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Anti-Trinitarian Politics at the Time of Spinoza’s Collegiants

For those interested in a summation of the political difficulties facing Spinoza’s group of Collegiants, here is an excerpt from Jonathan Israel’s The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall (1477 – 1806). In all likelihood Spinoza’s circle organized itself around the political protestor, Latin instructor, physician and playwright Van den Enden, and the bookshop of Rieuwertsz, who would publish, among other things, Spinoza’s study of Descartes’ Principles of Phllosophy and his Theological-Political Treatise.


Menno Simon (1496 -1561)

Fausto Sozzini (1539 – 1604)

Israel writes:

“But it [the centrality of the Socinian issue] was also due to the spread of the Collegiant movement, especially in the 1640s, to Amsterdam, and mounting evidence that some Dutchmen were being influenced by Socinian doctrines. Zeeland had already acted by the time the North and South Holland Synods petitioned the States of Holland, in 1653, to combat this ‘sickness’, which they called the most dangerous, and most ‘Jewish’, of all Christian heresies, alleging that it was spreading rapidly, especially in Holland, Friesland, and Groningen, and indication that Mennonites were regarded as particularly susceptable to Socinian arguments.

“In September 1653, the States of Holland duly prohibited Socinian and other anti-Trinitarian ‘conventricles’, warning participants they would be charged with blasphemy and as ‘disturbers of the peace’. Booksellers found stocking anti-Trinitarian books were to be fined 1000 guilders [a day laborer made about a guilder a day], printers of anti-Trinitarian literature 3000 guilders. The edict was aimed at Collegiants, and others who were susceptible to anti-Trinitarian influences, as well as avowed Scocinians, meeting in groups. There was a crackdown on anti-Trinitarianism throughout Holland, as well as in neighboring Utrecht, which continued through the 1650s and undoubtably had a considerable effect….At Amsterdam, too, the Collegiants were for some years forced to meet in smaller groups, than before, private homes, and be more circumspect….The crackdown on anti-Trinitarianism extended also to the countryside. The baljuw of Alkmaar wrote to De Witt, in March 1655, reporting his enquiries in the villages around the city, with the help of the ‘regents of the principal villages’, as to whether there were any Scocinians, or anti-Trinitarian books, in the vinciity, concluding that there were not…

…At Amsterdam, it proved impossible to halt the flow of Socinian publications for long…Collegiant meetings in large groups, or ‘colleges’, revived in the early 1660s [Spinoza moved to Rijnsburg in mid 1661]. In 1661, the Amsterdam Reformed consistory complained to the vroedschap of the ‘exorbitance of the Socinian gatherings, in which Quakers and Boreelists mingled, such that one hundred, one hundred fify, and sometimes even greater numbers attended them’. What was at issue here was not the existence of the Collegiant groups, as such, but that there was no longer sufficient pressure to compel them to meet only in small groups, in private homes” (911 – 912) [without footnotes].

Professor Israel does not take into immediate account that the consistory’s claim is likely an exaggeration, so as to make the complaint more forceful, but it is notable that by the time of Spinoza’s move to Collegiant center Rijnsburg, College gatherings in Amsterdam appeared to have bloomed to rather large numbers.


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