Jean de Labadie (1610-1674), the French Jesuit-turned-Reformed theologian, exemplified a spirit that pervades even today. After leaving the Roman Catholic Church and embracing the doctrines found in John Calvin's Institutes, he protested against the corruptions found within the Dutch Reformed Church, issuing an appeal to Christians to separate themselves from her and to join his "house church." The appeal was tempting to such a prominent theologian as Wilhelmus à Brakel. In W. Fieret's biographical sketch of à Brakel, which highlights what he describes as "the Labadistic spirit of separatism," we learn more about the intersection these two men and what it meant for the Reformed Church.
The Struggle against the Labadists
During his tenure in Friesland, only one book authored by à Brakel was published; however, during his tenure in Rotterdam many would follow. A year and one half after his installation in Rotterdam, à Brakel “went to battle” against the Labadists. In two elaborate letters to a circle of friends in Harlingen he delineated his objections against this sect. It is probable that these friends had asked him for advice. In all honesty he wrote that during his tenure in Stavoren he had been sympathetic towards the Labadists and had seriously considered joining them. Yet he had wanted to know more of de Labadie and his views and therefore had traveled to Amsterdam where the Labadists had settled at that time.
He had various conversations with Anna Maria van Schurman, a very gifted woman who prior to her transfer to the Labadists had many contacts with the ministers of the Second Reformation—among others with [Gisbertus] Voetius. à Brakel also had extensive conversations with de Labadie himself. In spite of the attractive things he had heard, he was not convinced. De Labadie then gave him the advice to lay this matter before the Lord Himself and to pray for wisdom, doing so in the greatest possible solitude. à Brakel, according to this letter, had followed his advice. “Very early in the morning I went into my garden and remained there all day until late in the evening. I fasted, prayed, and supplicated to understand the will of God. I also read, and after considerable time had passed, the Lord showed me very clearly from His Word and gave a clear impression in my heart that I was in the right way, and that their way (that is, of the Labadists) was a departure from the truth.” Nevertheless, it so much appealed to à Brakel that he continually prayed, asking the Lord as it were for permission to join this group. The result was that the Lord showed him with increasing clarity the error of the Labadists while rebuking à Brakel at the same time. It was as if the Lord said: “Did I not reveal this to you? Why then do you persevere?” Subsequent to this à Brakel firmly resolved to remain in the Reformed Church. He continued to thank the Lord for having prevented him from taking a wrong step.
In what did the attraction of Jean de Labadie and his followers consist, so that even a staunch Reformed man as Wilhelmus à Brakel was strongly attracted by it? If he, as he said himself, vacillated to such a degree, people with much less education and experience must have had strife to a far greater degree. In his second letter à Brakel primarily addressed the regenerate and advised them in the strongest possible terms not to join the Labadists. It must indeed be evident that the conduct of Jean de Labadie and his followers caused much agitation in the church. However, à Brakel was not the only minister who felt attracted toward this revivalist.
Who was de Labadie and what did he teach? This Frenchman, who had been trained as a Jesuit, left the monastery in 1639; he was twenty-nine years old at that time and until 1650 traveled around as an itinerant preacher. In that year he joined the Reformed Church of Montauban, one of the Huguenot cities. He became the minister of this church and also taught at the Academy. From 1659 to 1666 Geneva was his residence. With great zeal he preached for hours about the great ideal that had to be transformed into reality: a pure church in which the Christian religion would be practiced as strictly as possible. This engendered the idea that only true believers, that is, only those who were partakers of the Spirit of Christ, constituted the pure church. Thus, within the confines of the visible church as institution, a church of the regenerate came into existence. De Labadie organized “conventicles” of true believers and thus attempted to lead the church back to the original manifestation of the Christian church in the first century—that is, as he perceived it to be.
The ideas which de Labadie proclaimed in a captivating and convincing manner—he could preach for four hours at a stretch without his hearers losing interest—met with both approbation and resistance. The proponents of these ideas were so convinced of their correctness that many could no longer be convinced to change their minds. Opponents, however, saw so much danger in these ideas that they opposed them with all their might. Therefore, there came unrest wherever de Labadie resided for some time. De Labadie‟s acceptance of a call to the French congregation in Middelburg signaled the termination of a period of great agitation for the Reformed Church in Geneva.
When he came to the Republic in 1666, he traveled on to Utrecht. The Friends of Utrecht—to which belonged, among others, Voetius and [Jodocus] van Lodenstein—gave him a friendly reception. After having been installed in Middelburg, Koelman from Sluis went to hear him. de Labadie had a tremendous reputation. The same matters which the representatives of the Second Reformation were pursuing were also his objectives. He warned strongly against the laxness of many Christians, the desecration of the Sabbath, the lack of spirituality and morality displayed by many ministers, the non-Reformed and often coarse lifestyle of many church members, etc. His calls to prayer and fasting had effect; and especially due to his many family visitations the results of his activity were noticeable everywhere. Nevertheless, there came discord also in Middelburg, and after many difficulties de Labadie, with a group of followers, moved to nearby Veere. Many supporters from Middelburg went to hear the deposed minister. The parliament of Zeeland intervened at last and expelled de Labadie. When the use of force was imminent, the exiled minister took refuge in Amsterdam.
In the meantime, sympathy for him among the Reformed had waned, for he had severed himself from the Reformed Church. He viewed the circle of his followers as a community of the regenerate who had left the worldly national church and had joined the new “house church” of de Labadie. Elsewhere in the Republic similar house churches came into existence as well. Amsterdam evidently was not the terminus for this group; they crossed the border into Germany, and, after roaming about, settled in Wiewerd, a village south of Leeuwarden. The influential Cornelis van Aerssen had made the castle “Walta Estate” available. De Labadie himself had died in the meantime. Peter Yvon, due to his organizational talent, had succeeded in giving the congregation a solid footing. Around 1680 his following in Wiewerd consisted of about three hundred people.
The Labadists were all dressed in the same handmade, modest clothing. As a community they farmed the soil surrounding the castle. Dairy farming was also a means whereby they supported themselves. During meals there was singing and prayer and one or more persons would speak a word. Worldly conversation was held to a minimum; they preferred to share their spiritual experiences. These experiences, according to the Labadists, could occur outside the context of the Word of God. Especially during and after communion services members of the congregation would come into a state of ecstasy, believing the Holy Spirit to be working in them. They would embrace each other, skip and dance, and mutually entertain themselves in spiritual Christian love.
After Voetius and [Jacobus] Koelman had recognized the dangers of Labadism, they warned the Reformed against this error. Koelman did this in his work Historisch verhaal der Labadisten [Historical Account of the Labadists]. At the end of this work he printed the two letters of à Brakel. Yvon reacted to the contents of these letters by way of a brochure. In this manner à Brakel also became involved in the battle against the Labadists. His best known work, in which these letters were included again, was Leer en Leydinge der Labadisten [Doctrine and Government of the Labadists].
Rev. à Brakel, with the Labadists, confessed the corruption (“de verdorvenheyt”) of the church; she was corrupt from the head to the sole of the foot. The field of the Lord was filled with weeds and His threshing floor was filled with chaff. The vineyard of the Lord had become a wilderness; thorns and thistles were growing in it. After having enumerated a variety of sins which were committed by members of the church, giving a description of the government as not manifesting itself as the guardian of the church, and deploring the fact that so many ministers proved to be unfaithful shepherds, à Brakel writes: “Who would not weep when he thinks upon Zion and perceives that the Lord is departing from her?” Yet, departure from a church which is that corrupt is not permitted! “May we say that she is no longer the church of Christ due to her corruption? Shall we despise her? Shall we walk away from her? No, that is foolishness. It is certain that a corrupt church is nevertheless a church and that from the beginning until the present God has always permitted His church to be filled with many corruptions. Therefore, he who despises a church for its corruption acts contrary to God‟s Word and all experience, thereby denying her to be a church.”
Using examples from the Bible, à Brakel demonstrated that sin, corruption, and a lack of spirituality were to be found in many congregations. Consider the confusion in the congregation of Corinth and the exhortations of John to the congregations in Asia Minor. How could someone have the courage to sever himself from her and thereby despise God and Christ Himself? Thus, à Brakel was strongly opposed to the Labadistic spirit of separatism (or schismatic spirit).
In à Brakel's magnum opus, The Christian's Reasonable Service, he wrote a chapter entitled "The Duty to Join the Church and to Remain with Her" (vol. 2, chap. 25), in which he argues that "degeneracy within the church [is] not a reason to separate from the church."
Criticizing the Labadists directly, à Brakel states:
...it is a dreadful sin to depart from the church for the purpose of establishing one which is better, for the church is one, being the body of Christ. To separate ourselves from the church is to separate from the people of Christ and thus from His body, thereby withdrawing from the confession of Christ and departing from the fellowship of the saints. If we indeed deem the church to be what she really is, we shall then cause schism in the body of Christ, grieve the godly, offend others, give cause for the blaspheming of God‟s Name, and cause the common church member to err. By maintaining that the church is no church, we thereby deny the church of Christ, and therefore are also guilty of the sins just mentioned. We thereby displease God, who will not leave this unavenged, regardless of how much we please and flatter ourselves. Such activity the apostle opposes when he refers to such individuals as being carnal in 1 Cor 3:1, 3. He warns against this when he writes, “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you” (1 Cor 1:10); “I hear that there be divisions among you” (1 Cor 11:18).
Thirdly, the Reformed Church is the only true church, albeit that her purity varies with locality. The truth is still preached purely there, sins are rebuked and resisted, and there is both the teaching of and exhortation to godliness. Thousands of godly persons are to be found there who practice holiness in a much purer fashion than those who have separated themselves. Christ dwells and walks among them. The Holy Spirit is still active by means of the Word, still converts souls daily, comforts the converted, and causes them to grow. Discipline is still exercised towards those who err in doctrine and life. In some localities this is practiced more consistently than people may perceive and be aware of. What foolishness it is, therefore, to leave the church and to enter into a barren wilderness! (pp. 61-62)
The Utrecht Circle (as it was known) was composed of some notable followers of de Labadie, preeminently Anna Maria van Schurman, a polymath who was herself known as the "Star of Utrecht" and "The Tenth Muse," which is a reflection of the appeal that this charismatic leader brought to bear on the orthodox Dutch Reformed. Even after de Labadie's death in 1674, the movement continued and colonies were attempted in both Suriname and Maryland (the latter being the first communistic colony established in the New World, 1684-1722). Much like other groups that have claimed to be too pure to join the true Church, Labadism has a great deal in common with other separatistic movements throughout the ages, even those that exist on the periphery of today's Reformed Church. The testimony of à Brakel, along with that of Koelman and others, is most valuable because they shared the stated concerns of the Labadists regarding the holiness of the church, and yet counted even the very stones and dust of Zion to be most precious (Ps. 102.14) and her unity to be striven for in accord with the prayer of Christ (John 17).