Family of Love
A Continental religious community known as the Haus der Liebe or the Family of Love which stared ca. 1540. Its members embraced the teachings and the writings of Hendrik Niclaes (“H. N.”)(1502?-80 ), also known as Henry Nicholas (Nicolas/Nicklaes), a Dutch spiritualist. They were also known as Familists.
Niclaes was a merchant by profession and travelled widely. Niclaes’ works were strongly influences by the Radical Reformation, including the earlier medieval sect the Brethren of the Free Spirit, and Rhenish mysticism. There are common shared threads of Anabaptist influences in his writings. Some have considered the Familists as a sect of Anabaptism.
A follower of Niclaes was Hendrik Jansen Barrefelt, a.k.a. Hiel. He also developed a similar philosophy to Niclaes, and developed his own following. An earlier prophet of the period was David Joris who held similar views. Niclaes found converts in France, Germany, the Low Countries, and well as in England.
The primary goal of Familist was the reaching of that state of the ultimate form of perfect love with God revealed through the Family of Love, and the works of “N. H.”. This state of perfection as in Christ would guarantee its members the salvation that the Church or Scriptures could not offer.
Unfortunately “N. H” was often flowery in his use of words which often led to different or variant interpretations especially in translation. This often led to some Familist groups following slightly different practices between them.
Some commonly held themes include:;”All things come by nature“. The gifts of the earth came from God’s bounty or nature, so everything should be shared as communal property, or everything belongs to everyone in common. Their critics also alleged Familists practiced adultery, and wife swapping.
Familists were charged with practicing the perfectionist theology known as Antinominianism, a natural state of Grace without Sin in the true believer. The Laws of Moses and Man no longer held any validity for those who attainted this state of perfection according to the believers. Such individuals were deemed to be immoral and without any religious virtue.
To the Familist, true enlightenment was only possible by possessing the true inner spirit of God revealing himself. The Spirit of God dwelling in a true Believer made all things possible. A state of perfection with God was possible here on earth by living your life as Christ. The life of Christ was the model for perfection not His death and resurrection. Only those who followed the Familists’ being of love would receive true salvation according to “N. H.”
The Bible was sometimes referred to as an ABC to Christianity. Familists attached little importance to external forms of worship. Prayer was not emphasized. Community meetings of the faithful were usually held in secret.
As a group, the Familists practiced a form of Nicodemism, concealing their true beliefs while outwardly conforming to the existing societal norms. If questions about their “suspected” religious beliefs, they would embrace the religious teachings of the community norm, and deny their true beliefs. Rejection or denials of their own beliefs to escape punishment or the authorities was considered necessary for the greater good of the community.
Familists hoped to convert new enlightened members to their faith, but lacked the ability to spread their message beyond a small portion of society. They also suffered from a general tenet of Niclaes writing to be circumspect in dealing with those outside of the Faith. This dual edged sword tended to limit conversions outside of their immediate family or relatives.
Familists tended to be a literate community. Reading the works of Niclaes was a basic requirement of the faithful. This tended to limit the potential audience of new believers to those who could read and read to others. This is what often set the Familists apart in their local communities as being more literate. Literary itself could become a weapon against the status quo, and “right thinking” itself. Familists also held strict relationships with their community Elders who were the spiritual and community leaders.
English Familists seems to have developed differently then their Continental cousins. Familist activities in England may date from the early 1550’s. There are references to one Christopher Vittels, a former joiner, itinerant preacher and disciple of Henry Nicholas of Delph (Holland) active in England ca. 1555. Vittels has been referred to as the first English Familists. Vittels was also an early translator of Nicaels works into English. There is a tradition that Niclaes may have visited England on two different occasions during his lifetime.
Familists influence may have initially spread into England through foreign merchants from Antwerp, Holland during the reign of Mary I. England was a haven for foreign religious dissidents, especially its port communities. These had been the access points for the Anabaptists and others as well.
Familists activities in Guildford may date from the 1560’s. Cambridge and the area around Belsham were also early centers of Familists activity. Surrey and Ely were Familist strongholds. Wisbech on the the Isle of Ely was also a known Familists haven. There is a Confession from Surrey dated 1561 which is one of the earliest written document of the Family of Love in England.
English Familists also suffered from its share of zealot puritan critics. From 1570-80, men such as: John Knewstub, John Rogersand William Wilkinson pursued a religious mission against the Familists. Knewstub became a Familists hunter of the first waters often with governmental assistance.
English translations of Nicaels works became readily available in London by the 1570’s. By 1580, a Proclamation was issued by the Queen condemning the Familists, and their writings. A concerted effort by the Crown had been undertaken to eliminate the Familists from East Anglia, and from around London. How skillful the governments’ efforts were is a matter of conjecture considering the nature of the Familists society.
The term Familists may be of broader scope than initially thought. An early sect in Elizabethan England known as the Family of the Mount shared many values with the Familists. About 1610 an obscure religious sect was started at Grindleton, Yorkshire. The group exhibited Familist leanings, and has been described as the Grindleton Familists. The sect continued into the 1660’s.
English Familists communities may have been better tolerated than their Continental counterparts. The ability of Familists to remain anonymous within their own local communities has been called into question of late. Dissident religious practices may not have attracted the level of inquiry at the local community levels as had been formerly thought. Toleration or simply a lack of interest of what your neighbor did or did not do may have been the norm especially in rural areas. There is now some evidence to suggest that known Familists held positions of public trust and authority in their local communities.
Probably only numbering in the hundreds at their height in England, there appears to have been Familists’ at the Court of Elizabeth I, James I, and Charles I. These must have been people of position, and learning, who were valued for their opinions and loyalty to the Crown against what must have been persistent outcries from those of other religious persuasions.
The number of Familists in England during James I and Charles I are still lacking. The Rev. James Pordage, curate in Reading ca. 1645, was known for his Familists and Behmenists interests. Pordage established a Familists community near his Bradfield parish about 1647. In 1654, he was ousted from his rectory. He was reinstated in 1660, only to be removed again in 1662.
Familists were never a major force due to their small numbers in England, but their contributions may be more than previously realized. George Fox, the Quaker leader, indicated Familists conversions to Quakerism after 1660. Their influence on Quakerism after 1660 may be noted.
Our current perceptions of this group may be too colored by their opponents rhetoric and negative writings of the period. More scholarship should cast more light on this elusive group.
Many of the Familists held views were common threads in other dissident groups such as the: Grindletonians, Ranters, Adamites, and even the early Quakers. English Familists provided a source of continental themes which influenced other dissident groups.