The Cloister Walk, X: Leyden
For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone,
Today Leyden is a city of about 120,000 in southern Holland about halfway between Amsterdam and The Hague. Even when the Pilgrims lived there for eleven years from 1609 to 1620 on their way from persecution in Brewster, England, to a new home at Plymouth Rock, Leyden was a bustling, prosperous city of 40,000. It was most famous for its cloth and book industries.
I want to tell you a story that happened there in 1574, about 30 years before the Pilgrims arrived, and this snapshot will tell you everything you need to know about Leyden. At the end of the sixteenth century, the Netherlands, as you’ll recall from your western civ course at university, was controlled by Spain, which obviously drove loyal Hollanders to apoplexy because in Spain, inquisitors were torturing Lutherans and burning Calvinists at the stake.
The good people of Leyden rebelled, and the Spanish king sent his troops to besiege the city of Leyden. The Hollanders were surrounded for six months from May to October of 1574.
During the siege they ran out of silver. What do you do for money if you have no silver? The enterprising Leydeners cut pages out of their prayer books in the pews at church and turned it into legal tender. It was the first use of paper money in Europe.
The Dutch have taught the world many things, like painting beautiful pictures, reclaiming submerged land, and building seaworthy ships, but not the least of their gifts to the world is capitalism. They were the first capitalists in history and knew how to put money to use.
Full disclosure: My wife’s maiden name is Van Dyken, which means ‘from the dyke,’ of course, and you can’t get any Dutcher than that, so I am not unbiased on this matter.
Anyway, in the six-month Spanish siege of 1574, the Leydeners run out of silver and turn their prayer books into money—what a convenient idea! —And they also of course run out of food. What’re they gonna do?
In October, somebody gets the great idea to cut the dykes holding the North Sea back, they flood the city with seawater, the Dutch Navy floats an armada of flatboats straight into the town square, which not only gets food to the starving hordes but also gets their cannons within range of the Spanish infantry. Siege over, Spaniards go home, the Dutch celebrate. This is going somewhere, by the way. I promise.
Dutch Prince William I of Orange is so pleased with the courage and resourcefulness of the Leydeners that he wants to reward them, and not only that, but he lets them choose their reward: “City of Leyden, what do you want?” asks William of Orange. “Do you want no taxes forever? Or do you want a university?”
To their everlasting credit, the Leydeners chose the university, and the University of Leyden becomes the first and later the oldest university in the Netherlands. They didn’t need the money; they had plenty of prayer books.
Leyden was the most progressive city in the most enlightened nation on earth. Someone guessed that in the sixteenth century, half of all the books in the world were published in the Netherlands, partly because the Dutch were good at printing books, but also because they didn’t try to tell you what you could or couldn’t write.
While over in Rome Galileo Galilei is being interrogated by the Inquisitor for telling the Pope that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around, here in Leyden Rene Descartes is publishing his “I think, therefore I am” book, one of the most important but also the one of the most radical books of all time. Galileo’s new truth? Heaven forfend, says Rome. Descartes’ new truth? Bring it on, says Leyden.
“Live and let live” was their motto in Leyden. These Dutch were a globetrotting, seafaring, free-trading, entrepreneurial people. They’d walked every continent, sailed every ocean, heard every language, seen every skin color, and they’d said to themselves “You know what? It’s all good. It’s all good!” If it was good for business; it was good, period.
Do you know that the Dutch were the first people to decorate their homes with maps? Do you have maps on your walls? I do. Everybody does. But not back then. People from the rest of Europe would walk into a Dutch home and see a map on the wall, and say, “Why do you have a map on your wall? Do you get lost in your own house?” And the Dutch say, “We think maps are beautiful; they remind us of all the wonderful places we might travel someday.”
And so at the beginning of the seventeenth century in this bustling city of 40,000, as much as one-third of the residents in Leyden were refugees from somewhere else—Baptists, Huguenots, Jews, Walloons, all fleeing the Spanish and Roman Inquisitions, and some English folk from Scrooby, England, who were just not feeling welcome in their native land. Remember we talked about William Brewster from Scrooby the last time I stood in this pulpit at the end of July? Of course you do.
I’ll tell you again: If you were a Christian in England when King James I took the throne at the beginning of the seventeenth century, you were obliged to have at least two things: The Book of Common Prayer and an Anglican Bishop, but these Scrooby Puritans under William Brewster were devout, avid, fierce Congregationalists.
They didn’t want to kneel at worship because it wasn’t in the Bible, and they didn’t want to genuflect at the cross because it wasn’t in the Bible, and they didn’t want to sing Anglican hymns because they weren’t in the Bible, and they most certainly didn’t want a bishop telling them what preacher they had to listen to every Sunday. They were congregationalists and wanted to choose their own preacher.
And King James just cannot have this kind of dissent in his tidy little kingdom. While King James is out—Shakespearing Shakespeare by writing his famous Bible, the most beautiful and most important book ever written in English, at the same time, James is saying of these Scrooby Congregationalists and their ilk: “I will harry them out of the land,” so these Congregationalists write a letter to the town council in Leyden: “Will you take us if we cross the North Sea, and when we get there, will you leave us alone?”
And this is the letter they get back from the mayor of Leyden: “We refuse no honest persons to come and have their residence in this city, provided that such persons behave themselves honestly, and follow the laws of the land.”
And so in 1609 these Scrooby Congregationalists cross the North Sea—it’s not very far—and are accepted by the Leydeners. They don’t stay very long, only 11 years—mostly because, not to put too fine a point on it, they have to work too hard.
These Scrooby Puritans are farmers and shepherds from rural England, and here in Leyden they are working 12 or 15 hours a day six days a week at menial tasks like cobbling shoes or spinning wool or weaving cloth or running a printing press, and this gets tedious.
And not only that, but their children are beginning to speak more Dutch than English. These kids don’t want to be foreigners, they don’t want to sound funny, they don’t want to be English, they want to fit in, they want to be Dutch like their classmates, because Dutch is cool.
And so in 1620 after 11 years in Leyden, about 50 of these English Puritans pile into a 102-foot boat called the Mayflower and after a harrowing voyage of ten weeks of bad weather finally land by accident at Plymouth Rock, and the rest, as they say, is history.
And so now you know why our forbears from 1958 slapped a Leyden stone into our Cloister Walk. It is this virtue of tolerance, this openness to new truths, odd ideas, and exotic peoples. “God alone is Lord of the conscience,” those Leydeners wanted to say. “God alone is Lord of the conscience,” Kenilworth Union wants to say, and has been for 123 years.
But here’s my point. Do you think that those Scrooby Pilgrims who were welcomed with such warm hospitality in Leyden recapitulated that openness and tolerance in New England once they arrived at Plymouth Rock? Of course not.
By 1640—they’d been in the New World for a mere 20 years—by 1640, the Pilgrim Fathers were treating dissenters exactly like King James had treated them in England. That liberal Anne Hutchinson and that Baptist Roger Williams are banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony.
More English Puritans fleeing James’ persecution in England would arrive in the New World and be greeted by repression and narrowness in New England. So you know where they fled to instead? New Amsterdam, of course, where the Dutch were hanging out, and the island of Manhattan becomes one of the most diverse places on earth. Less than a mile from the southern tip of Manhattan is a wall of sharpened log pickets, and so of course this will one day be known as Wall Street, and south of this wall there are a mere 400 residents, who spoke 18 languages.
Here’s the thing, right? We’re all the children of immigrants. Everybody—and I mean everybody—in America is the child of an immigrant. This is true if your ancestors came over on the Mayflower. This is even true of the Native Americans who’d been here for 15,000 years before the Pilgrims arrived; their ancestors walked here from Siberia via a land bridge over the Bering Strait. We all need a warm welcome sometime.
One-third of those 40,000 residents of Leyden at the beginning of the seventeenth century were refugees. And now it’s happening all over again. They need a warm welcome. President Obama says “we’ll take 10,000 Syrians.” To me, that seems more embarrassment than progress, but I understand. He’s scared; I’m scared. What’s to stop ISIS from sneaking in some terrorists amongst the war-plagued refugees? The President doesn’t have an answer to that.
On the other hand, did you watch Tim Cook from Apple introduce the new iPhone 6 the other day? Did you buy one? The guy who invented the iPhone was the son of a Syrian refugee. He did okay for himself.
“So remember,” writes Paul to the Gentile Christians at Ephesus, “remember that at one time you were aliens from the commonwealth, strangers to the covenant. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near. For Christ is our peace; Christ has broken down the dividing wall, and erased the hostility between us. He came to proclaim peace to those who were far off, and peace to those who are near, peace to the insider, peace to the outsider. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens with the saints.”
Peace to those who are far off, and peace to those who are near.
One of you sent me an email on Friday. I’ll read you the whole thing:
Dear Bill, I would like to suggest to you the possibility of our congregation adopting a Syrian Refugee family. I can provide details if you are interested… See you Sunday! Love to Dudley!
So what do you think?
Russell Shorto, Island at the Center of the World (New York: Doubleday, 2004), p. 101.
Quoted by Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower (New York: Viking, 2006), p. 12.
Slightly adapted from Shorto, p. 95-96.