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Jean de Labadie’s life
Jean de Labadie (1610–1674) came from an area near Bordeaux. In his early life he was a Roman Catholic and a Jesuit. However, at that time the Jesuits were wary of overt spiritual manifestations, so Labadie, who himself experienced frequent visions and inner enlightenment, found himself dissatisfied and left the order in 1639.
He had fleeting links with the Oratoire, then Jansenism (on occasions staying with the solitaries of Port-Royal, who received him at the time but later sought to dissociate themselves from him). He was a parish priest and evangelist in the southern French dioceses of Toulouse and Bazas, preaching social righteousness, new birth, and separation from worldliness. His promotion of inner piety and personal spiritual experiences brought opposition and threats from the religious establishment.
Eventually, frustrated with Roman Catholicism, Labadie became a Calvinist at Montauban in 1650. In that city, and then in the principality of Orange, he championed the rights of the Protestant minority in the face of increasing legislation against them by Louis XIV (which would culminate in 1685 with the Edict of Fontainebleau). Labadie then moved to Geneva, where he was hailed as ‘a second Calvin’. Here he began to doubt the lasting validity of established Christianity. He held house groups for Bible-study and fellowship, for which he was censured.
In 1666, Labadie and several disciples moved to the Netherlands, to the French-speaking Walloon congregation of Middelburg. Here his pattern continued: seeking to promote active church renewal through practical discipleship, study of the Bible, house meetings, and much else that was novel for the Reformed Church at that time. Here too he made contact with leading figures of the spiritual and reformatory circles of the day, such as Jan Amos Comenius, and Antoinette Bourignon.
With a broad-mindedness, unusual for the period, Labadie was gracious and cautiously welcoming towards the move of repentance and new zeal among many Jews in a Messianic movement around Sabbatai Sevi in 1667.
At length, in 1669, at 59 years of age, Labadie broke away from all established denominations and began a Christian community at Amsterdam. In three adjoining houses lived a core of some sixty adherents to Labadie’s teaching. They shared possessions after the pattern of the Church as described in the New Testament book of Acts. Persecution forced them to leave after only a year, and they moved to Herford in Germany. Here the community became more firmly established until war forced them to move to Altona (then in Denmark, now a suburb of Hamburg), where Labadie died in 1674.
Labadie's most influential writing was La Réformation de l'Eglise par le Pastorat (1667).
The Labadist community
In the Labadist community there were craftsmen, who generated income, although as many men as possible were sent on outreach to neighbouring towns. Children were tutored communally. The women had traditional roles as homemakers. A printing press was set up, disseminating many writings by Labadie and his colleagues. Curiously, the best known of all Labadist writings was not Labadie’s but Anna van Schurman’s, who wrote a justification of her renunciation of fame and reputation to live in Christian community. Van Schurman was noted in her day as ‘The Star of Utrecht’ and widely admired for her talents: she spoke and wrote five languages, produced an Ethiopic dictionary, played several instruments, engraved glass, painted, embroidered, and wrote poetry. At the age of 62 she gave up everything and joined the Labadists.
After Labadie’s death, his followers returned to the Netherlands, where they set up a community in a stately home – Walta Castle – at Wieuwerd in Friesland, which belonged to three sisters Van Aerssen van Sommelsdijck, who were his adherents. Here printing and many other occupations continued, including farming and milling. One member, Hendrik van Deventer, skilled in chemistry and medicine, set up a laboratory at the house and treated many people, including Christian V, the King of Denmark. He is now remembered as one of the Netherlands' pioneering obstetricians.
Several noted visitors have left their accounts of visits to the Labadist community. One was Sophie of Hanover, mother of King George I of Great Britain; another was William Penn, the Quaker pioneer, who gave his name to the US state of Pennsylvania; a third was the English philosopher John Locke.
Several Reformed pastors left their parishes to live in community at Wieuwerd. At its peak, the community numbered around 600 with many more adherents further afield. Visitors came from England, Italy, Poland and elsewhere, but not all approved of the strict discipline. Those of arrogant disposition were given the most menial of jobs. Fussiness in matters or food was overcome since all were expected to eat what was put in front of them.
Daughter communities were set up in the New World. La Providence, a daughter colony on the Commewijne River in Surinam, proved unsuccessful. The Labadists were unable to cope with jungle diseases, and supplies from the Netherlands were often intercepted by pirates. The noted entomological artist, Maria Sybilla Merian, who had lived in the Labadist colony in Friesland for some years, went to Surinam in 1700 and drew several plates for her classic Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium on the Labadist plantation of La Providence.
The mother colony in Friesland sent two envoys, Jasper Danckaerts and Peter Schlüter (or Sluyter), to purchase land for a colony. Danckaerts, an experienced seafarer, kept a journal which has survived and has been published. It is a valuable early account of life in colonial New Netherland (later New York), on the Chesapeake and the Delaware in 1679-80 and includes several hand drawings and maps.
Danckaerts and Schlüter met the son of Augustine Herman, a successful Maryland businessman, in New York and he introduced them to his father in 1679. Herman was impressed with the men and their group. Initially Herman did not want to grant land to them, only permit Labadist settlement, but in 1683, he conveyed a tract of 3,750 acres (15 km²) on his land Bohemia Manor in Cecil County, Maryland to them because of legal issues. The group established a colony which grew rapidly to between 100-200 members.
In the 1690s a gradual decline set in and finally the practice of communal sharing was suspended. From that moment on the Labadists dwindled, both in Maryland, which ceased to exist after 1720, and in Friesland they had died out by 1730.
Key beliefs of the Labadists
The Labadists held to the beliefs and traditions of their founder, Labadie. Chiefly these were:
- The true Church of Jesus Christ is composed solely of those ‘born again’ or ‘elect’; habitual churchgoing while not knowing God personally is nugatory
- The true Church is also ‘not of this world’; this affects all of life, including clothing (Labadists had their own dress for women, known in Dutch as a ‘bosrok’, after the local nickname for their tree-ringed house).
- Even so, the Church is always in need of reform, and this should start at the top, with the priests or pastors.
- Knowing God is not through set religious laws but through personal prayer and mystical devotion; the heart should be warmed through contact with divine love.
- All members are priests and can bring words of edification in church gatherings, which Labadie equated with New Testament ‘prophetic ministry’. To facilitate this, home groups are the best forum.
- The Holy Communion is only for the truly committed (in Labadist parlance the ‘elect’).
- Self-denial, in particular fasting, is good for the soul.
- Worldly vanities are to be eschewed and personal wealth shared in the community brotherhood.
- An Augustinian (specifically Jansenist) belief in predestination.
- Marriage must be ‘in the Lord’; a believer can justifiably separate from an unconverted partner in order to follow God’s call to his work (in Labadist jargon, ‘the Lord’s work’ meant their own community lifestyle).
Legacy, influence and parallels
William Penn records in his journal a meeting with the Labadists in 1677, which gives an insight into the reasons why these people chose to live a communal lifestyle. Labadie’s widow, Lucia, testified to Penn about her younger days in which she had mourned the insipid state of the Christianity which she saw around her:
If God would make known to me his way, I would trample upon all the pride and glory of the world. ...O the pride, O the lusts, O the vain pleasures in which Christians live! Can this be the way to Heaven? ...Are these the followers of Christ? O God, where is Thy little flock? Where is Thy little family, that will live entirely to Thee, that will follow Thee? Make me one of that number.
Hearing Labadie’s teachings, she was convinced of her need to be joined in community living with her fellow believers.
Labadie’s approach to Christian spirituality, but not his communitarian approach with its separation from mainstream churches, was paralleled in the Pietist movement in Germany. Many of its leaders, such as Philipp Jakob Spener, approved Labadie’s stance but preferred for their own part to trust in the established structures.
Some Pietist community enterprises did, however, arise. August Francke, professor at Halle University, founded there an orphanage (the Waisenhaus) in 1696, to be run along Christian communitarian lines, with equality and sharing of goods. This caused a stir and was famed abroad. Its example inspired in George Whitefield, the English preacher and revivalist, a yearning for a similar foundation which eventually came to being in America.
Labadie's most influential writing was The Reform of the Church Through the Pastorate (1667).
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