Cleves, Duchy of

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Cleves (Cleve, Kleve, German: Herzogtum Kleve; Dutch: Hertogdom Kleef), was a German duchy situated on the Lower Rhine, on the important route from Switzerland and Upper Germany to the Netherlands; the larger part lay to the right of the Rhine, with the cities of Duisburg, Wesel, Rees, and Emmerich; the more beautiful part on the left, with Xanten, Goch, and the capital, Kleve. The fertile little country had become known through history (Drusus) and legend (Lohengrin). Duke John III (died 1539) was very influential during the Reformation as a leader of German Protestantism. By his marriage with the heiress of Jülich, Berg, and Ravensberg he extended his realm into a territory almost the size of modern Saxony, making it the largest sovereignty in northwest Germany. His attitude toward the Reformation was therefore of the greatest importance. The boundaries of the duchy of Cleves touched the Netherlands, the duchy of Gelderland, and the regions of the church princes of Cologne and Münster.

The current church policies of these regions also had considerable influence on the neighbors. Since the dukes of Cleves took a rather independent position in religious matters, having liberated themselves almost entirely from the ecclesiastical courts, and since the landed estates possessed great power and the officials ruled rather self-sufficiently under John III as well as under his successor William, Duke of Jülich-Cleves-Berg (William the Rich), 1539-1592, reformatory and separatist movements were at times able to develop freely. Characteristic of this independence was the duke's church regulation (Kirchenordnung of 1532) in which the duke, though not separated from the old church, nevertheless on his own authority formulated a constitution governing the innermost affairs of the church and proclaimed it without the cooperation of the clergy as a law, introducing it with a Declaration (1533). Along the Lower Rhine the soil was in any case a particularly fruitful one for separatistic movements. On the one hand we see the unparalleled cleavage betweeen the secular and spiritual authorities and a citizenry striving for political and social freedom; on the other hand there were the mystics, the forerunners of the movement known as Anabaptism (zur Linden, Melchior Hofmann, 14). In nearby Cologne, the matrix of medieval heresies and the refuge of all sorts of religious parties during the Reformation, the great German mystic, Master Eckhart, reached the peak of his fame. Closely related to him was the author of the Deutsche Theologie. Although Luther published it as a work of Tauler, nevertheless the Anabaptists considered it a product of their circles; in their later writings and statements at their trials passages from this booklet are quoted verbatim. Not far from that part of Cleves which lies on the left side of the Rhine is the tower of Kempen, whose son Thomas à Kempis gave us the world-famous book, The Imitation of Christ, in the 15th century. Anabaptist literature reveals how much those in the region of the Lower Rhine drew from the genuinely evangelical world of ideas in this region (Bouterwek, Literatur der Wiedertäufer).

Other sources of strength from which the Reformation and the Anabaptist movement drew included the Brethren of the Common Life of the 15th century. The most noted of them were natives of Cleves—Johann Pupper of Goch (d. 1475) and Johann Ruchrath of Wesel (d. 1481). A friend of the former was Cornelius Grapheus, who had published one of Pupper's books and written a foreword for two others. In 1522 he was condemned to death by the Inquisition in Antwerp (O. Clemen, Joh. Pupper). Grapheus was one of the Freigeister or Christen zu Antorff, to whom Luther addressed his well-known letter of 1525. Harnack says in his book on the history of dogma (Dogmengeschichte III, 3rd edition, 685 f.): "The further one progresses in the history of the Reformation in the various provinces and cities, the clearer it becomes that these Anabaptists, frequently bound with Waldensian and Hussite elements or going back to former medieval movements, were the soil of the Reformation and in some regions remained entwined with it for decades."

Among the Reformed of the Lower Rhine the conviction still lived on in the 17th century that the light of the Gospel did not dawn through the work of Luther in 1517, but through the pre-Reformation religious groups (Comeniushefte V, 63; see Mennonitisches Lexikon I, 362), whose adherents such as the Waldensians and Bohemian Brethren had fled as refugees from Saxony and Pomerania to this region.

This is also the point of view from which the sufferings and confessions of Adolf Clarenbach must be judged. In essence he was evangelical; he rejected purgatory and the oath, insisting on discipleship even in suffering, and calling his followers Christian brethren; and he concluded his statement before his inquisitors with the words, "I do not want to make any new articles, but stay with the old ones, which my mother taught me." We can certainly say that in spite of Lutheran influence he belonged to the Waldenses, who were frequently condemned as Anabaptists. In the course of his cross-examination both he and his friends even in the humbler ranks revealed such an amazing knowledge of the Bible, not of a naive kind, but thoroughly systematic, furnishing the accused the framework for their oral apologetics and polemics for all dogmatic and ethical questions, that the explanation must be sought elsewhere than in the appearance of Luther and his Bible. The roots must lie deeper than this.

Of especial importance in the unfolding of ecclesiastical and theological development along the Lower Rhine and also in the Cleves district was Erasmus of Rotterdam, who was also the product of the Brethren of the Common Life (at Deventer and Hertogenbosch). For a time he was in the humanistic circles at the court of John of Cleve, which was dominated by Konrad of Heresbach. John's attitude toward religious innovations and new movements was one of more than neutrality, for he placed all his hopes for the settlement of the religious confusions of the day upon a general council which was to be called. The Kirchenordnung of 1532 was presented to Erasmus for his criticism. It is no wonder that the numerous works and teachings of the honored guest were diligently read and distributed. He was cited by leading Anabaptists, such as Thomas von Imbroich and Adam Pastor, stressing as he did that the Christian life was in essence a matter of discipleship. From him they drew their arguments against infant baptism. He even undermined the doctrine of Trinity and was finally suspected as the father of all heresy and even as an Anabaptist.

New ideological material then came down the Rhine from Upper Germany. In the matter of adult baptism, the more democratic Upper Germans preceded the more conservative Low Germans. Here the rejection of tradition was combined with a petrified adherence to the Word, with stress on the ancient teachings and apostolic institutions. In 1529 polemic writings were taken away from a bookseller at the fair and burned. The inspectors of 1533 looked carefully for writings of Andreas Karlstadt and Dr. Gerhard Westerburg. The latter deserved the credit for the rapid growth of Anabaptist congregations also in Kleve (Rembert, 45 f.).

The hospitable town of Wesel was also a very significant point of attraction for all reformatory trends. The first heresy trial after Clarenbach's showed the existence of a congregation of Covenanters (Bundesgenossen). A citizen had declared, "Christ is not going to live in temples made with human hands. Infant baptism is nonsense." Therefore the duke lamented that unbelief was again rearing its head. The imperial mandate of 1529 was published, ordering that "all Lutherans who dared to baptize anew should be killed at once." At the end of the 1520s Wesel was a center of Anabaptism and finally a suburb of Münster (1534-35) (Wolters, 456; O. Clemen, 281; Rembert, 114). Very active propaganda was carried on in Wesel by the Münsterites during the siege. The route of the emissaries usually crossed Wesel. Such a large congregation developed here that from here the establishment of a New Zion was promoted; Wesel was even to become a second New Jerusalem.

Naturally such movements could not remain unnoticed. Severe persecution set in. In the numerous inquisitions of Wesel citizens the fourteen articles were an important basis for the examinations. Otto Vinck and Schlebusch were named as leaders of the congregation (Bouterwek, Bergische Gesch. I, 362 and following) (Of great value are the Dorth manuscripts of the Wesel trials in the Düsseldorf archives.) One of the emissaries sent to Wesel was Henric Rol, who was burned at the stake at Maastricht in 1534. Anholt near Wesel was the birthplace of Fabricius (1501), who released Johannes Klopreis from prison in Cologne when he was arrested with Clarenbach (Rembert, 310).

Very gradually the Anabaptists became settled again after the horrors of Münster. Moderate trends began to carry the day. Since Lutheranism was tolerated in the archbishopric of Cologne under Hermann von Wied, Menno Simons also appeared in Cologne and tried to arrange a disputation with the Reformed clergy in Wesel (Cramer, Menno Simons, 83). Though in the records of the synods of the Lower Rhine in the following years the Anabaptists are often mentioned, they are not called Mennonites until the 17th century. In spite of extreme bitterness against them, the scattered congregations gradually began to hold conferences on matters of church regulations and discipline. After the first meeting of this kind at Spaarndam (1534) there were others at Bocholt (Westphalia) and Goch (1547) (Doopsgezinde Bijdragen 1877). At the Goch conference Adam Pastor was sent out by Menno Simons to proclaim the Word, but was banned later that year on account of his unitarianism. Pastor chose Cleves as his field. In Goch he had converted many members of the "Wüllenamt" (Annalen 6).

In spite of all the imperial edicts issued in rapid succession, the government of the duchy of Cleves did not carry them out consistently, for more and more the landowning nobles came to appreciate the value of these industrious workers on their estates. In 1564 the Davidjorists in Wesel were prosecuted (two large volumes of documents in the Deventer library; Dorth Mss. XIV, p. 288; Keller, Gegenreformation II, 114 and following; Rembert, 513). Hunted like wild beasts, the Anabaptists moved from one side of the border to the other, according to prevailing church policies. Many a strong character was won to the movement in these regions in the time of intolerance. An example was the geographer Gerhardus Mercator, who published his immortal works in Duisburg in 1554-1594. In Duisburg the irenic Georg Cassander was used by the duke in the conversion of Anabaptists.

Although Menno Simons had long succeeded in eliminating the radical element from the Anabaptist movement in these regions, concealed aftereffects of the Münster excesses occasionally came to light, defaming the entire movement. In the Cleves region a Wilhelm Wilhelmsen and his band of "Anabaptists" caused some disturbance. In his book published in Emmerich in 1574 polygamy was frankly preached, just as the most brutal polygamy was advocated by this robber band. Wilhelmsen was executed at Dinslaken in 1580, after he had been guilty of robbery and murder in Emmerich and Wesel.

Gradually the fanatical hatred against the Mennonites subsided, and they were able in remote places to do their work and cultivate their ideals. Little is known of their activities in the late years of the 16th century. The Concept of Cologne was signed for Cleves by only one person, Louys Bouderwijns, in the name of the congregation at Rees. In Goch the Protestant Church congregation reported (1607) that it did not have its own school, but its schoolteacher was an Anabaptist (Keller, Gegenreformation II, 256). Mennonites from Jülich and Cleves were received into the Nijmegen congregation 1642-1650 -- KR

According to the Martyrs' Mirror martyrs from the district of Cleves were executed: at Amsterdam in 1539 (Jan Janssen van dem Berg, who had been baptized in 1538 at Delft by Claes with the lame hand); at Ghent 1568 (Pieter van Cleve) and at Deventer in 1571 (Dirk and Janneken van Wesel—see Dirk Wessels); in 1551 Willem de Kistemaker (the Cabinetmaker) from Weess (Weeze), a village near Kleve, and Wendel Ravens were executed at Kleve. In 1591 a mixed Anabaptist-Reformed congregation at Calcar was dissolved. In 1654 by an order of Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg (whose dynasty had gained the duchy in the 17th century), the Mennonites were exempted from the oath and

public offices. In 1721 their exemption from recruiting was confirmed by Frederick William I of Prussia (see his privileges for Krefeld dated 1 January 1721, and also the different attitude toward the Mennonites in East Prussia) in return for the annual payment of 500 reichstaler. The Prussian congregations in the west, Krefeld (previously belonging to the principality of Mors), Kleve, Duisburg, Emmerich, Goch, Rees (previously belonging  to the duchy of Cleves), and Hamm (previously belonging to the county of Mark) shared in this payment according to their financial abilities as follows: Krefeld 50 per cent; Emmerich 15 1/3 per cent; Goch 12 1/3 per cent; Kleve 11 1/3 per cent; Rees 5 per cent; Duisburg 3 1/2 per cent; Hamm 2 ½ per cent. -- EC


Annalen des hist. Vereins f. d. Niederrhiein VI, p. 6.

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Clemen, O. Johann Pupper von Goch. Leipzig, 1896.

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Rembert, Karl. Die "Wiedertäufer" im Herzogtum Jülich. Berlin: R. Gaertners Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1899: 165 f., 174.

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Author(s) Karl Rembert
Ernst Crous
Date Published 1953

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Rembert, Karl and Ernst Crous. "Cleves, Duchy of." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 24 Mar 2019.,_Duchy_of&oldid=146389.

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Rembert, Karl and Ernst Crous. (1953). Cleves, Duchy of. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 March 2019, from,_Duchy_of&oldid=146389.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 623-626. All rights reserved.

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