The Reformation in the Netherlands and the Netherlands Revolt

The Netherlands at the time was a coalition of fifteen self-governing states given mostly to manufacturing and commerce, and, as could be expected, hostile to outside interference with its customs and trade. The king of the Netherlands was Philip of Spain. He had come into the possession of this country as heir of his predecessor and father Charles V. But Philip was king largely in name only. The real ruling body of the Netherlands was the Old Council of State formed of delegates from each province.

As to the religious situation at the time, the first to enter the Netherlands was Lutheranism; but among the lower classis it was largely displaced by Ana-baptism. On a whole the nobility was Roman Catholic. But many had embraced Calvinism as set forth in the Belgic Confession.

Being king of the Netherlands in name only did not satisfy Philip. He wanted to be king in fact as well. One more thing must be said of him. He was a zealous Roman Catholic. Accordingly he was a bitter enemy of the Reformation. Its principles and purposes were hateful to him. Philip’s aim therefore was twofold, namely to establish himself in the Netherlands as the real king of its people; and second, to destroy the Reformation in this corner of his realm.

In pursuance of these his aims, his first act was to appoint his sister, Magaret of Parma, regent with an advisory committee of three including Cardinal Granvella bishop of Aeras, who was the leading spirit.

Philip’s second move was to constitute the Netherlands an archbishop by itself and thereby free it from the dominion of foreign prelates. In this way he tightened his hold on the Netherlands. For the new prelates were Philip’s own nominees, and they were given a seat in the Netherlands Council State.

Philip now demanded strict enforcement of the decrees of the Council of Trent and a relentless punishment of heresy. So had Satan gone forth to make war upon the saints now over there in the Netherlands. (And by saints is to be understood not all the Netherlands indiscriminately, but the church—the church of the elect—built upon a rock and against which therefore the gates of hell cannot prevail. For God stands watch over His heritage.

As can be expected, Philip’s doings called forth the strongest reaction. Catholics and Protestants alike raised their voice in violent protest. By his innovations in politics Philip was robbing them of their freedom. He was destroying their trade. His persecutions were harmful to business. Such was their complaint. There were iconoclastic (from iconoclast, image breaker) riots even in which hundreds of churches were destroyed. And to climax it all, protestant preaching was now being heard everywhere.

This all to Philip was rebellion in politics and religion. He speedily sent the duke of Alva (1567) with a picked Spanish army to put down the revolt. Alva, a most able general, was confident that this would be the easiest thing.

His first move was to order the execution of all the leaders. Hundreds of heads fell under the ax of the executioner. Second, he beat down the resistance that William of Orange had organized in Germany. And in 1572 he succeeded in capturing seven towns of the northern provinces.

Yet things were really going against Alva. He had imposed a heavy tax on sales to pay for the war and thereby alienated the mercantile classis. “Beg-bars” or sea rovers as commissioned by William of Orange preyed upon Spanish commerce with English harbors as their basis of operation. In 1572 they captured Briel. This encouraged the northern provinces to rise in rebellion, and on July 15th the leading towns of these provinces—Holland, Zealand, Friesland, and Utrecht—proclaimed William of Orange Stadhouder. The protestants in France had promised their aid. And though Alva had captured seven towns, he was unable to take Alkmaar in 1572. This was more than his pride could endure. Recalled at his own request, he returned to Spain a beaten and disillusioned man.

The immediate successors of Alva were just as unsuccessful. The Spaniards laid siege to Lyden but could not take the city. The end of the siege came in 1574 and the city was free. The southern provinces—what today is Belgium—were roused to rebellion by the sack of Antwerp in 1576. In 1578 William of Orange made a triumphal march into Brussels. But in 1578 the cause of the revolting Nether- landers suffered a severe loss at least apparently so. In this year the cause of Spain in the Netherlands was entrusted to the Duke of Parma. Parma succeeded in stirring up trouble between the ten catholic provinces of the south (what today is Belgium) and the seven Protestant provinces of the north (what today is the Netherlands). The result was mutual distrust and the forming of protective leagues. Not long after these ten southern provinces made their peace with Philip and submitted themselves to his reign. Thus were these provinces saved for Spain, though portions of them were latter absorbed by France.

The seven northern provinces now stood alone in their opposition to Spain. But instead of losing courage they were capable of a new and remarkable deed of daring. These provinces had not yet formally renounced their allegiance of Philip. This they now did. They deposed Philip as their sovereign, broke his seal, and set forth their Declaration of Independence. Its preamble contains these words: “Whereas God did not create the people slaves to their prince, to obey his commands, whether right or wrong, but rather the prince for the sake of the subjects, to govern them according to equity, to love and support them as a father his children or a shepherd his flock, and even at hazard of his life to defend and preserve them; (therefore) when he does not behave thus, but, on the contrary, oppresses them, seeking opportunity to infringe their ancient customs and privileges, exacting from them slavish compliance, then he is no longer a prince, but a tyrant, and the subjects may not only disallow his authority but legally proceed to the choice of another prince for their defense.”

This may all be well and good. But the question cannot be suppressed how the sentiment here expressed is to be harmonized with I Pet. 2:18-21, a passage that reads, “Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward,” that is, the crooked, curved, perverse, wicked, unfair, “For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it when ye are buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps. . . .”

The preamble makes no mention of Philips’ great sin, which was that he persecuted and killed all the day long God’s own believing people in the attempt to eradicate in the Netherlands—the seven provinces—the true religion.

Philip seemed to think that the rebellious seven provinces could be made to come to terms with him, if only their leader in arms—Prince William of Orange—were struck down. So he published a ban against the prince, declaring him an outlaw and “the chief disturber of all Christendom and especially of those- Netherlands”, and offering anyone who would deliver him into his hands, “dead or alive’’ pardon for any crime he might have committed, further a title of nobility, and twenty one thousands crowns of gold and in lands. The offer of Philip bore fruit. After five previous unsuccessful attempts, the prince was fatally shot by an assassin named Balshasar Gerard. He was pulled apart by five horses. His heirs received the reward Philip had held forth.

But the seven provinces fought on. Prince Maurice, a youth of seventeen years and the son of the assassinated William, was now chosen stadhouder, and under him the war went on with unabated fury. By this time France as well as England had become involved, both fighting against Philip.

The turning point in the war came in 1588. Philip determined on the conquest of England. That, he thought, would establish Catholicism in England and make hopeful the subjection of the Netherlands. But his great fleet—the Spanish Armada—was defeated in the English Channel, and what remained of it was destroyed by the elements in the icy and stormy seas of the far north. Only a remnant got back to Spain.

Philip had thought that in England the Catholics would rise to his aid, but instead Catholics and protestants joined forces against him. These Catholics and protestants were patriots first and then Catholics and protestants—patriots, that is, manufacturers and traders. With the exception of God’s believing people, so it was in England. So it was, too, in the Netherlands and everywhere.

Finally the Spanish commanders became convinced that the Dutch rebels could not be reduced by force of arms. Negotiations were entered into and the result was the Truce of 1609. Though only a truce, it permanently ended the war between Spain and the Netherlands. But it was not until forty years later in the peace of Westphalia, 1648, that Spain acknowledged the independence of the Netherlands.

We must understand the significance of this Netherlands revolt against Philip of Spain. Whether right or wrong, whether capable of being justified with the Scriptures or not, through this revolt God saved His church there in that land—the church of the elect—from the hand of Philip that was raised to destroy her. God saves His people and promotes the ends of His Kingdom also through the sins of men. Of this the outstanding example is the crucifixion of Christ. Yet the sins remain sins nevertheless. With Spain off the back of the Netherlands the church in this land again had rest for the sole of her feet. And she had need of this rest. For even during the progress of that revolt the old lies of Pelagius were again being revived and set forth in new dress. To these lies the church had to oppose the truth. But for this she needed rest. The rest she now had.

The actual war between Spain and the Netherlands—the seven northern provinces—had lasted 42 years (1567-1609). During these years many churches of Calvinist faith and polity were organized. In 1571 they held their first national synod on account of the war outside of the Netherlands in Emden, Friesland. In 1575 the University of Lyden was founded. The Catholics received only the right of employment and residence. They were not allowed freedom of worship, nor were they permitted to hold political office. The Anabaptists received a somewhat more generous treatment. In addition to being given the right of employment and residence, they also were allowed freedom of worship, though not allowed to hold political office. There restrictions imposed upon Roman Catholics and Anabaptists explodes the idea that religious liberty in the popular sense of this term stems from John Calvin and the real Calvinists. Calvin wanted religious liberty, freedom of worship, not for heretics but only for such communions who, according to His conviction, worship God according to the dictates of Christ as revealed in the Scriptures. This certainly is glaringly evident from the history of the Reformation in Geneva.

Let us take notice that at the time of which we are now speaking the Calvinists were in power in the Netherlands. The state was Calvinistic, at least nominally so. And the Calvinist churches in the land were the established or state church. This is rather remarkable considering that comparatively the number of Calvinists in the Netherlands was small. The great majority—perhaps 7/8 of the population—was irreligious and unchurchly. And as the Arminian struggle reveals many of the Calvinists were, Calvinists in name only. In their hearts they were humanists, pelagians. And they occupied positions of influence in the Calvinistic churches, university (Lyden) and state. The real battle therefore had still to be fought. This brings us to the Arminian reaction, its rise in the Netherlands and the resultant doctrinal struggle in the Netherlands.