Jean de Labadie

1610-1674

Leaving Bordeaux, with its many-legged vineyards sloping to the Garonne, Jean de Labadie travelled to Paris with deep desires in his soul. From his childhood, a fascination with God and life after death, had compelled him into the study of spiritual things. His parents, who also feared God, encouraged him, and supported his desire to become a priest. But neither they nor Jean could have guessed where his years of study under the Jesuits in Paris would take him.

They took him to the Scriptures, to Christ, and to the Word of God speaking in his soul. 

Jean’s excitement knew no bounds. Out of anxious longing he rose into wonderful peace. Out of darkness he stepped into the light of heavenly understanding. Suddenly the meaning of Christ’s work and the Scriptures made sense to him and it changed his life. But with his new joy came a deep burden for the people of France.

Jean knew that behind the beautiful parks and fountains of Paris, behind its convents, churches, and religious schools, untold numbers lived wretched lives. He knew the rich were not happy. Even priests and friars in the city turned to drinking wine to quiet their inner distress. But when Jean spoke to them of Christ’s liberating Gospel they grew disgusted with him and forced him to leave the city.

In Amiens on the Somme, Jean’s new centre of activity (in Paris he had received ordination as a priest) he ordered hundreds of copies of the New Testament in French to distribute among the people. Two times a week he met with a fellowship of seekers in their homes. But his opponents, the Jesuits under whom he had studied, made it difficult for him in Amiens and he departed for the Cistercian school and convent of Port-Royal-des-Champs, southwest of Paris.

Among the Cistercians, a religious order given to quiet obedience, Jean found others who took Christ seriously. Many of them had studied the writings of a Flemish church leader, Cornelius Jansen and patterned their lives after his high ideals. The Cistercians also led Jean to discover the joy of spending long periods by himself, in silent prayer. But his vision of following Christ outgrew the bounds of Port-Royal and he departed for the south.

Back in sunny southern France Jean lived in a Carmelite community. As in Port-Royal he loved its silence and discipline. He also loved the way the brothers and sisters of contemplative orders lived for one another. But the more he knew Christ and his teachings, the more he felt inwardly driven to share what he had found. His companions in the cloister grew uncomfortable and Jean moved on to the last stronghold of the afflicted Huguenots: Montauban.

The Huguenots, in their tile-roofed city at the foot of the Pyrenees, accepted Jean gladly and he became a teacher among them. But Jean could not stay there. Montauban’s religious freedom stood in precarious balance and the Jesuits were after him, so the Huguenots sent him to Geneva in Switzerland, with a warm letter of recommendation:

Not only has Jean exceeded others by the eloquence of his discourses, but by the uprightness of his example. He has gone before us like a blazing torch placed on a height whereby the unfruitful works of darkness have been exposed. He has excelled others in expressing in his life what he taught in the chancel. He has not sought after earthly and worldly things or had any desire for them, but has zealously pursued heavenly and divine things. In short, he has been to us a joy, comfort and example.

In Geneva Jean’s message of the Kingdom of Heaven also met a friendly response. After years of violent conflict between French Catholics and Protestants, the common people longed to hear about Christ’s way of peace. It shone above them in heavenly contrast to the brutality they had known in the name of religion, so as in Amiens, Jean began to hold evening meetings in their homes. Seekers met there to discuss the Scriptures and pray together.

One seeker, a German boy studying in Geneva, allowed the Spirit of Christ to transform his life in the evening meetings. His name was Philipp Jakob Spener. When he returned to Germany he did what he could to awaken the Protestant church out of its dead ceremonies into spiritual life. He counted all believers as priests. He struggled against sin and meaningless theological disputes. With group Bible studies, prayer, and a consistent example, he sought to bring Germans back into companionship with Christ.

Two other students, Pierre Yvon and Pierre du Lignon, went a step further. When Jean de Labadie answered a call to preach in the Netherlands, they travelled with him and prayed for Christ’s kingdom to come in a concrete and visible way. With Jean, they vowed to “deny the world and its desires, its goods, its pleasures, and its friends” to “follow Jesus Christ, poor, despised, and persecuted, to grow in his likeness, to carry his cross and shame, to surrender self to God and his Gospel, doing it first, then helping others to do the same.”

In the Netherlands, Jean and his friends spoke first in Utrecht, then to crowds gathered at Middelburg in Zeeland. For centuries, believers in these towns had testified for Christ. Some had died as martyrs. Some had written songs and beautiful books of Christian instruction. But Jean, on his arrival, was deeply disappointed. He found Dutch Christians in the 1660s, both Protestant and Anabaptist, doing little more than spend their time in religious arguments. They met in synods, wrote statements, and attacked one another across their pulpits. But many of them, like the members of their congregations, lived frivolous lives. They mistreated or ignored the poor and Jean saw that love of the Guilder was for them the root of all evil.

“Fast and pray,” Jean warned the people of Utrecht and Middelburg at once. “Deny yourselves. Take up your cross and follow Christ, or certain disaster will come upon you. Your doctrines and synods will not save you. Repent and turn to Christ for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

It did not take long for the people who had invited Jean de Labadie to decide they disliked him. He stepped on their toes and it hurt. They asked him to sign a commitment to the Reformed Church’s Confession of Faith. But he refused. “Not only do I disagree with articles of the confession,” he told them. “I see no need for a confession at all.”

With everyone to whom he spoke Jean shared his vision for a simple fellowship like that of the first church in Jerusalem. And unlike their religious leaders, many seeking people in the Netherlands heard him gladly. Once more he began to meet with believers in houses, shops, and storage buildings by night. Jean felt encouraged, and hoped for the time when the truth would “break forth from the lowlands along the North Sea to illuminate the world.”

In 1668 he published a book at Middelburg, Manual de Piété (Handbook of Piety). In it he gave simple instructions to those new on the way of Christ. Soon afterward, his friends in Amsterdam published Le discernement d’une veritable église selon l’Ecriture (A Definition of the True Church, According to the Scriptures). In it he explained how the true church consists only of those who are born again. He explained church order—how everyone to whom a prophesy or inspiration comes has equal rights to speak. “There is no authority in the church,” he wrote, “but that of the Holy Spirit. Only the Holy Spirit can tell us what the Scriptures mean, for they were written through inspiration of the Spirit. In the end, it is the Holy Spirit within us that testifies to what is true and what is not true.”

In 1668 the Protestant authorities of the Netherlands ordered Jean de Labadie to stop speaking in public. A year later, in a synod at Dordrecht he was excommunicated from the Reformed Church as a rebellious person. But Jean kept on preaching. “One is not in rebellion to obey Christ,” he said. And more people came to hear him than ever.

So rapidly did interest grow in Middelburg for what Jean and his friends taught that meetings had to be held twice daily and three times on the Lord’s Day to accommodate the crowds. No one used the pulpit anymore in the town church. Hundreds met on benches placed in a circle and the leaders of the congregation spoke only when moved by the Holy Ghost. Simple communion services took place and through earnest singing and preaching more surrendered their lives to Christ every day. During this time Jean wrote in a letter: 

There is so much modesty, unity, piety and zeal among the brothers that we cannot sufficiently admire and praise God for having enabled us to see such a church in our time. We have many doctors and eminent people among us. But all are humble. All are pious. Everyone builds up the other in a marvellous way, so that the world has to admit there are no better or more exemplary Christians than these—well informed and enlightened, and prepared to suffer for Christ, be it through loss of possessions, homes, or privileges.

We do not permit abuse or excesses either in dress, in the way we fix up our homes, or in our businesses. Rather we seek to regulate everything by the Gospels and in the pattern left to us by the apostles of Christ.  We aim to restore, as far as possible, the living image of the primitive church. We aim to recover the pure doctrine that astonished the world in its day. From many locations people are coming to us, for the Lord has given them this same Spirit and desire.

We hope in the Lord. He will come to us with virtue and power. He will come in grace at the time we call the “coming of the king.”

Driven from Middelburg by city authorities the new fellowship of believers—an “Evangelical Church” they called themselves—began to meet in ter Veer, eight kilometres away. Never before had Jean faced such direct opposition, yet never had he sensed such widespread support for what he did.

Some support caused him concern.

Large numbers of people had joined the Evangelical movement with little time to consider what they did. Swept along on popular sentiment they acted more on impulse than on conviction and Jean wondered how their faith would stand trials to come.

He did not have to wonder long. Protestant authorities from Middelburg, fully armed, arrived at ter Veer to drive the Evangelical Christians out. The town authorities and some of the people quickly took up arms to defend themselves. Only after Jean insisted that Christ’s way was to “turn the other cheek” and not resist evil, did they reluctantly put their guns away. Jean, the two Pierres, and a large number of their friends, hastened to Amsterdam to avert further conflict.

In Amsterdam thousands attended the “Evangelical” meetings at first. But Jean, disillusioned with trying to change a whole city at once, did what he could to keep the movement low-profile and Christlike. He decided against holding large public meetings and urged smaller groups to meet in homes. Huisgemeenten (household churches) they came to be known.

Every household church, Jean and the Evangelicals believed, should operate as a family in the Lord. They should share their possessions, eat together, and meet daily to encourage one another and pray.

From the rented estate of the first Amsterdam household church the two Pierres and other evangelists travelled throughout the Low Countries, France, and abroad. Within months new households took shape in Utrecht, the Hague, and Rotterdam. Other towns followed.

Hundreds of seekers and visitors from many lands converged upon the household churches. From England came Robert Barclay and George Keith, early leaders among Friends. They felt much at home in the Evangelicals’ household meetings where brothers and sisters waited quietly on the Lord until moved to “give witness.” Along with this, they noticed the plain clothes, the simple houses, and furniture of the households, and appreciated them. So did William Penn who came on a later visit.

A wealthy German woman, Anna Maria von Schürmann, joined the Amsterdam household and surrendered her property to it. So did the burgomaster of the city. But most Dutch Protestants, in particular the man who had invited Jean de Labadie, became enemies of the new movement. So hostile did they become that on one occasion a mob surrounded the Amsterdam household for three days and only the intervention of the Dutch military prevented a massacre.

When the city council of Amsterdam finally banished the Evangelical Christians as “sectarians, Anabaptists, and Quakers,” Anna Maria von Schürmann appealed to her friend, the Princess Elisabeth of Herford in Westfalen, Germany, for a place of refuge. With her consent and the Lord’s gracious protection the entire household sailed from Amsterdam to Bremen in 1670 and travelled from there by wagons to their new home.

In Westfalen life for the Evangelicals settled into a more peaceful pattern. Jean de Labadie and the two Pierres married. As unstable or disruptive characters left the community, new members joined and all matured in the faith.

Visitors still came. But only those willing to renounce all worldliness, the wearing of gold and silver, the painting of portraits, the placing of ornaments on walls, carpets on floors, lace on clothing, or vanities of like nature, could stay. The Evangelicals recognised no rank or title. Ladies of noble birth took their place at the community’s wash tubs, and men with university degrees helped milk cows or catch pigs. At meal times all sat in prayerful silence to eat simple food together.

Their emphasis on equality notwithstanding, the Evangelicals put talent to use and along with other industries set up a publishing house. As their literature circulated throughout Europe their contacts and travels increased. So did persecution. After a few years the household at Herford in Westfalen had to leave and the Lord provided a new refuge in rented houses in the city of Altona. There Jean de Labadie died in 1674, surrounded by the brothers and sisters, his family, and the little ones he loved.

After Jean’s death the Evangelical household to which he belonged moved to Wiewerd in Friesland, and branched out from there to Suriname and America. Difficulties arose and with the passing of time the movement dissolved on earth—but the glow of its warmth and light in the 1600s continues to bless the body of Christ.

Main source: Saxby, Trevor J., Quest for the New Jerusalem: Jean de Labadie and the Labadists, 1610-1730, M. Nijhoff, Dordrecht, Boston, 1987

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