Friday 23 October 2020

English Preachers in the Dutch Republic: Tracing Confessional Mobility in the GEMMS Database

In 1638 Thomas Goodwin and his wife Elizabeth Prescott arrived in Arnhem in the Dutch Republic. Goodwin’s Congregationalist views had caused him to become increasingly concerned about the direction of the Church of England, leading him first to resign his post as vicar of Trinity Church, Cambridge, in 1633, and then his fellowship at St. Catherine’s College in 1638. In Arnhem, he became teacher of a congregation of 100 English exiles, who left England over objections to Laudian reforms. Alongside fellow teachers John Archer and Philip Nye, Goodwin put into practice the Congregationalist ideals that he espoused in England: a congregation of the visible saints, bound by adherence to a covenant, with discipline enforced by elders and lay members. He preached a series of sermons on Revelation 11 to this congregation in 1639, in which he argued that Laud would return the Church of England to Rome, but a second Reformation would return the Church to a pure congregational state. It was with these millenarian expectations and practical experience of congregationalism that Goodwin and his congregation returned to London in 1640. Goodwin would then play a prominent role during the Civil War and Interregnum as a member of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, Chaplain of the Council of State, and President of Magdalen College.[1]

Goodwin was one of many English and Scottish preachers who spent formative years in the Netherlands as students, temporary exiles, or long-term leaders of English-speaking communities there. Indeed, the reformations of both countries were closely intertwined from the earliest days. As scholars increasingly turn to transnational approaches in studying religious developments in early modern Europe, GEMMS database offers a useful source to trace the movement of English-speaking preachers across the Channel and observe the influence of migration to and from the Netherlands on religious developments in Britain. While GEMMS has focused on sermons preached within Great Britain, Ireland and the British colonies, a survey of the fifteen preachers with connections to the Dutch Republic in the database reveals the important role the Dutch Republic played as a space for education, experimentation in church polity, and the establishment of new religious communities.

British Churches in the Netherlands

Britain and the Low Countries have a long history of close connections. As Keith L. Sprunger, historian of the English-language churches in the Netherlands, put it, “[t]he waters separating England from the Continent, although a barrier, could serve just as well as a bridge for frequent intercourse.”[2] The Netherlands offered a haven for Protestants during the reign of Mary Tudor, while Elizabethan England was home to a growing community of Dutch rebels and refugees from the Dutch Revolt (1566-1648). It was during the Elizabethan era that English religious communities in the Netherlands really expanded. Thousands of English and Scottish soldiers were under the employ of the Dutch States General and some towns such as Brielle and Flushing were actually under English governance from 1585 to 1616. English and Scottish communities could be found in every major city in the burgeoning Dutch Republic.[3]

The religious character of these communities began to take shape in the mid-sixteenth century. One of the first English-language congregations in the Netherlands was the chaplaincy of the Company of Merchant Adventurers in Antwerp. In the 1550s it was staffed by a number of dissenters such as John Lambert, John Rogers, Bernard Gilpin, and William Cole.[4] Already in the 1550s, the English and Scottish churches in the Netherlands were dominated by dissenters. This continued to be the case throughout the reigns of Elizabeth and James I, and became even more pronounced in the 1620s and '30s as Presbyterian and Congregationalist-minded Puritans, like Goodwin, who previously conformed to the Church of England, now established new Reformed congregations in the Netherlands in opposition to Archbishop Laud’s church reforms. Many of these ministers returned to England and Scotland during the Civil Wars and Interregnum. During this time, the English communities welcomed Anglican refugees, but, with the Restoration in 1660, the communities once again became largely dissenting and Reformed. With the accession of William of Orange to the English throne in 1688 and the subsequent Toleration Act, the size of the English and Scottish communities diminished, but many congregations remain even down to the present day.

A helpful way to understand the activities of these preachers throughout the period is Liesbeth Corens’s concept of Confessional Mobility. Corens develops this concept as a way to understand the back and forth mobility of English Catholics between Britain and the Low Countries. This concept encompasses not only the more permanent term “exile,” but also the “the circular mobility of leaving and returning,” which allows her to demonstrate that English Catholics “fostered a community without borders which bridged the Channel.”[5] This concept can be usefully applied to English and Scottish Protestants in the Dutch Republic as well. In a similar way to their Catholic compatriots, they were part of a religious community that flowed seamlessly across borders. The activities of the fifteen preachers in GEMMS can be categorized in three ways: travellers for education; temporary exile and religious experimentation; and longer term settlement in the Netherlands.


While most preachers in the GEMMS database received their education from Oxford or Cambridge, many chose to head to the continent for their formation. The chief destination for most was the universities of the Dutch Republic, especially Leiden, but also Utrecht and Franeker. These institutions were especially appealing to those who were wary of the established church and the universities that supplied it with preachers. Dutch universities were thus a critical training ground for English and Scottish dissenters.

Daniel Neal (GEMMS-PERSON-000354) is a good example of the kind of English students that Dutch universities would attract. He trained for ministry at Thomas Rowe’s dissenting academy at Newington Green, Middlesex, between 1696 and 1699. He then studied at Utrecht for two years under the tutelage of Reformed theologian Gerhardus de Vries and the philologist and historian Joannes Georgius Graevius. He studied another year at Leiden, before returning to England where he succeeded John Singleton as pastor of a Congregationalist chapel at Aldersgate Street in 1703, a position he maintained for the rest of his career as the congregation grew and relocated to Jewin Street. GEMMS contains eight sermons by Neal from this period, three of them on Isaiah 55:3, touching on the theme of a “covenant,” a central concept in much of Reformed theology.[6] In addition to his preaching, the influence of his years at Utrecht under the tutelage of Graevius are noticeable in his work as a historian, first in his History of New England (2 Vols., 1720), and then in his History of the Puritans (1723).[7]

Figure 1: Many English and Scottish preachers, including Daniel Neal, attended Leiden University. Hendrick van der Burch, The Conferring of a Degree at the University of Leiden, oil on canvas (ca. 1650-1660). Photo Credit: Rijksmuseum

Temporary Ministries

Many preachers in GEMMS had relatively brief sojourns in the Netherlands. While we do not currently have sermons from their brief time there, the experience there should not be discounted. Particularly in the 1630s and early '40s, the English and Scottish congregations in the Dutch Republic offered puritans a laboratory to put into practice theories of church governance and religious purity that they were unable to observe in England. When the political context became more favourable, these temporary exiles returned to England in large numbers, influencing policy in the halls of power and preaching their ideas from newly accessible pulpits.

The career of Thomas Goodwin fits this pattern, as does that of John Davenport, who was covered in a previous blog post. But perhaps no preacher better exemplifies the broad and borderless vision of reform of many Puritans than Hugh Peter (GEMMS-PERSON-000298). He was ordained priest in 1623, but was suspended in 1626 for praying that the queen would forsake her "idolatry and superstition" while preaching at Christ Church, London. He made a new career for himself in the Dutch Republic, first as a proctor at the University of Franeker, then as a chaplain in one of Stadtholder Frederick Henry’s English regiments, and finally as pastor of the Rotterdam English Church in 1633. He reformed the church along Congregationalist lines, requiring members to subscribe to a covenant. When the English Company of Merchant Adventurers relocated their headquarters to Rotterdam in 1635 and commandeered the English Church there, Peter left for New England where he became minister of Salem, MA in 1636. He implemented a covenant there as he did in Rotterdam and was a stringent opponent of Anne Hutchinson and her followers. He returned to England in 1641 and became an influential figure during the Civil Wars and Interregnum, preaching before Parliament and serving as chaplain to the Council of State. His support for the execution of Charles I returned to haunt him however, and he was executed on 16 October 1660.[8] For Peter and others, a temporary Dutch sojourn allowed them to practice ideas of church polity that would shape the religious landscape of England and New England for years to come.

Figure 2: Pauwels van Hillegaert, Prince Frederik Hendrik at the Siege of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, 1629, oil on canvas (1631). The Siege of 's-Hertogenbosch was a great victory for the forces of Stadtholder Frederick Henry. His besieging force included some 13,000 English and Scottish troops, including the regiment of Edward Harwood, where, according to Carla Gardina Pestana, Hugh Peter was chaplain. Peter published an account of the successful campaign in his Digitus Dei (1631). Photo Credit: Rijksmuseum

Long-term Ministries

A final group of English-language preachers in the Netherlands spent much longer portions of their careers in the Netherlands, sometimes setting down more permanent roots in the country, ministering to the many English and Scots that resided there throughout the early modern period. Robert Fleming the Younger (GEMMS-PERSON-000012) was one such preacher. He was born in Cambuslang, Lanarkshire in 1660 to Robert Fleming, the vicar there, and his wife Christian. His father was ejected for nonconformity in 1662, when he relocated to Edinburgh. Then the family moved to Rotterdam in 1677 where he was invited to become minister of the Scots Church there. The younger Robert was ordained by his father in 1688. After his ordination, he returned to England for a few years as a family chaplain at Soham, Cambridgeshire. However, he returned to the Netherlands in 1692, where he studied at Leiden University and became minister of the English Presbyterian Church there. Among his many sermons noted in GEMMS, two preparation for communion sermons were preached here in December 1692. He succeeded his father at Rotterdam in 1695, where he continued that church’s reputation as a bastion of Scottish Presbyterianism. He was a preacher of some renown as he returned to England in 1698 at the request of William III to minister at the Scots Church, Founders Hall, Lothbury, London, where he remained until his death on 21 May 1716.[9]

Figure 3: St Sebastian’s Chapel was home to Rotterdam’s Scots Church during the ministries of Robert Fleming the Elder and the Younger, from 1658-1697. From the Title page of William Steven, The History of the Scottish Church Rotterdam (1832). Photo Credit: Rijksmuseum

These examples offer a glimpse into the important role the Dutch Republic played in the careers of many English and Scottish preachers, particularly Puritans and Dissenters. By offering a repository of manuscript sermons of these preachers, GEMMS is a useful starting point for anyone wishing to examine the influence of the Netherlands on religious developments in Britain. While the number of sermons actually preached within the Dutch Republic is limited right now, this is a potential future area of expansion for the database. To that end, GEMMS welcomes contributions from sermon researchers across the globe. If you’d like to share data on English-language preachers and sermons in the Netherlands, consult our contributors page or send an e-mail to


[1] T. M. Lawrence, "Goodwin, Thomas (1600–1680), nonconformist minister," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, published online 23 Sep. 2004, https://doi-org/10.1093/ref:odnb/10996.

[2] Keith L. Sprunger, Dutch Puritanism: a History of English and Scottish Churches of the Netherlands in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Leiden: Brill, 1983), 3. This overview section is largely based on this work.

[3] Sprunger, Dutch Puritanism, pp. 5-6.

[4] Sprunger, Dutch Puritanism, p. 14.

[5] Liesbeth Corens, Confessional Mobility and English Catholics in Counter-Reformation Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), pp. 2-3.

[6] I do not mean to say here that covenant theology came to England via the Dutch Republic. Rather, a Reformed education in the Netherlands could reinforce that theological bent. For a very brief (if a little dated) overview on some of the literature on covenant theology, see Lyle D. Bierma, “The Role of Covenant Theology in Early Reformed Orthodoxy,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 21:3 (Autumn 1990), pp. 453-462. For a more recent analysis of the use of the concept in seventeenth-century England, see Naomi Tadmor, “People of the Covenant and the English Bible,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Sixth Series, Vol. 22 (2012), pp. 95-110.

[7] Laird Okie, "Neal, Daniel (1678–1743), Independent minister and historian," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, published online 23 Sep. 2004, https://doi-org/10.1093/ref:odnb/19817. Other preachers that fit in this category in GEMMS database include John Burgess (GEMMS-PERSON-000226), William Wishart (GEMMS-PERSON-002066), Francis Rous (GEMMS-PERSON-002637). 

[8] Carla Gardina Pestana, "Peter [Peters], Hugh (bap. 1598, d. 1660), Independent minister," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, published online 23 Sep. 2004, https://doi-org/10.1093/ref:odnb/22024. Apart from Goodwin and Davenport, preachers with similar careers in the Netherlands include John Shower (GEMMS-PERSON-000008), Thomas Gouge (GEMMS-PERSON-000413), and Sidrach Simpson (GEMMS-PERSON-002867).

[9] M. J. Mercer, "Fleming, Robert (c. 1660–1716), Presbyterian minister and religious writer," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, published online 23 Sep. 2004, https://doi-org/10.1093/ref:odnb/9711. Other preachers who had long-term ministries in the Netherlands include John Spademan (GEMMS-PERSON-000058), Henry Hickman (GEMMS-PERSON-001517), John Herring (GEMMS-PERSON-000490), Thomas Marshall (GEMMS-PERSON-002071).

~ David Robinson