The Unjust Persecution of the Arminians

After the death of Arminius in 1609 the Remonstrants petition the States for protection and safe conduct. Why? Why would the early Arminians fear for their physical safety? By the era of Arminius' death in 1609 the Netherlands is a "peaceful land of prosperous industry," and "open to religious refugees with an unusual degree of toleration." (link) That manner of life changes into "a place of riots, intrigues, military take-overs, imprisonment for matters of belief, spies of the expression of dissident thought, strict censorship, and all manner of military preparations for an imminent encounter with, and possible invasion by, the Catholic armies of the Hapsburgs of Spain and Austria." (link)

Prince Maurice becomes accustomed to "looking upon the Calvinists as his allies in purely political affairs."1 If the Ruler of the land is for the Calvinists then the Arminians naturally intuit that he is against them. Mind you, Maurice favors the Calvinists for political gain, not because He is a convinced Calvinist. To view the Synod of Dordt as a strictly ecclesiastical maneuver is deceptive with regard to either Prince Maurice or King James in England. While protection is granted to the Remonstrants, initially, the same is taken from them in due time. The early Arminians live and minister for a while after the death of Arminius. But the "headstrong and fiery,"2 "querulous and dogmatical,"3 Calvinists will not rest until there is an utter defeat of the Arminians: "the defenders of [Calvinism] being too few to carry their purposes" during Arminius' time -- "but when they increased in numbers and influence, they proceeded to make use of their power to persecute [the Arminians]."4

I trust the historical opinions of Frederick Calder, author of the Memoirs of Simon Episcopius, who, in 1858, grants us a more objective view on the issues of Dordt and life in Holland during the time of the Remonstrants than either myself or a devoted Calvinist can grant because he himself confesses to subscribe neither strictly to Calvin nor strictly to Arminius. He presents, I think, a scathing remark concerning the Dortian Calvinists: "The mistake of such writers on these subjects must be traced to the circumstance of their looking at religion merely as a piece of state machinery and only valuable as an instrument for governing the minds of the many for political purposes."5 So much, then, for the priesthood of the believer, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religion. This contextual-historical fact contradicts the explicit command of Christ Himself:
Jesus called them together and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave -- just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Matt. 20:26, 27, 28 NIV, emphasis added)
But perspective is king. Some Dortian Calvinists maintain difficulty regarding the Arminians as their brothers and sisters in Christ.6 Even as early as 1613, five years prior to the Synod of Dordrecht, rhetorical tricks are played upon two separate Arminians by two separate Calvinist ministers during two separate occasions at a baptism -- a holy baptism!7 Each minister attempts to trip the Arminian when repeating the liturgy for baptism. The second attempt is played upon Simon Bisschop, known also by the Latinized rendering Simon Episcopius, who is prepared for the trickery, having heard of the prior account. But Simon plays his own rhetorical trick, thus embarrassing the minister, yet the congregants are led to believe that Episcopius is causing trouble at a holy baptism. The minister, furious, begins to "use the most abusive language, calling him a bold, presumptuous, and impudent fellow."8 Herein displays the insanity of the Calvinists.

THE ARMINIAN BARRICADE by LES DÉLICES de LEYDE in 1715

The Calvinist minister attempts to trick Episcopius during the liturgy of an infant's baptism, a deplorable act in itself, and then accuses his victim for outsmarting him. But many within the congregation, not understanding the situation, "furiously assailed him [Episcopius] in the church with the most violent and insulting language; even the dog-whipper seized hold of him, which was witnessed by these ministers without their interference, and though he returned to the place where they were standing, for the purpose of justifying himself, they only treated him with scorn."9 But this is only the beginning of trouble for the Arminians.

When Episcopius (pictured right) attempts to justify his actions, the people are so angered that he is not able to make his excuse, and they henceforth begin to mistreat not only him but all the Arminians -- even preparing themselves to stone them once they are in the streets: "and I [Episcopius] can only attribute it to the special interference of the restraining power of God that we were not seriously hurt, if not actually murdered by this infuriated people."10 I think it proper for us to understand what kind of Calvinists we are addressing as we view their words and their actions. Some of these men are reprehensible characters, zealous without doubt for their doctrines, but lacking the evidence of the indwelling Holy Spirit. (Gal. 5:22-23)

Episcopius is required of the Magistrates to answer for his actions on this baptismal occasion. After he is cleared of the matter, the populace is still viewing him with a jaundiced eye, and is still excited toward violence at his person. A blacksmith accosts him in the streets with abusive language,11 most Christianly I assume, and when Simon merely ignores his threats the blacksmith, filled with rage, "seized hold of a piece of red hot iron, and ran after him like a fury, and had he not escaped by running swifter than the fellow, it is most likely he would have been killed by him; and yet this was done in the sight of several persons [including a Chief Magistrate], without any being disposed to prevent this man from executing his furious purpose."12

Keep in mind that Simon Episcopius is a beloved professor in Holland, praised for his intellect,13 some suggesting that his brilliance outshines even that of Arminius. This is not a socially-loathed individual. Then again, none of the Arminians are despised personally, meaning for their attitudes or behavior. They are hated for perpetuating the theology of the early Church fathers and opposing some tenets of Calvinism.14

The Arminians ask Dutch Statesman Johan van Oldenbarneveldt (1547-1619) for help; and also the brilliant Jurist, Chief Magistrate of Rotterdam, and Remonstrant Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), who verbally attacks the Calvinists "for threatening the safety of the state, the church's unity, and worst of all the principal of freedom of conscience."15 The result is frightening: "Arminian ministers and their churches were attacked by mobs. Riots and disorder increased, and began to spread to other matters besides, as when in 1616 Delft saw several days of rioting over corn taxes, during which barricades were erected in the streets [see portrait above] and the houses of the rich were stoned."16 This barricade becomes known as the Arminian Redoubt,17 or merely the Arminian Barricade.

Meanwhile, Prince Maurice (pictured left) decides that only a civil war will settle the matters in dispute, even Predestination.18 "Harassment of Arminians increased, and Maurice instructed his troops to do nothing to protect them."19 Johan Oldenbarneveldt decides to implement social order, but is undermined by Maurice, and both he and Grotius are arrested.20 The Arminians, when they minister in their churches, have entire congregations get up and defiantly walk out, seeking a Calvinist-dominated church. The government under Maurice is fine with this chaos, even refusing to help restrain a mob that attacks the brother of Simon Episcopius, Rem Bisschop, and this act creates quite a stir all over Holland.21

There is no justice in Maurice; there is no justice in the Calvinist cause; and there is no justice in persecuting brothers and sisters in Christ whose beliefs differ only slightly over secondary matters. What is the crime of the Arminians? Their crime is believing that God's grace upon the soul can be resisted (Acts 7:51), that Christ died for the sin of the world (John 1:29; 1 John 2:2), and that God elects to save those who believe in Christ (1 Cor. 1:21; Heb. 7:25). For this they are scorned, mobbed, arrested and declared heretics. Have no doubt, in an utterly tragic sense, the same contentious spirit of Dordt is active within some Calvinists even to this very day.

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1 Pieter Geyl, The Netherlands in the 17th Century Part One: 1609-1648 (New York: Barnes & Noble Inc., 1961), 57.

2 Frederick Calder, Memoirs of Simon Episcopius (Charleston: BiblioLife, 2009), 25.

3 Ibid., 27.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid., 32.

6 Ibid., 125, 138, 151.

7 Ibid., 137-39.

8 Ibid., 139.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., 139-40.

11 Ibid., 144.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid., 151. Prior to his being excused from the Synod of Dordt, Episcopius utters an oration that lasts two hours, the reaction being recorded: "The gracefulness, force, and energy which it was spoken made such an impression on the auditory [those gathered] as drew tears from several of them, and even from some of the States' Deputies" -- a matter that does not, in fact, please the President of the Synod, Johannes Bogerman. "Account of the Proceedings of the Synod of Dort," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 1:489-90.

14 "[T]he writer of these pages places it [the life and theology of Arminius] amongst the most interesting of religious events, and second to none but the Reformation, that this great man was prompted to examine and test the doctrines of Calvin, by the light of Scripture, and the writings of the fathers of the first three centuries. Of these, Mosheim says that 'everyone knows that the peculiar doctrines to which the victory was assigned by the Synod of Dort were absolutely unknown in the first stages of the Christian church.' If this might be said of the Calvinism of the Synod of Dort, with how much more justice might it apply to the Calvinism of the college of Geneva." Calder, 33.

15 A.C. Grayling, Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius (New York: Walker & Company, 2005), 35.

16 Ibid., 36. "Anti-Remonstrant riots, arson, and further unrest occurred in Amsterdam, Delft, Rotterdam, and elsewhere." Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs, "Beyond Luther, Beyond Calvin, Beyond Arminius: The Pilgrims and the Remonstrants in Ledien, 1609-1620," in Reconsidering Arminius: Beyond the Reformed and Wesleyan Divide, eds. Keith D. Stanglin, Mark G. Bilby, and Mark H. Mann (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 2014), 60.

17 Jeremy Dupertius Bangs, 61.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid., 36-37.

21 Geyl, 58.

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ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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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.