- The Convent of Wesel: The Event That Never Was and the Invention of Tradition by Jesse Spohnholz
More than a decade ago, Spohnholz noticed that a minor episode in Reformed (Calvinist) Church history—a meeting of dozens of Calvinist ministers and leaders in 1568—was surprisingly difficult to document. The lack of evidence for the "Synod," "Convent," or assembly at Wesel near the Dutch border finally prompted a full-scale investigation. He begins with a meeting on November 3,1568, that produced a set of 122 articles proposing to regulate the governing structures, rituals, and doctrines of the Reformed Church. The final version, which ran to twenty-two pages in Latin, had sixty-three signatures—fifty-one autographs and twelve proxy signatures.
Traditionally, this document has been regarded as evidence of the first major move to establish a unified Reformed Church in the Low Countries, the founding of a "presbyterial constitution" within a unified state church. Close study of the shifting context of military and ecclesiastical events reveals that the document of 1568 must have been written in that year. But far from achieving a moment of unity, the Wesel document reflected instead the tensions and disagreements of its day. Spohnholz makes a persuasive case that the author of these articles was Petrus Dathenus (Datheen), and that his efforts to obtain as many signatures as possible led him to send his manuscript from Wesel to Emden and then to London.
From his detailed studies of the sixty-three signators, Spohnholz shows that the meeting that supposedly generated this document cannot have taken place. He proves that some of the Reformed leaders were not even in Wesel in early November and that other major leaders who could have been in Wesel did not sign the articles. Instead, it now appears far more likely that Dathenus and his articles testify more to a "diverse, uncertain, and fractured religious landscape" than to a newly consolidated and unified movement (88). Spohnholz's case that there was no "convent of Wesel" at all is persuasive, but except for commited historians of the Dutch Reformed Church, this finding seems like small potatoes.
In his next section, however, Spohnholz raises the broader question of how and why generations of historians mistook this document for proof of the early unanimity and collegiality of the Dutch refugee Calvinists in Wesel. For fifty years after its supposed occurrence, no one even claimed the existence of such a meeting, but at the time of the Synod of Dort (1618/9), some of the Dutch Reformed officials began to feel the need to root their newly established orthodoxy in tradition. By the standards of polemical history writing, this new construction of events was not surprising, but Spohnholz also shows that the increasingly rigorous standards of the Enlightenment did not dispel the allure of "the Convent of Wesel" even if the absence of evidence now cried out for explanation. The more critical but increasingly nationalist historians of [End Page 508] the nineteenth century also rallied around explanations that deployed the silence of the sources as proof of the event and its importance. Spohnholz is illuminating on the shifting standards of historiography during the past three centuries and why even sharp critique did not undermine the national, especially German, importance of a non-event.
Along the way, Spohnholz also shows that historians who came to emphasize the crucial importance of archives often fell unwittingly into the organizational imperatives of the archives that they used. Even today, the files that historians consult often prefigure what is likely to be seen in them. Spohnholz shows that the organization of city, state, and church archives almost always serves purposes that differ from those of later researchers. Granted, he is not the first to make these points, but he emphasizes them in a specific context that brings home their practical importance.
In a short but fascinating final section, Spohnholz wonders what might entitle him to think that he now has the story straight in contrast...