If Rome was for some centuries to crush the new people, the offspring of the gospel in the east of Europe, in Hungary, there was at the western extremity of the European continent another people which she was to strive, with still greater violence, to annihilate. The Netherlands were to become the theater selected by the adherents of the papacy for the accomplishment on the grandest scale of their greatest crimes. Charles the Fifth, a prince who on some occasions displayed a tolerant spirit, was the man from whom were to proceed the cruel edicts; and his successor was to go beyond him in the art of destruction.
Charles the Fifth had some remarkable qualities. He was active, intelligent, a keen politician, brave, energetic, and calm. But a lofty soul was wanting to him. He was destitute of faith, of compassion and of justice, addicted to intemperance of every kind, especially to that of the table. He did not eat, he devoured; and his excesses hastened his end. But if he made no scruple of transgressing the greatest commandments of God, he was all the more eager to observe cold and trivial ceremonies. He used holy water and had mass sung to him every day. He invoked the saints; and, in drawing up his will, in order to make more sure of the pardon of his sins, he commended his soul not only to God, but also to the blessed Virgin Mary, the blessed St. Peter, St. Paul, St. George, St. Anne, and generally to all the saints, male and female, of Paradise, and to the converted thief (au bon larron ). f761 He appeared zealous for the ordinances of God, affected like certain Jews to ‘write them on his door-posts,’ but he did not put them in his heart; and he sought to make up for great offenses ‘by some paltry trash of satisfaction.’ His son Philip, and others who after him occupied the throne of Spain, likewise adopted and carried out, in a manner yet more striking, this hypocritical and shameful system. Charles was not a bigot from fanaticism; he was not afraid to imprison the Holy Father himself. He did not in reality put much difference between evangelical and Romish creeds.
But, endowed with considerable judgment, he understood that the doctrine which offered resistance to the despotism of the popes would assuredly in certain cases offer resistance to the despotism of princes; and he feared that, if liberty were once established in the church, people would end with wanting to introduce it in the state. Now, this was in his eyes the crime of crimes. Thus, although the schemes of his policy often led him to spare the Protestants, Charles was really a decided enemy of the Reformation.
He found it a difficult matter at this epoch to destroy it in Germany, where he was not sovereign master, and by doing so he would have damaged his influence. But it was otherwise in the Netherlands. If he had received the empire by free election of his peers, he held these provinces by right of succession, and was determined to treat them according to his own good pleasure. He assumed therefore to hold carte blanche with regard to them.
The generous inhabitants of these provinces had liberties of ancient date, and they freely lavished their treasures on the emperor. But the prince was not in the humor to be stayed in his course either by their rights or their gifts. He would massacre, burn and crush them. Thirty thousand men, some say fifty thousand, were sacrificed in the Netherlands as heretics during the reign of Charles the Fifth. In this matter he did not stand much upon ceremony. His secretaries fabricated frightful placards, which, being silently posted up in the streets of the towns, proclaimed cruel penalties, filled peaceful citizens with terror, and soon made numerous victims. The most excellent of his subjects were burnt, drowned, buried alive or strangled for having read the Word of God and maintained the doctrines which it teaches. The most cruel methods were the best. This great prince, therefore, who has been and is still extolled by so many voices, instead of being crowned with glory, ought to be branded by posterity with the mark of its reprobation.
Charles found co-operators both in the pope, Clement VII., and in some of the leading men of the country. One of these was Charles of Egmont, Duke of Guelderland, an ambitious and violent man, who had spent his life (he was nearly sixty) in perpetual agitation and wars; a sour and gloomy man, who died of grief when, in 1538, his duchy was given to the Duke of Cleyes. Egmont was one of those who feared, not without reason, that the religious change would draw after it a political change. Alarmed at the progress which the Reformation was making around him, actuated by a blind and impetuous zeal, he wrote from Arnheim to the Pope to enlist him in the war which he intended to undertake. ‘In all humility’ he said to him, ‘we kiss your feet, most holy Father, and we inform you that as the pernicious heresy of Luther does nothing, alas, but propagate and strengthen itself from day to day, we are striving to extirpate it. We are extremely distressed at finding that some princes, our neighbors, permit many things which they ought to repress. This is the reason for our entreating your Holiness to command them to use more vigilance lest the many-headed beast should swallow up the church of Jesus Christ. And as the ecclesiastics are themselves infected, and as we dare not lay our hands on the Lord’s anointed, we pray you to authorize us to compel them to return to the good path, and if they do not repent to inflict on them the punishment of death.’ f762 The pope did not keep him long waiting for an answer. A pontifical brief of Clement VII., addressed to Erhard de la Marck, cardinal bishop of Liege, said to him — ‘We are convinced that for the extirpation of this pestilence a higher authority is needed than that of the inquisitors established by Campeggio; we therefore require you to put forth all your ability and anxious endeavors to support the labors of the holy inquisition and we give you full authority over it. Apply yourself with all your heart to root out the tares which Lutheran treachery has sown in the Lord’s field. Never will you find a more splendid opportunity of obeying God and of making yourself agreeable to us.’ f763 This brief was not to remain long without effect. Indeed, there were already in the Netherlands many, both men and women, who were suffering tortures or death that they might bear witness to the gospel. We shall describe some cases.
At Woerden, a town situated between Leyden and Utrecht, lived a simple man, warden of the collegiate church, an office which gave him a certain position. He was well-informed, was of a religious spirit, liked his office, and discharged its duties zealously. But his warmest affection was fixed on the person of his son John. John van Bakker, called in Latin Pistorius, studied under Rhodius at the college of Utrecht. He made great progress there in literature, but he also learnt something else. It was at the period of the revival of the Christian religion. The young man was struck by the glorious brightness of the truth, and a living light was shed abroad in his heart. Rhodius was attached to his young disciple; and they were often seen conversing together, like father and son. The canons of Utrecht took offense. The two evangelicals were watched, attacked, threatened, and denounced as Lutherans; and word had been hastily sent to the father that his son was fallen into heresy. The old churchwarden, thunderstruck by the news, trembling at the thought of the danger impending over his beloved son, at once recalled him to Woerden. But the very evil which he wished to avoid was by this means only increased. John, filled with ardent desire for the propagation of the truth, let slip no opportunity of proclaiming the gospel to his fellow-citizens. Attacks were renewed; the alarm of the father grew greater. He now sent his son to Louvain to improve himself in literature, and also because this town passed for the stronghold of popery. But old ties of hospitality united the father with Erasmus; and John was therefore placed under the influential patronage of this scholar. Out of deference to the wishes of his father, but sorely against his own will, he became a priest. He immediately availed himself, however, of this office to contend more effectively against the and- Christian traditions and to spread abroad more extensively the knowledge of Christ. The canons of Utrecht, who had not lost sight of him, summoned him to appear before them. He refused to do this; and upon this refusal, the prefect of Woerden put him in prison. But Philip, bishop of Utrecht, was favorably disposed towards the gospel; and John regained his liberty and without delay betook himself to Wittenberg. Here he lived in intimate intercourse with Luther and Melanchthon, and with many pious young men from all the countries of Europe. He thus became established in the faith. On his return to Holland, he taught evangelical truth with still more energy than before. The chapter of Utrecht, whose inquisitorial glance followed him everywhere, now sentenced him to banishment for three years, and ordered him to go to Rome, that he might give himself up to the penance’s required for the expiation of his errors.
But instead of setting out for Italy, he began to travel all over Holland, instructing, confirming, and building up the Christians scattered abroad and the churches. He visited Hoen and Gnapheus, who were at the time prisoners for the gospel’s sake, and consoled them. His father followed him with both joy and anxiety in his Christian wanderings. Although he feared that John’s faith would bring down persecution upon him, he nevertheless felt attracted towards it. If the sky looked threatening, the old man in alarm would fain have recalled his son; but if no cloud seemed likely to disturb the serenity of the evangelical day, the father rejoiced in the piety of his son and triumphed in his triumphs. f765 We have now reached the year 1523. Hitherto Bakker had outwardly belonged to the Church of Rome. He now began to consider whether he ought not to bring his outward actions into harmony with his inward convictions. This harmony is not always attained at the first step. Bakker discontinued officiating in the church, and renounced all profit and advantage proceeding from Rome. When he understood that sacerdotal life is opposed to the gospel, he married; and, calling to mind the example of Paul, who was a tentmaker, the lettered disciple of Rhodius set himself to earn his livelihood by baking bread, digging the ground, and other manual labor. But at the same time he preached in private houses, and welcomed all who came to seek at his hands consolation and restruction. A step at this time taken by Rome tended to increase his zeal. The pope, anxious to consolidate his tottering see, invented a new species of indulgences, which were not to be offered for sale like those of Tetzel, but were to be given gratuitously by the priests to all persons who, at certain times and in certain places, should come to hear a mass. These indulgences having been preached in Woerden, Bakker rose in opposition to them. He unveiled the craft of those who distributed them, boldly proclaimed the grace of Christ, strengthened the feeble, and pacified troubled consciences. The inhabitants of Woerden, affected by such zeal, resorted in crowds to the lowly dwelling in which they found the peace of God, a Christian woman who sympathized with all their sorrows and endeavored to relieve their necessities, and a pious minister who earned his living by the labor of his own hands. The ordinary priest of the place, provoked by the neglect into which he had fallen, denounced Bakker, at first to the magistrate, and next to the governess of the Netherlands. He made such desperate efforts f766 that one day, in 1525, the officers of justice, by order of Margaret, arrested Bakker and committed him to prison at the Hague. The poor father on hearing the news was struck as by a thunderbolt. Bakker, doomed to harsh and solitary confinement, perceived the danger which hung over him. He looked all round and saw no defender except the Holy Scriptures. His enemies, who were afraid of his superior knowledge, sent for theologians and inquisitors from Louvain; and an imperial commission was instructed to watch the proceedings and see that the heretic was not spared. The doctors came to an understanding about the trial, and every one’s part was fixed. The inquisitorial court was formed, and the young Christian — he was now twenty-seven years of age — appeared before it.
Cross-pleadings were set up. The following are some of the affirmations and negations which were then heard at the Hague: — The court: ‘ It is ordered that everyone should submit to all the decrees and traditions of the Roman church.’ Bakker: ‘ There is no authority except the Holy Scriptures; and it is from them only that I can receive the doctrine that saves.’ f767 The court: ‘Do you not know that it is the church itself which, by its testimony, gives to the Holy Scriptures their authority?’ Bakker: ‘I want no other testimony in favor of the Scriptures than that of the Scriptures themselves, and that of the Holy Spirit which inwardly convinces us of the truths which Scripture teaches.’ The court: ‘ Did not Christ say to the apostles — He who heareth you heareth me?’ Bakker: ‘We would assuredly listen to you if you could prove to us that you are sent by Christ.’ The court: ‘The priests are the successors of the apostles.’ Bakker: ‘All Christians born of water and of the Spirit are priests; and, although all do not publicly preach, all offer to God through Christ spiritual sacrifices.’ The court: ‘Take care! heretics are to be exterminated with the sword.’ Bakker: ‘The church of Christ is to make use only of meekness and the power of the word of God.’
It was not for one day only, but during many days, and in long sessions, that the inquisitors plagued Bakker. They charged him especially with three crimes — despising indulgences, discontinuing to say mass, and marrying. f768 As Bakker’s steadfastness frustrated all the efforts of the inquisitors, they bethought themselves of making him go to confession, hoping thus to obtain some criminating admission. So they had him into a niche in the wainscoting, where the confessor received penitents; and a priest questioned him minutely on all kinds of subjects. They could only get one answer from him — ‘I confess freely before God that I am a most miserable sinner, worthy of the curse and of eternal death; but at the same time I hope, and have even a strong confidence that, for the sake of Jesus Christ my Lord and my only Savior, I shall certainly obtain everlasting blessedness.’ The confessor then pronounced him altogether unworthy of absolution, and he was thrown into a dark dungeon.
So long as Philip, bishop of Utrecht, lived, the canons, although they had indeed persecuted Bakker, had not ventured to put him to death. This moderate bishop, so friendly to good men, having died on the 7th of April, 1525, the chapter felt more at liberty, and Bakker’s death was resolved on.
The tidings of his approaching execution spread alarm through the little city; and people of all classes immediately listened to him and implored him to make the required recantation. But he refused. Calm and resolved, one care alone occupied his thoughts, the state of his father. The old man had followed all the phases of the trial. He had seen the steadfastness of his son’s faith, and the supreme love which he had for Jesus Christ, so that nothing in the world could separate him from the Savior. This sight had filled him with joy and had strengthened his own faith. The inquisitors, who were very anxious to induce Bakker to recant, thought that one course was still open to them. They betook themselves therefore to the old man, and entreated him to urge John to submit to the pope. ‘My son,’ he replied, ‘is very dear indeed to me; he has never caused me any sorrow; but I am ready to offer him up a sacrifice to God, as in old time Abraham offered up Isaac.’ f770 It was then announced to Bakker that the hour of his death was at hand.
This news, says a chronicler, filled him with unusual and astonishing joy. During the night he read and meditated on the divine word. Then he had a tranquil sleep. In the morning (September 15) they led him upon an elevated stage, stripped him of the priestly vestments which he had been obliged to wear, put on him a yellow coat, and on his head a hat of the same color. This done, he was led to execution. As he passed by one part of the prison, where several Christians were confined for the sake of the faith, he was affected and cried aloud — ‘Brothers! I am going to suffer martyrdom. Be of good courage like faithful soldiers of Jesus Christ, and defend the truths of the gospel against all unrighteousness.’ The prisoners started when they heard these words, clapped their hands, uttered cries of joy, and then with one voice struck up the Te Deum. They determined not to cease singing until the Christian hero should have ceased to live. Bakker, indeed, could not hear them, but these songs, associated with the thoughts of the martyr, ascended to the throne of God. First they sang the Magnum Certamen; then the hymn beginning with the words, ‘O beata beatorum martyrum solemnia.’ This holy concert was the prelude to the festival which was to be celebrated in heaven. The martyr went up to the stake, took from the hands of the executioner the rope with which he was to be strangled before being given up to the flames, and passing it round his neck with his own hands, he said with joy — ‘O death! where is thy sting?’ A moment afterwards he said — ‘Lord Jesus, forgive them, and remember me, O Son of God.’ The executioner pulled the rope and strangled him.
Then the fire consumed him. The great conflict was finished the solemnity of the martyrdom was over. Such was the death of John van Bakker. His father survived to mourn his loss. f772 John van Bakker was not the only one visited with these extreme penalties which the duke of Guelderland had demanded of the pope. There was in the convent of his order at Britz, a Carmelite, named Bernard, about fifty years of age. As a fearless preacher of the gospel the monks detested him, and they succeeded in getting him sentenced to death. His execution was attended by some singular circumstances, which gave rise to one of those legends so numerous in the Romish church, and from which all the evangelicals had not yet freed themselves. Rome still left her mark occasionally on the Reformation. When Bernard was cast into the flames the fire went out. This was thrice repeated. The executioner then seized a hammer and struck the victim. Thus far the story is credible; but at this point it is changed, and passes from history to fable. The body being cast for the fourth time upon the pile, the fire again went out, and the body, it was said, was no longer visible to the bystanders; so that a report was circulated that this man of God had been translated to heaven. f773 The death of these pious men did not extirpate evangelical Christianity.
The seed scattered abroad in the Netherlands had everywhere sprung up and had borne fruit at Antwerp, and especially at Bois-le-Duc, both wealthy and powerful towns. ‘At Antwerp,’ said Erasmus, ‘we see, in spite of the edicts of the emperor, the people flocking in crowds wherever the word is to be heard. It is found necessary for the guards to be under arms night and day. Bois-le-Duc,’ added the Rotterdam scholar, ‘has banished from its walls all the Franciscans and Dominicans. By the vast commerce of the Netherlands men were attracted to the country from all quarters, and many of these immigrants were lovers of the gospel.
These provinces, it was said, resembled a valley which receives in its bosom the waters of many different regions, so that the plants which are to be found there thrive and bear the finest fruits. The year 1525 produced the most excellent of all. The New Testament in the Dutch language had been published at Amsterdam as early as 1523. The Old Testament appeared at Antwerp in 1525; and the same year, in the same town, Liesveld published the whole Bible. The Roman doctors, indeed, ridiculed the missionaries ‘whose office it is to sow in remote lands the leaves of book which the winds carry one knows not whither.’ But these leaves, in conjunction with the preaching of the reformers, took from the pope, in the sixteenth century, the center and the north of Europe.
Nevertheless, the best minds at the court, and especially the Governess Margaret herself, an enlightened princess, and one who was sincerely anxious for the prosperity of the Netherlands, were asking themselves what was the source of the evil, and whether the death of such men as Bakker and Bernard could check it. Erasmus and others replied that a reform of the priests and monks would render useless that which Luther called for. This was a mistake. More than once in different ages such a reform had been tried; some outward improvements had been effected, but the change had been only of short duration, because inwardly the deep principles of Christian faith and life had not been reestablished. The government, however, attempted this superficial reform. About the close of September 1523, Margaret addressed the magistrates of the Netherlands. ‘Be on your guard,’ she said to them, ‘lest the teaching of the priests, which abounds in fables, and their impure manner of life, give a blow to the prosperity of the Church.’ She did more. Appealing to the priests themselves, she said — ‘It is our intention that those men only should be allowed to preach who are prudent, intelligent, and moral. f777 Let the preachers avoid everything which might scandalize the people; and let them not speak so much against Luther, and against his doctrines and those of the ancient heretics.’ f778 Such were the sentiments of enlightened Catholics; but neither Margaret nor Charles the Fifth had power to transform the Church. Their letters even called forth murmurs and objections. ‘Why, they are laying the blame on the priests for the wrongs caused by the reformers. Luther did the mischief, and now the monks must bear the burden and the penalty!’ It was a penalty for those who thus complained to have to begin to do well.
After a gleam of good sense, the authorities went astray once more and resumed their rigorous proceedings. In the judgment of many this was the easier and more logical course. The papist party regained the ascendancy, and declared with all their might that there was only one thing to do — to extirpate evangelical doctrine. A new edict was published in the provinces.
Religious meetings, whether public or private, were prohibited. The reading of the gospels, of the epistles of St. Paul, and of other pious works, was forbidden. Any person who asserted, either in his own house or elsewhere, anything respecting faith, the sacraments, the pope and the councils, incurred the heaviest penalties. No work could be printed before being approved, and every heretical book was to be burnt. This ordinance was carried into execution without delay, and its provisions were extended even to writings inspired by the most praiseworthy benevolence. A noble lady of Holland having lost her husband, her trial excited warm sympathy in the heart of Gnapheus. He wrote a book in which he set forth all the consolations to be found in evangelical doctrine, pointing out at the same time that the doctrine of the priests was destitute of them. He was immediately arrested and confined in a monastery, was fed on bread alone, and was condemned to three months’ penance. The humanist felt keenly the distress of the days in which he lived; and, desirous of alleviating his own bitter sufferings and those of his contemporaries, he began in his cell a work to which he gave the title of Tobias and Lazarus. Therein he offers to all Christians the most precious consolations, and shows how much those are mistaken who see in the first evangelical Christians of the Netherlands only more or less violent adversaries of the pope. ‘Receive afflictions with resignation and a joyful spirit,’ said he, ‘thou wilt straightway discern in them a source of true and permanent consolation. Give to God in faith the name of Father, and everything which thou shalt receive from His fatherly hand will seem good to thee. Lay hold on Christ by faith, and then nothing will strengthen you like trials. Fatherly love is never better seen than in its chastisements; and it is in the midst of tribulations that the glory of the kingdom of God shines forth.’ This book bore wholesome fruit; and many by reading it were led to the knowledge of the truth. Gnapheus in his day fulfilled the office of a comforter.
This was not the part which Charles the Fifth had chosen. On concluding (January 15, 1526) with Francis I. the peace of Madrid, he declared in the preamble that the object of this peace was ‘to be able to turn the common arms of all Christian kings, princes, and potentates to the expulsion and destruction of miscreants, and the extirpation of the Lutheran sect and of all the said heretics alienated from the bosom of Holy Church. It was very soon seen that this resolution was sincere.
In the town of Monnikendam, on the shores of the Zuyder Zee, there was living at this time a widow named Wendelmutha Klaessen, who had sorrowed greatly for the death of the partner of her life, but had also shed other and still more bitter tears over the sad state of her own soul. She had found the peace which Christ gives, and had clung to the Savior with a constancy and a courage which some of her friends called obstinacy. The purity of her life created a sanctifying influence around her; and as she openly avowed her full trust in Christ, she was arrested, taken to the fortress of Woerden, and soon after to the Hague to be tried there.
The more steadfast her faith was, the more the priests set their hearts on getting her to renounce it. Monks were incessantly going to see her, and omitted no means of shaking her resolution. They assailed her especially on the subject of transubstantiation, and required her to worship as if they were God the little round consecrated wafers of which they made use in the mass. But Wendelmutha, certain that what they presented to her as God was nothing more than thin bread, replied — ‘I do not adore them, I abhor them.’ The priests, provoked at seeing her cling so tenaciously to her ideas, urged her kinsfolk and her friends to try all means of getting her to retract her speeches. This they did.
Among these friends was a noble lady who tenderly loved Wendelmutha. These two Christian women, although they were as one soul, had nevertheless different characters. The Dutch lady was full of anxiety and distress at the prospect of what awaited her friend, and said to her in the trouble of her soul — ‘Why not be silent, my dear Wendelmutha, and keep what thou believes in thine own heart, so that the schemes of those who want to take away thy life may be baffled?’ Wendelmutha replied with simple and affecting firmness — ‘Dost thou not know, my sister, the meaning of these words — With the heart man believeth unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation?’ Another day, one of her kinsfolk, after having endeavored in vain to shake her resolution, said to her — ‘You look as if you had no fear of death. But wait a little, you have not yet tasted it.’ She replied immediately with firm hope — ‘I confess that I have not yet tasted it; but I also know that I never shall taste it; for Christ has endured it, for me and has positively said — If a man keep my saying he shall never see death.
Shortly afterwards, Wendelmutha appeared before the Dutch Supreme Court of Justice, and answered that nothing should separate her from her Lord and her God. When taken back into the prison, the priest urged her to confess. ‘Do this,’ he said, ‘while you are still in life.’ She replied — ‘I am already dead, and God is my life. Jesus Christ has forgiven me all my sins, and if I have offended any one of my neighbors, I humbly beg him to pardon me.’
On the 20th of November, 1527, the officers of justice conducted her to execution. They had placed near her a certain monk who held in his hand a crucifix, and asked her to kiss the image in token of veneration. She replied — ‘I know not this wooden Savior; he whom I know is in heaven at the right hand of God, the Almighty Savior.’ She went modestly to the stake; and when the flames gathered round her she peacefully closed her eyes, bowed down her head, as if she were falling asleep, and gave up her soul to God, while the fire reduced her body to ashes.
Other victims besides were sacrificed. Among their number was an Augustinian monk of Tournay, whose name was Henry. Having been brought to a knowledge of the gospel, and finding the inactivity of cloister life insupportable, he betook himself to Courtrai, a neighboring town, scattered there the seed of faith, married, and to preaching added the example of the domestic virtues. Arrested at Courtrai, he was committed to prison at Tournay. He was tried, deprived of the symbols of the priesthood, and condemned to the flames. At this moment, the sense of the blessedness which he was about to enjoy in the presence of the Savior so powerfully possessed his soul that, unmindful of the priests and the judges who were around him, he began singing aloud that fine old hymn attributed to Ambrose and to Augustine — Te Deum Laudamus. The spectators went away from the stake touched by the courage of his soul and the greatness of his faith. f787 The Reformation therefore showed itself to be in truth the revived gospel, as it has been called. It was this gospel, not only on account of its conformity with the writings of the apostles, but for yet other reasons, in the presence of the splendid palaces of a proud hierarchy, it restored apostolic poverty and humility to a declining Christendom. In the midst of death it created life. Light sprang up in the midst of darkness; devotion and self sacrifice stood face to face with monkish and sacerdotal egotism. It was a holy religion, holy to the pitch of heroism, and formed Christians whose life, full of good works, was crowned by the triumphant death of martyrdom. This faith, this courage, and these deaths were the preparation for and the introduction to the formidable and immortal conflict which was afterwards to make the Church of the Netherlands illustrious. They were only the outworks of the fortress which this people would one day erect against the oppression of the papacy. They formed the junction between the lowly walls which the faith of the little ones was at this time constructing in these lands and the glorious building which was afterwards erected. They served as the beginning of a great future. Moreover, these lives and these deaths were not isolated events. They were continually recurring in all countries during the epoch of the Reformation, and they fill it with glory. Nothing like them has been produced either by Rome or by systems of philosophy.