The Catholic tradition dominated the Low Countries from the 3rd century AD up to the reign of the House of Habsburg. The explosion of the Reformation during the early 16th century threatened Catholic power over the Low Countries. Repressions followed the spread of Protestantism, but Rome and the Habsburg rulers found that it could not be contained. Despite the unrelenting repressions, the Dutch Reformed Church was finally created in 1571. It became one of the dominant churches in the Netherlands from the start of the Reformation and into the early 20th century. This event is recorded on the Bible Timeline with World History during that time.
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The Low Countries, the Holy Roman Empire, and Christianity
The Romans brought Christianity to the Low Countries (Belgium and Netherlands) in the early 3rd century AD. Bishoprics were soon established in cities such as Tournai and Tongeren as the new religion spread. Christianity later declined with the arrival of pagan Germanic tribes in the area in the mid-3rd century. The religion experienced a revival upon the conversion to Catholicism of the Frankish king Clovis I in AD 496. Except for the region inhabited by the fiercely independent Frisians, Christianity once again dominated the Low Countries.
The pagan Frisians soon became Christians during the reign of the Carolingian king Charlemagne. The Carolingian kingdom was divided between Charlemagne’s sons after his death, but the arrival of the Vikings disrupted their domination in the Low Countries. The Vikings soon converted to Catholicism and Christianity continued to be the dominant religion in the Low Countries.
Although the Low Countries were always dominated by their neighbors, local princes soon emerged as independent rulers of their own cities. In 1369, Duke Philip II of Burgundy (related to the French House of Valois) married Margaret Dampierre, the daughter of the count of Flanders. This marriage brought Flanders into the orbit of France and the Burgundian ties to the Low Countries would be strengthened later on by Philip the Good’s expansion to Holland, Zeeland, Hainaut, and Friesland.
In 1477, the Low Countries was folded in the territory of the Holy Roman Empire with the marriage of Mary of Burgundy to Maximilian I. Their son, Philip the Handsome, married Joanna I of Castile which further expanded the Holy Roman Empire. The royal couple’s eldest son, Charles V, was born in 1500. The prince inherited the Low Countries when his father died in 1506, and succeeded to the Spanish throne ten years later. The staunchly Catholic monarch became the Holy Roman Emperor in 1519 and was largely responsible for stemming the tide of the Reformation during the early 16th century.
The Reformation and the Creation of the Dutch Reformed Church
During the late 1300s, Geert Groote, Florentius Radewyns, and their disciples created the Brethren of the Common Life. It was a community which devoted itself to charitable works and education. The Brethren may have paved the way for the Reformation more than a century later because of their insistence on reading the Bible in Latin and in Dutch. Intellectual giants such as Thomas a Kempis, Rodolphus Agricola, Alexander Hegius von Heek, and Desiderius Erasmus were among the Netherlands’ famous residents who were also Reformation forerunners. It was no wonder that it was the Dutch who were the first ones to embrace the Reformation.
By the time Martin Luther released the Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, the cities of the Low Countries were already vibrant centers of the Renaissance and humanism. Luther’s then-radical theses did not sit well the Catholic authorities. He was later forced to recant, but his refusal to renounce his beliefs later resulted in his excommunication in 1521. Despite the Pope and Charles V’s opposition to Luther’s ideas, the Reformation still spread to other parts of Germany and even outside its borders.
The Wittenberg-educated Hendrik van Zutphen was possibly the first person to introduce the evangelical movement in the Netherlands. His activities centered in the city of Dordrecht, but Catholic opposition and fear for his life drove him back to Wittenberg in 1519. Book-burnings and persecutions became the norm during that time. These acts, however, did not stop the spread of the Reformation in the Netherlands starting in the 1520s.
In 1522, Charles V went after the “heretics” when he established the Inquisition in the Low Countries. Two of the Inquisition’s first victims were Zutphen’s followers Henry Voes and John Esch. Both men were condemned to be burned at the stake and were executed in Antwerp or Brussels in 1523. Charles passed harsher laws against the “heretics” over the years, but the numbers of those who broke away from the Catholic Church only increased.
The arrival of the radical Anabaptists in the Netherlands only intensified the repressions against the dissenters. Despite the dangers to their lives, the Dutch Anabaptists produced prominent Reformation personalities such as John of Leiden and Menno Simons (founder of the Mennonites). Calvinism eventually overtook other versions of Protestantism (including Lutheranism) in the Low Countries. It also became the foundation of the French-speaking Walloon Churches in Southern Netherlands.
In 1556, the Habsburg prince Philip II rose to the Spanish throne and inherited the provinces of the Low Countries. He then named William (Prince of Orange-Nassau) as the governor (stadtholder) of Zeeland, Utrecht, and Holland in 1559. A German native, William was raised by his parents as a Lutheran. He later received a Catholic education as a condition for inheriting the principality of Orange.
The king, however, was unaware that William’s sympathy with the Protestants remained although he claimed to be a Catholic. His resentment of Spanish rule rose especially during the height of the Inquisition in the Netherlands. In 1564, William started to openly attack Spain’s restrictive rule and its cruel persecution of Protestants. The unrest in the Netherlands intensified over the years, and William himself supported the Dutch rebels financially.
As expected, Philip II soon declared William an enemy of Spain and of Catholicism. William only dug his heels in and even became the leader of Dutch rebels. The intense battles which started in 1568 ignited the Eighty Years’ War between the Dutch Protestant provinces and Spain.
In the midst of this bloody conflict bloomed a new church geared primarily for the Dutch-speaking Protestants of Northern Netherlands. Between the 4th and 14th of October in 1571, 29 exiled members of the Walloon Church came together in the German city of Emden and held a synod. Before it ended, the Walloon Church had already breathed life to the Dutch Reformed Church (Hervormde Kerk).
This church, just like its southern counterpart, also accepted the Calvinist Reformed Confessions of Faith which included the Belgic Confessions of 1561 and the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563. Unlike the Lutherans, however, the Dutch Reformed Church is presbyterian in administration (led by elders).
Cerny, Gerald. Theology, Politics and Letters at the crossroads of European civilization: Jacques Basnage and the Baylean Huguenot refugees in the Dutch Republic. Springer Science & Business Media, 2012.
Lindsay, Thomas M. A History of the Reformation. New York: C. Scribners Sons, 1914.
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