Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 43: The Individualist Messiahs: David Joris, Nicolas Frey, Henry Niclaes



David Joris

Among the wandering preachers whom the Reformation and the free interpretation of the sacred texts set in motion along Europe’s roads, David Joris distinguished himself more through the singularity of his destiny than through the originality of his thought. Pursued by the hatred of the Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Mennonites and Münsterians, this man – upon whose head there was a price wherever he went – ended his life peacefully in Basle, under the outward appearance of a notable, an orthodox adept of Protestant doctrines, honorably known as John of Bruges.

Born in Bruges, perhaps in Delft, less probably in Ghent, in 1501, he was surnamed David due to the role traditionally played by his father, Joris, in the literary societies that portrayed the sacred mysteries. After a career as a glass engraver in Delft, he traveled in the capacity of a merchant through the Netherlands, France and England, frequently visiting Antwerp, where he engaged in polemics with Eloi Pruystinck, founder of a group of free spirit.

In 1524, he wedded Dirckgen Willems in Delft. In 1528, his enthusiasm for the Reformation and his hostility for the Roman clergy earned him public torture and a banishment of three years. He then adhered to the most persecuted sect, the Anabaptists, went to Strasbourg in 1535 and manifested his opposition to the violence of the Münsterites. Quite anomalously, his megalomania never brought him to renounce the ideals of pacifism and tolerance.

A vision he had of the prophetess Anneken Jans suddenly revealed to him his eschatological mission. Identifying himself with the biblical David, whom his father so often played on the boards of the local theater, he preached renunciation, asceticism and the advent of the millennium. The number of his partisans soon worried the temporal powers, which took repressive measures against him. Like all those elected by God, David discerned in the threats that stood out against the horizon the traditional ordeals that announced the birth of a new era. He wrote to the court of Holland, to Philippe of Hesse and to the Emperor, soliciting their support for the Davidian royalty that God had enjoined him to found.

In 1539, when Menno Simons denounced him as a false prophet, Anneken Jans was burned at Delft. Condemned to exile, Joris clandestinely visited Holland, Frise and Belgium. After the death of John of Battenberg, many [of the Battenbergian] terrorists joined his party, in which non-violence offered an increasingly large place for certain free spirit ideas, in particular, for Adamism, that is, the necessity of recovering Edenic innocence.

Although he was hunted everywhere in Europe, David Joris devoted himself to a frenetic activity intended to get himself recognized as a messiah. He went to Oldenburg and Strasbourg, encountering there the moderate wing of the Anabaptists, whom he irritated with his obstinacy in demanding their obedience. In 1542, his most important work, The Book of Marvels (’t Wonderboeck), was published.

David denied the Bible its self-avowed privilege as the only [true] Book. Mystical experience took priority over Scripture because only revelation illuminated the presence of God in each person. Identifying the body of man with the temple of God, David – in the first edition of his book – represented “the last Adam or the new ecclesiastical man” and “the fiancée of Christ, the renewal of all things” in engravings that were judged to be “obscene.” A note made precise the idea that the attractiveness of the young woman (or the Eve) of the era of the saints symbolized “the bliss, life and voluptuousness of the spirit.” Once more, amorous coupling discovered a pretext for its natural legitimization in spiritual androgyny. The secret life joyously led by David after his retreat to Basle used religious discourse to remove shame and bad conscience.

Jundt quotes many extracts from his Wonderboeck.

“God is absolute, without beginning, a light beyond all light, a depthless abyss, the eternal origin of all that exists, an endless end. He remains unchanging and impassive, incomprehensible and silent, reposing on the foundation of his own being, like a rock or a mountain of gold. Essence without essence, he does not manifest himself in his absoluteness; he does not think about himself, nor does he express what he is, as his grandeur, length, size and depth surpass all human conception; everything is annihilated in comparison with him. And yet he is the supreme activity; he is the eternal essence and lives in all objects. It is not outside of ourselves that we must look for him, but inside us, because he is the Spirit; he is the infinite light of eternal justice, wisdom, truth and reason; he is the Lord of this very light, substance, life and intelligence that enlighten the intimate thoughts within the hearts of the believers and thanks to which we are able to distinguish the objects of the visible world: holy and pure essence, of perfect beauty and innocence.

“The eternal and hidden God is obliged to manifest his unknowable essence through his Word of justice, in the power of his eternal wisdom and truth; he realizes in his Word the potentiality that he has to know himself. In his Word, he lets escape outside of himself, and creates in visible form, his Sons and Daughters in conformity with his own manner of being, and they are destined to possess in all truth his Spirit and essence, as the eternal lights of the new heavens. God knows himself in the Word, which is the image of his divine splendor, his Spirit and his substance, insofar as it is inclined towards the world of the creatures; he expresses in himself all that exists, his holy creatures [who are] equal to him, who are his Sons and Daughters. In this way, God begins to exist in concrete form in his creatures; his creation has its eternal origin in himself and continues indefinitely by means of the Son, that is to say, by the divine intelligence and the distinctions that this intelligence establishes in the absolute essence. Everything that emanates from God is and remains God; God remains in everything, all in all, him alone and no one other. In this emanation towards us, God has received in Christ the many denominations, by means of which we try, stammering, to express his essence. This emanation does not exhaust the divine essence: similar to a fountain that flows without interruption, the Spirit of God overflows all parts and lets escape beyond him the plenitude of his being, strength, life and intelligence.

“When a person is elevated to the perfection of the life of the Spirit, for him there is no longer any difference between good and evil, life and death, fall and rising. The members of the body fulfill quite different functions and yet are equally necessary to it: it is likewise unnecessary to say that one thing is not as good as another, because all things are equally good in the eyes of God and it isn’t possible to make them otherwise or better. To scorn anything would be to scorn God in his entirety [son oeuvre]. It is only for us that there are different degrees of beauty, faith, spirituality and holiness: for God and in God there is neither augmentation nor diminution; he remains immutable in his essence and he has always been so. If someone – following the example of the Pharisees – wants to render his external life irreproachable so as to appear just and good in the eyes of mankind, it is only necessary for him to aggravate the state of corruption in which he finds himself; because if he scorns the work and life of God, he damns his soul through his own justice and his own wisdom. No: to be blamed and condemned on earth is to be justified and sanctified in heaven. What one in the here-below calls ugly and corrupt is beautiful and praiseworthy to the Lord; because what pleases men displeases God; what they call good, he calls evil; what they consider to be pure and holy, he considers impure and execrable. In the same way that light follows darkness, and day is born from night, it is necessary that faith manifests itself through incredulity, hope through despair, love through hate and envy, kindness of the heart through cunning, simplicity through duplicity, innocence through shamelessness, frankness through dissimulation, the spirit through the flesh, the truth through the lie, and heavenly essence through terrestrial essence; and so it is necessary to place oneself above the judgment of men, whether they blame you or they praise you, to act in complete freedom, and to realize with a total independence good through evil, what is imperishable through what is perishable, and to let what is luminous and pure manifest itself in its purity through what is impure.

“Mankind must completely abandon itself to God’s direction and do what he commands, women as well as men. God only acts from eternity in eternity; everything that exists is his work. It follows that all that is, must be, and all that does not exist, must not. God in his goodness has made everything good. Thus we live without being concerned about anything, because we are free from all evil; we reside and live in the good. We abstain from finding anything bad, because all God’s works are good. If someone does us wrong, we do not get carried away: do we get irritated with the stone against which we stub our toe? In the same way that a flute does not play itself, but is played by the breath of a person, thus mankind does not act by itself, but [by] God, who made it, speaks and manifests himself through it. Mankind is the property of God; the unique goal of its existence is to glorify its Creator; thus it must not seek its own glory in anything, but must attribute all glory to God and Christ, according to the terms of the Scriptures. Each must be content with the destiny that has been assigned to him; mankind must obey, without murmuring appeals to his Creator, must be ready to follow God anywhere he pleases to lead it and must let God make of it what he wants. Does not the potter have the right to give the clay the form that suits it? With his iron scepter, the Eternal will break all resistance from his creatures, as easily as the potter in anger smashes the vase that he has fashioned. The man to whom these truths appear too elevated must not reject them for the simple reason that he does not understand them; he must receive them in complete submission and keep quiet about what exceeds his understanding, otherwise he risks, according to the Scriptures, blaspheming God in his ignorance.

“Born-again people need no longer desire, seek and marry according to the flesh any woman, as if they were [mere] men, subjected to their sinful natures, but can desire, seek and marry – according to the inward Spirit – the heavenly substance, whose beauty is eternal and whose glory is imperishable; they must in their intelligence conceive the splendor and purity of the divine essence, the unalterable satisfaction that God experiences in himself, and they must let all the rest follow its regular course, according to the good will of God. A man must not devote himself to a woman, and a woman should not devote herself to a man: the elect must devote themselves exclusively to the Lord. It is not that men and women must cease to procreate, which would be contrary to the plan and will of God: here it is a question of the marriages of the angels, celestial weddings, long since prepared for the children of God, according to the words of Jeremiah, Chap. XXXI: a woman will surround a man and unite with him; she will become a man with him, flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone. It isn’t of a single woman of whom the prophet speaks, but seven women united into one, the Fiancée of Christ who resides in seven communities. Seven women, yes, seven communities – understand me well! – must voluntarily humble themselves before one man who is Christ and they will be called his wives. Many communities give to Christ the names of Lord, Husband and King; but they are not his wives and his body: as long as they have not become his wives, he will not be their husband and their life. Christ lives for God and the community lives for Christ, that is to say, woman lives for man, but man does not live for woman. In fact, man was not created for woman, but woman was created for man. Woman is deprived of liberty, vigor and will; she is placed under the power of man, not under the protection and power of God. Such were Adam and Eve, whose image we carry in our nature: they were two souls, originally united in a single body. That unity was broken: man carries in himself the substance of the heavens; woman the substance of the earth. This is why it is necessary for woman to become man, according to the Scriptures, so that the substance foreign to the divine being disappears. Then man will be an angel before the face of God, and man and woman together will again become equal to the Creator. Whosoever is not be found in this state of heavenly marriage will be cursed.”[1]

Jundt concludes: “David Joris thus founded the legitimacy of polygamy or, rather, elective affinity, on the metaphysical principle of the re-composition of the integrity of human nature through the union of the sexes in a single being.”[2]

The unfortunate turn of events that he experienced gave David Joris the feeling that it was better to live an existence that was in accordance with the Lord but less bitter than that of a messiah, sect leader, apostle and exile. His mother was decapitated at Delft. In Deventer, his friend and publisher, Juriaen Ketel, died on the scaffold; his confessions led to the death of Eloi Pruystinck of Antwerp and the execution of his “libertine” friends. Filled with hatred, Menno Simons pursued Joris, denounced his hypocrisy and the debaucheries perpetrated under the cover of perfection.

A polemic with Jan Łaski in Frise, where his authority as prophet was smashed, motivated David Joris to withdraw to Basle. There, under the name John of Bruges, he presented himself as a Lutheran who was persecuted by the papists. In 1544, he moved to Basle with his family, including his son-in-law, Simon Blesdijk, who was a defector from the Mennonites.

Become a respectable citizen thanks to the money that his disciples sent him, David Joris continued to send many letters of millenarian hopes to his partisans, who lived as far away as Denmark. He justified his retreat by referring to the flight of Christ to Egypt. No doubt he found good reasons to reassure his disciples’ voluntary poverty, while he himself lived in opulence with the funds of his sect.

Moreover, he used his credit as a notable from Basle to openly fight in favor of tolerance. He defended Michel Servetus and united in friendship with Schwenckfeld and Castellion. Towards the end of his life, he quarreled with his son-in-law Blesdijk, who went from unconditional friend to enemy. David Joris died on 25 August 1556 and was interred with great pomp at the Saint-Leonard Church in Basle.

Approximately two and a half years later, following family quarrels in which Blesdijk was involved, Joris’ identity was brutally revealed. This caused a scandal in the city. Worried, his family and friends protested their innocence. They affirmed that they knew nothing of David’s doctrines, whose hardly orthodox aspects were condemned by Blesdijk in a pamphlet. They publicly adjured.

On 13 May 1559, the [exhumed] body and books of David were thrown on the pyre. As late as the Seventeenth Century, partisans of David Joris continued to exist in Holstein, surrounded by polemics and calumny. David found a defender in Gottfried Arnold, who attempted to rehabilitate him in his Unpartelische Kirchen – und Ketzer – Historie.[3]


Nicolas Frey

The cases of Nicolas Frey and Henry VIII of England make for a piquant comparison. While the sword of justice overcame one and served the other, the same divine will conferred the seal of its absolutism upon their very personal choices in matters of conjugal and private affairs.

“Nicolas Frey was originally from [Bad] Windsheim in Bavaria, where he was a trader of furs. When the Reformation came to this town, he became one of the most zealous partisans of the new ideas; but a short time later he allied himself with the Anabaptists in the countryside, received a second baptism, which would be the occasion for trouble in his native town; he was imprisoned and then released when he promised to change his conduct. But when the authorities demanded that he publicly retract his errors, he preferred to flee rather than submit to this humiliation. Thus after fifteen years of marriage, he left his wife, Catherine, with whom he had eight children, and headed towards Nuremburg. Taking advantage of the hospitality that he was offered in this town by one of its most pious and respected citizens, he won over to his doctrines the sister of his host, a woman named Elizabeth, and engaged with her in what he called a spiritual and celestial marriage. Catherine, the abandoned wife, arrived a little later in Nuremburg and encouraged her husband to return with her to their native town. In response, Frey mistreated her and chased her away. Later on, he wrote about this subject to his spiritual sister or, as he called her, his conjugal sister, Elizabeth: ‘I have seen in the Trinity that I must break the head of my first wife so that the prophecies of the Old and New Testaments can be accomplished. Is it not in fact said that the seed of the woman will break the head of the serpent? My first wife is the serpent or demon spoken of by the Scriptures; as far as you are concerned, you are the woman whose seed must break her head. To become a disciple of Christ, I must hate women, children, home and homeland. If I have crushed the serpent of disbelief, this is because I was forced to do so, because it isn’t me who did it, but God who lives inside me and in whom I live.’ Obliged to leave Nuremburg, Frey went to Strasbourg in 1532; Elizabeth joined him soon thereafter. Their imprudent schemes and badly hidden relations with the other sectarians of the locality soon attracted the attention of the authorities. They were imprisoned. Informed of the presence of her husband in Strasbourg, Catherine went there and beseeched him to return with her to Windsheim. Frey was inflexible. Seeing his obstinacy, the magistrate condemned him on 19 May 1534 to be drowned as a bigamist, which took place three days later at the Pont du Corbeau.

“According to Capiton,[4] he had to confess the following errors: ‘The Church and the sacraments are the inventions of the Devil. – All the prophecies of the Scriptures refer to me, to my first wife and second wife. My first wife is the Queen of the Kingdom of Disbelief; she is prefigured in the person of Saul. My second wife is prefigured in David; I myself in Jonathan. In the same way that David and Jonathan formed a perpetual alliance to chase away Saul, I am allied spiritually with Elizabeth so as to chase away Catherine. – The most perfect work that a believer can accomplish is to abandon his first wife and wed a second. – The faith that justifies the Christian and the love of one’s neighbor consist in the constant affection of Elizabeth; this is a work that God produced in her, so that the loyal and pious Christian is improved and comes closer to his own origin. – Elizabeth is the mother of all believers; it is through her that the true Christian faith began on earth. – In the same way that Mary engendered Christ, Elizabeth will restore the image of Christ to humanity and for this reason she is as worthy of singing the Magnificat as the Virgin. – I am the leader of the Church; Christ accomplished in me all his previous promises; no divine promise will be accomplished after me. – I am Christ following the eternal Word, the angular rock that the builders rejected. – I was sent by God to show mankind the image of Christ in my person, just as Moses had previously showed it in his person. All the mysteries of the divinity must now be unveiled, because the Last Days have come. – All the creatures that have fallen into perdition since the birth of Christ must be restored to their original perfection in me; I am the instrument by which God wishes to manifest his glory. – It is to the sublime school of God that Elizabeth brought these revelations; it is the Holy Spirit that gave birth to them in her heart. – The ordinary preachers of the Gospel have only been flatterers [encenseurs] of idols; they know, it is true, how to crudely square off the rocks and clear away the terrain for the future edifice, but they know nothing of construction. In their preaching they dishonor God and seduce their brothers because of their lack of faith, because they say that we are all sinners, and they refrain from fulfilling the holy and perfect law, which is to abandon wife and children and follow the Lord.’”[4]


Henry Niclaes

Founded in 1540 by Henry Niclaes [aka Hendrik Nicholis], the Family of Love – often wrongly defined as an Anabaptist sect – intended to reestablish the original human community in its innocence. Its organization included a bishop, whose authority was supported by twelve sages and four classes of priests. All gave their personal belongings to the sect, which included a quite large number of believers, principally in the Netherlands and England, where their existence was still attested to in the Seventeenth Century.

Born in 1502, Henry Niclaes claimed that he had his first visions when he was nine years old, while attending courses at a Latin school. At the age of 12, he worked for his family’s business and took it over upon the death of his father. Arrested in 1529 for Lutheranism, he went to Amsterdam where he stayed for nine years before being suspected of Anabaptism. In 1541, he lived in Emden where he engaged in a flourishing trade in wool. He frequently traveled to Antwerp, where his friend, the printer Christopher Plantin, was inspired by several of his texts.

At the age of 59, new prophetic visions and the publicity that he gave them earned him torture [by the authorities]. He fled to Campine, in the Overijssel, and then to London, which must have been a temporary exile because Niclaes opportunely saved Plantin from ruin by transporting to Cologne the typographical materials that those who accused the printer of heresy had threatened to seize. Dissent within the group darkened his last years. He died in 1580. Nippold[6] attributed to him fifty pamphlets that were distributed clandestinely.

Niclaes’ doctrines preached love, tolerance and mutual respect, and rejected the God of justice in favor of a God of goodness. From millenarianism he retained the pretense that he acted as the mediator of divine revelation and the herald of the new era in which antagonism among mankind would disappear.

His principal disciple was his servant, Hendrik Jansen, called Barrefelt, no doubt due to Barneveld, the place of his birth. Around the time of his break with Niclaes in 1573, he took the name Hiel, which in Hebrew means “one life in God.” Having gained the friendship of Christopher Plantin, Hiel began to prophecy on his own, perhaps in England, where the Family of Love had existed for more than a century. Many of these adepts joined the Ranters. His religious doctrine was related to that of Hans Denck.

“‘The Father made himself human with us according to the inward man and constructed us according to the inward man in a Spirit with him. The soul of man is not a creature, but a part of the uncreated God.’ And he also called himself ‘a man whom God resurrected from among the dead, whom he filled and anointed with the Holy Spirit; a man enlightened by the Spirit of the celestial truth and by the veritable light of the perfect essence; a man deified with God in the spirit of his love and transformed into the being of God.’ According to him, Christ is only ‘the image of the being on the right [side] of the Father’; he must no longer be envisioned as a historical personage, but as a ‘condition’ shared by all those who live in union with God. From this metaphysical principle, he deduced that sin no longer exists in the heart of the born-again: his disciples and he ‘only said in their prayers the first three parts of the Sunday oration, because, for them, they did not sin insofar as they were born from God’; he derived from this idea both the uselessness and unimportance of religious ceremonies: ‘The Lovers live and die without either baptism or the sacraments,’ or rather they considered the baptism of infants to be a valueless act that some were free to neglect while others were free to practice. They thus distinguished themselves from the Anabaptists, to whom it was no doubt fitting to link them historically. Henry Niclaes founded his doctrine on the theory of the three ages: ‘Moses only preached hope, Christ only taught faith, he himself announced the love that united all. The first entered into the square in front of the temple, the second into the sanctuary, he himself into the Holy of Holies.’”[7]

The Puritan John Knewstub said of Henry Niclaes: “[He] turns religion upside down. He buildeth heaven here upon earth; he maketh God man and man God (...). [For his disciples] heaven was when men laugh and are merry, hell was sorrow, grief and pain.”[8]


Jan Torrentius

Born in Amsterdam in 1589, Jan Torrentius [Johannes van der Beeck] – charged with Anabaptism and adherence to the ideas of David Joris and the Family of Love – was thought to be an accursed painter in Holland, which was liberal or, at the very least, liberated from Catholicism. A painter of still life and supposedly erotic images, he attempted to illustrate the hedonism celebrated by Dutch painting in the Seventeenth Century with, perhaps, less reservation than Jan Steen.

A member of an Adamite group[9] that practiced the pleasures of love and the table, he was arrested and subjected to torture. He denied all participation in the sect, but the “scandalous” character of his works earned him twenty years in prison.

Freed due to the entreaties of the Austrian ambassador, he took refuge in England. His return to Amsterdam brought new persecutions from the Protestants, which continued until his death in 1640. The government ordered that all his paintings should be collected and burned by an executioner.[10]


[1] A. Jundt, op. cit., p. 165.

[2] Ibid., p. 166.

[3] G. Arnold, Unpartelische Kirchen – und Ketzer – Historie. [Translator: German for An Impartial History of Churches and Heretics.]

[4] Translator: this would appear to be Wolfgang Fabricius Köpfel Capiton (1478-1541).

[5] A. Jundt, op. cit., p. 178.

[6] Translator: this would appear to be Friedrich Wilhelm Franz Nippold (1838-1918).

[7] Jundt, op. cit., p. 201.

[8] C. Hill, Le monde à l’envers, Paris, 1977, p. 25. [Translation: since this is a French translation of a work originally written in English (Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution, 1972), I have quoted directly from the original text, p. 27.]

[9] Translator: According to the Rosicrucian order A.M.O.R.C., Torrentius was a member of the Brethren of the Rosie Cross.

[10] Translator: at least one painting survived: Still Life with a Bridle (1614), which is a part of the permanent collection at the Rijsmuseum in Amsterdam.


(Published by Fayard in 1993. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! May 2013. All footnotes by the author, except where noted.)

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