2009: Ede, Netherlands

Commission members in Ede

The commission met in Ede, Netherlands, during the BWA’s Annual Gathering from July 28-31, 2009.

At the 2009 BWA Gathering members and friends of the Baptist History and Identity Commission met for four sessions, the first three to hear and discuss papers and the fourth to sum up the work of the quinquenium and to prepare for next year’s Congress in Hawaii.

Members who participated came from the United States (Fred Anderson, Eljee Bentley, George Boltniew [also from Russia], Karen Bullock, Hector Gonzales, Robert Nash, Richard Pierard, Horace Russell[also from Jamaica], Craig Sherouse, Bernie Spooner, John Sundquist, Chuck Weber, and Ed Wheeler); from the United Kingdom (Faith Bowers, Eirlys and Michael Cleaves [also representing Georgia], Peter Morden, Bill Slack, and Brian Talbot); from Australia (Ken Manley and David Parker); from Jamaica (Cawley Bolt); and Mexico (Dinorah Mendez). Several of the members had been in Amsterdam the previous week for the Amsterdam 400 Celebration of the EBF; others came directly from Australia, where they had attended the International Conference of Baptist Studies. Friends/visitors-33 individuals-took part in all sessions.

The great attendance at our sessions speaks for the quality of the papers presented and our open discussions as well as the friendliness of our commission. Our second session, for example, drew an audience of almost 40 although pitted against other commission meetings as well as a major forum in the large auditorium. One of our faithful visitors, Anne deVries, said at our last session that he had never been interested in history, but he so enjoyed our commission meetings after visiting us in Ghana (as invited speaker) that he kept on coming and is now helping to form a Dutch Baptist Historical Society.

Of the four forums featured in the Ede Gathering, three of them were historical in nature with Commission members prominently involved. David Parker chaired the first one on Major Moments in the Baptist Story and the presenters were Ken Manley (Asia Pacific), Horace Russell (Caribbean) and Peter Morden who presented the story of Baptists in Europe using three figures: Thomas Helwys, Anne Steele, and Johann Oncken. Dinorah Mendez made a presentation in another Forum, while Richard Pierard was chairman for William Brackney’s comprehensive presentation on Baptists and Transformation. Our chair, Karen Bullock, ably moderated the final forum, Baptist Peacemakers: Four Centuries of Healing the Baptist House.


First Session

Tuesday, July 28, 4:30-6:30pm

Commission members at history corner

Chair Karen Bullock welcomed all present, previewed the commission’s plans for the week: the four sessions plus the history corner, and introduced her PhD student, Kirstin Timmer, who had done so much work preparing for both the EBF and BWA weeks in The Netherlands. Timmer had located Baptist sites and prepared maps for the historical tour of Amsterdam, a tour taken by those attending the EBF as well as the BWA. Timmer’s other, more academic work, would be presented at the Third Session. All present were invited to introduce themselves and did so. Bullock also invited them to sign up for a time to be at the history corner, which was in a lobby-area of the large hotel where all BWA meetings took place.

Bullock then introduced Teun van der Leer, the rector of the Baptist Seminary Barneveld, who presented The History of the Dutch Baptist Churches. Read this paper. Pointing out that the Baptist beginnings in 1609 by English separatists left no lasting influence on Dutch religious life, van der Leer introduced us to the first Dutch Baptist, Johannes Feisser, a Dutch Reformed pastor who in mid-19th century came to the conviction that a true church must be a believers’ church and that a believers’ church needs believer’s baptism. After reaching this opinion on his own, he learned of the Baptists in Hamburg, contacted them, and was baptized by a representative of J G Oncken on 15 May 1845. He and the others baptized with him formed a church.

Feisser represents an emphasis on the importance of the local church as a body of visible believers, one of the two streams that influenced Dutch Baptist faith and life. The other stream is evangelism. Jan de Liefde was a Menonnite pastor converted to orthodoxy who decided that to be baptized one must be born-again. He was baptized in 1849 in the Baptist Church of Amsterdam, but left it within three months. He remained a traveling evangelist, starting a school for evangelists and later founding the Free Evangelical Churches.

Seven churches formed a Baptist Union in 1881. Looking back on Union history, van der Leer discerns five stages: antithesis over against the church enemy (not like Dutch Reformed church), 1881-1910; emancipation and a growing Baptist self-awareness, 1910-1940; being a self-confident church among the churches, 1940-1980; polarization, 1980-1990; evangelicalism, 1990-now.

Although Baptists have a short history in The Netherlands and their number is small, in moving back and forth between the Feisser-church and the de Leifde-evangelism, they have shown themselves able to discern the will of Christ “for the day.” They are flexible enough to be attractive to others.

Discussion followed (sample of questions van der Leer answered):

Brian Talbot: Why did the Dutch Baptist Union leave the World Council of Churches (WCC) in 1963?
Dutch Baptists were flattered to be asked to join (thus recognized as a legitimate church body) in 1948. Later they became upset by WCC’s political/social stands/actions. Also the Union said it should not belong because it was composed of local autonomous bodies. The Union is not a member of National Council of Churches in The Netherlands.

Dick Pierard: Do Baptist churches use any Reformed confessions?
No, probably because of evangelical influence. Currently, however, the Reformed (Calvinistic) Baptists having an effect on some pastors/seminary students.

Cawley Bolt: (1) Define autonomous.
Should not be used as an excuse to avoid responsibility to union. Local churches called to connect to others.
(2): What affects the movement between the two streams?
Go too far toward evangelism, there will be a movement toward organization or back to church. Then there will be call for renewal, which after awhile leads to a counter-call for tradition. And so on.

Michael Cleaves (1): What effect did World War I and World War II have on Dutch Baptists?
Not much influence on their faith or church life.
(2) What effect did/does the liberal/secular lifestyle have?
Brought the polarization of the 1980s.

Visitor from Nagaland (India): Isn’t confession contextual? Shouldn’t all Baptist churches be open to others?
“God is not a Baptist.” We need openness.

Dinorah Mendez: In Mexican Baptist churches we see movement back and forth between ecumenical and local.


Second Session

Wednesday, July 29, 2.00 – 4.00pm

Eljee Bentley welcomed all present and reminded them of Thursday’s tours of Amsterdam and Friday’s two commission sessions and the forum on Baptist peacemakers. She then introduced Ken Edmonds of Melbourne, Australia, who had become interested in a possible connection between Rembrandt and the Anabaptists while he was living in The Netherlands as architect for the new Australian Embassy. Since returning to Australia, he and his wife have made several trips back to The Netherlands and maintained their interest in the history and culture of the “Golden Age.” The Edmonds are also active Baptists and members of another BWA commission.

Edmonds presented Rembrandt and the Waterlander Mennonites. Read this paper. He proposed answering two questions: (1) Was there an association between Rembrandt and the Waterlander Mennonites (Anabaptists)? (2) If the answer is yes, what was the nature of the association?

US Mennonites introduced in the mid-20th century the idea of an association between their own forebears and Rembrandt, showing as evidence prints of Rembrandt’s painting of the Mennonite preacher, Anslow, and a statement by a Danish painter who worked in Rembrandt’s workshop. The Mennonites claimed that in the 1640s Rembrandt began his association with Anslow and began painting religious subjects. Art critics doubted the connection.

By the late 20th century further research had proved that Uylenburgh, the prominent art dealer who ran the art studio where Rembrandt lived and worked was a Mennonite. Rembrandt married Uylenburgh’s niece and moved next door (that house is now the Rembrandt museum). Rembrandt’s religious paintings reflect Mennonite beliefs. Simon Schama, in his study, Embarrassment of Riches, tells a great deal about the Mennonites and their connection with Rembrandt.

In the recent plethora of Rembrandt exhibits and books to celebrate the painter’s 400th birthday (he was born in 1606) his connection with Uylenburgh is portrayed. A book published by the Rembrandt museum, Uylenburgh and Son 1625-1675, states that Rembrandt, once launched by Uylenburgh, became the most eminent and best paid portrait painter in Holland.

Having shown an association, Edmonds asks, “Who were the Waterlander Mennonites?” and defines them as “muppies” or Mennonite urban professionals. They were upper middle class: merchants who traded in Baltic and with Greenland; men involved in shipbuilding, whaling, draining swamps, producing textiles; doctors of medicine. They were highly literate, interested in culture including the visual arts. In contrast to most dissenters of their time, they saw works of art as a way to spirituality. Many Mennonites were patrons and some were artists and engravers themselves. Franz Hals is another painter of The Netherlands’ “golden age” who associated with the Mennonites.

Edmonds further asks, “Did the Mennonites influence Rembrandt?” Like them, he preferred simplicity. Many of his portraits are of Mennonites “Was he a Mennonite?” Probably not, judging from some incidents known of his life. The Mennonites were very strict as to their membership as would be learned from Friday’s paper.

Discussion followed — questions and comments, some of which were about particular paintings.

Edmonds also introduced a map and guide (click here for map and here for guide) of a walking tour of Amsterdam focusing on Rembrandt and the Waterlander Mennonites and distributed copies. He pointed out that the sites are in the same general location as the Baptist historical tour. Several in the group, who had taken the Baptist tour at the EBF, decided to go with Edmunds on Thursday for the Rembrandt tour. Others could take it at their leisure.


400th Anniversary Celebration in Amsterdam

Anniversary celebration service

Thursday, July 30, 2.30pm

All those who had come for the BWA meetings traveled by bus to Amsterdam where they gathered at the United Mennonite Church, also known as Singelkerk (See Walking Tour, Part II and Map) to celebrate the 400th anniversary of modern Baptists. The building dates from 1608, remodeled in 1639, but was the church of the Flemish Mennonites, not the Waterlanders, until the two groups merged in the 1660s. (Edmunds had shown an old print of the interior of the building, which looks much as the building does today.) After the service, people scattered to tour Amsterdam before returning to Ede for dinner and the night.


Third Session

Friday, July 31, 2:00 – 4:00 pm

Peter Morden presided as members and visitors gathered Friday afternoon to hear Kirstin Timmer speak on John Smyth’s request for Mennonite Recognition and Admission: Four Newly Translated Letters, 1610-1612. Read this paper. Timmer first described the earliest Baptists and the Waterlander Mennonites and the circumstances under which they came in contact. Then she zoomed in on four letters that both provide support for and challenge views expressed by J. R. Coggins in his study, John Smyth’s Congregation: English Separatism, Mennonite Influence, and the Elect Nation, published in 1991.

Smyth, an ordained Anglican dismissed for becoming Puritain, began meeting with Separatists in Gainsborough in 1606. That group split for safety’s sake, and within two years both halves had fled to the Netherlands, which, after expelling Spanish rule, practiced religious tolerance and was becoming the economic center of the world. The Smyth group settled in Jan Munter’s Bakehouse in Amsterdam, which provided work plus living and worship space. Jan Munter was a Waterlander Mennonite.

Mennonite groups (followers of Dutch Anabaptist leader Menno Simons 1496-1561) had appeared and grown in the time of Spanish rule and by the time the English arrived were thriving. Munter belonged to the group called “Waterlander,” which was more liberal than the Flemish Mennonites, allowing more contacts into the world, marriage to non-Mennonites, and open communion among other things.

Contact with the Waterlanders influenced Helwys and Smyth. Smyth adopted believer’s baptism, baptized himself and his group and thus in 1609, reconstituted them as a believers’ church. In 1610 Smyth, having developed concerns about his action in baptising himself rather than linking with the existing Mennonites, applied to the Waterlanders for recognition and admission. Helwys disagreed with Smyth’s application, sent his own letter to the Waterlanders, and returned with his small group to England. The Waterlanders considered Smyth’s application. Since the Waterlanders reach decision by consensus, the varied congregations had to exchange opinions and did so primarily through letters.

Archival document studied by Timmer

Timmer’s research has been in reading this correspondence (written in 17th century Latin), now in the Amsterdam archives. She discovered four, never before translated into English, which Coggins seems to have misinterpreted.

The correspondence shows that the Waterlanders did not accept the Smyth group in 1610 as Coggins states, but in 615, after the death of Smyth (Smyth was buried Sept. 1, 1612, at Niewe Kerk). The objection to Smyth was his self-baptism. The struggle to reach consensus was one of the causes of a split among the Waterlanders.

Discussion followed. Sample of questions and comments from participants.

More information about documents?
Documents are numbered 1120.121 and titled “Mennonite Collection,” at the City of Amsterdam Archives. Many of them have been digitalized and can be seen online by those who have access to the Archives’ website. Timmer will ask if any relating to Baptist beginnings can be put on the internet for interested Baptists to access.

What is correct spelling and pronunciation of Smyth?
He himself spelled it Smyth. How he pronounced it is unknown.

Why did Smyth and Helwys split?
Helwys believed that Smyth had abandoned his earlier, correct, beliefs, to accept Mennonite doctrines, such as succession. Others in Helwys group did not agree with Smyth in the necessity of rebaptism to constitute a new church.
Helwys’ wife and some of his followers went back to England and were imprisoned; then he himself returned (c1612). After his return, he said his mission required him to preach in his own language. Four General Baptist churches emerged very soon.

Difficulties of maintaining fellowship?
Groups defining themselves, their beliefs/practices seems to lead to fragmentation.
Experience of Scottish Baptists in the 18th century illustrates that definition leads to splits.

Language a problem among Waterlanders/English?
Yes, Latin was the language the Waterlanders and English had in common, but many of both groups did not know Latin. If letters and discussion in Latin, only a few people could participate, but all must come to consensus.
In London today new churches formed speaking members’ native languages. When they apply for membership to the London Baptist Association, difficult to ascertain if they are truly Baptist.


Session Four

Friday, July 31, 4:30 – 6:30 pm

Chair Bullock thanked those who returned after a short break for the late Friday afternoon session. Together we reviewed the work we had accomplished in the quinquenium: our program for each year (history of local Baptists; other topics appropriate to site or of common interest; planning session) and our accomplished projects (Baptist Principles leaflet; Children’s Story; Children’s Coloring Book; and Walking Tour). Bullock expressed our appreciation to Peter Morden for his work on the leaflet, Sheila Heneise and Bethany Bullock for the coloring book, Kirstin Timmer for the tour, and to David Parker for seeing that everything was put on the website so ably, where they can be downloaded and used by any interested persons.

A project that arose out of plans for the EBF meeting in Amsterdam and discussed in Prague was to have a history corner during the BWA meeting. At this table copies of the original letters in the Smyth-Mennonite correspondence were displayed as were a few current books that could be purchased such as Dinorah Mendez’s Evangelicals in Mexico; their Hymnody and its Theology (Peter Lang, 2008) and the book, European Baptists and The Third Reich based on Bernard Green’s notes written by Faith Bowers and John Briggs (published by BHS, 2009, released at Amsterdam 400 cost 16 pounds plus postage)

The most popular items at the corner were the booklets Baptist Principles, Historical City Tour, and the Children’s Coloring Book, all distributed free of charge.

Still to be accomplished is our plan to record BWA stories/remembered experiences from those who attend the 2010 Congress in order to publish a participants’ history of the BWA. Not knowing where we can obtain the proper equipment on site nor how we can fund the project are two obstacles yet to be met. But we remain hopeful that such a project can happen.

Commission members and guests then discussed what they knew of the changes that are to be made in the BWA structure, particularly the changes that affect Commissions. As we understand the changes the two divisions of Evangelism and Education and of Study and Research will be combined and, under that new division, there will be seven commissions, one of which may be called Baptist Heritage and Identity. The Executive Committee will set up the commissions. The Nominating Committee will select the members. There will be 25 regular members and 25 other members, who may be less regular in attendance.

Most of those present feared the new structure would weaken the spirit of comradery and the network of friendships that our commission has built up since its inception in 1985. In addition, it was believed that attendance at the Gatherings would decrease as most people will not attend a meeting at which they have no assigned responsibility.

Before saying farewell, Bullock expressed our appreciation to deVries, and via him, to all the Dutch Baptists for their hospitality.