Imagine arriving in the Netherlands after having read a lot about the history of this wonderful country, expecting beautiful Gothic Cathedrals everywhere, a strong Protestant base, a huge Catholic following and an atheist minority, only to be hit with the biggest surprise I’ve ever had. Oh, there were beautiful Gothic church buildings alright, but it was the atheist majority that took me totally unaware.

I remember visiting a few nightclubs and bars only to find out that they were once churches. Can you imagine that? But if you observe the Dutch closely you’d definitely notice a Calvinist nature to them.

I find it quite fascinating that a people with an atheist majority still model their lives around the teachings of a 16th-century religious preacher like John Calvin. But, before we go any further on the Calvinist nature of the Dutch, let us find out what Calvinism is all about.

First things first, what is Calvinism?

Calvinism is a major branch of Protestantism that follows the theological teachings of John Calvin. While the core doctrines are predestination and election, its basic principle is that the Bible must be interpreted by itself, meaning the parts that are harder to understand are explained in other passages where the Bible is more explicit on the matter. Simply put – if you don’t understand a passage in the Bible, just read on, there are parts of the Bible that explain the ones you don’t understand.

How does Calvinism relate to the Dutch?

Martin Luther and reformers. Image: Art UK/Wikimedia Commons 

It is no secret that the Netherlands has been a Protestant nation since the begin of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Martin Luther and John Calvin’s teaching were very popular among the Dutch and even in the period, King Henry VIII of England was ‘having a fight’ with the Catholic Church, the region that is now the Netherlands was already a strong Protestant part of Europe.

It must be noted that William of Orange was a Calvinist. The Eighty Years’ War wasn’t just a war of independence, it was also a war between the Spanish Catholics and William of Orange’s Protestant Calvinists. My point is, of course, not everyone who fought under William of Orange in the Eighty Years’ War was a Calvinist, but a majority of them fought on his side because they disliked the Spanish and their strange and Catholic ways.

Calvinism arrived in what is now the Netherlands in the 1540s, as both the nobles and the common folk converted. Under Phillip II, the Spanish government started harsh persecution campaigns against the Dutch and as a reaction to this persecution, the Calvinist population rebelled. History buffs never forget the Beeldenstorm in 1566. The Beeldenstorm is a Dutch term that refers to the wave of disorderly attacks carried out by Calvinists in the summer of 1566, that spread rapidly through the Low Countries from south to north.

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These Calvinist Protestants destroyed Catholic art and many forms of church fittings and decorations. It was in that same year that William of Orange started the Eighty Years War in order to liberate the Calvinist Dutch from the Catholic Spaniards. There was definitely little love for Catholics or Catholicism in the Netherlands back then and driving the Spanish away was one extraordinary way of showing it.

Atheism in the Netherlands

It is already an established fact that religion isn’t a trend in the Netherlands. I’m pretty sure more Dutch people have read Harry Potter than a Bible and that a majority of them only say Jesus Christ (Jesus Christus!) out of frustration than in a moment of prayer. Still, religion in the Netherlands remains an interesting topic of discussion.

Results of research carried out at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in 2016, showed that there seemed to be a steady decline in the number of Christians or believers in the Netherlands. This has led to the Netherlands no longer being seen as a Christian nation. The truth is, she has not been considered one for a very long time.

The research provided evidence to the fact that more than 82% of Dutch people no longer attend church or believe in God. It also stated that there were more atheists (25%) than theists (17%) in the Netherlands. (Vrije Universiteit Research On Religion In the Netherlands). Research results are in Dutch.

But the question still remains; How is it that a nation with an atheist majority, do so well at living by the teachings of a religious preacher? Before we answer that, let’s find out who John Calvin was.

Calvinism in the Netherlands: Who Was John Calvin?

(and why do the Dutch follow his teachings?)

John Calvin was a French theologian, pastor and reformer in Geneva during the Protestant Reformation. He was a principal figure in the development of the system of Christian theology which later came to be known as Calvinism. He was one of the fathers of Protestantism and his teachings (along with that of Martin Luther) played a major role in how the Netherlands went on to become a Protestant nation. Although born into a family of the Catholic faith, he converted to Protestantism in 1533 after studying philosophy, humanism and law.

While John Calvin may never have set foot in the Netherlands, his teachings in the period of the Protestant Reformation found no more fertile soil than here (in the Netherlands). Almost every political party (in the late 1800s) adopted his teachings and despite not being Dutch, there is pride the Dutch feel when his name is mentioned. They see him as one of their own.

So why do the Dutch, who aren’t really religious adhere to John Calvin his teaching?

Calvinism in the Netherlands
John Calvin. Image: Wikimedia Commons

As a foreigner keenly observing the Dutch, you’ll notice at every turn how hardworking, frugal and straightforward they are. Check the history books and you’ll see how Dutch statesman and theologian, Abraham Kuyper played a big role in reviving Calvinism in the late 1800s. He was a true believer in the separation of church and state as he and other lawmakers of his time took it upon themselves to follow in the footsteps of Calvin in breaking the yoke of Catholicism in the country. Their reforms (which were very Calvinist in nature), laid the foundation of what the Netherlands is today.

They were able to build a Dutch society based on integrity, respectfulness, acceptance, perseverance, reliability, self-discipline and efficiency. This is one of the reasons why, despite always being at war with the sea, the Dutch never lose or lag behind at showing how efficient they are with their dykes. Imagine how efficient you have to be, to live way below sea level and never fret because you trust your dykes.

For me personally, the Netherlands remains a very wonderful country filled with wonderful people. It is a country where hard work is valued, justice is frequently served, talents are nurtured (and appreciated) and being open-minded and straightforward is a way of life. When a Dutch person lends you money, they expect you to pay back at the exact time you promised, not because they would go broke without the money they lent you but because of the principle attached to it.

Your word has to be your bond and if you don’t live up to your word, you will definitely be confronted. The Netherlands is a perfect example of how you can be an atheist liberal and still adopt and live by the moral teachings of a religious preacher. It is a testament to the fact that even if one is an atheist, they can still choose to take the good things from any religion without being a follower of that religion.

Even years after the death of John Calvin and the Dutch statesmen who laid the foundation of the society we know today based on Calvin’s teachings, it is evident that while religious beliefs may not hold sway in the Netherlands, the virtues still linger. The Netherlands is one of the world’s most liberal nations, and her inhabitants are generally described as sober, reserved, conscientious, rule-driven and well-disciplined: all typical Calvinist characteristics. You could say that Calvinism in the Netherlands is no longer tied to religious beliefs as it once was but has rather developed into a way of life for the Dutch. Millions of Dutch citizens are atheists but the funny thing is that they all lead lives that can be described as Calvinist in nature.

Any other opinions out there on Calvinism in the Netherlands? Feel welcome to share them in the comments!

Feature Image: WikimediaImages/Pixabay 

21 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you Chuka for your insightful article. Being the product of Calvinist upbringing in the Netherlands myself I recognize many of your observations. My brother and I grew up in the bible belt of the Netherlands in the 1960s and 1970s.We were not allowed to watch television on Sundays or to ride a bicycle. At age 16 I realized the hypocrisy of the church and left it behind. My brother became an active atheist; I would call myself more of an agnostic. However, the values that the church and my parents tried to instill, are still with us. My brother and I have always been very socially and politically engaged. I worked in non-profit all my life. One of my peeves is that religions often claim the moral high ground. A University of Chicago study from 2015 found that Religious belief appears to have negative influence on children’s altruism and judgments of others’ actions. The Dutch seem to underline that living without religion can be quite OK.

    • Hello Willem,

      You’re very welcome. Thanks for the comment. I do love the Dutch spirit and Calvinist nature. I love how morally upright the Dutch can be without being religious at all. You have all set an example for the world to see that if people can’t be “morally upright” without religion, then what they lack isn’t a religion, it’s a conscience.

  2. “because they disliked the Spanish and their strange and Catholic ways.” You mean because Spain decided burning everyone who wasn’t catholic.

  3. I think, Before Calvin got influential in the Netherlands, the nature of the Dutch, Catholic or Protestant or non-believer, was already: hardworking, no-nonsense and conscientious . That made up for the teachings of Calvin being so successful: it rang true and was easily recognizable for the Dutch. It’s almost like the question of the chicken and the egg: which came first?
    That is why those characteristics are still seen in the Dutch today, even when they are non-religious.

  4. I have a Catholic background but I am atheist now like most of us. I am happy with the way you describe us all as Calvinists even if we were/are Catholic.

    The anymosity between the Catholic and Protestant churches has dissapeared because few people go there anymore. That is a good thing, I think.

    I have some spiritual outlets, I still pray to Maria and I sometimes chant with my wife who is a Budist. When I am in China or India, I like to pay my respect to local Gods too. Here in Brazil I like Iemanja. She is the Godess of the sea.

  5. Greetings and many thanks to you for this interesting article. I have some remarks, though. I am a Spanish citizen.

    Firstly, I totally believe you when you say Wilhelm of Orange started the 80 years war. However, was the rising in 1566 meant against the Spanish or rather against the Catholics, or both? Who were the citizens who attended Catholic Services in churches under attack in 1566, where they Dutch, Flemish, Wallonians? Or were the Low Countries populated by Spanish colonists in 1566?

    Secondly, where was Charles V born and raised, Philip II’s father? Which were Charles’ first and second languages? (Neither was Spanish).

    Thirdly, was there in force, in the 16th century, under Spanish kings (of Flemish, German and Burgundian ancestry as well) any prohibition to sell Flemish or Dutch goods in Spain?

    By the way, you say the Dutch followed Calvin’s steps as to separation of Church and State. Really??? For one thing, did Calvin have nothing to do with the Government and Courts of Geneva for decades? Didn’t you say William of Orange was himself a Calvinist? Were the Dutch kings after himself and until today godless?

    Finally, do you know how many governors of the Low countries between 1496 and 1713 were NOT Spanish?

    Many other questions should be asked. It is very easy to find the answer by a little research in reliable sources; and I mind not only Spanish sources. Nothing from what I propose to verify is incompatible with the virtues and bravery of the Belgian or Dutch people in any way.

    Groetjes!
    JMSG

  6. Who sentenced Miguel Servet, an Aragonese doctor and philosopher, to be burned at the stake on a heap of GREEN branches and twigs? You would be surprised.

  7. Hi Chuka Nwanazia, delighted to come across this piece of yours. I was born (long ago :=) ) in Eindhoven in a Belgian-Dutch ‘border family’ which for centuries went back and forth living on either side of the border, intermarrying and so on. So of course we are of Catholic extraction, and culturally and historically really belonged to what is now Belgium. The provinces of Noord Brabant and Limburg were in the 17th century, at the end of the wars of religion, annexed by ‘Holland’ (as we still call the Northern Dutch) as a military buffer zone against the Catholic countries in the South. The Catholic cult was forbidden, churches confiscated and all the way till the time of Belgian independence in 1830 the region was often under military rule. For a long time Protestant missionaries came to convert the Southern locals – one example was the father of Vincent van Gogh – but they never succeeded. That is the first intimation that culture and not just religion was at stake. Moreover, there was no support from the ruling classes in the North for economic development, unless they could make money out of it such as in the case of the coal mines in Limburg. If Eindhoven became a big, prosperous city, it was thanks to the resolve of the locals (such as the family Philips or van Doorn of DAF and others, as well as a motivated work force), not because of solidarity from up North. The ‘tolerance’ Holland always proclaims being so proud of, also wore very thin with prejudice being not only verbal but institutional. As children in the ’50s and ’60s we were told we were ‘colonized’ by ‘Holland’ and our parents were outraged that ‘our history’ did not appear, or merely in a few sentences, in our school history books while in our geography books our farmers were treated as backward little potato growers on our sandy soils and compared with the prosperous farmers of the North on their rich ‘kleigrond’ or polders. Of course according to good old Dutch customs, all this couched in a religious framework. However, even as children, we already understood it was really a matter of culture with its roots in religion, but not only. It was more a matter of culture and mentality; in our eyes rigid, domineering Calvinist culture vs more easy-going and compromise-inclined Catholic culture.
    But it was also regional. E.g. my mother was from a Catholic family in Haarlem. We called them ‘Calvinist Catholics’ because they had the same rigidity as Calvinists and took the Roman Church’s dogma really literally. To our astonishment. Because this wasn’t the case of my father’s family and the majority of people in the South. where there was a tendency to ignore or get around dogma that people considered their own business such as contraception, divorce and even sometimes remarriage (in the church!). But Catholics generally did like their rituals which is not amazing as their culture bathed in some 2000 years history. So even now, with by far most people not practicing – whether they call themselves atheists or nominal Catholics – they often still go to church for the rituals of baptism, marriage and funeral, as one can observe in Belgium and most other ‘Catholic countries’. Of course such things are anathema to a Calvinist mentality…

    More in general, I always found it hard to understand that Calvinist culture. In my youth, there was in fact little or no contact. Even it’s literature remained opaque to me with it’s themes of rebellion against the Bible quoting patriarch and rigid family and sexual life. In fact it’s only by contact with Afrikaners in South Africa that I became a bit more familiar with it. But many Afrikaners have had to question many aspects of their Calvinist culture and traditions which I guess the Dutch hardly ever had to do. That’s why your piece is so refreshing!
    I haven’t lived in the Netherlands for very many years, but reading you I am not amazed that you find a ‘Calvinist nature’ in ‘the’ Dutch in general, of whatever religious extraction they might be. The few times I have been back in the South, I had the impression that, probably through mass communication and internal migration, many ‘indigenous’ people there have in recent years pretty much assimilated that dominant Calvinist ‘nature’, even linguistically when they want to speak ‘nicely’ – which sounds horribly harsh and in their case even a bit treacherous in my ears! So ‘Calvinist nature’ might actually have become a ‘national’ culture as you say. And as I have a few grandchildren living in the North, I see that our Southern history is still largely ignored in their school programmes…. So there is a little angle to your findings – at least in the eyes of offspring of a Southern ‘border family’ like mine – that is not so pretty: it is what my parents’ generation call a successful colonisation :=)

    • This is very interesting for me to read. I am an American who lived for a full year with a Dutch family in Brabant in 1972-1973. They were a Catholic family, of course, and the father in that family was from Belgium. I was also raised as a Catholic. So much of what you describe here rings true to my experience in NL. I now teach a course very other summer (since 2014) in Leiden, and it is clearly not just time but also culture that is different for me there. I am still close with my Dutch “sister”, who has lived in Amsterdam for years but still espouses the values, language, and religious customs if the south. In my experience, there is a significant cultural difference between north and south, even today. I feel it when I visit Brabant. I love it there.

  8. Great article.

    I am still trying to find answers to the following questions:

    1) why was Protestantism brought to Holland through Calvin (and not Luther or Zwingli)

    2) why and when did Dutch people leave for America?

    3) where did the Dutch settle in America?

    4) When was the CRC – Christian Reformed Church – founded in America?

    5) Why are most CRC members in America of Dutch origin?

    Thanks for your input.
    Seichi

  9. Seichi, you might find answers to some of your questions in a book titled “Dutch Chicago”. Although broadly focused on Chicago, it covers how the Dutch came to America and then the Midwest. As someone who is American, but 100% Dutch background, I find articles like this one and books like Dutch Chicago illuminating. I’m second generation here in the States, but grew up in an all “Dutch enclave”. Dutch school, church, neighbors, bank, etc. The values and characteristics listed in this article are still true of the Dutch here in America.

  10. There are about 50% more Catholics than Protestants now, which makes Catholicism the major Christian movement. But there are even more Athiests. I think, the endless conflict between Catholics and Protestants in the Netherlands may made so many people choosing to step out religion completely. In Germany for example, there was much more tolerance and cooperation between Catholics and Protestants after 1648, even with sharing churches and facilities. The Dutch Calvinists were much less tolerant than the German Lutherans, even in Amsterdam Catholics had to hold there celebrations in hidden places, in the more tolerant City of Hamburg or Dresden for example, they openly lived next to each other.

  11. It is not surprising that in a country with very few natural resources and which has basically been scraped out of the mud and every brick counts, the greater egalitarianism and distaste for excess which though more typical of protestantism than Catholicism should come to be rules of thumb for the population as a whole regardless of any religious identity.

  12. Dear Chuka,

    I wanted commend, thank, and salute you for your brilliant and insightful article on Calvinism and the Netherlands!

    On a very related front regarding Calvinism, I just sent the following letter to about 50 churches in the Netherlands, as I am researching and surveying views in modern times re John Calvin and Calvinism in the Netherlands for a chapter in my upcoming book and documentary on Calvin.

    If you care to answer any of the questions in the letter, that would be great too!

    Kindest regards in Christ,

    James Sundquist
    Eaglemasterworksproductions.com

    From: James Sundquist
    Subject: Calvinism, Baptism Musical Instruments in Worship questions in Churches in The Netherlands
    Date: April 30, 2020 at 3:30:00 PM EDT

    Dear Christian Churches in the Netherlands,

    I just this week discovered your churches. I just have 4 questions for you, where you are Dutch Reformed, Baptist, Catholic, or any other denomination:

    1. Why would any kind of Baptist not totally reject John Calvin and have no association with even his name who burned people at the stake for opposing infant baptism?

    2. As you know, The Netherlands is where Reformed Theology TULIP originated then spread throughout Europe, Africa, and America. But of the billions of tulips sold from there every year, wasn’t there at least one wise among them to inform them to inform them that a tulip has only 3 petals and to this day no one has exposed this?

    3. Conrad Mbewe a black leading pastor in Zambia is championing Calvinism taking over Africa. But Calvinism is responsible for white supremacy Dutch Reformed Church in Africa and corrupting Curse of Ham racism plague that also infected America my country. Can you explain this?

    4. Calvin banned and condemned the use of musical instruments in worship, calling it an abomination. So why do so many Reformed, and all other Baptist Denominations and so many other denominations, use musical instruments in worship in defiance of John Calvin?

    • As far as #4 – There have certainly been developments and changes in Reformed Protestant Christianity since the times of Calvin. Music is definitely one of them. I never read that Calvin banned or condemned musical instruments. Anyway, we’re talking more than 500 years ago. While visual imagery is very prominent in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, music is what’s most prominent in traditional Protestant churches. The best choirs, hymns, brass instruments and pipe organs are often found in Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, and Episcopal / Anglican churches.

      Martin Luther, contrary to what you wrote about Calvin, actually encouraged musical instruments in worship; since he believed that sacred music would surely not be wanted by the devil – that Satan would hate it. Scottish Presbyterians (following Reformed Calvinism like the Dutch) as well as English and Welsh Methodists were influenced by Anglican hymns and congregational singing, music playing. One of the most known (and lovely) hymns we have in English called “We Gather Together” is actually from Dutch Reformed Protestants. It’s original name is “Wilt heden nu treden”. Many of us traditional or mainline Protestants do not consider Baptists Protestant, as they do not align themselves to either Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist or Anglican liturgical traditions; although there are Baptists who have a strong affinity towards Calvinism.

      As far as #3 – The idea that Calvinism or the original Dutch Reformed Church was responsible for “white supremacy”, whether in Africa or America, is ridiculous and unfounded. Just because many white South Africans were / are Dutch Reformed Christians (and French Huguenots) does not imply that Calvinism is linked to white supremacy. If Conrad Mbewe is championing Calvinism taking over Africa, then that is a good thing! The Protestant work ethic, plus being self-reliant, frugal, and responsible for your own actions in the eyes of God is exactly what is needed in much of Africa. Ethical capitalism and transparency can be attributed to Dutch Calvinists, too – other practices Africa needs to put into action. Calvinists do not put up with corruption, pointing blame at others, and laziness.

  13. The Protestants oppressed Catholics, but Catholicism was not as asserted here abandoned completely by the Dutch. It was very strong in the south, and resulted in Belgium breaking away; and even so, a very strong Catholic underground continued in Holland.

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