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Dutch Calvinism and Tolerance, to 1650

Protestantism and hostility toward the Roman Catholic Church had spread to the northern provinces of the Netherlands (in northern Europe by the North Sea) while the Habsburg king of Spain believed the Netherlands were his to rule. Making up the first wave of Protestantism were the Anabaptists in the counties of Holland and Friesland. They believed that the apocalypse was near and refused to live the old way. A new wave of Protestants came in the 1560s. This was a Calvinist wave, alongside the Anabaptists. These were people who had been impressed by Calvinism's moral gravity. Calvinism gained adherents among the Netherlands' middle class, and it spread among laborers, partly because some Calvinist employers would hire only their fellow Calvinists.

Rioting erupted between the Calvinist poor and the ruler of the Netherlands, the Roman Catholic monarch in Spain, Philip II (r 1556-98). This was in the summer of 1566 – a time of high grain prices. In Antwerp, on six successive evenings, crowds armed with axes and sledgehammers went after things they claimed were of false doctrine. They destroyed a large part of the interior of Antwerp's Cathedral of Our Lady. They sacked over thirty churches, burned libraries and smashed sculptures and tombs.

From Antwerp the destruction spread to the cities of Brussels and Ghent and north to the provinces of Zeeland and Holland. From Spain, King Philip II sent 20,000 troops to pacify the Netherlands. The commander in charge of the force, the Duke of Alva, interpreted his instructions to mean extermination of religious and political dissidents, and as he waged war he opened a tribunal in the Netherlands called the "Council of Blood." On March 3, 1568, he had 1,500 men executed.

And the Duke of Alva exacerbated opinion in the Netherlands by levying a ten-percent sales tax on every commercial transaction. Opponents of Spanish rule remained unsubdued. And in 1578, Philip II tried to crush the revolt completely. He sent a force of German mercenaries under the command of Alexander Farnese (the Duke of Parma), the great grandson of Pope Paul III. Farnese managed to pacify Antwerp and ten provinces in the Netherlands. There, Protestants were compelled to convert to Catholicism. These were the provinces that would become known as Belgium.

The Netherlands farther north would be harder for the Spanish monarchy to subdue. There were sluices and canals, and Protestants broke dikes to flood the countryside in front of Farnese's advancing mercenaries. These seven provinces, led by the province of Holland, declared themselves the United Netherlands, an independent republic. Philip II refused to recognize their independence, and in the years that followed the struggle between Philip and the United Netherlands continued, with the United Netherlands looking for help from Philip's adversary, Queen Elizabeth I of England.

Philip II died in 1598, and what is called the Eighty Years' War (1568 to 1648) continued, with a Twelve Years' Truce between the Habsburg monarchy and "United Provinces" of the Netherlands beginning in 1609. It allowed Spain's new monarch, Philip III (1598-1621), to devote attention to internal problems, and it was accompanied by the United Provinces winning some recognition of their claimed independence by various European powers.

During the truce, a debate about predestination raged in Holland's city Amsterdam. Those called the Remonstrants tried to overcome the contradiction of predestination and free will by holding that predestination was conditional rather than absolute, that believers were able to resist sin and also not beyond the possibility of falling from grace. Between the opposing sides, political war and violence ensued. Orthodox Calvinists won, and the leader of the Remonstrants, Jahn von Oldebarnevelt, was executed in May 1619 – which of course didn't end any of Calvinism's ideological problems.

Calvinism became the de facto state religion in the United Netherlands, but it was soon recognized that tolerance was necessary for their society to work – and for the sake of commerce. Totalitarian control on the model of Calvinist Geneva was not feasible. The ruling remained, however, that political offices could be occupied only by Calvinists, and in some cases by Jews. Jews were allowed to worship publicly. Various other religious groups were to be tolerated but not permitted to practice their religion in public. Lutherans were allowed to worship in the larger Dutch cities on the condition that they maintain Calvinist church interior styles, including an absence of crucifixes. Calvinists had been more iconoclastic than the Lutherans and viewed crucifix displays as too close to Catholicism.

There remained scattered and muted hostility toward Jews, but Jews in the United Netherlands enjoyed an acceptance unique in Europe. There, margin-bottom: tolerance toward Lutherans and Catholics would begin to grow. The number of Catholics in the United Netherlands would increase from roughly 14,000 in 1635 to 30,000 in 1656.

Sources

Luther, Erasmus and the Reformation: a Catholic-Protestant Reappraisal, by Robert E. McNally, Fordham University Press, 1969

A Concise History of the Catholic Church, by Thomas Bokenkotter, 1979

Thomas More, by John Alexander Guy, Oxford University Press, 2000

Elizabeth I: The Competition for Representation, by Elizabeth Frye, Oxford University Press, 1996

The Age of Reformation, by E Harris Harbrison, 1955

Tortured Subjects: Pain, Truth, and the Body in Early Modern France, by Lisa Silverman, University of Chicago Press, 2001

Chapters is Social History, by Henry S Spaulding, 1925

Germany under the Old Regime, 1600-1790, by John G Gagliardo, 1991

Western Tradition, by Eugen Weber, programs 19-24, 1989

Shores of Knowledge: New World Discoveries and the Scientific Imagination, by Joyce Appleby, 2013

additional reading

Christianity: a Global History, by David Chidester, 2001

PBS Video

Inside the Court of Henry VIII

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