Secrets of Calvinist Success in the Netherlands

It is saddening for anyone who is committed to the Christian faith in its Reformed or Calvinist form to contemplate how the influence of this system of Christian truth has declined in the modern world. A thoughtful student cannot help but wonder why this faith that once inspired and dominated the thought and life of large masses of people has ebbed into insignificance especially on this continent.

Someone might observe that this waning influence of Calvinism is only a part of the general falling away of the West from the Christian faith since the Renaissance. The fact remains however, that though this general apostasy from the Christian faith is undeniable, the decline of Calvinism especially in the U.S. has been even more spectacular. Calvinist movements were very prominent in the early American colonies. One needs only to recall the Congregationalists in New England, the Reformed in New Netherlands, and the Scotch Presbyterians and Pennsylvania Dutch in New Jersey and Pennsylvania to appreciate the extent of their influence in those days. Today how little remains of all of these movements. Their decline seems the more notable when one observes that the Baptist movement, present in Colonial times only as a small minority, in the tiny colony of Roger Williams, Rhode Island, has become the largest Protestant group. The Methodists and Baptists won the country, while the traditionally Calvinist churches lost it. Calvinists who remain might well ask why their movements have suffered such signal defeat.

A few years ago, in connection with a University course I began some reading on the early history of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands and on the Anabaptist movements there. It is interesting and perhaps not too widely known among us that in the Netherlands, the home of Menno Simons (probably Anabaptism’s greatest leader), that movement for a time seemed to sweep the country, but after a while lost influence. Calvinism, coming later after 1550, became overwhelmingly the dominant force in the Dutch Reformation. Study of this early Reformed church history in the Netherlands seemed to reveal a development quite the opposite of that which took place in American church history. There Calvinism as compared with Anabaptism won the dominant position, whereas it lost it here. One could not help but wonder why Calvinism proved so successful in the Netherlands, while the Anabaptist movement there failed. In eHorts to find some answers to that question, as a research project, I canvassed the eight volumes of the Acta der Provinciale en Particuliere Synoden Gehouden in de Noordeljike Nederlanden Gedurende de Jaren 1572–1620 (edited by J. Reitsma and S. D. Van Veen, Groningen, 1892–1901, which are commonly recognized as the chief source on the church history of the Netherlands in that period, endeavoring to find and consider every reference that shed light on Calvinist-Anabaptist relations. I was concerned about trying to identify at least some of the factors that would account for the Calvinist success and Anabaptist defeat in the Netherlands. Might not such a study have something of practical value to teach us in the light of Calvinist failure and the success of other movements here? The study of these sources revealed some interesting facts which I have been asked to summarize for this Reformation issue.


Some modern historians have maintained that Calvinism’s rise to power in the Netherlands can be explained as mainly the result of political factors. Such writers as Pieter Geyl and L. G. Rogier have tried to explain that Calvinist religious leaders and their small minority of adherents, espousing the political revolt against the Spanish king, in this way came to power and then imposed their religion on the reluctant population. As Pieter Geyl put it, “It was only by having mastered public authority that the Calvinists could introduce their creed as the ruling one.” This modern claim confronts us with the question whether politics might possibly explain the decline of Anabaptism and the rise of Calvinism in 16th Century Netherlands. What do the Acts of the synods reveal to support or to contradict this claim about the importance of politics in accounting for the rise of Calvinism? The material that appears is very extensive. It would be easy to select out of the approximately 150 references a quotation or two that would appear to support whatever claim one might like to make. A careful analysis of the whole mass of material, however, plainly points to the following conclusions: (1) These early Reformed churches, emerging out of a long medieval tradition of very close relationship between church and state in one religious-social community, were working with assumptions very different from the modem American idea of the separation of church and state. The statement of Article 36 of the Belgic Confession concerning “The Magistracy,” that “their office is not only to have regard unto and watch for the welfare of the civil state, but also that they protect the sacred ministry, and thus may remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship, that the kingdom of antichrist may thus be destroyed and the kingdom of Christ promoted,” expressed the common conviction of the churches. (2) There are many decisions on the part of various synods to appeal to the government to make and enforce edicts that would bring this principle into practice. Such e1forts varied widely from province to province, ranging from the many appeals made in such provinces as Friesland and Groningen to the almost complete absence of such efforts in Gelderland, Utrecht and Drente. (3) Equally voluminous are the indications that where such appeals were made usually little or nothing was accomplished by them. The Synods which made such appeals usually complained that the government officials refused to take any action in the direction of suppression of other religious movements, sometimes that the Anabaptists were allowed greater freedom from government interference than they themselves were! Where the governments were finally prevailed upon to issue the desired edicts, even Professor Rogier admits these “remained virtually from the beginning  on dead letters.” (4) The Acts clearly show that the Reformed effort to resort to political suppression of Anabaptism was largely restricted to certain provinces, was usually unsuccessful and was presently abandoned as useless. In the face of this mass of evidence it would seem to be impossible to maintain that political pressure could have been the main influence in the rise of Calvinism and the decline of Anabaptism.


The evidence of the Acts points away from politics and toward religious teachings as crucially important in the rise of Calvinism in the Dutch reformation. A study of these Acts constantly points up the fact that the Reformation arose out of a return to the study of, faith in, preaching and teaching of the Word of God. One has only to read some of the modern “interpretations” along side of this admittedly “chief source” to see to what extent many of these later attempts account for the Reformation in terms of political pressures or economic interests. These reveal not so much what actually happened, as the doctrinaire refusal of the writers to take religious ideals and motives seriously. The assumption sometimes seems to be that because so many people today cannot imagine their own decisions and actions as controlled by religious rather than materialistic motives, people in those times couldn’t really have meant what they said in their expressions of religions conviction either.

In dealing with Anabaptism the Reformed churches often res0l1ed to public debates. One of the number of decisions that reflect their preference for such spiritual methods for the advancement of their faith is the following, taken in South Holland in 1581:

Since diligence should be exercised by the Reformed churches to spread the pure doctrine and to enlighten the lovers of the truth regarding the attacks upon it, it is found advisable that the general synod consider what measures might best be taken, with the advice of the Lords of State, in the most Christian manner, to hinder and diminish sects, heresies and perversions of God’s holy Word which mislead the simple hearted. This gathering considers a good method to be, with the consent of the authorities, to arrange public debates against all heresies, yet that one should not for this cause want in any way to endanger anyone’s property, body, or life, but only thereby to help the simple. Also that a book be published in which the pure doctrine is clearly presented and the contradictions of all heresies are refuted in the shortest and simplest manner possible. Further, that printing be supervised. Also that the ministers of the Word, when (appropriate) texts occur, rebuke the contrary doctrines with discretion. And an especially effective means will be that the ministers themselves live in a godly way and admonish others to godliness.

Open debate reflected their conviction regarding the soundness of their position as the only one that was biblically defensible. Earlier Reformed experience had encouraged this viewpoint. Calvin had enjoyed a remarkable measure of success in dealing with Anabaptists both in Geneva and Strasburg. (He even married the widow of a former Anabaptist leader.) W. J. Kuhler, in his great history of Dutch Anabaptism, again and again calls attention to the fact that the Anabaptists, who placed a strong emphasis on personal piety, were as theolOgians usually no match for the Reformed leaders. It is evident (rom the Acts that some of the debates arranged between Reformed and Anabaptists became very extended affairs. One of them ran into 124 sessions. A very famous one between Acronius and Pieter van Ceulen, one of the ablest Baptists, held in Leeuwarden in 1596 ran to 156 sessions! The arrangements provided that whoever should be judged to have lost the debate should be forbidden to preach in the province. That van Ceulen was judged to have been the loser becomes apparent from the subsequent complaints of the Synod against the authorities’ failure to carry out their own decision.

In this effort to promote the Reformed faith much emphasis was also put on the importance of printed material. Perhaps the most ambitious effort is observed in a whole series of decisions by both the Synods of North and South Holland appearing almost every year from 1599 to 1609 calling for a definitive work to deal with and refute the Anabaptist position. For the production of this monumental work they made what turned out to be a singularly unfortunate choice. They appointed Jacobus Arminius! He began his collection of material with commendable thoroughness, but as time dragged on the synods complained year after year about his failure to produce anything. Their appeals to him to hasten this urgently needed work were answered by all kinds of excuses, finally including his complaint about suspicions regarding his soundness. In 1609 his death and the government’s prohibitions of further meetings of the synods of these provinces brought the matter to a halt. Because of their choice this effort of the churches failed, but that failure should not cause us to overlook the important fact, eloquently substantiated by a decade of decisions, that it was especially by such a systematic and comprehensive answer to the Anabaptist arguments, based upon the Bible, that they hoped to overcome them.

The extent of the churches’ reliance on this method of meeting the Anabaptist challenge is perhaps most strikingly demonstrated by decisions of the Frisian synod in both 1588 and 1610 to undertake the printing of Menno Simons’ Fundamentboek (an Anabaptist classic) with notes calling attention to its errors and inconsistencies. This was combatting Anabaptism not by suppression but by exposure!

Much more might be cited from the Acts on this subject, but we may summarize the materials by observing that they point to religious teaching, preaching and writing as principal means by which the Reformed churches endeavored to promote their cause.

Now, if we compare with these early Dutch Reformed churches the modern traditionally Reformed churches in North America, we observe that in zeal for doctrine, for preaching, teaching and defending it and in publicizing it with printed matter, most of the latter have fallen far behind. In these activities they have been far outstripped by some of the aggressive Baptist bodies and especially by a number of the sects and cults. Even in theology we observe the remarkable fact that many a Baptist movement has adopted Calvinistic doctrines where Reformed and Presbyterian churches have been abandoning them. Considering their practice or neglect of religious preaching, teaching and writing helps us in some measure to understand Calvinist and Anabaptist successes and failures both in 16th Century Netherlands and in North America. A Christian historian does not have to examine source materials very extenSively before finding a good deal of evidence of the working of the biblical principle that people’s neglect of or zeal for the Word of God has much to do with the success or failure of their movement. Of course, even anti-Christian cults may flourish and faithful churches may falter, but such negative examples should not lead one to overlook the abundance of evidence of the working of the biblical principle, as much of modern interpretation does.


One who begins reading in the Acts of the old Dutch Reformed synods can hardly fail to be impressed, and probably, as this writer was, surprised by the extraordinary amount of attention that those synods devoted to education. Every aspect of the schools received their attention: buildings, salaries, textbooks…all such matters were taken up as important parts of their routine business. In these decisions there is always a special concern that the teachers be men of good moral and religious character, members of the Reformed church, that their teaching be doctrinally sound, that they be diligent in teaching the catechism. Textbooks too must be religiously orthodox.

The Acts plainly show that the Reformed churches saw in the schools an important means to advance the cause of the Reformation. A 1575 South Holland decision explains the churches’ concern for getting good teachers in the schools:

It being observed that good schools are necessary to good government of republics and churches, it is necessary that the authorities admit no one to this office who does not adhere to the true religion and confess the same.

While the churches had to appeal to the government to give orders regarding such matters as finances, they themselves managed and supervised these schools. This concern of the churches extended to all levels of education including the university. On one occasion it went so far as to call for inexpensive student housing. Anyone who would under. stand the rising influence of the Reformed churches in those days cannot afford to overlook the fact that it controlled the education of the country’s children.

When we compare modern American churches of the Reformed tradition with those early Dutch Reformed churches, with regard to their attitude toward education, we notice a contrast as great as that between their rates of growth and influence. In earlier years those Reformed churches in the U.S. showed a preoccupation with education somewhat like that of their co-religionists in the Netherlands. But that whole situation has been almost completely reversed. The role of these churches in education has steadily declined. The schools they once controlled have been secularized. Their convictions on this matter have slipped to a point where today we find larger Reformed and Presbyterian churches endorSing the removal of even the few remaining shreds of Christian influence from the public schools and sometimes opposing the development of private religious schools. In a number of ways churches in the Anabaptist tradition have begun to take much more interest and initiative in the area of education than their forebears, while the traditionally Calvinist churches have been taking much less. Does it not appear likely that this factor alone has much to do with the successes of one and the current failures of the other? It appears that the old biblical adage, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it,” can hardly be ignored if we are going to understand some of the principles at work in this area of the churches’ history.



A study of Reformed and Anabaptist movements in the 16th Century reveals another factor that was obviously important in the rise of one movement and decline of the other: the differences in church order and discipline.

The very existence of such a collection of documents as the Acts of the Provincial and Particular Synods testifies to one very important characteristic of the life of those Reformed churches. They reveal a group of churches scattered through various provinces whose governments were so jealous of their own prerogatives that they usually refused to permit the churches to hold national synods. Yet they developed, in spite of obstacles, one national church organization. In sharp contrast with this, the Anabaptist movement revealed a tendency to split, as leaders and groups fell out among themselves, into, according to some authorities, as many as forty or fifty separate and often mutually hostile organizations.

There were some obvious similarities between the Calvinists and the Anabaptists. Both wanted a church free of papal tyranny in which the Bible would be the standard of faith and practice. But the Reformed regarded the Bible as an objective standard and tried by orderly conference and common decision to set up and maintain common confessions of faith and a church order in accord with its teachings. The Anabaptists tended to be more subjective and individualistic in their viewpoint. They stressed personal piety and aimed at bUilding a pure church. Their individualistic emphasis led to differences of opinion and dissension. Menno and other leaders saw that some kind of church authority was needed to meet this problem. They tried to establish it by shifting the emphasis from the individual to the congregation, but they did not succeed in overcoming the tendency inherent in their basic individualism to split the church over differences of opinion among the leaders. The democratic idea that the congregation alone had power, which it exercised through its leaders, in the course of time give way to the aristocratic principle of the authority of leaders who came to rule over the brotherhood.

In the Reformed churches there was a concern, shown throughout their Acts, about developing a church order, an order that would forbid the kind of domination of one leader over another and one church over another that was characteristic of the Roman Catholic system. At the same time this order must make provision for representative organizations of classes and synods that could settle matters of dispute appealed to them and have binding authority. This Reformed order attempted to guard against both anarchy and dictatorship. The Anabaptists lacking such a commonly accepted order were exposed to both abuses. The Reformed churches with their almost passionate devotion to “order,” usually made one of their principal complaints against Anabaptism its “disorders,” disorders in religious teaching, in marriage and other social relations, in church and in government. In the light of the Acts this appears to be one of the most obvious differences between the two movements.

Closely related to this difference is that of their views and practices of church discipline. The difference in this area might at first glance appear to be small. Both held that the laxity and corruption of the old church needed correction and that part of the remedy must be a return to the biblical practice of church discipline. Among the Reformed this discipline was intended first (or the salvation of the person involved, was applied by a series of preliminary admonitions, including forbidding access to the Lord’s Supper, and proceeded only after patient work with the individual to the final step of excommunication with the knowledge of the whole church. Among the Anabaptists, although there were differences of opinion, the common tendency was to be much stricter than the Reformed and in course of time to become even more so. Among them the “ban”’ was simple excommunication, was designed primarily to keep the church pure, and was often applied without any preliminary warning merely on the authority of an individual elder. Among the Reformed the repentance of the individual brought his reconciliation with the church; among the stricter Anabaptists this was not permitted. Among the Reformed excommunication meant the separation of the person involved from the fellowship of the church and sacraments, but not prohibition from attending meetings, separation from social contacts or the breaking up of families. Among the stricter Anabaptists the ban meant separation from all contacts. If a husband or wife continued to live with a partner who had been banned, he or she would also be summarily banned.

Especially the often arbitrary practice of church discipline by various leaders produced splits among the Anabaptist churches. When some of the stricter leaders insisted on the breaking up of families, rejected the need for three admonitions, and forbade the readmission of the penitent, others revolted against such stringency. A particularly interesting incident took place when Menno Simons, who had received complaints that Leendert Bouwens had excommunicated a man and, his wife who refused to leave him, met with Bouwens and his party in an effort to heal the breach. A woman, Apollonia Ottes, listening behind the door to the ensuing argument, told how Menno was treated as the culprit, put out during the meeting and was finally threatened by Bouwens with the ban if he refused to agree with him and his party. Menno, under such pressure, capitulated to the stricter position. In later dissensions Bouwens and Phillips banned the separated Germans and demanded that anyone baptized by them be re-baptized. Baptist discipline, instead of being a means of preserving the church, as discipline in the Reformed church was, came to be perverted in the hands of self-willed leaders into a means to its destruction.

In contrast with Anabaptist fragmentation, the development of the Reformed churches into a national, united church, based on the Bible and the Reformed confessions, appears the more impressive. Viewed in the light of modern church history this is remarkable. In modem American Protestantism the formation of such a national, united church which is at the same time uncompromiSingly loyal to the Bible is an unsolved problem. American church history has to a large extent followed the pattern of 16th century Dutch Anabaptism in endlessly fragmenting into separate organizations. And the modern, highly publicized ecumenical movement, which aims at healing these divisions and reuniting Protestantism, has been attempting to do this largely by sacrificing old church standards of loyalty to the Bible and the historic confesSions. The sixteenth century Reformed churches achieved a national unity without such a sacrifice. The sources plainly reveal how large a place their church order and discipline took in the successful pursuit of this objective.

Our survey of Calvinist-Anabaptist relations as revealed in the Acts of the early Dutch Reformed synods indicates rather plainly that politics played less of a part in the rise of the Reformed church than has been claimed by some modem historians. It points up the importance of (1) thorough preaching, teaching, debate and writing in support of biblical doctrine, (2) many sided activity in the promotion of Christian education, and (3) a biblical church order and discipline as significant factors in the rise of those churches to a position of religious domination of Dutch life.

This need hardly surprise us. It was not an accident that the “marks” of the church came in Reformation times to be identified as faithful preaching of the gospel, administration of the sacraments and biblical discipline. The practice of those churches was an attempt at living their doctrine. They believed that “the Son of God…gathers, defends, and preserves for Himself, by His Spirit and Word, in the unity of the true faith, a Church…” Their early history and records reflect that faith and exhibit its effects. It is a pity that so many of their nominal heirs have lost it. Calvinists of today might well review the churches’ history in the light of that faith and come to see more concretely and clearly the sickness of the modern church and its biblically-prescribed remedy.