Socinianism in Holland, 15981750


    While we have seen in the previous chapter that two of the companies of Socinian exiles bravely maintained their churches for far over a century, it may already have been noticed that from all these exile colonies the roads seemed to lead at last to Holland.  There we are able to trace the influence of the Socinian spirit and teaching long after the last Socinian church had perished.  The way for the exiles had long been preparing in Holland.  We have found antitrinitarian Anabaptists there near the beginning of the Reformation, and their leaven continued to work among the people long after they themselves had been put to silence.  Individual Antitrinitarians were found in Holland all through the sixteenth century, and each of them must have had his considerable circle of followers, though only one of them is known to have had any connection with the movement in Poland.  They were all of them more or less subjected to persecution.  William (the Silent) of Orange, however, made freedom of worship one of the conditions of peace with Spain in 1578; and although this was by no means always observed, and religious persecution was occasionally practiced down to nearly the middle of the eighteenth century, complete religious toleration remained a sort of national ideal from William on.  Despite all lapses, and the fact that public worship was not strictly legal except for the Reformed Church, Holland was still in 1660 the only country in Protestant Europe which professed to grant religious toleration to all citizens on its soil.

    The first Socinians to introduce their faith into Holland were Ostorod and Woidowski, two ministers from Poland, who while visiting the University of Leiden in 1598 sought to make converts among the students there by conversations and by circulating books which they had brought with them.  They won to their way of thinking a German student named Ernest Soner who, as we have already seen,1 afterwards did so much for their cause when he was teaching at Altorf.  They also made the acquaintance of the young Arminius, who was later to lead a movement against Calvinism and pave the way for Methodism; and although they did not make an Antitrinitarian of him, yet it is hard not to believe that they did plant liberal seeds in his mind, and persuade him to accept some of the principles of Socinianism.  For it began a generation later to be persistently charged that he had himself been a Socinian, and his followers in the Remonstrant Church showed much sympathy with the Socinians who came to Holland.  The authorities had these two under suspicion almost from the day of their arrival, and seizing their books submitted them to the Leiden theologians, who pronounced their teaching little better than Mohammedanism.  A trial was had, and after various delays it was ordered that the books be publicly burnt, and that their owners leave the country within ten days.  After this it was several years before Socinianism again made any stir in Holland.

    A dozen years later a liberal wing in the Reformed Church had begun to oppose the extreme doctrines of Calvinism; and when their leader, Arminius, died, Conrad Vorst was appointed his successor as professor in the University of Leiden.  It was not long before he was charged with being a Socinian.  Though he himself denied the charge, King James I of England believed it, had one of his books publicly burnt in 1611, and himself wrote a confutation of it, and finally protested to the Dutch government against their tolerating such a heretic.2  Agitation against him was kept up for some years; and the end was that in 1619 he was removed from his chair as a heretic, and was banished from the country.  Three years later he died in exile in Holstein, hunted to death by his persecutors.

    These persecutions however, were not enough to keep Socinianism from spreading in the country.  Polish students kept coming to study in Dutch universities, especially after Altorf had been closed to them, and of course they embraced every opportunity to spread their views.  The orthodox became alarmed, for they considered all this as blasphemy against God.  Their synods kept urging that this heresy destroyed all Christianity and the hope of immortality, and that it ought to be severely repressed, lest Holland get a bad name in the Christian world; and they induced the States General to pass decrees against Socinianism in 1628, though as the magistrates in the larger towns were much disposed to be tolerant, little came of them.

    The Remonstrants had by now separated from the Reformed Church, and within a generation several of their professors and many of their ministers were known to be more or less Socinian in their thought; while professed disbelievers in the Trinity were received into many Dutch churches without objection.  More than once, therefore, the brethren in Poland sent their most persuasive embassador to try to bring about some sort of union with the Remonstrants in Holland.  When the latter had been for a time driven into exile by the Reformed, the Polish brethren offered them aid if in need, or a refuge in Poland; and again during their brief stay at Friedrichstadt they tried to form a union with the Remonstrants living in exile there.3  But there were too many points of difference between them, and though they willingly gave individual Socinians a tolerant welcome in their churches, the Remonstrants steadily denied that they were Socinians; nor indeed were they, save in occasional points of agreement.

    When the Socinians were driven from Rakow in 1638, many of them sought refuge in Holland.  This caused a fresh outburst of opposition against them, and further attempts to repress them.  The Reformed synods took action against Socinians almost every year, and petitioned the States General to put them down.  The States General in turn repeatedly caused proclamations against them to be posted, and passed laws forbidding the printing or sale of Socinian books, or the holding of Socinian meetings, on pain of heavy fines, imprisonment, or banishment for blasphemy.  Though books were now and then seized and burnt, the printing of them mostly went on as before; they were sold and read, and Socinianism steadily spread among the people.  For as in Prussia,4 so here, though the government might try to pacify the orthodox by passing the laws they desired against “the blasphemous and wicked Socinians and their impious heresies,” as the Synod of Dort called them, yet it would do little to enforce them.

    This was the general situation when the Socinians were finally banished from Poland in 1660 — Socinian views working like an invisible leaven all over Holland, Socinian books being widely read, Socinians everywhere making personal converts, and Socinian scholars in friendly intercourse or active correspondence with many of the leaders of Dutch thought.  It was not long before considerable numbers of the exiles found their way to Holland, to join their brethren already established there.  There can not have been a great many of them altogether: counting those that had come after their expulsion from Rakow in 1638, those that may have straggled along from time to time as persecutions grew heavier in Poland, and those that came after their banishment in 1660, there were probably only a few hundred, perhaps not more than a few score, though these were destined to exert a great influence.  The liveliest sympathy was felt for them.  When the exiles sent out a pitiful appeal for help in their distress, some Remonstrant ministers gathered a large sum of money and sent it to the brethren at Kreuzburg for distribution;5 and a generation later, in response to a similar appeal, a generous sum was sent to the Unitarians in Transylvania, whose church and school had been destroyed by fire.

    The Socinians in Holland had no recognized leader about whom to gather, and they made no attempt to establish churches there.  They had never wished, indeed, even in Poland, to form a separate religious body, and had done so only when excluded from the Reformed Church there.  In Holland this was not necessary.  For instead of being universally outcast as heretics, they were graciously received, in spite of their differences of belief, at the worship and sacraments of the tolerant Remonstrants and Mennonites.  They seem for a little while to have held meetings for worship among themselves in their private homes, but these can not have been continued long; for they soon found in many of the Dutch congregations the fellowship they had so long craved, being treated not as strangers and foreigners, but as Christian brethren.

    We must now turn to see how the influence of the Socinians was exercised in various quarters, first of all among the Remonstrants, whom we have several times mentioned already.  Protesting against the strict Calvinism of the Dutch Reformed Church, these had been driven out of it in 1619.  For several years they were banished from the country by the orthodox.  They were opposed to the bondage of creeds, taking only the Bible as their authority.  They strongly advocated religious freedom, and tolerance of differences of belief; and they tended toward a more liberal theology.  All these things were calculated to create sympathy between them and the Socinians, and twice in time of persecution attempts had been made to bring about a union between them.6 Several books, indeed, were published by Socinians on the one hand or by the orthodox on the other, to make out that the two were in essential harmony with each other.  Yet though they agreed in their bottom principles, there was too wide a difference in their particular beliefs.  In especial, the Remonstrants as a whole could not accept the Socinian view of the Trinity, the nature of Christ, and the atonement.  They were repeatedly charged with being Socinians, and as often they denied the charge, consistently declining the Socinian name, and rejecting the most distinctive Socinian doctrines.  Nevertheless the thought of the Remonstrants came to be profoundly influenced in the Socinian direction. Their leading theologians adopted more and more of the Socinian way of thinking; some of them translated and published Socinian works; and the result was that after two or three generations more than half the distance that had separated them had become closed up.

    If Socinianism influenced the Remonstrant churches mostly by the effect it had upon the thought of their leading thinkers and scholars, in another quarter, among the Collegiants, it won wide and deep influence over the common people.  These were not a separately organized sect, but simply a group of congregations made up of lay members of other churches, who came together frequently to hold what may best be described as prayermeetings (collegia, hence their name).  At the time when the Remonstrant ministers had been banished from the country, these meetings began to be held among the laymen, in order that even if they had no minister to preach to them they might still have some sort of religious worship; and they succeeded so well that even after the ministers returned they were continued independently of the organized churches, and were maintained till near the end of the eighteenth century.  These collegia were held in some thirty of the Dutch cities and villages, with a sort of headquarters at Rijnsburg, near Leiden.  They consisted simply of Scripture, prayer, hymns, and speaking by whoever wished to take part.  The Collegiants had no creed, and they encouraged the greatest freedom of speech and the most perfect tolerance of differing views.  Socinians early began to attend these meetings, and as they were permitted to speak their views as freely as any, they found here a great opportunity for spreading their faith.  Although the Collegiants were by no means wholly converted to them, these views found more friends among them than in any other religious body in Holland; and in the opinion of many, the Collegiants were nothing but Socinians under another name.  Some of them indeed openly advocated Socinian teachings, and two of their leaders were even invited to become teachers in the Socinian school at Rakow.  At Amsterdam, where some of the most prominent Socinians had joined them, they published a Dutch translation of the Racovian Catechism in 1659, as well as of Servetus on the Trinity, and of various other works by Socinus and his followers.  But perhaps the most marked service which they rendered to the cause was when one of the Collegiants had collected and published in eight stately folio Latin volumes the works of the leading Socinian scholars (the Bibliotheca Fratrum Polonorum), which were sold at a very low price, were widely circulated among the educated, and had a wide and deep influence upon the religious thinking of Holland and other lands.

    Although the Collegiants were at first made up entirely of Remonstrants, after a generation or so by far the largest number of them came from the Mennonites,7 with whose principles and practices they had much in common.  The Collegiant movement thus became a sort of bridge over which Socinianism passed freely into the Mennonite Church, whose religious and moral life it was to influence as deeply as it had influenced religious thought among the Remonstrants.  It may be remembered that the Mennonites were originally gathered together out of the Anabaptists who had survived the persecutions of the time of Luther;8 and that in the beginnings of the antitrinitarian movement in Poland the Anabaptists were very influential, and that many of their views were cherished by the later Socinians.9  The Socinians thus had from the start more in common with the Mennonites than with any one else in Holland.  Both objected to the use of creeds, and took their religion directly from the Bible; both emphasized practical Christian life far more than any particular doctrine; both tried literally to follow the teaching of Jesus; both preferred baptism by immersion.  Such points of contact had long drawn them into sympathy with each other.  Ostorod and Wojdowski, therefore, before they left Holland, had tried to interest one of the Mennonite leaders; and as early as 1606, through the medium of a Mennonite congregation at Danzig which had friendly relations with the Socinians there, it was attempted to bring about a formal union between them.  Negotiations to this end were in progress for several years, and for a time they promised to succeed; but at length the proposal was regretfully declined by the Mennonite leaders in Holland, on the ground that they had not yet become enough agreed among themselves to be ready to undertake union with others.10   They may also well have hesitated to imperil the freedom of worship which they had so hardly won, by formally uniting with a body far more heretical than themselves.

    Like the Remonstrants, the Mennonites were repeatedly accused of being Socinians, and they invariably denied the charge.  Of course they never completely agreed with the Socinians.  Nevertheless, by way of the Collegiants and otherwise, Socinianism gradually spread among the Mennonites all over the country until one of their two factions became frankly liberal on most points of belief; and when in 1722 the 150 Mennonite ministers of Friesland were called upon by the local government to subscribe to a Trinitarian confession of faith, they refused almost to a man.

    Though among the other bodies of which we have spoken Socinianism steadily worked as a leaven, and thus doubtless had greater influence than it could have enjoyed had it existed as a separately organized church, yet on the Reformed Church in Holland it never made any impression.  On the contrary, the Reformed leaders for two generations kept publishing books against it, passing hostile resolutions in their synods, and continually spurring the States General up to action.  At length, however, even the Reformed preachers gradually became reconciled to the presence of Socinianism in the land, and no longer feared the danger of the heresy as they once had done, so that the opposition gradually flattened out.  Intolerance lasted longest in Friesland, where the last act of persecution of Socinians was in 1742.  From that time on the Socinians are scarcely heard of any more: they had lost their separate identity, and had become absorbed into the general religious life of the country.

    Much influence as Socinianism had in Holland, however, it must not be supposed that the influence was all on one side; for it was itself also influenced not a little by what it found in Holland.  After their banishment from Poland the churches in exile usually sent their young ministers to the Remonstrant seminary at Amsterdam to be trained,11 and the liberal professors there naturally influenced the course of their thought.  The changes that thus took place in later Socinianism are to be seen in the later editions of the Racovian Catechism.  Its doctrines became nearer to those of the Remonstrants.  The system of belief taught by Socinus had in some respects been rather cold and rigid; but as influenced by the Remonstrants Socinianism became broadened and enriched.  Instead of still taking its doctrines only from the Bible, it now came to rely more upon reason; it now made a personal faith in God the central thing in religion, instead of an intellectual belief about God and Christ; it learned to attach more importance to the death of Christ; and it abandoned some of the extreme Anabaptist views of the earlier time.  In fact, so much had their doctrine become changed from that of their fathers that some of the later Socinians declared that they were no longer Socinians, but Unitarians, and that few or no real Socinians any longer existed.

    On the other hand, the contribution of Socinianism to Dutch Christianity was large and permanent.  Whether its particular doctrines were accepted or not, its spirit prevailed, and that was the really important thing.  As the spirit of tolerance which Socinus had so much emphasized spread, greater stress came to be laid on moral conduct and practical Christian life, and less on belief or feeling; and the Bible came to be studied not, as before, chiefly for the sake of supporting certain dogmas, but in the more reasonable way used by the Socinian teachers, and in the free spirit of modern liberal scholarship.

    It is at this point that we must take our leave of Socinianism, for it is here that it crosses over into England, enters upon a new stage, and presently takes a new name.  In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries England had closer relations with Holland than with any other country.  Many Socinian books published in Holland were circulated in England and made converts there; in time of religious persecution many English Protestants sought refuge in Holland; and many English ministers received their training there.  By these means the Socinian principles of freedom, reason, and toleration, as well as many of the Socinian doctrines, were taken to England and deeply influenced its religious thought and life.  How this new stage developed remains to be told in later chapters.12  Meanwhile we must first turn back for a time to Transylvania, where a movement of Unitarian thought began at almost the same time as in Poland, and instead of becoming extinct there also, has continued an unbroken existence down to our own day.


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Text taken from a 1925 original copy of Earl Morse Wilbur's Our Unitarian Heritage.
Copyright released by Wilbur's grandchildren.
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