AT THE AGE of twenty-one the mentally vigorous Van der Kemp left the university that had condemned him. What appeared to the Groningen administrators as a program of development appeared to Van der Kemp as intellectual confinement. During the summer before his entry into the Amsterdam Baptist seminary, he stayed in Franeker, where a vacationing friend had offered Van der Kemp the use of his apartment and library. The young booklover surveyed with great anticipation the numerous paths of knowledge represented by the variety of his friend’s books. He spent the summer in the true scholar’s solitary pleasure. He selected and read, pondered and took notes, and forgot the time of day or night.
In September he found that rooms had been engaged for him in Amsterdam by Professor Oosterbaen, “a friend and benefactor, a guide and father.” Van der Kemp set up the remnants of his own library and immediately added some “indispensably required” books. Now he was ready and determined to make an inquiry into “the truth and nature of the Christian Revelation.” He attended lectures in theology by Professors Oosterbaen and Van der Hersch, and in the Greek language by Professor Daniel Wyttenbach. He begrudged a small portion of time to mathematics and later acknowledged his study had been insufficient for worthwhile accomplishment. With this program of home study and lectures, “armed with the necessary knowledge of ancient and modern history, civil and ecclesiastical, with church antiquities and a tolerable supply of classic literature,” Van der Kemp “endeavored to lay aside all preconceived prejudices, and desired with sincerity to discover the truth.”
In the academic and religious community of the Dutch Baptists Van der Kemp applied himself diligently to the question of the historical authenticity of Christianity. He examined and studied arguments, called to mind the doubts of the deists, and finally settled the question for himself once and for all. First he examined the faults and weaknesses in the arguments of both deists and atheists. Probably his later comment in regard to Voltaire was conceived in his thinking now. “Voltaire, I am confident, did often not believe what he wrote.”1 In later years he also stated that his study of most “French unbelievers” before 1788 had left him with a low opinion of them “in regard to candour and sincerity.” He felt that they were attacking practices which were not the ways of Jesus and therefore the attacks were “unfair dealing.” Most of the deists he now considered to be pantheists.2
Next he approached the more difficult question, “What is Christianity?” He considered whether or not he could learn the answer from the lectures of Professor Oosterbaen, though he was a man of noted piety and learning and a valued friend to Van der Kemp. Could he become a preacher and merely repeat Oosterbaen’s explanations? His “heart revolted at the idea of such a slavery.” He could not accept on faith from any man the meaning of Christianity. He must find it for himself. His first assumption in the search was that it was possible for a man to discover this true meaning. He “took it for a truth, that if the Christian Revelation is from God, then any one, even of the meanest understanding, with a sincere heart, may, must be able to discover God’s will, viz. what he is to do and to believe for his salvation.”
Van der Kemp embarked upon the exercise with vigor and conviction. He studied the Greek New Testament, rereading parts of the Four Gospels and the Book of Acts many times. Sections he did not understand were passed over at first on the basis that what a man could understand would be sufficient. He reached the conclusion in time that reason alone was not enough to explain life and immortality. He believed Jesus came into the world to enlighten through both reason and faith. He became convinced that God was a merciful being rather than an angry, jealous, capricious, selective deity. He believed God expected his creatures to have “sincerity of heart and genuine repentance” so that all His children might be saved. He believed man should love God and also love his neighbor.
Van der Kemp was through with the Dutch Reformed Church and Calvinism. When his cousin, Professor Didericus Van der Kemp, wrote a defense of Calvinism and the Calvinist deity, Francis shuddered “at the idea of such a God,” and said he could not be converted by his good cousin’s “Supralapsarian Doctrine.”3 The supralapsarian doctrine stated that God’s elections were made before the fall of Adam. The infralapsarians believed the election came after the fall.
Van der Kemp continued to search for the answer to “What is Christianity?” In his autobiography Van der Kemp said that as he studied, he neither discovered nor searched for the dogmas of Calvin, Socinus, Menno, or Arminius. (He had already been accused of Arminianism because of his association with Van der Marck.) He considered the viewpoints of these four chiefly from literary or historical aspects. He intended to be free.
He was already prejudiced against Calvin as most responsible for the unreasonable strictness of the Dutch Reformed Church. Van der Kemp ultimately criticized Calvin in print through a defense of Michael Servetus.
The Spaniard Servetus had become a free thinking reformer at the age of twenty. He questioned infant baptism, the doctrines of the Trinity and predestination, and was burned at the stake in Geneva by the Calvinists at the age of forty-two.
Socinus was the Latinized name of Lelio Sozzini and his nephew, Fausto. These Italian reformers planted the idea of anti-Trinitarianism widely in North Europe, especially Poland, where the nephew lived for a quarter of a century. Fausto considered Christ the teacher of salvation rather than the member of the Trinity who had sacrificed himself for sinful man. Van der Kemp was puzzled by the Trinity throughout his life and sometimes considered Socinianism as a reasonable solution.
Jacobus Arminius, a former professor at Leyden, was the recognized founder of the Remonstrants. He proclaimed that Christ sacrificed himself for all men, that none are elected, that believers are saved and unbelievers lost. Arminius rejected the supralapsarian and the infralapsarian views as did Van der Kemp. However, Van der Kemp came to emphasize good works at least as much as he did faith.
Menno Simons was also a Dutch reformer. He was opposed to infant baptism, and was a pacifist. He and his followers insisted on good works through the threat of ex-communication. Van der Kemp was never a pacifist but he puzzled over baptism and fully agreed with the Mennonites on the necessity for good works.
Actually Van der Kemp at this period attempted to do for himself what the Dutch thinker Dirk Koornhert had proposed in the 1500’s as a general system. Koornhert had suggested that the clergy be forbidden to say anything except the exact words of the Bible and that all treatises on theology be eliminated. Van der Kemp proposed to search out a true religion by personal use of this system. However, his wide reading had already provided a background for his interpretation. By November of 1773 his explanations of his conclusions and beliefs to Oosterbaen led to his baptism at the “Tower and Lamb,”4 the familiar name of the Amsterdam church where the service was performed.
For another two years the young man continued his studies profitably and attended lectures faithfully. In addition, he made friends in Amsterdam. He grew to love Cornelis de Gyzelaer, about whom he later wrote, “Our intimacy began in 1774 at the University [Seminary], and was as ardent in our declining years as in the days of our youths.”5 He also extended his correspondence, an education in itself that Van der Kemp nourished and cherished as long as he lived. Among the new correspondents were learned men of Germany, Switzerland and Transylvania. On December 18, 1775, he was graduated and admitted as a candidate for the Baptist ministry.
The fledgling minister declined several unpromising calls in the spring and early summer. He accepted his first pastorate in August at the fishing village of Huyzen, near Amsterdam. The members of his consistory, the church’s governing body, were “well instructed” men, an attraction to Van der Kemp, and community leaders were eager and energetic in making his life there comfortable and successful. His parishioners were either farmers or fishermen, living in relative ease but not quite in the main stream of Dutch life. Here he began his ministry in August of 1776 with a sermon based on I Corinthians, X, 15, “I speak as to wise men; judge ye what I say.” This text exemplified his own long-held conviction that the clergy, including himself, were not infallible. The text also fitted the Baptist practice in regarding the minister merely as a spiritual leader. Van der Kemp always encouraged open and positive reactions to religious and political questions. He sincerely wanted people to judge what he said, then to act according to their judgments. Passive parishioners must have annoyed him.
While at Huyzen, Van der Kemp retained his connection with the seminary and Professor Oosterbaen. At the professor’s suggestion he began the translation of some letters of Ganganelli (who became Pope Clement XIV), a project probably designed to keep Van der Kemp’s scholarly interests alive. He began the work with enthusiasm but Oosterbaen frequently had to lend a hand, apparently even had to finish the work, saying, “Although you cannot submit to the drudgery, you shall not destroy my good intention.”
Within a few months the young minister was offered a pastorate in Flanders but declined. The following summer he preached single sermons at Leyden and at Middelburg. In November, 1777, he took the pastorate of the Leyden church. This stimulating position established Van der Kemp in a center of Dutch religious and political thought where he was readily drawn into various political and religious controversies. The Leyden congregation had engaged a lively preacher who proceeded to lead his parishioners into spirited action.
His inaugural sermon was based on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, I, 20:
For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.
His studies of botany and chemistry had sparked a keen interest in God’s creation which never waned. This text became a favorite theme and firm belief, that man could understand the world around him—even the universe. His sermon ended with emphasis on the last clause. He exhorted his parishioners to pursue knowledge “without excuse.” The sermon was delivered to a large congregation, and Van der Kemp thought it successful. He did not give offense, he wrote, “except that a few old members of my congregation shuddered, when I told them that my father followed the army, and that I served in it during five years.” The Baptists were pacifists and probably more than a few were uneasy.
In 1778 Van der Kemp preached a sermon on the Lord’s Supper. The manuscript copy in his handwriting still exists. Years later (perhaps 1812–13) in America he translated and revised this sermon as one in a series, “The Scripture Doctrine of Baptism with three preliminary lectures on the use of the S.S. [Sacred Scriptures] and one on the Duties of a Religious Life.” He began the Dutch sermon with a veiled attack on churches with a firm dogma. He then said two forces had disfigured the Christian religion, the educated and class-conscious clerics with a vested interest in controlling religious practices, and clerics uneducated in theology but ambitious for power. He said these two groups had changed “the simple and pure Gospel of Jesus” over the centuries into an “absurd system of human inventions,” and that these changes had been largely responsible for the division of Christianity. The young minister suggested that his parishioners search the Scriptures for the path to salvation, as he had done. His text was taken from I Corinthians, X, 17, “For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.” He explained that he believed sincerely in Christianity.6 His parishioners agreed with this interpretation and the idea of salvation through study, though these views were generally unacceptable beyond his own sect.
Some of his other surviving sermons are concerned with the excellency of God’s law and natural consequences of virtue and vice. He frequently applied the words “natural” or “rational” to God’s system and to man’s ideal reaction to it. He also preached on subjects such as the Holy Ghost and the sins of pride. Psalm XIX was one of his favorite Bible passages, frequently used in whole or in part. “The Heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament sheweth his handiwork” became a guide to his religious philosophy and a challenge for him to learn ever more about the heavens and the firmament. A few of the sermons are dated at Leyden between 1778 and 1787. One with two dates was apparently delivered twice.7
In running conflicts between the Dutch Reformed Church and the liberal Van der Kemp, the Baptists were on his side. Arguments gradually became more political than religious. The conservatives generally supported the stadholder and his advisers. Van der Kemp was accused anew of being an Arminian because of the teaching of Van der Marck. Again, one of his critics was his cousin, conservative Professor Didericus Van der Kemp, who was eager to destroy “tolerantism” within the Dutch Church. He was “affable and courteous” but would not “commune with a doubtful brother.” He “approved the sincerity” of Francis but “lamented his errors.”
An early struggle within the congregation at Leyden concerned the freedom and autonomy of the local church. The church had set up a fund for the poor at a time long past but somehow the management and distribution had been taken by a civil magistrate. Van der Kemp was determined to regain control for the church but found his tradition-bound consistory unwilling to support him. Over a period of months he tried to talk them into action as they tried to talk him out of it. He finally regained the fund for his church. The consistory was not convinced that the campaign was proper but thanked their pastor.
Probably this episode of disagreement led to another of greater personal import to Van der Kemp. Some one or more members of the consistory now decided the present pastor should subscribe to the formularies and creed of the church as had previous ministers, and all but two supported the request. These two board members supported Van der Kemp in his refusal. His original expression of faith had been accepted by the Baptists and he stoutly objected to another imposed by the local church. The tyranny of a consistory seemed just as dangerous to the understanding and practice of Christianity as had the rules imposed by leaders of the Dutch Church in Groningen. He refused to comply and once again took a stand for religious freedom. He held fast to this principle all his life.
Many sessions of the consistory were held to argue the matter. Numerous discussions took place between the pastor and individuals on the board.
Reasoning, ridicule, all was employed, long in vain, till at length having exhausted their patience, and convince[d] of my unwillingness to give way one single hairbreadth, one and another from time to time leaving their side, all submitted to annul forever the articles of subscription.
In later years Van der Kemp said that Adams could have been a member of the Leyden church even though his beliefs differed from those of the pastor. He wrote:
We had no shackles whatever—I broke the last Cobwebs by a minority of three against twenty odd—say 24 or 25—headed by my colleague. It was a truly popular or clerical assembly—and not the first, nor the last, where few daring individuals dictate. In that state the Church continued till my resignation—and then upon the same plan of Christian liberty a call was given to my successor—so it was my fate to oppose domineering power in church as well as state—and I yet feel some pride that all my labour was not in vain.8
This was Van der Kemp’s last fight within the Leyden church. He was given freedom of the pulpit and used it to preach a live religion, often in sermons dealing with the political questions of the day. Van der Kemp and the liberal Baptists were opposed to the stadholder and his party, who supported and were supported by the Dutch Church. Yet his parishioners may sometimes have questioned the wisdom of their pastor’s sermons or the expediency of his recommendations for action. They may even have condemned his political activities as foolhardy. Many must have disapproved when he appeared in the pulpit in the uniform of the Free Corps, a citizen volunteer military organization of the liberals. Some may have doubted the wisdom of implying from the pulpit that the stadholder tyrannized the Dutch in the way Samuel warned the children of Israel against in I Samuel, VIII, even as they agreed with Van der Kemp’s use of the 109th Psalm to show the need for vigilance and positive action to maintain the Baptists and liberals against their enemies.
Whatever faults his parishioners may have found, their affection was sincere. The congregation’s general appreciation and support was demonstrated when Van der Kemp became ill. The church held his place for six weeks until he recovered. When he went to Wyk am Dursted in 1787 to lead the Free Corps, his place was kept until he resigned it a few months later. The resignation was regretfully accepted with a resolution of commendation which Van der Kemp considered most flattering and honorable.
Van der Kemp never took another congregation. He had won the battles for freedom and righteousness in his church. At Groningen he had come out honorably in the struggle for academic freedom. In both situations politics were involved and Van der Kemp found that he had been inexorably drawn into the struggle for political freedom. He accepted the challenge while still at Leyden.