Observations upon the United Provinces of the Netherlands/Chapter V

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I intend not here to speak of Religion at all as a Divine, but as a mere Secular Man, when I observe the occasions that seem to have establisht it in the Forms, or with the Liberties, wherewith it is now attended in the United Provinces. I believe, the Reformed Religion was introduced there, as well as in England, and the many other Countries where it is profess'd, by the operation of Divine Will and Providence; And by the same, I believe the Roman Catholique was continued in France: Where it seemed, by the conspiring of so many Accidents in the beginning of Charles the Ninth's Reign, to be so near a change. And whoever doubts this, seems to question not only the Will, but the Power, of God. Nor will it at all derogate from the Honour of a Religion, to have been planted in a Country, by Secular means, or Civil Revolutions, which have, long since, succeeded to those Miraculous Operations that made way for Christianity in the World. 'Tis enough, that God Almighty infuses belief into the Hearts of Men, or else, ordains it to grow out of Religious Enquiries and Instructions; And that wherever the generality of a Nation come by these means to be of a belief, it is by the force of this concurrence introduced into the Government, and becomes the establisht Religion of That Country. So was the Reformed Profession introduced into England, Scotland, Sueden, Denmark, Holland, and many parts of Germany. So was the Roman-Catholique restored in France and in Flanders; where, notwithstanding the great Concussions that were made in the Government by the Hugonots and the Gueuses, yet they were never esteemed, in either of those Countries, to amount further than the Seventh or Eighth part of the People. And whosoever designs the change of Religion in a Country, or Government, by any other means than that of a general conversion of the People, or the greatest part of them, designs all the Mischiefs to a Nation, that use to usher in, or attend, the two greatest Distempers of a State, Civil War, or Tyranny; Which are Violence, Oppression, Cruelty, Rapine, Intemperance, Injustice, and, in short, the miserable Effusion of Human Blood, and the Confusion of all Laws, Orders, and Virtues, among Men.

Such Consequences as these, I doubt, are something more than the disputed Opinions of any Man, or any particular Assembly of Men, can be worth; since the great and general End of all Religion, next to Men's Happiness hereafter, is their Happiness here; As appears by the Commandments of God, being the best and greatest Moral and Civil, as well as Divine, Precepts, that have been given to a Nation; And by the Rewards proposed to the Piety of the Jews, throughout the Old Testament, which were the Blessings of this Life, as Health, length of Age, number of Children, Plenty, Peace, or Victory.

Now the way to our future Happiness, has been perpetually disputed throughout the World, and must be left, at last, to the Impressions made upon every Man's Belief, and Conscience, either by natural, or supernatural, Arguments and Means; which Impressions Men may disguise or dissemble, but no Man can resist. For Belief is no more in a Man's Power, than his Stature, or his Feature; And he that tells me, I must change my Opinion for his, because 'tis the truer and the better, without other Arguments, that have to me the force of Conviction, may as well tell me, I must change my Grey Eyes, for others like his that are Black, because these are lovelier, or more in esteem. He that tells me, I must inform my Self; Has reason, if I do it not: But if I endeavour it all that I can, and perhaps, more than he ever did, and yet still differ from him; And he, that; it may be, is idle, will have me study on, and inform myself better, and so to the end of my life; Then I easily understand what he means by informing, which is, in short, that I must do it, till I come to be of his Opinion.

If he, that, perhaps, persues his Pleasures or Interests, as much, or more, than I do; And allows me to have as good Sense, as he has in all other matters, tells me I should be of his opinion, but that Passion or Interest blinds me; unless he can convince me how, or where, this lies, he is but where he was, only pretends to know me better than I do my self, who cannot imagine, why I should not have as much care of my Soul, as he has of His.

A man that tells me, my Opinions are absurd or ridiculous, impertinent or unreasonable, because they differ from His, seems to intend a Quarrel instead of a Dispute; and calls me Fool, or Mad-man, with a little more circumstance; though, perhaps, I pass for one as well in my senses as he, as pertinent in talk, and as prudent in life: Yet these are the common Civilities, in Religious Argument, of sufficient and conceited men, who talk much of Right Reason, and mean always their own; and make their private imagination the measure of general Truth. But such language determines all between us, and the Dispute comes to end in three words at last, which it might as well have ended in at first, That he is in the right, and I am in the wrong.

The other great End of Religion, which is our Happiness here, has been generally agreed on by all Mankind, as appears in the Records of all their Laws, as well as all their Religions, which come to be establisht by the concurrence of Men's Customs and Opinions[1]; though in the latter, that concurrence may have been produced by Divine Impressions or Inspirations. For all agree in Teaching and Commanding, in Planting and Improving, not only those Moral Virtues, which conduce to the felicity and tranquillity of every private Man's Life; but also those Manners and Dispositions that tend to the Peace, Order, and Safety of all Civil Societies and Governments among Men. Nor could I ever understand, how those, who call themselves, and the World usually calls, Religious Men, come to put so great weight upon those Points of Belief which Men never have agreed in, and so little upon those of Virtue and Morality, in which they have hardly ever disagreed. Nor, why a State should venture the Subversion of their Peace, and their Order, which are certain Goods, and so universally esteemed, for the propagation of uncertain or contested Opinions.

One of the great Causes of the first Revolt in the Low-Countries, appeared to be, The Oppression of Mens Consciences, or Persecution in their Liberties, their Estates and their Lives, upon pretence of Religion. And this at a time, when there seemed to be a conspiring Disposition in most Countries of Christendom, to seek the Reformation of some abuses, grown in the Doctrine and Discipline of the Church, either by the Rust of time, by Negligence, or by Human Inventions, Passions and Interests. The rigid opposition given at Rome to this general Humour, was followed by a defection of mighty numbers in all those several Countries, who professed to reform themselves, acording to such Rules as they thought were necessary for the Reformation of the Church. These persons, though they agreed in the main of disowning the Papal Power, and reducing Belief from the Authority of Tradition to That of the Scripture; Yet they differ'd much among themselves in other circumstances, especially of Discipline, according to the Persuasions and Impressions of the Leading Doctors in their several Countrys. So the Reformed of France became universally Calvinists; But for those of Germany, though they were generally Lutherans, yet there was a great mixture both of Calvinists and Anabaptists among them.

The first Persecutions of these Reformed arose in Germany, in the time of Charles the Fifth, and drove great numbers of them down into the Seventeen Provinces, especially Holland and Brabant, where the Priviledges of the Cities were greater, and the Emperor's Government was less severe, as among the Subjects of his own Native Countrys. This was the occasion, that in the year 1566. when, upon the first Insurrection in Flanders, those of the Reformed Profession began to form Consistories, and levy Contributions among themselves, for support of their Common Cause; It was resolved, upon consultation, among the Heads of them, that for declining all differences among themselves, at a time of common exigence, The publick Profession of their Party should be That of the Lutherans, though with liberty and indulgence to those of different Opinions. By the Union of Utrecht concluded in 1579, Each of the Provinces was left to order the matter of Religion, as they thought fit and most conducing to the welfare of their Province; With this provision, that every man should remain free in his Religion, and none be examined or entrapped for that cause, according to the Pacification at Gant. But in the year 1583, it was enacted by general agreement, That the Evangelical Religion should be only professed in all the Seven Provinces: Which came thereby to be the establisht Religion of this State.

The Reasons, which seemed to induce them to this settlement, were many, and of weight; As first, because by the Persecutions arrived in France, (where all the Reformed were Calvinists) multitudes of People had retired out of that Kingdom into the Low-Countrys; And by the great commerce and continual intercourse with England, where the Reformation agreed much with the Calvinists in point of Doctrine, though more with the Lutherans in point of Discipline, Those Opinions came to be credited and propagated more than any other, among the people of these Provinces, so as the numbers were grown to be greater far in the Cities of This than of any other Profession. Secondly, the Succours and Supplies both of Men and Money, by which the weak Beginnings of this Commonwealth were preserved and fortified, came chiefly from England, from the Protestants of France, (when their affairs were successful) and from the Calvinist Princes of Germany, who lay nearest, and were readiest to relieve them. In the next place, because those of this Profession seem'd the most contrary and violent against the Spaniards, who made themselves Heads of the Roman-Catholicks throughout Christendom, and the hatred of Spain, and their Dominion was so rooted in the Hearts of this People, that it had influence upon them in the very choice of their Religion. And lastly, because, by this Profession, all Rights and Jurisdiction of the Clergy or Hierarchy being suppressed, there was no Ecclesiastical Authority left to rise up and trouble or fetter the Civil Power; And all the Goods and Possessions of Churches and Abbies were seized wholly into the hands of the State, which made a great encrease of the publick Revenue, a thing the most necessary for the support of their Government.

There might perhaps be added one Reason more, which was particular to one of the Provinces: For, whereas in most, if not all, other parts of Christendom, the Clergy composed one of the Three Estates of the Country, and thereby shar'd with the Nobles and Commons in their Influences upon the Government; That Order never made any part of the Estates in Holland, nor had any Vote in their Assembly, which consisted only of the Nobles and the Cities; and this Province bearing always the greatest sway in the Councils of the Union, was most enclined to the settlement of that Profession, which gave least pretence of Power or Jurisdiction to the Clergy, and so agreed most with their own ancient Constitutions.

Since this Establishment, as well as before, the great care of this State has ever been, to favour no particular or curious Inquisition into the Faith or Religious Principles of any peaceable Man, who came to live under the protection of their Laws, and to suffer no Violence or Oppression upon any Mans Conscience, whose Opinions broke not out into Expressions or Actions of ill consequence to the State. A free Form of Government either making way for more freedom in Religion; or else, having newly contended so far themselves for Liberty in this point, they thought it the more unreasonable for them to oppress others. Perhaps while they were so threatned and endanger'd by Foreign Armies, they thought it the more necessary to provide against discontents within, which can never be dangerous, where they are not grounded or fathered upon Oppression in point either of Religion or Liberty. But in those two Cases, the Flame often proves most violent in a State, the more 'tis shut up, or the longer concealed.

The Roman Catholick Religion was alone excepted from the common protection of their Laws, making Men (as the States believed) worse Subjects than the rest, by the acknowledgment of a Foreign and Superiour Jurisdiction; For so must all Spiritual Power needs be, as grounded upon greater Hopes and Fears than any Civil, at least, where-ever the persuasions from Faith are as strong as those from Sense; of which there are so many Testimonies recorded by the Martyrdoms, Penances, or Conscientious Restraints and Severities, suffered by infinite Persons in all sorts of Religions.

Besides, this Profession seemed still a retainer of the Spanish Government, which was then the great Patron of it in the world: Yet, such was the care of this State to give all men ease in this point, who ask no more than to serve God, and save their own Souls, in their own Way and Forms; that what was not provided for by the Constitutions of their Government, was so, in a very great degree, by the Connivance of their Officers, Who, upon certain constant Payments from every Family, suffer the exercise of the Roman-Catholick Religion in their several jurisdictions, as free and easie, though not so cheap and so avowed, as the rest. This, I suppose, has been the reason, that though those of this Profession are very numerous in the Country, among the Peasants, and considerable in the Cities; and not admitted to any publick charges; Yet they seem to be a sound piece of the State, and fast jointed in with the rest; And have neither given any disturbance to the Government, nor exprest any inclinations to a change, or to any Foreign Power, either upon the former Wars with Spain, or the later Invasions of the Bishop of Munster.

Of all other Religions, every Man enjoys the free exercise in his own Chamber, or his own House, unquestioned and unespied: And if the Followers of any Sect grow so numerous in any place, that they affect a publick Congregation, and are content to purchase a place of Assembly, to bear the charge of a Pastor or Teacher, and to pay for this Liberty to the Publick; They go and propose their desire to the Magistrates of the place where they reside, who inform themselves of their Opinions, and manners of Worship; and if they find nothing in either, destructive to Civil Society, or prejudicial to the Constitutions of their State, and content themselves with the price that is offer'd for the purchase of this Liberty, They easily allow it; But with the condition, That one or more Commissioners shall be appointed, who shall have free admission at all their Meetings, shall be both the Observers and Witnesses of all that is Acted or Preached among them, and whose Testimony shall be received concerning any thing that passes there to the prejudice of the State; In which case, the Laws and Executions are as severe as against any Civil Crimes.

Thus the Jews have their allowed Synagogues in Amsterdam and Rotterdam; And in the first, almost all Sects, that are known among Christians, have their publick Meeting-places; and some whose Names are almost worn out in all other parts, as the Brownists, Familists, and others: The Arminians, though they make a great Name among them, by being rather the distinction of a Party in the State, than a Sect in the Church; yet are, in comparison of others, but few in number, though considerable by the persons, who are of the better quality, the more learned and intelligent Men, and many of them in the Government. The Anabaptists are just the contrary, very numerous, but in the lower ranks of people, Mechanicks and Sea-men, and abound chiefly in North-Holland.

The Calvinists make the Body of the people, and are possessed of all the publick Churches in the Dominions of the State, as well as of the only Ministers or Pastors, who are maintained by the Publick; But these have neither Lands, nor Tithes, nor any authorized Contributions from the people, but certain Salaries from the State, upon whom they wholly depend: And though they are often very bold in taxing and preaching publickly against the Vices, and somtimes the innocent Entertainments, of persons most considerable in the Government, as well as of the Vulgar; yet they are never heard to censure or controul the publick Actions or Resolutions of the State: They are, in general, throughout the Country, passionate Friends to the Interests of the House of Orange; And, during the intermission of that Authority, found ways of expressing their affections to the Person and Fortunes of this Prince, without offending the State, as it was then constituted. They are fierce Enemies of the Arminian Party, whose Principles were thought to lead them, in Barnevelt's time, towards a conjunction, or at least compliance, with the Spanish Religion and Government; Both which, the House of Orange, in the whole course of the War, endeavoured to make irreconcileable with those of the State.

It is hardly to be imagined, how all the violence and sharpness, which accompanies the differences of Religion in other Countrys, seems to he appeased or softned here, by the general freedom which all men enjoy, either by allowance or connivance; Nor, how Faction and Ambition are thereby disabled to colour their Interessed and Seditious Designs with the pretences; of Religion, which has cost the Christian World so much blood for these last hundred and fifty years. No man can here complain of pressure in his Conscience; Of being forced to any publick profession of his private Faith; Of being restrained from his own manner of worship in his House, or obliged to any other abroad: And whoever asks more in point of Religion, without the undisputed evidence of a particular Mission from Heaven, may be justly suspected, not to ask for God's sake, but for his own; since pretending to Sovereignty, instead of Liberty, in Opinion, is indeed pretending the same in Authority too, which consists chiefly in Opinion; And what Man, or Party soever, can gain the common and firm belief, of being most immediately inspired, instructed, or favoured of God, will easily obtain the Prerogative of being most honour'd and obey'd by Men.

But in this Commonwealth, no Man having any reason to complain of oppression in Conscience; and no Man having hopes, by advancing his Religion, to form a Party, or break in upon the State, the differences in Opinion make none in Affections, and little in Conversation, where it serves but for entertainment and variety. They argue without interest or anger; They differ without enmity or scorn; and They agree without confederacy. Men live together, like Citizens of the World, associated by the common ties of Humanity, and by the bonds of Peace, under the impartial protection of indifferent Laws, with equal encouragement of all Art and Industry, and equal freedom of Speculation and Enquiry; All men enjoying their imaginary excellencies and acquisitions of knowledg, with as much safety, as their more real Possessions and Improvements of Fortune. The Power of Religion among them, where it is, lies in every Man's heart; The appearance of it is but like a piece of Humanity, by which every one falls most into the company or conversation of those, whose customs and Humours, whose Talk and Dispositions, he likes best: And as in other places, 'tis in every Man's choice with whom he will eat or lodge, with whom go to Market, or to Court; So it seems to be here, with whom he will Pray or go to Church, or Associate in the Service and Worship of God; Nor is any more notice taken, or more censure past, of what every one chuses in these cases, than in the other.

I believe the force of Commerce, Alliances, and Acquaintance, spreading so far as they do in small Circuits, (such as the Province of Holland) may contribute much to make conversation and all the Offices of common life, so easie, among so different Opinions, of which so many several persons are often in every Man's Eye; And no Man checks or takes offence at Faces, or Customs, or Ceremonies, he sees every day, as at those he hears of in places far distant, and perhaps by partial relations, and comes to see late in his life, and after he has long been possest by passion or prejudice against them. However it is, Religion may possibly do more good in other places, but it does less hurt here; And where-ever the invisible effects of it are the greatest and most advantageous, I am sure, the visible are so in this Country, by the continual and undisturbed Civil Peace of their Government for so long a course of years; And by so mighty an encrease of their people, wherein will appear to consist chiefly the vast growth of their Trade and Riches, and consequently the strength and greatness of their State.


  1. ^  Fiunt diversae respublicae ex civium moribus, qui, quocunq; fluxerint caetera secum rapiunt. Plat. de Rep.