I penned a piece yesterday on the very sad state of the Netherlands. It has really led the way in many respects with all the radical secular left agenda items, including being the first nation in the world to legalise homosexual marriage (2001) and euthanasia (2002).
Once a stronghold of Christianity – especially of the Reformed variety – it is now famous for its cannabis cafes and red-light districts. Hedonism and progressivism rule, at least in the large cities – the rural Dutch are more conservative and less thrilled about all this.
Much of this springs from it being a land known for its tolerance. But there is tolerance and there is tolerance. As I said in my piece yesterday:
The bizarre thing is, the origins of Dutch tolerance really began in the 16th century, and was of a religious nature, with a Protestant monarch showing toleration to the country’s Catholic minority. But as the Christian faith declines there, the only tolerance we find remaining is for all the radical leftist social policies, such as toleration for prostitution, drugs, homosexuality, euthanasia and so on.
Today someone on the social media asked me about the Puritans in Holland. I told her that they were actually various English dissenting Christians (Separatists, Pilgrims, Puritans) who found sanctuary for a period there before they left for the New World. I also mentioned that I used to go to a church in Amsterdam that was a Pilgrim church.
All this I thought was worth turning into a short article to offer some more historical background – religious, as well as a bit of my own personal history. Plenty of Americans – and some non-Americans – may know a bit about the Mayflower and Plymouth Rock, but few may know the religious connection, so let me here tie the three nations together.
Some Christians in England, mostly of the Calvinist variety, thought the state church was not fully biblical and they found themselves dissenting from it. Some sought to stay and fight within, but some (the Separatists) chose to leave. This very complex and detailed story cannot be done proper justice here, so let me just provide the briefest of historical timelines:
1509 Henry VII dies. Henry VIII becomes king.
1534 Henry VIII makes himself head of the Church of England.
1536-1541 Henry VIII disbands the monasteries.
1547-1553 The pro-Protestant Edward VI rules as king.
1549 The first Book of Common Prayer is introduced.
1553 Edward VI dies. Mary becomes queen.
1555-1558 Queen Mary persecutes Protestants. Nearly 300 people are burned to death for heresy.
1558 Queen Mary dies. Elizabeth I becomes queen.
1559-1603 Elizabeth I on the throne.
1559 The Act of Uniformity passed, making it illegal not to attend official Church of England services.
1587 Mary Queen of Scots is beheaded.
1603 Queen Elizabeth dies. James I becomes king.
1608 A number of English dissenters flee to Holland.
1620 Pilgrims in Holland sail for the New World on the Mayflower.
Thus some of those who thought the state church was not sufficiently true to Scripture, and were being persecuted for not bowing to it, decided to flee. A group left England in 1607-1608, arriving in Holland. They first stayed in Amsterdam for around a year.
As mentioned, there is a famous old Pilgrim church to be found there. The Begijnhof is one of the oldest courtyards in Amsterdam, and it now contains a Catholic church as well as the English Reformed Church. When we lived in Amsterdam some decades ago we used to attend this English-speaking church.
It is amazing to sit in a place which has so much rich history, and plays a role in the tale of religious liberty in America. Most of the Pilgrims did not stay long in Amsterdam however, but shifted to Leiden, some 40 kilometres southwest, where they stayed another 11 years or so.
One of the key players in all this was the English Puritan William Bradford (1590–1657). He was among those who moved to Amsterdam and then to Leiden to escape persecution from King James I. He, along with 130 others, sailed on the Mayflower from September to November, eventually reaching Plymouth Rock.
He was a signatory to the Mayflower Compact, the first governing document of Plymouth Colony, and he went on to intermittently serve as Governor of the Plymouth Colony from 1621 and 1657. He wrote about all this in his now famous journal, Of Plymouth Plantation.
On another personal note, we also lived in Boston for two years, so we went to see Plymouth Rock while we were there. All of New England is so very rich in history, and I recall one church history class I took in Seminary in which we travelled around the area visiting famous Christian locations, such as the Old North Church in Boston that helped to launch the American Revolution.
Another American tradition that most folks at least have heard about, but may not know the Christian connection to, is Thanksgiving. While today it might mean a day off work and a nice turkey dinner, its history goes back to this very period.
Not only did the Pilgrims have to endure a harsh sea journey, but once in what is now Massachusetts they had to endure their first American winter. Almost half of the group did not make it through the winter, but with plenty of prayer, as well as some help from the local Indian population, the rest made it through, planted crops, and a year later, gave thanks to God for a bountiful harvest.
As Bradford wrote about this at the time: “The Lord sent them such seasonable showers, [that] through His blessing [there was] a fruitful and liberal harvest. . . . For which mercy . . . they set apart a day of thanksgiving.” That was the first Thanksgiving, something Americans still celebrate today: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/11/26/happy-thanksgiving-restoring-the-christian-connection/
And make no mistake as to the intentions of the original Pilgrims. Overwhelmingly they were on a religious mission. As Bradford put it, their trip was motivated by “a great hope . . . for advancing the kingdom of Christ.” They were fleeing religious persecution in the Old World, and also seeking to be salt and light and ‘set up a city on the hill’ in the New World.
As I wrap this up, let me take things just a bit further, by quoting from an earlier article of mine. In it I looked at Paul Johnson’s magisterial 1100-page 1997 volume, A History of the American People. I said this in part:
Because Johnson is both a conservative and a Catholic, he is not afraid to do what so many fail to do: highlight the extremely important role religion has played not just in America’s founding, but in its long growth and development. All I can do here is feature some of his opening remarks about all this, and then focus on the war on religion as discussed toward the end of his book.
Religious sentiments were evident from early on in this land. The Elizabethan sea-farers were mainly strong Calvinists. Sir Francis Drake for example “held regular services on board his ships, preached sermons to his men, and tried to convert his Spanish prisoners. Next to the Bible itself, his favourite book was Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.”
Most of the early settlers were steeped in the Christian faith: “they read the Bible for themselves, assiduously, daily. Virtually every humble cabin in Massachusetts colony had its own Bible. Adults read it alone, silently. It was also read aloud among families, as well as in church, during Sunday morning service, which lasted from eight till twelve.”
Their search for a new spiritual home was also a search for liberty: To the pilgrims, “liberty and religion were inseparable, and they came to America to pursue both. . . . They associated liberty with godliness because without liberty of conscience godliness was unattainable.”
The political theory of someone like John Winthrop was clear: “Man had liberty not to do what he liked – that was for the beasts – but to distinguish between good and evil by studying God’s commands, and then to do ‘that only which is good’.”
Godly education was also a part of this. Thus we had people like the Rev. John Harvard who came to the colonies in 1635 to found a college to train ministers. He left £780 and 400 books for that purpose, and Harvard university was birthed the following year.
Finally, for those wanting a bit more of an introduction to the Puritans, see this article: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/01/25/the-puritans/
I return to where I began. Holland was the country that gave us such notable Christians as Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471), Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), Corrie ten Boom (1892-1983) and Brother Andrew (1928-). And at one point it sheltered persecuted Christian Pilgrims, leading in part to the formation of America with its rich Christian history.
Today however it is known far more for its open prostitution, liberal views on drugs, homosexuality and all the rest. Its Christian roots have in many ways all but disappeared. However, as I wrote elsewhere, God is not yet finished with Holland, and there is some hope for it yet: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/06/23/wilders-holland-and-hope/