The Dutch Reformed Church: History & Beliefs

Instructor: Richard Reid
What is a 'Reformed' Church and why was the Dutch one so important? In this lesson, we will learn the history of the Dutch Reformed Church, as well as examine the theological beliefs that make them unique.

History: Part One

The Dutch Reformed Church was created during an incredibly tumultuous period of European History known as the Protestant Reformation. During the 1500s and 1600s, numerous people, church congregations, and some countries were spurred on by ideas that broke with the established powers of the Catholic Church. Many of the main grievances levied against the Catholic Church were its corruption, with the sale of indulgences, and the incredible amounts of secular power that Catholic rulers controlled across Europe.

Map of the spread of Protestantism in blue (Catholicism in olive)

Naturally, Catholic Kings and Queens weren't happy that many of their subjects were attempting to subvert their power, so it actually became quite dangerous to outwardly profess Protestant beliefs in much of Europe. This was true in the Netherlands as well, and Spanish Catholics who were in control of the country at the time, ruthlessly prosecuted, and sometimes killed, those who went against established Catholic ideology.

This prosecution forced the church leaders, who would eventually establish the Reformed Church, to flee to what is now modern-day Germany. Germany, at the time, was a relative safe haven for Protestants to freely discuss and buildup support from other like-minded thinkers. It was here that the Reformed Church gained support and adopted a new ideology. After a few years in exile, church leaders eventually returned to the Netherlands to spread these ideas to their own people.

History: Part Two

The small group of church leaders, who created the Reformed Church in 1571, would soon play a large role in an international conflict. The Netherlands was under the control of either the Spanish crown, or the Austrian Habsburg dynasty, two of the most powerful entities in Europe at the time. This was particularly problematic for the Dutch because the Spanish governors levied harsh taxes, imposed unfair laws, and fought against independence at every turn. The situation quickly turned sour and sparked the expertly named Eighty Years' War (1568-1648), a conflict between the Netherlands and their colonial rulers.

Painting of a Spanish attack on a Dutch town during the war

The Reformed Church quickly became seen as a beacon of Dutch resistance for a number of reasons. The first was the most obvious as the Reformed Church was Protestant, while the Spanish and Austrians who controlled the Netherlands, were staunchly Catholic. Support for the Reformed Church was a way for Netherlanders to show their displeasure with Spanish rule. Second, the Reformed Church allowed for autonomy for Dutch political and religious goals. The Reformed Church was a home-grown movement and was a symbol of Dutch independence as well as an ideological break with their Spanish overlords. Importantly, the Reformed Church became the de facto state religion of the Netherlands during this time and never really relinquished control until centuries later.

Both the support of Elizabeth I of England, who had her own political reasons for lending assistance, and the solidarity provided from the Reformed Church allowed the Netherlands to eventually win the Eighty Years' War and declare independence. The central role of the Reformed Church in this conflict solidified its position as the de facto state Church of the Netherlands and it rapidly grew in both size and power. Dutch Reformed settlers and missionaries spread their ideas all over the world, notably in South Africa and in America.

Doctrinal Beliefs

As previously mentioned, the Dutch Reformed Church is a branch of Protestantism that went against the power of the Catholic Church. The Reformed Church shares much in common with other branches of Christianity, but has a few key features that set it apart.

Portrait of John Calvin

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