Three Lessons from 234 Pastors’ Libraries
One of the most common assumptions about pastors throughout church history is that they are men of books—that reading is central to a pastor’s ministry. If you walk into your pastor’s office—he might even call it his “study”—it will almost surely be full of books (2 Tim. 4:13).
But it wasn’t always this way. From our perch in 2023, we easily forget how significant the introduction of the printing press was to the history of the church. Prior to its invention, books were rare, usually only owned by wealthy men and women or tucked away in a monastery. Hardly any ordinary Europeans would have owned more than one book prior to 1450.
John Foxe (1516–1587), an early English Protestant, described the invention of the printing press to the readers of his Acts and Monuments and exhorted them, “That Great Antichrist of Rome could never have been suppressed, and, being suppressed, could not have been kept under, except this most excellent science of printing had been maintained.”
Of course God didn’t need a printer to reform his church. But he was certainly glad to use one. And Foxe’s inability to imagine another way illustrates how central books were to the Reformation.
Have you ever wondered what our Protestant forefathers read?
Thankfully, we have 234 catalogs of ministers’ libraries in the Netherlands during the seventeenth century. These lists were composed after the pastor’s death, so that the book collection could be sold at auction by his estate. Over 300,000 books are listed.
We can draw numerous lessons from these catalogs. I’ll focus on three.
Lesson #1: Read Books by Your Worst Enemies
If you assumed that Dutch Reformed ministers in the generations immediately after the Reformation focused on books like Calvin’s Institutes and Luther’s Bondage of the Will, you would be right. The Reformed Church was the only publicly sanctioned church in the Netherlands in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so it’s not too surprising that John Calvin, the most revered writer amongst Reformed theologians, was the most common author in Dutch ministerial libraries. Dutch ministers read significantly from their theological compatriots—Calvin, Martin Luther, Theodore Beza, and William Perkins.
But many theological antagonists show up, too, in almost equal numbers. Dutch ministers read those with whom they fervently disagreed—even on matters of first importance. Thomas Cajetan, famous for defending Roman Catholicism against Martin Luther, was more commonly read than Ulrich Zwingli. The most famous Roman Catholic theologian of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Robert Bellarmine, was among the most popular authors. Even some heretics were on the shelf. Fausto Socini, the Polish theologian who denied the Trinity and several other key doctrines, was just as popular as several ministers who were soundly Reformed.
Why did they read these authors? Because these ministers were convinced it would sharpen their theological convictions and pastoral instincts. Just like Christians today, Dutch Christians faced a deluge of books with questionable orthodoxy. They could easily find authors who denied sound doctrine. Their ministers considered it their divine calling to help those in their flocks understand where those authors went wrong.
Lesson #2: Read More Than Theology
These pastors recognized they had to convince those under their care not of a discrete set of theological beliefs, but of an all-encompassing Christian worldview. They knew members of their flocks would want to know why family members got sick and died, how they were supposed to understand the current political or social moment, what God says about money and finance, and what the relationship is between God and the created world. In other words, they asked the same everyday questions we still ask.
To better care for those in their congregation, a minister would often read books on a variety of non-theological topics: science, medicine, economics, politics, and even newspapers. An average recorded collection contained about a thousand books. Three hundred or so were on non-theological topics.
They investigated topics that affected their congregants’ lives and offered a response from a Christian worldview. The ideal Dutch minister presented an informed case to live faithfully as a banker, farmworker, sailor, lawyer, factory worker, mother, or father. Reading books was seen as an act of service in which the minister sought to apply Scripture to every aspect of life.
Lesson #3: Give Books Away
Formal church services and times of pastoral visitation only took up a small portion of a believer’s week, but with a godly book, the faithful Christian could fill countless minutes and hours contemplating heavenly things. A quiet evening could be spent meditating on gospel truths with only a candle. For this reason, ministers gave books away. They sent books to other ministers.
Placing a good book into the hands of a friend is one of the sweetest gifts you can give, and Dutch ministers did it continually. How do we know? Dutch ministers’ libraries were constantly changing as they loaned books out, received books from other ministers, and gave books away. One minister bought thirty-six copies of a book so when he met with ministers in his area they could discuss it. Imagine the process: a church member is given one gospel-centered book, they then go read everything the author has written, and after a while they start reading books by those whom the author speaks about positively. Ten or twenty years later, it’s hard to overestimate the amount of spiritual growth that can be traced to one book. The message of a book, like hearing faithful sermons, can sink into the heart of a believer and bear fruit thirty, sixty, and a hundred-fold.
Faithful ministers have recognized for hundreds of years that reading books was central to their pastoral work. They followed the advice of Solomon: “Buy truth, and do not sell it; buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding” (Prov. 23:23). Reading provided Dutch ministers in the seventeenth century with the intellectual firepower necessary to preach the Word in season and out of season, to guard the faith as it was entrusted to them, and to encourage others in sound doctrine.
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Editor’s note: This article is adapted from Forrest C. Strickland’s book The Devotion of Collecting: Dutch Ministers and the Culture of Print in the Seventeenth Century (Leiden: Brill, 2023), published with permission.
 John Foxe, The Acts and Monuments of John Foxe, vol. 3 (London: Published by R.B. Seeley and W. Burnside, 1868), p. 719.