Family of Love

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Familists were the members of the "Family of Love," a brotherhood founded about 1540 by Hendrik Niclaes. It had a pantheistic mystic character. The leadership lay in the hands of a bishop, assisted by 12 elders and four classes of priests. The priests were required to give up all personal property, and lay members to tithe. The brotherhood found adherents in Holland, where they are last mentioned in 1649, and especially in England, where it existed until the end of the 17th century. They were often associated in the popular mind with the Anabaptists. Even Samuel Cramer called them "without doubt, real Anabaptists" (BRN VII, 286). But they had nothing in common but their discipline and their demand for a "holy" church. "It is a peculiar mixture of spiritualistic mysticism, Catholic hierarchy, and the Anabaptist brotherhood ideal, together with a strong emphasis on the perfection and oneness with God of the original creation which is to be reestablished" (Troeltsch). -- Neff

The Family of Love was a movement founded by Hendrik Niclaes (1502-1580) initially in Emden, East Friesland. The son of an orthodox Catholic merchant, Niclaes showed early interest in theological issues. On the basis of visions he received, he believed himself to be called to a messianic ministry. In 1531 he moved to Amsterdam, which was beginning to become the center of Anabaptism, to begin his career as merchant. Following a brief arrest, presumably because of his religious activities, he moved to Emden in East Friesland to implement his sectarian vision. He lived there for 20 years, financing his work and the publication of his books through his commercial endeavors. The best known of his writings may have been the Mirror of Righteousness, published in Emden.

The structure of his "family (house) of love" was strictly hierarchical, headed by a bishop, who was Niclaes himself. The "family" was divided into seven orders strongly reminiscent of the hierarchy in Roman Catholicism. Movement up the ladder of orders was possible, except for women, who could only attain the lowest orders.

Niclaes recruited his membership particularly through business contacts. Thus Christoffel Plantijn, an Antwerp printer who published his books, became a member. Some intellectuals were also attracted to the movement—the geographer Abraham Ortelius and the orientalist Justus Lipsius. One of the enigmas of the movement is how Niclaes was able to attract persons of this caliber given the simplicity and lack of clarity or logic in his own writings. Ca. 1560 Niclaes was forced to leave Emden, the authorities having discovered that the successful merchant was, in fact, a dangerous heretic. He moved to Cologne where he lived until his death.

The ideas of Niclaes are strongly spiritualistic with neo-Stoic influence. He saw himself as sent by God to be a new mediator to continue the work of Christ. He believed that his followers should become one with Christ by imitating his life and spiritually experiencing his death on the cross. Being successful in this meant to become deified and perfect. The written Scriptures lost their significance since they were not inspired by the spirit which Niclaes believed he possessed. His emphasis on spiritualism and perfection led to a discarding of sacraments and other church practices. His followers were permitted to attend other churches to avoid persecution. Some of his teachings and practices coincided with those of the Anabaptist leader David Joris of Delft.

The "Family of Love" received a serious blow when one of the oldest followers of Niclaes, Hendrik Jansen van Barrefelt (1520-1594) left the movement under the conviction he received in 1573 that he and not Niclaes was to be the direct link with God.

Many of Niclaes' followers agreed with Jansen and the "witness" book he published in 1581. While his ideas were largely those of Niclaes, his spiritualism was even stronger and his messianic pretensions were more modest. He also lacked Niclaes' organizational ability.

Following the death of these leaders the movement slowly disappeared, except in England where Niclaes' books were available in English after 1570.

Members of the movement were largely artisans until severe persecution forced their decline. By 1680 the "Familists" had largely merged with the Quakers.


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Author(s) Christian Neff
S. Zijlstra
Date Published 1987

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Neff, Christian and S. Zijlstra. "Family of Love." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. 12 Apr 2024.

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Neff, Christian and S. Zijlstra. (1987). Family of Love. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 12 April 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, p. 293, v. 5, pp. 292-293. All rights reserved.

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