Calvinism and Religious Toleration in the Dutch Golden Age

Calvinism and Religious Toleration in the Dutch Golden Age

Calvinism and Religious Toleration in the Dutch Golden Age

Calvinism and Religious Toleration in the Dutch Golden Age


Dutch society has enjoyed a reputation, or notoriety, for permissiveness since the sixteenth century. The Dutch Republic in the Golden Age was the only society that tolerated religious dissenters of all persuasions in early modern Europe. Paradoxically, it was committed to a strictly Calvinist public Church and also to the preservation of religious plurality. R. Po-chia Hsia and Henk van Nierop have brought together a group of leading historians from the U.K., the U.S. and the Netherlands. Their outstanding essays probe the history and myth of Dutch religious toleration.


One of the main victims of the religious clashes in sixteenth-century Europe was the group of Anabaptists. the great majority of the approximately 2,000 death sentences pronounced on the charge of heresy in the Netherlands during that century are related to Anabaptists. By rejecting infant baptism, refusing to take an oath, and their separation from the 'world' they had moved far away from mainstream Christianity. the shortlived kingdom of Munster (1534–5) had tainted the Anabaptist movement with the odium of violence and rebellion. Notwithstanding this, in the course of the century the following of Menno Simons had increased and had become an important movement which, at the end of the sixteenth century, in some regions like Friesland comprised about one-quarter of the population.

After the successful Revolt of the Netherlands against the Spanish king, the Dutch authorities had to cope with the presence of the Mennonites in society. Because of their large numbers the Mennonites could not be simply outlawed, while physical extinction was no option either. the authorities soon began following a policy of connivance, of grudgingly tolerating the Mennonites, to the regret of the ministers of the Reformed Church who demanded strict measures against Anabaptism. But although the Reformed Church had been given the status of a privileged Church in the Dutch Republic, it never became the State Church. Mennonites and other denominations like Jews and Lutherans were tacitly allowed – albeit with some restrictions – to profess their faith. the Dutch authorities had accepted that there was more than one religion in their territories.

Internally, the Anabaptist movement was deeply divided. Around 1545 a strong spiritualist current dominated the movement. Disagreement concerning the practice of banning and shunning caused a rift in 1557, which was followed by several others, so that at the end of the sixteenth century at least six major denominations were to be found among the Mennonites, and all of them utterly disliked each other.

During the first decades of the seventeenth century the idea gained ground that the differences between the various Mennonite . . .

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