Some men’s greatness may be seen in how largely they loom over the movements they launched. But greater men are they whose movements loom large over them—even to the point of obscuring them from view. Gerhard Groote was just such a man.
It would be difficult to find a single page of modern history written about him. But it would be even more difficult to find a single page of modern history that had not been profoundly affected by him.
Indeed, as historian Albert Hyma has asserted,
“Gerhard Groote is the most important figure in the history of Christendom’s great reforms that you—and most historians for that matter—have never heard of before. He established a Christian Renaissance that culminated in the Protestant Reformation.”
He lived in the tumultuous days of the fourteenth century. It was a “calamitous century” wrecked by the upheavals of war, schism, plague, famine, economic instability, and political unrest. A contemporary of John Wycliffe, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Jan Hus, Groote saw the scourge of the Black Death sweep a quarter of the population of the world away in a wave of pestilence; he saw France and England locked in the intractable conflagration of the Hundred Years War; he saw the church sundered by the Great Schism that produced two, sometimes three, sometimes even four, popes; and he saw the rise of the universities and the smothering influence of Humanistic Scholasticism. Churches were riven by corruption, kingdoms were shaken by instability, families were splintered by adversity, and the very foundations of Christian civilization in the West seemed to be crumbling.
They were dire days indeed. The problems facing men and nations seemed all but insurmountable. Doomsayers had a heyday.
Groote was raised in the home of a prosperous Dutch merchant, a member of the board of trade in the powerful Hanseatic League. He grew up in the bucolic Yssel Valley just to the south of the Zuiderzee, in the thriving commercial hub, Deventer. Even after both of his parents were swept away by a wave of the plague, he was able to receive the finest education available anywhere in Aachen, Cologne, Paris, Oxford, and Prague. His academic gifts were evident and he eventually became “a deeply learned and powerfully driven man.” He studied canon law, medicine, astrology, natural philosophy, and theology, excelling in them all. By age eighteen, “an early indication of his zeal and intelligence,” he was awarded a Master of Arts.
Afterward, he pursued a career in the church bureaucracy. He received two lucrative “benefices,” or “church livings,” at the historic church of Charlemagne at Aachen and at the cathedral chapter at Utrecht. He also served the papal palace at Avignon as a diplomat and lawyer and represented the commercial interests of the Hanseatic merchants to courts and councils all across the continent.
Alas, he found it difficult to take the claims of his academic masters, his ecclesiastical mentors, and his church peers very seriously. Like so many of his contemporaries throughout Christendom, he concluded that the overt wickedness of the church, the hypocrisy of the political establishment, and the blatant debauchery of the university mitigated against any serious belief in the Gospel. As a result, he ran from conviction and spent his youth and his considerable wealth on reckless and heedless dissipation. He “walked in the ways of the world,” according to his much younger disciple, Thomas a Kempis. Indeed, according to his own account, Groote gave himself over to wine and women “upon every hilltop and under every spreading tree” from “Wessex to Provence” and from “Bayern to Pommern.” When he was finally arrested by grace and converted, he had tasted all the pleasures the Medieval world had to offer.
As an ardent new convert in the midst of a church awash in promiscuous impiety, he lifted up an urgent prophetic voice against the evils of his day. He began to model a life of radical discipleship. And he attracted a strong following in his native Dutch lowlands.
Eventually, Groote’s movement came to be known as the Brethren of the Common Life. He and his followers were committed to the authority of the Scriptures first and foremost. They promoted Biblical preaching that was practical and accessible to the ordinary Christian. They pioneered vernacular translations of the Bible. And they founded schools to educate young men and women to be wise and discerning believers as well as effective and successful citizens.
The revival wrought by the movement was genuine, vibrant, and even widely admired. Even so, it could hardly have been expected to put a dent in the overwhelming problems of the day. Indeed, the litany of fourteenth century woes continued, seemingly unabated. When Groote died, some asserted that his efforts at renewal were ultimately stymied by the fierce reality of the circumstances of the day; he was by all such accounts, a failure.
But throughout his life and ministry, Groote was laying foundations for something that might endure well beyond his own life and ministry. He had a multigenerational plan. He understood that it had taken a very long time for Western Civilization to get into the mess that it was in and that no man or movement, no matter how potent or effective would be able to turn things around overnight. That was why the heart and soul of his plan was to disseminate the Scriptures and build schools. His covenantal theology had led him to have a generational vision—one that enabled him to invest in a future he would likely never see on this earth.
It was a wise strategy. Amazingly, in less than a century and a half the strategy began to bear abundant fruit: it was in those scattered and seemingly insignificant Brethren of Common Life schools that nearly every one of the Reformers would ultimately be educated: Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Melancthon, Bucer, and Beza.
An obscure man changed the course of history—albeit generations later—by simply living out the implications of radical grace and covenantal faithfulness right where he was. He faced the impossible odds of a culture gone terribly awry. He implemented a generational vision that laid new foundations for freedom and prosperity simply by equipping and enabling future leaders.
Perhaps by looking back at Groote and his reforming work, we will be able to see our way forward for our own. After all, his was a distinctly Biblical vision, a sound vision, and thus a rather unpopular vision. And it still is.