Antoinette Bourignon de la Porte (13 January 1616 – 30 October 1680) was a French-Flemish mystic and adventurer. She taught that the end times would come soon and that the Last Judgment would then be felled. Her belief was that she was chosen by God to restore true Christianity on earth and became the central figure of a spiritual network that extended beyond the borders of the Dutch Republic, including Holstein and Scotland. Bourignon's sect belonged to the spiritualist movements that have been characterized as the "third power".
Born in Lille with a facial deformity, Antoinette belonged to a rich Catholic merchant family. She received an upbringing appropriate to her social position and gender. From an early age she was under the influence of religion, which took in course of time a mystical turn. In 1636 she left her family and home after being proposed to, unwilling to marry. Preferably Antoinette would have joined a strict religious order, the Discalced Carmelites. In 1653 she founded a girls’ orphanage with inheritance money. In 1662 she fled to Ghent and Mechelen, after the magistrate investigated how the orphanage was controlled after at least one of the girls had succumbed to the harsh regime. Bourignon claimed to be in direct connection with God and accused the girls of having a pact with the devil.
Bourignon had an aversion to the lavish splendor in the Catholic Church. Christ was born in a stable... She wanted to establish a community of true Christians. Only true Christians would be saved and Bourignon was - according to herself - obliged by God to gather these true Christians. In Mechelen she won her first follower, Christiaan de Cort. De Cort had grand plans to establish a new colony on Nordstrand, an island off the coast of Schleswig-Holstein. There a Roman Catholic community was established since 1652 consisting of dike workers from Brabant. In 1667 she moved with De Cort to Amsterdam to attract more sponsors. There she met Jean de Labadie, Comenius and Anna Maria van Schurman and there she commenced the publication of her writings.
Her religious enthusiasm, peculiarity of views and disregard of all sects raised both zealous persecutors and warm adherents. By serving as spiritual leader for a group of gifted, (married) men Antoinette broke with the established norms and values of her time. Among her followers were merchants, craftsmen, doctors (such as Steven Blankaart), painters, rentiers, clerics and scholars (such as Robert Boyle, who had her work translated into English), and Comenius, who invited her to his deathbed. Subsequently she gained the support of Jan Swammerdam, who was in a spiritual crisis and did not fully trust her, and the owner of Nyenrode Castle, Johan Ortt.
In 1671, she inherited a portion of the island of Nordstrand, not far from Husum, from De Cort, who left large debts after his death. There she moved with a few followers and started a commune. She set up a printing press and carried on the liveliest literary controversy, calling herself the "new Eve" until her press was confiscated by the local government. After it was determined that false prophets always judge others and never themselves, Bourignon fled to Husum, in an area then known for its religious tolerance and freedom.
Bourignon had her works distributed on fairs and annual markets through her own printing press and translators. In 1675 Jan Swammerdam visited the community. He had burned his study of the silkworm on her advice. Swammerdam traveled to Copenhagen to visit the mother of Nicolaus Steno, and immediately returned to Amsterdam. He failed to finish his work The Book of Nature, which was full of mystical poems and phrases.
The community, consisting of six wealthy and educated persons, failed when the only other woman refrained from further service. The printing press was confiscated by the Lutheran government. Bourignon was accused of witchcraft and fled from Hamburg. The Lutheran clergy no longer tolerating her actions, Bourignon, accompanied by Pierre Poiret, moved to East-Friesland and attempted to found a hospital in the outbuildings of a chateau in Lütetsburg. Meanwhile Bourignon noticed that she was losing her credibility. She decided to return to Amsterdam. On her way there she fell ill and was stranded in Franeker, Friesland, where she died on 30 October 1680. She left a large number of followers, which rapidly dwindled away. After her death her unpublished writings were edited and published by a small circle of followers. In 1686 her collected works were published in 19 volumes by the Amsterdam publisher John Wetstein. Finally a large part of her manuscripts ended up at the Aalmoezeniersweeshuis (Orphanage) and the Remonstrant Congregation of Amsterdam through Volckert van de Velde. The entire collection now rests in the library of the University of Amsterdam.
In the early 18th century her influence was revived in Scotland (see Andrew Michael Ramsay), sufficiently to call forth several denunciations of her doctrines in the various Presbyterian general assemblies of 1701, 1709 and 1710. So far as appears from her writings and contemporary records, she was a visionary of the ordinary type, distinguished only by the audacity and persistency of her pretensions.
Her writings, containing an account of her life and of her visions and opinions, were collected by her disciple, Pierre Poiret (19 vols, Amsterdam, 1679–1686), who also published her life (2 vols, 1683):
- La vie de Damlle Antoinette Bourignon. Ecrite partie par elle-méme, partie par une personne de sa connoissance, dans les Traités dont on void le tiltre a la page suivante. Amsterdam: J. Riewerts & P. Arents, 1683. The first volume of the book (pp. 137-223) contains her autobiography up to 1668.
For a critical account see Hauck, Realencylopädie (Leipzig, 1897), and Étude sur Antoinette Bourignon, by M. E. S. (Paris, 1876). Three of her works at least have been translated into English, some by Robert Boyle in an earlier stage:
- An Abridgment of the Light of the World (London, 1786)
- A Treatise of Solid Virtue (1699)
- The Restoration of the Gospel Spirit (1707).
- Mirjam de Baar, 'Ik moet spreken'. Het spiritueel leiderschap van Antoinette Bourignon (1616–1680), Zutphen: Walburg Pers 2004, in Dutch, read online
- Mirjam de Baar: Gender, genre and authority in seventeenth-century religious writing: Anna Maria van Schurman and Antoinette Bourignon as contrasting examples, 30p. free PDF
- A.R. MacEwen. Antoinette Bourignon, Quietist. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1910.
- Bourignon in The Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia
- Friedrich Wilhelm Bautz (1975). "Bourignon de la Porte, Antoinette". In Bautz, Friedrich Wilhelm. Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL) (in German) 1. Hamm: Bautz. col. 721. ISBN 3-88309-013-1.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.