“Mennonites, The Enlightenment, and the Dutch Republic (1535-1700)” – November 29, 2015

Disclaimer: These are unedited notes, not a presentation.


These next two weeks, we will be looking, at what I find the most fascinating part of Anabaptist history – Mennonites, the Enlightenment, and life in Amsterdam and the surrounding area. I would love to spend a month on this topic, but this Sunday school class must come to an end sometime.


We already mentioned the beginnings of the Anabaptist community in Amsterdam when I discussed the naked runners – the group of men and women, who in the winter of 1535, decided to strip off their clothing, actually they took off their clothes and burned them into the fire, then ran around outside proclaiming: “Pit for those upon whom God’s vengeance falls.” We call them the nakedloopers. Then a few months later, there were the swordloopers, armed Anabaptists who tried to attack the city hall of Amsterdam. The attack lasted almost two days, and was quite battle. 28 Anabaptists were killed and about 35 people of the city army as well. The remaining Anabaptists who were captured were all executed in gruesome manner. For a small town, which Amsterdam was at the time, this left quite a mark and greatly tarnished the reputation of the Anabaptists.


For the next twenty years of so, it was difficult being an Anabaptist in Amsterdam and the surrounding area. I think this is one of the reasons that Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups were so focused on Friesland and other areas. But starting in the 1550’s things began to change in Amsterdam. There was a growing distaste for bloodsheed. Anabaptists slowly began to migrate back to this region, mainly the Waterlanders and the Frisians. However, it was really the persecution in the Southern Netherlands, in Belgium that led many Anabaptists & Mennonites to flee there, and move to Amsterdam.


As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Mennonites were many. We know that in the nearby town of Haarlam – a beautiful town which I recommend everyone to go visit whenever they go to Amsterdam, in the early 17th century, there were seven small Mennonite congregations. Opponents called the city the “Babel of the Anabaptists.” Dissension was prominent in Amsterdam as well.


Now, I guess, is as good of time as any, to discuss the rise of the Calvinists, and specifically a branch which broke off called the Collegiants. And since I don’t want to get off topic, I’m going to fly through this. Calvinism didn’t really spread to the Netherlands until the 1660’s. Up until this point, Mennonites were the most widespread Protestant group. The Dutch liked Calvinism more than Mennonitism because Calvinism offered them a religious justification for revolt against their Spanish catholic overlord, so it quickly assumed the commanding position within Dutch Protestantism.



However, Calvinism in the Netherlands was neither as strict nor confessional here, as it was elsewhere. It mixed ideas freely with the Mennonite’s beliefs and other groups. The result was a moderate and tolerant Protestantism. However, in the 1680’s the Flemish migrated from the south to the north to escape the war. Much like this caused havoc among the Mennonites, it also led to turbulance among the Calvinists. If you remember, the flemish were more strict than the Frisian Mennonites, and the same is true of the Calvinists. These Calvinists from the south were called the preciezen, which is related to predestination. They longed for a rigid church discipline and were very intolerant of any dissent. So naturally, a feud broke out between the two groups over who was reading Calvin right.

The struggle, today we know as the Arminian controversy. It is named after the Dutch Calvinist, Jacob Arminius. Arminius disagreed with the doctrine of predestination. He insisted that this was not the position of Calvin. Instead, he sought to preserve human free will and undermine Calvinistic determinism. The city of Amsterdam and a number of other Dutch cities supported Arminius. The supporters of Arminius called themselves the Remonstrants. We will skip the long controversy that ensued. It isn’t quite relevant to Mennonite history. However, the Remonstrants lost. And the Calvinists who won instantaneously decided to suspend all Remonstrant preachers. However, a number of Dutch Churches refused to accept the appointment of new Calvinistic preachers. They decided to go pastorless. Instead, the congregations agreed to meet to pray, read Scripture, and hold free religious discussion. They often would meet in secret. They would have no pulpit, to symbolize no leaders. And this new movement would soon call themselves the Collegiants. Because college was a term used in the Netherlands at the time to refer to informal gatherings held for the purpose of Bible reading and religious education.


By 1640, the movement began to expand all over Holland. Each major city set up its own college. At first, the colleges were made up largely of former Remonstrants seeking toleration. However, soon it attracted others and a large number of Mennonites became interested. In Rotterdam, for example, over 2/3rds of the people who attended were Mennonite. In Haarlem, the ideas were formed around the Mennonite pastor there, Pieter Langedult.. In Leiden, the leader of the college was another Menonite. And in Amsterdam, the leader of the college was actually the eloquent Mennonite pastor Galenus Abrahamsz. He turned out to be the principle moving force for the movement in the 2nd half of the 17th century. By this time, the group practiced adult baptism and were deeply influenced by pacifism.


The collegiants, I would argue, are a lot like us. The collegiants were not, great philosophers or theologians. Instead, there were mainly middle-level intellectuals. Well educated and well-read professional people who maintained serious interest in intellectual and religious developments. They cared about religious piety and morality. However, hey were extremely disillusioned with the contemporary forms of Christianity They were very sensitive to the intellectual trends of their day and were also a very broad-minded and intellectually tolerant group of thinkers living in the most open minded society in the 17th century. It was a reformation within the reformation.


This brings us to the famous War of the Lambs. The Doopsgenzinden, in particular were more open and interested in these Colleges. They liked the idea of unconditional tolerance and all the ideas popping up around the radical enlightenment. However, in several Doopsgenzinden churches, the rise of these colleges led to some difficulties. In some cases, minsiters were serving two separate groups. The Colleges and the Doopsgenzinden. If a Mennonite minister baptized someone at a collegiant meeting, was he a member of the Mennonite church or the universal church?

The biggest and most important conflict happened in Amsterdam within the United Flemish Church. It led to a new national schism among Anabaptist groups that wasn’t healed for 150 years. The roots start with Galenus Abrahamz, the Mennonite minister mentioned earlier. He was an extremely talented medical doctor. A specialist in his field.

Galenus was a big proponent of unconditional tolerance. And the flemish were one of the more strict Mennonite denominations. It doesn’t appear that this was a perfect fit for the two. Galenus was upset when his church refused to unite with the Waterlanders, because the Waterlands argued that neither group should put one Confession of faith over the other. And in 1654, Galenus pleaded with his church to accept unbaptized persons as members as long as they accepted nonresistance and lead an irreproachable life. Within a year, this quarrel spread to the non-Anabaptist public because it involved the largest congregation in the Netherlands, 2000 members at the time. The church was called Het Lam – the Lamb. Soon individuals within the congregation were split over who to support. This is why the conflict is called the war of the lambs. It was a way of making fun of Mennonites for fighting.

The conflict continued for almost ten years. In June of 1664, a group of 300 people left the church because they did not agree with their pastor’s poistion of tolerance. So ironically, they bought a former brewery called the Sun. They called themselves the Zonists – Son. The conflict was actually so heated that the city had to be called in to intervene and try to reconcile the groups. 22 Churches left the Doogsgenzinden branch and joined the new denomination of the Zonists.

I should note that until the Collegiants disbanded in the 1790’s there remained a close affinity between the Lamists and the Collegiants. When they disbanded, the majority of the Collegiants joined Mennonite congregations.


People you should know


Pieter Jansz Twisck (1566 – 1636) – Old Frisian Mennonite elder and cloth dealer. Was a traditional follower of Menno who composed books on the subject of the freedom of conscience and religious tyranny. Twisck was one of the first to declare that no secular authority has any right to interfere in matters of faith. Twisck longed for tolerance for everyone, even Jews, Muslims, Conversos and Moriscos. And he argued that all religious groups, including Mennonites, should avoid using slander when convincing others. He was very well read outside of Mennonite circles.


Jan Theunisz (1569 – 1637) – Waterlander, who was a distiller, inn-keeper, printer, and linguist. He was the one who operated the famous tavern and dancing hall called the Menniste Bruyloft. Theunisz longed to be an intellectualist, even though he lacked a university education. He taught Hebrew at the Amsterdam Academy. He also led a web of schloars who were interested in nonconformist theology.


Jan Hendriksz Glazemaker (1619 – 1682) & Jan Rieuwertz (1617 – 1685) were responsible for the first version of the Quran to be printed and translated in Holland. Glazemaker translated, Rieuwertz, printed. These two individuals were close acquaintances and supporters of Spinoza. They were his personal translators who disseminated his works to the Dutch readership. Rieuwertz was also a friend of both Descarte and Hugo Grotius and translated the work of Oliver Cromwell into Dutch.


Baruch Spinoza – Spinoza is considered to be one of the most important philosophers of the 17th century. He was born a Jew who was excommunicated from Amsterdam’s Jewish community for his radical beliefs. After this, he joined the collegiants in Amsterdam. The majority of his closest friends were Mennonites. They paid him a stipend of 300 gulden a year which allowed him to write. They financed his publications. It is not surprising that after this, Spinoza did begin to write frequently about Jesus, though he maintained that he was only a man, albeit one with a special relationship with God.


Adriaan Verwer (1655 – 1717) – influential linguist, a versatile merchant, and an amateur mathematician. He is most famous for playing the role in promoting and advocating for Newton’s work to be received and accepted in the Dutch Republic.


Dutch Mennonites were very interested in the arts. Karel van Mander was an Old Flemish Mennonite who later in life had to flee to Haarlem to escape the war. Van Mander was one of the most prominent humanists during the Renaissance in the Netherlands. He was a rhetorician, a poet, an art historian, a painter, and a teacher of painters. He also wrote hundreds of Mennonite hymns. Mennonites in the early 1600’s managed art schools, they taught Rembrandt. The Leeuwarden preacher, was a well-known painter. As one recent art scholar put it, you would never guess how many images from the art historical canon belonged to the category of Mennonite in Dutch seventeenth century art.



Joost van den Vondel (1587 – 1679) – Vondel today is known as the greatest author that Holland has ever had. He was born in a family who belonged to the Old Flemish Mennonites. He, himself, belonged to the Waterlander Mennonites for most of his life. He was a poet, a playwright, a hymnist. He also served as a deacon in the Waterlander church. Later in life, Vondel left the Mennonite church after his wife died. He then joined the Catholic church in Amsterdam. I would say that this is normal for Mennonites in the Netherlands. They were closest spirituality to Roman Catholic piety. If Mennonites left the faith, they were more likely to join the Catholic faith than the Calvinists.


A quick note about Menonites and hymns. Mennonites were the only denomination which we know of which for the majority of their melodies used songs of profane origin. They took tunes of love, drinking, and dance songs and turned them into sacred melodies. The idea behind this was simple, the youth were inclined to sing these foolish songs about love and sex, and they sought to give them something good instead. So one Mennonite set the Psalnter to popular, profane melodies and did not hesitate to include rhythmic dance tunes. The Calvinists on the other hand argued that the tunes imprisoned the hearts of those singing. They blamed the Mennonites for their habit of singing hymns to profane tunes.


I will also note, that Mennonites in the 16th and 17th centuries, had a problem with a number of Psalm texts, especially the aggressive ones. They refused to sing a large number of the Psalms of David beause they were too violent. They were very selective about the Psalms they sang.


Dutch Mennonites were very interested in useful knowledge or natural knowledge. We will see this more closely next week when we look at Pieter Tyler and talk about Mennonite cabinets. Rene Descarte moved to the Netherlands later in life, and when he did, method became ever less important to him. The proximity to complex machines, windmills, water power, and clockwork, turned his mid away from detached theory to practice. At this time, Descarte became friends with Dirck Rembrandtszoon van Nierop, a Mennonite cobbler, mathematical wizard, and Copernican. He was considered the foremost proponent of sun-centered astronomy in North Holland. Due to his friendship, Descarte attended the local Mennonite churches to hear the preaching of peasants and artisans.


Mennonites certainly had a reputation in the Netherlands and one was their fondness for sweet delicacies. Here are some common terms – Menniste boordje –an extremely full glass of beer or wine – Menniste biertje – a warm, sweet beer. Menniste Koek – a kind of sweet cake or pepper cookie (pepper nuts). Menniste boterham – wheat bread with zwieback.


Lastly, I need to talk about the Mennonites involvement in the Dutch Golden Age. I believe Mary Sprunger talked extensively about this, so I’ll keep my remarks brief.


Church membership records didn’t begin until 1612, by this time many Mennonites were already rich. I have a hunch, that many wealthy Mennonites arrived from the south, from Antwerp and the surrounding areas in the late 16th century. We know that Mennonites in the 1580’s were directors of a company that sent a fleet of ships to East Asia. And at least 15 Mennonites were directors of the important United Dutch East Indian Company when it started in 1602. The largest investor was Mennonite Pieter Lijntgens, who bought 105,000 guilders worth of shares. To help put this in perspective, 30 years later only 100 households in Amsterdam had more than 100,000 guilders, let along that kind of capital to share. He was one of the richest men in town.


For years, the tradition question has been why did the Mennonite become so rich? However, as Mary Sprunger has argued, the more appropriate question is why did the rich become Mennonite? If you were rich, you were more likely to chose the Mennonite faith over the rest. A surprising number of people who were part of the Amsterdam elite, especially in the early 17th century, sought baptism in the Waterlander church.


Already by this time, the Waterlander church in Amsterdam, the church by the tower, had around 1200 members. They had a well organized and well funded system for poor relief. We know that over 10% of the church was considered wealthy, part of the upper, upper class. Many more were today what we would consider the upper middle class. They were merchants; they owned shops, they were businessmen and intellectuals. However, quite a few members were poor. About 15-18% of the members were needy enough to require some form of material assistance.


Because there were so many wealthy individuals who attended church, churches had lots of excess cash. We know that they were able to give loans to poor members at 0% interest. They also gave large loans to the wealthy members at 5% interest.


Amsterdam was the commercial hub of the Republic, Europe, even the world from the 1630s to the 1690’s, and Mennonites were at the heart of this extraordinary expansion. Some more examples – A Mennnoite, Jansz lioren, created the famous fluyt ship. At least 20 o the board members at that Waterlander church in 1645, held accounts at the Amsterdam Bank of Exchange, which was the bank of merchants who needed money in other countries.


All the Mennonite groups issued statements prohibiting their members from having canons on their ships. However, as long as merchants conducted their business honestly and avoided bankruptcy, then there were few objections to their large profits.


One of my favorite stories, and one which I wish I would have known a few years ago, was a story about why some Mennonites were encouraged at the time to become preachers. “A much better fortune is to be made among the Mennonites than the Remonstrants. Furthermore, if one is inclined toward a respectable marriage, there is nowhere better, nor more opportunistic than among the Amsterdam Mennonites.” This parent understood that you were more likely to land a distinguished marriage partner if you were a Mennonite preacher. Surely some wealthy Mennonite woman would want to provide for you.


One of the books still at the top of my to read list is Tulipmania. It is a tale of the greatest speculative bubble, one that makes the housing bubble look miniature. The tulip bubble which happened in the 1630’s, where one tulip bulb would eventually sell for a peak of 5200 guilders. That is much more than most. Many though would sell for 800, 1000, even 180 guilders. To put that in perspective, one guilder could buy 40 large mugs of beer. Tulips first arrived in Holland in 1593 and after that they were the staple of the rich. We know that a number of Mennonites made a fortune in the speculative tulip market. The Tulip market victimized people from all walks of life. However, it seems that most Mennonites were able to get out of the tulip market before the crash happened.


Not everyone in the Mennonite church believed the wealth of the Mennonites was a good thing. One of their preachers, a noted surgeon, strongly opposed the worldliness of these Mennonites. This is from one of his sermons:


“Because from time to time, I have watched with a broken heart, and with grief and misery, I still notice daily that in general, the Doopsgenzinden increase the ostentation of their houses, household goods, weddings, feasts and clothes; that they follow on the heels of those who serve the world and imitate them in the jauntiness of manners, so that one can see little to no difference between them and the others. … “