Chapter 1. Introduction.
In the year 1755 a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church in the city of Zwolle, Antonius van der Os, was deposed. The question to be answered in this book is, whether this was just an incidental case, or whether the conflict preceding the deposition revealed many problems in church and politics in the Republic. Has Van der Os been an exponent of a group of reformed theologians? Did he openly defend the principles of toleration that others fought for in secrecy?
Essential in the whole story is the term Enlightenment.
This word has been used to cover those philosophers who denied any statement about God as learned in the traditional churches. Others apply the term to the movement, connected with humanistic tradition, that more strongly than ever before stated the importance of the individual human
Being and of free research.
Chapter 2. Preparations.
Antonius van der Os was born at Zierikzee, Zeeland, October 1722, son of a baker. He studied at the Leiden University, 1741-1746. He must have been a critical student, able to ask questions that showed he did not take the Confessions of his church for granted. His teachers were theologians of different theological schools.
Having finished his studies Van der Os became a minister at ’s Graveland, close to Hilversum. In this period a Dutch translation of a book of Simon Patrick, ‘‘The parable of the pilgrim’’ ⇒, caused some rumor. Several indications make very likely that Van der Os was the translator of Simon Patrick’s work. The definition Patrick gives of faith resembles the opinion of Van der Os: ‘‘Faith is trust in Jesus, and also, to be convinced of the truth and worthyness of God’s promises, that He will make us able to obey all his commandments.’’
Chapter 3. Zwolle, a local conflict.
Van der Os was called to Zwolle, Overijssel, in 1748. For unknown reasons the board of the city of Zwolle, the ‘‘magistraat’’, urged the presbytery to choose him. Van der Os at Zwolle met with a local elite having many contacts with enlightened circles in Holland, Frisia and Germany.
After Van der Os had been only one year in Zwolle, troubles arose about a new minister to be called. This time the
presbytery resisted to the magistraat when the latter made clear that a friend of Van der Os, Joannes van Rossum, should be the only candidate. Stadhouder William IV, when asked for assistance by the presbytery, moved the appliants to give in just this once. November 1749 Van Rossum joined the presbytery of Zwolle. One day later questions were asked about Van der Os’ orthodoxy.
As soon as the three senior ministers of Zwolle tried to discuss remarks and words of Van der Os, the magistraat interfered. Some months later however William IV stated that the case was a merely ecclesiastical matter. The presbytery investigated the accusations against Van der Os. Van der Os, according to many witnesses, did not agree with the reformed opinion about sin and justification, regularly explained a text in a very strange way and made it appear as if even those that did never hear about Jesus Christ, if only living according to a high moral standard, would be accepted by God. The presbytery deposed Van der Os, december 1750.
Once again the magistraat interfered. The deposition did not come into effect; no permission was given to the classis (regional presbytery) to reconsider or inforce the deposition. The presbytery asked the stadhouder for liberty in this merely ecclesiastical matter, the magistraat complained about revolt against the legal souverain.
Chapter 4. Political interferings.
William IV, advised by important statesmen like William and Charles Bentinck, decided to ask the theologians of Leiden University for an advice. This advice was offered to the magistraat of Zwolle one day after William IV died, 21 October 1751. The Leiden professors offered three articles to be signed by the five Zwols ministers as a token of
reconciliation. The terms used in the text were rather general. The elder three ministers did not subscribe. This did awaken the anger of the magistraat of Zwolle and the advisors of the late stadhouder. From this moment a public nation-wide discussion about the ‘‘Zwolse kwestie’’ arose, which would only subdue in 1756, when Van der Os had been deposed. A very complex struggle did start, in which theologians and politicians could be found on both sides.
Van der Os was supported by the anonymous editors of several spectatorial writings. These made it seem as if Van der Os stood for all who tried to do good works. His antagonists can be found among the presbyteries in the
cities of the Republic. Not only did they dislike the theological view of Van der Os, they were also concerned with the involvement of politics into ecclesiastical affairs.
Merely theological were the books af those ministers who, under the name of calvinian society, stated that a complot of tolerant professors and ministers tried to subdue the reformed confession.
The ministers in Overijssel asked William IV’s widow, Anna of Hannover, to move the magistraat of Zwolle and the Government of Overijssel to allow the church to discuss the matter. No answer came for a long time. In the meantime Van der Os published a sermon, in November 1752. In the foreword he stated that God might give the recent generation more light than he gave those who, in the years of 1618 and 1619, decided to accept the five articles against the remonstrant arminians. Van der Os supposed the presbytery of Zwolle, on the point of being renewed, would support him in a new constellation. Anna, however, removed some supporters of van der Os out of the magistraat, whilst the presbytery did not change, due to machinations of a slight majority.
Chapter 5. The classis.
In the spring of 1753 the magistraat of Zwolle and the Government of Overijssel, moved by Anna, allowed the case- Van der Os to be treated ecclesiastically. The regional presbytery, the classis, heard witnesses. Van der Os seemed to disagree with the confession on several points: religion in common, providence, original sin, satisfaction by the
blood of Jesus and justif ication. Van der Os was asked to revocate some opinions and to promise never again to attack the authority of the Dordrecht synod. Van der Os answered the classis very briefly. He was willing to sign any article being laid before him, if only he would keep his liberty to examine the bible freely and to discuss the results. The
classis deposed van der Os in May 1754, but he appealed to the synod of Overijssel. Many opponents and supporters tried to interfere; many pamphlets and books were published. Two Leiden professors, J. van den Honert en J.J. Schultens, attacked the classis with juridical and theological arguments.
Chapter 6. The synod.
The synod, in which the four Overijssel classes were gathered, had to discuss the case-Van der Os only one month
later, June 1754. Some of the ministers present did not want to take a decision, due to the short time of preparation.
Much rumor arose, a compromise was found in the appointment that the synod would gather again, against all habits, in the month of September. The government of Overijssel did prohibit this, however.
In the meantime many books were written concerning the case.
It became clear that not only Van der Os did not strictly preach according to tradition. His many critics were very much afraid a tolerant christianity would spread all over the country, using writings of foreign theologians, like those of Saumur, Helvetia, Britannia, to change the minds of the people. The counter-attack was based on an ultra-orthodox view on the Dordrecht synod. Gods justification of the sinner had, joined with his predestination, taken place before eternity.
In the synod one year later, June 1755, Van der Os did not longer get any support. Not considering a petition in favour of the popular minister, signed by about 500 members of the church of Zwolle, the synod deposed him unanymously, not because of his opinion about justification, but because of his words about the authority of the Dordrecht synod. Van der Os did not consider the synod as a legal council, he apppealed to the national synod. This, however had not been gathered since the years 1618 and 1619. A commentator concluded that Van der Os being deposed, the preaching and doing of good works had been condemned; others stated that Van der Os forgot that theologians should not openly speak about everything they thought.
Chapter 7. Afterwards.
Van der Os waited three years for the gathering of a national synod in vain. Then he became minister in a mennonite congregation at Beverwijk. In 1764 he went to a congregation at Zaandam. Some years later he returned to Zwolle.
After Van der Os was deposed, his colleague and friend Van Rossum was being attacked, but local and provincial authorities supported him. All discussion about doctrine was stopped. The gouvernante Anna urged the presbytery of Zwolle to replace Van der Os by a minister who had openly been a critic of the ecclesiastical decisions in the case-Van der Os. In the church of Zwolle much rumor had been caused. Many
friends of Van der Os did not accept the authority of the presbytery.
In other cities in the Republic more conflicts between church and local government arose. Politicians considered the case-Van der Os as a warning not to give too much freedom to ministers who tried to impose their doctrins on the members of the church and public life. In their turn many theologians considered the case as a warning not to forget the decisions of the synod of Dordrecht.
Chapter 8. Conclusions.
Comparing Van der Os with German enlightened theology, as described by Scholder, one is struck by the resemblance. The doctrine of the church is not denied, it is considered as unimportant because of the emphasis laid on ethics. The questions: How should I live as a christian, what should I do, replace the questions about justification and original sin. The same emphasis on christian life we see in the writings of English latitudarian theologians like Patrick and Tillotson, and Helvetians like J.A. Turretini. Van der Os was an exponent of their way of thinking.
Van der Os has not been deposed because of heterodoxy in particuiar doctrine, but because he did resist to accept absolute authority of the reformed confession, as stated in 1618-1619. Some other theologians in the Netherlands were of his opinion. Others did not share his views but supported him against the attacks of the most rigid calvinists, afraid as they were for a theology in which all human subjectivity is ruled out.
Support to Van der Os from the side of politicians and the public showed that the Dutch society were open for the thoughts of toleration and Enlightenment. Especially among the higher levels in society, members of the elite, Van der Os found his friends. They were all afraid of the enlargening power of a conservative ecclesiastical party. This once the conservative party had won. The opinions of Van der Os, however, had not left the Dutch Reformed church.
With thanks to Mr G. Meijssen, Twello, for his willingness to correct the English text.
Afbeelding: Van de Zwolse hoofdrolspelers in het conflict rond Antonius van der Os bezitten we helaas geen portretten, Wel aanwezig zijn afbeeldingen van een nicht van de echtgenote van Van der Os, Magdalena A. Scriverius (1714-1790) en haar man, Albert Hanselaar (1690-1771). Hanselaar was postmeester in Zwolle. Charles Bentinck schreef over hem; ‘‘Il n’y a rien à craindre à Zwoll pour les lettres, car je suis sür du maître de Poste,’’
(September 1753, BL Egerton 1729 f. 244)
Pastel P.F. de la Croix, 1764. Foto Iconographisch Bureau.