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Closet Believers

The Family of Love

by Alastair Hamilton
James Clarke & Co. (Cambridge, England), 177 pp., £15

The Family of Love was a mystical sect or society founded in about 1540 by a wealthy German merchant, Hendrik Niclaes. It was Nicodemite, that is to say, systematically secret, encouraging its members to conform outwardly to whatever religion prevailed around them. It aimed at a personal inward religion for which all ceremonies and outward forms of worship were a matter of indifference; it thus continues the tradition of earlier sixteenth-century Nicodemites described in Carlo Ginzburg’s Il Nicodemismo (see NYR, September 23, 1971).

On the Continent its membership included prominent and influential intellectuals, such as the great printer Christophe Plantin, the scholar and neostoic Justus Lipsius, the cartographer Abraham Ortelius, and the Spanish statesman and Hebraist Arias Montano, who came to Antwerp in the 1560s to supervise the preparation of the Polyglot Bible, printed by Plantin, which appeared under the aegis of Philip II. In England the sect survived, mainly among yeomen and artisans, into the seventeenth century, and was probably one of the starting points of the Society of Friends, the Quakers. As an irenic, tolerant movement, the Familists may well in the later sixteenth century have had considerable influence among French politiques and the more liberal supporters of William of Orange, for example, in the abortive attempt to establish François d’Anjou, the youngest of the Valois princes, as a Catholic, but tolerant and anti-Spanish, ruler in the southern Netherlands.

Alastair Hamilton’s extremely intelligent and competent book is the first monograph on this interesting and possibly important religious movement. It is most valuable to have assembled in one volume, and critically assessed, the information provided by modern scholars such as H. de la Fontaine Verwey, Jan van Dorsten, Gerhard Güldner, Bernard Rekers, and Hamilton himself, information which is scattered in various books and periodicals. But Hamilton has also given us a great deal of new material and his whole study is firmly based on original sources. Several fundamental points about the history of the Family of Love come out clearly in this general picture, points that were obscure or absent in the more limited studies of his predecessors.

One of the most important of these points is that on the Continent the great majority of Familists, indeed nearly all of them who can be identified with certainty, were practicing Roman Catholics. The immediate origins of the movement were in nonviolent Anabaptism and other radical heresies, in particular those of Sebastian Franck and David Joris (Hamilton is very good and full on these)—Hendrik Jansen van Barrefelt, Niclaes’s earliest and most active adherent, had begun life as a moderate Anabaptist. But Familism had no connections with the reformed churches of Luther, Zwingli, or Calvin. Indeed its main opponents were Protestants, who, as Hamilton remarks, regarded it as “a variant of Catholicism.” The main practical reason for this opposition between the Family and Protestantism was the Familists’ policy of outward conformity and their acceptance, in Catholic regions, of rites and ceremonies, in particular the mass, which seemed to Protestants superstitious and idolatrous. The most fundamental doctrinal point of difference was the Familists’ refusal to accept the supreme authority of Scripture; in place of this they relied on the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit, through which alone the true hidden meaning of the written word could be reached. The other basic point of difference was their rejection of the doctrine of salvation by faith alone, and their assertion of man’s ability to achieve moral perfection and save himself by faith and good works. They thus held to the Catholic concept of fides charitate formata (faith formed by charity). It is to this that the title Family of Love refers: Pauline charity, the love in the two evangelical commandments.

Now if the Continental Familists were in opposition to the reformed churches and only outwardly belonged to the Catholic Church, at what sort of religious community were they aiming? Hamilton here uses the ancient and useful distinction between an invisible church of saints, of the perfect, and the visible church, organized and established, which contains both saints and sinners. If the Family of Love was meant only to be an invisible society of Christian mystics, of “begodded men,” as they were sometimes called, then it was not necessarily in competition with any visible church, and it could adopt an extremely tolerant position with regard to confessional differences, since members of the true invisible church may be in any or all of the established churches. This does seem to have been the aim of Familists such as Plantin and Lipsius, who, while remaining Catholics, could live happily in the tolerant atmosphere of the new Protestant university of Leiden: an informal society, without rules or regular meetings, whose members helped each other financially, kept in touch by personal contact and correspondence, and, when they had the opportunity, actively supported policies of peace and toleration. But this was not the aim of the Family’s founder, Niclaes.

Although his published writings are highly ambiguous, it is clear from his Ordo Sacerdotis, which survives in only one manuscript copy, that Niclaes, at least from the early 1560s onward, wished to found an elaborately organized, eminently visible, and schismatic church, with its own priestly hierarchy and ceremonies, and with Niclaes as its autocratic leader. There is no evidence that he succeeded in putting this project into practice. But it seems very likely that this was the main cause of a split that occurred within the Family when, around 1570, Barrefelt, hitherto Niclaes’s right-hand man, defected from his master, taking with him most of the more tolerant, irenic Familists. Barrefelt, who published under the name of Hiel (in Hebrew “life of God”), knew no language but Dutch; but his views were in agreement with the scholarly, peace-loving circle around Plantin, and his religious insights were highly respected by such learned Familists as Arias Montano. Unlike Niclaes, he wished to be the guide, not the leader, of an invisible church.

An invisible church, if it is to be more than an abstract theological concept, must be some sort of society with real links between its members. When these links stretch across confessional boundaries, the survival of such a society in the sixteenth century entails secrecy or heavy disguise. The Nicodemism of the Family was efficient enough for it to survive for over half a century; but the secrecy surrounding it was far from complete. From the early 1560s there were frequent attacks on it by Protestants, some of them well informed, and in 1570 Niclaes’s books were condemned in Philip II’s Index for the Netherlands, printed by Plantin. This is hardly surprising in view of Niclaes’s active efforts to found a visible church, not only through a network of personal contacts in the Low Countries, France, and Germany, but also by means of his own voluminous publications, most of which had been first printed by Plantin in Antwerp from 1555 to 1562.

These works were deliberately ambiguous: though susceptible of a purely spiritual interpretation, they could also be read, correctly, as announcing a new religious organization, intended ultimately to supplant or reform all existing churches, and misread as promulgating politically revolutionary and morally antinomian doctrines—hence the attacks and hence the split within the Family. These attacks usually included accusations of sexual immorality, as attacks on heretics have always done; but in this case there is evidence that a few Familists did misread Niclaes in this way.

This raises another general point which Hamilton brings out clearly: the predominantly commercial, mercantile character of the Family. Niclaes was able to carry out his propaganda for a visible church so successfully because he was a wealthy merchant with international business connections; and it was owing to his financial support, given in return for printing his books, that the great publishing firm of Plantin came into existence. In addition to his own fortune, Niclaes disposed of large fund of money contributed by supporters in France, Germany, and the Low Countries, which was used partly for publishing Familist works, partly to finance commercial ventures that would enlarge the fund, and partly to help members in distress. As Hamilton says of the ideal, visible church announced in Niclaes’s Ordo Sacerdotis, it was to be “a mercantile Utopia regulated by propertyless priests with a superior knowledge of finance, all bound by obedience to his person.”

I have only two criticism to make of this book. The first concerns the publisher, rather than the author: the book is very badly printed, the notes are difficult to locate, and it costs too much, like most scholarly books now published in England. My second criticism is that the book is not long enough. For, although as a general rule we should be grateful to scholars for producing short, readable works, in this case I feel that there are aspects of the subject which lack of space has prevented the author from treating fully enough. The most important of these is the religious doctrines of Niclaes, Barrefelt, and other Familists. These can be known only from their original writings, published and manuscript, which are inaccessible to the ordinary reader and extremely difficult to interpret. Hamilton is eminently qualified to undertake this task of interpretation, and I hope he will continue it in another book. But in this book we are sometimes left unsatisfied, provided only with tantalizing hints where a full exposition would be welcome.

This is perhaps owing, in some measure, to the deliberate obscurity of these writers, Niclaes especially; nevertheless I think we should be told more about such subjects as Niclaes’s “Messianism,” his views on baptism, the afterlife, Antichrist, and the end of the world, even if the resulting, fuller picture still remained vague and mysterious. In particular, the strand of millenarianism could be examined more thoroughly and it might, I think, provide a clue to the main, systematic ambiguity of Niclaes’s writings, namely, whether the “begodded” state of man is to be attained in this life or after death. A third possibility, mentioned but not explored by Hamilton, is that this free, sinless, loving state will be that of the millennium, of which Niclaes is the divinely appointed prophet. There are certainly strong hints of this in Niclaes’s works as summarized in this book (see e.g., p. 34), and in those of other Familists. Hamilton quotes Plantin’s verses to William of Orange, written in 1578.

Par ainsi s’enfuira toute Dissen- sion,
Et reviendra la Paix, & la saincte Union. Ainsi la Piété, ainsi la saincte Eglise, Et le devoir au Roy, regneront sans feinctise,
Dont un chacun sentant en soymesmes tel heur,
Benira pour jamais la divine faveur.
Ainsi soubs un pasteur & une Bergerie
Veuille Dieu nous renger en ‘eternelle vie.

(Thus all Dissensions will flee away, and Peace will return and holy Union. Thus Piety, the holy Church, and duty to the King will reign without disguise; for which everyone, feeling within himself such bliss, will bless for ever God’s favor. Thus, under one shepherd and in one fold, may God place us in eternal life.)

But he does not point out the classic millenarian text: “And there shall be one fold and one shepherd” (John, 10. 16).

The Family of Love, like other secret societies, such as the Rosicrucians and the Free Masons, is open to endless conjectures by historians on its possible influences, and it is right that such conjectures should be made and carefully explored. But an essential prerequisite of this scholarly activity is that the facts about the society in question, its beliefs, aims, activities, and membership should be critically examined and clearly presented. This is what Hamilton has done for the Family and his book will be immensely valuable to other historians.

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