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Gerhard Tersteegen

Historical Background to His Ministry

30 Years War

The 30 years war had concluded with the peace of Westphalia in 1648. This war was the result of tensions between Protestants and Catholics that had developed over the persecution and attempt to eliminate Protestants from Europe. The direct cause was Emperor Ferdinand’s hostility to the Protestant cause and the carnage resulting when the Duke of Bavaria attacked a popular faith movement in Bohemia under Count Mansfeldt Prague who had an army of 20,000, in 1619/20. Later Wallenstein, seeking to further humiliate the Protestant Princes, raised an army of 100,000. The only way for the soldiers to survive was by violence and pillage, and they took whatever they wanted. In reaction Gusstavus Adolphus of Sweden came with 15,000 troops to support the Protestant forces, and gained victories in Leipsic and Lutzen, though he died in the latter battle. Political intrigue and baser motives took over, for the “foulest vices and the cruelest enormities were practiced by the lawless soldiery; (and) chaos and anarchy held undisputed sway.” (H. E. Govan, Gerhard Tersteegen, Life and Selections, p. 14) Four fifths of the population, or 12 million people, lost their lives. “Advanced nations, with wealthy and cultured merchant classes in the towns, and a well-to-do peasantry in the country districts, all but disappeared from the face of Europe.” (p. 15) Every possible vice took over. The vice and debauchery began with the ruling classes, but eventually infected the middle classes as well.

Religious life

Clergy had courageously sought to keep their parishioners maintaining their spiritual walk even though they were often particularly plundered and abused by the imperial troops. Often churches were destroyed. But pastors assembled their members for services in the groves. Over time, however, even these efforts died out, and many sank below the onslaughts. However, there was a succession of individuals who continued to hold the standard high and sought to bring about a revival. (17)

Like the Puritans in England, the Dutch Precisianism group sought to reassert evangelical principles, drawing a distinction between the regenerate and the unregenerate, calling for a life of separation from the world and the vices of rioting, gambling, dancing, play-going, and luxury that were so common. It also upheld the supreme authority of the Bible. (p. 18)

Speaking of the condition of the people, Dr. Koch, a professor of theology in Leyden, said, “The Reformed Church and indeed all other churches, consist in great measure of baptized heathen people who are enclosed with their limits. The churches are all alike more and less corrupt in their doctrine and in their practice; in fact, there is little hope of their restoration. They consist mostly of those who have no love to God and much love of the world; and consequently, taking them as a whole, they are like fallen Jerusalem, which the Lord called Sodom and Gomorrah.” (p. 19)

A Pastor Lodensteyn (1620-1677) of Utrecht chose to refer to the reformed churches as “deformed” churches, for the prior reforms had “deteriorated into a mere contending for doctrinal truths, instead of ripening to the fair fruits of Christian love…. For rite and symbol and ceremony they had a certain regard; but where was the life? Self-complacency in their vanities and luxuries, in their indelicate pastimes and revelries, was coupled with some warm attachment to the outward forms of religion. Contrition, inward renewal, humility, truth in the inward parts—they were all but unknown” (p. 20,21). Pastors did not go to the trouble to preach sermons that either convicted the worldling or aroused the formalist.

John de Labadie (1610-1674) began as a Jesuit youth, but eventually found it necessary to separate from the Catholic Church. He was denounced as a heretic in 1645. Pursuit by the Jesuits eventually drove him to Geneva where he played a significant role in bringing revival. Because he was opposed to human creeds and the book of prayer, he found it necessary to withdraw from the national church. He had a large following of people who were noteworthy for their simple lives, their dress and separation from worldly amusements. 

One of his students was Philip James Spener, who founded the German Pietistic movement.

Quotes taken from H. E. Govan's Gerhard Tersteegen, Life and Selections, (London: James Nisbet & Co., Limited, 1898).

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