How do you say, We are wise, and the law of Yahweh is with us? But the false pen of the scribes has wrought falsely. (Jer. 8:8.)

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The Danger of Calvinism To the Freedom of Religion in the Netherlands

As an aside, the Netherlands is a lesson in how a constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion in a true democratic republic can be usurped by a militant religious party. This is more important than ever as candidates from both the Democrat and Republican parties both support `faith-based' inititives--a dangerous precedent to the freedom of religion to those `faiths' not favored by government largesse.

After the Netherlands declaration of independence, it formed a new government known as The United Provinces of the Netherlands or the Dutch Republic. It lasted from 1581 to 1795. The Dutch Republic was a compromise system between Catholics and Protestants.

Like the USA in Almost Every Way: Our Clear Model

The Dutch Republic provided the best example of a true confederative republic to our young United States. Upon closer examination, it is obviously the source of our own Constitution in almost every detail, even on the guarantee of the freedom of religion. Early supporters of the American revolutionists came from the Dutch who had strong roots as the original founders of New Amsterdam, later known as New York. It obviously was their contribution of ideas taken from the Netherland's Constitution that helped shape the system adopted in our Constitution.

In the Netherlands up to that time, each of the seven provinces were governed by its local Provincial States, and by a stadtholder (governor) who was subordinate to his respective Provincial State. Some provinces were Catholic, and others Protestant. Some were democratic and some were aristocratic, such as Holland. Each province had one vote in the senate of sovereign states also known as the States General. The States General alone could declare war or conclude peace. Their resolutions were decisive law for the Republic. It alone appointed ambassadors although the ambassadors reported to the President of the Republic (soon to be discussed). All cities formed virtual independent states. At the same time, the primary stadtholder akin to a President was elected and subject to the States General, i.e., the national legislative body. He was also the captain-general and admiral-general, but he could not declare war or make peace. This president alone had the right to appoint magistrates. This confederative republic lasted just over 200 years.1

In the Dutch Republic, freedom of conscience was enshrined in the 1579 Union of Utrecht, the Republic's basic constitutional document. Article 13 of the Union specifically states, "each person shall remain free, especially in his religion, and that no one shall be persecuted or investigated because of their religion."

However, the Calvinists used their influence to come to dominate the Dutch Republic and soon made Calvinism the de facto state religion in violation of the Netherlands Constitution.2 Soon laws were made that outlawed Catholic, Lutheran or Anabaptist worship. In the Catholic provinces, an oath was required of public servants that they would fight the "papist religion" which had the effect of disqualifying all Catholics from public office.3

There were efforts to correct this Constitutional imbalance in favor of the Calvinist Reformed Church. This effort at enforcing the freedom-of-religion clause in the Dutch Constitution began ironically in what later became the United States.

Calvinist Death Penalties At Boston

In 1656, the Quakers of Boston were threatened by death by the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony--chartered by and thus controlled by the Dutch Republic. In 1656, Endicott, the governor, threatened the Quakers 4 with the death penalty. "Take heed," he said, "ye break not our ecclesiastical laws, for then ye are sure to stretch by a halter."5

The Dutch rulers in America were serious. Four Quakers were executed thereafter solely for their beliefs. These became known as the Boston martyrs. Three were English members of the Society of Friends: Marmaduke Stephenson, William Robinson and Mary Dyer. The fourth was Friend William Leddra of Barbados. Each were "condemned to death and executed by public hanging for their religious beliefs under the legislature of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1659, 1660 and 1661."6

The 1657 Remonstrance

It is in this context that we can now understand the courage of those who in 1657 signed a petition called the Flushing Remonstrance. It sought to correct this error, asking that freedom of conscience be restored.7 Flushing was in what is today Flushing Queens on Long Island. Many of those who signed it happened to also be Englishmen, thus revealing how their ideas later percolated in the British colonies. Also, one can see the demand for religious freedom in what later became the United States was first sought against Calvinist encroachment under the Dutch Constitution. A mild irony from our Creator to teach us how history runs in circles.

Edward Hart was the town clerk of Vlissingen (as Flushing, Long Island, was then known in Dutch) and he wrote this remarkable remonstrance. It was signed by thirty-one fellow townsmen on December 27, 1657. It was in opposition to West India Company Director-General Petrus Stuyvesant's harsh ordinance against anyone found harboring Quakers. (Baptists too had been persecuted under the same ordinance.)

The Remonstrance in opposition cited the Flushing patent of 1645. It had promised "the right to have and enjoy liberty of conscience, according to the custom and manner of Holland, without molestation or disturbance from any magistrates, or any other ecclesiastical minister."8 The Remonstrance asked for enforcement of this provision, which was based upon Article 13 of the Netherlands' Utrecht Union Constitution.

The Remonstrance stated that the "molestation" clause of their town charter of 1645 was granted "in the name of the States General" by West India Company resident director Willem Kieft, and could not be withdrawn by a later director. The petitioners protested "we can not condemn them [Quakers]" nor "punish, banish or persecute them."

Stuyvesant replied with reasoning reminiscent of Calvin's own, that this freedom of religion had permitted the moral license of this "disobedient community" and thus freedom of religion was justly abridged.

As a result, Stuyvesant charged that the town had violated the director-general's orders and New Netherland's charters, which stated "no other religion shall be publicly admitted in New Netherland except the Reformed." The term "Reformed" was short for the Dutch Reformed Church. Stuyvesant arrested Hart and Vlissingen scout Tobias Feake who delivered the remonstrance to him, and two other Vlissingen magistrates who had signed the document. Under this pressure the signatories recanted the document and admitted their "error."

Thus, the first effort to hold up the constitutional and foundational city-charters against later decrees failed.

Dutch Legal Scholars in the 1700s Try to Voice Constitutional Concerns

In the mid-1700s, Christian Trotz, a legal scholar and professor at Utrecht in the Netherlands in 1755, did a thorough analysis of the Netherlands Constitution. He concluded the Calvinist Reformed Church had usurped, in essence, the freedom of religion granted in Article 13. He claimed upholding one religion over another was an irrelevant objective within the framework of the Constitution of the Netherlands state.9

But in reply, Cornelis van Bynkershoek (1673-1743) argued that Article 13 did not trump `states rights'--the independence of each province to determine the public faith to perpetuate. Id.

However, under that approach, Article 13 would thereby be gutted. It said: "each person shall remain free, especially in his religion, and that no one shall be persecuted or investigated because of their religion." Thus, in the Netherlands, no law could infringe the freedom of religion of any person, regardless of which state made the law.

Yet, Joris van Eijnatten points out that "contemporary commentators eagerly appropriated the argument" of Bynkershoek.10 Thus, because Article 13 did not explicitly prohibit laws abridging freedom of religion, each individual state could do so and somehow not violate the right of "each person" to their own religious belief.

Obviously, this reading was ignoring the implied prohibition on making any law abridging the freedom of conscience. Article 13 had come to be a dead letter. The Calvinists in each province came to control the laws, and thus defeated the right of "each person" to their own religious beliefs.

Notice How Carefully Worded Is Our First Amendment

The First Amendment to our own Constitution tried correcting the wording of such a right. It not only enshrined the "freedom of religion" of each person, but also prescribed Congress from making any law to "abridge" the freedom of religion. The Calvinist loophole in the Netherlands' Constitution was closed by our very wise founding fathers. Of course, they preserved state rights, but most states preserved the freedom of religion, following the lead of the founders in this respect in each state. Thus, our First Amendment took away the argument of the Dutch Calvinist legal scholars who found a way to ignore the implied prohibition on making laws establishing religion in Article 13 of the Utrecht Constitution.

Yet, what the Calvinists did in the Netherlands can happen in any country that lets its laws degrade into the support of religion. The law that favors one faith or groups of faith naturally saps the energy of the others, and thus undermines those of different faiths or those of no faith. We thus should be abhorring government largess to 'faith-based' initiatives because whoever is given money and hence promoted by the state negates those faith groups who do not equally receive monies.


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1. See Friedrich Edler, The Dutch Republic and the American Revolution (The Johns Hopkins Press, 1911) at 11-12 fn. 2. See also, "Dutch Republic," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dutch_Republic (accessed 7/5/2008).

2. In 1651, a law was passed that no organized religion that had not existed when the republic was formed could be authorized to be practiced in the Netherlands. See Joris van Eijnatten, Liberty and Concord in the United Provinces: Religious Toleration and the Republic in the Eighteenth Century Netherlands (Brill, 2002) at 257.

3. "Dutch Republic," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dutch_Republic (accessed 7/5/2008).

4. "The Friends believed that God's grace did not filter through the hierarchy of the religious elite, but reached each person directly. In taking this theological approach, the Quakers bypassed the authority of clergy and rulers, and recognized that the common person could be elevated to the `priesthood of all believers.' This rendered the current cultural order obsolete and formed the core ideal of the American republic that would arise more than a century later." "The Flushing Remonstrance" in the Liberty Magazine, available online at http://www.libertymagazine.org/article/articleview/532/1/86/ (accessed 7/5/2008).

5. "The Flushing Remonstrance" in the Liberty Magazine, available online at http://www.libertymagazine.org/article/articleview/532/1/86/ (accessed 7/5/2008).

6. "Boston Martyrs," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boston_martyrs (accessed 7/5/2008).

7. See "The Flushing Remonstrance," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flushing_Remonstrance (accessed 7/5/2008).

8. The patent is quoted in "The Flushing Remonstrance" in the Liberty Magazine, available online at http://www.libertymagazine.org/article/articleview/532/1/86/ (accessed 7/5/2008).

9. See Joris van Eijnatten, Liberty and Concord in the United Provinces: Religious Toleration and the Republic in the Eighteenth Century Netherlands (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2002) at 255.

10. See Joris van Eijnatten, Liberty and Concord in the United Provinces: Religious Toleration and the Republic in the Eighteenth Century Netherlands (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2002) at 255.