Ghent (Oost-Vlaanderen, Belgium)
Ghent (Gent), present capital of the Belgian province of East Flanders (1949 pop. 166,797, 2006 pop. 233,120; coordinates: 51° 3′ 0″ N, 3° 44′ 0″ E). With the exception of Antwerp no other city in Belgium had as long a list of Anabaptist martyrs as Ghent. The Anabaptist and Calvinist martyrbooks together list 110 victims; van Braght's Martyrs' Mirror lists 92 Anabaptist-Mennonite martyrs. The research of V. van der Haeghen published in Bibliographie des Martyrologes Protestants Neerlandais (The Hague, 1890) proved that the number of victims was much higher, and A. L. E. Verheyden (Het Gentsche Martyrologium 1550-1595, Brugge) 1946), who studied the sources, lists a total of 252 victims, subdivided in five groups: 51 Iconoclasts, 30 Calvinists, 146 Anabaptist-Mennonites, 23 heretics, 2 Lutherans. So the Anabaptist-Mennonites are by far the largest part of the executed. And of 146 Anabaptist-Mennonite martyrs no fewer than 105 or 72 per cent were burned at the stake; of the Calvinists only 23 per cent were executed in this cruel way. K. Vos (in Mennonitisches Lexikon II, 69) stated the surprising fact that the names of the victims found in the official records at times greatly differ from those mentioned in Het Offer des Heeren and the later martyrbooks, including the Martyrs' Mirror. He concluded:
This deviation is in part explained by the use of secret names. For many of these martyrs the names are scarcely known. For instance, in 41 cases the principal source of our knowledge is a song composed on their death by a poet of Ghent; it is found in the Offer des Heeren, 649-654, and includes martyrs of 1562-1569, according to eyewitness accounts. The song was already printed by 1577. It contains a few errors because; the poet had to rely entirely on his memory. A second song, Offer des Heeren, 556-559, lists 12 martyrs of 1559. A song found in Veelderhande Liedekens of 1569 reveals that these martyrs were betrayed by a Beguine and arrested while they were eating a meal.
Verheyden made a thorough study of the materials; although the records of the sentences are incomplete (until 1538, during 1540-1555 and 1568-1571 lacking), Verheyden by using odier old books and documents succeeded in procuring a nearly complete list. The first Anabaptist martyr of Ghent, Willem Mulaer, was executed on 15 July 1535; the last ones, Bartholomeus Panten and Michiel de Cleercq, both suffered death on 15 September 1592. The most important martyrs and leaders of the congregation were Hans van Overdam and Hans Keeskooper (d. 1551), Claes de Praet (d. 1556), Joost de Tollenaar (d. 1589), and Michiel de Cleercq (d. 1592).
There must have been an important and at times very numerous congregation at Ghent. Anabaptists may have been at Ghent as early as 1530, and very likely a congregation came into existence soon after. Not much is known of this congregation. Occasionally the trials of the martyrs supply some facts, and it is mostly from the official records and the martyrbooks that its history is known. They used to meet in secret places, sometimes in the houses of members, sometimes also in grainfields or wooded spots in the neighborhood of the city, usually in numbers not larger than 25 or 30. Meetings are said to have been held every day.
During the first period (1530-1540) a certain revolutionary spirit seems to have prevailed in the congregation: this fact can be concluded from the deaconship of Mahieu Wagens (executed 15 August 1538), a revolutionary. But in general the church followed the paths of the movement in Holland, those of a peaceful Anabaptism-Mennonitism. David Joris, who visited the Ghent congregation, had scarcely an adherent in this congregation. The congregation—also in the following periods—seems to have consisted more of refugees seeking shelter here rather than of citizens of Ghent.
In the following period (1540-1573) the congregation was usually served by outside elders from Antwerp or even from Holland, e.g., Gillis van Aken, Cornelis Claissone from Leiden, Jan van de Walle, Christiaen (may be identical with Chr. Janssens Langedul from Antwerp) and Joachim Vermeeren from Antwerp, later also Hans Busschaert, Paulus van Meenen, and Hendrik van Arnhem. Of great blessing were the sojourns of Leenaert Bouwens at Ghent. He visited the congregation several times in 1554-1556 and 1557-1561 and baptized 116 or 129 persons here.
The congregation of Ghent had its own preachers and deacons, but no elder of its own. That they desperately wanted one is shown by a letter written by Adriaen van Kortrijk to the church of Antwerp in the name of the principal Flemish congregations. In this letter, which is undated but must have been written about 1545, Adriaen points out that the congregation is like a flock of sheep without a shepherd; the congregations of Flanders are all said to be young, and have too infrequently been visited by elders from Holland. So Adriaen insists that a bishop be sent. It, is not known whether this request was granted. The time of prosperity of the church about 1550 was at the same time a period of terrible martyrdom. Many members were executed and many left the city, fleeing to England (London), Holland (especially Haarlem), and Emden in East Friesland.
In 1566 rising Calvinism became active in Ghent; in this year a number of Catholic churches were plundered and images of saints destroyed. The Mennonites, maintaining their principle of nonresistance, did not cooperate with the Calvinist iconoclasts. Notwithstanding their nonparticipation they were terribly persecuted in 1567-1573 during the reactionary and implacable Catholic government of the Duke of Alba: within those six years no fewer than 49 members were put to death. The congregation, which is said to have numbered 400 members in 1567, greatly decreased in the following years, both by execution and flight. But church life was still very active; secret meetings continued, and a solid organization is proved by the activity of the deacons.
In 1577-1584 Calvinism reigned in Ghent. Under the supremacy of the Calvinist government the Mennonite congregation too had a time of rest and security; no one was executed, only a few were banished from the city. But equality with the Calvinist church was not yet obtained: Calvinism considered the Mennonites as heretics just as Roman Catholicism had done before. This is proved from the fact that a debate between Calvinist and Mennonite leaders held in the fall of 1581 was fruitless; and a request of the Mennonites presented to the city government in February 1582 to obtain the use of one of the former Catholic churches taken over by the Calvinists was refused.
The Calvinist government lasted only a few years. In September 1584 the Spanish Stadholder Alexander Farnese conquered the city and the Calvinist magistrates were replaced by Roman Catholics. The new government was rather moderate toward the Calvinists, permitting them, if they wanted to keep their faith, to sell their property and leave the city. But the Mennonites, whose number is said to have been "not small," usually were handled with less moderation. So persecution again came over the congregation. A number of its members died as martyrs, others escaped and came to Holland. On 15 March 1585, nine Mennonites were arrested in the home of Jan de Cleercq. They were probably all deacons, constituting the board of the congregation of Ghent. In 1589 and 1592 all the leaders of the congregation were in prison and suffered martyrdom. Then all records become silent; but the congregation still existed. It was led by a deacon preacher, who sometimes received gifts from Holland for the poor and the relatives of those who had been put to death, and who also preached if conditions made it possible to have a meeting. Though there is little positive information extant, the congregation continued to live; in 1609 an elder of Haarlem visited the church of Ghent. The members were no longer living in the city, for the meeting was held at Lovendegem, a village near Ghent. Here, as well as in Zomergem, another village in the neighborhood, Mennonites continued to meet. Until 1629 they met at Zomergem in a loft. But in this year a house was adapted for the meetings, which soon proved to be too small for the number of members. In this time most members were rather well-to-do merchants. Their preacher was Jacob van Maldegem and twice a year an elder came over from the Dutch province of Zeeland. They also participated in the meetings which were held at Aardenburg, just across the border on Dutch territory. For a number of years this congregation had held its meetings without attracting the attention of the government, but in 1630 the magistrates became aware of it; then it became impossible to hold meetings and about 1634 the congregation was dissolved. Its members migrated to the Netherlands; most of them settled in Aardenburg and Middelburg in the province of Zeeland.
While the congregation of Ghent was still in existence the quarrels arose in the Netherlands which divided the Mennonites into different groups—Waterlanders, Flemish, and Frisians. These differences did not stir up the church in Flanders as they did the Dutch congregations. Yet there were in Ghent two separate congregations—one, likely the largest, Flemish, and one Waterlander. Representatives of the latter were present at the Waterlander meeting at Amsterdam in March 1581, where it was decided that Albrecht Verspeck should visit the Ghent congregation. Further particulars about the differences were not available.
Dit Boec wort genoemt: Het Offer des Herren, om het inhout van sommighe opgheofferde kinderen Godts . . . N.p., 1570: 556-559, 649-654.
Doopsgezinde Bijdragen (1877): 80, 82, 87; (1884): 57 note 2.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe; Schneider, 1913-1967: II, 68-71.
Verheyden, A. L. E. "De Doopsgezinden te Gent 1530-1630." Bijdragen tot de geschiedenis en oudheidkunde van Gent (1943): 97-130.
Verheyden, A. L. E. "Een Episode uit de Gentsche Kerkhervorming (June 1566-February 1567)." Rapport-Bulletin van de vereeniging v. geschiedenis van het Belgische Protestantisme. Brussels, 1945. Reprint.
Verheyden, A. L. E. Het Gentsche Martyrologium (1530-1595). Brugge: De Tempel, 1946.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 473-474. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: van der Zijpp, Nanne. "Ghent (Oost-Vlaanderen, Belgium)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 20 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/G4636.html.
APA style: van der Zijpp, Nanne. (1956). Ghent (Oost-Vlaanderen, Belgium). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 20 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/G4636.html.