History of religion in the Netherlands
The history of religion in the Netherlands has been characterized by considerable diversity of religious thought and practice. Since 1600, in general the North and West is Calvinist and the Southeast is Catholic, with Muslims and other religions concentrated in ethnic neighborhoods in the cities. Since the 1950s the Netherlands has become one of the most secularized countries in the western world.
Before the Reformation
Before the advent of Christianity the Netherlands were populated by Celtic tribes in the South, which adhered to Celtic polytheism and Germanic tribes in the North, which adhered to Germanic paganism. After the Roman Empire occupied the later southern Netherlands, Roman mythology became important there, as well as religions from the Middle East, including relics from Egyptian mythology, Judaism, Mithraism and later Christianity.
By the 6th century the conversion of the southern Netherlands to Christianity was completed.
In the 8th century Anglo-Saxon missionaries like Boniface attempted to Christianize the land inhabited by the Frisians. The Frisians resisted: Boniface was killed in 754 near Dokkum by the Frisians for the gold they thought he carried. The missionaries gradually succeeded in the conversion of the North in the 8th century. By the beginning of the 9th century the Saxon-controlled northeastern regions were also subjugated and Christianized by Lebuinus, Plechelmus and Ludgerus.
In the 14th and 15th century, the first calls were heard for religious reform, although inside the Catholic Church. Geert Groote established the Brethren of the Common Life, an influential mystical order.
The most prominent Dutch theologian was the humanist Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus worked in the midst of the growing Reformation. He was critical of the abuses within the Catholic Church and called for reform, but he kept his distance from Luther and Melancthon. He continued to recognise the authority of the pope. Erasmus emphasized a middle way, with a deep respect for traditional faith, piety and grace, and rejected Luther's emphasis on faith alone. Erasmus therefore remained a Catholic all his life. In relation to clerical abuses in the Church, Erasmus remained committed to reforming the Church from within. He also held to Catholic doctrines such as that of free will, which some Reformers rejected in favour of the doctrine of predestination. His middle road approach disappointed and even angered scholars in both camps.
The 16th and 17th century were characterized by the Protestant Reformation, which greatly influenced the history of the Netherlands, especially in western and northern areas of the country. The first wave of Reformation, initiated by Martin Luther, did not come to the Netherlands. The second wave of the Protestant Reformation, Anabaptism, became very popular in the counties of Holland and Friesland. Anabaptists were very radical and believed that the apocalypse was very near. They refused to live the old way, and began new communities, creating considerable chaos. A prominent Dutch anabaptist was Menno Simons, who initiated the Mennonite church. Another Anabaptist, Jantje van Leyden became the ruler of a newly founded city, New Jerusalem. Anabaptists survived throughout the centuries and they were recognized by the States-General of the Netherlands in 1578. Institutionalized Dutch baptism stood for a model for both English and American Baptists.
The third wave of the Reformation, Calvinism, arrived in the Netherlands in the 1560s, converting both parts of the elite and the common population, mostly in Flanders. The Spanish government, under Philip II started harsh persecution campaigns, supported by the Spanish inquisition. In reaction to this persecution, Calvinists rebelled. First there was the Beeldenstorm in 1566, which involved the destruction of religious depictions in Churches. Also in 1566 William the Silent, a convert to Calvinism, started the Eighty Years' War to liberate the Calvinist Dutch from the Catholic Spaniards. The counties of Holland and Zeeland were conquered by Calvinists in 1572. A considerable number of people were Calvinist in Holland and Zeeland at that time already, while the other states remained almost entirely Catholic. The estates of Holland, led by Paulus Buys decided to support William the Silent, the Prince of Orange. All churches in the Calvinist territories became Calvinist and most of the population in these territories converted to or were forced to convert to Calvinism. Because the Netherlands had ceded from Spain over both political and religious issues, it practiced certain forms of tolerance towards people of certain other religions and opened its borders for religious dissenters (Protestants and Jews) from elsewhere, while maintaining its persecution and later discrimination against native Catholics. Descartes for instance lived in the Netherlands for most of his adult life.
In the early 17th century the Roman Catholic Jesuits launched large campaigns in order to rekindle faith among Catholics. Many Catholics were tending towards converting to Protestantism for temporal gain, and in those areas where the Jesuits could operate, the Dutch Catholics were supported in their faith and some Calvinists reverted to Catholicism. The number of adherents of Catholicism however dwindled due to the lack of priests, especially in rural areas of Gelre, Overijssel, Groningen and Frisia. At the same time, the larger western cities received an influx of Protestant immigrants from Germany, Flanders and France and developed a Protestant character. Orthodox Calvinists converted a belt of land from the south west (the province of Zeeland), via the Veluwe, to the north of the Netherlands (until the city of Staphorst) during the 17th and even as late as the 18th centuries. This remains Orthodox Calvinist until this day. During the Twelve Years' Truce (between 1609 and 1621) in the Eighty Years' War, the Netherlands saw a civil war along religious lines. The Synod of Dort tried to bring an end to an internal theological conflict within the Calvinist church between two tendencies of Calvinism the orthodox Gomarists or Contra-Remonstrants and the liberal Arminians or Remonstrants. Civil war broke out in the 1610s between orthodox and liberal Calvinists. The liberal sovereign estates of Holland left the Republic. The orthodox Calvinist side won (prince Maurice of Orange and the other provinces) and the official head of state of the County of Holland, Johan van Oldebarnevelt, was executed. Calvinism became the de facto state religion and political offices could only be occupied by Calvinists (and in some cases, Jews). Other Christian religions were mostly tolerated, although discriminated, but were not permitted to practice their religion in public. Judaism was allowed in public, Lutheranism only in larger cities on the condition of maintaining Calvinist church interior styles, without crucifixes as known in Scandinavian cathedrals.
In 1648, the independence of the Netherlands was recognized by the Treaty of Westphalia. The Netherlands did not only include the seven relatively independent Protestant provinces of the Dutch Republic but also a Roman Catholic Generaliteitsland, which was governed by the States-General. This area roughly includes the current provinces of North Brabant and Limburg, which remained Roman Catholic. The Netherlands became known among Anglicans, many Protestants and Jews for its relative religious tolerance and became a refuge for the persecuted and a home for many of these migrants. The proportion of first-generation immigrants from outside the Netherlands among the population of Amsterdam was nearly 50% in the 17th and 18th centuries. Jews had their own laws and formed a separate society. Many Jews, especially from Antwerp, migrated to Amsterdam. The Netherlands also hosted religious refugees, including Huguenots from France and Puritans from England (the most famous of the latter being the Pilgrims).
The 19th century witnessed a rising conflict between Catholics, liberal Calvinists and orthodox Calvinists, and a Dutch solution, pillarization, which lasted until the 1960s.
Invading forces of Revolutionary France in 1795, which established the Batavian Republic, brought equal rights and emancipation for all religions in the Netherlands. In 1813 the Calvinist Republic united with the catholic Southern Netherlands to form the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. The union split in 1830 after the Belgian Revolution, which was partially motivated by religious differences between Protestants and Catholics, as well as by Orangists (royalists) and Liberals (mainly from Brussels and Ghent). The position of Catholics of the Kingdom of the Netherlands became worse again. The Catholic hierarchy became forbidden and Catholics were forbidden to hold religious processions in all provinces except for Noord Brabant and Limburg.
The Netherlands was ruled by liberal Calvinist elite, which dominated the bureaucracy and the Dutch Reformed Church, leading to splits. In 1834, led by Rev. Hendrik de Cock, a group seceded from the Dutch Reformed Church in what was known as the Afscheiding. Roughly fifty years later, in 1886, another group of orthodox Calvinists, led by Abraham Kuyper, split from the Dutch Reformed Church. In 1892 they founded the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, one of the major neo-Calvinist denominations. Kuyper also organized a whole range of religiously inspired organizations, he was inspired by his conception of the separation of Church and State, sphere sovereignty. He founded an orthodox Calvinist newspaper, labour union, schools, a university and a political party. During this period Catholics began to do the same. The Netherlands became separated between three religious pillars, an orthodox Calvinist, a Catholic and a neutral one. These were subcultures which did not interfere with each other. During the 20th century a separate socialist pillar would also develop. This phenomenon is called pillarization. There was considerable religious tolerance between these subcultures and they cooperated with each other at the level of government.
The social distance grew. People read different newspapers; by the 1930s they listened to different radio programs. Catholic and Protestant children did not play together. Adults did not socialize across religious lines. Marriage across religious lines grew rare.
Jews had become fully integrated into Dutch society after the 1795. Most Jews would later on become aligned within the socialist pillar; many of them became highly secularized and westernized in appearance. They formed a considerable minority: one eighth of the population of Amsterdam was Jewish.
The Second World War
In February 1941, there was a general strike in Amsterdam and the surrounding areas against the first razzia. This was the largest act of resistance against the persecution of Jews during the Second World War in the Netherlands. The main resistance groups were composed from conservative Calvinists, Communists and Catholics, while liberals and others were underrepresented. An important action of the resistance movement was hiding Jews from Nazis. There were 140,000 Jews in the Netherlands in 1940. 20,000 of them were free from persecution, because they were married to Aryan non-Jews, or because some of their parents and grandparents were non-Jews. Another 20,000 Jews hid from the Germans. From the 101,000 Jews that were deported, only 1,000 returned after the war (estimation). The percentage of Dutch Jews that were exterminated was much higher than in other countries, including Germany.
Secularization, or the decline in religiosity, first became noticeable after 1960 in the Protestant rural areas of Friesland and Groningen. Then, it spread to Amsterdam, Rotterdam and the other large cities in the west. Finally the Catholic southern areas showed religious declines. A countervailing trend is produced by a religious revival in the Protestant Bible Belt, and the growth of Muslims and Hindu communities resulting from immigration and high fertility levels.
After the Second World War the major religions began to decline, while a new religion, Islam, began to increase in numbers. During the 1960s and 1970s, pillarization began to weaken and the population became less religious. In 1971, 39% of the Dutch population were members of the Roman Catholic Church; by 2007, their share of the population had dropped to 26% (KASKI data). The proportion of adherents of mainline Protestantism declined in the same period from 31% to 11%. An additional 5% of the population adheres to other Protestant churches. With only 40% of the Dutch currently adhering to a church, the Netherlands is one of the least religious countries of Europe. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Dutch policy on abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality and prostitution became very liberal. As a result of the declining religious adherence, the two major strands of Calvinism, the Dutch Reformed Church and the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, together with a small Lutheran group began to cooperate, first as the Samen op weg Kerken ("Together on the road churches") and since 2004 as the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, a united Protestant church.
During the same period, Islam increased from nearly 0% to 5%. The main Islamic immigrants came from Surinam and Indonesia, as a result of decolonization, Turkey and Morocco, as migrant workers, and Iraq, Iran, Bosnia and Afghanistan as refugees. In the early 21st century, religious tensions between native Dutch people and migrant Muslims is increasing. After the rise of the populist politician Pim Fortuyn, who sought to defend the Dutch liberal culture against what he saw as a "backwards religion", stricter immigration laws were enacted. Religious tensions heightened after Theo van Gogh was killed in 2004 by Mohammed Bouyeri, a conservative Muslim.
- see map
- Manfred Hoffmann, "Faith and Piety in Erasmus's Thought," Sixteenth Century Journal (1989) 20#2 pp 241-258
- James D. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (2012)
- On the decline of intermarriage see Erik Beekink, et al. "Changes in Choice of Spouse as an Indicator of a Society in a State of Transition: Woerden, 1830-1930," Historical Social Research (1998) 23#1 pp 231-253.
- Yosef Kaplan, The Dutch Intersection: The Jews and the Netherlands in Modern History (2008)
- Hans Knippenberg, "Secularization in the Netherlands in its historical and geographical dimensions," GeoJournal (1998) 45#3 pp 209-220. online
- Tomáš Sobotka and Feray Adigüzel, "Religiosity and spatial demographic differences in the Netherlands" (2002) online
- (Dutch) Godsdienstige veranderingen in Nederland, Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau, September 2006
- (Dutch) Fortuyn: grens dicht voor islamiet, Volkskrant, 2002-02-09
- Bakvis, Herman. Catholic Power in the Netherlands (1981)., 20th century
- Blom, J. C. H. and E. Lamberts, eds. History of the Low Countries (2006) 504pp excerpt and text search; also complete edition online
- Israel, Jonathan. The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall, 1477–1806 (1995) a major synthesis; complete online edition; also excerpt and text search
- Kaplan, Yosef. The Dutch Intersection: The Jews and the Netherlands in Modern History (2008)* Kossmann, E. H. The Low Countries 1780–1940 (1978), detailed survey
- Kossmann, E. H. The Low Countries 1780–1940 (1978), detailed survey
- Koopmans, Joop W., and Arend H. Huussen, Jr. Historical Dictionary of the Netherlands (2nd ed. 2007)excerpt and text search
- Parker, Charles H. Faith on the Margins: Catholics and Catholicism in the Dutch Golden Age (Harvard University Press, 2008) 331 pp online review