Chapter 37

William Ames: Puritan in the Netherlands


Almost from the beginning of the history of the Reformation in the Netherlands a Puritan strain could be found in the Dutch Reformed Churches. This Puritan influence was to continue for many years and it made an indelible mark on Dutch thought. Some even speak of "Dutch Puritanism."

The reason why a Puritan influence could be found among the Dutch was the close contact, throughout the centuries, between the Dutch and the English. The English came to the help of the Dutch in the War for Dutch Independence under William the Silent. The English sent representatives to the Synod of Dort (although it is a matter of debate whether they were of any assistance in the battle against Arminianism). During the time of Spanish persecution in the Netherlands, many fled to England and found refuge there; and during the efforts of the Stuart kings in England to impose prelacy on all the churches, many refugees found a haven in the Netherlands. One need only think of the Pilgrims who, after fleeing England, lived for a time in and near Leyden before sailing for America. English scholars were recognized for their learning and were invited to Dutch universities to teach, and Dutch scholars found positions in English universities. Dutch ministers preached in English churches and English preachers found many years of enjoyable labor in Dutch churches. The contacts were of many kinds, very close, and frequent.

All this brought into the Netherlands a Dutch Puritanism which remains in the Dutch churches today.

William Ames was one of the Dutch Puritans.

Life in England

Almost nothing is known of the early life of William Ames; not any of the details of his early life have come down to us. He was born in 1576 in Ipswich, Suffolk, a town about seventy miles north-east of London near the Sea. And he was born when Queen Elizabeth sat on the throne of England as the last of the Tudors. She had already seen to it that Parliament passed the Act of Conformity, which required that all churches follow the pattern of the Church of England both in worship and church government, a policy which made life difficult for Puritans.

These circumstances of Ames' birth are so important that his entire life was controlled by them. And so we shall have to say a few things about the struggle which went on in England as a result of Elizabeth's rule.

The Church of England was, at least officially, quite Calvinistic, as expressed in the 39 Articles of the Church of England -- the official creed of the church. In government, the church was strictly hierarchical and had the same structure of archbishops, bishops, and priests (along with a multitude of other offices) as Rome had -- except for cardinals and a pope. In worship most of the trappings, ceremonies, robes, liturgies, and symbols which were a part of Romish worship, while abolished in the first rush of reformation, gradually crept back into the church.

Within the Anglican Church was a large group of clergy and people who wanted more complete reformation, not only in doctrine, but also in church polity and worship. They made every effort to change the Anglican Church but were blocked in their efforts by Elizabeth, who insisted on uniformity throughout her realm. Most clergy, when forced to sign the Act of Uniformity, did so. Some did not. They became known as Puritans because they wanted to purify the church beyond what had so far been accomplished. Later, in about 1919, they were called Non-conformists, a name which stuck for many years.

For the most part the Non-conformists, though continuing to promote their non-conformity and though refusing to sign any Acts of Uniformity, stayed in the church. Where else could they go? It was not until the Great Ejection that non-conformists were expelled from the Anglican Church and Non-conformist Churches sprang up throughout England.

William Ames was a Puritan in the Anglican Church, outspoken and vocal, and one who refused to bow before the dictates of Elizabeth. Nor could Archbishop Bancroft's most strenuous opposition to non-conformity move him. I suppose that if Ames had been content to moderate his protests and keep his objections to himself he would have survived within the Anglican Church and would have been able to keep his post in Cambridge. But that was not in his nature. He believed deeply that prelacy, hierarchy, and all the remnants of Rome that remained in the Anglican Church dishonored God and made the church a wicked institution. His deep commitment to his principles came to expression in his strong opposition to the established church's practices and made him a passionate defender of Puritan goals.

Ames received the bulk of his education at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he studied under the famous Puritan supralapsarian William Perkins. Being an ardent Puritan he could hope for no advancement within Anglican circles. Hence, when an opportunity to become chaplain of Cambridge University opened up, he took it.

His stay in Cambridge did not last long. The very nature of an established State Church was conducive in England to careless and profane living. The students in Cambridge were no exceptions. And so, when Ames preached a sermon against various evil practices among the students, such as card-playing and gambling, his enemies took the opportunity to work for his censure. Hating him for his non-conformity, they used Ames' sermon as an excuse to get rid of him.

Ames quite clearly saw that he would be expelled from the University if he fought his case; and so he left the university and made his way to the Netherlands. After a brief stay in Leyden, he went to the Hague.

An interesting anecdote describing an event which took place prior to Ames' departure from the university shows how clearly the issue was really one of non-conformity. While the storm over his sermon was still raging, Ames was called before Dr. Carey, the master of the college, and told he should wear a surplice, which was a robe worn by clerics to add to the dignity of their office. The Puritans had rejected the use of such "papal" garments, but the Anglicans were then and are now favorable to such clothing. Dr. Carey insisted that Scripture required him to wear it, and when Ames, rather astonished, asked for the text where such a command was found, Carey quoted the passage: "Put on the armour of light," which, Carey insisted, referred to a white surplice. Ames' refusal to be swayed by such exegesis infuriated the master.

Ames' Labors in the Netherlands

It was in the Hague that Ames found employment as chaplain to Sir Horace Vere, the commander of the English troops in the Netherlands, and at the same time served as minister of the English church in the Hague.

But the long arm of Ames' enemies in England reached across the channel. The archbishop of Canterbury wrote a letter to Sir Ralph Winwood, the English ambassador to Netherlands, to see to it that Ames was removed from his position. His letter ended with these words: "I wish the removing of him to be as privately and as cleanly carried as the matter will permit. We are also acquainted what English preachers are entertained in Zeeland, whereunto in convenient time we hope to give a redress."

But his persecutors could not finally keep him from finding employment in the land where he had chosen to make his home -- although they tried desperately. Because of his vast learning and great ability Ames was called to be divinity professor at Franeker in Friesland in 1622. Twelve years he served in this prestigious school, and his fame spread throughout all Europe. Students came from remote parts of the continent to study under him, and the school itself, in recognition of his contributions to the university, made him rector in 1626. During this time he had the privilege and pleasure of serving with Maccovius, of whom we spoke earlier.

Sadly, though, his abilities were not recognized by his countrymen, and the adage mentioned even in Scripture that a prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, was true of Ames.

During the years of his stay in Franeker, Ames served the Dutch Reformed Churches well. He did battle against the high church prelates in England and continued to write against their superstitious ceremonies and Romish practices, while defending vigorously the regulative principle of worship. Richard Baxter, famous for his still popular book, The Reformed Pastor, left Anglicanism to join the Non-conformist movement because of the writings of William Ames.

Ames also wrote extensively against Roman Catholic error and took on the great Bellarmine, perhaps the greatest of all Roman Catholic theologians since the time of the Reformation.

But his chief enemies were always the Arminians, whose theology he detested as rationalistic and humanistic -- which it truly is. Not only were they subjected to his scathing attacks in print, but Ames was chosen to attend the Synod of Dort, where he participated in their trial and condemnation. He was, in fact, paid four florins a day to attend the Synod, and he served with distinction as assistant and private secretary to the president, the fiery Johannes Bogerman. Ames' work was chiefly behind the scenes.

But William Ames always loved above all the pastoral ministry and wanted to return to it. Added to this was a severe case of asthma, which made it difficult for him to breathe in the winter months. He was in fact so stricken that he feared every winter would be his last in the cold and damp northern provinces.

Thinking perhaps that the southern part of the Netherlands would be better for his health, Ames took a call to the church in Rotterdam where he served the Lord for a brief time. But the climate here did not make much difference in his asthma, and Ames made plans to move to America to settle among the Dutch churches in New York or New Jersey. He died, however, before he could make the move, and finished his work on earth on November 14, 1633 at the age of 57.

His wife and family did move to the new world after Ames' death and took his extremely valuable library with them. This library was an extraordinarily valuable legacy in America, for he had one of the finest libraries in the country, and America, at this time in her history, was almost entirely without books.

Ames' son William returned from America to England and was vocal in the Non-conformist movement in England until he, along with so many others, was ejected from the Anglican Church and suffered the awful persecution which was the lot of the ejected ministers.

Although Ames was by no means well known, the Dutch Reformed Churches owe him a great debt for his unwavering and uncompromising stand against Arminianism; and the Puritanism for which he fought in England was to be his legacy in the Netherlands as it lived on in various branches of the Reformed churches.