The Spread of Calvinism
France had a particular and special place in Calvin’s heart as his homeland but, as indicated by Calvin’s prayer at the end of each of his sermons, the reformer’s passion was to see the Gospel reach way beyond the French speaking world. One of the countries earliest and most strongly impacted by the Reformed faith was the Netherlands. Here, like France, evangelical faith was illegal. Indeed, you could be executed simply for the possession of a Bible published in Dutch or for a book written by Luther or Calvin. The Netherlands had a long history of sympathy with evangelical ideas, but no evangelical Church as such. Groups had met from house to house in the 1520s for Bible study, prayer and discussion, but these had never evolved into Churches, largely because Luther was against such a strategy. As early as 1551 a tapestry weaver by the name of Jan van Ostende was put on trial as the leader of a group of believers in Antwerp. His theology was that of a Reformed Protestant, but you could not describe the group he led at this stage as a Reformed Church.
After the martyrdom of van Ostende, the leadership of the Reformed group in Antwerp passed to a shoemaker by the name of Gaspar van der Heyden. In December 1555 he wrote to the Reformed Consistory just over the German border in Emden saying “We have begun in Christ the Lord through the Holy Spirit to gather a small bride or congregation” and, from this point on, a Reformed Church began to emerge in Antwerp. They began to meet regularly on a Sunday, they established a clear Reformed Confession of Faith, they began to refute “false teaching” and they began to bring discipline and a clear membership of the Church by excluding “those who partook in Roman abomination and superstition.”
By 1558, the Church was made up of 16 – 18 small groups of 8 – 12 people. The groups were organized geographically into 4 districts of the city, each with 4 deacons and elders. Persecution meant that there was a very rapid turnover of pastors – the Church had 29 pastors before 1566 and 17 of these had lasted less than one year! The Church had a membership of several hundred in the late 1550s, but could attract up to 2,000 for public meetings. In the 1570s, by which time persecution had finished and freedom of worship was a reality, the Church had grown to 3 – 4,000 members and a congregation of up to 12,000.
This post forms part 6 of the series Why I am a little bit Reformed.