By Francesco Quatrini
Among the many religious groups born in the decades following the Reformation, some belonging to the so-called “Radical Reformation” and others labeled as “Christians without a Church,” the Dutch Collegiant movement is certainly one of the most fascinating. They were a Protestant group founded entirely without clerical or governmental oversight. Their meetings were called Collegien (“Colleges”), from which the Dutch name Collegianten (“Collegiants”) for their members derived. They are also called Rijnsburgers, due to the name of the village in which they established their first College, Rijnsburg, near Leiden (Fig.1).
Over the course of the seventeenth century, the Collegiants founded Colleges in several Dutch cities, the most important in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Leiden. These meetings were unique in the context of the Dutch Republic for several reasons. Firstly, no minister from any existing church was designated to oversee and direct meetings. Secondly, Colleges were egalitarian in nature, so much so that all people were welcomed, regardless of gender, social background, and confessional belonging. This means that women participated in these meetings as much as men (Fig. 2) and that Reformed people were gathering with Mennonites, Remonstrants with Socinians, and Quakers with Christians belonging to no church. Lastly, Collegiant assemblies revolved around the practice of free prophecy, or freedom of prophesying, which is a mode of utterance based on the free interpretation of Scriptural passages and the free expression of religious views. The goal of such a practice was mutual religious edification.
In short, Colleges were a-confessional urban spaces where all sorts of people could gather to practice egalitarianism, freedom of expression, and toleration in real terms. The Collegiants have received some attention in historiography, though perhaps not as much as they deserve. For this reason, to date, there are still aspects of their history that need further scholarly examination. One of these understudied aspects is certainly the role of women in Collegiant circles. Besides the many etchings showing women and men together in Collegiant meetings, Jori Zijlmans has devoted one chapter of her 1999 Ph.D. dissertation to the meetings organized in Rotterdam by four Collegiant women in the second half of the 1650s. These meetings are the clearest proof of women’s activities in Collegiant circles. They were not only involved in organizing Colleges but also defended their fellow Collegiants in writing. For instance, Gesine (or Gezine) Brit, a Mennonite-Collegiant poet from Amsterdam, put pen to paper to denounce the persecutions that the Collegiants in Groningen suffered at the hands of the Reformed Church.
We do not know much about Gesine Brit’s biography. She was born in Blokzijl around 1669 in a Mennonite family and moved to Amsterdam in 1682. That year, her parents registered with the Amsterdam Mennonite community named bij ‘t Lam en de Tooren (at the Lamb and the Tower). Gesine was baptized in the same community on February 15, 1688. We have no information about her education. It is possible that she contributed to Mennonite songbooks in her early years. She became widely known as a poet in the mid-1690s. In 1696, she published a Dutch translation of a Latin poem by the Socinian Martin Crell. Then, in 1699, she produced her most famous pastoral poem, “Koridon,” while contributing three further poems to a new Dutch edition of Uyerste wille van een moeder aan haar toekomende kind, a translation ofElizabeth Jocelin’s The Mother’s Legacy to Her Unborn Child (1624). In 1711, she married Jacob van Gaveren, a Mennonite from the Amsterdam community ‘t Zon (The Sun), who died in 1727. They had no children. During her married life, Gesine continued to write poems, hymns, and emblems, and in 1723, she contributed poems to Arnold Houbraken’s posthumously published emblem collection Stichtelyke Zinnebeelden (Devout Emblems). She died in Amsterdam in 1747.
Brit’s poetry is mostly religious in nature, treating biblical and moral subjects and emphasizing the significance of a Christian education for children. But she composed at least one poem that has a more political stand, written to denounce the acts of persecution by the Reformed Church in Groningen and convince the burgomasters to take measures against the local Collegiant assemblies. “On the Persecution of the Collegiants in Groningen” (“Op de vervolging der Collegianten, te Groeningen”) was composed sometime in 1705 and published posthumously in 1775 by Elias van Nijmegen, the first historian of the Collegiant movement (Fig. 3). It remained largely ignored, though in the library of the Mennonite Community of Amsterdam in the Allard Pierson, there is a manuscript copy that has some variants compared to the published version. This makes it likely that this copy was produced before the poem was printed. There is no definitive proof, however, that it is in Brit’s hand. The following brief analysis is based on this manuscript version because the specific variants make it more likely that this copy is closer to the original than the published edition. In one case, for instance, the latter has the Dutch word staat (“state, condition”), while the manuscript has haat (“hate”), which makes more sense in the specific context of the passage.
In Brit’s poem, there are three main lines of thought. She condemns the endeavors of the Reformed ministers to stop the Collegiants from worshiping; she advocates for freedom of conscience and religion; and she urges the Groningen civil authorities not to follow the dictates of the Reformed Church, thus making an implicit Erastian argument about sovereignty and church-state relations. To support the first of these, she draws a double comparison to denounce the activities of the consistory of Groningen. At first, she likens the Reformed Church and the civil authorities who follow its dictates to a wild beast, “a wolf, a fierce winter bear” that “unexpectedly falls upon the innocent flock / … in order to ravish … / the defenseless nest” (“Gelijk een Wolf, een felle winterbeer / Om’t weerloos nest te schaaken […] / Op’t onversienst valt op de onnoozle kudden”) There is no doubt that the innocent flock whose nest is ravished by the Reformed Church is the body of true Christianity.
Then Brit accuses the Reformed ministers of hypocrisy, saying they act exactly like the Spanish Inquisition in the years immediately preceding the Dutch revolt against the Spanish dominion. The Collegiants in Groningen endured nothing but violence, tyranny, and constraints imposed on their exercise of free conscience; according to Brit, government repression clearly violated ideals of justice and freedom. Therefore, she argues, the burgomasters need to teach the Reformed ministers that civil authorities have no duty to follow the dictates of the church in religious matters. Quite the contrary. Referring to “the maxim in front of the house of discipline” of Amsterdam, namely the prison Rasphuis, whose entrance door read “wild beasts must be tamed” (“wilde beesten moet men temmen”), she suggest that the burgomasters should do the same with the Reformed Church, making decisions independently of what any religious minister has to say. After all, she adds, “It is a virtue of the pious conscience / To tame that of which everyone is scared and before which everyone trembles” (“Het is een deugd van’t vroom gemoed / Het geen, daar elk voor schrikt en beeft te temmen”). Thus, the burgomasters will prove to be just regents in the eyes of pious citizens when restraining church authorities (Fig. 4). Brit’s short but very fierce and passionate poem is definitive proof that Collegiant women actively boosted their movement in several ways and that they were willing to enter the public stage if their group needed them to, be it to contribute to the organization of their assemblies or to defend Collegiant practices and ideals when the very existence of a College was at stake.
All images posted with permission.
Francesco Quatrini is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at University College Dublin.
Andrew C. Fix, Prophecy and Reason: The Dutch Collegiants in the Early Enlightenment, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1991.
L. Kolakowski, “Dutch Seventeenth-Century Anti-Confessional Ideas and Rational Religion: The Mennonite, Collegiant, and Spinozan Connections,” trans. and Introd. by James Satterwhite, Mennonite Quarterly Review 64:3-4, 1990, pp. 259-297 and 385-416.
W. R. D. van Oostrum, “Brit, Gesine (1669?–1747),” Digitaal Vrouwenlexicon van Nederland, 2014, https://resources.huygens.knaw.nl/vrouwenlexicon/lemmata/data/brit
J. C. van Slee, De Rijnsburger Collegianten, Utrecht, Hes Publishers, 1980.
J. Zijlmans, Vriendenkringen in de zeventiende eeuw. Verenigingsvormen van het informele culturele leven te Rotterdam, Rotterdam, IJKPunt, 1999.