BEGINNING OF REFORMATION IN THE NETHERLANDS. (1518-1524.)
THE Reformation was Catholic or universal in the sense that it appeared in all the nations of Christendom. It gained, undoubtedly, the most powerful hold on the sympathy of the northern nations. But the peoples of central Europe would all have welcomed it but for the persecutions by princes and priests. In the south it achieved the most beautiful conquests, and had its martyrs even in Rome. Our task is to follow up its traces in every direction.
It was in the Netherlands that the first echo of Luther’s voice was heard.
There dwelt a people who had been free since the eleventh century. Each of the provinces had its States, without whose consent no law was made, no tax imposed. The love of freedom and the love of the gospel together actuated these interesting communities in the first half of the sixteenth century, and both contributed to their glorious revolution.
Other elements, however, had their share in the great movements of this people. Agriculture, which has been called ‘the foundation of human life,’ was thriving there in the midst of numerous canals. The mechanical arts were held in honor. Everywhere throughout these provinces hands and bodies were in motion. They were animated by an inventive spirit; and Brussels was already renowned for its carpets. The Netherlands had risen into importance by bold ventures upon the seas, and their innumerable seamen exchanged their productions with all the known world. Commerce and industry had given to these regions great prosperity, and had created rich and powerful towns. In the sixteenth century, they contained above three hundred and fifty great cities. At the head of these stood Antwerp, a vast market of the world, thronged by merchants of all nations, and having a population of 100,000 — only 50,000 less than that of London.
The suzerainty of the Netherlands had passed in 1477 from the house of Burgundy to that of Austria. Under Maximilian the people had retained the full enjoyment of their liberties. Charles the Fifth, who was by birth a Fleming, loved his native country and enjoyed from time to time making some stay in it. The joyous festivals of the Belgian cities lightened his cares. He appointed Flemings to high offices; opened for their commerce numerous channels in his vast empire; and everywhere protected transactions which were so profitable to himself. Those generous merchants, indeed, did not hesitate to testify their gratitude to the emperor by rich tribute. But the ambition of the monarch ere long began to disturb these agreeable relations. Fond of power, Charles the Fifth did not intend to be satisfied with the modest functions of a stadtholder. He aimed at making of all these republics a single kingdom, of which he would be absolute sovereign. The citizens of these free provinces were no less determined to maintain their rights. The Reformation came in to double their energies; and the land became the scene of long-continued and cruel conflicts. The Church in the sixteenth century was indeed to the Belgians and the Dutch the Church under the cross. Other reformed countries, France, Hungary, Spain, and Italy, had their share in the martyrs’ crown.
But the Netherlands, groaning under the treacherous blows of a Philip II. and a duke of Alva, have a title to the brightest jewels of that crown.
The Catholicism of the Netherlands was not at this time a fanatical system of religion. The cheerful-hearted people were especially fond of indulgences, pictures, and festivals; but the majority had not even this amount of piety. ‘Preaching was rare,’ says an old author, ‘the churches were poorly attended, the feast-days and holidays ill observed; the people ignorant of religion, not instructed in the articles of faith. There were many comic actors, corrupt in morals and religion, in whose performances the people delighted; and some poor monks and young nuns always took part in the plays. It seemed as if people could not take their pleasure without indulging in mockery of God and the Church.’ f703 Nevertheless, the civil liberty enjoyed in the Netherlands had for a long time been favorable to reforming tendencies. If there was not much religion within the Church, there was a good deal outside its pale. The Lollards and the Vaudois, who were numerous among the weavers and clothiers, had sown in these regions the good seed of the Word. In the Church likewise, the Brethren of the common life, founded by Gerard Groot in the fourteenth century, had diffused instruction, so that everyone could read and write. In no quarter had forerunners of the Reformation been more numerous. Jan van Goch had called for a reform according to the Bible.
Thomas a Kempis, sick of the devotional practices which then made up religion, had sought after all inward light which might bring with it life.
Erasmus of Rotterdam, king of the schools, had diffused knowledge which was not in itself the Reformation, but was a preparation for it. Johan Wessel, born at Groningen in 1419, had preached Christ as alone the way, the truth, and the life. At length, among the wealthy merchants and other laymen, men were to be met with who had a certain knowledge of the gospel. This people, more enlightened, more civilized, and more free than most of the European nations, could not fail to be one of the first to accept this precious reformation of the Church, so congenial to its own character, and so well adapted to increase its greatness. f704 It was at Antwerp that the fire first blazed forth. In the convent of the Augustine order there was a simple, sensitive, and affectionate man, who, although not a German, was one of the first to be impressed by the preaching of Luther. He had been a student at Wittenberg, had heard the great doctor, and had been attracted at the same time both by the sweetness of the gospel and by the pleasing character of the man who proclaimed it. It was the prior, Jacob Spreng, commonly called Probst (provost), after the name of his office. He had not the heroic courage of his master, nor would he have made at Worms such an energetic declaration.
But he was filled with admiration for Luther; and when any daring deed of the reformer was made known and the monks talked of it with one another, he used to say, lifting up his head, ‘I have been a disciple of his.’
He gloried in it, as if he, a feeble and timid man, had a share in the heroism of his master. Then, unable to repress the affectionate feeling that filled his heart, he added, ‘I love him ardently; I love him above everything.’ f705 At the outset of his career, the reformer was looked upon, not as a heretic, but as a monk of genius. Consequently the monks, filled with admiration, regarded, their chief with respect. The Word of God which the professor Ad Biblia expounded at Wittenberg had entered into the heart of Spreng; and while the Antwerp priests were preaching nothing but fables, he proclaimed Christ. f706 Some of the monks and several inhabitants of the town were converted to God by the reformer’s disciple.
It was likewise through Luther’s influence that the light reached the university town of Louvain. Some of the shorter writings of this reformer, printed at Basel in 1518, were read at Louvain in 1519. A storm Immediately burst forth. The theologians of the university put forth all their efforts against the book, prohibited booksellers from selling it and the faithful from reading it; but the latter courageously defended the writings and their author. ‘Tis heresy!’ exclaimed the theologians. ‘Not so,’ replied the townsmen, ‘it is a doctrine really Christian.’ Increasing in number day by day, they determined to judge for themselves, read the books, and were convinced. The theologians were more angry than ever.
Disparagement, falsehood, imposture, craft, and every available means were resorted to by them. They ascended the pulpit, and exclaimed in tones of thunder, ‘These people are heretics; they are antichrists; the Christian faith is in danger. ‘They occasioned in houses and in families astonishing tragedies. f709 It was not Luther’s writings and influence alone which began the work of the Reformation in the Netherlands. Brought into contact by their commerce with all the countries of Europe, they received from them, not only things saleable for money, but in addition without money that which Christianity calls the pearl of great price. Foreigners of every class, both residents and travelers, merchants, German and Swiss soldiers, students from various universities, everywhere scattered on a well-prepared soil the living seed. It was to the conscience that the gospel appealed; and thus it struck its roots deeper than if it had only spoken to the reasoning faculty, or to an imagination fantastic and prone to superstition. One man especially contributed, not to the establishment, but to the preparation of the Reformation.
Erasmus was at this time at Louvain. Some of the monks went to him and accused him of being an accomplice of Luther. ‘I,’ he replied — ‘I do not know him, any more than the most unknown of men. I have hardly read more than a page or two of his books. If he has written well, it is no credit to me; and if ill, no disgrace. All I know is that the purity of his life is such that his enemies themselves find nothing in it to reproach.’ In vain Erasmus spoke thus. Day by day the Dominicans in their discourses f711 threw stones at him and at Luther; but they did this so stupidly that even the most ignorant people said that it was the monks who were wrong and not Luther. The theologians, perceiving the state of things, published on the 7th of November, 1519, a bull of condemnation, hoping thus to have the last word. f712 The light appeared also in the provinces of the North. Dort, a town of South Holland, was one of the first to receive it. A Dominican named Vincent, one of those violent men who passionately disparage their opponent and are desperate in conflict, delivered a foolish and aggravating discourse against the Reformation. The hearers went away greatly excited and there was immense agitation around the church. The excitement soon passed from honest and religious men to that ignorant and passionate class which is always ready to make a riot. When the monk came out, they uttered loud cries and were almost ready to stone him.
Vincent, in alarm, threw himself into a cart, and fled to Louvain, where he presented himself as a martyr. ‘I have all but lost my life for the sake of the faith,’ he said. ‘Erasmus is the cause of it, and the letters which he has written.’ To burn Erasmus would in his opinion have been a truly Roman exploit.
The Dominicans availed themselves of this incident, and appealed to the Count of Nassau, governor of Flanders, Brabant, and Holland. The States general were to be assembled at the Hague. The Dominicans vehemently complained to the count of the progress which the principles of reform were everywhere making, and demanded that the States should without delay put a stop to it. ‘Go, then,’ said Nassau to them, ‘preach the gospel of Christ in sincerity, as Luther does, without attacking any body, and you will have no enemies to contend against.’ f715 Henry of Nassau thus sounded the prelude to the noble aspirations of his family.
Disheartened by such an answer, the enemies of the Reformation fancied that they would meet with a better reception at the hands of Margaret of Austria, the governess of the Netherlands. The Nassau family were essentially Germans; but this princess, said the priests, is a good Catholic.
She professed, indeed, to be so; but she was a clever diplomatist and very zealous in her administration. She was anxious to see great progress made in literature and the arts. The doctors of Louvain said to her, ‘Luther, by his writings, is overthrowing Christianity.’ The princess feigned ignorance, and replied, ‘Who is this Luther? ‘An ignorant monk,’ replied the priests. ‘Well, then,’ rejoined the aunt of Charles the Fifth, ‘there are many of you, write against this ignorant fellow, and the whole world will place more faith in many learned men than in one unlearned.’ f716 A wind was now blowing that was favorable to the gospel, and voices were raised in behalf of Luther, even at the court festivals. One day, when a great imperial banquet was held, the conversation turned upon the reformer. Some assailed him, but others boldly undertook his defense De Ravestein exclaimed, ‘A single Christian man has arisen in the course of four centuries, and the pope wants to kill him.’ The monks, restless and alarmed, asked one another whether the world had gone mad. Rejected by the learned, they endeavored to stir up the common people. A Minorite preaching at Bruges in the church of St. Donatianus, and speaking of Luther and Erasmus, exclaimed — ‘They are simpletons, they are asses, beasts, blockheads, antichrists.’ In this style he ran on for an hour. His hearers, amazed at his stupid vociferation’s, in their turn wondered whether he had not himself lost his head. A magistrate sent for him, and requested him to inform him what errors there were in the writings of have not read them,’ said he; ‘I did indeed once open his Paraphrases, but I closed the book again immediately; from their excellent Latinity I was afraid that heresy lay beneath.’ Another Minorite Friar, weary of continually hearing the people about: him demanding to have the gospel preached to them, said aloud, ‘If you want the gospel, you must listen to it from the mouths of your priests;’ and he ventured to add, ‘even though you know that they are given up to licentiousness.’ The debauchery and the despotism of a great many of the priests brought discredit on the clergy. ‘I value the order of the Dominicans,’ said Erasmus, ‘and I do not hate the Carmelites; but I have known some of them who were of such a stamp that I would sooner obey the Turk than endure their tyranny.’ f720 The fanatical priests now set in motion more powerful engines of war.
Aleander, the papal nuncio, obtained on the 8th of May, 1531, a special decree of persecution for the Netherlands; and, misusing the name of the emperor, exerted all his influence to induce Margaret rigorously to execute the cruel edict. The princess, if left to herself, would have been more tolerant; but she felt bound to comply with the requirements of her powerful nephew. Placards were posted up in all the towns, which spread alarm everywhere. The middle classes in the Netherlands, sympathizing with progress of every kind, had looked upon Luther as a glorious champion of gospel truth; and now riley read at every street corner that it was forbidden under pain of death to read his writings, and that his books would be burnt. This was the beginning of the persecution which was to devastate the Netherlands during the sixteenth century. During the single reign of Charles the Fifth more than fifty thousand persons, accused of having read the prohibited books, of having on a certain day eaten meat, or of having entered into the bonds of marriage in defiance of the canonical prohibition, were beheaded, drowned, hung, buried alive or burnt, or suffered death in other ways. Erasmus therefore exclaimed, ‘What then is Aleander? A maniac, a feel, a bad man.’ f723 Fanaticism had not waked for the edict of Worms. The provost of Antwerp had been one of its first victims. Jacob Spreng, we have seen, as early as 1517 proclaimed with earnestness the salvation which Luther had found in Jesus Christ, and which he had also found himself. Luther’s courage increased his own, which was not great. He repeated that he had seen him and heard him, and that he was his disciple. He did not, cease to preach, like his master, that man’ is saved by grace, through faith. One day, it was in 1519, the provost was arrested in his own convent, and, in spite of the commotion among his friars, was carried off prisoner to Brussels. There he appeared before the judge and was examined, was exceedingly worried, and appears even to have been put to the torture and condemned to death by burning. Spreng, we have said, was not strong.
They worried, threatened, and terrified him. He had not yet the steadfastness of a rock. The prospect of being burnt alive made him shudder. He was not what his master would have been; he yielded and, with bowed head and dim eye and a heart cast down and broken, he agreed to everything that was required of him. What a triumph for his enemies!
They determined to make a great display of it. In February 1520, Aleander, Jerome van der Nood, chancellor of Brabant, Herbaut, suffragan of Cambray, Glapio, chaplain to the emperor, and several other dignitaries of the Church, met together in the presence of a large assembly; for the business in hand was to invest the recantation of the unhappy man with all possible solemnity. The president announced to him that thirty of Luther’s articles were going to be read, and that he must condemn them under pain of death. These articles had been skillfully selected. The secretary read — ’Every work of the free will (of the natural will of man), however good it may be, is a sin, and is in need of the pardon and the mercy of God.’ ‘I condemn this doctrine,’ said Spreng, terrified at the thought of death. He did the same with respect to other points. ‘Ah!’ said Erasmus, who was acquainted with the unbelief of a great number of Roman priests, ‘many make a great hubbub against Luther on account of some assertions of little importance, while themselves do not even believe that the soul continues to exist after death.’ f726 Aleander and his colleagues were not satisfied with having forced Spreng, with the dagger at his throat, to retract the doctrines of the reformer. They also compelled him to assert the contrary doctrines.
The session had been a frightful one. The unhappy Spreng withdrew broken-hearted and filled with bitter sorrow. He had denied his faith; he had not, however, sinned with any desperate evil intent. He confessed his fault to God, gradually recovered himself from his fall, and became afterwards one of the heralds of the gospel.
He went out of prison indignant with those who had compelled him to renounce his faith, but especially with himself. He now went to Bruges, and there began to speak boldly against his own unfaithfulness, and to spread abroad the knowledge of the Savior. He was once more arrested and was he had been burnt alive. But there were many who cried to God to obtain his deliverance. A Franciscan monk, affected by his fate, succeeded in procuring his escape. Without remaining longer in the Netherlands, he betook himself in 1522 to Wittenberg, his Alma Mater, and from thence to Bremen. He became one of the pastors of this place, happy in being able to lead souls in peace in the sweet smiling pastures of the gospel.
It was not without good reason that he fled from the Netherlands. Charles the Fifth could not remain a stranger to what was going on there. He was doubtless first of all a politician; and when his temporal interests required it, he could display a little tolerance, either in Germany or elsewhere. But in secular affairs he was a despot, and in religious affairs a bigot. He had no doubt that the Reformation, if it were introduced in the Netherlands, would cross his autocratic projects. He therefore indemnified himself in these provinces for the cautious proceedings to which he was obliged to resign himself in other regions. He had recourse to the Inquisition. It was not, however, that terrible institution as it was known in Castile, where it found a people enthusiastic for its cruelties; The free people of the Netherlands rejected with abhorrence that criminal institution.
Nevertheless, the two inquisitors of the faith nominated at this time by the Emperor, one a layman, Franz van der Hulst, a ‘great enemy of letters,’ said Erasmus; the other a monk, Nicholas van Egmont, ‘a very madman armed with a sword,’ did not do their work badly. They first committed people to prison, and afterwards inquired into their faults. All those who had any leaning to the doctrine of Luther were ordered to appear within the space of thirty days before these judges, who were invested with the power of excommunication.
The departure of Spreng was a loss to Antwerp and the Netherlands.
There were not many men whose faith was so simple and so genuine.
Some eminent laymen, indeed, declared early for the Reformation; but the relation of these to the gospel was rather that of amateurs than of believers. Cornelius Grapheus (in Flemish, Schryver), secretary of the town of Antwerp, and a friend of Erasmus, was a superior man. He had traveled a good deal and learnt a good deal; and although he was invested with one of the first offices of the imperial town in which he lived, he spent much time in reading. Jan van Goch’s work on the freedom of the Christian religion charmed him; and desirous of imparting to others the enjoyment which he had himself experienced, he translated it into Flemish.
He also wrote a preface to it, in which he censured, but not ill-naturally, those who imposed on Christians a useless yoke. Every well-informed man said as much. Grapheus, finding that these words were received with approbation, did not suppose that in saying them he had done a deed of courage. But the two inquisitors, who felt the need of making some splendid arrest, exclaimed that it was a crime to dare to speak of a yoke, leaped upon their prey, and seized Grapheus in his own house, in the presence of his terrified wife and children. The whole city was astounded.
What! one of the first magistrates of the town, a distinguished man, who had traveled in Italy, who cultivated painting, music, and poetry, such a man as this a heretic! The victim once in prison, the inquisitors read the criminated treatise, picked out line after line, and drew up a terrible indictment. Grapheus, a humanist, a magistrate, an artist, and man of letters, was the most astonished of all. He had fancied that he was doing nothing more than a literary exercise, and was distressed at being taken for a theologian. This was in his eyes an honor of which he was not worthy, and by no means dreamed of. He said, like Erasmus, — no martyrdom. To be restored to a beloved family, of which he was the sole support, this was the object of his desire. He sought honorably to apologize. If I have spoken of a yoke,’ said he, ‘it is in no controversial spirit; I entreat pardon for my rashness, and am willing to retract my errors.’ But the Popish party were implacable, and they cast him into a black dungeon. f730 The two inquisitors, not venturing to touch Erasmus, were bent on striking his friend, and on terrifying by this example the partisans of literature.
They had a platform erected in the principal square of Brussels; a crowd of people stood round it, and the secretary of Antwerp appeared upon it.
His only thought was to recover his peaceful life, to be once more in his study, to sit again at his family table. For this end he was prepared to do anything. At the command of the inquisitors he hastened to retract publicly the articles of his preface; and he threw it into the fire, so much harm had it done him. Grapheus was not a Lutheran; he was only an Erasmian; and he would have done much more to regain his liberty. He supposed that he had gained it; but the judges to whose clemency he had appealed condemned him to the confiscation of his property, to deprivation of office, and to imprisonment for life. This is what a man gets by venturing to speak of a yoke in a country where there are inquisitors.
The unfortunate man, solitary in his dungeon, lamented his essay in literature, and thought only of his wife and his children, he determined to appeal to the Chancellor of Brabant. ‘I wrote that preface,’ said he, ‘as a literary task for the exercise of my understanding. Alas! how much better it would have been for me had I been a blockhead, a buffoon, a comedian, or any other despicable creature, instead of obtaining by my limited abilities important offices. While so many people are allowed to publish their tales, their comedies, their farces, their satires, no matter how rude and improper they may be, a citizen is oppressed because he has had a share in human frailty.’ Sinking beneath the cruel yoke of Rome, Grapheus was quite ready to assert that this very yoke had no existence. He requested, as a great favor, that the town of Antwerp might be assigned as his prison, in order that he might be able to earn a livelihood for his family.
All his entreaties were fruitless. For a mere literary peccadillo one of the first magistrates of the Netherlands groaned for years in the prisons of the town the government of which he had administered. It appears, however, that he was afterwards liberated, but he was not reinstated in his office.
Instances of this kind show that Rome had a grudge not only against the gospel, but against civilization, intelligence, and freedom.
In this same town of Antwerp, a more cruel fate was to overtake a true evangelist, a man of great intelligence, and also endowed with deep feeling and a living and steadfast faith.
Henry Mollerus, of the town of Zutphen, the name of which he usually bore, had entered the Augustinian order. He had distinguished himself in it, and after having several times changed his convent had settled in that of Antwerp. Here he had soon risen to all important position. Eager to advance, he strove continually to attain to a loftier knowledge and to a more powerful faith. He was not one of those Christians who lie down and slumber, but of those who awake, go on, press forward, and run to the goal which they have set before them. In consequence of hearing the prior, Jacob Spreng, speak much about Martin Luther, he betook himself in to Wittenberg, was admitted to the convent of the Augustines, was joyfully welcomed by Luther, and began immediately to study in earneSt. The reformer, who often conversed with him, was struck with his capacity and his faith, and considered him worthy to be a recipient of the honors of the University. Henry applied himself especially to the study of man; he descended into the depths of his nature, and made discoveries there which alarmed him. He was struck with the holiness of the Divine law; he perceived that he could not fulfill its commandments; and falling to the ground, with closed lips, he confessed himself guilty. But ere long Christ having been revealed to his soul, he had lifted up his head and contemplated the Savior in all his beauty. From that time he had lived with Christ, and had been eager to walk in his steps.
Henry of Zutphen requested permission of the University to maintain publicly some theses, with a view to his taking the degree of bachelor in theology. The friars of the convent of the Augustines, professors and students, and other inhabitants of Wittenberg, assembled to hear him.
Zutphen began: — ‘Man, having turned aside from the Divine word, wherein is his life, died immediately, that is to say he was deprived of the spirit of God. f732 ‘Oh, the impiety of the philosophy which aims at persuading us that this death of the soul with which we are affected is a life! Oh, vanity of the human heart, which, in not esteeming the knowledge of God as the supreme good, and in choosing rather to follow a blind philosophy, goes astray and rushes into the paths of perdition! ‘As there is nothing good in the root, there is consequently nothing in the fruit that is not tainted with the poison. ‘The maxims of morality which men stitch together are nothing but fig-leaves intended to hide their shame. f733 ‘Man is therefore twice dead; once because this is his nature, and yet again because, instructed by philosophy, he dares to assert — I live. ‘The law does not create sin, but it makes it plainly appear, as the sun draws out the foul smell of a corpse.’ f734 ‘The law is a sword which drives us violently out of paradise and kills us. ‘Faith is a steadfast witnessing of the Spirit of Christ with our spirit that we are children of God.’
The hearers had, for the most part, attained in their own experience to a certain knowledge of the truths which the Dutchman avowed; but all of them appreciated the power with which he set them forth, and the picturesque style in which his thought was dressed. He continued: — ‘Christ is the servant and the master of the law. He it is who, while sinking under the burden of sin, takes it away and casts it far from us and destroys it. He is at once the victim of death, and the medium by which death is destroyed. He is the captive of hell, and yet it is he who bursts open its gates. f735 ‘Perish the faith which lies slumbering and torpid, and does not vigorously press and drive on to charity. If thou hast faith indeed, fear not, thou hast also charity!’
After having thus delivered a good testimony of his faith, Henry of Zutphen left Wittenberg, came to Dort, and passed thence to Antwerp, where he labored zealously. In the cells of his brethren, the Augustines, in the refectory, as they went to the chapel and returned from it, he did not cease to urge the monks to draw from the Scriptures the treasures which had enriched himself. He preached with so much fervor that the church of the Augustines would not hold the multitude that flocked to it. The learned, the ignorant, the magistrates, all classes wanted to hear him. He was the great preacher of the age; Antwerp hung upon his lips. It appears that he was at this time nominated prior of the Augustines, as successor to Spreng.
But the more enthusiasm one party displayed, the more wrath was displayed by the other. Certain monks of other convents, certain priests, with the inquisitor Van der Hulst at their head, enraged at this concourse of people, applied to the governess of the Netherlands. They put forward false witnesses, who declared that they had heard from the lips of the preacher heretical statements. At the same time they sought to stir up the people. But God, says Zutphen, prevented any tumult, however sharp the provocation might be. Van der Hulst had already prepared at Brussels the prison in which he reckoned on confining him. Zutphen expected it.
On Michaelmas Day (September 29) he was arrested. The agents of the inquisitors laid before him certain articles of faith, extracted from his discourses, and required him to retract them. But he replied with intrepid courage, and well knew from that moment that he had nothing to look for but death. It was in the morning; and the inquisitors, fearing the people, determined to wait till night to remove him to Brussels. The prisoner therefore remained all day in peace within the convent walls, engaged in meditation and in preparation for giving up his life. Suddenly the noise of a great disturbance was heard. In the evening, after sunset, f739 men were seen, and women too, usually timid but now made valiant by their love for the Word of God, hurrying together from all quarters and surrounding the monastery. The most determined among them burst open the doors; the crowd rushed into the convent; some men and some women penetrated into Henry’s prison, took him by the hand, and conducting him to the house of one of his friends, concealed him there. Three days elapsed, and no one had any suspicion of his place of refuge. His enemies moved heaven and earth to discover him, and ransacked all nooks and corners.
They summoned his friends, and with threats demanded of them whether they knew his place of concealment. Flight alone could save him from death. ‘I will go to Wittenberg,’ he said. The difficulty was to get out of the town. He effected his escape, however, and succeeded in reaching Enkhuysen, a town of Holland, and there took up his abode in the monastery of the Augustines. An order arrived to arrest Henry, to bind him and to take him before Margaret at Antwerp. He had just before left Enkhuysen, and was arriving at Amsterdam. He set out with all speed from the town and betook himself to his native place, Zutphen. But here he was presently recognized and seized. He appeared before the ecclesiastical tribunals. ‘Who art thou? Whence comest thou? Whither goest thou?’ they said to him. ‘Art thou not come hither to preach?’ ‘If that is agreeable to you,’ said he, ‘I shall do so with much pleasure.’ ‘Get you gone!’ exclaimed his enraged judges. He then set out for Bremen. Here he remained some time without anyone suspecting who he was. Some good townsmen, however, having made his acquaintance, requested him to preach. He did so, on St. Martin’s Day (Sunday) 1522, and was immediately cited by the magistrate of the town. ‘Why have you preached? said the canons to him. ‘Because the word of God must not be bound.’ ‘Expel him from the town,’ said the canons to the magistrates.
The latter replied that they could not do this; and Henry continued to preach. The nobles and the prelates of two dioceses then demanded that he should be delivered to the bishop; and they invited the notables of the town and the heads of the trades to unite with them for this purpose. But they all replied,’ We have never heard anything from his lips but the pure gospel.’ Henry’s preaching became more and more powerful, and danger was incessantly increasing. ‘I will not leave Bremen unless I am driven away by force,’ said Zutphen. He therefore remained at Bremen, preaching the gospel fervently and successfully. ‘Christ lives,’ he said; ‘Christ is conqueror, Christ commands.’ His prosperous career was suddenly interrupted. Called into Holstein, he went there, and preached energetically. But, on the day after the Feast of the Conception, the Ave Maria was sounded at Midnight. Five hundred peasants, instigated by the monks, assailed him, pulled him from his bed, bound his hands behind his back, dragged him almost naked over the ice and the snow through the bitter cold air, struck him a blow with a club, and burnt him. His tragical end we have narrated in our account of the German Reformation. f741 Luther described and deplored his martyrdom.
A convent which sent forth such men as Spreng and Zutphen could not be allowed to subsist. Its suppression was obtained by the inquisitors. All the friars were turned out of the monastery. The governess of the Netherlands herself attended this sinister expedition of the inquisitors of the faith. Those monks who were from Antwerp were confined in the house of the Beghards, others in other places; and a small number who had renounced the gospel were set at liberty. The host was solemnly removed from this heretical place and carried in great pomp into the church of the Holy Virgin, at which the governess of the Netherlands, the aunt of Charles the Fifth, was present for the purpose of receiving it with high honors. All the vessels of the monastery were sold; the church and the cloisters were closed, and the passages stopped up. At length, in the month of October, 1522, the convent was demolished and razed to the ground. These ruins were to teach everyone, and especially the monks, not to read, and above all not to preach, the Word of God.
Three of the Augustine monks, Esch, Voes, and Lambert, were eminent for their faith. We have elsewhere narrated their noble and affecting martyrdom, and have mentioned the beautiful hymn composed in honor of them by Luther. f744 But it was vain to burn those who had awakened to a new life; there were still many who were no longer willing to sleep.
Holland and other states of the North were beginning to assume the position which they were afterwards to hold as the United Provinces.
At Delft, Frederick Canirmius, by some discourses delivered in the Gymnasium, had damaged the cause of the monks. The enemy strove to stifle his voice by orders, epistles, and deputation’s. But the brave Christian man had said with proud confidence, ‘The Lord will cause this mountain in labor to bring forth nothing but a mouse. Oh!’ he exclaimed, ‘if only it were permitted us to preach publicly, the cause of the monks would be ruined’ But obstacles were every day increasing, and the ruin of monarchism seemed more and more remote. Canirmius did not lose courage. ‘The Lord withdraws his arm,’ said he, ‘because we attribute everything to our own efforts. But if He see that we cling to Him with all our soul as to the sole salvation of Israel, then He will suddenly present Himself in the midst of his Church.’ f746 A Christian triumvirate had been formed in these provinces. At the Hague.
William Gnapheus, director of the Gymnasium, was diffusing the gospel in the midst of his pupils and his connections, substituting for false worship a living faith in Christ. A learned jurisconsult, Cornelius Hoen, an excellent man, says Erasmus, and John Rhodius, rector of the college of Utrecht, assisted him. They carried on their labors in common; and to them is attributed the translation of the New Testament into the vulgar tongue, which was published in 1523. The necessity of an intimate union with Christ was a distinctive feature of the teaching of these three Dutchmen. ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ,’ said Hoen in 1521, ‘when announcing to his people the pardon of their sins, added a pledge to his promise, lest their faith should waver. Just as a bridegroom desirous of ratifying an engagement gives a ring to his bride and says to her, Take this, I give myself to thee; just as the bride receiving this ring believes that her husband is hers, turns her heart away from all other men, and desires only to please her husband; so also must he who receives the Supper, the precious pledge by which the Heavenly Bridegroom desires to testify that He gives Himself to him, firmly believe that Christ f748 gave Himself for him, and must consequently turn his heart from all that he has hitherto loved, and seek after Christ alone, must be anxious only about what pleases Him and cast all his cares upon Him. This is what is meant by eating the flesh of Christ and drinking his blood.’ These words did not completely satisfy Luther, but Zwinglius heartily approved them. The reformed symbol was early adopted in Holland. These three Dutchmen were peaceably disseminating the gospel in their respective spheres, when a storm suddenly burst over them. Hoen and Gnapheus were arrested and thrown into prison, without any trial of their cause. These two men, no friends no noise or display, never speaking of themselves, intent on the duties of their calling, believing that the truth ought to be sown in peace, had never supposed that any danger could overtake them; and now in the twinkling of an eye, they found themselves in a dungeon. They were astounded. ‘Everyone knows,’ said Gnapheus, ‘with what diligence I have always devoted myself to the instruction of the young, but without representing to them ceremonies as the essence of religion. This is my crime!’ After three months, the Count of Holland, who highly esteemed these excellent men, became bail for them. They were then removed to the Hague, and this town was as, signed as their prison. Some time afterwards, Hoen fell asleep in peace; and Gnapheus, at the end of the second year, was set at liberty.
There were in the Netherlands men of more decided faith than the three humanists. At Groningen, where that pastor Frederick lived whom Erasmus proclaimed to be a second Augustine, the doctor of law, Abring, and the masters of arts, Timmermann, Pistoris, and Lesdorp, sharply attacked the papal monarchy. ‘We refuse,’ they said, ‘to the Roman pontiff that sword which is commonly assigned to him. Christ, when speaking of heretics, said, Beware of them; but He did not say, Massacre and destroy them. Christ gave to his Church teachers and not satraps.’ Thus spite, despising danger, these energetic doctors.
Boldness was discretion and won the victory.
But such cases were rare, especially in the southern portion of the Netherlands.
The enemies of the Reformation seemed to be more thoroughly awake in the south than in the north. At Antwerp and in the surrounding districts there were (1524) a great number of people of every rank who began to relish that divine word which had been proclaimed by Spreng, Henry of Zutphen, and others. The preaching of a pious Augustine monk having been prohibited, those who longed for the light arranged to meet on Sundays near the Scheldt, at the place where ships were bulk, thinking that if men should hold their peace the very stones would cry out. The congregation was assembled, and there was no preacher; but, after some seconds, a young man, perhaps a seaman, rose. His name was Nicholas; and the word of God which he had received was warmly stirring in his heart. When he saw all these poor people gathered together in this lonely spot, ardently desiring good for their souls, and finding none. Nicholas remembered the five thousand who were without victuals in the desert, He went to the margin of the river, stepped into a boat that he might be better heard by the multitude, and read that part of the gospel which relates how Jesus fed the hungry ones. This word told him that the power of God was not tied to outward means; and that it is all one to Him whether there be few or many to edify his people. In short, God so blessed his word that all those who heard it were satisfied. The multitude standing on the bank, who had listened with sympathy, then dispersed. The report of this preaching having spread through the whole town, the enemies of the Reformation were very much enraged, and they resolved to get rid of Nicholas, but to do it clandestinely, because they feared the people. The next day the plot was executed. A band of their accomplices came noiselessly upon the young man; two or three seized him, while others held a great sack. They forced Nicholas into it, bound the sack with a cord, then carried it to the river and threw it into the water. Since he was fond of preaching on the Scheldt, let him do it now at his leisure! When the execution was accomplished, these wretches made a boast of it. This crime filled the hearts of honest men with terror; and the friends of the gospel perceived the dangers which surrounded them.
More freedom was sometimes allowed to priests than to laymen. At Meltza, a place distant two German miles from Antwerp, an eloquent preacher made a spirited attack on Romish superstitions, without perhaps thoroughly comprehending evangelical doctrine. Hearers flocked to him in such multitudes that he had to preach in the fields. ‘We priests,’ said he, speaking one day of the mass, ‘we are worse than the traitor Judas. For Judas sold the Lord Jesus and delivered Him up; while we, for our part, sell Him indeed, but we do not deliver Him over to you.’ People had for a long time been accustomed to these epigrams, and they were less dreaded than a serious and living word.
There were, moreover, in the ranks of the higher clergy of the Netherlands enlightened men who, without being on the side of the reformers, were preparing the way for the Reformation. Philip, bishop of Utrecht, was one of their number. He devoted the beginning of the day to prayer, and he liked especially in prayer to make use of the words of the Bible. He had read the sacred writings several times, and Erasmus boasted of his wisdom and the purity of his morals. He was above all struck with the licentiousness occasioned by the celibacy of priests and monks, and expressed the hope that, within his lifetime, all compulsory celibacy would be abolished by the unanimous consent of bishops and priests. f758 This did not fail to produce some impression. In Holland, Brabant, and Flanders, many monks and nuns quitted the convents. A large number of the inhabitants of these provinces embraced the reformed doctrine. Great meetings were held outside the town of Antwerp, in spite of the placards of Charles the Fifth. But it would have been all easier task to stop the sun’s rays than to prevent the light of the gospel from penetrating into the hearts of men.
Unfortunately the evangelical work encountered adversaries of another kind. One day a man who came from the Netherlands presented himself to Luther, and said to him, in a tone at once emphatic and coarse — ‘God, who created the heavens and the earth, sends me to thee.’ ‘One more!’ thought Luther; ‘all these famous men are pressed by the desire to break a lance with me! What do you want with me?’ he said to the Netherlander. ‘I request you,’ he replied, ‘to read to me the books of Moses.’ ‘And what sign have you,’ said the reformer, ‘that God sends you to me?’ ‘This sign is to be found in the gospel according to St. John,’ said the Netherlander.
Luther had enough of this. ‘Good,’ said he, ‘come again another time. The books of Moses are too long for me to find time just now to read them to you.’
The prophet indeed came back. His religion was a kind of rationalism embellished with illuminism. ‘Every man,’ he said, ‘has the Holy Spirit; for this is nothing but his own reason. There is no hell; our flesh alone is condemned, and every soul will have eternal life.’
Luther, alarmed, wrote immediately to the Antwerp Christians. ‘I see,’ said he, ‘that there are spirits of error stirring among you; and I will not by my silence allow an evil to spread which I may have power to prevent. Under the papacy Satan held his court in peace. But one who is mightier (Christ) having now come and conquered him, Satan is furious and creates an uproar. If therefore one of these men wishes to talk with you about high and difficult questions worked out by them, say to him — What God reveals to us suffices us…. Art thou mocking us that thou wouldst induce us to search into things which thyself knowest not? The devil attempts to bring forward profitless and incomprehensible questions to the end that he may draw giddy minds out of the right path. We have enough to do for our whole life if we endeavor to become well acquainted with Jesus Christ. Let useless prattlers alone.’
The Christians of the Netherlands profited by these counsels. ‘A great number of men enlightened by the gospel enlightened others by means of it. These unknown men were Gerard Wormer, William of Utrecht, Peter Nannius, Lawrence, Hermann Coq, Nicholas Quicquius, the learned Walter Delenus, and at the imperial court, Philip de Lens, secretary of Brabant. In spite of all the efforts of the censura sacra, the truth was spreading in all directions; and a people of believers was forming who were to become a people of martyrs.