GROWING INFLUENCE OF SOCINIANISM AMONG THE REMONSTRANTS. INCREASED REPRESSION BY THE ORTHODOX
THE PERSECUTION of the Remonstrants and the banishment of their ministers naturally awakened deep sympathy among the Socinians in Poland. A token of this was given when Jonas Schlichting, who had been one of the Socinian students at Altdorf and later at Leiden, was a pupil of Arminius’s successor, Episcopius (who had been the leading champion of the Remonstrants at Dort), sought out the latter in his exile at Antwerp. 1 At the instance of the brethren at Raków2 he had made the long journey from Poland on purpose to offer the exiles any help in their power to give. If they were disposed to remove to Poland, he assured them of a hearty welcome and of all needed assistance. So generous an offer could not be declined outright, and was carefully considered; but Episcopius replied the following evening, with thanks for the offer, that their present necessities were provided for, and that they felt they could serve their people better by remaining near them than by removing to a distant land. Another and conclusive reason might also have been given: that any such connection with the Socinians at this time would have seemed to their enemies a tacit confession of Socinianism,’ which they had hitherto indignantly denied. The offer, however, was not forgotten, but was recalled forty years later when the Socinians themselves had to go into exile. It was in all probability prompted by the thought that it might lead to closer relations between the Socinians and the Remonstrants.
Even before this time Martin Ruar, whose life-long passion was the hope of church union, had been trying to foster a rapprochement between the two. He had been at Leiden in 1617 when hostility to the Remonstrants was at its height, had then attended the lectures of Episcopius, and had made the acquaintance of several of the professors, with whom he later corresponded.3 In 1619 he was again in Holland visiting persecuted Remonstrants. He also formed a friendship with Samuel Naeranus, pastor at Ammersfort, who went into exile with the rest, and was a wanderer for the most of his life thereafter. When Ruar had returned to Poland he wrote an affectionate letter in 1623 to Naeranus, who had then wandered with his family as far as Rostock, and urged him to undertake a ministry at Danzig, where he might enjoy religious liberty and find a numerous following; but Naeranus preferred, when the storm should have subsided, to return to Holland.4 An active correspondence between them continued, however, on the subject of union of the two churches, as also with Naeranus’s son Jan, and bore rich fruit later when the Socinians themselves were driven into exile, and Jan Naeranus raised bountiful aid for them among the Dutch Remonstrants. 5 Throughout this period Ruar played an important role in keeping connections open between the two communions; and he even tried to get Jan Geisteran, who had been deprived of his pulpit at Alkmaar, to become Rector of the Raków school, though the offer was declined on account of divergent views about social questions. 6
Not the least interesting and important of Ruar’s Remonstrant correspondents was Hugo Grotius. 7 Ruar had long admired him, and when on the way from Danzig to Amsterdam in 16318 was so fortunate as to meet him in Hamburg, where he was at the time in exile. A correspondence between them followed, which continued for over eight years; 9 and as we have already seen, Grotius in Paris soon after wards had association with the numerous Socinian youth who gathered there for study. 10 Though by profession a jurist, and by occupation a distinguished publicist, he was also deeply interested in religious questions, and in the Protestant world was as famed for his theological writings as in the secular world for his classical work, D Jure Belli et Pacis (1625), which won him lasting renown as the founder of international law. Indeed for some time he seemed to take more interest in religious questions than in legal ones. He had long been saturated with the thought of Socinus in some of its phases, through the latter’s controversy with Palaeologus,11 although unaware of the authorship of that anonymous work; and he had more lately come into contact with Socinus’s theology in his work De Jesu Christo Servatore, and had undertaken to controvert it in a work of his own,12 which though it was widely circulated was allowed even by the orthodox to be a rather ineffective performance.13 He had long before declared the Polish Brethren to be unworthy even of the name of heretics, being not very different from Mohammedans, 14 and was the most distinguished opponent of Socinianism in Holland; and in this and a later work he had spoken of the doctrine of Socinus as the worst of heresies. Grotius’s work was at length answered (though not until six years later, when he was now in exile) by Crellius 15 in a work so marked by both thorough scholarship and moderation of tone as to win the respect of Grotius, who did not venture to reply to it, though other writers carried on an active controversy over it—the so-called Satisfaction controversy. 16
Grotius became in time familiar with various Socinian writings which Ruar had recommended to him, calling his attention to some views of the Polish Brethren which corresponded with those held by the Remonstrants; 17 and both Ruar and the students in Paris supplied him with many of the Raków prints as they appeared. Hence his opinions and judgments were gradually modified; and as his interest in unity among the different confessions increased, his emphasis upon the doctrinal differences between them declined. He thus tended to give greater weight to the rational grounds of religion as supported by natural law, and to relegate the authority of Scripture to a second place. Thus in his work De Veritate Religionis Christianae (1627) he defended Christianity on grounds of reason, and avoided any positions that reason might call in question, not even mentioning the doctrine of the Trinity. In the end he made the test of true Christianity consist not in the correctness of one’s belief but in the moral quality of one’s life. While this was laying the emphasis precisely where the Socinians laid it, yet it did not prove that he accepted the whole Socinian system. Though he agreed to some of its characteristic doctrines, he was quite opposed to some of the others. But, doctrines apart, he did sympathize strongly with its broad, irenic spirit and its persistent plea for tolerance. It was but natural, then, that the Socinians both then and later should be fain to regard him as on their side; while on the other hand both Catholics like Bossuet and extreme Calvinists like Jurieu and Lutherans like Calovius were equally ready to call him a Socinian or even an atheist.18 Such verdicts were extreme and unjust. Despite his catholic attitude toward other confessions and his appreciation of their good points, he remained a moderate Calvinist, holding nevertheless that the heart of religion lies not in the creed that one professes, but in the life that one lives.
In the year after the appearance of Grotius’s work on the truth of the Christian religion, a little Socinian book appeared holding a very similar position. Samuel Przypkowski, 19 member of a prominent Socinian family, after studying at Altdorf up to the time when Socinianism was suppressed there, spent several years at Leiden when affairs there were approaching a crisis. All over Europe the question of religious harmony lay upon the hearts of many, and various solutions were proposed. Przypkowski’s experiences in Holland had forced it upon his attention, and now that the Remonstrants were beginning to return from their exile he published his contribution to the subject (anonymously) in a little book that he had printed at Amsterdam. 20 He argued that the way to religious peace was for the churches to require not agreement on elaborate statements of doctrines often hard to under stand, but union about the fundamental things absolutely necessary to salvation, which are very few and very simple. All that is required is sincere love to God and Christ; and errors of the understanding concerning divine mysteries, which are not essential to salvation, will not condemn a man. He took occasion also to add that Socinians, even if mistaken in their belief as to these non-essentials, deserve sympathy as conscientious and God-fearing, and that heretics in general instead of being excommunicated ought rather to be tolerated and if possible set right. The book at first attracted little attention, but when a new edition appeared, a supposed similarity of style and thought caused it to be ascribed to Episcopius, and its plea for the Socinians therefore brought new reproach upon the Remonstrant cause. Denials were prompt and decisive, but the episode made the Remonstrants more cautious than ever about showing sympathy with Socinianism. The little book, however, had no little influence both now in Holland and later in England, in promoting simplicity in beliefs and generous tolerance of differences.
Undeterred by their failures hitherto to bring about closer relations between the two communions, the brethren at Rakow early in 1632 took advantage of the fact that Ruar was about to go with a number of others to Holland, and by him sent to the Remonstrant brethren there a letter signed by eleven of the leading ministers, congratulating them upon the return of happier days, and offering to furnish any needed aid in their power. Ruar was also instructed to approach them tactfully with regard to forming closer relations of friendship between the two churches.21 Unfortunately the leaders of the Remonstrants did not think it advisable to make any reply to the communication, though Episcopius afterwards wrote Ruar an evasive apology for their shabby silence. 22 The truth doubtless was that in view of all that had been charged against them they still feared becoming involved with the Socinians. The progress of Socinianism now went on quietly for several years, and though accusations continued to be made that the Remonstrants were Socinians in belief, no evidence of Socinian activity was discovered. There can be no doubt, however, that Socinian books were now coming in an increasing stream from the busy Rakow press, and that letters continued to pass between the Polish Brethren and kindred spirits in Holland, so that the field was insensibly prepared for a harvest to come.23
The calm was suddenly broken in 1638. The Socinians had lately been forced to leave Raków by decree of the Diet, 24 and Jan Stoinski (Statorius, and, by error, Statorius), who had lately been minister of the Raków church, but was now apparently in Holland recovering from serious illness,25 and had been outlawed by the decree, was home sick for the brethren. He therefore addressed a letter to Adam Franck, minister of the ‘Saxon’ (i.e., German-speaking) Unitarian church at Kolozsvár saying, inter alia, that ‘there is a great harvest here, but also many opponents, and not a few that are Unitarians; but the most of them are either Arians or near-Arians, who admit that knowledge of the doctrine (of the Trinity, etc.) is not necessary, and that they ought to treat us as brethren.’ 26 This letter never reached its destination, for it was intercepted by the Calvinist Prince George Rákóczy I. of Transylvania, and by him was, ‘out of love to the Christian religion, and to put the Dutch on their guard,’ 27 sent to Professor Bisterfeld of Gyulafehervár, who was then at Utrecht preparing an answer to a work of Crellius. The theologian to whom it was reported interpreted it, rightly or wrongly, as evidence of a Socinian scheme to introduce into Holland a colony of refugees from Rakow whom the Prince, as he himself had written, had denied residence in Transylvania as being outlaws from another country, and blasphemers and disturbers of the public peace. 28 The letter was at once translated into Dutch, with appropriate notes, and posted at the city gates, on the doors of the churches and the University, and even of the meeting-place of the Remonstrants. The purely incidental mention in it of the name of Uytenbogaert, Remonstrant minister at the Hague, brought fresh and undeserved reproach on both him and his cause; and the letter itself stirred up the Synod to fresh efforts to defend the faith.
Already ten years before, in 1628, the church had tried to get the government to take action against the infection of Socinianism, when the North and South Holland Synod petitioned the States General not to tolerate the Socinians, lest the Republic give offence to all Christendom, but the petition was not granted.29 Now again in 1639 the Synod addressed to the States General a lengthy remonstrance, setting forth the chief heresies of the Socinians and the methods employed in spreading them, and asking that appropriate action be taken, as had been done forty years before in the case of Ostorodt. The States, who had also been warned by the English ambassador Boswell that exiles from Rakow had already come as far as Danzig on their way to Holland, acknowledged receipt of the remonstrance and made a rather evasive answer, but urged the brethren to keep their eyes open, undertaking to take appropriate action if any were found attempting to enter the country. 30 The States however adopted a resolution under which Socinian books were seized and burned at Leiden, Amsterdam and Rotterdam. 31 Again in 1641 the Friesland Synod moved the provincial Estates to take similar action, and books were burned also at Lee where, as Courcelles wrote Ruar, it seemed to them easier to throw them into the fire than to refute their arguments. 32 In the following year at Amsterdam the sheriff, acting without proper legal warrant, seized 550 copies of Völkel’s De Vera Religione at the booksellers’ and burned them in public, also sentencing the holders to a fine of 2,000 gulden, which the chief magistrates later annulled. The book was how ever published at Rotterdam in Dutch translation in 1649. 33
The fact is that the States General as a whole did not share the zeal of the Synods for repressing the Socinians, for an influential number of them favored the policy of complete religious liberty, which had now for more than a generation been more or less in eclipse. Decrees might indeed be passed in response to group pressure from the Synods; but whether they were enforced was likely to depend upon the local authorities, whose sympathies, especially in the larger towns, and above all in Amsterdam, inclined them to wink at infractions. Thus affairs went on for a decade or two. The fears of an invasion of Socinian refugees from Rakow seem not to have been realized. Schlichting wrote in 1654 that so far as he knew there had been none save some young men who had been drawn to Holland to pursue their studies. 34 But books were imported in increasing numbers, or were published in Dutch translation, and were circulated in ever wider circles; and for these it would seem that Dutch correspondents of Polish scholars were chiefly responsible. If any meetings for public worship were attempted, they were soon suppressed by the authorities.35 It is evident, however, that private groups of Socinians were wont to gather in one another’s houses after the custom of primitive Christianity which they liked to observe, to pray, sing their hymns, read the Scriptures, and exhort one another to lead strictly Christian lives. To such meetings sympathetic outsiders would also be cautiously admitted. We have from a mild Calvinist source a contemporary account of these gatherings. 36
They hold private meetings in which they offer fervent prayers to God, with groans and tears. All present are permitted to speak. One of them begins with reading a chapter of Scripture, and when he has read a few verses, or a complete passage, he and the hearers speak their minds on the meaning of the words read. Though the most of them are shopkeepers, artisans, uneducated and often illiterate, yet they seem to have a special talent for understanding and expounding Holy Writ. Their lives are holy and blame less so far as can be judged by what one sees, and they govern themselves entirely by the teachings of Jesus Christ, caring little for this world’s goods, but apparently only for works of piety and charity, and for the salvation of their souls. They give themselves chiefly to reading the word of God, in which they are so well versed that one would say that the most of them know it by heart.
The records of the church Synods during this period bear witness that the Reformed Church was keenly alive to the ‘in-creeping Socinianism.’ At almost every meeting the members were admonished to keep a watchful eye against Socinians and the circulation of their books, and plans for repressive action were discussed. 37 It all came to little. Despite all the measures adopted during twenty years, Socinianism was reported as rapidly spreading (of course among the Dutch themselves) in almost all the provinces, especially those of Holland, Friesland and Groningen.38 Resolutions might be passed and proclamations posted, but a strict enforcement of them was an entirely different thing. The reiteration of proclamations was in itself evidence that the measures of the government had produced little or no result. At length, however, in 1651 the National Synod presented to the States General a remonstrance so strong that it could not well be disregarded. The latter sought advice of the theological faculty at Leiden, who at once supported the remonstrance in all respects: the doctrine of the Socinians was in short the uprooting of the Christian faith, a fusion of many errors, hardly different from paganism. Thus spurred on from both sides the States General in 1653 issued against the Socinians an edict which in its severity left little to be desired. 39 All men were forbidden to import or circulate Socinian books or hold (Socinian) meetings, on pain of banishment for the first offence, and of arbitrary punishment for the second. Printers and booksellers were forbidden to print, import or sell Socinian books in any language, under penalty of a fine of ,1,000 gulden for the first offence and of banishment for the second. All such books were at once to be delivered to the Magistrate, with oath that none was withheld, under suitable penalty.
The decree produced a temporary effect, and at least the Socinians did not attempt again to hold public worship. But it is significant that more than a year was allowed to elapse before the decree was given to the officers to enforce; 40 and it was not long before the Socinians began again to be active in publishing, translating and selling their books, and in spreading their doctrines through other channels, as will be seen below. In the meantime a powerful voice was raised in defence of the Socinians. A ‘Polish Knight’ (Jonas Schlichting) published in 1664 a dignified defence of his brethren against the unjust accusations that had been made against them in the Synod’s remonstrance which had led to the decree of the previous year.41 It was written with a self- restraint and moderation that contrasted favorably with the passionate recriminations of the remonstrance. It answered one by one the charges that the Socinians taught wicked heresies, corrected various errors in statements that had been hastily made on insufficient grounds, and ended with a noble plea for tolerance and patience rather than force in the treatment of errors. The Synod could not afford to let this Apology go unanswered, and entrusted the task to the Leiden faculty, who appointed Professor Johannes Cocceius to undertake it, since it was he that had prepared the original remonstrance. He accepted the commission with alacrity, and in due time published a reply to Schlichting’s defence.42 It was not a very convincing reply, for instead of squarely meeting the main points at issue it consisted mainly of bickering objections to a large number of trivial ones; but the Synod expressed entire satisfaction with the refutation. As we have seen, the decree had only a tardy and half-hearted execution. The Synods continued to complain, and the Estates from time to time posted new proclamations forbidding printing and sale, but all to little purpose. While in the smaller towns and remote provinces the law was more or less enforced, in the larger ones the magistrates, jealous of their own authority, resented the interference of the church, and the law was largely a dead letter. 43
Thus matters drifted on for nearly ninety years after the passing of the decree. The Socinian infection continued steadily to spread, and Socinian books were imported, translated and printed in increasing numbers. On the other hand the provincial Synods continued to pass their resolutions and to discipline any ministers charged with heresy, and to prod the States General to go through the form of issuing proclamations, which local authorities were increasingly reluctant to enforce; 44 until the fires of controversy gradually burned out with the realization that the results of the heresy were not so fatal as had been feared, that Socinianism was actually doing little serious harm, and that their efforts to suppress it were doing little good, and that when let alone those holding Socinian views nevertheless fitted comfortably into the religious and social life of the Republic. The fires of persecution lasted longest in Friesland, and finally flickered out in 1742.
The events that we have related were in the open field of action by church assemblies, with the half-hearted co-operation of the civil authorities. But in the field of thought the theologians also put forth their strongest efforts. The number of polemic works issued in Holland against the Socinians was considerable, and the anti-Socinian disputations and dissertations in the universities ran into the hundreds. Five theologians, however, are outstanding, and deserve record here. Johannes Hoornbeek, Professor at Utrecht, published at the height of the struggle with Socinianism a confutation of it in three ample volumes, 45 which was so highly esteemed that an abridgement of it was called for more than a generation later. He also directed his students in presenting anti-Socinian disputations as a part of their training, of which he collected more than a hundred and published them in two large volumes. He early discovered the affinity between Socinians and Mennonites, which he declared in an often-quoted epigram: Anabaptista indoctus Socinianus; Socinianus autem doctus Anabaptista. 46 Professor Johannes Cloppenburg of Franeker published there in 1652 a Cornpendiolum Socinianismi confutati, which was prefaced by a careful Praefatio Ilistorica de origine et progressu Socinianismi; also a work Anti-Smalcium de Divinitate Christi (ibid., 1652). Both are contained in his Theologica opera omnia (Amstelodami, 1684), 318—449. The most pretentious work of all, though hardly the ablest, was by Samuel Maresius (des Marets), a French Calvinist who was Professor at Groningen. His Hydra Socinianismi expugnata (3 vols., Groningae, 1651-’62) was a refutation of Völkel’s De vera religione with the work of Crellius prefixed to it. It reprints Völkel in full, divided into short sections, each of which was assigned to a student to defend as a thesis, with critical notes and comments. It was said that Maresius, in venturing thus to reprint a work which was under the ban, followed the advice of the bookseller, who hoped by this means to promote the sale among those that would be curious to read a forbidden book.47 The three writers just mentioned wrote in scholarly Latin, and thus only for the educated. Petrus de Witte, Reformed minister at Leiden, wrote in common Dutch for the uneducated his Weerlegginge der Sociniaansche Dwalingen (Amsterdam, 1622), in which he dipped his pen in gall and leveled a wealth of passionate and abusive epithets against both the Socinians and their confederates the Remonstrants and Mennonites, as being no better than Turks, though he offered not a single argument that had not often been used already. But the ablest and most dignified of the Reformed polemics against Socinianism was by the venerable Abraham Heydanus, Professor at Leiden, who in his De origine erroris, and his Diatribe de Socinianismo appended to it (Amsterdam, 1678), clearly discerned that the root of the matter lay in giving human reason precedence over Scripture in any disputed question of religious belief.48
Besides these comprehensive treatises by leading theologians against the Socinian system as a whole, several minor works deserve mention, which tried to prove the practical identity of the Remonstrant position with Socinianism by calling attention to the close resemblances between the two; although their strategy allowed them to pass by without notice the many and important divergences between the two systems. The Remonstrants in reply brought forward the latter in defence of their position, but the denials could never quite keep up with the accusations. Thus Nicolaas Bodecher, who had formerly been a Remonstrant, but at the Synod of Dort deserted his brethren and went over to the camp of the contra-Remonstrants, justified his change by publishing, with the approval of the Leiden faculty, a book designed to prove that the Remonstrants agree with the Socinians either in fact, or in words, or even in method, in many parts of their confession.49 Episcopius felt himself so much implicated in this attack that he replied in a book contemptuously entitled, Bodecherus ineptiens. Nicolaas Vedelius, Professor at Deventer, followed up with a book entitled De arcanis Arminiainismi (1631), which has been characterized as a lampoon full of diabolical hatred, but was yet so much esteemed by Professor Voet of Utrecht that he had it translated into Dutch. Episcopius was reluctantly pressed again to reply, in his Vedelius Rhapsodus, seu riindicatio doctrinarum Rem onstrantium a criminationibus et calumniis Vedelii (1633). Not to mention other controversial works along the same line, perhaps the most effective indictment of the Remonstrants was that of Johannes Pelt, Reformed minister at Schiedam, whose Harmonia Remonstrantium et Socinianorum (1633) printed in deadly parallel columns the views of Remonstrants and Socinians on various characteristic doctrines, that the reader might judge for himself. When so much agreement was shown to exist, it availed little to show that in many other important points there was disagreement.
It must not be supposed that these long and persistent efforts to pre vent or suppress Socinianism in Holland were only the expression of a principle of political intolerance and religious bigotry.50 For the Dutch were by native temperament as heartily devoted to liberty as those who had long suffered under despotism might be expected to be; and the original broadly tolerant policy of William the Silent embodied a basic ideal of the people. But in the period of the Catholic reaction for a century or more after the Council of Trent, the fear of the Dutch was sincere and acute that by insidious steps they might again be brought under the oppression of Rome, which had been more cruel and merciless in the Netherlands than in any other country. Hence any relaxing of the strictest standards of Protestantism was at once under suspicion as perhaps the first step back toward Rome. Hence the opposition to the Remonstrants with their tolerant spirit in matters of doctrine. Hence yet more the opposition to Socinianism, which was regarded as retaining in the principle of Nominalism the fundamental error of the Roman Church.51 It was on this ground that the most competent Dutch theologians rested their argument against the Socinian doctrine.
Click here to open the frame set built to read this document.
This page was last modified
Sunday 12 November 2006.