In his monumental book, Netherlanders in America, Henry S. Lucas states that almost every Netherlander who came to America during the 1840s and 1850s carried with him some work by one of the following “old writers:” Smytegelt, Brakel, Hellenbroek, or Comrie. During a recent trip to the Netherlands, I noticed that there is still considerable interest in these writers. Books about them are available in most every Christian bookstore.
I was reminded of a visit to my grandparents farm in the vicinity of Barneveld some seventy years ago. My grandparents were discussing Smytegelt with their visitors. Being a young lad, I thought they were talking about business transactions using the words “smiijt met geld” which means “throw one’s money about.” It sounds very similar. Later in life, I learned that they were referring to a man of great importance in Reformed circles.
Bernardus Smytegelt (1665–1730) was born in Goes, Netherlands, a province of Zeeland, the son of Marinus and Ann Smytegelt. He grew up in a fine Christian family. At the age of ten, he went to Latin school in preparation for studying science. Only those who went to Latin school would go on to study further. At age eighteen, Smytegelt went on to study theology in Utrecht. He chose to study in Utrecht because a former minister in Goes, Rev. Herman Witsius, was a professor there. In addition, a cousin, Rev. Melchoir Leydekker, also taught in Utrecht. In his teaching, Leydekker stressed that ministers should pay attention to practical experience.
In 1686 Smytegelt debated in public concerning St. Augustine’s unity of the church. He received the testimonium ecclesiae and in August 1687 successfully passed the exam of Classis Zuid-Beveland in Zeeland. Smytegelt would remain in this province for the rest of his life. In 1689, he accepted a call from the church in Borssele where he served for three years, after which he became pastor in his hometown of Goes until 1694 when he moved to Middelberg where he stayed until the end of his life.
Known as “Father Smytegelt,” he certainly belonged to those of the Nadere Reformatie. His strength was not in the way he made theology known, but in the way he knew how to captivate the ordinary people. It was his desire to bring the Word of God in a language understandable to everyone. He criticized politicians for, not only what they did in their jobs, but also attacked them for their behavior in their personal life.
First and foremost, Smytegelt was an ambassador for Christ. His calling, as he saw it, was to give “the common people” some certainty and assurance so that they could grow in the faith and be dependent upon the Lord Jesus Christ in all things. He devoted himself to the inner reliving of the Reformed doctrines and the personal life of sanctification as well as the radical and total sanctification of all areas of life. In all it facets, living had to give entire satisfaction to the Law of God. The obedience of the one’s faith expressing itself in a way that proved a communion with Christ.
His sermons were simple, clear, serious, and distinct. He explained the text from beginning to end as to how it applied to one’s spiritual life. Smytegelt’s name is closely connected with the sermons he preached under the title “Het Gekrookte Riet” (The Bruised Reed). In this series of sermons, the weak and lacking in faith Christian is provoked and guided to hope on the Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in the way of gladness, always striving, and, in due time, sharing in the blessedness of eternal life. Of the one hundred forty five sermons in this book, only the first six deal with this theme. The rest of the book focuses upon questions from young Christians.
Smytegelt preached his last sermon on October 24, 1734 from Song of Songs 1:4. Sickness caused him much pain which grew worse until his death in 1739.
Mr. Nicolaas Van Dam is a member of the United Reformed Church in Escondido, California.