This article is part of a series on James Arminius.
Jacob Arminius was born October 10, 1559 in the town of Oudewater, the son of Harmen Jacobszoon (Jacob’s son), a cutler or perhaps in a broader sense a smith who makes swords and armor and even guns. A messemaker (knifemaker) was an important man, especially in a town that had distinguished itself for military skill. Oudewater was a border town and had often been the scene of battle in the Dutch struggle for independence from Spain.
Harmen Jacobszoon was never to see his last son. The tax records of 1558 list “Elborch Harmen Jacobss. wed.”—Elborch the widow of Harmen Jacobszoon. Probably the foreman who had been working for Harmen continued to operate the family business for them.
Arminius, then, was born fatherless. His original name had been Jacob Harmenszoon (Herman’s son). Later he shortened the patronymic and Latinized his name in accordance with a popular custom among scholars of that day. Arminius had been the name of a Germanic chieftain who resisted the Romans in the first century.
Jacobus Arminius had older brothers and sisters, and no doubt his mother faced hardship in supporting the family. A former Catholic priest, Theodore Aemilius, befriended Arminius and either taught him or made it possible for him to go to school. The school was possibly the St. Jerome school in Utrecht, sponsored by the Brethren of the Common Life. Peter Bertius extols the excellency of the old clergyman and the diligent industry of Arminius in his studies.1 Tragedy was not long in coming, though, for in 1574 or 1575 Aemilius died.
But another benefactor came to his aid. Rudolph Snellius, Professor of Mathematics at Marburg university, took him and enrolled him in the university. He had hardly arrived when news reached him that the Spanish had ravaged his hometown and brutally murdered men, women, boys, and girls. The soldiers had viciously raped, tortured, and murdered with regard for no one. Arminius walked the 125 miles back to Oudewater.
His worst fears were confirmed: his entire family had been massacred! Bitter grief overwhelmed him.
Another event of the same period that must have left an indelible mark on him was a tragic flood. Some of the finest dikes in Holland were smashed. Whole towns were swept away. Over one hundred thousand perished!2
After losing his family, Arminius went to Rotterdam. He found refuge in the home of Peter Bertius, “the pastor of the Rotterdam Reformed Church…a whole-souled man of God. One of [Bertius’] highest joys was in caring for such as young Arminius. He took the purposeless young refugee into his home and treated him as one of the family.” Guyer comments, “The tender and delicate love-touch of Bertius tapped the cask that held the golden fluid.”3 Arminius studied diligently, and when Bertius sent his son to the University at Leiden, Arminius matriculated with him. He was the twelfth student to enroll in the new university.4
Peter Bertius, the younger, recalled in his funeral oration over Arminius, that Arminius was an outstanding student.
But the only one of our order who meritoriously distinguished himself above the rest of his companions was Arminius. If any of us had a particular theme or essay to compose, or speech to recite, the first step which we took in it, was, to ask for Arminius. If any discussion arose among us, the decision of which required the sound judgment of a Palaemon, we went in search of Arminius, who was always consulted.5
There is a real paucity of material on Arminius himself. Very few personal insights exist. Arminius wrote very little concerning his own feelings, his family, and friends. We are dependent upon several rather inaccurate biographies and on miscellaneous bits of information gathered from obscure sources. Especially right after the Synod of Dort, serious misrepresentations were perpetrated. There seems to have been an effort to falsify and alter even the minutes of the Amsterdam consistory!6 Consequently, many writers have been in complete error in their estimations of the man.
Carl Bangs has done a monumental task in producing Arminus: A Study in the Dutch Reformation. No doubt his work is already the water-shed in Arminian studies. William Guyer has produced an enjoyable biography. It is quite editorial, but Guyer excels in exhibiting Arminius’ spirit and his love for God and man. Caspar Brandt’s and Nathan Bangs’ biographies are difficult to obtain.7 Theological journals do not often carry articles on Arminius himself. Religious and Theological Abstracts, a significant indexing service published in Myerstown, Pennsylvania and sponsored by a Wesleyan-Arminian denomination and seminary, only lists five articles on Arminius and nine on Arminianism in the last twenty-five years! One is faced with a definite inadequacy in the literature.
One personal glimpse comes through in many writers, even in some Calvinists: Arminius was a man of excellent piety. Frederic Platt acknowledges that even his enemies admitted that he was a person of impeccable moral character.8 This has often been controverted, but Bangs’ excellent research documents it well.
- Bangs cautions that Bertius’ words must be taken with salt. He appears guilty of embellishing “a hard core of fact with the trappings of pious rhetoric.” (Bangs, Arminius, p.33).
- Guyer, James Arminius, p.23.
- Ibid., p.25. This was the father of the Peter Bertius who delivered the funeral oration over Arminius.
- Bangs, Arminius, p.47.
- Peter Bertius, “Funeral Oration” in The Works of James Arminius (London edition of 1825, 1828, and 1875), I: 21-22. Quoted in Bangs, Arminius, pp.48-49.
- Cf. Bangs, Arminius, pp.111-113.
- Caspar Brandt, Historia vitae Jacobi Arminii (Amsterdam: Martin Schagen, 1724). Later English editions were published in 1854, 1857, and 1908. (The Drew University Library, Madison, N.J. has a copy, Kaspar Brandt, The Life of James Arminius [Nashville, 1857], but it is part of their non-circulating McClintock Collection). Nathan Bangs, Life of Arminius (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1843).
- James Hastings, ed., Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, s.v. “Arminianism,” by Frederic Platt.