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…

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