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Rev. Koole is pastor of Grandville Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan.

It is not well known, but it is well documented, that the first martyrs of the Protestant Reformation came from the Lowlands.

We normally associate the great persecution that took place in the Netherlands during the Reformation years with that dread name the Duke of Alva, as well we should. But the brutal slaughter of those in the Lowlands who dared adopt and confess the teachings of the Reformers did not begin with the Duke of Alva. It was under the Duke of Alva that such came to its cruelest, most intense expression, during what is known as the years of the Spanish Inquisition, but it began almost as soon as the teachings of Luther entered the Netherlands and various monks began promoting them as biblical truth. It was the same Emperor Charles V of Spain who had once sat across from the young Luther at the Diet of Worms who now…

…thought to stop the agitation [of the Reformation] by publishing (1521), at the Pope’s request, a “placard” (a royal edict printed and distributed—kk) forbidding the printing or reading of Luther’s works. In the same year he ordered the secular courts to enforce throughout the Netherlands the Edict of Worms against all proponents of Lutheran ideas. On July 1, 1523, Henry Voes and Johann Eck, two Augustinian friars (Luther’s religious order when a monk—kk), were sent to the stake at Brussels as the first Protestant martyrs in the Lowlands (and really all of Europe—kk) (Durant, The Reformation, p. 633).

Their crime? Acquainting others with Luther’s teachings and voicing criticism of Rome. A year later, the prior of the Augustinian monastery at Dordrecht, Henry of Zutphen, a friend and pupil of Luther, also was burned at the stake for spreading Luther’s heresies. The Dutch historian Petrus J. Blok writes:

The impression made by the death of these early martyrs was deep, both abroad and in the Netherlands. Luther dedicated a hymn to them, in which he declared that their ashes were not lost but would bear testimony to their faith, and his letter of condolence to “all the dear brothers in Christ, especially those in Holland and Brabant and Flanders,” in which he urges the persecuted to follow the example of the martyrs, was long one of the precious jewels of the Netherland reformers (Blok, History of the People of the Netherlands, vol. 2, pp. 310-11).

These martyrs were the first of many in the Netherlands, their numbers swelling tremendously during the following decades. Over the next 50 years (a half century!) countless others would be imprisoned, mutilated by torture, heavily fined, or driven into exile for espousing the same belief, namely, the supremacy of God’s word over Rome’s.

It is important to note this, because Satan himself soon got involved in the religious controversy, as is always his practice and cleverness, by promoting a radical movement in the Reformation. The Anabaptist movement arose with its fiery mystics and its revolutionary doctrines—the despising and overthrow of civil government itself—giving rise to magistrates justifying severe penalties and execution of all those associated with the Reformation movement. Early on (1525-1535), not only were thousands slain in battle as the result of this widespread Anabaptist insurrection, but the execution of other thousands was justified in the name of stemming this wildfire of revolution and civil chaos.

We mention this because any number of recent historians, claiming an interest in being evenhanded, seek to justify the brutal treatment to which Dutch Protestants were subjected by the Spanish monarchy, claiming that it was an understandable reaction to and fear of the Anabaptist movement with its lawless “communist” abuses (as they are called by these same historians). No doubt the Spanish princes and the Duke of Alva used this very argument to justify their brutal repression of the Reformed religion. But such is bogus, and an attempt to defend the indefensible. By the time the Spanish Inquisition was put into place in the Netherlands (the early 1550s), the Anabaptist movement had been thoroughly crushed (the mid-1530s), and the Reformers and their followers had made very plain they had no interest in such revolutionary practices. Had the Anabaptist excesses never occurred, the Romish magisterium and magistrates would still have found religious reason to institute the brutal regime of the Inquisition.

Behind the mask of the dreaded Inquisition and the iron fist it imposed upon the Lowlands from the 1550s into the early 1570s was a simple intolerance by Romish authorities of church and state of religious freedom in any shape (something contemporary rewriters of history would just as soon ignore), together with a deep-seated hatred for Reformed truth in all its forms, and of Calvinism in particular.

This is not so difficult to demonstrate. In 1542 Cardinal Caraffa, together with Ignatius Loyola (founder of the Jesuit order) and Charles V persuaded Pope Paul III to reorganize and activate the institution of the Inquisition. Cardinal Caraffa, who would become the infamous Pope Paul IV, was appointed head of the institution. He laid down four rules for his subordinates. We quote two of them. Rule #1 reads: “When the faith is in question, there must be no delay, but on the slightest suspicion rigorous measure must be taken with all speed.” Rule #4 reads: “No man must debase himself by showing toleration toward heretics of any kind,above all toward Calvinists” (emphasis mine—kk) (Durant, op. cit., p. 925). That last phrase is telling. That Calvinism should be singled out above all the rest by the Curatorium of Inquisition is worth a study in itself. But there it is, naked as an egg.

When this same Cardinal Caraffa became Pope Paul IV in 1555, the institution was set in full motion, first in Italy itself, where a number of bishops had expressed sympathy to Reformation doctrines; and, as we are informed by a certain Cardinal Seripando, under Paul IV’s “superhuman rigor the Inquisition acquired such a reputation that from no other judgment seat on earth were more horrible and fearful sentences to be expected” (ibid.).

Some 17 years prior to the arrival of the Duke of Alva in the Netherlands, Charles V imposed the Inquisition upon the Lowlands. The Emperor issued law upon law against social and religious dissent. What was published in September 1550 gives an excellent summary of both the severity of the restrictions applied and of the penalties to be imposed. What follows gives its highlights:

No one shall print, write, copy, keep, conceal, sell, buy, or give, in churches, streets, or other places, any book or writing made by Martin Luther, John Oecolampadius, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer, John Calvin, or other heretics reprobated by the Holy Church…nor break or otherwise injure the images of the Holy Virgin or canonized saints … nor hold conventicles, or illegal gatherings, or be present at any such in which the adherents of the above-mentioned heretics teach, baptize, and form conspiracies against the Holy Church and the general welfare…. We forbid all lay persons to converse or dispute concerning the Holy Scriptures, openly or secretly … or to read, teach, or expound the Holy Scriptures, unless they have duly studied theology, or have been approved by some renowned university … or to entertain any of the opinions of the above-mentioned heretics … on pain of being … punished as follows…the men [to be beheaded] with the sword, and the women to be buried alive, if they do not persist in their errors; if they persist in them they are to be executed with fire; all their property in both cases to be confiscated to the Crown….

We forbid all persons to lodge, entertain, furnish with food, fire, or clothing, or otherwise to favor, anyone holden or notoriously suspected of being a heretic; and anyone failing to denounce any such we ordain shall be liable to the above-mentioned punishments…. All who know of any such person tainted with heresy are required to denounce and give them up…. The informer, in case of conviction, shall be entitled to one half the property of the accused…. To the end that the judges and officers may have no reason—under pretext that the penalties are too great and heavy and only devised to terrify delinquents—to punish them less severely than they deserve, [we ordain] that the culprits really be punished by the penalties above declared; we forbid all judges to alter or moderate the penalties in any manner; we forbid anyone, of whatever condition, to ask of us, or of anyone having authority, to grant pardon to, or to present any petition in favor of, such heretics, exiles, or fugitives, on penalty of being declared forever incapable of civil or military office and of being arbitrarily punished (Durant, op. cit., 634).

Note that the law of the Inquisition forbade so much as talking about the Holy Scriptures without a papally-approved authority present, much less made an allowance for possessing a Bible. Such a ‘crime’ was punishable by death. And betrayal of a man by his ‘friends’ was rewarded by receiving half the accused’s property. Under such repression the Reformed of the Lowlands lived and sought to worship and survive.

When the Duke of Alva with his army behind him arrived in the Netherlands August, 1567 it was not that this edict had not already claimed its thousands. It had. For instance, Guido deBrès, the author of the Belgic Confession, had already been numbered among the martyrs, hanged in Brussels in May of 1567 when he was discovered in the Lowlands preaching to the French Huguenot refugees fleeing the merciless cruelties in France. But Charles V’s successor, Philip II, judged the application of the Inquisition by his father’s appointees too lenient. Alva came to eradicate Calvinism from the Netherlands once and for all. It was, after all, those damnable Calvinists who advocated the right to voice religious dissent and to worship according to one’s conscience and God’s Word.

As the noted historian Geoffrey Parker writes, commenting on what governed Spain’s Lowland policy, “It was taken for granted by all [of the King’s advisers] that there could be no question of permitting open Calvinist worship to continue in the Netherlands: Philip II had declared too many times his firm intention never to become the ruler of heretics” (The Dutch Revolt, p. 88, 1977). The Duke of Alva came to apply Charles V’s published policy of Inquisition with a vengeance. If Charles V had slain his thousands, Philip II through his Duke would slay his ten thousands, and claim to do God a favor.

Durant gives a flavor of what the “Church Under the Cross” was subjected to under this agent of Satan himself. Alva, as Governor General,

…prepared to cleanse the Netherlands of heresy…. He appointed a “Council of Troubles,” which the terrified Protestants rechristened the “Council of Blood”; seven of its nine members were Netherlanders, two were Spaniards; but only these two had a vote, and Alva reserved to himself the final decision in any case that specially interested him. He ordered the council to ferret out and arrest all persons suspected of opposition to the Catholic Church or the Spanish government, to try them privately, and to punish the convicted without tenderness or delay. Agents were sent out to spy: informers were encouraged to betray their relatives, their enemies, their friends. Emigration was forbidden, shipmasters aiding emigration were to be hanged. Every town that had failed to stop or punish rebellion was held guilty, and its officials were imprisoned or fined. Thousands of arrests were made, in one morning some 1,500 persons were seized in their beds and carried off to jail. Trials were summary. Condemnations to death were sometimes voted upon groups of thirty, forty, or fifty at a time. In one month (January 1568) eighty-four residents of Valenciennes were executed. Soon there was hardly a family in Flanders that did not mourn a member arrested or killed by the Council of Troubles. Scarcely anyone in the Netherlands dared protest; the slightest criticism would have meant arrest (Durant, The Age of Reason Begins, p. 445).

There came a point when even the Catholic citizenry raised its voice against the brutal excesses they observed. The outrages and suffering were especially felt in the southern section of the Lowlands, what in time became known as Belgium. Here Catholicism was most deeply entrenched. Those of Reformed and Calvinist persuasion began fleeing to the northern provinces. It was either join forces with and find some protection under the Protestant House of Orange, which armed itself to defend its existence and its ancient ‘Chartered Rights’ against Alva’s merciless tyranny, or be hunted to extinction. Alva marched north with his forces to impose the iron fist of the Inquisition on the cities and provinces there too, in time igniting fierce resistance. Soon war ravaged the land.

But before united military opposition broke out, the Inquisition had its way. The tales of the ensuing slaughter, suffering, and heroism could fill a book. They have. Any number of them. How does the apostle put it? “What shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell…[of those who] were tortured, not accepting deliverance: that they might obtain a better resurrection: And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonments: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword:…being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (Of whom the world is not worthy) (Heb. 11:32, 35-38).

In such a hostile environment the Reformed and Calvinistic faith survived and grew.

When Alva, in 1573, finally asked to be relieved of his post, the Inquisition ran itself out. It had become painfully evident to Alva, as well as to Philip II, that his brutal regime and methods had not succeeded in stamping out Calvinism at all but simply served to unite the once loosely knit federation of provinces, instilling in them a greater resolution to resist to the bitter end. Faith proved to have more strength than the malice that sought to root it out.

This is not to say that the sufferings of the Dutch nation ended with Alva’s departure. Bitter war continued for three more decades before a truce was called. But Alva’s departure did bring to an end the Inquisition’s reign of terror, with its endless torture aimed at persuading one to deny one’s faith, one’s Lord, and perhaps betray members of one’s family in hiding as well.

In the end, by God’s sustaining grace, the blood of the martyrs and the patience of the Dutch and displaced French saints was not in vain. The biblical faith expressed in Calvinism took deep root in the Lowlands. The doctrinal fruit of Christ’s church established there would benefit the church universal richly in the long centuries following those dreadful days.

As we wait for our Lord’s return, may we be found as faithful as these hardy, spiritual forbears.