34. Ecclesiastical Ordinances drafted by Order of the States of Holland, 1576

We William, Prince of Orange … by the authority of the most invincible King, Philip of Spain, … Governor of Holland, Zeeland, [West] Friesland and of the province of Utrecht, and we the States of Holland and Zeeland and our associates1 having nothing more at heart (as is only reasonable) than that the doctrine of the Holy Gospel may be propagated most purely and that the churches too may be best governed, in our towns and other places under our jurisdiction, have thought fit, after mature deliberation, to make these ordinances, which we will also require to be observed inviolate. And we have thought it necessary that the same [ordinances] should chiefly relate to the administration of the ecclesiastical government, of which four principal offices are to be found in the Holy Scriptures, namely [that] of pastors, who are also called in the Holy Scriptures bishops, elders and ministers, whose office chiefly consists in the teaching of the Word of God and the administration of the sacraments; [that] of doctors, whose place has now been taken by the professors of theology; [that] of elders, whose principal office was formerly to watch over morals and to set transgressors once more on the right path by friendly admonitions; [that] of deacons, who care for the poor and the sick.


1. The magistrates of every chief town shall, on the information and with the advice of their ministers, choose ministers for their town and all the places under their jurisdiction.

2. In those towns which we hold and [those] which shall [hereafter] embrace our side, ministers shall be sent from elsewhere, until the magistrates of the same (having taken the proper oath) do take upon themselves the protection of our Reformed religion.

3. The magistrates of the lesser towns, which have declared for us, shall have the right to choose the ministers, until their chief towns have united themselves with us.

4. No person shall intrude himself into the holy and honourable office of minister without having been chosen, called or sent unless he would be ejected with shame, or even punished ignominiously, if the case requires it.

5. Every minister chosen for a town shall be examined by the elders whether he be endowed with [sufficient] learning and eloquence, and [suited] by an upright and pious conversation for the office.

6. The person found to be qualified shall present himself to the magistrates so that they may give their approval to the aforesaid declaration that he be shown to the people from the pulpit.

7. But before he be admitted to the pulpit, his name shall be published from the pulpit on three [successive] Sundays so that anyone who knows any reason why he should not be admitted may in the meantime declare the same.

8. If there is no opposition, or those who oppose can produce no evidence, he shall, before his institution, make a solemn promise in the presence of the magistrates, using this form of words.

Oath to be Taken by the Ministers

I swear by Almighty God and Our Lord Jesus Christ that I shall be a faithful subject of the King of Spain, his stadhouder in these provinces the Prince of Orange, … and likewise of this magistracy in all things which are not contrary to the will of God and my office; and that I shall also strive, to the best of my endeavour, so that the people may likewise obey the same as peaceably and submissively as possible; moreover, I swear that I shall treat the Word of God after the purest manner and I shall proclaim the same diligently so that it may bring forth the most fruit in the congregation committed to my charge, and that I shall not accommodate the same to suit my fancy, nor alter it to please someone else, but that I shall expound the same in all good faith, seeking only the honour of God and the good of this congregation; finally, that I shall act honourably in all things as becomes and should become a pious and faithful shepherd; and that I shall in no wise abandon this ministry on account of any profit or disadvantage.

9. At the induction one of the ministers shall deliver a discourse concerning the office of minister, after which prayers shall be poured out that God might grant the new minister the strength duly to discharge the office which he has undertaken. We consider this to be sufficient because the ancient ceremonies have degenerated into such abominable superstitions.

Concerning the Meeting of Ministers2

10. The ministers of every chief town and of the places belonging thereto shall come together every two weeks in the chief town to which they are attached in order to confer about doctrine so that they may keep the same pure and uniform.

11. If any [ministers] should not appear (without valid reasons), the same shall be reckoned to their discredit, and if they persistently stay away, they shall be duly compelled [to attend].

12. So that it may be known how diligent everyone is in his studies, the ministers shall take it in turn to expound some text of the Holy Scriptures in the same meetings, which the others may freely refute, if anything wrong is said or done.

Concerning the Settlement of Controversies among Ministers

13. If any dispute on a matter of doctrine arise, the ministers shall compose the same among themselves, and, if the matter requires it, the elders shall be called in; but if no agreement can then be reached, the matter shall be laid before the magistrates, whose responsibility it is duly to settle the same.

Concerning the Correction of Misdemeanours among the

14. Any minister guilty of an infamous offence shall, being removed from his office, be punished according to the laws of the land [beschreven wetten].

15. To anyone making an accusation, which he cannot prove, shall be meted out the punishment appropriate to the calumny.

16. As for those misdemeanours committed by ministers, for which there is no punishment in law, but which nevertheless cause offence, as, for instance, unaccustomed and unwarranted expositions of the Holy Scriptures; curious enquiries into vain questions; the introduction of any novelty in the congregation; negligence in their studies; slackness in the correction of faults; buffoonery; lying; slander; wanton speech; frivolity; deceit; avarice; excessive anger when disputing and rebuking; undue severity; extravagance in dress, gestures or manners, and other matters related to behaviour, and such like, the elders shall, when the case has come to light, inform the magistrates, and at the same time declare their opinion thereon, though in all cases the final judgement concerning the punishment shall always rest with the magistrates.

17. In the case of minor faults, which merit no more than simple admonition, the way prescribed by the Lord shall be observed, and in the last resort the matter shall be referred to the foremost men in the church.

18. In order that all the ministers, of both each chief town and of the places thereto pertaining, may (as far as possible) remedy the defects of their assemblies, they shall conduct every quarter an investigation into them, and if they discover anything amiss, they shall promptly apply the appropriate remedies.

Concerning the Visitation of Parishes

19. Two elders from each chief town and one or two ministers shall make a circuit each year through the country [districts] which fall under the same chief town and they shall investigate how the ministers in each place behave, and if they discover anything amiss, they shall inform the magistrates of the chief town concerning the same so that these may promptly remedy it as the occasion requires.

20. The same persons, and particularly one of the ministers shall exhort the people in a sermon to attend diligently the services and to order their lives according to the commandments of God.

Concerning Preaching

21. The magistrates of every place shall, after consultation with the ministers, direct when and how often sermons are to be preached; but that in all cases in populous places sermons will be preached at least three times each week, and on Sunday afternoon the Heidelberg Catechism shall be expounded in all churches.

Concerning Baptism

22. Baptism shall only be administered by the ministers according to the form appended to the Catechism, after the sermon to as many children as are presented; no one shall be refused baptism.

23. If the fathers present their children for baptism in person that is pious and praiseworthy, but if the same should not happen, the baptism shall still proceed.

24. It shall not be necessary to have witnesses at the baptism; anyone may be admitted as a witness.

25. The names of those who have been baptised and of their parents shall be entered in a public register.

26. If any who are weak in faith desire to have their children, being sick, baptised at home, they should be accommodated, provided nevertheless that (if possible) some godly persons may attend the baptism.

Concerning the Lord’s Supper

27. The Lord’s Supper shall be held four times each year at Easter and Whitsunday, on the first Sunday in September and on the Sunday nearest to Christmas Day.

28. On the Sunday preceding the administration of the Lord’s Supper, the ministers shall make known the day so that children who will be admitted for the first time to the Lord’s Supper may in the meantime come to them in order to give an account, based on the Catechism, of the Confession of Faith. At the same time the ministers shall issue a general exhortation that all who may perhaps desire to be more fully instructed should appear before them and they shall earnestly urge everyone to examine and try himself so that no one comes unworthily to the Lord’s Table, nor eats and drinks to his own judgement because of his failure to discern the Lord’s body.

29. Where the congregation is numerous the ministers shall accustom them to distribute the Lord’s Supper in an orderly fashion as they pass by.

Concerning Marriages

30. The ministers shall publish from the pulpit the names of all affianced persons (whose right to matrimony is evident) on three [successive] Sundays. If no objection is meanwhile made in the body of the congregation, they shall confirm the marriage, whether it be on a Sunday or any other day, with the exception of the Lord’s Supper or any of the public days of prayer and fasting.

31. The magistrates everywhere shall treat all matrimonial matters according to the laws recently made by us about the same.

Visiting the Sick

32. The ministers shall not refuse to attend in person and comfort any sick persons, or instruct them.

33. The ministers shall not be obliged to attend sick persons except at proper seasons, and when they are free from other parts of their function.


34. The magistrates of every town shall give proper orders and directions about the places of interments, and therein show a due regard for health and decency, and especially avoid giving any occasion for superstition.

Visiting Prisoners

35. The ministers shall not neglect the care of such as are detained in prisons; yet they may not attend them without the leave of the magistracy.

Professors of Divinity or Doctors

36. Since Professors of Divinity now stand in the place of Doctors [or Teachers], we have likewise instituted such in our new University of Leiden, after the same manner as the Professors of other arts and sciences; and we shall take care that they raise up learned and worthy pastors, by expounding the holy scriptures purely and truly, according to the rules prescribed to them, which it is not necessary here to rehearse.

37. But the magistrates of every town shall take care to provide godly schoolmasters for their youth, whose business it shall be to instil both the true religion, as well as learning, and to teach them to sing the psalms in the accustomed way.

38. Those schoolmasters that are not inclined to the Reformed Religion, shall by no means be allowed to instruct children.


39. The magistrates of every place shall choose from among themselves, more or fewer persons, according to their numbers, good men, and such as are not inexperienced in the business of religion, who shall assist the pastors in church affairs, and to be present at their meetings, to the end that if anything should be transacted there, of which the government ought to be informed, they may give an account of it, and do what belongs to their office as has been set down in many places in these laws.


40. Since all kinds of poor are particularly well provided for in these provinces, we have not thought lightly to alter anything, either with regard to the incomes, or to the persons that distribute them; yet however, the magistrates must take care, that fit and godly stewards be appointed, who understand how to assist the poor according to their needs. If this be done the practice of begging may be prevented, and the poor contained within the bounds of their duty: this will be easily brought about as soon as an end shall be put to our miseries by peace and public tranquillity which God, the fountain and source of all good, grant us as soon possible. Amen.

The Justification for these Ecclesiastical Laws drafted on
behalf of the States of Holland

That godly rulers have always appropriated to themselves a right of making laws about religion, is beyond dispute; and accordingly God was pleased to give such laws, not by the hands of Aaron, but of Moses; and so it always continued a custom among the people of Israel, that the supreme authority, and power of those laws, should be vested in their Judges, Kings and finally Princes, examples of which the books of the Old Testament abound with. But at the time of the writing the books of the New Testament, the Magistrates and Rulers were not only strangers to the true religion, but indeed implacable enemies of it; insomuch, that men of piety were obliged to keep themselves apart or separate, and in case any regulation were wanting in matters of religion, they made them of their own private authority; and in this state they remained for some hundreds of years; but when the chief Monarch of the world, Constantine, had embraced the [Christian] Religion, he himself ordained and appointed everything that was necessary for the propagation, relief and support of the same, as also his successors have since done for many hundreds of years. Hence it is that we find in the first book of the [Justinian] Code, so many long titles about religion, and in the Novellae of Justinian, not a few tracts as substantial as books. Leo the Wise [Leo VI], Emperor of Constantinople, (as appears from his Novellae) followed the same method and the other emperors continued to do so, as Zonaras testifies in his Photii Nomacanonicis3. Meanwhile in the West the Bishop of Rome assumed by degrees the same [legislative] authority, as well as usurping the Empire, and consequently became the reverse of what he was, and ought to be. For this reason the godly found themselves reduced to the same straits in which they had been during the reigns of the pagan Emperors, so that they were forced to return to their secret assemblies on account of the exercise of their religion, and to provide for themselves all that was necessary to that end. Therefore since God has given us the grace to throw off the slavery of superstition and the courage to profess the pure Religion, we have thought it our bounden duty to frame laws for the government of the church, agreeable to the minds of our people. In so doing we have followed the foregoing examples as well as those powers which have openly embraced the true religion in this age, all of whom have prescribed a rule and order for the government of their churches. Now our pastors or ministers at Dordrecht [1574] have prescribed such regulations as seemed to them most convenient in church matters, for which we indeed praise their diligence. But weighty reasons, which shall be disclosed when we explain why we have framed our laws concerning the Religion, have persuaded us not to adopt the same.

Now the reason why we have committed to the civil magistrate the authority to choose ministers (by which we make the office of pastor subordinate to them, as are all other offices) is, because the office of pastor is like all those offices that receive their stipends or wages out of the public income of those places where they are discharged.If anyone else should have a right of appointing them, he would in that respect assume the authority of the civil government, and so there would be two sorts of magistracies in each city or place. We do not need to employ many arguments to demonstrate how dangerous that is. Nor is this anything new: all those princes and states who have reformed the religion have appropriated the same right to themselves. What is more, the Emperor Justinian ordained that the chief men of the cities should be present at the election of bishops, and he says that he ordained it so in accordance with the written laws. But some will say that there be few among the magistrates that are well affected to the [Reformed] religion. Whether there be few, or whether there be many, it makes no difference, for they have all of them solemnly sworn to defend it, and we have certainly taken sufficient care that no danger should arise on this account, since we have ordained that the election of pastors should be made with the advice and counsel of the ministers.

But the reasons why we have decreed that the magistrates of every chief town shall provide all the places under their jurisdiction with ministers, are these; first, to secure to them their ancient privileges; and, secondly, [to ensure] that no unworthy minister may be imposed on them from outside. Yet since there are many ministers in the chief towns, all the charges in their jurisdiction can be properly and fittingly filled at their recommendation and with their advice. We have not thought it fit to consider the classes in the distribution [of offices], since that cannot be practised without the confusion of jurisdiction. This is so obvious that it needs no explanation, especially if more authority should be assumed by the ministers and elders, in their respective offices. And from this shall sufficiently appear the equity of the first article of our laws, as also of the second and third, which depend upon the first.

The reasonableness of the fourth articles is very plain; for if those who intrude into any kind of office without lawful authority, are not tolerated in so doing, much less, to be sure, are they to be tolerated who intrude without authority into so eminent an office. And so indeed is it meant by the Synod of Dordrecht [1574], only that they seem to have made an exception for hidden churches [i.e persecuted churches] and those in exile, but not for public congregations, that enjoy full liberty under the civil government of their country. To outward appearances this may seem to make our laws and the synodical canons very different but in reality they are much the same.

Those of Geneva have chiefly had regard in their ecclesiastical laws to the churches which had their own magistrates in the districts to which they belonged, and we have justly copied these, so that there is not much in which we do not agree both apparently and in reality with each other. There are some other matters, which our circumstances will not yet allow: neither did they at first make absolute decrees concerning the government of churches.

Whereas in the chief towns there must be more ministers, and those men of greater abilities than in other places, they may probably suffice for examinations; and the elders, who by virtue of their office, are to assist such examinations, shall likewise provide sufficient witnesses on behalf of the ministers before the magistrates as to what took place. This accounts for the next two articles [5-6].

The seventh article appeared so necessary to the ministers of the city of Geneva, (who have no equal either for learning or piety) that when the practice of the same had for some time been discontinued, they themselves petitioned the magistrates, in the year 1560, that it might be re-established. They protested that they did not in any way seek their own advantage, but rather that they and their successors might be better kept in check and this matter is also mentioned in the ecclesiastical laws of the said city. And even Justinian himself, in the preamble to the Canons, approves of the custom of presenting to the people the bishop that was to be made, and allowing every one of them to object against him.

Scarcely any public offices are entered upon without a previous oath and since no office is of greater benefit to the community than that of a minister, it is only just that he should be sworn in by the magistracy; we mention this on account of the eighth article.

Article XXIV of the Synod of Dordrecht plainly explains why the ceremonies formerly used in the institution of pastors should now be omitted; this relates to the ninth article.

It is entirely reasonable, indeed necessary that the preachers of so excellent a doctrine, should frequently meet together to confer about it and to exercise in it. This supports the next three articles [10-12].

And why should not the magistrates help to compose the differences and quarrels among the ministers in case of need? Though they may not be all favourers of the [Reformed] Religion, they are all bound on oath to maintain it. If there should be anything which they do not understand, they may lay the same before us [the States of Holland]. This is the purport of the thirteenth article.

As the reproof of immorality chiefly belongs to the ministers, they are therefore obliged to take great care that their own manners are pure. The eyes of the world are fixed upon them more than upon any others so that if they set a bad example they are on that account worthy of severer punishment. Therefore no one shall take from the magistrate the authority of punishing them. Herein the equity of the five following articles [14-18] chiefly consists.

The benefit of the nineteenth and twentieth articles is as clear as the noonday sun.

The local magistrates are the best suited to order, with the advice of the ministers, all matters relating to preaching, since they cannot be ignorant of the needs of the place and people. Nevertheless care ought to be taken to see that there is as little disagreement as possible with other places; and this answers to the twenty-first article.

Such is the nature of our government that even the Papists, who on account of the common cause have embraced our side, are faithful to us by virtue of solemn promises. For that reason we ought also to have permitted the public exercise of Papist Religion, were it not that the priests and monks, our sworn enemies, had endeavoured to incite them to sedition. Indeed we even tolerate the Anabaptists themselves, being convinced that [knowledge of] the true religion is a gift of God, and that men ought not to be forced into it through the fear of banishment, or other punishments, but invited with charitable exhortations from the Word of God.

Given the variety of religions, we were bound to order some things differently than perhaps would have been suffered in a country where there was uniformity in religious matters. We would have it understood that it is for this reason that we will not allow baptism to be refused to anyone and our defence is Christ’s commandment that the little children should not be kept from Him. We have therefore ordained that [the Religion of] the parents should not be an obstacle to baptism. Those who are stubborn on this point will cause the Papists to have their children privately baptised by mass priests summoned from abroad for this purpose and at the same time will estrange them from us. The office of the pastor, amid these confusions is, after Paul’s example, to become all things to all men, that he may gain many.

It may likewise seem that we permit all manner of witnesses in baptism; but we have been persuaded to do so for no less weighty a reason, than that which induced the people of Bern, in the year 1560, to make no distinction in respect of baptismal witnesses between themselves [Reformed] and the Papists. What they did for the preservation of amity among people of different persuasions, we shall therefore feel free to do in order to maintain and strengthen unity among those that are of mixed religion. The professed enemies of the [Reformed] Religion might indeed have been excepted under this head, but they shall not readily offer to stand as witnesses at baptism. Besides, as to our allowing private baptism at home, this must be imputed to the weakness of some, for which the Holy Scriptures strongly recommend due allowance. And this may suffice for the articles concerning baptism [22-26].

Easter and Whitsun are held in such veneration among Christians, that unless the Lord’s Supper were administered at those seasons, it might have given great offence. The Nativity of Christ is held in like respect but if the Lord’s Supper is held on the following Sunday, all occasion for offence is largely removed. And the reason why we celebrate the same only four times a year, is because we judge that to be enough at present since the more frequent use of it in former times has given rise to such detestable superstitions. So much for the twenty-seventh article.

Christ was pleased to let Judas, whom He knew would betray Him, to participate in His secret Supper: He did this, as He Himself testifies, that the saying of the Prophet David might be fulfilled, ‘He that hath eaten of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me, Ps. 40. [John 13 v. 18]. But we should not take this as our pattern, because Christ elsewhere forbids us to give what is holy to dogs, or to cast pearls before swine, [Matt.7 v. 6]. As this now was His concern, neither can our towns and many of our villages permit too strict an order in the holding of the Lords Supper such as the examination of all those who desired to partake of the Supper, obliging these to make confession of faith; the registration and publication of names; the producing of attestations, and the like. How many there are among such a great number of people that fall short in these matters! Paul seems rather to insist upon self examination, when he says ‘Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup'[1 Cor 11 v. 28]. If this be not done, the rest are only hypocritical actions and gestures, which have nothing to do with the true preparation for the Lord’s Supper. The number, moreover, of our people obliges us to ordain that the Bread and the Cup shall be given them as they pass along.4 This way of proceeding is not without precedent, for it is the established practice at Geneva [article 29].

The numerous labours and preoccupations that rightly belong to the office of the ministers demand the whole man. We have therefore deemed it right to relieve them of all those tasks which might be discharged by others. On that account we have reserved cognizance of all matrimonial matters, which would have caused the ministers a great deal of trouble, whereas the same will add but little to the general business of magistrates. But so that there might be convenient rules, by which to judge those matters, we have prescribed certain laws, which we have based (as far as our age and customs permit) on divine and imperial laws. So much for the articles relating to matrimonial affairs [articles 30-31].

The laws which relate to visiting the sick and prisoners, together with those that concern burials, are so plain as to require no comment [articles 32-35]. And so undoubtedly are those with respect to the Doctors [or Teachers] [articles 36-38].

Just as magistrates are responsible for making appointments to all other offices, so too the institution of elders belongs to them. It is not possible for others to choose them without giving the appearance that there are two sorts of magistrates. Because these [elders] are appointed by the civil magistrates, their authority will be greater and they will treated with more respect. But the religious turmoil and unstable condition of our state do not allow us at present to annex any other powers to their office than are contained in our laws. The authority which they customarily exercise over every particular person with respect to his morals shall be entrusted to them in general by the magistrates so that, as far as is possible, they may restrain all licentiousness, and restore the commonwealth to its ancient lustre [article 39].

Wise men advise that when the government of the state must be changed or amended, the old form should be retained as far as possible. If this [maxim] be reasonable — and it indeed seems to be founded on very clear reasons — that which has been so well instituted that it can hardly be improved, certainly should not be altered. Since our forefathers have left sufficient endowments for all manner of poor, and have prescribed an appropriate distribution of the same, we ought not to alter what found favour with them on this score, except for very just causes. But because the war has put a stop to the incomes, and the calamities which attend it, have increased the numbers of our poor, we shall connive at the collections made for them in the churches, until peace shall restore all things to their former state. May God speedily grant us this blessing through His infinite mercy. Amen.

Source: Text represents a modernized version of the English translation to be found in G. Brandt, The History of the Reformation in the Low Countries , I, pp. 318-25. For the Dutch text see G. Brandt, Historie der reformatie in en ontrent de Nederlanden , I, pp. 567-78. The same Dutch text is also reprinted in C. Hooijer, Oude kerkordeningen der Nederlandsche hervormde gemeenten (Zaltbommel, 1865) 121-31.

1 Territories outside Holland and Zeeland controlled by the rebels e.g. Zaltbommel and parts of northern Brabant.
2 This body may be likened to the coetus or conference of ministers introduced by Jan à Lasco into the East Frisian church in 1544 and adopted by the stranger churches in London.
3 The New Canons of Photius a Greek canonist of the twelfth century.
4 In many Reformed Churches it was the practice to distribute the bread and wine to the people seated at tables.