Leeuwarden Disputation (1596)
By 1572 the northern Netherlands had in large part cast off the Spanish yoke. This event opened a new chapter in Mennonite history. The time of blood-witnessing was past. The last martyr in the northern Netherlands, Reytse Aysesz, died on 23 April 1574 in Leeuwarden.
The epoch of tolerance gradually opened. The government usually closed an eye and permitted the Mennonites to meet unmolested. This tolerance is to a great extent the merit of William of Orange, who had learned to know the Mennonites as industrious citizens and several times came to their defense (see Middelburg). His son, Prince Maurice, followed his father's example. This attitude also accorded with the Utrecht Union (1579), which stipulated that "every one shall be free in his religion, no one shall be arrested or examined on account of his faith."
Nonetheless this position was not everywhere adhered to. Calvinism, which had grown powerful in its resistance of Spain, was by nature intolerant. The Reformed Synod of Dordrecht had already in 1574 taken up the struggle with the Anabaptists; they decided to request the government not to tolerate anyone who would not swear to obey the government and to demand that all children be baptized; that the Reformed preachers should be permitted to attend the meetings of the sectarians in order to convert them. Marnix van St. Aldegonde even favored capital punishment for them.
The Mennonites suffered much at the hands of the Reformed clergy. The resolutions of synod against them were innumerable. Even in Friesland, where the census of 1586 revealed that one fourth of the population was Mennonite, the Reformed Church created many difficulties for them. The government edict of Harlingen (7 April 1581), that no religion should be practiced except the Reformed, gave them a certain right to suppress the Anabaptists. The government was little inclined to yield to the demands of the preachers to close the Mennonite meetinghouses. Peter van Coelen confesses in the Leeuwarden disputation, that "this praiseworthy government has hitherto granted us religious liberty in all kindness and courtesy" (Protocol, p. 17), and that "we may live in liberty according to our conscience under our praiseworthy government" (Protocol, p. 438).
Nevertheless the provincial States of Friesland had consented in 1584
that all ministers should have free entry into the meetings of the sects, and
the sectarian preacher was obliged to reply to everything that was refuted
with God's Word.
Ruardus Acronius, Reformed preacher in Cornjum and assistant preacher in Leeuwarden, a hothead, acrimonious and implacable, who was often in conflict with his own party, made use of the edict mentioned above. In 1594 he entered a Mennonite meeting at Nieuwland near Leeuwarden to dispute with them but the congregation rose and left. Then he tried it in Cornjum. He entered the house of Jelmer Simons, where the brewer Isbrand Isbrands of Leeuwarden was preaching. This time derisive words met him. Acronius, thoroughly angered, complained openly that the Mennonites were rapidly expanding and would not dispute. Isbrand Isbrands, called to account, replied that he was not capable of disputing, and did not expect any results from it anyway.
Thereupon Acronius published a report on this meeting (1 July 1595). His charges were answered by Peter van Coelen in writing (19 August 1595), who although he was nearly 70 years old, offered himself for a disputation
The disputation was held in the Galilean church at Leeuwarden 16 August-17 November 1596 (see article "Disputations," where the eleven points of debate are given). The two speakers officially had equal rights; Peter was permitted to state his terms, and some of them were accepted. He was permitted to choose a secretary. Only his request that some Mennonites should be among the chairmen was refused.
The manner in which the debate was carried on by both sides was rude. The request of the chair to avoid all acrimoniousness was not observed. Acronius began to speak of Münsterite descent and paid little attention to Peter's ideas. Peter spun his speeches out much too long, and his tone was usually hostile. In the 54th session the chair limited the speeches on both sides, and in the 107th he urged them to refrain from unfriendly words. But especially Acronius continued to speak with great bitterness. Nor was the chair quite neutral, although Peter in his thanks at the conclusion of the disputation said the chairmen conducted themselves properly and not like those parties (the Reformed). The outcome was that each was still of the same opinion as before. But the Reformed proclaimed themselves the victors.
The Protocol, a stately volume of 502 pages, was printed by Gilis van den Rade (Aegidius Radaeus) at Franeker. It was provided with a Foreword of 52 pages, in which the Stadholder and the Frisian States expressed their opinion about the debate and its results. This Foreword is a very biased and libelous piece of writing. Acronius is called "our dear, valued, and very faithful servant of the Word of God," and Peter's speeches are "long-winded discourses." Peter was "completely, faithfully on the basis of God's Word" refuted. The Foreword closes thus:
"Because it is well known that the Anabaptists plant and cherish nothing but shameful and terrible errors, which overthrow the foundation of our eternal salvation and destroy the well-being of the churches, we wish to ask each of our dear and faithful subjects and other lovers of the truth . . . that they be on their guard against the sect and doctrine of the Anabaptists as a ruinous evil. Even though they are everywhere tolerated for special reasons, they are still like those who in hypocrisy speak lies (1 Timothy 4:2), whose doctrine eats like a cancer (2 Timothy 2:17)."
immediate consequence of the debate was the decision by the Frisian States
that Mennonite religious services were forbidden in Friesland. When the prohibition
was violated in Leeuwarden, the Mennonite preachers were severely fined and
many were forbidden to engage in business. Jan Jacobsz of Harlingen was banished
from Friesland in 1600.
In the following period, however, the Mennonites were tolerated in spite of many complaints by the synods. Early in the 17th century many Mennonite churches were built. Now and then the spirit of persecution flared up. But with few exceptions, the government no longer interfered. An official disputation like that at Leeuwarden was not held in Holland again.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe; Schneider, 1913-1967: v. II, 630 f.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 310-311. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
©1996-2013 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.
MLA style: van der Zijpp, Nanne. "Leeuwarden Disputation (1596)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. 18 June 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/L4303.html.
APA style: van der Zijpp, Nanne. (1957). Leeuwarden Disputation (1596). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 June 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/L4303.html.