This year we’re celebrating the 500th birthday of the Reformation. In today’s post, I want to look briefly at the history of the Reformation in the Low Countries (or Netherlands). Somehow the movement Luther was instrumental in igniting also came to the Dutch dykes and polders. But how?
When we look at the Reformation in the Netherlands, we have to realize that we’re confronted with a complicated political situation. The Netherlands was in this time made up of seventeen distinct provinces, covering the present-day Netherlands as well as Belgium and small parts of France and Germany. You could almost say that these seventeen provinces were countries. Each province had its own unique history. They saw themselves as more or less independent. They each had distinctive forms of government. Moreover, there were different languages: Frisian, Dutch, and French – plus a host of dialects of Dutch and French. Geographically, rivers made it difficult for travel between the different areas. All this makes it difficult to treat the Netherlands as a unified region.
At the beginning of the Reformation-era, the Netherlands were under the Habsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire. This was not an independent region. There was a foreign government ultimately in control and this government was fanatically committed to the faith of Rome.
Unlike in Germany and Switzerland, the Reformation in the Low Countries began with blood. There were connections with Germany through various trade routes and along these routes, ideas travelled just as much as goods. Already in 1519, an Augustinian monk named Jakob Propst was advocating the teachings of Luther in Antwerp. Luther’s writings were being distributed in the Low Countries as early as 1518. By 1525, there were more than 80 editions and translations of Luther’s works.
It did not take long for the Habsburg Empire to take note. They quickly made efforts to suppress those promoting Luther’s ideas. In July 1523, Heinrich Voes and Johann Esch were burned at the stake in Brussels. In the northern regions of the Netherlands, persecution was not as common. People, especially local magistrates, were more inclined to religious tolerance, probably owing to the influence of humanists such as Erasmus. As a result, martyrdom was quite rare in the north. In the south, however, things were very different. There was an inquisitor named Pieter Titelmans. He worked in various southern regions of the Netherlands between 1545 and 1566. Titelmans was zealous for his work. Under his oversight, an average of one hundred heresy cases per year were prosecuted. Government edicts often forced the fledgling Reformed movement underground. Believers would secretly meet in houses, fields, and even local taverns in order to do Bible study, give and receive doctrinal instruction, and sit under biblical preaching.
The Reformed faith appears in the Low Countries in the 1540s. It spread directly from Germany and also from France. In fact, the history of the Reformed churches in the Low Countries is very much intertwined with the Huguenot churches. In this period, borders were quite fluid and porous. Especially since they shared their language with the southern Netherlands, the French Reformed strongly influenced the doctrine and organization of the Reformed churches in the Low Countries.
The Reformed faith took hold in both large towns and cities throughout the Netherlands. There were two centers: Antwerp in the south and Emden in the north. True, Emden is technically a German town, but it is located right across the border from the Netherlands and was a strategic location for the Reformed churches. The Reformed movement grew quickly in these areas. It appealed to a broad cross-section of society including artisans, labourers, merchants, and men of learning. However, as I mentioned, there was heavy persecution, especially in the south. This persecution forced many to choose between exile and martyrdom. Most people chose for exile. Dutch Reformed refugees fled to several key places where they gathered in refugee congregations. This happened in London and Sandwich, in England and Emden and Wesel in Germany. Those who remained behind were forced into a life of always looking over the shoulder. It should be noted that there was a debate about exile versus persecution in the churches. Some Reformed leaders argued that the believers should stand up and take a public stance against the Spanish regime. They argued that persecution was only facilitated by secrecy and running away. They argued that it would be difficult (and maybe ultimately impossible) for the Spanish authorities to intervene with or restrain a Reformed church community which carried out its affairs in public. However, others had a more pragmatic approach. They feared for their lives, they hated the thought of persecution for themselves and their families, and they felt they had no choice but to worship secretly and, if necessary and possible, go into exile until the troubled times were past.
These were troubled times. If there is a theme running through the Reformation in the Netherlands, it is persecution. For much of the period between 1520 and 1570, Protestantism in the Netherlands was under attack.
It really began to escalate, however, in the 1550s. Up until the 1550s, it looked like the Habsburgs had things under control in the Low Countries. There was increasing unity, an apparatus for central government was being refined, and Protestantism was being at least contained by the Inquisition. Things shifted dramatically beginning in 1550. Charles V issued an edict which threatened death for promoting Protestantism. In fact, one could be executed merely for possessing heretical books. Despite this edict, the Reformed faith continued to gain ground. While kings and emperors in far-off lands made their decrees, popular opinion in the Netherlands was going in a more tolerant direction. As mentioned earlier, local magistrates were also often reluctant to enforce royal edicts.
Philip II took over the rule of the Netherlands in 1555. Philip was the King of Spain. The Netherlands therefore fell under Spanish control. Unfortunately for Philip, he was out of touch with the Dutch. The Dutch hated the Spanish and Philip even more. He didn’t speak their languages and many Dutch perceived him to be a foreign tyrant. Philip perceived himself to be a pillar of the church on a divine mission to eradicate heresy. Philip insisted on strict enforcement of his policy of persecution. This led to the Dutch Revolt. While the Revolt is not really part of church history, it is an important part of the background to the Dutch Reformation. It’s one of these events where world history gets wrapped up together with church history.
The Dutch Revolt began with the disobedience of several local governors – they refused to cooperate with the Inquisition and Spanish persecution of Reformed believers. Margaret of Parma was the sister of Philip II, and in 1559 she was appointed to be the governess-general of the Netherlands. In the spring of 1566, a large group of lesser nobility approached her with a petition asking that the persecution of Reformed believers stop. With the help of some political intrigue on the part of some territorial governors (including William of Orange), Margaret granted a reprieve and leniency towards “heretics” was authorized.
For a time the situation improved for the Reformed churches. Exiled men and women returned to their homes, open-air preaching took place, and the Reformed could better organize their churches. But these new freedoms also had a dark side. There was widespread iconoclasm and other provocative behaviour. One of the most well-known was the public singing of Psalms — in French they called them chanteries. The singing was loud and the Psalms were selected to offend any Roman Catholics who might hear. One of the favourites was Psalm 68, sometimes described as the war song of the Reformation. Of course, these psalms were sung with the Genevan tunes of John Calvin. Other provocative behaviour included coming to the huge open-air meetings bearing arms. It looked as if these Reformed believers were heading to war. Their songs spoke of war, and the fact that they carried weapons didn’t help matters.
All of this was bound to provoke a reaction from Margaret and soon enough it did. She demanded a focussed and aggressive response to the crowds, but the governors refused unless she would promise freedom for preaching. In August of 1566, she made that promise and order was restored in most places. However, Margaret was not finished with the rebels and heretics. The chanteries continued and these aggravated the situation. Margaret finally had enough and she sent Spanish forces to lay siege to the city of Valenciennes. The city fell in March of 1567 and Margaret was able again to enforce the ban on Reformed preaching everywhere in the Netherlands. Persecution resumed in full force. Shortly afterwards, Philip appointed the Duke of Alva (Fernando Alvarez de Toledo) to be governor of the Netherlands. The Duke of Alva was a brutal warlord and he was passionate about the eradication of heresy. He pursued everyone he could for their role in the Revolt, including Roman Catholic civil leaders who were soft on the question of tolerance. He convened a meeting which he called the Council of Troubles. The Dutch called it the Court of Blood. Many died accused of heresy or assisting heretics.
The Dutch Revolt continued until 1581. At the end, the southern Netherlands was lost to the Roman Catholics. This is basically present-day Belgium. Almost all Reformed believers from the south then fled to the north, which was free from Spanish control and where the Reformed faith enjoyed official recognition. There is a lot more that could be said about the history of the Reformation in the Netherlands. But the most important thing here is to recognize the heavy persecution that the Reformed churches endured right from the very beginning. Philip II, Margaret of Parma, and the Duke of Alva hated the gospel with a passion and they were not afraid to shed blood to prevent the Reformation from gaining ground. However, they could not stand in the way of Christ gathering, defending, and preserving his church even through this storm.