Embodied Belief
Ten essays on religious culture in Dutch history
Willem Frijhoff
300 pp, € 27
isbn/issn: 90-6550-723-x
[ReLiC - Studies in Dutch religious history 1]

Embodied Belief

(recensie: Otto van der Meij)

The Dutch Republic was in many ways a miracle but was it also heaven on earth? Much has been made of its toleration of dissenters of different religious persuasions, despite being committed to a strictly Calvinist public church. This apparent contradiction in the Dutch society’s attitude towards religion in the early modern period is the subject of a collection of essays edited by Ronnie Hsia and Henk van Nierop under the title Calvinism and Religious Toleration in the Dutch Golden Age. The contributions come from some of the leading historians in the field, including Willem Frijhoff, Samme Zijlstra, Peter van Rooden, Judith Pollmann, Joke Spaans and Christine Kooi.

Most contributors adhere to the same principle, namely that toleration should not be equated with freedom of religion. Toleration was certainly not a trademark of Calvinism. I liked the idea (first proposed by Ernst Kossmann) whereby tolerance, as prescribed by the Calvinist church, can in fact be construed as a supreme sign of its intolerance towards other religions (22-15). There was, however, freedom of conscience as prescribed in article 13 of the Union of Utrecht of 1579 (the nearest thing the Dutch Republic had to a constitution). For the next two centuries the crucial question for the authorities was how to resolve this apparent contradiction. Despite frequent exhaltations of Reformed ministers for a strict policy, the best they could come up with were differing degrees of connivance. This is best demonstrated by the essay of Kooi on strategies of Catholic toleration in Holland.

The Catholics had different possibilities in order to accommodate with the authorities: corruption (offering so-called ‘recognition money’), forbearance, patronage, subterfuge and miracles. Life for them thus became to a large extent tolerable. The Catholics, being the largest religious community within the Netherlands, thus had the advantage of being well catered for. The late Samme Zijlstra, however, shows the limits of toleration even within one religious minority (albeit much smaller), the Anabaptists. Preserving the identity of the different strands proved stronger than the will to unite. The idea that tolerance begins at home gains new meaning here.

Peter van Rooden makes the case that from all religious minorities, the Jews were initially treated differently but in the second half of the 17th century this changed because the political situation had stabilised. From then on a stalemate developed between the different strands of religion: ‘The religious and social order of the Dutch Republic in the 18th century was made up of several hierarchically ordered religious groups.’ (p. 143) The Dutch Republic after a period of political upheaval thus became a confessional state like others in Europe, where each denomination took care of itself (especially in the field of poor relief). There are some outstanding contributions in this volume but where do we go from here? Only Benjamin Kaplan offers a way ahead: he invites more research on the theme of pillarization, as proposed by Simon Groenveld in 1995. Dutch society after 1650 was divided into comprehensive, largely self-contained religious blocks. This conclusion, which is clearly shared by Van Rooden, fits in strangely with the proposed timelines by Ronnie Hsia, whose ‘Introduction’ in this volume is disappointing in other respects as well. Many of the contributors, however, also refer to an important article by Willem Frijhoff on tolerance. In it, he states the real religious battleground was fought out in a domain between public and private. This is not a real existing space but a play of words acted out in everyday life. This article along with nine others, is now available for the first time in the English language. This is largely the result of an initiative taken by the newly founded Dutch Centre for Religious History (ReLiC) at the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam. The author, professor of early modern history at the same university, is surely the most provocative of all current Dutch historians. He always challenges conventional views of the past and invariably points towards new fields of research: in short, he is a one-man institution.

Frijhoff’s articles are not for the faint-hearted and not easily summarized. Here we see a serious intellectual mind at work, who quotes indiscriminately from the social sciences. History in his view is a continual process, a constant appropriation of cultural forms, values and meanings. Frijhoff for instance does not belief in the church as an institution: churches are forms of group organization, a community of the faithful (p. 279). This does not mean that the institutional approach of church history is meaningless: the author, however, would like us to move away from this top-down approach towards a more bottom-up analysis. Religion in his view is in fact culture. What concerns him is the relationship between religion, faith and church, and he has demonstrated this over the past twenty years or so in a number of articles, of which the most important are reproduced here.

If the articles of this volume share a common ground, than it is the way religion shapes identity. Religion undoubtedly played a huge role in everyday life in general and personal life in particular. Frijhoff concentrates less on doctrinal matters and in stead focuses for instance on miracles, signs and wonders and prophecies. Frijhoff is great in analysing the several elements which make up these often incredible stories. I thoroughly enjoyed reading them but at the same time was overwhelmed by their range and scope. These articles are often less about what actually happened then a discourse with the past. This kind of history is therefore ultimately about believing his version of events. His highly exacting standards and interdisciplinary perspectives leaves little room for other interpretations but what does it bring us? Not more historical knowledge as such but a better understanding of how ordinary people gave meaning to their lives.

This is important but is it history as such? Is history about facts and figures or about understanding human actions? Does everything have a meaning? Why am I writing this review? Did I write it or was my hand mysteriously guided by some dark force of nature or, even better, a divine light? Recent studies on perhaps the greatest scientific mind ever, Isaac Newton, have shown that he was at once a heretic but also deeply religious. He did not question the existence of God at all, he just thought church institutions (both Anglican and Roman Catholic) were corrupted. Despite its critics, religion is fundamentally still about belief in salvation.

Otto van der Meij

Institute for Netherlands History

The Hague