The Middelburg Confession of Hans de Ries (1578)

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Commentary on the Confession

On 3 April 1578, Hans de Ries, a young Mennonite minister from Antwerp, was arrested at the marketplace in Middelburg.1 The charge brought against him by several Reformed ministers was that he had performed a marriage ceremony for two young people against the wishes of their parents. The accusation was dropped later when it became clear that the real reason for his arrest was the animosity of the Reformed clergymen against the Mennonites. In his own lengthy account of this experience de Ries wrote:

"On April 3, 1578, the mayor of Middelburg came to me at the market place and asked if I was not Hans Cassier? I said no, my right name was Hans de Ries or Hans de Ryck. He said, Well, come with me to the bailiff. I said I would gladly go along. Coming to the bailiff he asked, where do you live? I answered, in Aken. He asked what I did. I said trading and shipping. He asked whether I did not sometimes trade at night? I asked what he meant. He said, preaching. I said, yes I teach sometimes. He asked: who commanded you to do this? I said: I shall give account of this before the righteous judge. He said: who is that? I said: God who created me."2

Following the interrogation de Ries was kept in the jail until further inquiries had been made. Nevertheless, he was able to engage an attorney to defend him, but the bailiff denied this attorney the right of speech at the hearing, and later had him arrested also.3 It is interesting to note that de Ries told Dirck, a shoemaker who was permitted to visit him in jail, to tell the bailiff that he should take care for he had "molested the apple of the eye of God."4 The prisoner was twenty-five years of age!

There had been repeated tensions between the authorities of the city of Middelburg and the Mennonites. Some forty of the latter had been forced to close their shops because they refused to swear the oath of loyalty, and refused to perform regular guard duty. Consequently they addressed a petition to Prince William I, probably early in 1578, asking to be relieved of these two demands, and promising to bear willingly all other duties of citizenship. They could not bear arms, they wrote, even though most of the enemies were Spaniards, but they would pray to God, who has the hearts of all tyrants in his hand.5 In a letter of 23 June 1578, to the governor and council of Zeeland, William I urged that these two freedoms be given to the Mennonites so long as they did not disturb the peace, or at least until a general assembly could consider the matter.6 This instruction was repeated on 26 July of the same year in a letter to the Middelburg town council.7 Meanwhile the Middelburg authorities had decided that Mennonites should be admitted to citizenship without the oath and that their "yes" would be considered the equivalent.8 They also decided to bring this decision to the attention of Prince William I.

The correspondence does not end here. Again and again the Reformed ministers and synods petition the authorities to suppress the Mennonites. They charged that the latter denied the Incarnation, that they did not take oaths and were, therefore, poor citizens. They do not even baptize their children! They, the Mennonites, said that no Christian could partake in government. They performed marriages without the permission of the state. They banned each other. Their meetings were "corners of deception for the simple people," and their "hypocritical holiness" deceived many.9 This naturally resulted in further tension. On 27 August 1580, the Mennonites submitted another petition to the city authorities to be exempted from guard duty, indicating that the earlier decree had not always been carried out. They offered to help bear the cost of guard duty as much as they were able. The petition is signed by eighty-three heads of households, of whom all but three give their vocation. According to this list, by far the majority seem to have been poor people, tradesmen, but this may have been due to the earlier closing of their shops by the authorities.10

Having come into this tense situation, de Ries decided to set forth simply and clearly what he and his fellow Mennonites believed. By 7 April he had penned a thirteen-page statement of faith which he submitted to the magistrate. It is this statement which appears in print for the first time in the following pages. At many points it parallels the confession of 1577, which he had helped to draft at Alkmaar.11 While less systematic than the earlier one, it is of particular interest as a more or less spontaneous expression of the man who was soon to be come the leader of the Waterlanders. Also interesting are Articles XI and XII on government and war, and Article XV on the killing of heretics, since these items were not included in the statement of 1577. While the two statements parallel each other at many points, the similarity is not close enough to suggest that he had a copy of the 1577 statement with him in prison.

The record is not clear concerning the number of hearings he had before the authorities following the submission of his confession. We know that on the 19th of April he was again brought before the court to observe the swearing in of four Reformed members as witnesses against him. He interrupted them as they were about to take the oath, pleading with them not to swear on his behalf, but simply to tell the truth. The proposal was apparently agreeable to all.12 The subsequent hearings proved to be inconclusive. He was finally offered his freedom on condition that he promise never to preach again, that he admit he had done wrong, and that he promise silence about the hearing. He rejected these conditions and appealed to the governor. An unknown person of influence in Dortrecht appealed to the Middelburg council in his behalf, and others began to enquire concerning his whereabouts.13 De Ries himself is not explicit as to what finally did happen. He was apparently released soon after 29 April. An undated document in the archives at Middelburg gives him forty-eight hours to get out of the city and stay out, or suffer the consequences.14 De Ries, believing fully that he "suffered for the Word of God," felt somewhat apologetic about engaging an attorney in his defense, saying to several bystanders after one of the hearings:

"Friends: do not be angry with me that I have taken someone to speak for me. I feared the law for I know no more about it than a little child, but when it comes to my faith I speak, and am willing to defend it, with the Word of God, before the whole world and before all the learned of the land."15

In later years de Ries occasionally referred to this prison experience, and other narrow escapes before the persecutors, in terms of having suffered for the faith, yet he exalted much more those who had suffered the supreme penalty, as had his best friend Hans Bret.16 He saw himself as standing between the times, having witnessed the burning of his friend as a youth, and in old age seeing the divisions and tensions within the brotherhood, together with growing luxury and indifference. There is a report that before leaving the prison de Ries converted and baptized the maid who served food to the prisoners.17 It is possible, of course, that this detail may have been added to the account as it was circulated among his admirers.

The translation of the following text was prepared from the original manuscript (Archief No. 425). The paragraph titles and numbers have been provided to facilitate understanding. As in the translation of the confession of 1577, so here too, it has been my intention to render as nearly literal a copy of the original as possible. Thus sentence structure has been changed only to the extent considered necessary for comprehension. No attempt has been made to prepare a "modern" translation.

A Statement of Faith Presented to the Town Council of Middelburg by Hans de Ries in 1578, While in Prison

I. God

First, I believe and have taught with Holy Scripture that there is one God, almighty, merciful, righteous; that He is an eternal, spiritual, godly, invisible, and everlasting Being. This one, eternal, almighty God (Deuteronomy 6, Genesis 17, Joel 2, Revelation 3, 1 Timothy 6, Matthew 3, John 1, 4, Isaiah 4, 44, Ephesians 4) I confess and have taught to be the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. These are three as John says 1:5, and these three are one, namely one God, having neither beginning nor end, one godly, spiritual, undivided Being, possessing power, majesty, glory and splendor, etc. I have taught, in keeping with the Word of God, that this one, eternal God, above whom there is no other, must be sought as only help, comfort, and counsel for life and salvation. In Him we find wisdom, godly knowledge, and all good gifts which enable us to live according to the laws of righteousness, for God is the fountain of all we have, and everything that is good upon earth before Him. This is not a new doctrine, but the old teaching of the patriarchs and prophets of God, the teaching of Christ and His apostles, as the Scriptures cited herein verify.

II. The Providence of God

I believe and have taught that this one God is creator and ruler of heaven and earth. Since this same God is the fountain of all good, so in His government of the world that which is good proceeds from Him, for in Him who is the Father of light is no darkness, nor sin, nor evil nature from which evil and unrighteousness could flow or proceed. Rather, because He is the only true good, light, life, holiness, and righteousness, all His fruits are equally perfect, His ordinances good, holy and just, His will good, holy, and just, and all His works beyond reproof (Acts 20, 1 John, Deuteronomy 32). Therefore the works of the devil, the righteousness, evil, and the sins which have occurred and still occur in the world God hates and will judge. They occur without His ordaining them or willing them, and are not His work, for all unrighteousness, evil and sin is contrary to the revealed will and Word of God.

III. Salvation

I believe and have taught with the Word of God that God created the first man, and in Him all men, for eternal life according to His own image, but that man, not remaining in his first creation, through his disobedience spoiled and corrupted himself, thus bringing temporal and eternal death upon himself and all his posterity. On the other hand, the Father in His mercy promised and sent His only Son into the world (Genesis 1, 2, 3, 1 Corinthians 15, Galatians 4, John 1, 3, Ephesians 2). Through His incarnation and perfect obedience, Adam and all who stand created in him and have fallen, namely the entire human race, have been reconciled, delivered from death unto life.18 Through this His Son, the devil, sin, and death have been crushed and shorn of their power, God having ordained, predestined and decreed that through the Son the entire human race should be saved, even as the gospel proclaims. It is the good will of God that all men shall be saved; therefore only those shall be damned who despise this grace and lightly turn to sin (2 Peter 3, Ezekiel 15, John 3, Ephesians 1, Colossians 1).

IV. The Fall

I believe and have taught that in the fall man did not so completely lose the image of God as to be without any light even as the devil. Rather, by the grace of God virtue was to remain, all men by grace having sufficient godliness remaining in them that they are without excuse. Through this grace man is still able to achieve some virtue and to avoid some sin. Even more, man can thereby accept or reject the goodness of God offered through diverse means as the way of life--he can open or close his heart--but not by himself, for of ourselves we can do nothing good without the help of God.

V. Original Sin

Original sin, the heritage or evil seed from which sin springs and proceeds, is in all men through Adam, but the power of original sin, which apart from Christ is death, has been destroyed and taken away through the perfect obedience of our Savior. Therefore I believe and have taught with Holy Scripture that young and innocent children born of unbelieving parents who die in their youth are saved by the shed blood of Christ, having a merciful God and judge, for original sin cannot condemn them except they deliberately transgress the law and lead a sinful life (Genesis 3, 12, Romans 4).19

VI. Jesus Christ

I believe and have taught that Jesus Christ is truly God and man, truly God and Son of God, born or brought forth from the Father in eternity in an inexpressible manner. Therefore he is of one will, one mind, one essence with the Father, of one substance with the Father and the Holy Spirit, a godly nature, in His divine Being having neither beginning nor end, living eternally, immortal, forever.

I believe and have taught that in the fullness of time this only begotten Son became man according to the promise of God, being born of the flesh and seed of Abraham and David, through the power of the Almighty and the working of the Holy Spirit as the apostle teaches in Romans 9. Thus, through taking on the form of flesh, not through a change of his essence, He became of the seed of woman, of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David according to the flesh as God had promised to the Fathers, and as the Scriptures fully teach. Thus I have preached Christ Jesus as true God and man, having both a human and a divine nature without intermixture, in one Person, the only Son of God.

Besides this I have taught that Christ is to be confessed as truly God and truly man according to the articles of our Christian faith, but that the Scriptures do not tie salvation to a knowledge of the origin of the flesh of Christ. Therefore we do not reject or condemn to hell those who are weak in confessing this but who nevertheless fear and love the Lord with all their heart. Rather, I have held them to be brothers in Christ and have not been willing to disrupt brotherly relations over the knowledge of the origin of the flesh of Christ.20

Furthermore I believe and have taught that Christ Jesus, through His perfect obedience unto death and His resurrection, has fully paid our sins. Therefore we do not rely upon our own works but trust, hope and believe salvation and life to come alone through faith in Christ Jesus, who brings forth godly virtues and the flowering of righteous works.

VII. The Holy Spirit

Concerning the Holy Spirit I believe and have taught that He is the Spirit of the Father and the Son, proceeding from the Father and the Son, being one God with Them, a comforter of troubled hearts, a protector of believing souls, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, etc. 21

VIII. The Church

Concerning the church of God I have taught that all born-again and believing people, who have been renewed by the Spirit of God and are known to stand in a new life before Him, are the church of God upon earth though they be scattered in all corners of the world. Of this church Christ is the only head. It is built through God's power and Spirit, also through the preaching of the Word of God, but not by force, not by persecution, not with the worldly sword of the judges of this world. This church is built by those servants whom God has sent by His Spirit and whom the believers have called to this task (John 3, Matthew 18, 1 Corinthians 7, Galatians 5, Matthew 12, Ephesians 5, 1 Corinthians 3, Romans 10).

IX. The Sacraments

The sacraments of the church are holy institutions of our Savior Jesus Christ, symbols of divine grace, love, compassion and mercy toward the human race. The sacraments point us to this Christ and in their use we testify to our obedience, love, faith in God, etc. Without the power and Spirit of God, without faith, these sacraments remain empty and useless, for the power and Spirit of God, faith in Christ and His work, is the center of their meaning. There are two such sacraments or signs of His grace, namely holy baptism and holy communion. Of these I teach with Holy Scripture that they must be used only according to the command and institution of Christ.

Baptism shall be given to those who hear and receive the Word of God, who repent and believe the gospel, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, upon confession of faith as Christ taught and the apostles practiced (Matthew 28, Mark 6, Acts 2:8, 10:6).

The Supper of the Lord shall be served as Christ taught with bread and wine in remembrance of His broken body and shed blood, as a memorial of his sacrifice, to all born-again children of God who have searched their own hearts and find themselves in communion with God and Christ.

X. Church Discipline

The ban, or church discipline, taught and instituted by Christ himself, shall be exercised upon obstinate sinners who, after full exhortation, still refuse to hear (Matthew 18, 1 Corinthians 5, 2 Thessalonians 3).

XI. On Government

I have taught with the Apostle Paul that the state is of God, ordained as a servant of God to punish those who commit evil, to exercise authority in worldly, political affairs. This authority does not extend to the church of Christ, the heavenly city in which God himself is judge, for over spiritual things--faith and unbelief, matters concerning conscience and the Word of God--over these things we have a single head and ruler, our only king Christ Jesus. He alone occupies this chair in His holy church. Therefore, whenever the state with her sword and judgment interferes and seeks to control the spiritual things of God and the soul of man, that is in matters of faith, she usurps the office of the Lord and shall be forced to give account thereof before the judgment seat of the Almighty. On the other hand, those authorities who rule well and pleasing to God shall receive from Him a golden reward.22

XII. On War

The warfare carried on by Israel under the command of God ceases among the believers of the New Testament, having been abolished by the coming of Christ to the earth. Among the followers of Christ, the spiritual Israel, there is only peace as the prophets announced; the swords have been beaten into ploughshares and the spears into sickles. War is no longer carried on for the weapons of war have been removed. The prince of peace, Jesus Christ, teaches peace among His people, for His kingdom is a heavenly kingdom of peace, not of the earth (Matthew 11:27).23

XIII. The Oath

Christians may affirm the truth of a matter before the state, as need and love for the neighbor requires, with such references to the name of God as Paul used when he said, I take God, whom I serve, as my witness (Romans 1, 2 Corinthians 1).

XIV. Marriage

Marriage is honorable when one man and one woman live virtuously together, being two souls but one body, one flesh, which may not be separated except for the cause of adultery, as Christ taught and commanded (Matthew 19, Hebrews 13, Genesis 2).

XV. On the Killing of Heretics

The law concerning the killing of heretics among the Israelites has been removed by Christ through His coming, having taught all of His followers to avoid false prophets, to hold as a heathen and publican but not to kill an erring brother. He commanded that the weeds should not be destroyed, for this is the office of the angels, who shall carry it out in that day determined for it by the Lord. Thus also the apostles of Christ expelled heretics from the congregation but did not persecute, exile, kill, nor shed their blood, as the Scriptures witness.24

XVI. Footwashing

Abraham, the father of all believers, washed the feet of those who came to him. Righteous Lot did likewise as we read. Judith also did the same to her companions. Even Christ humbled himself in this manner before His apostles, teaching them to follow His example, and the apostles practiced footwashing as appears from 1 Timothy 5. Thus, even as the patriarchs, Christ, and his apostles have taught us by word and example, receiving their companions in this manner, so also I have taught and preached this doctrine.25

XVII. Conclusion

In summary, I have taught the people the word of repentance, exhorting them to walk steadfastly and humbly, to watch and pray. I have exhorted them to believe the gospel forasmuch as all of us are ordained once to die and to expect the righteous judgment of God. In that day of judgment our flesh or body in which we sinned or lived rightly shall be resurrected and reunited with our departed soul, to receive the reward according to our works. The essence and substance of our flesh shall remain the same but the accidents shall be changed. Then the born again believer shall enter into eternal life, but the godless and carnal unbeliever into eternal damnation (1 Corinthians 15, 2 Corinthians 8, Matthew 25).

All this, and whatever more the divine Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments teach of righteous and faithful Christian living by the Spirit of God, I hold to be true and good, believing it, and according to the measure of my faith have taught it to the people, not as a new doctrine of which I have been accused, but as pleasing to God, in accordance with the teaching of the patriarchs and prophets of God, the old apostolic faith, the pure Word of God. [I have not taught this] among a worthless sect, but among faithful members of the Christian church.

This my faith and teaching I am prepared to defend, should my lords require it of me, before the whole world with the help of God and his Word, to the praise and glory of his name and the strengthening of the faith. As I have never refused, so now I remain willing to present [this faith] further in an orderly and written manner should it be required.

Signed by me, Hans de Rijcke, servant of the Church of Christ, also called the Waterlanders or Franeckers, now a prisoner for the sake of divine truth, at Middelburg in Zeeland in Sgraven Steen, the 7th of April, 1578.

Commentary and translation by Cornelius J. Dyck.

Published by permission of Mennonite Quarterly Review, Goshen, Indiana. All rights reserved. Translated and edited by Cornelius J. Dyck. Reprinted from Mennonite Quarterly Review 36 (April, 1962). For information on subscribing to Mennonite Quarterly Review visit their website.


Footnotes to the Confession of Faith

  1. Hans de Ries was born in Antwerp in 1553 and died in Alkmaar in 1638. From Catholicism he moved to the Reformed Church and from there to the Waterlander Mennonite group ca. 1576. In the latter group he soon became a recognized leader and pioneer of unity and peace. See my "Hans de Ries: Theologian and Churchman. A Study in Second Generation Dutch Anabaptism" (unpublished Ph. D. dissertation, Divinity School, University of Chicago, 1962.)
  2.  Hans de Ries, Verhael van het gebuerde to Middelburg (1578). Inventaris de Archief stukken berustende by de Vereenigde Doopsgezindet Gemeente te Amsterdam, 1 (Amsterdam, 1883), No. 424, p. 1. Hereafter cited as Archief.
  3.  Ibid., pp. 2, 3, 5.
  4.  Ibid., p. 2. The reference is to Deuteronomy 32:10, Psalm 17:8, Zechariah 2:8. Hendrik Meihuizen (The Hague) has pointed out (letter of 6 June 1961) that Menno Simons also used this terminology.
  5.  Verzoekschrift van de Doopsgezinden to Middelburg aan grins Willem I. (unpublished manuscript), Archief No. 429.
  6.  Letter from Prince William I to the governor and council of the province of Zeeland, 23 June 1578 (unpublished). Archief No. 428.
  7.  Letter from Prince William I to the City Council of Middelburg, 26 July 1578 (unpublished). Archief No. 431.
  8.  Besluit van de overheid to Middelburg. 3 June 1578. pp. 1. Archief No. 426.
  9.  See the Klaagschriften (Complaints) in Archief Nos. 434, 438, 439, 441, and others.
  10.  Verzoekschrift van de Doopsgezinden to Middelburg, 27 August 1580, Archief No. 433. Also Naamlijst der Doopsgezinden to Middelburg,10 February 1581. Archief No. 442.
  11.  See Cornelius J. Dyck, "The First Waterlandian Confession of Faith," Mennonite Quarterly Review 36 (1962), pp. 5-13.
  12.  Hans de Ries, Verhael van het gebuerde, p. 5.
  13.  Claes Jacobsz, Kort Verhael van het Leven ende Daden van Hans de Ries (de Ryp, 1644), p. 18.
  14.  Bevelschrift van de overheid to Middelburg aan Hans de Rycke (n.d.). Archief No. 430. It should be pointed out that we owe the presence of these Middelburg documents in the Amsterdam archives to the labors of J. G. de Hoop Scheffer, who himself went to Middelburg to transcribe them from the records.
  15.  Hans de Ries, Verhael van het gebuerde, p. 3.
  16.  See Hans de Ries (ed.), Historie der Martelare ofte waerachtighe Getuygen Jesu Christi III (Haarlem, 1615), fol. 89. This correspondence also appears in T. J. van Braght's Martyrs' Mirror (Scottdale, 1950), from the Dutch edition of 1660.
  17.  Kort Verhael, p. 19.
  18.   Cf. Article V, on original sin.
  19.  Sin is seen primarily in terms of deliberate transgression, rather than as ontological. Here the children of unbelieving parents are saved by grace. On other occasions de Ries insisted that children of believing parents are saved by the righteousness of their parents. No good tree would bring forth evil fruit. Perhaps this should be called grace "once removed." Cf. Hans de Ries, Vertoog tegen het leerstuk van de erfsonde. Archief No. 649. Also, Verant woording over onrechtzinnigheid in verschillende leerpunten. Archief No. 657.
  20.  This position was resented particularly by those who sought to restore the orthodoxy of Menno Simons. e.g., Pieter Jansz Twisck, and by the Reformed because of its cavalier treatment of theological distinctions.
  21.  We note again the absence of references to the Spirit as the third Person of the Trinity. The Spirit is seen primarily as the activity and power of the Father and the Son.
  22. This statement and Article XXXVII of the Confession of 1610 are the only direct references by de Ries to the state. He was probably co-author of another document on the subject, however. In 1591 Pieter Cornelisz, the Reformed minister of Alkmaar, wrote a booklet, Arguments and Evidences, attacking Jacob Jansz Schedemaker for rejecting participation of Christians in government. Schedemaker answered this with his A Necessary Defense of Suppressed Truth, published in 1597. All evidence points to the co-authorship of Hans de Ries.
  23.  The reference is not clear. It is possible that Matthew 27:11 ff, was meant.
  24.  On this point de Ries was influenced by D. V. Coornhert. See Wercken, II, fol. 59-144.
  25.  Cf. Article XXI of the Confession of 1577. Cornelius J. Dyck, "The First Waterlandian Confession of Faith," Mennonite Quarterly Review 36 (1962), pp. 5-13. It is not clear whether de Ries actually practiced footwashing as an ordinance together with the communion service, or whether it was intended as a sign of hospitality to be exercised in the home in behalf of visiting ministers and elders. The Confession of 1577 tends to confirm the latter position. The practice was more common among the Dutch Anabaptist-Mennonites in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries than among either the South Germans or Swiss. Dirk Philips, but not Menno Simons, stressed footwashing as an ordinance.


Cornelius J. Dyck, "The Middelburg Confession of Hans de Ries, 1578." Mennonite Quarterly Review 36 (April 1962): 147-154, 161.