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The next two selections transport us back in time to the events of the reformation in the Netherlands. The first is a song composed by Martin Luther, honoring the first two martyrs of the Reformation as a whole—two Augustinian monks from the Lowlands. On July 1, 1523, Henry Vos and John van den Essohen were burned at the stake in Brussels. Shortly thereafter, Luther composed this, the first hymn of the Reformation.

The second is an eyewitness account of the hedge-preaching that occurred in the Netherlands. This was a worship service in an open field, made necessary because the Romish authorities forbade Calvinistic preaching in the churches. The eyewitness account is obviously not that of a supporter of the Reformation. 

A New Song Here Shall Be Begun

1 A new song here shall be begun—

The Lord God help our singing!

Of what our God himself hath done,

Praise, honor to him bringing.

At Brussels in the Netherlands

By two boys, martyrs youthful

He showed the wonders of his hands,

Whom he with favor truthful

So richly hath adorned.

2 The first right fitly John was named,

So rich he in God’s favor;

His brother, Henry—one unblamed,

Whose salt lost not its savor.

From this world they are gone away,

The diadem they’ve gained;

Honest, like God’s good children, they

For his word life disdained,

And have become his martyrs.

3 The old arch-fiend did them immure

With terrors did enwrap them.

He bade them God’s dear Word abjure,

With cunning he would trap them:

From Louvain many sophists came,

In their curst nets to take them,

By him are gathered to the game:

The Spirit fools doth make them—

They could get nothing by it.

4 Oh! they sang sweet, and they sang sour;

Oh! they tried every double;

The boys they stood firm as a tower,

And mocked the sophists’ trouble.

The ancient foe it filled with hate

That he was thus defeated

By two such youngsters—he, so great!

His wrath grew sevenfold heated,

He laid his plans to burn them.

5 Their cloister-garments off they tore,

Took off their consecrations;

All this the boys were ready for,

They said Amen with patience.

To God their Father they gave thanks

That they would soon be rescued

From Satan’s scoffs and mumming pranks,

With which, in falsehood masked,

The world he so befooleth.

6 Then gracious God did grant to them

To pass true priesthood’s border,

And offer up themselves to him,

And enter Christ’s own order,

Unto the world to die outright,

With falsehood made a schism,

And come to heaven all pure and white,

To monkery be the besom,

And leave men’s toys behind them.

7 They wrote for them a paper small,

And made them read it over;

The parts they showed them therein all

Which their belief did cover.

Their greatest fault was saying this:

“In God we should trust solely;

For man is always full of lies,

We should distrust him wholly”:

So they must burn to ashes.

8 Two huge great fires they kindled then,

The boys they carried to them;

Great wonder seized on every man,

For with contempt they view them.

To all with joy they yielded quite,

With singing and God-praising;

The sophs had little appetite

For these new things so dazing.

Which God was thus revealing.

9 They now repent the deed of blame,

Would gladly gloze it over;

They dare not glory in their shame,

The facts almost they cover.

In their hearts gnaweth infamy—

They to their friends deplore it;

The Spirit cannot silent be:

Good Abel’s blood out-poured

Must still besmear Cain’s forehead.

10 Leave off their ashes never will;

Into all lands they scatter;

Stream, hole, ditch, grave—nought keeps them still

With shame the foe they spatter.

Those whom in life with bloody hand

He drove to silence triple,

When dead, he them in every land,

In tongues of every people,

Must hear go gladly singing.

11 But yet their lies they will not leave,

To trim and dress the murther;

The fable false which out they gave,

Shows conscience grinds them further.

God’s holy ones, e’en after death,

They still go on belying;

They say that with their latest breath,

The boys, in act of dying,

Repented and recanted.

12 Let them lie on for evermore—

No refuge so is reared;

For us, we thank our God therefore,

His word has reappeared.

Even at the door is summer nigh,

The winter now is ended,

The tender flowers come out and spy;

His hand when once extended

Withdraws not till he’s finished.

Hedge services at Ghent, June and July 1566

Sunday 30 June 1566] … then someone preached, dressed like the other [preacher] in lay attire, with an ermine-trimmed gown and a fine felt hat. [He was] short of stature and aged about thirty, and seemed, to judge from his speech, to hail from Kortrijk. Close to the chapel outside St Lievenspoort [he preached], bare-headed and with great modesty, on a small hill surrounded by copses and plantations. He sat on some hoods and cloaks, lent him by those who had come to listen, and he had in front of him a book, from which he read from time to time, before closing it again and continuing with his sermon. Before he preached, he knelt folding his hands together very devoutly. To avoid being arrested or surprised, he was led into the enclosure in a group of six people in such a way that no one knew who out of the six was the preacher until he made ready to speak. He expounded the Gospel of the day, reproved sins and prayed for the magistrates, the King and the Pope, that God might enlighten their minds so that the Word of God (as they called their doctrine) might go forward peacefully. He had promised to preach at three o’clock in the afternoon, but he began at two o’clock.

Those present sat in three separate, closely-packed small companies made up of men, women, and young girls; each of these had about as many members as the preacher had years. Each company had its teacher and the members had small books in their hands and from time to time sang the psalms; you could buy books there in which the psalms were printed in metrical form for a stiver. Many onlookers stood around; they had come to see what was going on there because it was for everyone a strange, unheard-of event, especially for those who lived in Flanders. I was told this by my washerwoman with whom I strongly remonstrated. I said to her that we were threatened by a great evil and danger, if it were not quickly stopped, but, like many simple folk, she thought it was quite innocent and even edifying….

On Sunday 7 July [1566] they preached again, in defiance of the authorities, at Stallendriesche at high noon. Thousands of people attended from the town and from the surrounding countryside, including many of the common people, who were not very well versed in the Holy Scriptures and the Church Fathers. They [the Calvinists] gave these the impression that now for the first time the truth had been revealed and the Gospel preached aright because the preachers especially cited the Scriptures most valiantly and stoutly. They let the people check each passage in their testaments to see whether or not they preached faithfully, [when they said that] the New Testament contained the Word which the Lord had commanded all men to proclaim; not the human inventions and institutions, with which the papists (as they call them) had busied themselves; having raised these above God’s Word or allowed these to obscure God’s Word, it could not advance as it should and must [instead] be bent and give ground in order to accommodate human invention and contrivance; that it was much more proper that human laws should yield and make way for the sacred and blessed Word of God, for this, not rosaries, pilgrimages, voyages, and many suchlike superstitions, will prevail at the Last Judgment; that we are also under a far greater obligation (as the Apostles tell us) to obey the Word of God than men or magistrates, even though we are forbidden to hear this on pain of death, for the Lord says that we should not be afraid of those who would take the body captive, but only those who would cast the body and the soul into the everlasting fires of Hell; and that He shall be ashamed to confess before His heavenly Father and the angels of God those who are ashamed to confess Him in this world; that also Christ (who cannot lie) has prophesied that those who preach and hear His Word in its naked purity shall be oppressed and persecuted for as long as the world exists.

With these and other similar arguments they struck such a marvelous chord in the hearts of good and uneducated people that many of them declared that they were ready to forfeit both their property and their lives for the Word of God and Christ’s name. This sprang, alas, more from a naïve fervor than from any judicious circumspection, for if they had heeded and properly understood the counter-arguments, they would have come to the opposite conclusion. Not everything that claims to be the Word of God is in fact the Word of God. You must search out what has been the judgment of the Holy Spirit of God, which lies hidden under the letter of God’s Word. It was not without good cause that St Paul said that the letter kills but the Spirit brings life.