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History of religion in the Netherlands

The history of religion in the Netherlands has been characterized by considerable diversity of religious thought and practice. From 1600 until the second half of the 20th century, the north and west were Calvinist and the southeast was in majority Catholic,[1] with Muslims and other religions concentrated in ethnic neighborhoods in the cities. Since the 1960s the Netherlands has become one of the most non-religious countries in the western world. In a December 2014 survey by the VU University Amsterdam was concluded that for the first time there are more atheists (25%) than theists (17%) in the Netherlands. The majority of the population being agnostic (31%) or ietsist (27%).[2]

Altar for Nehalennia AD 150-250


Prehistory and Early Middle AgesEdit

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.

The oldest data on the profession of religion by the inhabitants of the regions that are now the "Netherlands" were passed down by the Romans. Contrary to what ancient sources seem to suggest, the Rhine, which clearly formed the boundary of the Roman Empire, did certainly not form the boundary between residential areas of Celts and Germans. There were Germans south of it (Germani Cisrhenani) and many place names and archaeological finds indicate the presence of Celts north of the Rhine. Between these "Celtic - Germanic peoples" and later the Roman conquerors (romanization) a cultural exchange took place. An adaptation of polytheistic religions and other myths took place among the various tribes, coming from both the Germanic, Celtic and later Roman mythology. Gods as Nehalennia, Hludana and Sandraudiga are of indigenous (Celtic) origin, the Germanic people had gods like Wodan, Donar and Frigg/Freya from Scandinavia. For example, Jupiter, Minerva and Venus were introduced by the Romans. Tacitus also described the creation myth of Mannus, a primitive man from which all Germanic tribes would have emerged. The Celts and Germans in the Low Countries were also most likely to have had tree shrines, following the example of the Old Norse Yggdrasil and the Saxon Irminsul and Donar's oak. Temples were probably only build during and after the romanization, and have been preserved for example in Empel and Elst.

From the 4th to the 6th century AD, the Great Migration took place, in which the small Celtic-Germanic-Roman tribes in the Low Countries were gradually supplanted by three major Germanic tribes: the Franks, the Frisians and Saxons. Around 500 the Franks, initially residing between the Rhine and the Somme, adopted Christianity, forced by their king Chlodovech. A large part of the area south of the Meuse belonged from the early Middle Ages to 1559 to Archdeacon Kempenland, which was part of the Diocese of Tongeren-Maastricht-Liège. From the center of the diocese, successively the cities of Tongeren, Maastricht and Liège, this part of the Netherlands was probably Christianized. According to tradition, the first Bishop of Maastricht, Servatius was buried in this city in 384, though only Bishop Domitianus (c. 535) is established to have resided in Maastricht.

At the start of the 6th century, the first (Hiberno-Scottish) missionaries arrived. They were later replaced by Anglo-Saxon missionaries, who eventually succeeded in converting most of the inhabitants of the southern Netherlands by the 8th century.

From the late 7th century, missionaries coming from England and Ireland, such as Boniface, Lebuinus, Ludger, Plechelm, Willehad and especially Willibrord, sought to convert the inhabitants of the areas north of the Meuse and Rhine to Christianity with varying degrees of success, as evidenced by the (not always reliable) descriptions of their lives that have been written about them. Later, in addition to successful sermons, there were failures like the refusal of the heathen Frisian king Radboud to be baptized by Wulfram. Because he would get to heaven by repenting, Radboud chose an afterlife with his ancestors who according to Wulfram were in hell. After the Frisian–Frankish wars (c. 600-793) and the Saxon Wars (772-804), the Low Countries all fell under the rule of the Christian Frankish kings, who wanted their people to subject both politically and religiously. A major source of that time is the Old Saxon Baptismal Vow, which describes how one must renounce his old gods (described as "devils") and subdue to the Christian trinity.

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. However, it would take at least until AD 1000 before all pagan people were actually Christianized and the Frisian and Saxon religions became extinct, although elements were incorporated into the Christian religion. The following centuries, Catholic Christianity was the only mainstream religion in the Netherlands.

The Old Saxon Baptismal Vow: "Forsachistu diobolae.." (Forsake devils) and "gelobistu in got alamehtigan fadaer" (believe in god almighty father). Left caption in a later writing: "Abrinuciatio diaboli lingua Teotisca veter." = (abjuration of the devil in Old German). Under the Baptismal Vow in Latin an enumeration of the first 20 practices in the Indiculus superstitionum et paganiarum.

High and Late Middle AgesEdit

Religious life was ubiquitous in medieval society. Important abbeys such Rolduc, Susteren, Sint Odiliënberg and Egmond had a huge impact on the countryside. In the Christian centers of Utrecht and Maastricht powerful chapters were established. From the 13th century monastic and knightly orders settled in many cities, such as Franciscans, Dominicans and knights of the Teutonic Order. They took part in many of the 12th- and 13th-century crusades to the Holy Land (see Frisian participation in the Crusades).

Where justice until the 12th century existed by Kangaroo courts, which often meant Trial by ordeal to establish a person's guilt or innocence, the ecclesiastical and secular powers started in the course of the 12th century to control the justice system. The church rules (in particular by the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215) and the monarchs maintained the order. At the end of the Middle Ages, the Devotio Moderna (among others Geert Groote and Thomas à Kempis) created a spiritual innovation. In the 14th and 15th centuries, 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, but only under the influence of humanism (among others Erasmus and Dirck Coornhert) changed the Dutch world fundamentally, and started to shift from a theocentric to an anthropocentric worldview.

Reformation in the Early Modern PeriodEdit

Erasmus in 1523 as depicted by Hans Holbein the Younger

Catholicism dominated Dutch religion until the early 16th century, when the Protestant Reformation began to form.[citation needed] Early Protestantism in the form of Lutheranism did not gain much support among the Dutch, but Calvinism, introduced two decades later, did. It began its spread in the Westhoek and the County of Flanders, where secret sermons were held outdoors, called hagenpreken ("hedgerow orations") in Dutch. Gradually discontent among the Dutch grew, and erupted in 1566 with the so-called Beeldenstorm, a surge of iconoclasm, which quickly spread among all Dutch regions and finally resulted in what would become the Dutch revolt. During the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation an independent Dutch religious tradition began to take shape in the northern parts of the independent Netherlands.

The most prominent Dutch theologian was the humanist Desiderius Erasmus. He was critical of the abuses within the Catholic Church and called for reform, but he kept his distance from Martin Luther and Philip 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.[3]

Menno Simons. The Mennonites are named after him.
Jacobus Arminius, the Reformed theologian and the father of Arminianism.
Cornelius Otto Jansen, the father of the Roman Catholic reform movement known as Jansenism in the Southern Netherlands.

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 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 was a model for both English and American Baptists.

The third wave of the Reformation, Calvinism, arrived in the Netherlands in the 1540s, 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 Inquisition. In reaction to this persecution, the Calvinists rebelled. First there was the Beeldenstorm in 1566, which involved the destruction of religious depictions in churches. Also in 1566 William the Silent, Prince of Orange, 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. 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. For instance, René Descartes lived in the Netherlands for most of his adult life.

Philip II of Spain was the hereditary ruler of the Netherlands. As a devout Catholic, Philip felt it was his duty to fight Protestantism. After the Beeldenstorm, he sent troops to suppress Protestantism in the Netherlands. The Spanish conquered the southern Netherlands (Flanders and Brabant). Protestants in this area, many of them prosperous merchants, fled en masse to Holland, Zeeland, and Friesland. An extreme example was the city of Hondschoote, which dropped from 18,000 to a mere 385 inhabitants. Antwerp, formerly the most powerful city in the Low Countries, lost more than half its citizens to this exodus.[4]

In the Calvinist-controlled northern counties, many of the remaining Catholics were tending towards converting to Protestantism for temporal gain, In the early 17th century, the Roman Catholic Jesuits launched large campaigns in order to rekindle faith among Catholics. In those areas where the Jesuits could operate, the Dutch Catholics were supported in their faith and some Calvinists reverted to Catholicism. However, the number of Catholics dwindled due to the lack of priests, especially in rural areas of Gelre, Overijssel, Groningen, and Friesland. At the same time, the larger western cities received an influx of Protestant immigrants from Germany, Flanders, and France and developed a Protestant character. Strict Calvinists converted a belt of land from the south west (the province of Zeeland), via the Veluwe, to the north of the Netherlands (to the city of Staphorst) during the 17th and even as late as the 18th centuries. This remains strict 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 liberal Arminians or Remonstrants and the strict Gomarists or Contra-Remonstrants. Civil war broke out in the 1610s between strict and liberal Calvinists. The liberal States of Holland left the Republic. The strict 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 against, and 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, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire recognized the independence of the Netherlands in the Treaty of Westphalia. The Netherlands included the "Seven Provinces" of the Dutch Republic, which were Protestant, but also a Roman Catholic area. This Generaliteitsland was governed by the States-General; it roughly included the current provinces of North Brabant and Limburg. 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.[citation needed] Many Jews, especially from Antwerp, migrated to Amsterdam. Jews had their own laws and formed a separate society. The Netherlands also hosted religious refugees, including Huguenots from France and Puritans from England (the most famous of the latter being the Pilgrims).

19th centuryEdit

Religious division in the Netherlands in 1849. Catholicism holds a majority in green areas. Protestantism holds a majority in red areas.

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 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 a 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.[5] 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.[6]

Jews had become fully integrated into Dutch society after 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.[7]

The Second World WarEdit

In 1940, the Netherlands was occupied by Nazi Germany. Most of the Dutch Jewish community was exterminated by the Nazis during this occupation.

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 [citation needed]. The percentage of Dutch Jews that were exterminated was much higher than in other countries, including Germany.


Beliefs in the Netherlands (2015), based on in-depth interviewing by Radboud University and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam [8]

  Atheism (24%)
  Agnosticism (34%)
  Ietsism (28%)
  Theism (14%)

Religions in the Netherlands (2015), based on in-depth interviewing by Radboud University and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam [8]

  No affiliation (67.8%)
  Islam (5.0%)
  Other Protestant denominations (4.2%)
  Hinduism and Buddhism (2.0%)
  Other churches and religions (0.7%)

Religions in the Netherlands (2013), based on self-reported numbers by religious organizations (KASKI).[9]

  No religion (55.1%)
  Roman Catholic (23.7%)
  Islam (5.0%)
  Buddhism (1.5%)
  Hinduism (1.2%)
  Other religion, including other Protestant denominations (3.3%)

Religion in the Netherlands was predominantly Christianity until late into the 20th century. Although religious diversity remains, there has been a decline of religious adherence. In 2006, 34 percent of the Dutch population were church members. In 2015, almost 25 percent of the population adhered to one of the Christian churches (11.7% Roman Catholic, 8.6% PKN, 4.2% other small Protestant denominations), 5 percent is Muslim and 2 percent adheres to Hinduism or Buddhism, based on independent in-depth interviewing by Radboud University and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.[10] Approximately 67.8% of the population in 2015 have no religious affiliation, up from 61% in 2006, 53% in 1996, 43% 1979 and 33% in 1966.[11] The Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau (Social and Cultural Planning Agency, SCP) expects the number of non-affiliated Dutch to be at 72% in 2020.[12]

Secularization, or the decline in religious adherence and practice, first became noticeable after 1960 in the Protestant rural towns of Friesland and Groningen. Then, it spread to Amsterdam, Rotterdam and the other large cities in the west. Finally the Catholic south showed religious declines. A countervailing trend is produced by a religious revival in the Protestant Bible Belt, and the growth of Hindu and Muslim communities resulting from immigration and higher birth rates.[13][14]

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 2014, their share of the population had dropped to 23.3% (church-provided KASKI data). The proportion of adherents of mainline Protestantism declined in the same period from 31% to 10% (church-provided KASKI data).[15] KASKI (Katholiek Sociaal-Kerkelijk Insituut / Catholic Social-Ecclesiastical Institute[16]) is based on selfreported information by the Catholic and Protestant churches,[17] which show a significantly higher number of church members than the numbers found by independent in-depth interviewing by Radboud University and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. According tot KASKI, the total number of members of Christian groups in the Netherlands has decreased from approximately 7,013,163 (43.22% overall population) in 2003 to 5,730,852 (34.15% overall population) in 2013.[18] An additional 4.2% of the population adhere to other Protestant churches. With only 32.2% of the Dutch currently adhering to a religion, among which 25% adhere to Christianity and 5% to Islam, the Netherlands is one of the least religious countries of Europe.

During the late 20th century, the Dutch policy on abortion, drug use, 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 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, mainly due to Islamophobia exploited by extreme Dutch politicians. After the rise of the popular politician Pim Fortuyn, who sought to defend the Dutch liberal culture against what he saw as a "backward religion",[19] stricter immigration laws were enacted. Religious tensions heightened after Theo van Gogh was killed in 2004 by Mohammed Bouyeri.

A December 2014 survey by the VU University Amsterdam concluded that for the first time, there were more atheists (25%) than theists (17%) in the Netherlands. The majority of the population being agnostic (31%) or ietsistic (27%).[2]

In the 21st century, a large majority of the Dutch population believes that religion should not play a decisive role in politics and education. Religion is also decreasingly seen as a social binder.[10] Religion in the Netherlands is generally considered a personal matter, which is not supposed to be propagated in public.[20]

Atheism, ietsism, agnosticism, and Christian atheism keep rising; the first three being widely accepted and the last being more or less considered to be non-controversial. Among those who adhere to Christianity there are high percentages of atheists, agnostics and ietsists, since affiliation with a Christian denomination is also used in a way of cultural identification in the different parts (especially the south) of the Netherlands.[21] The expected rise of spirituality has come to a halt according to research in 2015. In 2006, 40 percent of respondents considered themselves spiritual. In 2015, this had dropped to 31 percent.[10]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ see map
  2. ^ a b van Beek, Marije (16 January 2015). "Ongelovigen halen de gelovigen in". Dossier Relige. der Verdieping Trouw. Retrieved 21 April 2015.
  3. ^ Manfred Hoffmann, "Faith and Piety in Erasmus's Thought," Sixteenth Century Journal (1989) 20#2 pp 241-258
  4. ^ Israel, Jonathan Irvine (1995) The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477-1806. ISBN 0-19-820734-4
  5. ^ James D. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (2012)
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Yosef Kaplan, The Dutch Intersection: The Jews and the Netherlands in Modern History (2008)
  8. ^ a b God in Nederland 1966-2015, dr. Ton Bernts & dr. ir. Joantine Berghuijs, Uitgeverij Ten Have, ISBN 978-902590524-8
  9. ^
  10. ^ a b c
  11. ^ God in Nederland 1966-2015, dr. Ton Bernts, dr. ir. Joantine Berghuijs, Publisher: Uitgeverij Ten Have, ISBN 9789025905248
  12. ^ Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau, God in Nederland (2006/2007)
  13. ^ Hans Knippenberg, "Secularization in the Netherlands in its historical and geographical dimensions," GeoJournal (1998) 45#3 pp 209-220. online
  14. ^ Tomáš Sobotka and Feray Adigüzel, "Religiosity and spatial demographic differences in the Netherlands" (2002) online Archived 2012-11-15 at the Wayback Machine
  15. ^ (in Dutch) Godsdienstige veranderingen in Nederland, Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau, September 2006
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^ (in Dutch) Fortuyn: grens dicht voor islamiet, Volkskrant, 2002-02-09
  20. ^ Donk, W.B.H.J. van de; Jonkers, A.P.; Kronjee, G.J.; Plum, R.J.J.M. (2006)
  21. ^ H. Knippenberg, "The Changing Religious Landscape of Europe", Het Spinhuis, Amsterdam 2005 ISBN 90-5589-248-3

Further readingEdit

  • 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

External linksEdit