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John Calvin and the Netherlands

Before driven from France, in 1536, at age 27, Calvin had been a lawyer, a humanist and among those calling for Church reform. He believed that the world worked by God’s will, in predestination and that God's power was absolute.

In Geneva, Calvin became an authority figure, a preacher. He was friendly with the city's government, which included a body called the Consistory whose duty was to watch over everyone and to admonish those it decided were leading "a disorderly life." The city established a set of questions and answers as a guide for daily living. Calvin saw city authority as providing "medicine to turn sinners to the Lord." Geneva promoted austere living and fasting, and it maintained a curfew. Fancy clothing was frowned upon. Dancing and card playing were prohibited.

News spread that Geneva was a city of morality, and this attracted people to Geneva from around Europe, many of them refugees from persecutions. One of the refugees who went to Geneva was the Spanish humanist Michael Servetus, an old friend of Calvin's who had been arrested by the Inquisition for denying the Trinity. Servetus believed that mortal sins were committed only by adults – not by people under twenty. This view impressed the authorities in Geneva as dangerous, "Especially," said one, "with the young so corrupted." Servetus asked to be allowed to leave Geneva. Instead, in 1553, he was burned at the stake, with Calvin believing that Servetus deserved death because of his "execrable blasphemies."

Calvin cautioned people not to make an "idol" of him or to make Geneva as a new "Jerusalem," and rather than migrate to Geneva he wanted people to adapt to the environments in which they found themselves. Despite Calvin's differences with the Lutherans, he spoke of them as members of the true Church. What would become known as Calvinism reached the French-speaking provinces of the Netherlands and continued to spread, eventually to England and then to its colonies in North America and to Scotland.

In the Netherlands, those impressed by Calvin's moral gravity joined the Anabaptists in their opposition to Roman Catholicism. Calvinism gained adherents among the middle class, and it spread among laborers, partly because some Calvinist employers would hire only their fellow Calvinists.

In the city of Antwerp (today in Belgium), on six successive evenings in the summer of 1566, a time of high grain prices, crowds of Calvinists armed with axes and sledgehammers went after things they claimed were of false doctrine. They destroyed a large part of the interior of Antwerp's Cathedral of Our Lady. They sacked over thirty churches, burned libraries and smashed sculptures and tombs. From Antwerp the destruction spread to the cities of Brussels and Ghent and north to the provinces of Zeeland and Holland. Spain's Philip II sent 20,000 troops to pacify the Netherlands. The commander in charge of the force, the Duke of Alva, interpreted his instructions to mean extermination of religious and political dissidents, and as he waged war he opened a tribunal in the Netherlands called the "Council of Blood." On March 3, 1568, he had 1,500 men executed.

Spain exacerbated opinion in the Netherlands by levying a ten-percent sales tax on every commercial transaction. In 1578, Philip II tried to end revolt in the Netherlands completely. He sent a force of German mercenaries under the command of Alexander Farnese (the Duke of Parma). Farnese managed to pacify Antwerp and ten provinces that would eventually be known as Belgium. There, Protestants were compelled to convert to Catholicism.

The Netherlands farther north would be harder for the Spanish monarchy to subdue. There were sluices and canals, and Protestants broke dikes to flood the countryside in front of Farnese's advancing force. These seven provinces, led by the province of Holland, declared themselves the United Netherlands, an independent republic. Philip II refused to recognize their independence, and in the years that followed the struggle between Philip and the United Netherlands continued, with the United Netherlands looking for help from Philip's adversary, Queen Elizabeth I of England.

Philip II died in 1598. A "Twelve Years' Truce" between Spain's monarchy and the "United Netherlands" began in 1609 and was accompanied by the United Provinces winning some recognition of their claimed independence by various European powers.

During the truce, a debate about predestination raged in Holland's city of Amsterdam. Those called the Remonstrants tried to overcome the contradiction of predestination and free will by holding that predestination was conditional rather than absolute, that believers were able to resist sin and also not beyond the possibility of falling from grace. Between the opposing sides, political war and violence ensued. Orthodox Calvinists and their absolutism won, and they added a tiny bit more to the violence of those times by executing the leader of the Remonstrants, Jahn von Oldebarnevelt.

CONTINUE READING: Empiricism, Religious Authority and Conflict

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