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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 18 — History of Protestantism in the Netherlands

Chapter 3 — Antwerp: its confessors and martyrs

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Antwerp – Its Convent of Augustines – Jacob Spreng – Henry of Zutphen – Convent Razed – A Preacher Drowned – Placards of the Emperor Charles V. – Well of Life – Long and Dreadful Series of Edicts – Edict of 1540 – The Inquisition – Spread of Lutheranism – Confessors – Martyrdom of John de Bakker.

No city did the day that was now breaking over the Low Countries so often touch with its light as Antwerp. Within a year after Luther's appearance, Jacob Spreng, prior of the Augustinian convent in that town, confessed himself a disciple of the Wittemberg monk, and began to preach the same doctrine. He was not suffered to do so long. In 1519 he was seized in his own convent, carried to Brussels, and threatened with the punishment of the fire. Though his faith was genuine, he had not courage to be a martyr. Vanquished by the fear of death, he consented to read in public his recantation. Being let go, he repaired to Bremen, and there, "walking softly from the memory of his fall," he passed the remaining years of his life in preaching the Gospel as one of the pastors of that northern town. [1]

The same city and the same convent furnished another Reformer yet more intrepid than Spreng. This was Henry of Zutphen. He, too, had sat at the feet of Luther, and along with his doctrine had carried away no small amount of Luther's dramatic power in setting it forth. Christ's office as a Savior he finely put into the following antitheses: – "He became the servant of the law that he might be its master. He took all sin that he might take away sin. [2] He is at once the victim and the vanquisher of death; the captive of hell, yet he it was by whom its gates were burst open." But though he refused to the sinner any share in the great work of expiating sin, reserving that entirely and exclusively to the Savior, Zutphen strenuously insisted that the believer should be careful to maintain good works. "Away," he said, "with a dead faith." His career in Antwerp was brief. He was seized and thrown into prison. He did not deceive himself as to the fate that awaited him. He kept awake during the silent hours of night, preparing for the death for which he looked on the coming day.

Suddenly a great uproar arose round his prison. The noise was caused by his townsmen, who had come to rescue him. They broke open his gaol, penetrated to his cell, and bringing him forth, made him escape from the city. Henry of Zutphen, thus rescued from the fires of the Inquisition, visited in the course of his wanderings several provinces and cities, in which he preached the Gospel with great eloquence and success. Eventually he went to Holstein, where, after laboring some time, a mob, instigated by the priests, set upon him and murdered him [3] in the atrociously cruel and barbarous manner we have described in a previous part of our history. [4]

It seemed as if the soil on which the convent of the Augustines in Antwerp stood produced heretics. It must be dug up. In October, 1522, the convent was dismantled. Such of the monks as had not caught the Lutheran disease had quarters provided for them elsewhere. The Host was solemnly removed from a place, the very air of which was loaded with deadly pravity, and the building, like the house of the leper of old, was razed to the ground. [5] No man lodged under that roof any more for ever. But the heresy was not driven away from Brabant, and the inquisitors began to wreak their vengeance on other objects besides the innocent stones and timbers of heretical monasteries. In the following year (1523) three monks, who had been inmates of that same monastery whose ruins now warned the citizens of Antwerp to eschew Lutheranism as they would the fire, were burned at Brussels. [6] When the fire was kindled, they first recited the Creed; then they chanted the Te Deum Laudamus. This hymn they sang, each chanting the alternate verse, till the flames had deprived them of both voice and life. [7]

In the following year the monks signalised their zeal by a cruel deed. The desire to hear the Gospel continuing to spread in Antwerp and the adjoining country, the pastor of Meltz, a little place near Antwerp, began to preach to the people. His church was often unable to contain the crowds that came to hear him, and he was obliged to retire with his congregation to the open fields. In one of his sermons, declaiming against the priests of his time, he said: – "We are worse than Judas, for he both sold and delivered the Lord; but we sell him to you, and do not deliver him." This was doctrine, the public preaching of which was not likely to be tolerated longer than the priests lacked power to stop it. Soon there appeared a placard or proclamation silencing the pastor, as well as a certain Augustinian monk, who preached at times in Antwerp. The assemblies of both were prohibited, and a reward of thirty gold caroli set upon their heads. Nevertheless, the desire for the Gospel was not extinguished, and one Sunday the people convened in great numbers in a ship-building yard on the banks of the Scheldt, in the hope that some one might minister to them the Word of Life. In that gathering was a young man, well versed in the Scriptures, named Nicholas, who seeing no one willing to act as preacher, rose himself to address the people. Entering into a boat that was moored by the river's brink, he read and expounded to the multitude the, parable of the five loaves and the two small fishes. The thing was known all over the

city. It was dangerous that such a man should be at large; and the monks took care that he should preach no second sermon. Hiring two butchers, they waylaid him next day, forced him into a sack, tied it with a cord, and hastily carrying him to the river, threw him in. When the murder was known a thrill of horror ran through the citizens of Antwerp. [8]

Ever since, the emperor's famous fulmination against Luther, in 1521, he had kept up a constant fire of placards, as they were termed – that is, of persecuting edicts – upon the Netherlands. They were posted up in the streets, read by all, and produced universal consternation and alarm. They succeeded each other at brief intervals; scarcely had the echoes of one fulmination died away when a new and more terrible peal was heard resounding over the startled and affrighted provinces. In April, 1524, came a placard forbidding the printing of any book without the consent of the officers who had charge of that matter. [9] In 1525 came a circular letter from the regent Margaret, addressed to all the monasteries of Holland, enjoining them to send out none but discreet preachers, who would be careful to make no mention of Luther's name. In March, 1526, came another placard against Lutheranism, and in July of the same year yet another and severer. The preamble of this edict set forth that the "vulgar had been deceived and misled, partly by the contrivance of some ignorant fellows, who took upon them to preach the Gospel privately, without the leave of their superiors, explaining the same, together with other holy writings, after their own fancies, and not according to the orthodox sense of the doctors of the Church, racking their brains to produce new-fangled doctrines.

Besides these, divers secular and regular priests presumed to ascend the pulpit, and there to relate the errors and sinister notions of Luther and his adherents, at the same time reviving the heresies of ancient times, and some that had likewise been propagated in these countries, recalling to men's memories the same, with other false and damnable opinions that had never till now been heard, thought, or spoken of.. Wherefore the edict forbids, in the emperor's name, all assemblies in order to read, speak, confer, or preach concerning the Gospel or other holy writings in Latin, Flemish, or in the Walloon languages – as likewise to preach, teach, or in any sort promote the doctrines of Martin Luther; especially such as related to the Sacrament of the altar, or to confession, and other Sacraments of the Church, or anything else that affected the honor of the holy mother Mary, and the saints and saintesses, and their images..By this placard it was further ordered that, together with the books of Luther, etc., and all their adherents of the same sentiments, all the gospels, epistles, prophecies, and other books of the Holy Scriptures in High Dutch, Flemish, Walloon, or French, that had marginal notes, or expositions according to the doctrine of Luther, should be brought to some public place, and there burned; and that whoever should presume to keep any of the aforesaid books and writings by them after the promulgation of this placard should forfeit life and goods." [10]

In 1528 a new placard was issued against prohibited books, as also against monks who had abandoned their cloister. There followed in 1529 another and more severe edict, condemning to death without pardon or reprieve all who had not brought their Lutheran books to be burned, or had otherwise contravened the former edicts. Those who had relapsed after having abjured their errors were to die by fire; as for others, the men were to die by the sword, and the women by the pit – that is, they were to be buried alive. To harbour or conceal a heretic was death and the forfeiture of goods. Informers were to have one-half of the estates of the accused on conviction; and those who were commissioned to put the placard in execution were to proceed, not with "the tedious for-realities of trial," but by summary process. [11]

It was about this time that Erasmus addressed a letter to the inhabitants of the Low Countries, in which he advised them thus: – "Keep yourselves in the ark, that you do not perish in the deluge. Continue in the little ship of our Savior, lest ye be swallowed by the waves. Remain in the fold of the Church, lest ye become a prey to the wolves or to Satan, who is always going to and fro, seeking whom he may devour. Stay and see what resolutions will be taken by the emperor, the princes, and afterwards by a General Council." [12] It was thus that the man who was reposing in the shade exhorted the men who were in the fire. As regarded a "General Council," for which they were bidden to wait, the Reformers had had ample experience, and the result had been uniform – the mountain had in every case brought forth a mouse. They were able also by this time to guess, one should think, what the emperor was likely to do for them. Almost every year brought with it a new edict, and the space between each several fulmination was occupied in giving practical application to these decrees – that is, in working the axe, the halter, the stake, and the pit.

A new impetus was given about this time to the Reform movement, by the translation of Luther's version of the Scriptures into Low Dutch. It was not well executed; nevertheless, being read in their assemblies, the book instructed and comforted these young converts. Many of the priests who had been in office for years, but who had never read a single line of the Bible, good-naturedly taking it for granted that it amply authenticated all that the Church taught, dipped into it, and being much

astonished at its contents, began to bring both their life and doctrine into greater accordance with it. One of the printers of this first edition of the Dutch Bible was condemned to death for his pains, and died by the axe. Soon after this, some one made a collection of certain passages from the Scriptures, and published them under the title of "The Well of Life." The little book, with neither note nor comment, contained but the words of Scripture itself; nevertheless it was very obnoxious to the zealous defenders of Popery. A "Well of Life" to others, it was a Well of Death to their Church and her rites, and they resolved on stopping it. A Franciscan friar of Brabant set out on purpose for Amsterdam, where the little book had been printed, and buying up the whole edition, he committed it to the flames. He had only half done his work, however. The book was printed in other towns. The Well would not be stopped; its water would gush out; the journey and the expense which the friar had incurred had been in vain.

We pass over the edicts that were occasionally seeing the light during the ten following years, as well as the Anabaptist opinions and excesses, with the sanguinary wars to which they led. These we have fully related in a previous part of our history. [13] In 1540 came a more atrocious edict than any that had yet been promulgated. The monks and doctors of Louvain, who spared no pains to root out the Protestant doctrine, instigated the monarch to issue a new placard, which not only contained the substance of all former edicts, but passed them into a perpetual law. It was dated from Brussels, the 22nd September, 1540, and was to the following effect: – That the heretic should be incapable of holding or disposing of property; that all gifts, donations, and legacies made by him should be null and void; that informers who themselves were heretics should be pardoned that once; and it especially revived and put in force against Lutherans an edict that had been promulgated in 1535, and specially directed against Anabaptists – -namely, that those who abandoned their errors should have the privilege, if men, of dying by the sword; and if women, of being buried alive; such as should refuse to recant were to be burned. [14]

It was an aggravation of these edicts that they were in violation of the rights of Holland. The emperor promulgated them in his character of Count of Holland; but the ancient Counts of Holland could issue no decree or law till first they had obtained the consent of the nobility and Commons. Yet the emperor issued these placards on his own sole authority, and asked leave of no one. Besides, they were a virtual establishment of the Inquisition. They commanded that when evidence was lacking, the accused should themselves be put to the question – that is, by torture or other inquisitorial methods. Accordingly, in 1522, and while only at the beginning of the terrible array of edicts which we have recited, the emperor appointed Francis van Hulst to make strict inquiry into people's opinions in religious matters all throughout the Netherlands; and he gave him as his fellow-commissioner, Nicolas van Egmont, a Carmelite monk. These two worthies Erasmus happily and characteristically hit off thus: – -"Hulst," said he, "is a wonderful enemy to learning," and "Egmont is a madman with a sword in his hand." "These men," says Brandt, "first threw men into prison, and then considered what they should lay to their charge." [15]

Meanwhile the Reformed doctrine was spreading among the inhabitants of Holland, Brabant, and Flanders. At Bois-le-Duc all the Dominican monks were driven out of the city. At Antwerp, in spite of the edicts of the emperor, the conventicles were kept up. The learned Hollander, Dorpius, Professor of Divinity at Louvain, was thought to favor Luther's doctrine, and he, as well as Erasmus, was in some danger of the stake. Nor did the emperor's secretary at the Court of Brabant, Philip de Lens, escape the suspicion of heresy. At Naarden, Anthony Frederick became a convert to Protestantism, and was followed by many of the principal inhabitants – among others, Nicolas Quich, under-master of the school there. At Utrecht the Reformation was embraced by Rhodius, Principal of the College of St. Jerome, and in Holland by Cornelius Honius, a learned civilian, and counsellor in the Courts of Holland. Honius interpreted the text, "This is my body," by the words, "This signifies my body " – an interpretation which he is said to have found among the papers of Jacob Hook, sometime Dean of Naldwick, and which was believed to have been handed down from hand to hand for two hundred years. [16] Among the disciples of Honius was William Gnaphaeus, Rector of the Gymnasium at the Hague. To these we may add Cornelius Grapheus, Secretary of Antwerp, a most estimable man, and an enlightened friend of the Reformation.

The first martyr of the Reformation in Holland deserves more particular notice. He was John de Bakker, of Woerden, which is a little town between Utrecht and Leyden. He was a priest of the age of twenty-seven years, and had incurred the suspicion of heresy by speaking against the edicts of the emperor, and by marrying. Joost Laurence, a leading member of the Inquisition, presided at his trial. He declared before his judges that "he could submit to no rule of faith save Holy Writ, in the sense of the Holy Ghost, ascertained in the way of interpreting Scripture by Scripture." He held that "men were not to be forced to 'come in,' otherwise than God forces them, which is not by prisons, stripes, and death, but by gentleness, and by the strength of the Divine Word, a force as soft and lovely as it is powerful." Touching the celibacy of priests, concerning which he

was accused, he did "not find it enjoined in Scripture, and an angel from heaven could not, he maintained, introduce a new article of faith, much less the Church, which was subordinate to the Word of God, but had no authority over it." His aged father, who was churchwarden – -although after this expelled from his office – was able at times to approach his son, as he stood upon his trial, and at these moments the old man would whisper into his ear, "Be strong, and persevere in what is good; as for me, I am contented, after the example of Abraham, to offer up to God my dearest child, that never offended me."

The presiding judge condemned him to die. The next day, which was the 15th of September, 1525, he was led out upon a high scaffold, where he was divested of his clerical garments, and dressed in a short yellow coat. "They put on his head," says the Dutch Book of Martyrs, "a yellow hat, with flaps like a fool's cap. When they were leading him away to execution," continues the martyrologist, "as he passed by the prison where many more were shut up for the faith, he cried with a loud voice, ' Behold! my dear brethren, I have set my foot upon the threshold of martyrdom; have courage, like brave soldiers of Jesus Christ, and being stirred up by my example, defend the truths of the Gospel against all unrighteousness.' He had no sooner said this than he was answered by a shout of joy, triumph, and clapping of hands by the prisoners; and at the same time they honored his martyrdom with ecclesiastical hymns, singing the Te Deum Laudamus, Certamen Magnum, and O beata Martyrum Solemnia. Nor did they cease till he had given up the ghost. When he was at the stake, he cried,' O death! where is thy sting? O grave! where is thy victory?' And again, 'Death is swallowed up in the victory of Christ.'

And last of all, 'Lord Jesus, forgive them, for they know not what they do. O Son of God! remember me, and have mercy upon me.' And thus, after they had stopped his breath, he departed as in a sweet sleep, without any motions or convulsions of his head and body, or contortions of his eyes. This was the end of John de Bakker, the first martyr in Holland for the doctrine of Luther. The next clay Bernard the monk, Gerard Wormer, William of Utrecht, and perhaps also Gnaphaeus himself, were to have been put to death, had not the constancy of our proto-martyr softened a little the minds of his judges." [17]


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Sunday, June 24th, 2018
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12
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