had been understood that freedom of worship was permitted to all; and although for well-nigh a century and a half there were occasional and sometimes serious lapses, and although public worship was still legal only for the Reformed Church, yet the ideal of religious toleration remained a national ideal, and was more or less adhered to in practice.

Antitrinitarian thought had appeared in Holland long before Socinianism began to exert its influence there. Adam Pastor, the Unitarian Anabaptist, whose activity was just at the middle of the sixteenth century, has already been spoken of in an earlier connection; 2 but there were precursors even before him. The first heretic to suffer death in Friesland was Wybrant Jansz van Hartwerd, who in 1530 was ‘burned to powder because he did not believe that Jesus Christ is really God and man.’3 Adam Pastor at his death in 1552 left numerous disciples who shared his views. One of these may have been the Herman van Vlekwijk who in 1569 was burned at the stake in Bruges for denying the Trinity and the deity of Christ, after a lengthy dispute with a Franciscan monk who sought to convert him. 4 Another early Antitrinitarian was Erasmus Johannis, a German by birth, and an accomplished Hebrew scholar, who after studying in Switzerland, where he seems to have become acquainted with heretical views, was made Rector of the Latin school at Antwerp. Here he secretly and anonymously published a book5 whose contents were found so heretical (apparently Arian) that he was removed from his office and required to leave the city. He fled to Poland, and there had a debate with Socinus, sustaining the Arian view of Christ, 6 and thence went on to Transylvania, where he was appointed preacher at Kolozsvár, on condition that he should not teach Arianism from the pulpit. 7 The final one of the precursors of Socinianism in Holland to be mentioned here is Cornelis Daems, a lawyer who had been active at Mechlin, Brussels and Antwerp. Probably in the course of his legal studies in Italy he had come to know Socinus, with whom he maintained an affectionate and life-long friendship. 8 While living at Gouda he paid a visit to Utrecht in 1587, apparently meaning to spread liberal religious views there through some books and papers that he took with him. His purpose was suspected, and the sheriff seized books and papers for examination, though he himself escaped arrest by flight; but before anything happened the government changed, and he recovered his books and papers. It was to him that Radecki wrote ten years later giving an account of the outrage upon Socinus at Krakow in 1598.9

These few names (and more might have been added) are not to be regarded as in any true sense marking the beginnings of the Socinian movement in Holland. Though preceding it in time, they had actually little if any connection with it; but they are interesting as isolated and sporadic instances of what was at this period stirring in the minds of many in the Netherlands, who lacked however the organization and competent leadership that a cause requires. This was to come from abroad with the arrival in Holland, in gradually increasing numbers, of missionaries, travelers, students, and finally exiles from the Socinians in Poland.

The first of these missionaries arrived in 1598, in the persons of Christopher Ostorodt and Andrew Wojdowski. We have met Ostorodt before as minister of the Socinian congregation at Smigiel. 10 Still fervent with the zeal of a proselyte, he gladly embraced the opportunity to accompany Wojdowski to Holland with a missionary purpose in view. Wojdowski was a young nobleman who enjoyed a warm friend ship with Socinus, as the letters of the latter show. 11 Some years previously when a student at Strassburg he had made a notable convert in the person of Valentin Smalcius. Again in 1597 he had brought two young Polish nobles and their tutor from Strassburg to Leiden, and at the same time had used his opportunity to try to make some converts to his views. It was through him that Ernst Soner was won, who later was centre of the Socinian propaganda at Altdorf. 12 He may also have known Arminius, who was then preaching at Amsterdam; but there is little reason to suppose, as was later loosely charged by an irresponsible and hostile Calvinistic writer, that there was an intimate acquaintance between them, and that this was the source of Arminius’s heresies.13 A year later, since their tutor had now died, Wojdowski was persuaded to return to Holland and have temporary oversight of the two students. Ostorodt would seem to have accompanied him purely with a missionary purpose in mind.

The two emissaries landed at Amsterdam about the beginning of August, 1598, after a voyage of nearly five weeks. 14 While staying for a few days at their hotel to rest up after their long voyage, they were ordered to deliver to the city Council the books and papers they had brought with them, and to appear at the town hall the next day to give account of themselves. This was mysterious enough, though it presently transpired that one of the clergy, whom Wojdowski had known the year before and had supposed to be his sympathetic friend, had reported their arrival to the authorities, who were keenly on the watch to prevent any outbreak of heresy in Holland. They appeared before the Council as ordered, showed proper passports, and were questioned as to their purpose, which they declared was to visit some noble Polish students at Leiden. Meantime members of the Council had examined their books and papers, and reported that they contained blasphemous doctrines; and presuming that these were intended for missionary use, they refused to return them to the visitors, who were bidden, under threat of punishment, not to debate with any one about their religion. The books would be returned to them when they were ready to sail; but when they replied that they meant to return to Poland by another route, it was decided to forward the books to the Leiden Council, who in turn submitted them to the theological faculty for examination, and then forwarded them to the States General at the Hague, with the faculty’s opinion about them. 15 The faculty stated that they had glanced through the writings in question (of which one was Socinus’s De Jesu Christo Servatore) and found that they were not far from the religion of the Turks; they denied the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit, the saving work of Christ, the office of baptism, and the worship of Christ as true and eternal God, and that Christ by his death had satisfied the justice of God, and many like things too blasphemous to be borne by Christians. They therefore hoped that the men who were circulating these things might not be allowed to stay long in the land, and that their writings might not fall into innocent hands.

Meanwhile Wojdowski and Ostorodt, having attended to the affairs of their charges at Leiden, went on to the Hague to recover their books. They were sent from one person to another, and repeated delays followed, while they were given various excuses until at length they began to suspect that something evil for them was on foot, decided to cease asking for their books, and disappeared from town. At length, more than five weeks after their landing, the committee of Deputies to whom the case had been referred brought it before the session of the States General, together with the written opinion of the Leiden theologians. It was then decreed that on the following day the books in question should be publicly burned in the presence of their owners, and that they themselves should be charged and strictly ordered to leave the country within ten days, under penalty; and that the several Provinces should be warned of the action taken.16 But the two visitors were by now no longer at the Hague, and their whereabouts were unknown. The books could thus not be burned in their presence, and the notice given could not be delivered to them. Nor were the books burned, for when the fire was lighted they were not forthcoming; for they had been locked up in a secret place, whence some of the Deputies took them home and read them out of curiosity. 17 Ostorodt did not stay long in Holland. Finding that his plans for spreading his faith were so effectually blocked, he departed toward the end of October, and at the end of January was again back in Poland. 18 Where Wojdowski spent the next six months is uncertain. The two may have gone together as far as Friesland, where they are said to have stayed a while before separating, 19 perhaps at Franeker, where a promising university had lately been established; and on the way they apparently visited Hans de Ries, an influential Mennonite preacher at Alkmaar.20 There were doubtless opportunities enough as they went to find sympathetic points of contact with Mennonites, whose views as to baptism and non-resistance would bring them together. However, by the middle of March the authorities at the Hague learned that Wojdowski was back again at Leiden. The Magistrate there, under orders from the Hague, summoned him to the town hall, gave him a copy of the decree, and warned him to depart within ten days; and though the Polish students under his charge made a strong plea for an extension of time, the plea was denied. 21 Wojdowski obeyed the decree, and before the end of May left the country. In August the two returned missionaries met in Poland and composed an Apology for their cause, addressed to the States General, and sent it to Franeker, where it was published in a Dutch version. A Latin version soon followed in Poland. A sealed package of the Apologies was privately delivered to the Clerk of the Deputies at the Hague, and thus the case ended. The Apology gave a straightforward account of the writers’ experiences in Holland, and then went on to answer the charge that they held and had wished to spread blasphemous doctrines undermining the main truths of Christianity. They complained of having been condemned without a hearing, and by prejudiced judges. They pleaded that free exercise of religion might be granted, and only sectarian strife be forbidden, since the progress of truth cannot be stopped by force. Thus ended the first direct attempt to introduce Socinianism into Holland, which was checked so decisively that it was nearly a generation before another attempt was made. In the meantime the ground was being mellowed for the reception of Socinian seed by the steady growth of the spirit of freedom and tolerance in the liberal party of the Dutch Reformed Church.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century a strong ferment of doctrinal unrest was rising in the Reformed Church in Holland. Though this was the state church, and the only one for which public worship was lawful, yet two wings were developing in it. The conservatives with stubborn obstinacy held to the doctrines of Calvin in all their strictness; while the moderate Calvinists rebelled at some of these, and favored a modification or at least a loose interpretation of them, with a generous allowance of tolerance for differing shades of opinion. Both wings were represented on the theological faculty at Leiden; the former by Professor Gomarus, whose party were known as the Gomarists, the latter by Jacobus Arminius, who in 1603 came from the pulpit of a church at Amsterdam to represent the liberal interest in the University teaching, whose followers were called Arminians, and whose theological system later gave rise to that of the Methodists in England. He was bitterly opposed by Gomarus, and when he died in 1609 the question of his successor was a critical one. A candidate was sought who was reputed not only for his learning, but also for his tolerant spirit. The choice at length fell upon Dr. Konrad Vorst, Professor in the academy at Steinfurt (now Burgsteinfurt) in Westphalia, where he had won a reputation and was very highly esteemed; and after long hesitation he was persuaded to accept the call, and removed to Leiden in 1611.22 But even before he could take his chair the most violent opposition to him was stirred up on all sides by the orthodox party, until the Governors of the University found them selves obliged, for the sake of peace in the church, to ask him not to enter upon his duties at once, but to retire on salary to Gouda, until peace should be restored. In fact, he never did enter upon the active discharge of his office. His opponents combed his whole past in search of evidence that he was not sound in the faith. The desired evidence was indeed not too hard to find. In his student days at Heidelberg some ten years before, he had called in question the doctrine of predestination and had shown that he had evidently been influenced by Socinus’s book on Christ the Savior. He had admitted at the time that he had read Socinian writings, but had declared that he rejected their errors. He thus satisfied the Heidelberg faculty, and for some years he was generally accepted as an orthodox and moderate theologian.

But at the very time when his appointment was still pending he published a work that roused a fierce storm of indignation, 23 and was attacked on all hands as full of Arian and Socinian errors. Various fugitive rumors of what Vorst had sometime said or written or done were now pressed into service: he had corresponded with Socinians and had obtained and loaned Socinian books; he had used Sociniari interpretations of Scripture; he had been offered the principalship of a Socinian school in Poland; 24 in short, anything was grasped at that might tend to brand him as an utter Socinian. The Heidelberg theologians were induced to condemn his book, and he replied in defence of it. His case had, however, been much prejudiced in the meantime by the reprinting in Friesland of Socinus’s De officio hominis Christiani, 25 with its vigorous criticism of the doctrines of the Trinity and the atonement, which though published entirely without his knowledge was nevertheless laid to his charge, since the students responsible for it had formerly been under him at Steinfurt. Unconscious or regardless of the rising storm, Vorst at about the same time had also reprinted Socinus’s early anonymous work On the Authority of Holy Scripture, with a preface by himself.26 His opponents now interested King James I. of England in the matter, who had been reared as a strict Scotch Calvinist, and took very seriously his title of Defender of the Faith. He caused the book to be burned at St. Paul’s Cross and at the two Universities in 1611 (the year of the King James’s version of the Bible), wrote a confutation of it, and informed the States General that he should be much displeased if such a monstrous heretic were tolerated; and when they demurred at his interference, he threatened to break off relations. 27 Although Vorst made a very favorable impression on the Deputies when he pleaded his cause before them in 1612, and ably defended himself in several printed writings, they felt it prudent to yield to the pressure, and he was dismissed from the University.

Despairing of any early settlement in his favor, Vorst now withdrew from the scene at Leiden and removed to Gouda, where he lived without reproach for seven years. It was not until 1619 that the National Synod at Dort, after having deposed the Remonstrant ministers from their pulpits, took up Vorst’s case, voted him unworthy to teach in the Reformed Church, and begged the States General to remove him from the country. No one ventured to take his part, and the vote was unanimous. The States General banished him, and for two years he lived in concealment and constant fear. He declined an invitation to return to Steinfurt, but in 1622 sought refuge under the government of the Duke of Holstein, who had just given the exiled Remonstrants permission to build themselves a new town at Friedrichstadt.28 But he had been well-nigh hounded to death by his implacable theological enemies; and within three months from his arrival at a place where he hoped at last to enjoy peace, he passed to his rest. His body was entombed at the new Friedrichstadt on the site where the Remonstrant church was later built. 29 It would be as unfair to claim Vorst for an outright Socinian as it was unjust to brand him such in his lifetime. Like the Remonstrants in general, he disapproved some of the articles in the Calvinistic system, especially that about predestination, and having naturally an open, inquiring mind, he did not shrink from inquiry in any direction that promised new light. Hence, while he rejected the Socinian system in the main, some of its teachings won his approval, whereupon his opponents charged him with accepting them all. Though he be presumed to have been sincere in his professed opposition to Socinianism, he may yet have gone further in that direction than he realized at the time. The bitter enmity of his opponents, their unfairness in judging him, and the sting of the persecutions he suffered, may well have alienated him in the end from the church he had wished to serve. At all events, in his dying statement calmly made he said, ‘I have expressly declared, and hereby declare, that I make a difference between the Lord Jesus the Son of God, our only and eternal Savior, and the only true and almighty God, herein following the words and meaning expressed in the New Testament.’ 30 His beliefs seem then to have been eclectic, lying somewhere between strict Calvinism and Socinianism, with a strong inclination to tolerance of divergent views. He comes into our history because his case gives concrete illustration of a stage in the development of Socinian influence in Holland, when Socinian books, formerly very rare and difficult to obtain, were more and more being brought or sent into the country, and increasing numbers were tending to become more liberal and reasonable in their beliefs, and more tolerant in spirit.

In contrast and opposition to the unyielding dogmatism of the leaders of the Reformed Church in Holland, who sometimes seemed to be trying to outdo Calvin himself, a movement favoring a spirit of religious tolerance in individuals, and a policy of toleration in government, had for some time been gathering force and winning adherents among both those that stood more or less aloof from the church and those that were active in it. The pioneer of this movement was Coornhert, 31who had been deeply imbued with the spirit of Castellio, two of whose tracts he translated into Dutch (1581, 1582), and whose views he eagerly propagated. By the beginning of the next century, indeed, the idea of tolerance was gaining so much favor that the orthodox sought to counteract it and to confirm minds of the faithful by reprinting at Franeker in 1601 a Dutch version of Beza’s De Haereticis. The effect of this work was countered in turn by the publication (supposedly at Amsterdam) of Castellio’s anonymous Contra Libellum Calviai in 1612, which had hitherto circulated only in manuscript, and by a Dutch version of his works the following year. His thought had marked influence on the Arminians, as may be judged from the fact that the five articles (see below) that they opposed to five points of Calvinism were almost literally the conclusions of some of Castellio’s writings.32 Another bold champion of religious and civil liberty was also inspired to use his pen in support of greater religious freedom. Reinier Telle (Regnerus Vitellius), teacher and man of letters at Amsterdam, in 1514 translated Servetus’s first book on the Trinity,33 intending by its publication to soften existing prejudice against Servetus; but he first showed it to Episcopius. The latter was aghast at a plan that would only pour oil on the fire by confirming the charge that the Arminians were secretly fostering a blasphemous heresy, and he begged Telle to abandon his plan. 34 Telle complied, and the translation was not published until 1620, when Telle had already died, and the Remonstrants had been turned out of their pulpits.

Within the church at this period increasing friction was developing. The Arminians, acknowledging only the Bible as the standard of their belief and life, opposed the imposition of man-made creeds, and as to points on which they did not think alike they advocated freedom of conscience and mutual tolerance. On the other hand, the conservatives, greatly in the majority, insisted on strict adherence to the current doctrines of Calvinism, and put all possible pressure on the Arminians. The latter were therefore driven to unite for self-defence, so that early in 1610 nearly fifty of their ministers and others met at Gouda and drew up a document asking that a promised revision of doctrinal standards be now made. They declared their principles and convictions, and asserted the rights and freedom that they claimed from the supreme authority in the State. They set forth five points in the doctrine of the Reformed Church which they deemed in conflict with Scripture and could not therefore with good conscience accept, and expressed their own view in five other points. This famous Remonstrance (which gave rise to their name, Remonstrants) was presented to the States General. On these points of difference they desired mutual toleration, and a resolution was therefore passed that the signers of the Remonstrance, and others like them in future, should not be disturbed for holding these convictions. Again, in 1614, the States General issued an edict tolerating the opinions of both parties, and forbidding further dispute. Peace however did not ensue. The Remonstrant party steadily grew and was favored by the political liberals in the government, and the country became more and more divided religiously and politically. The Remonstrants continued to be persistently accused of being Socinians in disguise, and of aiming to introduce Socinianism into the country. To set the whole controversy at rest, therefore, the issue was brought before a national Synod at Dort in 1619. Here the Remonstrants were from the outset treated as wicked conspirators against the truth, and were shown scant consideration. Their ministers were removed from their pulpits and from any office they might hold under the State. The States General confirmed the sentence of the Synod. About 200 ministers were concerned, and 80 of them were put into wagons and sent into exile across the border. Public proclamations forbade those that remained in the country to hold any meetings, even in secret. The quarrel had infected the government of the country. The ruling Prince of Orange sided with the Contra-Remonstrants, and caused Oldenbarnevelt, the most prominent liberal stateman in the government, and a Remonstrant, to be put to death for alleged treason; and the great Hugo Grotius, who was also prominent in the same cause, was sentenced to life imprisonment, from which he afterwards escaped, to spend the rest of his life in exile. In a few years, however, the wave of fanatical intolerance subsided, for it was discovered that the Remonstrant party was after all not dangerous to the State. The exiles gradually returned, and in 1630 were given freedom of residence and liberty to erect churches and schools; and in 1633 they established at Amsterdam a seminary for the training of their own ministers.

Click here to open the frame set built to read this document. 

This page was last modified Sunday 12 November 2006.
Website ©1998–2006 Rev. Dr. Alicia McNary Forsey. Text ©1998–2004 t
he heirs of Earl Morse Wilbur.  All rights reserved.
For comments or requests write to { webweaver at pacificuu dot org }.