What is it about?

Despite his reputation as a narcissistic Anabaptist prophet, after 1544 David Joris (1501-1556) over time became an influential spiritualist who abandoned his earlier claims of a unique possession of the Holy Spirit (1536-1539) that had convinced him that he was the new messiah. After the failure of that mission in 1539, he moved to spiritualism, which gave priority to inner faith and depreciated external religiosity. By 1540 he was arguing that demons and angels had no existence external to the individual conscience. Over time he did the same with the Holy Spirit. He began to promote the Holy Spirit as active within the mind of all true believers. This mature position on the Spirit was in place in his writings by around 1550, and unlike his earlier narcissistic prophethood, Joris's late theology encouraged creative interpretations and allowed dissenting views. This version of Joris’s theology was not very well-known during his lifetime, as most readers had easy access only to his works from the 1530s and 1540s. These works emphasized the external Spirit’s personal inspiration of Joris. Joris’s more sophisticated pneumatology of the early 1550s was, however, disseminated through correspondence and conversation. In the Dutch Republic, where spiritualism became a powerful undercurrent, this creative approach to the Spirit’s inspiration helped shape discourse on religion and philosophy among nonconformists such as the Mennonites (Doopsgezinden) and Collegiants as well as among the orthodox. These currents fed eventually into the conversations of early Enlightenment philosophers, such as Rene Descartes and Baruch Spinoza.

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Why is it important?

This essay is part of a larger project (Amsterdamnified!) seeking to understand the radical religious roots of the early Enlightenment. The question posed is, how did Europeans move from a deeply religious worldview in which God, angels, demons, and the Holy Spirit were real beings interacting with humans that dominated discourse in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, to the Deism and proto-atheism of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment. Some of the elements of this transition are seen in the example of David Joris, who was the most controversial heretic of the sixteenth century, in large measure because he removed demons and angels from the natural world, well before Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and other Enlightenment thinkers. I am also engaged in exploring how reason (the human mind) and spirit (divine revelation) changed over this period, and in the writings of Joris.


This extends work I've published elsewhere on Joris's demonology and other teachings. It falls in line with the studies of other scholars who are showing that spiritualists like Joris (and so many others) could at the same time be rational, that there was no necessary discord between them. As opponents attacked Joris's ideas, I have discovered they helped, unintentionally, to disseminate them.

Gary Waite
University of New Brunswick

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This page is a summary of: Spiritualism and Rationalism in Early Modern Europe, Church History and Religious Culture, July 2021, Brill,
DOI: 10.1163/18712428-bja10024.
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