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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 18 — History of Protestantism in the Netherlands

Chapter 23 — The "pacification of Ghent," and toleration

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William of Orange more than King of Holland – The "Father of the Country" – Policy of the European Powers – Elizabeth – France – Germany – Coldness of Lutheranism – Causes – Hatred of German Lutherans to Dutch Calvinists – . Instances – William's New Project – His Appeal to all the Provinces to Unite against the Spaniards – The "Pacification of Ghent " – Its Articles – Toleration – Services to Toleration of John Calvin and William the Silent.

The great struggle which William, Prince of Orange, was maintaining on this foot-breadth of territory for the religion of Reformed Christendom, and the liberty' of the Netherlands, had now reached a well-defined stage. Holland and Zealand were united under him as Stadtholder or virtual monarch. The fiction was still maintained that Philip, as Count of Holland, was the nominal monarch of the Netherlands, but this was nothing more than a fiction, and to Philip it must have appeared a bitter satire; for, according to this fiction, Philip King of the Netherlands was making war on Philip King of Spain. The real monarch of the United Provinces of Holland and Zealand was the Prince of Orange. In his hands was lodged the whole administrative power of the country, as also well-nigh the whole legislative functions. He could make peace and he could make war. He appointed to all offices; he disposed of all affairs; and all the revenues of the kingdom were paid to him for national uses, and especially for the prosecution of the great struggle in which he was engaged for the nation's independence. These revenues, given spontaneously, were larger by far than the sums which Alva by all his taxation and terror had been able to extort from the Provinces. William, in fact, possessed more than the powers of a king. The States had unbounded trust in his wisdom, his patriotism, and his uprightness, and they committed all into his hands.

They saw in him a sublime example of devotion to his country, and of abnegation of all ambitions, save the one ambition of maintaining the Protestant religion and the freedom of Holland. They knew that he sought neither title, nor power, nor wealth, and that in him was perpetuated that order of men to which Luther and Calvin belonged – men not merely of prodigious talents, but what is infinitely more rare, of heroic faith and magnanimous souls; and so "King of Holland" appeared to them a weak title – they called him the "Father of their Country."

The great Powers of Europe watched, with an interest bordering on amazement, this gigantic struggle maintained by a handful of men, on a diminutive half-submerged territory, against the greatest monarch of his day. The heroism of the combat challenged their admiration, but its issues awakened their jealousies, and even alarms. It was no mere Dutch quarrel; it was no question touching only the amount of liberty and the kind of religion that were to be established on this sandbank of the North Sea that was at issue; the cause was a world-wide one, and yet none of the Powers interfered either to bring aid to that champion who seemed ever on the point of being overborne, or to expedite the victory on the powerful side on which it seemed so sure to declare itself; all stood aloof and left these two most unequal combatants to fight out the matter between them. There was, in truth, the same play of rivalries around the little Holland which there had been at a former era around Geneva. This rivalry reduced the Protestant Powers to inaction, and prevented their assisting Holland, just as the Popish Powers had been restrained from action in presence of Geneva. In the case of the little city on the shores of the Leman, Providence plainly meant that Protestantism should be seen to triumph in spite of the hatred and opposition of the Popish kingdoms; and so again, in the case of the little country on the shores of the North Sea, Providence meant to teach men that Protestantism could triumph independently of the aid and alliance of the Powers friendly to it. The great ones of the earth stood aloof, but William, as he told his friends, had contracted a firm alliance with a mighty Potentate, with him who is King of kings; and seeing this invisible but omnipotent Ally, he endured in the awful conflict till at last his faith was crowned with a glorious victory.

In England a crowd of statesmen, divines, and private Christians followed the banners of the Prince of Orange with their hopes and their prayers. But nations then had found no channel for the expression of their sympathies, other than the inadequate one of the policy of their sovereign; and Elizabeth, though secretly friendly to William and the cause of Dutch independence, had to shape her conduct so as to balance conflicting interests. Her throne was surrounded with intrigues, and her person with perils. She had to take account of the pretensions and partisans of the Queen of Scots, of the displeasure of Philip of Spain, and of the daggers of the Jesuits, and these prevented her supporting the cause of Protestantism in Holland with arms or, to any adequate extent, with money. But if she durst not accord it public patronage or protection, neither could she openly declare against it; for in that case France would have made a show of aiding William, and Elizabeth would have seen with envy the power of her neighbor and rival considerably extended, and the influence of England, as a Protestant State, proportionately curtailed and weakened.

France was Roman Catholic and Protestant by turns. At this moment the Protestant fit was upon it: a peace had been made with the Huguenots which promised them everything but secured them nothing, and which was destined to reach the term of its brief currency within the year. The protaean Medici-Valois house that

ruled that country was ready to enter any alliance, seeing it felt the obligation to fidelity in none; and the Duke of Anjou:. to spite both Philip and Elizabeth, might have been willing to have taken the title of King of the Netherlands, and by championing the cause of Dutch Protestantism for an hour ruined it for ever. This made France to William of Orange, as well as to Elizabeth, an object of both hope and fear; but happily the fear predominating, for the horror of the St. Bartholomew had not yet left the mind of William, he was on his guard touching offers of help from the Court of the Louvre.

But what of Germany, with which the Prince of Orange had so many and so close relationships, and which lay so near the scene of the great conflict, whose issues must so powerfully influence it for good or for ill? Can Germany fail to see that it is its own cause that now stands at bay on the extreme verge of the Fatherland, and that could the voice of Luther speak from the tomb in the Schloss-kirk of Wittemberg, it would summon the German princes and knights around the banner of William of Orange, as it formerly summoned them to the standard of Frederick of Saxony? But since Luther was laid in the grave the great heart of Germany had waxed cold. Many of its princes seemed to be Protestant for no other end but to be able to increase their revenues by appropriations from the lands and hoards of the Roman establishment, and it was hardly to be, expected that Protestants of this stamp would feel any lively interest in the great struggle in Holland. But the chief cause of the coldness of Germany was the unhappy jealousy that divided the Lutherans from the Reformed. That difference had been widening since the evil day of Marburg. Luther on that occasion had been barely able to receive Zwingle and his associates as brethren, and many of the smaller men who succeeded Luther lacked even that small measure of charity; and in the times of William of Orange to be a Calvinist was, in the eyes of many Lutherans, to be a heretic. When the death of Edward VI. compelled the celebrated John Alasco, with his congregation, to leave England and seek asylum in Denmark, West-phalus, a Lutheran divine, styled the wandering congregation of Alasco "the martyrs of the devil;" whilst another Lutheran, Bugenhagius, declared that "they ought not to be considered as Christians;" and they received intimation from the king that he would "sooner suffer Papists than them in his dominions; " and they were compelled, at a most inclement season, to embark for the north of Germany, where the same persecutions awaited them, the fondness for the dogma of con-substantiation on the part of the Lutheran ministers having almost stifled in their minds the love of Protestantism. [1] But William of Orange was an earnest Calvinist, and the opinions adopted by the Church of Holland on the subject of the Sacrament were the same with those received by the Churches of Switzerland and of England, and hence the coldness of Germany to the great battle for Protestantism on its borders.

William, therefore, seeing England irresolute, France treacherous, and Germany cold, withdrew his eyes from abroad, in seeking for allies and aids, and fixed them nearer home. Might he not make another attempt to consolidate the cause of Protestant liberty in the Netherlands themselves?

The oft-recurring outbreaks of massacre and rapine were deepening the detestation of the Spanish rule in the minds of the Flemings, and now, if he should try, he might find them ripe for joining with their brethren of Holland and Zealand in an effort to throw off the yoke of Philip. The chief difficulty, he foresaw, in the way of such a confederacy was the difference of religion. In Holland and Zealand the Reformed faith was now the established religion, whereas in the other fifteen Provinces the Roman was the national faith. Popery had had a marked revival of late in the Netherlands, the date of this second growth being that of their submission to Alva; and now so attached were the great body of the Flemings to the Church of Rome, that they were resolved "to die rather than renounce their faith." This made the patriotic project which William now contemplated the more difficult, and the negotiation in favor of it a matter of great delicacy, but it did not discourage him from attempting it. The Flemish Papist, not less than the Dutch Calvinist, felt the smart of the Spanish steel, and might be roused to vindicate the honor of a common country, and to expel the massacring hordes of a common tyrant. It was now when Requesens was dead, and the government was for the time in the hands of the State Council, and the fresh atrocities of the Spanish soldiers gave added weight to his energetic words, that he wrote to the people of the Netherlands to the effect that "now was the time when they might deliver themselves for ever from the tyranny of Spain. By the good providence of God, the government had fallen into their own hands. It ought to be their unalterable resolve to hold fast the power which they possessed, and to employ it in delivering their fellow-citizens from that intolerable load of misery under which they had so long groaned. The measure of the calamities of the people, and of the iniquity of the Spaniards, was now full. There was nothing worse to be dreaded than what they had already suffered, and nothing to deter them from resolving either to expel their rapacious tyrants, or to perish in the glorious attempt." [2] To stimulate them to the effort to which he called them, he pointed to what Holland and Zealand single-handed had done; and if "this handful of cities" had accomplished so much,

what might not the combined strength of all the Provinces, with their powerful cities, achieve?

This appeal fell not to the ground. In November, 1576, a congress composed of deputies from all the States assembled at Ghent, which re-echoed the patriotic sentiments of the prince; the deliberations of its members, quickened and expedited by the Antwerp Fury, which happened at the very time the congress was sitting, ended in a treaty termed the "Pacification of Ghent." This "Pacification" was a monument of the diplomatic genius, as well as patriotism, of William the Silent. In it the prince and the States of Holland and Zealand on the one side, and the fifteen Provinces of the Netherlands on the other, agreed to bury all past differences, and to unite their arms in order to effect the expulsion of the Spanish soldiers from their country. Their soil cleared of foreign troops, they were to call a meeting of the States-General on the plan of that great assembly which had accepted the abdication of Charles V. By the States-General all the affairs of the Confederated Provinces were to be finally regulated, but till it should meet it was agreed that the Inquisition should be for ever abolished; that the edicts of Philip touching heresy and the tumults should be suspended; that the ancient forms of government should be revived; that the Reformed faith should be the religion of the two States of Holland and Zealand, but that no Romanist should be oppressed on account of his opinion; while in the other fifteen Provinces the religion then professed, that is the Roman, was to be the established worship, but no Protestant was to suffer for conscience sake. In short, the basis of the treaty, as concerned religion, was toleration. [3]

A great many events were crowded upon this point of time. The Pacification of Ghent, which united all the Provinces in resistance to Spain, the Antwerp Fury, and the recovery of that portion of Zealand which the Spaniards by their feats of daring had wrested from William, all arrived contemporaneously to signalize this epoch of the struggle.

This was another mile-stone on the road of the Prince of Orange. In the Pacification of Ghent he saw his past efforts beginning to bear fruit, and he had a foretaste of durable and glorious triumphs to be reaped hereafter. It was an hour of exquisite gladness in the midst of the sorrow and toil of his great conflict. The Netherlands, participating in the prince's joy, hailed the treaty with a shout of enthusiasm. It was read at the market-crosses of all the cities, amid the ringing of bells and the blazing of bonfires.

But the greatest gain in the Pacification of Ghent, and the matter which the Protestant of the present day will be best pleased to contemplate, is the advance it notifies in the march of toleration. Freedom of conscience was the basis on which this Pacification, which foreshadowed the future Dutch Republic, was formed. Calvin, twenty years before, had laid down the maxim that no one is to be disturbed for his religious opinions unless they are expressed in words or acts that are inimical to the State, or prejudicial to social order. William of Orange, in laying the first foundations of the Batavin Republic, placed them on the principle of toleration, as his master Calvin had defined it. To these two great men-John Calvin and William the Silent – we owe, above most, this great advance on the road of progress and human freedom. The first had defined and inculcated the principle in his writings; the second had embodied and given practical effect to it in the new State which his genius and patriotism had called into existence.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, October 21st, 2020
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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