YOU suspect me Madam! of having in my youth been an Enthusiast. … I am it yet, and would not change.”1 Van der Kemp wrote this to Abigail Adams when he was sixty-five years old. She had written of her interest in his autobiography, especially the stories of his courageous conflicts for freedom of thought back in his native country. The old Patriot at sixty-five still had some of the fire that burned so fiercely when he was a university student.

The Dutch Reformed Church, the church of the Van der Kemp family, had difficulties not only in keeping Roman Catholicism and Jewry in a subdued, carefully circumscribed position, but also had troubles with heresies. The Dutch Church had originated during the struggles for independence against Spain. William of Orange, the early leader of the revolutionary movement, established the Reformed Church as the national religion. It was Calvinistic in doctrine and presbyterian in organization. Other sects were tolerated as long as their activities represented no danger to the established church. Under these conditions the dissenting Anabaptists organized in the Netherlands, with Menno Simons as their most noted leader. The Arminians also rose to plague Dutch orthodox believers. The Dutch Church could and did expel those influenced by these or any other free thinking sects.

In addition to religious thinkers such as Menno and Arminius, free thinking philosophers also contributed to the Age of the Enlightenment. The Netherlands had Spinoza in the seventeenth century and in the eighteenth knew also the political and social philosophy of the rest of Europe, especially France and England. As the middle classes were educated, they were exposed to enlightened thought. No doubt the Van der Kemps, either directly or indirectly, knew some of the works of such men as Hobbes and Bayle, Hume and Voltaire.

Bayle particularly impressed Francis Van der Kemp. In the late 1600’s when France became unsafe for Protestants, Bayle settled at Rotterdam and ultimately published his Dictionary. He included topics on nearly all of the current religious questions, forming his work into a “virtual encyclopedia for Freethinkers,” and made the book relatively safe and attractive by treating controversies with a clever disarming impartiality.2 Among English thinkers Hume probably influenced Van der Kemp the most. As a participant in the deist movement Hume had produced his greatest writings at about the time of Van der Kemp’s birth. He questioned miracles and opposed supernaturalism in his Natural History of Religion. Voltaire, Rousseau and Locke were probably the most influential of the French writers for the Dutch middle classes. Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance had been translated into Dutch in 1796 and Rousseau’s Social Contract was known soon after its appearance in 1762. The established church was disturbed by the popularity of these writings and secured a ban on Voltaire’s work. It immediately became better known.

In the late 1760’s and early 1770’s another controversy arose in the Netherlands over Jean François Marmontel’s Bélisaire. The treatise dealt with natural religion, praised toleration and even admitted the possibility of virtue among heathens. It was attacked and defended with vigor, freethinkers on one side and conservatives on the other.3

The university provided fertile ground for all intellectual considerations when Van der Kemp was a student. In the earlier years of the century the great professors in the Netherlands had particularly stimulated their students and had attracted many foreigners to their lectures. Willem Jacob Van s’Gravesand at the University of Leyden and Professor Petrus van Musschenbroek at Utrecht and Leyden pushed forward the study of mathematics and science, the former carrying on Newton’s principles as part of his work, the latter going into magnetic and meteorological studies (background of electricity). Abraham Schultens advanced the study of oriental (Middle East) languages. Other professors and scholars, native or foreign, added to the attractions of higher education and laid a good foundation for the latter part of the century.4

After 1750 came Frans Hemsterhuis to stimulate the teaching of the classics through his own study of Socrates and Plato. David Ruhnken and Daniel Wyttenbach5 in the 1760’s and 1770’s broadened the concepts of classical studies with a “historico-philosophical method.” Petrus Camper, the friendly professor who advised Van der Kemp about his health, led the way in the study of anatomy and was a philosopher of note. Furthermore, the masters of higher education were going out from the ivory towers to share their ideas with greater numbers by lectures, writings and social contacts. The study of theology picked up the new spirit also, but not without accusations of heresy. A new national synod was proposed to settle some of the religious differences, but the provincial estates (legislative bodies) opposed it and even went so far as to suppress discussion of some religious questions.6

In the world of higher education, Francis Van der Kemp was thrown among other students with religious doubts. They talked his language. Neither students nor professors condemned him for his opinions. For the first time in his life Francis had freedom of thought and speech in religious matters. During his years at the university, young Van der Kemp took a position for religious freedom which he maintained with vigor throughout his life. Over coffee cups or beer mugs the students exercised their freedom in an atmosphere of respectful equality even when lightened by youthful hilarity and good-natured bantering. Over the mugs no sternfaced father appeared, no tearful mother, no pompous churchman. A boy could think out loud without evoking shock. He need not fear loss of family love nor of status because of his questions. If anything, in the university atmosphere he gained status and respect with his mug-skepticism. Francis adopted this life with spirit and vigor. This unplanned, uncataloged part of his education gave force to his pursuit of learning and gave him freedom to reach his own conclusions. Francis took it in stride. He was unafraid of knowledge, unafraid of thought.

At this time, the deists were the popular writers on religion. They were witty. They were fearless. They had questions. They were risqué. They appealed to youthful people. They were the Kerouacs of their day. Voltaire, the greatest of all, became the stimulater of Van der Kemp’s religious thought. Voltaire wrote “It was only a long time after [Christ] that men took it into their heads … to usurp impertinent titles of grandeur, eminence, holiness and even divinity, which earthworms give to other earthworms….”7 Van der Kemp wrote in his autobiography that it was during this period he acquired a “deep hatred of the clerical hierarchy and their continued usurpations.”

And he came to fit Voltaire’s description of a theist:

The theist is a man firmly persuaded of the existence of a Supreme Being both good and powerful, who has created all life that is growing, thinking and reflecting; who perpetuates their species, who punishes crimes without cruelty and rewards virtuous actions with goodness.

The theist does not know how God punishes, how he gives favors, how he pardons, for he does not presume to know how God acts, but only that God does act and with justice….

… He has brothers from Pekin to Cayenne and he counts all wise men as his brothers. He believes that religion is neither the opinions of an unintelligible metaphysic nor vain display but that it is adoration and justice. To do good—there is his worship; to be submissive to God—there his doctrine…. He laughs at pilgrimages but aids the needy and defends the oppressed.8

Van der Kemp acknowledged his keen interest in the deists, shared by his fellow students, and acquired an extensive collection of deist books.

Van der Kemp’s growing belief in opposition to the clerics of his ancestral religion required the rejection of much ritual and dogma. Francis hoped to eliminate clerical authoritarianism with the aid of the deists. He read, “An Englishman, as a free man, goes to heaven any way he pleases.” He applied the quip to free himself of intermediaries. Again he read how dissolute young French priests amused themselves nightly in splendid amorous parties and afterwards withdrew “to pray for the assistance of the Holy Spirit and boldly call themselves successors of the Apostles.”9 It is doubtful that young Van der Kemp knew any profligate clerics, but he could see religious leaders around him exercising divine authority with great human error. In the free university atmosphere, he cast off the worldly cloak from his personal religion.

He believed that good deeds were rewarded in heaven, and bad deeds punished by withholding of favor. He considered brotherly love and tolerance highest virtues. He felt the clergy should occupy positions of leadership but not of authority, that power corrupted, “much more so—when it presumes to be invested with the prerogative of opening the gates of heaven to a favorite, or kicking a damned one in the abyss.” He wrote in 1813 that he had known only two clergymen with brotherly love, one a professor of divinity who recommended a Socinian heretic “to God’s mercy, as he did see no means to save him,” and the other a Calvinist who considered Van der Kemp a heretic, yet kept up an affectionate correspondence.10 “If Christianity, my Dear Sir!” Van der Kemp wrote to Adams, “could be induced to discard theology and adopt nothing but the plain doctrine of our Divine Master … we all should soon be in unison of faith.”11 Van der Kemp wrote forty years later that he had formed his faith at the time of his university life and it had not been changed thereafter.12

He studied his Bible, particularly the Gospels, with a humble realization that much of it was not immediately understandable to him. Theology lectures were not enough. He did not understand thoroughly but he would not return to the intermediaries. At this point his religion approached simplicity of doctrine with no set creed and no difficult mysticism. He believed in God, he believed in an afterlife, he believed that Jesus came to lead the way to salvation, and he was convinced that all good believers in God would be saved. He no longer needed the orthodox clergy.

With other young university students, sons of the nobility as well as the gentry, he argued in public against the rule of the clergy. The debates were soon noted and Van der Kemp was singled out by the clerics as the chief culprit. Some of the boy’s friends and patrons were grieved by his “waywardness.” It was hard for them to understand his lack of respect for the clergy who represented the religion of his parents and of most of the Dutch for many generations. In efforts to help, they invited him to their homes and tried to sway him with good food followed by good arguments. His older friends argued reasonably that it was unnecessary and unwise to openly attack a whole system because of a few weaknesses. They counseled the youth to confine his liberal ideas to the classroom or tavern. Though Van der Kemp respected his friends as they respected him, he could not compromise. He was youthfully violent in his attitudes, and determined to oppose wrong openly.

Although he knew that Diderot and Rousseau had suffered for defending truth, Van der Kemp was unafraid. He was eager to join the campaign for freedom of the mind. He too opposed prejudice and ignorance in religion. He too supported the individual in the struggle against the shackles of ancient creeds and the hypocrisy of many religious rules. He intended to speak out against the forces of stagnation where he found them. He intended to write for freedom and progress.

The conservatives of the university faculty and like-minded citizens considered the defiant lad a product of the evil counsel of the eminent Professor Frederick Adolph Van der Marck. The student must be pulled away in an effort to save him. First, complaints were registered with the uncle who supported Van der Kemp. Next, the boy was brought before a council of faculty and clergy. He was warned he would soon be expelled from both the university and church if he continued his errant ways. He was advised to abandon the lectures of Van der Marck, drop his associations with other nonconforming students, “purify” his library by eliminating the deistical writings, and resume the former course of studies approved by his relatives. If he did these things, his youthful transgressions would be forgiven and he would be favored by official protection and good will.

Van der Kemp refused to surrender his principles and betray his schoolmaster, even though Van der Marck urged his spirited pupil to comply. The boy rejected the proposals “with disdain.” His rebellion was now official. The idealistic lad was fighting for religious and academic freedom. However, his first freedom was economic, as conservative Uncle Adraen withdrew his financial support.

Van der Kemp’s one financial asset was his fine collection of books. He prepared a catalog of a part of his library and held a public sale to pay his small debts and to sustain himself “in independence a while longer.” A faculty friend bought his French deistical books privately, avoiding the scandal sure to arise from their public sale. Other sympathetic friends aided Van der Kemp in many ways.

With funds from the sale, the free student continued his work at Groningen, giving particular attention to “Jus Publicum [Public Law], its customs, usages and form of government.” Careful management of his finances was necessary—including the elimination of the evening meal at the tavern with his fellow students. They invited him to continue at their expense but Van der Kemp declined. Instead, for dinner he reduced himself to bread, butter and cheese with one glass of wine. Friendly professors and townspeople sometimes invited him to more ample meals, and at least one patroness, Madame Mancel van Birum, opened “liberally her purse.” In his autobiography, Van der Kemp described his behavior during these days:

… I need not to insinuate that I was impeccable … my passions were violent and too often indulged, but more than once I was wonderfully spared. I owed … good will chiefly to … noble and generous minds, and in some respects to my unrelenting endeavours to save an outward decorum, to be courteous and condescending towards superiors, more so toward the females, firm and daring among my equals, kind to servants, and devoting nights and days, when not given to pleasure, to my studies.

His studies continued to include the stimulating lectures of Van der Marck.

At this time the professor published at Groningen his opinions on canon law. The clergy attacked the theses, and were enraged when Van der Marck was publicly defended by respected students and supported by important members of the church. Spies enrolled in his classes, took part in the discussions, then reported against him. Van der Marck also became the defendant in a notorious lawsuit resulting from his ridicule and condemnation of the clergy.

The final stroke was the publication of his lectures on the Law of Nature and of Nations. In this work he attempted to explain away many of the harsh tenets of the Calvinistic creed. The Dutch people were inflamed with rage against Van der Marck and he was accused of heresy at a special meeting of faculty and officials. The call of their church in danger aroused the “bigotted populace.”

Van der Marck was tried before the Academic Senate. This court, composed of university officials and town representatives, judged students, graduates, and faculty members accused of serious offenses against university principles. Appeal could be made only to the Estates General, governing body of the Netherlands.

Weak followers deserted Van der Marck, as did many friends who were afraid. He insisted the creed he lived by was more truly orthodox than that of the Calvinists.13 Because of the church-state relationship, politics were an inevitable part of the controversy. The case was discussed and argued throughout the country.

The national champion of orthodoxy, Petrus Hofstede, a Rotterdam preacher and professor, prevailed upon Stadholder William V, a curator of Groningen University, to support the churchmen. William’s many opponents rallied to Van der Marck’s defense, but to no avail. He was forced to resign and forbidden to partake of Holy Communion. Vindictive orthodox citizens made threats against the ousted professor when he attended church services.14

Van der Kemp was keenly moved by what he regarded as gross injustice. Though silence would have been to his advantage, he wrote and published a defense of his professor, My Amusements. University disapproval of this act and the vocal condemnation of the clergy forced Van der Kemp and about thirty other students to leave the University of Groningen. The master found a position of honor elsewhere and was returned to his chair at Groningen some twenty years later.15 Van der Kemp, having already recognized that he must make his future beyond Groningen, was as ready to move as was the master.

Three opportunities were open to the young man. He numbered among his friends several prominent Remonstrants. These Protestants who had followed a path away from Calvinism offered him a full scholarship to their Amsterdam seminary. Many of his friends advised acceptance of this attractive offer, but Van der Kemp rejected it. How could he honorably accept an invitation implying he was an Arminian? How could he then convince anyone that Van der Marck was not guilty of the Arminian accusations made against him? Acceptance of the scholarship would have been a grievous blow to Van der Marck’s case, and his pupil willingly made the sacrifice.

Two other possibilities remained. A position in the West Indies as tutor to the son of a Dutch gentleman was rejected as too big a responsibility. Van der Kemp wrote, “I knew myself too well to accept the guidance of a youth, when I was scarce to be trusted to regulate my own conduct.” The third offer came through the influence of Van der Marck. It was a governmental position at Saint George Delmina on the African coast. Though both the position and its location were unattractive to Van der Kemp, he seriously considered accepting it, when it suddenly “struck his mind” that the Baptists and Mennonites of the Amsterdam region were liberal in principle. He had intimate friends among them, particularly Professor Oosterbaen of Amsterdam and the Reverend John Stinstra of Harlingen.

Van der Kemp wrote to Professor Oosterbaen asking for support to complete his studies at the Baptist Seminary in Amsterdam. The spirited youth included the proviso “if I could be admitted without compromising myself in any manner, without constraint to any religious opinions I might foster or adopt in future, and with a full assurance, that I should be decently supported.” The Baptists accepted him and his conditions, with Professor Oosterbaen as Van der Kemp’s champion.

At twenty-one, Van der Kemp had found a group who had full confidence in his ability and integrity. At last he had academic freedom to pursue the study of religion without restraint.

Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Creative Commons
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.