In 1522 the family of John de Bres celebrated the birth of their son, Guido. Guido de Bres had three brothers and one sister.
Guido went to school in Mons and then was apprenticed to a glass painter. While he worked, he heard snatches of Reformation truths and stories of Protestants being burned or beheaded in nearby villages. He was fourteen years old when William Tyndale was strangled and burned to death near Antwerp, Guido read the Bible and other Protestant writings privately. He was converted before he became twenty-five years old.
In 1548, Guido left home and went to England. There he studied under Thomas Cranmer, Pole John aLasco, and Martin Bucer until 1552.
In 1552 Guido sailed home. He wanted to help his own people. Back in the Lowlands he became a traveling preacher. Sometimes he went by the name of Augustine of Mons. The group of Christians in Lille, where Guido lived, met secretly in homes. They called themselves “The Church of the Rose.” De Bres worked hard while studying and writing. His first book “The Staff of the Christian Faith”, contained 16 chapters and was translated into several languages. The book discussed the principles of the Reformed faith and was written to fight the errors of the Roman Catholic Church. It was dedicated to the faithful people in The Church of Rose. On the title page was the text from Ephesians, “Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand in the evil day. . . . ” 1
Soon evil days came to the Church of the Rose. Philip was on the throne beginning his fight against the Protestant heretics. Many people who had held secret meetings in their homes were dragged off to prison and later burned at the stake.
De Bres gathered his people and brought them to Frankfurt, Germany where three refugee churches were established: the Flemish Church, an English refugee church of which John Knox was its pastor, and also a French refugee Church to which John Calvin came from Geneva to settle their problems.
For two years de Bres was at the Protestant Academy in Lausanne studying Greek under Theodore Beza, who became Calvin’s successor in Geneva. De Bres went with Beza to Geneva for one year to help Calvin.
After three years of study de Bres boarded a boat to Doornik. He was now thirty-seven years old. In 1559, Guido de Bres married Catherine Ramon, a young woman of Doornik’s church. In 1560 they had their first son, Israel.
“During the first year of his marriage de Bres began to outline a Confession of Faith for which the Church of centuries to come would remember him and give thanks.” 2
By now de Bres was a real leader of the Reformed people of many churches. “He usually disguised himself, changing from a long beard to a short one, or from a long cloak to a coat and hat. He went by the name of Jerome and most of the people in his congregation never knew their pastor by any other name.” 3 Although he lived in Doornik his family probably could not be with him.
Margaret, the king’s regent, often would send her men to persecute the Protestants in Doornik. In 1544, Pierre Brully of Strassbourg came to Doornik as their preacher. After he was there for about three months Margaret’s men cracked down on the city. Brully had to get out of the city secretly. As he was going over the wall a stone fell and crushed his leg. The guards heard this and captured and later burned him to death. The next year their second minister was captured and burned to death and four of his followers were beheaded. For years the church had to go along by itself until 1559 when de Bres came to help them. He became the minister of their Protestant church, The Church of the Palm.
De Bres started to reorganize the church again. “All the church gatherings were held in secret after dark, and no more than twelve people met in one place.” 4 They elected elders and deacons, observed the Lord’s Supper, and baptized their children, It was a Flemish Custom to invite friends for supper. At supper de Bres would pray and give a meditation. This custom served well to spread the word and bring new converts into the Church of the Palm.
Taffin, a magistrate, and the lawyer de Lattre, were converted. De Bres began to hope that by slow, careful, secret work the whole city could be brought to the Reformed faith.
Robert du Four, a weaver, was a leader of a group of people that wanted to show that they were Christians and by making a public demonstration to show their strength. De Bres tried to hold them back but it was no use. On St. Michael’s Day, September 29, 1561 in the evening many Protestants gathered and went up and down the streets singing. The second night they gathered again to sing and shouted in front of the bishop vicar’s house.
The bishop, who was in Brussels, went to Margaret. She was very furious because she feared that trouble in the towns would lead to war, and also because the Doornik magistrates had not kept her informed. She had three royal commissioners bring a letter to the magistrates who had not done their duty to keep the Protestants out.
The commissioners dragged hundreds of people in and threatened them with torture and death. Everything was uncovered: the secret meetings, leaders of the singing, and Jerome. Du Four and du Mortier had escaped out of the city. In du Mortier’s house were found the books of Calvin, letters. and a printed copy of the Confession of Faith which bore no author’s name. No one knew where he was and no one was aware that Jerome was really the great, glorious heretic, de Bres.
As de Bres hid, he decided that it was time to present the Confession of Faith openly. No one could present the Confession in person so it had to be “thrown over the wall of the govorner’s castle where the commissioners stayed. “5 This was done on November 2, 1561.
“The Confession was first printed in 1561 at Rouen, France. It was revised at the synod of Antwerp in 1566 and printed that same year in Geneva.”6 In 1619 the Synod of Dort approved it. The first few pages contained an open letter to King Phillip, and then followed the Confession of Faith. Thirdly came an exhortation to the magistrates of the provinces. “You are ordained by God, says de Bres to them, and it is your duty to rule justly instead of condemning and killing the innocent as you have done until now.” 7
De Bres hoped to battle the errors of the Anabaptists and reinforce the faith of the believers. He wanted to tell the king and his helpers what the Christians believed so that maybe the king would be merciful to the elect.
The Confession was found on November 5, 1561 and Margaret ordered that anyone who owned or distributed copies of it would be arrested and punished.
In December, de Bres escaped from Doornik. On January 10, a fire broke out and his room was discovered. They found many articles that Margaret ordered burned.
“On January 21, by royal order, de Bres was burned in effigy in the market square in Doornik.”8 He escaped again over the border into France.
Guido de Bres went into exile for the third and last time in France. He lived there for almost five years as a pastor in many congregations. During these years he was with his family. Israel and Sara were born and now in France three more children were born. They had five children in nine years.
There were still persecutions going on in France. In the town of Amiens he was put in prison and later was released.
In July, of 1566, de Bres preached in Antwerp and in August he went to Valenciennes and to Anzin, a suburb of Valenciennes. In March of 1567 the church was destroyed in Valenciennes. De Bres and de la Grange, another minister, were not found. They had escaped to Rumegies, but here someone recognized them and they were arrested. For fourteen days he was a prisoner at Doornik. On his stay he wrote a letter to his wife, Catherine. Many people came to visit him and later he was transferred to St. Amand.
“In Valenciennes de Bres was put in an obscure prison called Brunain. It was a foul place, so dark and filthy that it was called the Black Hole.” 9 In his seven weeks there he wrote an essay on the Lord’s Supper and the mass. He also wrote a letter to his mother, wife and congregation.
On May 31, 1567 de Bres was wakened at 3:00 A.M. and told he would be hung at 6:00 o’clock with one other preacher. Three others were to be beheaded. His family was spared the sight of their father and husband’s death. De la Grange was executed before de Bres. De Bres prayed and spoke to the crowd before he died.
Before evening they were finally buried “in a field in Mt. Anzin. the suburb where de Bres had done his first field preaching.” 10
The Belgic Confession became one of the three creeds or “doctrinal standards of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and America. “ 11
1 Thea B. Van Halsema, Glorious Heretic (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1961), p. 105.
2 Thea B. Van Halsema, Glorious Heretic (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1961), p. 108.
3 Ibid. p. 110
4 Ibid. p. 111
5 Thea B. Van Halsema, Glorious Heretic (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1961). pp. 114 and 115.
6 “Belgic Confession”, Encyclopedia Britannica (1974), I.
7 Thea B. Van Halsema, Glorious Heretic (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1961), p. 115
8 Ibid., p. 117.
9 Ibid., p. 130
10 Thea B. Van Halsema, Glorious Heretic (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1961) p. 134
11 B.K. Kuiper,The Church in History (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1960) p. 268