Hendrik van Steenwyk (1580-1649) Church interior

Dutch religious and intellectual history

Calvinism and Toleration in the Netherlands

The Dutch revolt against Spain was primarily aimed at the restoration of political rights and local liberties. However, the Revolt had an important religious element. Philip II of Spain wanted to suppress the Protestant ideas spreading in the Netherlands.


Margaret, Duchess of Parma (1522-86) was the one of the first of many Hapsburg appointees who tried to stem the progress of Calvinism in the Netherlands.
A long tradition of toleration - expressed by such theorists as Desiderius Erasmus and Hugo Grotius - rejected Spanish persecution of dissent. Furthermore, highly-motivated Protestants rapidly rose to positions of leadership in the revolt. William the Silent himself became a Calvinist in 1573.

Calvinism soon obtained a privileged position in the Netherlands. Only Calvinist ministers were funded by the State; only Calvinist churches had the right to public (not merely private) worship.


A Mennonite preacher and his wife

But there was a large Catholic minority (roughly a third of the population by 1650); a significant number of Protestant sects (in particular Mennonites, who made up about a quarter of the Frisian population in 1600); and a small but economically-active Jewish community centered on Amsterdam (c. 6,000 by 1700 i.e. 3% of the Amsterdam's population). These non-Calvinists were excluded from political office (in theory if not always in practice).

The Dutch secular authorities tried to prevent Calvinist ministers from achieving their clericalist ambitions. This and the humbler social rank of ministers led to tensions between lay and religious dignitaries.
Many ministers of the Reformed Church thought it wrong to tolerate Roman Catholics and Protestant sectaries. They resented the civic authorities for protecting these minorities.
Dutch toleration attracted immigrants from many other parts of Europe - Jews from Portugal and Germany, English dissenters (some of whom later moved to Massachusetts).
The philosopher René Descartes lived in Holland because he had greater freedom of expression there than in France.

Another great philosopher, Benedict Spinoza was expelled from his Jewish community but continued to live and work in Holland.

John Locke (whose political theories greatly influenced the makers of the American Revolution) took refuge in Holland when persecuted by James II and published his Letter on Toleration there (1689). The combination of high salaries and toleration enabled Dutch universities (especially Leiden) to attract the cream of European intellectuals.
The Netherlands was the center of European publishing. Vast numbers of new reports and pamphlets were printed for the domestic market. Amsterdam had 273 separate publishers in the late seventeenth century.
The Elzevir press was able to exploit a wide market by producing small, cheap, clearly printed books. These books promoted the spread of new philosophical ideas like Cartesianism. Books also spread new scientific and technical knowledge across Europe, disseminating knowledge and techniques in medicine, agriculture, and so on.

The title page of a typical Elzevir book


Calvinists and Arminians.

Franciscus Gomarus (1563-1641)

Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609)

One of the most important Calvinist doctrines was predestination - the belief that God arbitrarily chose to save some people and damn others. This belief clashed completely with the views of Erasmus and others that people have free will and play a part in accepting the salvation offered to them.


Another type of Tulip:  the Calvinist view of redemption
Total Depravity
Unconditional Election
Limited Atonement
Irresistible Grace
Perseverance of the Saints

Calvin's views had been taken to their logical extension by Theodore Beza and most Calvinists adopted his interpretation. But in the early seventeenth century the Dutch theologian, Jacobus Arminius (Jacob Hermans) argued that free choice did play some small role in salvation.


Jacobus Arminius (1560?- 1609), born in Oudewater, was educated at Leiden, Geneva and Basel. He returned to Amsterdam, where he was a minister from 1587-1602. Franciscus Gomarus was born in Bruges but his family fled to the Palatinate in 1577. Franciscus studied both in Germany and England before returning to the Netherlands and becoming Professor of Theology at Leiden. He later taught at Saumur and Groningen.
"The fact that Gomarus was Flemish and Arminius a Hollander typified a theologico-cultural split permeating the Holland towns" (Israel).



Arminius views were known not to be entirely orthodox even at his appointment to the University of Leiden in 1602, and the controversy grew more fiery when one of his fellow professors - Franciscus Gomarus began to protest about Arminius' teaching.

Gomarus and "Gomarists" believed that Arminianism denied God's omnipotence; they opposed the toleration granted to Catholics and "libertines" in Dutch towns. They tried to prevent graduates with Arminian leanings being given preaching posts.
The Arminians in their turn saw Gomarists as portraying God as a cruel and fickle tyrant, and as fundamentally undermining any motivation to act uprightly. In 1610, forty-four Arminians signed a Remonstrance defending their ideas and calling for the secular authorities to assert control over the church and defend the Arminians from the Calvinist clergy.
The dispute between Arminians (Remonstrants) and Calvinists (Counter-Remonstrants) spread to all the United Provinces and began to cause serious political divisions.

Tomb of
William the Silent



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