Today marks the 300th anniversary of the death of "Father Brakel," a giant among the Dutch Nadere Reformatie, who was translated to be with his Savior on October 30, 1711. Author of the classic devotional systematic theology and his magnum opus, The Christian's Reasonable Service, Wilhelmus à Brakel was born on January 2, 1635, in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands.
His father, Theodorus à Brakel, was himself a noted minister (whose pastoral career began in 1637), and his mother, Margaretha Homma ensured that Wilhelmus grew up in a pious home. All five of Wilhelmus sisters died in their youth, leaving him alone to survive his parents. Just as the prayers of Theodorus' grandmother made a deep impression upon Theodorus, so too did the prayers of Theodorus and Margaretha make an early and deep impression upon Wilhelmus. Before joining the Labadists, Anna Maria van Schurman was among those who visited the family home. Theodorus himself was known to spend a third of each day in private prayer and meditation. Theodorus published a devotional work under the title Het Geestelyken Leven; after his death, Wilhelmus would later publish a set of his father's spiritual manuscripts under the title De Trappen des Geestelyken Levens (The Steps of Grace in Spiritual Life), which includes a spiritual dialogue between father and son.
Wilhelmus followed in his father's footsteps and was ordained to the ministry in 1659, yet continued his studies in Utrecht under the mentorship of Gisbertus Voetius for several more years due a lack of pulpit vacancies. His pastoral career began at Exmorra, Friesland in 1662, where he married Sara Nevius. Eventually, he settled in Rotterdam where he finished his ministerial labors. He was involved in a few controversies over the years, including his notable defense of the church (and Jacobus Koelman, in particular) against the Erastian tendencies of the Dutch government, and the siren call of the Labadists, that is, Jean de Labadie and his followers, who sought, much like Harold Camping in our day, to draw believers away from the organized church in pursuit of a "pure" church. As concerned as à Brakel was about the spiritual health of the Dutch Reformed Church in his day (particularly in regards to the issue of Sabbath-keeping), he wisely resisted the temptation to remove himself from the means of grace established by Christ in the ordinances and ecclesiastical institutions of the church, and ably responded to Labadist arguments in Leer en Leydinge der Labadisten (Doctrine and Government of the Labadists), later also affirming the duty to join the church as espoused in Article 28 of the Belgic Confession. It was at Rotterdam that he wrote his magnum opus, De Redelijke Godsdienst (1700, 3 volumes; the definitive third edition of 1707 contained 2,350 pages; the English translation by Bartel Elshout under the title The Christian's Reasonable Service was published in 4 volumes, 1992-1995). (The English translation remains incomplete, since a decision was made not to translate the final section of this work consisting of à Brakel's exposition of the Book of Revelation, see here for my earlier plea for this to be translated.) This work, contemporaneous with the publication of Matthew Henry's Commentary in England, represents, in my view, the high-water mark of Dutch Puritan orthodoxy and spiritual piety. It is his greatest legacy to the church, and in large measure the reason why he came to be known endearingly as Father Brakel when, during the 18th century, readings from this beloved devotional work were so often a part of Dutch family worship that it went through 20 editions in that century alone.
More can be learned about the life of this Puritan giant of the faith at Dr. Elshout's website here as well as here; and The Christian's Reasonable Service may be read online or downloaded here. If you have not previously been acquainted with the life and works of Wilhelmus à Brakel, this anniversary of his passing provides a good opportunity to learn more and, I trust, be greatly edified. It is good to remember the saints who have gone before us, and it may be truly said of such a man as Father Brakel that "the righteous shall be in everlasting remembrance" (Ps. 112.6).