Experience a Church Service in Arminius' Reformed Setting

Jacob Arminius biographer Carl Bangs has recorded for us what church services were like in the sixteenth century at the Old Reformed Church of Amsterdam where Arminius was pastor for fifteen years. In his book, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation, Bangs writes the following.

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There is no record of a formal enrollment of Arminius into the ministry, but he appears in the minutes of the classis as active in the session of September 5, 1588. . . . He appears in the minutes of the consistory for September 22 [of the same year]. . . . 

There was, of course, the work on Sunday. Arminius soon began taking his turn at conducting Sunday services. The principal services were held in the two great churches, the Old Church and the New Church. The churches had been purged of many decorations and furnishings reminiscent of Roman Catholic days, and new features for accommodating the new order had been provided.

Gone was the distance between priest at the high altar in the east and the faithful far removed in the nave. Now the congregation was gathered around the pulpit. In the Old Church, where Arminius served probably most often, the old pulpit was still in use in his time. Around it were benches for the consistory, including the deacons and also the ministers who were attending but not preaching. The church officials thus both set an example to the congregation and kept an eye on the proceedings, lest something unacceptable should happen. 

Not the least of their functions was that of passing judgment on the sermons. A deviation from sound doctrine would become an item for business the next Thursday when the consistory had its weekly meeting. Also admitted to this special area were the children to be baptized, with their parents and witnesses.

Around the pillars opposite the pulpit were benches for the city officials. At first, these were for the burgomasters [town officials] only; later, the number was broadened. Early in 1590 a special place was built for the Stadtholder [the governor or lieutenant governor of a province] to use when he was in the city. Wives of the officials also had permanent seats. Most of the officials attended regularly, many of them both mornings and evenings. The rest of the congregation sat on benches and stools gathered around the permanent reserved seats, or they stood. 

Church attendance was high, and often the churches were full, especially if the preacher was popular. By all accounts, Arminius was such a popular preacher and was favored especially by the group which constituted the ruling element in Amsterdam, the merchant-regents who were the burgomasters and council members.

The Sunday morning service was preceded and followed by an hour of organ music, although the earlier music had to end a half hour before the service began. Provincial and national synods in 1574, 1578, and 1581 had all condemned the use of organs for services, citing [1 Corinthians 14:7] and linking organ playing with papacy, Judaism, heathenism, and superstition. The Old Church and the New Church each had a small and a large organ. The small organ in the Old Church, which was often played by Sweelinck, is still in use. The Reformed churches rejected organs also in order to involve the whole congregation in singing. The organ music on Sundays was mostly psalms with some other music permitted, but with the explicit exclusion of Mass music.

DE OUDE KERK: INSIDE JACOB ARMINIUS' OLD REFORMED CHURCH

Thirty minutes before the service was to begin, the organ music stopped and the clerk took his place near the pulpit. The half hour was spent in reading from the Bible. At the time for the service itself, the minister, dressed in the scholar's garb of tabard with a ruff, ascended into the pulpit, took his cap off, and pronounced the votum [a form of pleading prayer]. The cap was the symbol of freedom, and the minister was a free man who doffed his cap only in the presence of God. The votum, which still begins all Reformed services in Holland, was Psalm 124:8: "Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth." This was followed by the Scripture lesson, the morning prayer, the sermon, the closing prayer, and the benediction. 

There could also be interspersed the singing of psalms, a confession of sin, and the announcement of gracious forgiveness. The prayers were written out in advance. There was an offering, not for the expenses of the church, which were provided by the magistrates, but for the relief of the poor, specifically those in the almshouse and the orphanage. There was also a collection plate at the door for offerings for special purposes.

Although there had been earlier instances of sermons lasting as long as four hours, in Arminius' time the service itself lasted only an hour and a half. On this the burgomasters were insistent, because they often met at the close of the service. The sermon, then, lasted only about an hour. There were several systems of organizing the preaching schedule. Sometimes the sermons followed the course of a certain biblical book, with the various ministers taking turns in the series. Another plan was for a certain minister himself to follow the course of a biblical book. In neither case did the congregation know in advance which minister would be preaching in which church on a given Sunday. These arrangements were made by the ministers themselves, and permission had to be given for any one minister to preach on a certain biblical book.

Casper Brandt reports that Arminius began preaching alternately on Romans and Malachi on November 6, 1588. None of these sermons is extant, nor do any of the other sermons from this period survive. Why did Arminius choose these two books? From his later expositions of chapters 7 and 9 of Romans, published after his death, there is a clue. Arminius was fascinated by Romans 9, especially verses 10-13: "Rebecca . . . was told, 'The elder will serve the younger.' As it is written, 'Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.'" This story of Jacob and Esau is in Genesis 25, but Paul is quoting Malachi 1:2-3. This is to say that Arminius, from the outset of his ministry in Amsterdam, was dealing with the problems of grace and predestination [election]. This series of sermons on Romans lasted until September 30, 1601. It was not until 1591, when he had reached chapter 7, that his preaching aroused controversy. For the time being, Arminius apparently had a normal round of duties in the church.

On April 17, 1589, he was elected secretary of the classis. On June 25, 1590, he was received as a delegate from the classis to the Particular Synod of North Holland meeting at Hoorn. He was busy enough on a nonecclesiastical matter. He was addressing his attentions to a daughter of Laurens [Jacobszoon] Rael, Lijsbet [Elizabeth] by name. Unlike Luther, who often wrote of his Katie, Arminius has left us nothing about his Lizzie. His marriage to Lijsbet, however, was a matter of the utmost significance, not only for the personal meanings it entailed but also for the fact that Arminius was now linked to the Vroedschap of Amsterdam, the city council whose members were drawn from the closed circle of regents who had ruled Amsterdam, both city and church, since the Alteration.

Arminius for the first time since his boyhood had a family circle [his family being massacred when the Spanish when they invaded his hometown]. This circle tied him to the Old Beggars of the 1560's, to the upper levels of Amsterdam society, to the merchant traders who had brought Amsterdam its new wealth, and to the rising merchant adventurers who would forge trade routes around the world and usher in Holland's Golden Age. The Reael family in its various branches was in the center of the action. . . .

By 1590 Arminius, the orphan from Oudewater, was no longer an isolated individual lacking in supportive relationships and dependent on charity. By his call to the Amsterdam ministry and by his marriage to Lijsbet, he was caught up in an extended network of professional, political, economic, and family relationships which extended into every corner of the leading families of Amsterdam. More than once these relationships were to function in his favor in the turbulent years which lay ahead.

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Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1971), 125-32.

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.