‘Though the Kings of the Earth Be Against Them’: Renwick’s Letter to Jean Hamilton in Leeuwarden, 25 April, 1683
On 25 April, 1683, James Renwick drafted the letter, below, to Jean Hamilton in Leeuwarden. The letter provides a rare glimpse into how the Dutch ministers at Groningen came to the extraordinary decision to ordain Renwick and John Flint.
Little is known of the motives for the intervention of the Dutch ministers in Groningen in Scottish politics and the business of the Scottish presbyterian ministry, especially when there was a sizable exile community of moderate presbyterian Scottish ministers at the Scots Kirk in Rotterdam. It is possible that evidence of their motives may be found in Dutch archives. However, until new evidence is discovered, we are more-or-less reliant on the fragments of information found in the surviving Societies’ correspondence.
Renwick’s letter offers a few details of the discussion at the synod on Thursday 19 April, 1683, that approved John Flint and James Renwick’s trials for ordination. Under pressure from Robert Hamilton, the Societies’ commissioner in the United Provinces, Flint would withdraw from ordination at the last minute on 10 May.
It was Hamilton who had brought the case of the Societies to the attention of William Brackel, the minister of Leeuwarden. Brackel is also known as Wilhelmus a Brakel or Willem a Brakel.
After obtaining letters of introduction from Hermann Witsius, who had been the minister of Leeuwarden until 1676, and advice from the Voetian divine, Jacob Koelman, Hamilton had, literally, turned up on Brackel’s doorstep and moved in with him for several weeks in early 1682. In the summer of 1682, Brackel began correspondence with the Societies, via Renwick and Hamilton.
From the beginning of the students’ studies, Brackel and Hamilton were set on their ordination. Their studies were directed by Johannes á Marck, the Professor of Church History and Divinity.
If Hamilton’s version of events is to be believed, some of the Voetian Dutch ministers and academics concealed the planned ordinations from their Cocceian brethren.
The appearance of Renwick and Flint before the synod at Groningen on 19 April was a key moment in securing the prize of ordination to the ministry. According to Renwick:
‘They [i.e., the Groningen synod], for the most part, not knowing us, after we had removed for a little space, began to ask among themselves what we were seeking, having heard something thereof from ourselves, Whereupon, first, Dominus Philingius, then Dominus Albringha rose up and declared unto them somewhat of the case of our church: at which, some of them fell into tears, and said,—Though the kings of the earth should be against them, they would go on in our affairs.’
With that decision, the Dutch ministers at the synod had chosen to intervene in Scottish and British politics, as they clearly intended to allow the ordination of the two Societies’ students with the understanding that they would return to Scotland and begin preaching.
The ‘kings of the earth’ the synod had in mind were Charles II and possibly Hendrik Casimir II of Nassau-Dietz, the stadholder of Friesland and Groningen. According to Hamilton, he had earned the respect of some of the Voetian faction for insulting Johannes van der Waeyen, Hendrik’s adviser and a Cocceian theologian, in early 1682.
Renwick then describes what was offered to them at the synod:
‘Whereupon we were called in again unto them, and three men were appointed for our trials; and the tenth of the next month, for the day ‘of ordination’; the ministers of this town having undertaken the expense which we ought to have been at.’
Not only did the Groningen synod agree to ordain Renwick and Flint, it agreed to pay the usual fee required for the ordination of the students.
What Renwick does not mention in his letter is whether the intended ordination was to be of a Scottish or Dutch form. Hamilton later claimed that just before ordination was due to take place, that the presiding Dutch ministers agreed to Renwick’s subscription of the Westminister Confession, rather than the Belgic Confession, catechisms and canons.
Because of the synod, the planned ordination of the Societies’ students became, to some extent, public knowledge. With the ordination set for 10 May, the opponents of the Societies had little time to respond. Nonetheless, both the ministers at the Scots Kirk in Rotterdam and the Russellites, a breakaway faction of the Societies, would try to stop the proceedings. Two ministers at the Scots Kirk, George Barclay and Robert Langlands, approached Koelman with their objections, but in the ensuing correspondence with Brackel, the minister of Leeuwarden crucially delayed the arrival of Scots ministers’ objections until after Renwick’s ordination by demanding that they were put in writing. The Russellites, too, failed to halt the proceedings, as their students only appeared in Groningen on the day after Renwick’s ordination.
The letter is printed in Carslaw (ed.), Life and Letters of James Renwick, 45-46.
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