The Remonstrants: Prelude to Persecution

Most laypeople, both Arminians and Calvinists, are unaware of the significance of theological life in Holland in the mid-sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century throughout Europe. Philip II of Spain (1527-1598), married to Queen Mary I. of England, seeks to "direct a large portion of the forces of his empire against his Belgic subjects, for the purpose of destroying their liberties, and arresting the progress of the Reformation."1 His is the same Spanish army that destroys Arminius' hometown of Oudewater, August 1575, killing all members of his family, in an effort to take the city for his Roman Catholic religion. The houses are pillaged and almost entirely consumed by flames: "its garrison put to the sword -- its [Protestant] ministers of religion hanged -- and its inhabitants strangled in a promiscuous mass, without any regard to age or sex."2

King Philip II is noted as far surpassing "in cruelty and resolution any inquisitor-general or his foulest familiars."3 When the Dutch learn that the Inquisition is to be established amongst them, Count Egmont is sent to Philip's court, in order to humbly request that the Inquisition not be introduced in the Low Countries. Frederick Calder writes:
Philip assured him, as he had frequently done others, that he had never projected any such measure; but at the very time of Egmont's stay at Madrid, he [Philip] assembled a conclave of his creatures, doctors of theology, of whom he formally demanded an opinion as to whether he could conscientiously tolerate two sects of religion in the Netherlands [Roman Catholic and Protestant]. The doctors hoping to please him, replied that he might, for the avoidance of a greater evil. Philip trembled with rage, and exclaimed in a threatening tone, "I ask not if I can, but if I ought."

The theologians read in this question the nature of the expected reply; and it was amply conformable to his wishes. He immediately threw himself on his knees before a crucifix, and raising his hands towards heaven, put up a prayer for strength in his resolution to pursue as deadly enemies all who viewed that effigy with feelings different from his own. To this statement the writer adds, if this were not really a sacrilegious farce, it must be that the blaspheming bigot believed the Deity to be a monster of cruelty like himself.4
One might suggest that the cruelty of King Philip II of Spain, the cruelty of Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) against the Anabaptists, and the cruelty of the Dortian Calvinists merely bespeak of the cognitive traditions of their time. That answer is a cowardice dodge and displays a singular lack of character discernment. If the age in which Philip, Zwingli, and the Dortian Calvinists exist is used as a justification of their crimes against humanity then how do we explain the passive nature of the Anabaptists and the Arminians, who refrain from expressing violence over the theological issues of their detractors, but instead seek for religious tolerance and freedom of conscience?

For King Philip II, to "murder in defense of Popery was piety," and to grant pity "to the cries of a suffering victim ... would have been deemed an unpardonable sin."5 When Don Carlos di Sessa is charged with the crime of "blasphemy," and he cries out to Philip for mercy, the King replies: "No! I would carry wood to burn my own son were he such a wretch as thou."6 Mind you, one can be charged with "blasphemy" in a most subjective manner, according to the wishes of the clergy or the King.

King Philip II and his Spanish Armada is defeated in the angry waves of the Celtic Sea and the English Channel. His aim is to recover his authority over England and to, once for all, eliminate English interference in the affairs of then Spanish-dominated Holland. His defeat is a victory for the Reformation in both England and the Netherlands. But how quickly the Dutch Calvinists forget their own tyrannizing history with regard to Roman Catholic Spain.

The Calvinists "demanded absolute subjection from the Remonstrants, limited their participation to the presentation of their views and prohibited criticisms of [Calvinistic] positions, especially reprobation."7 The Dutch Calvinists are the new Popery. Many note the irony that, as harshly as the Roman Catholics treat the Calvinists, so do the Calvinists return the favor on the Arminians at the Synod of Dordt; and, instead of being embarrassed by this kangaroo court, many Calvinists today still laud its proceedings.

The silver lining of the Synod of Dordt begins to appear when the Arminians are allowed, upon the death of Prince Maurice, to enter again into their Dutch homeland -- Prince Maurice's brother and successor, Frederick Henry, favors the Arminians.8 Here Arminian theology begins to flourish and Calvinism begins its drastic decline. Keith Stanglin and Thomas McCall rightly note: "Interestingly, even some Christians who are committed to Reformed ecclesial bodies [e.g., Dr. Alvin Plantinga] will admit that the theology of Arminius should have been retained as a legitimate theological option and perhaps is theologically superior to the conclusions put forth by Dordt."9 (emphasis added) We agree!

Consider this statement with regard to being Reformed: "The books of Erasmus, Melanchthon [Luther's companion in the Reformation and successor], and Bullinger [a moderate Calvinist], being very much esteemed in Holland, these works had not a little contributed to make people relish the Reformation."10 What this historical fact indicates is that being Reformed is a much broader reality than that granted by Dortian Calvinists. Like the papists -- at least in attitude and in practice -- being Reformed means being a Calvinist; and whoever is not a Calvinist is a target for persecution by Dutch Calvinists. Luther himself maintains problems with such a restriction: Luther is de facto Reformed, as is Melanchthon, and neither are Calvinists.

Moreover, we must not gloss over the historical fact of the existence of proto-Arminians, men whose theology is Arminian in nature prior to the advent of Arminius and the Remonstrants.11 Nevertheless, Dortian Calvinists, including Prince Maurice, know only fanatical dogmatism and utter dominance. In Holland, when "some young men, who had studied under the doctors of [the Calvinist universities of] Geneva and Nassau, were allowed to officiate as ministers amongst them [some of the non-Calvinist or Arminian churches], they soon endeavoured to force their opinions on the Dutch churches, and availed themselves of the first opportunity to accomplish their purpose."12 (emphasis added) The following is typical, both historically and at present, of many Calvinists:
In carrying their measures, they attempted to pass a law in the Classis that no persons should be admitted to the ministry but those who had adopted the [Calvinist] opinions they themselves had received. Not satisfied with this, they wished to exclude others who had long officiated as preachers, but whose sentiments were not in accordance with their own. These circumstances occasioned the other party to make frequent appeals to the States, asserting that their doctrines were such as had formerly been taught, and publicly sanctioned by the people, the States, and the ministers of the churches.13
What should be painfully obvious is that Calvinists are threatened by opinions which differ from their own. They are so pridefully certain that their doctrines are sanctioned by Scripture, and thus by God Himself, that they are willing to persecute, imprison, and execute anyone who dares to challenge and contradict their confessions. Prince Maurice himself admits that the "course of events" of the controversy between the Arminians and the Calvinists can "no longer be moulded by arguing this way or that; it was might, it was the sword, which would decide. From the moment that he threw his lot with [the Calvinists], there was no checking" their progress.14 This is merely a prelude to the cruelty of Maurice and the Calvinists perpetrated on the Arminians as noted in the following post.


1 Frederick Calder, Memoirs of Simon Episcopius (Charleston: BiblioLife, 2009), 9.

2 Kaspar Brandt, The Life of James Arminius, D.D., trans. John Guthrie (Charleston: BiblioLife, 2009), 15.

3 Calder, 12.

4 Ibid., 13-14. Cf. also Pieter Geyl, The Revolt of the Netherlands (1555-1609) (New York: Barnes & Noble Inc., 1958), 100-01.

5 Ibid., 11.

6 Ibid., 11-12.

7 Mark A. Ellis, Simon Episcopius' Doctrine of Original Sin (New York: Peter Lang, 2008), 35.

8 Pieter Geyl, The Netherlands in the 17th Century Part One: 1609-1648, (New York: Barnes & Noble Inc., 1961), 73.

9 Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 197.

10 Calder, 24.

11 Ibid., 25-26.

12 Ibid., 26.

13 Ibid., 27.

14 Geyl, 58.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.