“Dutch Mennonites and the Enlightenment, part 2” – December 6, 2015

Disclaimer: These are unedited notes, not a presentation.


Today we will be looking at the Mennonites in the Amsterdam region from 1700 – 1850. We will continue looking at their different involvement in the Enlightenment. I hope by now that you have seen that a number of typical stereotypes about Mennonites are thwarted by these Dutch brothers and sisters. We will even able to see some of the houses which they owned and note different ways in which they impacted Dutch society.


A good place to start today is with Voltaire, an author emblematic of the Enlightenment. Now Voltaire, unlike Descarte and Spinoza, had no contact with the Mennonites that I know of. Though he may well have met Mennonites on his travels to Holland, where he had publishers in the Hague and Amsterdam. But Mennonites find their way into one of Voltaire’s most famous works, Candide or Optimism, first published in 1759. In the book,Voltaire savages the stupidity, intolerance, vanity, and hypocrisy which confronts the main character Candide everywhere he goes. Early in the novel, Candide, fleeing war, goes to Holland confident that he will find charity in a place where everyone is described as rich and Christian. Instead he finds bigotry and contempt, until he meets Jacques, a man who had never been baptized. A mennonite. Jacques is characterized with unusual warmth, a person with genuine concern for others without regard for their beliefs. Jacques lives by commerce, he owns a Persian rug factory. He is well known for his deism, his critical views on the Bible, and his attacks against organized religion. In the end, Jacques saves a man from drowning, only to drown himself.


I don’t think Voltaire was too far off on his depiction of the Mennonites in Holland. Jacques was not so unlikely a figure.


During the early 18th century, societies for natural philosophy and natural history flourished in Amsterdam. And once again Mennonites found themselves at the very center of this activity. For example, it was the Mennonites who were the most interested in the work of Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit. In 1717-1718, they invited the German, Polish, Dutch instrument maker and natural philosopher to come to Amsterdam and give instruction in experimental philosophy. Fahrenheit had recently moved to Holland from Danzig. Experimental philosophy, aimed at demonstrating natural philosophical principles through the ingenious and sometimes spectacular use of mechanical instruments. Mennonite enthusiasm for experimental philosophy was at the leading edge of the enthusiasm for the subject. By 1735, a Dutch observer could write:

“Everywhere societies are formed, in which several people deliberate on physics and perform experiments. Several extraordinary persons take great pains in collecting many and costly apparatuses; they regale their friends less with appetizing spices and liquor, than with a series of physical observations. There is a kind of envy among common people. Everyone seeks to be a connoisseur of natural philosophy. The merchant leaves his desk to work with an air pump, and does not hesitate to work himself up into a sweat on the composition of some apparatus. The artisan rests from his work to set himself to these things in which he takes far more pleasure…”


A complete set of lecture notes sow that Fahrenheit taught optics, hydraulics, hydrostatics, and chemistry to Mennonites at church. He performed experiments which exemplified the obscure principles of Newtonian natural philosophy. Fahrenheit even came up with a name for these interested Mennonites. He called them Mennonite liefhebbers or devotees.

Fahrenheit gave lectures in experimental philosophy until at least 1729 and while they were not exclusively aimed at Mennonites, it is known that mennonites in Amsterdam held weekly lectures on some aspect of natural knowledge until at least 1759. While we have bible studies, they had physic experiments. Maybe this is what we need to start doing on Sunday mornings.

Who were the Mennonites who attended these lectures? They were those of a middling or higher income. They would have included merchants, manufactures, and almost certainly some physicians and most likely many preachers. We know that a number of Mennonite preachers at that time made their living as physicians. The fee to attend each lecture was roughly equivalent to the daily wage of a carpenter or a mason. The lectures also began around 3 PM. So they were not geared towards the working class.

Why were Mennonites so interested in these lectures? Earnst Hamm insists that the answer lies in the strong inclination towards useful knowledge found among Mennonites. Mennonites had a long tradition of working and innovating here in drainage, land reclamation and water management. So learning the principles of suction, pressure pumps, spouts, siphons, and waterworks, would only make them more aware of the advantages of technology.

But there also seemed to be a theological component behind it as well. Last week I mentioned Adriaan Verwer, a Mennonite merchant who settled in Amsterdam in 1680 and worshiped at the church of the Lam. He was the one who brought the study of the work of Newton to the Dutch Republic. For him, Creation and the inner workings of nature were a way of understanding God and God’s works among them. I think we will see this more when we discuss Mennonite cabinets in a bit.

But I think there is one last reason why the Mennonites were so interested in experimental sciences and philosophy, social utility. It was another way in which Mennonites could participate in the mainstream of Dutch bourgeois life. It was a way of showing off and gaining access to other wealthy and intellectually interested individuals. Mennonites greatly profited by being among the first and the leaders to promote natural sciences. And trust me, the scientists appreciated the Mennonites as well. One famous scientist of his day, Pieter van Musschenbroek dedicated his book to a wealthy Mennonite silk merchant and manufacturer who helped pay for him to come and give lectures in Holland.


Now is probably a good time to talk about the Mennonite seminary in Amsterdam. Both Haarlem and Amsterdam’s churches still debate over who’s idea it was for the seminary and who donated more money to make it happen. But as I alluded to last week, this wasn’t your typical seminary. The seminary opened in 1735 most likely as a response to the particular decline in numbers they were experiencing. In the middle of the 17th century there were some 75,000 Mennonites in Holland, or about 5% of the population. By 1809 that number had dropped to 30,000 or about 2% of the population. The seminary was a way to train ministers who hopefully could help reverse this trend.

At first the seminary only taught theology. Not bible. Not biblical languages. Just theology. They had one professor who taught all courses. However, in 1761 the Seminary recognized that it needed to teach something other than theology. So it created a second professorship, this one was in experimental philosophy. Do remember, that the sole purpose of this institution was to train youth for preaching and ministering in Mennonite churches. Clearly, these Mennonites connected experimental philosophy to ministry. And with this decision to create a new professorship, the seminary also decided to build up a very substantial physical cabinet. Cabinets were collections of scientific instruments, artwork, fossils, and anything else relating to nature. You might call them a precursor to modern museums. Thanks to a few substantial donations, they seminary was able to purchase a number of air pumps, magnets, generators, Leiden jars, telescopes, microscopes, optical instruments among a whole lot more. It was the largest collection of instruments at any institution. Though some private collections were much larger. For years, the Mennonite seminary was the only place in Amsterdam to study natural philosophy. The program was only stopped in 1826. So it was a cornerstone of the seminary for over 50 years.


Mennonites and Cabinets


One of the most interesting places which Stephanie and I attended while in Amsterdam was actually in Haarlem – the Teyler’s museum. It is actually the oldest museum in all of Holland. And it was founded by one of the richest Mennonites in history – Pieter Teyler van der Hulst (1702-1778). Pieter Teyler was born into a Mennonite family very active in the silk industry. By the age 26, he was running his own silk factory and was also involved in finance, which eventually would overcome his income from silk trade. He married but was childless, and so after his wife died he decided to to will his entire estate to promote the furtherance of religion and also the promotion of arts and sciences. So after his death, the estate was split to establish two societies – the Theological society and also Teyler’s second society which promoted the arts and sciences. The foundation also built and ran the Teyler’s hofje, a home for twenty four women, mainly widows, who lacked the means for adequate housing. We will come back to Mennonites and hofje’s in a bit. All together Tyler’s estate amounted to the princely sum of over two million gulden which would equate to hundreds of millions of dollars in today’s currency.


If you ever get the chance to attend the Teyler’s museum, you will note the amazing depth and all the different topics that it covers. However, it is very typical of the kinds of cabinets of their day. It collected a little bit of everything which was tied to nature and the arts. The museum has a massive fossil collection, a mineral collection, two rooms filled with different scientific devices. The most notable item of the physical cabinet is van Marum’s electrostatic generator – the largest of its kind every constructed. It has three or four rooms devoted to art including prints and drawings from Michelangelo, Raphael, Claude Lorrain. The museum contains nearly the complete graphic work of Rembrandt. It has more than 10,000 master drawings and some 25000 prints. The museum also has a rare book room. Much of the museum grew out of Teyler’s personal cabinet. By all accounts, it is an impressive modern museum that played a central part in remaking of science in the 18th and 19th centuries. And again it highlights the Mennonite promotion of natural knowledge.


While Teyler had the most famous cabinet, he was not the only Mennonite to collect a large physical cabinet. For example, Levinus Vincent (1658 – 1727), a wealthy Mennonite cloth merchant owned the richest cabinet in the Netherlands before Teyler’s museum ever existed. One that displayed nature’s marvels and human ingenuity. Vincent too was a Haarlemite. He collected mounted birds, insects, lizards, tortoises, shells, corals, starfish, dried herbs and flowers, animal specimens preserved in jars, minerals, drawings, rare flowers, and much more. His wish was to awaken a special contentment in the heart of the devout and right-minded, and give the unreasonable and ungodly cause for reverence and knowledge of the Creator and Sustainer who through his infinite power has made all that is visible and invisible. The Russian Czar, Peter the Great, even visited it and supposedly pronounced that one could not view the cabinet and fail to believe in a God.

Anyone could come to visit the cabinet and more than 3500 people wrote their names in the visitor log while it was opened. While the names include many notable diplomats, princes, writers and scholars, it also was cheap enough or children, women, and tradesmen to visit. It gave ordinary people a chance to see this world that previously was only for the select few.


We know that atleast 9 mennonites in Amsterdam also had cabinets in their homes. Which is an extraordinary amount.


I know Alan isn’t here, but how can I not talk about the Dutch Mennonites and their gardens?Some of the most striking examples of the rich history of Dutch formal gardens were found in estates built by Mennonites. Most of the rich Mennonites built second, summer homes in Amsterdam and Haarlam along the Menistenhemel, the Mennonite heaven near Utrecht. A few of these mansions still exist today. Today, I’ll talk about one of these famous estates – the Zijdebalen which was designed by David van Mollem. David’s father was among the most wealthy Dutch. He owned a silk factory and he developed a new machine for unrolling bales of raw silk which prior was a very labour intensive practice. However, he was too busy with his business to ever build up the estate. So his son, inherited it along with plenty of capital to create his perfect garden.

Zijdebalen was small in comparison to the great landed estates nearby. It was a long, narrow property with a river frontage of about eighty meters. His garden was complete with mazes, intricately arranged woods and plants, fountains, a dry basin of rare plants, fishponds, walkways, waterways, bridges, arches, pavilions, latticeworks, arbors, obelisks, and rare birds. These Mennonites must also have been avid birders! It also had an Italian theatre, an orangery, numerous vases, marble statues, and other ornaments. It took several decades to complete. It’s design was geometric, meaning that it followed the French tradition.

The most remarkable feature of the garden was its waterworks – an elaborate artifice and technological marvel that drove the fountains, a relative rarity in the Netherlands where water pressure was not easily to come by. Observers compared these waterworks to the fountains in the parks of Rome. The waterworks drove the machinery of the factory which his dad built. So it was ingenious of Mollem to find this use. This garden with its rare plants and orangery was supposed to be a recreation of Eden’s paradise which knew no winter. The lavish, even ostentatious display of wealth was morally justified because again it showed the beauty of God’s creation. Gardening was also seen as honest and honorable labor.

Gardening was loved by many Mennonites. Nicolaas Bidloo was the court physician to Peter the Great. He once remarked that: “gardening is a useful, honorable, and enjoyable recreation that used labor and intellect to recreate Paradise and reflect God’s glory.” Gardens displayed the fruits of human industry and God’s creation. They inspired contemplation and devotion to God. You can say that Mennonite gardens are just another type of cabinets.


Mennonites care for society –


I already talked about the society of the rescue of drowning victims in my sermon on my sabbatical experience. So I won’t bring that one up again.


Dutch Mennonites were very generous. They provided numerous resources to help Mennonites elsewhere who were poor or facing persecution. We know they funded different trips for Mennonites to leave areas and find refugee in United States. The helped support those from Bern and often paid for land in Central Germany for them to live as well.


Mennonites founded such organizations such as the Patriotic Association of Shipping and Trade – which focused on improving Dutch trade.


The organization which had the most lasting impact was the Society of Public Welfare founded by the Utrecht Mennonite preacher and his physician son. It is sometimes called the 18th century version of MCC. It sought to improve literacy and educate the lower classes in virtue and Christian citizenship through founding public libraries and publishing free school textbooks. This organization was crucial to the revamping of the Dutch education system in the 19th century.


Hofjes – I mentioned this earlier when I talked about Teyler, but Mennonites were extremely active in creating beautiful housing complexes for elderly widows. The cost to live at these hofjes was one dollar a year. In Haarlem alone, Mennonites owned 5 different hofjes that provided housing for about 50 women at any one time. Most of these hofjes were created not by the church but just by different individuals who wanted to use their wealth to creating a lasting influence on their city.


In Harlaam all of these hofjes are now around 300 years old and they still exist and still provide housing for single, elderly women. However, throughout the years they have been restored multiple times. The rooms have been expanded. So a hofje that used to house ten women today might only house four or five. Rent is still one dollar. Here are some pictures of the hofjes of Harlaam.


Since I spent a better part of four days walking around Amsterdam visiting different sites where Mennonites used to live and worship, I probably should share a few stories.


Stephanie and I were able to tour three Mennonite houses. All three houses today are museums. One is a bible museum. One is an art museum. And the third is an epic cat museum which one person in Amsterdam created to remember his favorite cat, J.P. Morgan. And interestingly enough, all three houses were owned by the same Mennonite family the Van Eeghens. All had beautiful gardens out back, as you can see. The Van Eeghens also loved their art.


If I remember right, all three van Eeghen houses are located on the Herengracht or Keizersgracht – the rich streets just outside of the city center. The van Eeghen family has been called by non-Mennonites as the most important merchant family of Amsterdam. The van Eeghen family joined the Mennonite faith in the 17th century. The first van Eeghen in Amsterdam was a buyer and seller of linens. It wasn’t until the 18th century, that they became active in the merchant trading industry and really made their fortune.

The first house we saw was the merchant Jan van Eeghen who bought the building in 1826. His family lived here until 1886 until it was bought by the Dutch Bible Society. His father was the founder of the Holland Land Company and the Van Eeghen and company which made their money shipping cotton and tobacco from the United States and they also traded in coffee, tea, and spices from the Dutch East Indies.

Jan van Eeghen was among the most respected men in Amsterdam’s finance world. He was the director of the Bank of the Netherlands. However, he also was extremely interesting in preventing poverty. He contributed a large sum of money to prevent the rise of the price of bread. He also contributed larges fums of money in humanitarianism.


The second house we visited was inhabited by Christian Pieter van Eeghen, the director of the Van Eeghen & Company after the death of Jan van Eeghen. Christian was interested in improving housing conditions for laborers. He co founded the Royal Dutch Anteiquarian Association which still exists today to collect and manage objects which concern the history and culture of the Netherlands. He donated his collection of painting and etches, more than 800 pieces of famous art to the Amsterdam Historical Museum. He also is the one who came up with the idea of creating the most famous park in Amsterdam – Vondel park, named after the greatest Dutch playwright who we mentioned last week was Mennonite for most his life.


The third house we visited was owned by Pieter van Eeghen. I didn’t get a chance to learn too much about Pieter other than he was a board member of a number of different institutions such as Charity according to Capital, The Rembrandt House and the Chamber of Commerce.


Here are some pictures of the Mennonite church in Amsterdam. This is where the Flemish Mennonites met, the one where the war of the lambs took place. It is a massive church. As I mentioned last week, in the 17th century it was the largest attended church in all of the Netherlands with 2000 members.


Some other people’s houses we saw: Thomas Hope (1704 – 1779). he was a scottish merchant who traded in cloth, wine and colonial products as well as doing banking business. He was named as one of the two representatives of the Dutch West India Company by the stadtholder. He was also a deacon. This is significant because it shows us that the Mennonite church no longer was against Mennonites being placed in important political functions in the 1750’s.


The Hope firm made its wealth by loaning money to merchants, to governments in Europe, and the then young, United States of America. Hope served for many years as financier of the Russian Tsar’s family. Tsar Nicolaas II raised Hope to nobility as a reward fo rthe services the firm had rendered as bankers for Russia.


Cornelis van Lennep (1751 – 1813) – Cornelis held important positions in the country’s government. His political opponent called him a Mennonite weathervane. He was a member of the National Assembly which declared at the time that all faiths were equal and everyone could professor his or her faith in public. From 1795-1798, the was appointed provisional Representative of the people of Holland in the Hague. He returned to Amsterdam in 1803. He too was an avid birder and owned a beautiful collection of rare birds at his house. At that time, children were allowed to take days of school to help their parents catch birds. Lennep is known for creating a finch track to help him catch wild birds that was extremely successful.


Frederik Muller (1817-1881). His father was one of the first professors at the Mennonite seminary and he was the first person in the Netherlands to concern himself with the history of books at an academic level. He auctioned book and made catalogues for these auctions. He is considered to be the founder of modern antique stores. He arranged the archives of the Mennonite congregation and his love for books started during his youth. He spent hours each day as a child reading old novels.


William Writs (1732 – 1786) – A founding member of the drawing society Pax Artium – Peace is the nurture of the arts founded in 1766. This association was comprised of lovers of drawings and professional artists and they meet in the Mennonite church – The Sun. He also founded the society – Felix Meritis (happy through merits) in 1777. This society concerned itself with society in a very broad sense. It’s mission was to encourage intelligence and good virtues and to allow arts and science to prosper. The activities of Felix Meritis included the expansion of knowledge, the stimulation of scientific exploration, and active engagement of the arts. They created a school with five departments – physics, drawing, literature, music, and economics.


Jacob Cats (1714 – 1799) – you have already seen one of his murals on the ceiling of one of the Eeglen houses. Jacob Cats was skilled in drawing and etching. He learned painting from numerous famous artists. He became famous by painting the walls in most of the famous Mennonite’s homes. Today he is known as the most famous wallpaper painter of Amsterdam.


Jan de Liefde (1814 – 1869) Mennonite minister who busied himself with caring for the needy and the poor. He stared the association for the welfare of the people which still exists today. He started a sewing school and a knitting school. He wrote numerous books on Dutch history and the Bible in an attempt to improve the general cultural development of the working class.


In 1905, the General Mennonite Association decided that it must be possible for women to study and graduate from the seminary. This also meant that Mennonite women could also be ministers of congregations. Although one professor said he would never seek the comfort and ministry of the women. Annie Zernike was the first woman to conclude her study of theology although she was not allowed to attend the lectures on church history given by that professor. In June 1911, she was called to the serve a congregation in Friesland. Dutch Mennonite Churches have always been among the most open and welcoming churches in the world.


Dutch Mennonites were very sad and quiet during the 1st World War. They protested the violence of the war and created an Association of workers who profess pacifism in 1922. This was a new development for the Mennonites in the Netherlands. Pacifism was not a major issue during the 19th century among Mennonites in the Netherlands. They had joined the army to defend their country on multiple occasions. But during the 1920’s Mennonites wanted to regain interest in pacifism and sought to create a new status for conscientious objectors for those who didn’t want to fight due to religious reasons. They had about 60,000 members.

About 1930, Mennonites realized that it was too big a task for them to strive for peace and disarmament of the entire world alone. Regardless of ones Christian tradition, the battle must be fought for a better, more peaceful world. So they decided to support the Volkenbond – the forerunners of the United Nations. … Mennonite involvement in WW2 is too large of a topic to mention at this time.