SOCINIANISM AMONG THE MENNONITES AND COLLEGIANTS
THE EVENTS thus far related have for the most part concerned the growing influence of Socinianism among the Remonstrants and the unwearied efforts of the Reformed theologians to combat it in that quarter. Concurrently with this, however, Socinianism was quietly and even more deeply affecting the Mennonite body. Early in this history we noted a strong undercurrent of antitrinitarian doctrine among the Anabaptists in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century; and when Socinian emissaries and Socinian books penetrated Holland in the first quarter of the seventeenth century they found a ready response in many Mennonite hearts. Between the two bodies there were from the start strong points of contact in the effort of both to cultivate Christian faith and life in its primitive simplicity, in their reliance upon the letter of Scripture rather than upon ecclesiastical tradition, in their emphasis upon Christian conduct and character rather than upon creedal orthodoxy, in their view of baptism, their opposition to warfare, to holding of civil office, to oaths, and to worldly pleasures and luxuries.
Ostorodt and Wojdowski are said while in Holland in 1598 to have visited Hans de Ries of Alkmaar, one of the most respected and influential Mennonite leaders; and from 1606 to 1612 negotiations were attempted by the Synods in Poland, through a congregation of Dutch Mennonites at Danzig, to establish closer relations between the two bodies.1 The Danzig congregation sought the counsel of de Ries, and the matter was seriously considered in Holland; but there proved to be too strong disagreement about it among the Mennonites, not only as to doctrinal matters, but especially because it was felt that, as they already stood in considerable disfavor with the government, it was not advisable to make their case yet worse by an alliance with the Socinians. The matter therefore fell through. Nevertheless Socinian influence more and more penetrated the Mennonite communities, and doctrinal differences naturally developed between the conservative members and the progressives. Thus in the congregation at Haarlem a heated controversy over doctrine took place, which was nominally settled in 1626 by an agreement upon a series of articles which were signed by both sides. But these were so vaguely drawn as to leave loop-holes, and Socinianism remained unchecked.2 It made greatest progress, however, in the congregation at Amsterdam, 3 where a circle of liberally minded spirits in the Mennonite congregation began about 1646 to hold meetings for discussion of religious doctrines, in which the greatest freedom of expression was exercised. The leading spirits were Daniel de Breen (Brenius), 4 Adam Boreel, and Galenus Abrahamsz de Haan. Of these the last was easily the most influential. He was by profession a physician, but was deeply interested in promoting progressive religion; and he showed himself so broad of mind and so eloquent in speech that he was early chosen as preacher to the Mennonite congregation. In his preaching he ardently espoused religious freedom and mutual tolerance. A cleavage in the congregation developed ere long between the conservatives, who laid primary emphasis on confession of orthodox doctrine as necessary to salvation, and the progressives, who set comparatively little store by doctrines, but insisted first of all on a religious conduct of life. Between these two factions a stubborn controversy was waged for many years. Galenus boldly and publicly held, as to such doctrines as the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the incarnation, and satisfaction, views that at least had a strong Socinian tinge, and were opposed accordingly. Eventually the consistory of the Reformed Church intervened in a matter that they had long followed with interest, and filed with the city Council a remonstrance charging that in place of a Mennonite congregation one clearly Socinian had been opened in defiance of law. Galenus was charged before them with being a Socinian, but was discharged by the court and declared a good Mennonite. They issued a proclamation, however, and sought to secure peace in the congregation by forbidding pulpit discussion of the points in controversy. It was to no purpose. The inevitable division of the congregation took place. About 700 conservative members withdrew, and became known as Zonists from the building (“de Zon”) where they set up their meetings, while the Galenists continued to meet in their old place, “het Lam,” and were called Lamists.
A similar development took place in the Mennonite congregations in many other towns5 Leiden, Utrecht, in fact in all the more important centers in Holland. Socinian influences penetrated, were complained of, and were opposed in various ways; preachers were here and there removed from their pulpits, religious meetings were forbidden, members were excommunicated, fined, imprisoned or banished, and Socinian books were banned or burned. Yet nowhere were repressive measures effective save in limited regions and for brief periods. The last instance was in Friesland, where Johannes Stinstra, a Mennonite preacher of outstanding gifts and the highest character at Harlingen, was accused of Socinianism and in 1642 suspended from his pulpit, which he was not allowed to enter again for fifteen years. 6 By that time the old repressive laws had become dead letters. Even twenty years before this, in 1722, when the States of Friesland had been prevailed upon by the Reformed leaders to require the Mennonite preachers to subscribe Trinitarian articles, the whole company of them, 150 in number, refused almost to a man to bind themselves to any human confession, though it meant that for a time their places of worship were closed throughout the whole province. 7
Although Socinian thought considerably influenced many of the leaders of the Remonstrant brotherhood, it was among the Mennonites that it penetrated most deeply and widely. The latter had no authoritative standards of faith to limit their freedom of thought and its expression, and they had a welcome therefore, without regard to differences in doctrine, for any that aimed to practice the Christian religion in all the relations of daily life. Socinianism was almost from its beginning a fusion of two different elements, the rational and the practical; the former deriving from Italian Humanism, and the latter from Anabaptist sources. It was the predominant emphasis of both upon the latter element, together with their relative indifference to the former, that made Mennonites and Socinians so congenial to each other. It was, however, the existence of a third group that was the effective means of bringing them together, and we must therefore give some account of the very interesting company of independent Dutch Christians known as Collegiants, or less frequently, from the village where they held their general gatherings, as Rijnsburgers.8
In 1619, when the leading Remonstrant ministers had been driven from the country, and others were permitted to remain only on condition of giving up their ministry, many of their members seriously felt the lack of religious meetings. Among these was one Gijsbert van der Kodde, lately an Elder of the church at the village of Warmond near Leiden, whose religious views had been shaped by reading Acontius, Castellio and Coornhert. He deemed it important to hold the members of the church together, even though they were deprived of the leader ship of a minister. He therefore proposed to some kindred spirits that they should nevertheless meet now and then to read the Scriptures, offer prayers, and contribute whatever else might seem good as the Spirit might move. The plan was approved and soon put into execution. The movement throve, and the members discovered that they could do without professional preachers so well that when the next year the church leaders in exile at Antwerp appointed a minister to come back secretly to serve the brethren at Warmond, he was given to understand that he was not welcome, since his presence if discovered would imperil them all; and he was advised to go and learn some trade. In fact the movement early began to take on the character of one definitely averse to church organization, to a professional ministry, and to any officially adopted beliefs; and to glory in its emancipation from most of the traditional marks of churches. The members were better satisfied to do the speaking and the praying themselves than to be merely passive listeners to ministers who tended too much to magnify their office. When the Remonstrant congregations at length began to resume activity with settled ministers, van der Kodde and his followers persistently held aloof from their meetings, and resisted all attempts of the ministers to win them over. Their movement, in fact, a little ante dated the separate organization of the Remonstrant brotherhood, and as a perfectly free and democratic fellowship of laymen it had already discovered some valued features which they were unwilling to give up. They therefore rented a separate house for their gatherings, which were generally called collegia (hence their name, Collegiants), and were at first held but monthly. The procedure in these meetings was simple. Some passages of Scripture were read, a prayer was offered, and one or more made an edifying address.9 An invitation was then given for any one that felt so moved to speak. Such addresses sometimes lasted an hour, and in case of several in succession the meeting would run far into the night. In this way they aimed to revive the practice of the first Christian churches.
In order to escape continued friction with the Remonstrants, van der Kodde and his brothers presently removed their meetings from Warmond to the neighboring village of Rijnsburg, where they met secretly after each new moon, and observed the Lord’s Supper and baptized their members after their own way. This final separation from the Remonstrants was much regretted, though in fact it did little or nothing to weaken the Remonstrant cause. But whereas hitherto all the Collegiants had come from Remonstrant sources, henceforth their main strength was to come from the Mennonites and their chief influence was to be felt among them. From such humble beginnings in an obscure village, the Collegiant movement gradually spread in the seventeenth century until ‘colleges’ were formed in about a dozen of the larger towns and yet more of the smaller places, to the number of some thirty in all. They did not mean to be organized churches, competing with existing ones, but only free gatherings of persons from all churches or from none, who wished to meet to promote one another’s religious life and thought by free and tolerant discussion of matters of common interest. Despite its small compass, this movement, says its latest historian,10 ‘deserves to be reckoned, for the singular freshness and the great breadth of spirit that characterized it, as one of the most remark able phenomena in the field of the religious life of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.’
Of the local meetings of Collegiants, the most important were at Amsterdam, referred to above, 11 and at Rotterdam and Groningen, but the character of all of them was in general the same. The membership of the Collegiants was composed of some from the Remonstrants, a few from the Reformed and many that were not committed to any confession; but by far the largest number came from the Mennonites. It was never thought necessary for one to leave another church to join them, and even some of the ministers of churches attended their gatherings. Their meetings were usually held on Sunday, but there were often week-day meetings as well. Baptism (by immersion) was practiced as a valued sign of adherence to Christianity, but was not insisted on; and the Lord’s Supper was observed as a token of Christian fellow ship, to which any were admitted who acknowledged in any sense that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. The Scriptures were their only rule of faith: no creed or confession was set up as a test of membership in their company or of participation in their meetings. The controlling principles of the collegia were that the utmost freedom of speech was allowed to all participants (though women, on scriptural grounds, were not permitted to take part), and that in the free fraternal discussion that followed the largest mutual tolerance of divergent views was practiced. Followers of Socinus and their opponents, Remonstrants, Mennonites, rationalists, scripturalists, Jews, all enjoyed equal ‘liberty of prophesying,’ and respected one another’s rights. Amid all the natural diversities of opinion there was no repression of free speech, and only once in a century and a half was there any schism, between the followers of Jan Bredenburg, influential merchant of Rotterdam, who held that reason gives man a natural knowledge of God, and Frans Kuyper, ex-Remonstrant preacher, who insisted on the supernatural origin of Christianity in the Scriptures and the miracles that they report. This, however, ceased with the death of the two leaders.12
What has been said above relates to the local ‘colleges’ in various towns; but with 1640 general meetings of the whole Collegiant connection began to be held at Rijnsburg. Local monthly or weekly meetings were still held here until 1660, when the leading members had died or removed, but the general meetings became great occasions. Twice a year, at Easter (later at Whitsuntide) and at the end of August, Collegiants gathered at Rijnsburg from all parts of the country, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in token of mutual fellowship, to have baptisms, and to hold religious meetings for three days. The centre for these gatherings was at ‘the Great House’ (het Groote Huis) , an extensive building at the east end of the village, containing a large number of rooms for the accommodation of guests, together with provision for their entertainment, and a large baptismal pool in the garden. This was established by one of the members and became the property of their or phanage at Amsterdam.13 The religious meetings were held in a separate meeting-house. These general gatherings continued until late in the eighteenth century, though after the middle of the century they began steadily to grow smaller until 1787, when they ceased in the troubled times of French oppression. In the same period the local ‘colleges’ were one by one disbanding until 1810, when only one remained. 14 Apart from any damage they may have suffered from the repeated charge that they were nests of Socinianism, they apparently came to an end because there was no longer serious need of them, since the existing churches had by now grown so free and tolerant as to give them all the liberty that they desired to use. Most of their members were absorbed by the Mennonites, from whom many of them had come and with whom they had so much in common.
Of all the persons connected with the Collegiant movement in the course of its history, perhaps the most celebrated was the philosopher Benedict Spinoza, the young Spanish Jew who, after having been put out of the synagogue of his people for being unable to accept the teachings of the rabbis, found among the Collegiants the friendly sympathy and religious fellowship that he was denied elsewhere. 15 He came into connection with the ‘college’ at Amsterdam about 1654, when he was but twenty-two years old and they were much occupied with the interpretation of Scripture, and thenceforth he had much to do with them, attending their meetings and sharing in their discussions. As long as he lived, some of his best friends were Mennonite Collegiants; and when for the sake of greater quiet and study he removed in 1661 to Rijnsburg he continued his relations with them. He was drawn to them by their deep concern for a sincere religious life, their interest in its rational basis and its application in practical morals, and their broad- minded tolerance; and though he could not fully agree to the particular Christian teachings and practices that they held, in other respects they undoubtedly influenced him deeply. It was among the Collegiants that Spinoza formed contact with the Polish Brethren. Some of them were presumably in the Collegiant circle earlier than Spinoza, and a notable accession will have arrived soon after their banishment from Poland in i66o. Their culture, their tolerant spirit, and their method of interpreting Scripture appealed to him, and his view of the Bible: that Scripture never teaches what is in conflict with our reason; that it can easily be understood by every one; and that it leaves reason free—might almost have been taken directly from Socinus.16 ’It should not be claimed, however, that Spinoza accepted the Socinian doctrine in general, for his conception of God was radically different, and his theology had sounder philosophical grounds, and was carried through much more consistently, that that of the Socinians. He was no doubt familiar with many works of the leading Socinian thinkers, which were published during his life-time, and the catalogue of his library at Rijnsburg shows that he owned several important works by Socinian authors, and an engraved portrait of Socinus.
It has been said above that an effective agency through which Socinianism permeated the Mennonite body was the Collegiant movement, in whose free and tolerant meetings Socinians had all the opportunity they could have wished to express their views and win adherents to them. Naturally converts were made; and when persecutions grew heavy in Poland, the little stream of stragglers seeking a new home with freedom of faith would readily attach themselves to the Collegiant movement, and eventually to the Mennonite congregations. When the decree of banishment from Poland was finally enforced, yet larger numbers of Socinians kept arriving in Holland for several years. How large the whole number was it is quite impossible to guess, for only a few names have been recorded. There may at most have been a hundred or two, or at least perhaps only a score or two. They could not under the law have set up avowed Socinian places of worship and continued their old organization even had they desired to do so; but they were admitted without question to the worship and the sacraments of the Remonstrants, and equally so to those of the Mennonites, without question as to their doctrinal beliefs. As they were generally of noble birth and of superior education and culture, they would feel intellectually and socially most at home in Remonstrant circles; but their views as to baptism, their creedless scriptural Christianity, their attitude toward the civil government, especially as to war, offices, capital punishment, oaths, courts, etc., gave them strong affinities with the Mennonites, despite any differences in belief. It was quite unfair to accuse the whole body of either Collegiants or Mennonites of being Socinian, by the familiar device of holding guilty of a whole system of heresy those who had accepted only a minor part of its teachings though rejecting the rest. Yet the Collegiant Dirk Rafaelsz Camphuysen, famed as a hymn-writer, was in 1625 or earlier invited to be a professor at Raków, and refused largely on account of his wife’s reluctance;17 and he later translated several works of Socinus into Dutch; and Jan Geesteran, after being deprived of his pulpit at Alkmaar, was called in 1622 to a teaching office in Poland, which he also declined. It is not too much to say that about 1660 a Socinian tendency was evident among the Mennonites in all parts of the country. 18 The difference between the two most remarked was, curiously enough, not as to doctrines, but that the Socinians lived a more disciplined life than others, were austere in their morals, abjured frivolous worldly pleasures, and gave themselves much to prayer, fasting and almsgiving. 19
Apart from direct personal contacts, Socinianism was widely spread in Holland through printed books. These first came to inquiring scholars, as they issued in Latin from the Raków press, and naturally circulated only among the educated. Then, to reach the unlettered, a long series of Dutch translations came from the press, mostly as in expensive little books, usually published by the enterprise or at the expense of Collegiants or Mennonites of means—over twenty-five of Socinus’s works, twenty or more of Crellius, and the most important writings of Smalcius, Schlichting, Ostorodt, Völkel, and several others; and after Wiszowaty, Zwicker, Sandius and Samuel Crellius became residents they contributed their part by numerous works in which they made their contribution to the religious thought of their time. These numerous publications provided the Mennonites, who were poor in competent theological scholars, with a body of divinity well developed and ready to hand; and taken together had a powerful influence upon the development of liberal religion among the Dutch. But by far the most important, as well as the most extensive of these publications, was the celebrated Bibliotheca Fratrum Polonorum.20 Now that the Raków press had long been silenced, its publications had become exceedingly rare and commanded high prices, and the arrival of the distinguished exiles from Poland stimulated lively interest in their cause, a plan for publishing a corpus of outstanding Socinian works, which Is said to have been first broached in 1628, 21 was revived. The works were published with a fictitious publisher’s name, Iren Philalethius, which roused much speculation. Suspicion at first and for a long time centered upon Frans Kuyper, who had originally been for a brief time Remonstrant preacher at Vlaardingen, but left the pulpit and became a publisher at Amsterdam. He was a zealous Collegiant, and author of several controversial books. The actual printing is attributed to the famous press of the Blaeuw brothers, who were of the Remonstrant camp, and favored Courcelles and the Socinians. They had already got into trouble by printing Völkel’s work in 1642. Of late other guesses have been made; but the question remains unanswered. 22
The work belied its title, for it contained (apart from some brief items by Stegmann and Wiszowaty in the Woizogen volume) the writings of only four authors; and of Schlichting’s works not all, but only those composed during and after the Swedish war. On the other hand there are lacking the writings of such important authors as Smalcius, Völkel, Ostorodt, Moskorzowski and others of the classical literary period of Socinianism, not to mention the Racovian Catechism. Except for the commentaries of Crellius and Schlichting, the editorial work of arranging, correcting, annotating, etc. was diligently performed by Andrew Wiszowaty, who also furnished a brief preface to the whole series. The work was at first sold very quietly to trusted persons, but as usually happens with forbidden books it was ere long sold openly and bought by many.23 In less than a year it came to the notice of the Consistory of the Reformed Church, then as ever on the watch for heresy. 24 Investigation followed, and the matter was re ported to the civil government, and finally, after long delay and official reluctance, the Bibliotheca Fratrum Polonorum was proscribed by the States General in 1674 as a blasphemous and soul-destroying work, and its sale was forbidden in pursuance of the decree of 1553. 25 Sale continued nevertheless, and it was reported that the work might be openly bought in Amsterdam for 100 gulden. 26 It became a token of respect ability to own it, and it was said that it might be found in the libraries of many that had not the learning to read its Latin, but were glad to possess it as a monument. 27 To the guardians of orthodoxy it was of course anathema. Thus a Tubingen professor declared, ‘Opus est orco non prelo dignum; quod utinam suppressum fuisset, non impressum;’ and for such a sentiment was duly rebuked. 28 On the other hand Lavater admitted that one finds in the doctrines and explanations of Socinus many incomparable solutions of unpalatable difficulties in the orthodox system. 29
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