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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 18 — History of Protestantism in the Netherlands

Chapter 10 — The field-preachings

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The Protestants Resolve to Worship in Public – First Field-Preaching near Ghent-Herman Modet – Seven Thousand Hearers – The Assembly Attacked, but Stands its Ground – Second Field-Preaching – Arrangements at the Field-Preaching – Wall of Waggons – Sentinels, etc. – Numbers of the Worshippers – Singing of the Psalms – Field-Preaching near Antwerp – The Governor Forbids them – The Magistrates unable to put them down – Field-Preaching at Tournay – Immense Congregations – Peregrine de la Grange – Ambrose Wille – Field-Preaching in Holland – Peter Gabriel and John Arentson – Secret Consultations – -First Sermon near Horn – Enormous Conventicle near Haarlem – The Town Gates Locked – The Imprisoned Multitude Compel their Opening – Grandeur of the Conventicle – Difference between the Field-Preachers and the Confederates – Preaching at Delft – Utrecht – The Hague – Arrival of more Preachers.

The Confederates had been given proof of what was meant by the discretion of the inquisitors, and the Protestants were able to judge how far their condition was likely to be improved under the promised "Moderation of the Placards." It neither blunted the sword nor quenched the violence of the stake. If the latter blazed somewhat less frequently, the former struck all the oftener; and there was still no diminution of the numbers of those who were called to seal their testimony with their blood. Despairing of a Government that was growing daily milder in word, but more cruel in act, the Protestants resolved that from this time forward they would hold their worshipping assemblies in public, and try what effect a display of their numbers would have upon their oppressors. At a meeting held at Whitsuntide, 1566, at which the Lord of Aldegonde – -who was destined to play the most distinguished part, next to Orange, in the coming drama – was present, it was resolved that "the churches should be opened, and divine service publicly performed at Antwerp as it was already in Flanders." This resolution was immediately acted upon. In some places the Reformed met together to the number of 7,000, in others to that of 15,000. [1] From West Flanders, where preaching in public took its rise, it passed into Brabant, and thence into other provinces. The worshippers at the beginning sought the gloom and seclusion of wood and forest. As they grew bolder, they assembled in the plains and open places; and last of all, they met in villages, in towns, and in the suburbs of great cities. They came to these meeting, in the first instance, unarmed; but being threatened, and sometimes attacked, they appeared with sticks and stones, and at last provided themselves with the more formidable weapons of swords, pistols, and muskets. [2]

It is said that the first field-preaching in the Netherlands took place on the 14th of June, 1566, and was held in the neighborhood of Ghent. The preacher was Herman Modet, who had formerly been a monk, but was now the Reformed pastor at Oudenard. "This man," says a Popish chronicler, "was the first who ventured to preach in public, and there were 7,000 persons at his first sermon." [3] The Government "scout," as the head of the executive was named, having got scent of the meeting, mounted his horse and galloped off to disperse it. Arriving on the scene, he boldly rode in amongst the multitude, holding a drawn sword in one hand and a pistol in the other, and made a dash at the minister with intent to apprehend him. Modet, making off quickly, concealed himself in a neighboring wood. The people, surprised and without arms, appeared for a moment as if they would disperse; but their courage rallying, they plentifully supplied themselves with stones, in lack of other weapons, and saluted the officer with such a shower of missiles on all sides that, throwing away his sword and pistol, he begged for quarter, to which his captors admitted him. He escaped with his life, although badly bruised.

The second great field-preaching took place on the 23rd, of July following, the people assembling in a large meadow in the vicinity of Ghent. The "Word" was precious in those days, and the people, thirsting to hear it, prepared to remain two days consecutively on the ground. Their arrangements more resembled an army pitching their camp than a peaceful multitude assembling for worship. Around the worshippers was a wall of barricades in the shape of carts and waggons. Sentinels were planted at all the entrances. A rude pulpit of planks was hastily run up and placed aloft on a cart. Modet was preacher, and around him were many thousands of hearers, who listened with their pikes, hatchets, and guns lying by their side, ready to be grasped on a sign from the sentinels who kept watch all around the assembly. In front of the entrances were erected stalls, whereat pedlars offered prohibited books to all who wished to buy. Along the roads running into the country were stationed certain persons, whose office it was to bid the casual passenger turn in and hear the Gospel. After sermon, water was fetched from a neighboring brook, and the Sacrament of baptism dispensed. When the services were finished, the multitude would repair to other districts, where they encamped after the same fashion, and remained for the same space of time, and so passed through the whole of West Flanders. At these conventicles the Psalms of David, which had been translated into Low Dutch from the version of Clement Marot, and Theodore Beza, were always sung. The odes of the Hebrew king, pealed forth by from five to ten thousand voices, and borne by the breeze over the woods and meadows, might be heard at great distances, arresting the ploughman as he turned the furrow, or the traveler as he pursued his way, and making him stop and wonder whence the minstrelsy proceeded.

Heresy had been flung into the air, and was spreading like

an infection far and near over the Low Countries. The contagion already pervaded all Flanders, and now it appeared in Brabant. The first public sermon in this part of the Netherlands was preached on the 24th of June, in a wood belonging to the Lord of Berghen, not far from Antwerp. It being St. John's-tide, and so a holiday, from four to five thousand persons were present. A rumor had been circulated that a descent would be made on the worshippers by the military; and armed men were posted at all the avenues, some on foot, others on horseback: no attack, however, took place, and the assembly concluded its worship in peace. [4] Tidings having reached the ear of the governor that field-preachings had commenced at Antwerp, she wrote to the magistrates of that city, commanding them to forbid all such assemblies of the people, and if holden, to disperse them by force of arms. The magistrates replied that they had not the power so to do, nor indeed had they; the burgher-guard was weak, some of them not very zealous in the business, and the conventicle-holders were not only numerous, but every third man went armed to the meeting. And as regards the Protestants, so little were they terrified by the threats of the duchess, that they took forcible possession of a large common, named the Laer, within a mile of Antwerp, and having fortified all the avenues leading into it, by massing waggons and branches of trees in front, and planting armed scouts all around, they preached in three several places of the field at once. [5]

The pestilence, which to the alarm and horror of the authorities had broken out, they sought to wall in by placards. Every day, new and severer prohibitions were arriving from the Duchess of Parma against the field-preachings. In the end of June, she sent orders to the magistrates of Antwerp to disperse all these assemblies, and to hang all the preachers. [6] Had the duchess accompanied these orders with troops to enforce them, their execution might have been possible; but the governor, much to her chagrin, had neither soldiers nor money. Her musketeers and cross-bowmen were themselves, in many instances, among the frequenters of these illegal meetings. To issue placards in these circumstances was altogether idle. The magistrates of Antwerp replied, that while they would take care that no conventicle was held in the city, they must decline all responsibility touching those vast masses of men, amounting at times to from fifteen to twenty thousand, that were in the practice of going outside the walls to sermon.

About this time Tournay became famous for its field-preachings. Indeed, the town may be said to have become Protestant, for not more than a sixth of its population remained with the Roman Church. Adjoining France its preachers were Walloons – that is, Huguenots – and on the question of the Sacrament, the main doctrinal difference between the Lutheran and the Reformed, the citizens of Tournay were decided Calvinists. Nowhere in the Netherlands had the Protestants as yet ventured on preaching publicly within the walls of a city, and the inhabitants of Tournay, like those of all the Flemish towns, repaired to the fields to worship, leaving for the time the streets silent. One day in the beginning of July, 1566, some 10,000 citizens passed out at its gates to hear Peregrine de la Grange, an eloquent preacher from Provence. La Grange had brought to the Low Countries the warm and impulsive temperament and lively oratory of the South; he galloped with the air of a cavalier to the spot where thousands, gathered round a hastily prepared pulpit, waited his coming; and when he stood up to begin, he would fire a pistol over the heads of his immense audience as a signal to listen. Other two days passed, and another enormous conventicle assembled outside Tournay. A preacher even more popular than Peregrine de la Grange was this day to occupy the pulpit in the fields, and the audience was twice as large as that which had assembled two days before.

Ambrose Wille had sat at the feet of Calvin, and if the stream of his eloquence was not so rapid, it was; richer and deeper than that of the Provencal; and what the multitudes which thronged to these field-preachings sought was not so much to have their emotions stirred as to have their understandings informed by the truths of Scripture, and above all, to have their consciences set at rest by hearing the way of pardon clearly explained to them. The risks connected with attendance were far too tremendous to be hazarded for the sake of mere excitement. Not only did the minister preach with a price set upon his head, but every one of these 20,000 now before him, by the mere fact of hearing him, had violated the edicts, and incurred the penalty of death. Their silence bespoke their intense anxiety and interest, and when the sermon had ended, the heartiness of their psalm testified to the depth of their joy. It was at the peril of their lives that the inhabitants of the Netherlands sought, in those days, the bread of their souls in the high places of the fields.

The movement steadily maintained its march northwards. It advanced along that famous seaboard, a mighty silent power, bowing the hearts of young and old, of the noble and the artisan, of the wealthy city merchant and the landward tiller of the soil, and gathering them, in defiance of fiery placards, in tens of thousands round that tree whereon was offered the true Sacrifice for the sins of the world. We have seen the movement advance from Flanders into Brabant, and now we are to follow it from Brabant into Holland. In vain does Philip bid it stop; in vain do the placards of the governor threaten death; it continues its majestic march from province to province, and from

city to city, its coming, like that of morning, heralded by songs of joy. It is interesting to mark the first feeble beginnings of Protestant preaching in a country where the Reformation was destined to win so many brilliant triumphs. In an obscure street of Amsterdam, there lived at that time Peter Gabriel, formerly of Bruges, with his wife Elizabeth, who was childless. He had been a monk, but having embraced the Protestant faith, he threw off the frock, and was now accustomed to explain the Heidelberg catechism every Sunday to a small congregation, who came to him by twos and threes at a time for fear of the magistrates, who were animated by a sanguinary zeal against the Reformation, and trembled lest the plague of field-preaching should invade their city. There also dwelt at Kampen at the same time John Arentson, a basket-maker by trade, but gifted with eloquence, and possessed of a knowledge of the Scriptures. Him a few pious burghers of Amsterdam invited to meet them, that they might confer touching the steps to be taken for commencing the public preaching of the Gospel in Holland. They met near St. Anthony's Gate, outside Amsterdam, for Arentson durst not venture into the city. They were a little congregation of seven, including the preacher; and having prayed for Divine guidance in a crisis so important for their country, they deliberated; and having weighed all the difficulties, they resolved, in spite of the danger that threatened their lives, to essay the public preaching of the Word in Holland.

Before breaking up they agreed to meet on the same spot, the same afternoon, to devise the practical steps for carrying out their resolution. As they were re-entering Amsterdam, by separate gates, they heard the great bell of the Stadthouse ring out. Repairing to the market-place they found the magistrates promulgating the last placard which had been transmitted from the court. It threatened death against all preachers and teachers, as also against all their harbourers, and divers lesser penalties against such as should attend their preaching. The six worthy burghers were somewhat stumbled. Nevertheless, in the afternoon, at the appointed hour, they returned to their old rendezvous, and having again earnestly prayed, they decided on the steps for having the Gospel openly preached to the people in all parts of Holland. On the 14th of July the first sermon was preached by Arentson, in a field near Horn, in North Holland, the people flocking thither from all the villages around. In the humble basket-maker we see the pioneer of that numerous band of eloquent preachers and erudite divines, by which Holland was to be distinguished in days to come. [7]

The movement thus fairly commenced soon gathered way. News of what had taken place at Horn spread like lightning all over Holland, and on the following Sunday, the 21st of July, an enormous gathering took place at Overeen, near Haarlem. Proclamation of the intended field-preaching had been made on the Exchange of Amsterdam on the previous day. The excitement was immense; all the boats and waggons in Amsterdam were hired for the transport of those who were eager to be present. Every village and town poured out its inhabitants, and all the roads and canals converging on Haarlem were crowded. The burgomasters of Amsterdam sent notice to the magistrates of Haarlem of what was impending. The Stadthouse bell was rung at nine o'clock of the evening of Saturday, and the magistrates hastily assembled, to be told that the plague of which they had heard such dreadful reports at a distance, was at last at their gates.

Haarlem was already full of strangers; not an inn in it that was not crowded with persons who purposed being present at the field-preaching on the coming day. The magistrates deliberated and thought that they had found a way by which to avert the calamity that hung over them: they would imprison this whole multitude within the walls of their town, and so extinguish the projected conventicle of to-morrow. The magistrates were not aware, when they hit on this clever expedient, that hundreds had already taken up their position at Overeen, and were to sleep on the ground. On Sunday morning, when the travelers awoke and sallied out into the street., they found the city gates locked. Hour passed after hour, still the gates were kept closed. The more adventurous leaped from the walls, swam the moat, and leaving their imprisoned companions behind them, hastened to the place of meeting. A few got out of the town when the watch opened the gates to admit the milk-women, but the great bulk of the conventiclers were still in durance, and among others Peter Gabriel, who was that day to be preacher. It was now eleven o'clock of the forenoon; the excitement on the streets of Haarlem may be imagined; the magistrates, thinking to dispel the tempest, had shut themselves in with it. The murmurs grew into clamours, the clamours into threatenings, every moment the tempest might be expected to burst. There was no alternative but to open the gates, and let the imprisoned multitude escape.

Citizens and strangers now poured out in one vast stream, and took the road to Overeen. Last of all arrived Peter Gabriel the minister. Two stakes were driven perpendicularly into the ground, and a bar was laid across, on which the minister might place his Bible, and rest his arms in speaking. Around this rude pulpit were gathered first the women, then the men, next those who had arms, forming an outer ring of defense, which however was scarcely needed, for there was then no force in Holland that would have dared to attack this multitude. The worship was commenced with the singing of a psalm. First were heard the clear soft notes of the females at the center; next the men struck in with their deeper voices; last of all the martial forms in the outer circle joined the symphony,

and gave completeness and strength to the music. When the psalm had ended, prayer was offered, and the thrilling peals that a moment before had filled the vault overhead were now exchanged for a silence yet more thrilling. The minister, opening the Bible, next read out as his text the 8th, 9th, and10th verses of the second chapter of the Epistle to the Ephesians: "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God. Not of works lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them." Here in a few verses, said the minister, was the essence of the whole Bible the "marrow" of all true theology: – -"the gift of God," salvation; its source, "the grace of God;" the way in which it is received, "through faith;" and the fruits ordained to follow, "good works."

It was a hot midsummer day; the audience was not fewer than 5,000; the preacher was weak and infirm in body, but his spirit was strong, and the lightning-power of his words held his audience captive. The sermon, which was commenced soon after noon, did not terminate till past four o'clock. Then again came prayer. The preacher made supplication, says Brandt, "for all degrees of men, especially for the Government, in such a manner that there was hardly a dry eye to be seen." [8] The worship was closed as it had been commenced, with the melodious thunder of 5,000 voices raised in praise.

So passed this great movement through Holland in the course of a few weeks. Wherever it came it stirred the inhabitants not into wrath, nor into denunciations of the Government, and much less into seditions and insurrections; it awoke within them thoughts which were far too serious and solemn to find vent in tumult and noise. They asked, "What must we do to be saved?" It was the hope of having this the greatest of all questions answered, that drew them out into woods and wildernesses, and open fields, and gathered them in thousands and tens of thousands around the Book of Life and its expositor. While Brederode and his fellow Confederates were traversing the country, making fiery speeches against the Government, writing lampoons upon the bishops, draining huge bowls of wine, and then hanging them round their necks as political badges – in short, rousing passions which stronger passions and firmer wills were to quell – -these others, whom we see searching the Scriptures, and gathering to the field-preachings, were fortifying themselves and leavening their countrymen with those convictions of truth, and that inflexible fidelity to God and to duty, which alone could carry them through the unspeakably awful conflict before them, and form a basis strong enough to sustain the glorious fabric of Dutch liberty which was to emerge from that conflict.

By the middle of August there was no city of note in all Holland where the free preaching of the Gospel had not been established, not indeed within the walls, but outside in the fields. The magistrates of Amsterdam, of all others, offered the most determined resistance. They convoked the town militia, consisting of thirty-six train-bands, and asked them whether they would support them in the suppression of the field-conventicles. The militia replied that they would not, although they would defend with their lives the magistrates and city against all insurrections. [9] The authorities were thus under the necessity of tolerating the public sermon, which was usually preached outside the Haarlem gate. The citizens of Delft, Leyden, Utrecht, and other places now took steps for the free preaching of the Gospel. The first sermon was preached at Delft by Peter Gabriel at Hornbrug, near the city. The concourse was great. The next city to follow was the Hague. Twenty waggons filled with the burghers of Delft accompanied the preacher thither; they alighted before the mansion of the president, Cornelius Suis, who had threatened the severest measures should such a heretical novelty be attempted in his city. They made a ring with the waggons, placing the preacher in the centre, while his congregation filled the enclosure. The armed portion of the worshippers remained in the waggons and kept the peace. They sang their psalm, they offered their prayer, the preaching of the sermon followed; the hostile president surveying all the while, from his own window, the proceedings which he had stringently forbidden, but was quite powerless to prevent.

There were only four Protestant ministers at this time in all Holland. Their labors were incessant; they preached all day and journeyed all night, but their utmost efforts could not overtake the vastness of the field. Every day came urgent requests for a preacher from towns and villages which had not yet been visited. The friends of the Gospel turned their eyes to other countries; they cried for help; they represented the greatness of the crisis, and prayed that laborers might be sent to assist in reaping fields that were already white, and that promised so plenteous a harvest. In answer to this appeal some ten pastors were sent, mainly from the north of Germany, and these were distributed among the cities of Holland. Other preachers followed, who came from other lands, or arose from amongst the converts at home, and no long time elapsed till each of the chief towns enjoyed a settled ministration of the Gospel.


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Thursday, September 20th, 2018
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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