In 1641 an English Puritan complained that his country was being “Amsterdamnified” as laypeople presumed to speak authoritatively on religion. This new research program will explore how a growing public discourse on religion and philosophy in England was greatly influenced by the many heterodox groups that for decades had flourished in Amsterdam and other cities of the Dutch Republic. It will reveal how their debates significantly challenged and reshaped traditional beliefs on the eve of the Enlightenment, especially on the critical questions of the interpretation of the scriptures and the natural world. They also encouraged inter-confessional dialogue and crafted new forms of social organization. Led by ordinary urbanites, these interrelated groups included Dutch Doopsgezinden (aka Mennonites), English Baptists, spiritualistic Familists, anti-Trinitarian Socinians and English Quakers, to name a few. In the Dutch Republic some met together formally in the gatherings of the Collegiants and reached out to Amsterdam’s Jews. They viewed innovation positively thanks to an approach to religious identity known as spiritualism which emphasized the personal inspiration of the Holy Spirit over the letter of scripture; some – including a number of Mennonites – went so far as to deny the existence of a creaturely devil, a key marker of Enlightenment thought.
It is therefore important to examine the kind of “Amsterdamnified” freethinking leading up to the groundbreaking publications of Baruch de Spinoza (d. 1677) whose rational critique of revealed religion was formulated within Amsterdam’s climate of religious variety, interaction and debate. When in 1656 Spinoza was expelled from his synagogue he sought out such Collegiant-Mennonite nonconformists to assist him to push for toleration and individual liberty. Utilizing a social history of ideas approach, this research program explores how elements of the innovative ideas of Spinoza and other Enlightenment philosophers were drawn from these radical religious groups. This will require analysis of dissenter publications from both Holland and England and careful delineation of their interactions, readership and publisher networks; for example, Spinoza’s major publisher, Jan Rieuwertsz, was a Mennonite. It will detail the changing reception of nonconformist writings and reveal the changes in attitudes that assisted the crumbling of a providentialist worldview, the promotion of religious accommodation and experimentation with new forms of social and political organization.