Perhaps the Reformation’s most lasting impact on the American church has come from the Netherlands.
The Reformation came later to the Netherlands than Germany and England, perhaps because of extreme persecution. The German states retained some autonomy, but there was no such protection in the Netherlands. During the Reformation era, over 50,000 Protestants were martyred for their faith.
When Philip II ruled over the Low Countries (Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg), he persecuted the Dutch, through his Spanish bishops and veteran armies. He also stripped the nobles of their power and imposed heavy taxes on the people, thereby solidifying the Dutch against the Spanish, politically, economically and spiritually.
As James E. McGoldrick has written: ‘Economic and political factors provoked resistance to Spain, and Protestantism infused it with spiritual energy and dedication. The history of the Reformation in the Netherlands is therefore the story of a struggle not only against religious despotism, but against political tyranny also’ (Presbyterian and Reformed churches: a global history, p.56).
Treaty of Westphalia
War broke out between the Dutch and their Spanish overlords. Led by William of Orange, the Dutch eventually secured freedom for the Netherlands, after the Eighty Years War, at the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.
The Dutch then began establishing their own church. One of its principal leaders was Guido de Brés, a pupil of Calvin. He was one of the main writers of the Belgic Confession of Faith. This, along with the Heidelberg Catechism and Canons of Dort, comprise the ‘Three Forms of Unity’, the theological backbone of the Dutch Reformed Church and Dutch Reformed Churches in America.
Some other factors marked out the Dutch Reformed from other Protestant churches. The Dutch extended freedom of religion to Catholics and Jews, and desired the state to advise in spiritual and moral matters. Its church was also characterised by a strong vision for Christian education.
Because of their policy on religious freedom, many other Protestant groups, such as the Scottish Covenanters, French Huguenots and English Separatists found refuge in the Netherlands. However, over time, threats to Christian orthodoxy crept in from the state. Influential men, such as Grotius and Descartes, were to have a devastating effect on the church’s theology.
Though efforts at reviving and reforming the Dutch Reformed Church came at different intervals, the Great Secession (Afscheiding) occurred in 1834, when many pastors left to eventually form the Christian Reformed Church (1869). Since then, the Reformed church in the Netherlands has split and re-formed many times. Some of the strongest and most orthodox branches of the Dutch Reformed movement are now in the United States.
Early Dutch influence in America
The Dutch joined other European nations in colonising America. The first Dutch settlements began in 1621, when the Dutch West India Company bought land from native Americans along the Hudson and Delaware Rivers, and called it New Netherlands. This eventually became New York city.
Many of those who settled here were Protestant refugees uprooted by the Eighty Years War. The first governor of New Netherlands, Peter Minuit, was an elder in the colony’s first church and a devout believer. Jonas Michaelius was pastor of the church and sought to share Christ with native Americans in the region.
Like their homeland, the colony stood for religious freedom and became a haven for Puritan dissidents and others. It remained Dutch until 1664, when, as ‘New York’, it became Great Britain’s colony. The church would almost certainly have come under threat with the change, had not William III (of Orange) been a native Dutchman.
Dutch influence remained strong in New York until 1820 when the use of the Dutch language in churches died out. Dutchmen who had a gospel influence in America during the Great Awakening included Theodore Frelinghuysen and John Livingstone (a Scot educated in the Netherlands).
The Dutch Reformed Church in America has been zealous for Christian education and the church has remained a strong Calvinist stronghold, closely allied with the Presbyterian Church (especially its ‘Old Side’). In 1867 it became the Reformed Church in America and began sending missionaries to China, India and Japan.
During the late 1890s, America received its greatest Dutch influence in the person of Abraham Kuyper. As heterodoxy gripped the Dutch Reformed Church in its homeland, orthodox believers continued to hope that the church would revive again. But then ‘Groningen theology’ emerged, a liberal movement that rejected the doctrine of the hypostatic union of Christ.
The orthodox were led in opposition to this heresy by Abraham Kuyper, who himself once espoused a modernist interpretation of Scripture and even rejected the resurrection. But, converted while pastor of a Dutch Reformed Church, Kuyper had become a sound Calvinistic theologian and preacher.
Not only was he instrumental in refuting Groningen theology, he also founded the Free University of Amsterdam, a Christian newspaper and a Reformed political movement in his homeland. However, he concluded that reformation was not possible in the Dutch Reformed Church and so left it to start the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, in 1886.
Perhaps Kuyper’s greatest influence on the United States today is through his theology. In 1898, he delivered the Stone Lectures at Princeton, setting forth his Calvinistic beliefs. Kuyper’s assertion was that: ‘There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry, “Mine!”’
This means that Jesus Christ is Lord over all areas of life, including science, art and politics. This was Kuyper’s covenant-kingdom worldview that shaped his writings, lectures and life. During his lifetime, he was an effective professor of theology, a journalist, pastor, and politician. He even became prime minister of the Netherlands.
Kuyper was also a pioneer of ‘pillarising’, a societal system, in which social differences are measured against ideological rather than socio-economic factors. Each religious or political group (Catholic, Protestant, Liberal, Socialist, etc.) had its own social and political institutions, free from state meddling. This approach is still pivotal today in Dutch politics and society.
Kuyper was progressive in his thinking and sought to distance himself from the stigma of Enlightenment thinking and be innovative in all things, especially in the social, spiritual and political freedom of minority groups. He sought to marry theological orthodoxy and cultural progressiveness.
Kuyper’s influence in the US is also felt in his ‘neo-Calvinistic’ thinking. He maintained that Calvinism was not merely a type of theology, but a way of thinking and life with a profound impact on practical life. It was the ‘only decisive, lawful and consistent defence for Protestant nations against encroaching, and overwhelming modernism’ (Lectures on Calvinism, p.12). It is the ‘most consistent form of Christianity, and indeed Christianity’s highest expression’ (Ibid., p.190).
Kuyper said, we should view all academic subjects through the lens of God’s truth. Scholarship is a ‘sacred calling’, where we are cultivating our minds around God’s truth, and, in so doing, glorify and honour him. This idea has greatly influenced Reformed Christians in America.
Kuyper also promulgated the idea of sphere sovereignty, in which each of us has their own sphere of influence: work, family, church, state, etc. Each sphere interacts, but stays separate.
Kuyper urged that, since all spheres are created by God, they are all under his sovereignty. However, each sphere has its own sovereignty. So, the state should not exercise power over the church, and the church does not have authority over the state. This does not mean that churchmen cannot be involved in politics (he held political office for many years). Rather, it means that the church shouldn’t dictate on laws and other matters to the state.
This philosophy has influenced many American educators, pastors and theologians, including Tim Keller, Cornelius Van Til, Francis Schaeffer and Chuck Colson. It has also influenced academic institutions like Covenant College, Calvin College, Dorothy College, the Clapham Institute and Redeemer University College.
In summary: Calvinistic Dutch influence has instilled a great sense of the importance of sound education as being to the glory of God among Reformed believers (Kuyper himself was home-schooled by his father); the Three Forms of Unity have left a lasting impression on the Reformed American church — my own church, for example, (which is not Dutch Reformed), uses the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism for corporate confession, along with the Westminster Confession and Catechisms — and we owe much to the tenacity and fervour of the Dutch Reformed, their love for education and desire for a Christian influence in politics.
Today the largest Dutch churches in America are the mainline Reformed Church in America (RCA), with over 138,000 communicant members, and the conservative Christian Reformed Church in America (CRCNA), with over 235,000 members. The latter is Calvinistic and many of its members embrace Kuyper’s Calvinist worldview.
Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is a Christian writer residing in the USA.