A great event in the world's history was the birth in Rotterdam, October 28, 1467, of a Dutch baby boy, Gerrit Gerritz. The name means the son of Gerrit, s or z at the end of a Dutch name, as in Maarten Maartens, means son, one letter being the short form for the several letters in sen or zoon, for son. When the boy grew up, he followed the fashion of so many scholars, and turned his name into more or less correct Latin and Greek, and wrote it Desiderius Erasmus. The word means desired or loved.
It was under the shadow of the great cathedral in Rotterdam, in Wide Church Street, at No. 3, and now marked with a little statue and inscription, that Erasmus was born. When ten years old, the little Rotterdamer was sent to Deventer and entered one of the schools of the Brethren of the Common Life. After two years he went to Hertogenbosch. Here an attempt was made to get him to take monkish vows. Fortunately for civilization and Christianity, he refused, and went first to Arnhem, and then, in 1492, to Paris, as a free student.
In that great city he worked hard in the mastery of Greek. He was then invited to Cambridge, lived in England a while made a literary journey to Rome, declined the Pope's offers, and came back to England, where he wrote a book called the "Praise of Folly." In this he exposed all kinds of fools, especially those in the church, not even sparing the Pope. In his " Colloquia " he attacks violently monks, cloister life, festivals, pilgrimages, and other things which pass for true religion, but have nothing to do with it.
In 1514 he returned to the Continent and died at Basle in 1536. A giant in learning, and the literary king of Christendom, petted by sovereigns, honored in many countries, and reading many tongues, he spoke only Latin and his mother's tongue, his native Dutch, which he loved so dearly.
Erasmus was neither a Roman Catholic nor a Protestant, but he believed in reforming the church. He forged the weapons used by the Anabaptists, Luther, Calvin, and the common people, but he was himself averse to enthusiasm. He opened ancient literature and stimulated Europeans to love the beautiful, the true, and the good. He wrote many books, but his greatest work was in making a correct text of the Greek Testament. This he translated into elegant Latin, which was not only superior to, but widely different from the Vulgate. Scholars everywhere enjoyed it, and used it as a basis for translation. Soon in many countries they were busy at putting the Bible into the common languages of Europe.
The printers kept at the elbows of the scholars. The printing-presses turned off thousands and tens of thousands of vernacular Bibles. The results of putting the Bible into the hands and minds of the peoples was first a new Europe and then the United States of America. No one rejoiced more in the wide diffusion of the Scriptures than Erasmus. He loved the Bible as literature, and wanted every plough-boy and sailor to own a copy. A few years after the great scholar had died, the people of his native city, Rotterdam, erected a wooden statue of him in the market-place. When the Spanish soldiers, in whose country the books of Erasmus had been publicly burned, saw this image of the heretic, they riddled it with bullets as if it were a stuffed Judas.
In 1572 the Rotterdammers again set up the statue, this time in blue stone. In 1622 a nobler effigy in bronze was reared. The town which gave him birth gave him second life, and poems written in ink were graven in stone. Today, Erasmus, book in hand, still seems to be tranquilly reading, paying no heed to the twittering of the birds that play around his head, and seemingly enjoying life amid the roar of the great city. With men's mind thus fermenting, schools dotting Nederland, thousands of houses containing Bibles, a people made serious, patient, and brave by a thousand years of struggle with the sea, ready to bear many wrongs patiently, but not everything, a conflict with Spain and all she represented was certain.
Charles V. was to find Netherland a different country from what his Spanish nurses and kinsmen would have him believe. Charles was made king of Spain one year before, and elected emperor of Germany two years after Luther nailed his theses to the church door at Wittenberg. When, in 1529, those who believed and felt with Luther "protested" against the act of the Diet of Spires, at which Charles presided, they were called " Protestants."
The name soon came to be a general term for all those Christians who believed in freedom of conscience and the right of private judgment in studying the Holy Scriptures. Yet it was neither Lutherans nor Calvinists who began the Reformation in Nederland. Those reformers first recognized as respectable were called Erasmians, yet it was not the followers of Erasmus who first of all led the revolt against priestcraft, political churches, and the whole array of dogmas that lie at the foundations of both the Greek and the Roman Catholic systems.
The dogmas especially hated by Americans are the mixing of politics with religion, or the union of church and state, the employment of the sword and public treasury to maintain the tenets of one sect, and the right to tax men to support priests or parsons. What we Americans hate were exactly what the heretics, particularly the Anabaptists, hated long ago.
The Nederlanders who first claimed the right of free reading and interpretation of the Bible demanded the separation of the church and state, and filled their country full of ideas hostile to all state churches, were called the Anabaptists, or rebaptizers, because they believed in the baptism of adults only, and usually by immersion. The Anabaptists were not without predecessors.
The Waldensians and Albigenses from Italy and France had come into Nederland, the former in considerable numbers as traders, weavers, and mechanics. They and every one else who renounced the authority of the Pope were called "heretics." Often they were severe in morals, stern in manner, and at some points were as fa- natical as churchmen. Taking the name Kathari, or Puritans, a name which the Dutch, corrupted into "Ketters," they overran the Netherlands. Thence they made their way into England, especially in those eastern counties out of which later came four fifths of the settlers of New England. As the Lollards, they were followers of Wiclif, the Englishman who translated the Bible before the days of the printing-press, and who taught that "dominion is founded on grace."
In the Nederland the Ketters were hunted down by the bloodhounds of the church, and in the name of Christ service was done to the great religious poration called the church, which killed the bodies and claimed to deliver over to eternal rain the souls of men. In spite of all the tortures and murders, the Ketters lived on. As the Ketters were the spiritual ancestors of the Anabaptists, so are the latter true fathers of the English Independents and American Congregationalists, of the English-speaking Baptists and the Friends or Quakers.
The Anabaptists leavened Netherland with their doctrines, and taught the common people, before either Lutherans or Calvinists were numerous or influential or re- spectable. Drowned like blind kittens in Austria, burned in England until firewood became dear, slaughtered like sheep before dogs in Germany, bunted down like runaway slaves in the morasses of Friesland by Spanish minions, outlawed by every state church in Europe, Protestant as well as Catholic, the Anabaptists first found toleration in Holland under William the Silent. State churchmen have exaggerated their heresy, their faults, and vices. The episode of Miinster has been made a household tale, but they have failed to tell us of the beautiful Christian lives, of their noble devotion, of their Christian-like spirit, of those humble people of God.
The Dutch Anabaptists helped mightily to prepare the soil out of which the Constitution of the United States and the more charitable religion of today grew. Though some of the Dutch Anabaptists committed offensive actions and joined the uprising at Miinster, the overwhelming majority of them were peaceable, quiet, non-resistant folk, They were organized, educated, and elevated by Menno Simons, who was born in 1492, and in 1531 was a priest in his native village of Witmarsum. Here, in 1535, about three hundred men, women, and children, fleeing from Muenster, intrenched themselves in an old cloister. On the 7th of April they were overpowered by the military and most of them drowned. Impressed by the bru- tality of churchmen who could thus slaughter mothers and children, Menno Simons renounced the Roman form of the Christian faith, and became an " Anabaptist."
Until his death in 1559, he spent his time in teaching and preaching the doctrines which seemed to him more in accord with the teachings of Christ than those which had been taught him in his youth. He made many converts all over Europe, and escaped all the plots of his would-be murderers. The burden of his teaching was a holy life in opposition to worldliness.