Familists, an English term used to designate the Familia Charitatis, or «Family of Love,» a mystical religious sect. The sect was fouded around 1540 by Hendrik Niclaes (or Nocolas), a wealthy Dutch merchant, probably at Emden. Niclaes believed himself to be endowed with «the spirit of the true love of Jesus Christ.» He traveled to many European countries on both commercial and propagandizing missions.

Most of his writings were accomplished during this early period. His major work was An Introduction to the Holy Understanding of the Glass of Righteousness, the «glass» being the spirit of Christ as interpreted by Niclaes. The doctrine that he propounded in this book was a vague philanthropism, pantheistic and antinomian at its base. Adherents of the sect were admitted through baptism. Niclaes established a hierarchy modeled after the Roman Catholic Church, and claimed impeccability (exemption from the possibility of sinning) for the hierarchy and himself.

In England, where Niclaes visited in 1532-1533, the sect was suppressed from 1580. But, an underground organization survived there longer the any place else in Europe, even experiencing a brief revival during the Commonwealth. By the end of the 17th century the Familist movement was absorbed by the Quakers and similar bodies. A.G.H.


The familists sect

The Familists, or the Family of Love (Familia Caritatis), represent an interesting chapter in the history of religious movements during the Reformation era in Europe.


Foundation and Founder

  • Founded by Hendrik Niclaes: The Familists were founded around 1540 by Hendrik Niclaes, a Dutch merchant from Emden, who believed he was endowed with a special spiritual insight or «the spirit of the true love of Jesus Christ.»
  • Travel and Propagation: Niclaes traveled extensively across Europe for both business and to propagate his religious beliefs.


Beliefs and Doctrine

  • Major Work: Niclaes’ significant work, «An Introduction to the Holy Understanding of the Glass of Righteousness,» outlined his spiritual teachings. The «glass» symbolized the spirit of Christ as interpreted by Niclaes.
  • Pantheistic and Antinomian Elements: The doctrine espoused by Niclaes and the Familists was characterized by philanthropism (an emphasis on the love of humanity), with pantheistic (God is synonymous with the universe) and antinomian (rejection of legalistic religious laws) underpinnings.
  • Hierarchy and Impeccability: Niclaes established a hierarchical structure similar to that of the Roman Catholic Church and claimed that he and the hierarchy were impeccable, meaning they were exempt from sinning.


Practices and Organization

  • Admission through Baptism: New adherents were admitted into the sect through a baptismal process.
  • Model of Organization: The Familists’ organization mirrored the structure of the Catholic Church, reflecting a degree of formal organization and leadership.


Presence and Suppression in England

  • Niclaes’ Visit to England: Niclaes visited England in 1532-1533, where he likely spread his teachings.
  • Suppression: Starting from around 1580, the Familist sect faced suppression in England, but they managed to maintain an underground presence.
  • Survival and Brief Revival: The Familists survived longer in England than in other parts of Europe and even experienced a brief revival during the Commonwealth period (1649-1660).


Decline and Absorption

  • End of the Movement: By the end of the 17th century, the Familist movement had largely faded.
  • Absorption by Other Groups: The remnants of the Familist movement were absorbed into other religious groups, most notably the Quakers, who shared some similarities in terms of spiritual focus and inner light.


Historical Significance

  • Reflection of Reformation Era: The Familists represent the diverse array of religious and spiritual movements that emerged during the Reformation, reflecting the period’s religious turmoil and the search for new forms of spiritual expression.
  • Influence on Later Movements: Though the Familists themselves did not endure as a distinct group, their ideas and emphasis on inner spirituality influenced later religious movements and sects.