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Why Leiden’s first Professor of Theology was banned

The Reformed Church removed preacher Caspar Coolhaes - Leiden’s first Professor of Theology – from office because of his advocacy of tolerance. PhD candidate Linda Gottschalk sheds new light on this controversial preacher.

Coolhaes’ career

Gottschalk is the first researcher to make a critical study of all the remaining writings of Caspar Coolhaes (1536-1615). He wrote 24 books, including religious poetry and fiction. Gottschalk has reconstructed his career on the basis of archives held in the city and at the University. Coolhaes,  who was born in Germany, was the first Leiden Professor of Theology when Leiden University was founded in 1575, although Gottschalk questions whether he could really be called a professor: he had studied theology, but didn’t graduate.  

Excommunicated

After his first and only year as a student, Coolhaes worked mainly as a preacher and author of many theological texts. He criticised what he believed to be the overly strict Reformed Church – at the time the dominant religion – with its rigid rules. Coolhaes pressed for a broader interpretation of Protestantism and found himself in a conflict with the Leiden Church Council. In 1581 the Church removed him from office and later even excommunicated him. 

Arminius versus Gomarus

A few years later, another young Leiden professor, Jacobus Arminius, also made a strong plea for greater religious freedom. Arminius had been a student when Coolhaes was a preacher. He led the camp of moderates – also known as Arminians or Remonstrants - who also advocated an alternative interpretation of predestination doctrine. They opposed the strict orthodox camp and had a different Leiden professor as their figurehead: Franciscus Gomarus. 

Halt the polarisation

The Leiden religious dispute developed into a national, political struggle. Coolhaes called on both camps to remain calm. In 1609 he wrote a letter to Arminius deploring the heated debate because it could only result in polarisation. As far as we know, Arminius never replied. The professor died in that same year.   

Distillery

The former preacher started a distillery business in Leiden, where he sold alcohol and oils. He also continued to write his religious pamphlets. How was he able to carry on with these writings? Gottschalk: ‘He was protected by the local authorities because he also advocated greater government supervision of the Church, so that no one religion would become dominant.’  

Remonstrant camp

Following his death in 1615, Coolhaes was almost completely forgotten and it was a hundred years before any serious study was made of his work. In the 19th century, Dutch biographer H.C. Rogge, who was researching leading Remonstrants, wrote about his work. Coolhaes was placed in the camp of the Remonstrants, but Gottschalk believes this view is too simplistic. She studied how Coolhaes himself wanted to shape the Church and came to the conclusion that he was not merely a Remonstrant, but also a Reformed Spiritualist: he believed internalized religious values were more important than outward appearances, such as the number of times a year that a believer had to take holy communion. Coolhaes wanted a diverse and tolerant Church that was open to different religious groups.   

International attention

More than four centuries later, Arminius is still well-known internationally, while few people have heard of Coolhaes, who had been his inspiration. It is primarily because of Coolhaes’ tolerance that Gootschalk believes it is important that the present-day international public knows about him. Gottschalk has translated his first book, Apologia, into English and her own dissertation is also in English. ‘I am sure that Coolhaes is of interest to people outside the Netherlands. He warrants more attention because his advocacy of diversity in the Church is still an inspiration today.’  

PhD defence 6 April: Linda Gottschalk, Pleading for Diversity: The Church Caspar Coolhaes Wanted 

 

 

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