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The Calvinist conquest | Aeon

VOC Senior Merchant with his Wife and an Enslaved Servant (c1650-55) by (circle of) Aelbert Cuyp. Photo courtesy the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

VOC Senior Merchant with his Wife and an Enslaved Servant (c1650-55) by (circle of) Aelbert Cuyp. Photo courtesy the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

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The Calvinist conquest

In the 17th century, Dutch proselytisers set out for Asia, Africa and the Americas. The legacy of their travels endures

by Charles H Parker + BIO

VOC Senior Merchant with his Wife and an Enslaved Servant (c1650-55) by (circle of) Aelbert Cuyp. Photo courtesy the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

At the turn of the 1600s, a handful of Protestant pastors and chaplains in Amsterdam began accompanying ships of the United East India Company (VOC) to small Dutch commercial settlements in Southeast Asia. These Calvinist (also Reformed Protestant) ministers went to faraway lands to keep company employees from falling prey to false religions and to convert ‘heathens’ and ‘Moors’ (Muslims) to Protestant Christianity. Thus, Calvinism went global in the 17th century and, by the time the VOC closed its doors in December 1799, the Dutch Reformed Church had established dozens of churches, planted hundreds of schools, and converted thousands of Indigenous peoples around the world.

Calvinism achieved these distinctions against all odds. Its operations got underway a century after Catholic missions; the number of its ministers paled in comparison with the legions sent out by the Roman Church; and Calvinists held to the doctrine of predestination, which taught that God had already decided everyone’s eternal fate before he created the world. In light of these sizeable disadvantages, how did Dutch Calvinists pull this off? And, what did they learn from their experiences? The short answers are, first, that they turned out to excel at organising schools and translating languages, and, second, that global perspectives gave them new ways of viewing religion and culture in Europe.

From these beginnings in the Dutch Republic and in the United East India Company, Calvinism became a global religion entangled in the webs of commerce and empire. Launched in 1602, the VOC (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) became highly profitable and managed an Asian/African commercial empire, stretching from the East Indies (Indonesia) to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa) and many sites in between. Almost 20 years later, the Dutch unveiled another corporation for trading colonies in the Atlantic world, known as the West India Company (WIC).

Ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church, so-called Calvinists because they followed the Protestant teachings of John Calvin, discerned a providential hand underlying the republic’s and companies’ good fortunes. They believed God was opening the door to carry the message of true Christianity to heathens and Moors at the ends of the earth. Some Calvinists even suggested that preaching the authentic, biblical version of Christianity, and not the false religion of the Catholic Church, would lead to a worldwide conversion of Muslims and Jews, which would then trigger the second coming of Jesus Christ. As a result of these circumstances, somewhere close to 1,000 Calvinist pastors joined the trading companies from 1605 to 1799 to serve as company personnel, but also to try to turn people in the diverse lands in the Americas, Africa and Asia into proper, churchgoing, idol-hating Protestant Christians. This effort was the earliest and most sustained Protestant missionary effort outside of Europe. Yet, in so doing, Dutch ministers endorsed slave trading, acquiesced to imperial violence, and suffered in distant foreign environments. Calvinist missions and their entanglements with empire reveal the complex interaction of cultures, and contributed to important global legacies as the world transitioned into the industrial age in the 19th century.

Calvinism’s global reach in the 1600s and 1700s has escaped most historians and underwhelmed most Dutch specialists. This lack of attention stems in part from the massive missionary endeavours of the Catholic Church, which overshadowed the much smaller operations of Dutch Calvinists. Religious orders within the Catholic Church, such as Jesuits, Franciscans and Dominicans, sent thousands of missionaries into vast lands colonised by the Spanish, Portuguese and French empires. Next to global Catholicism, global Calvinism was much smaller in scope and so has flown under the radar of most historians.

It also seems counterintuitive that Calvinism, which spread into several Reformed Protestant denominations (eg, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Anglicans) would have much impact outside European churches and universities, because of the doctrine of predestination. Why risk life and limb to languishing disease, drowning, getting eaten by a big fish and other forms of violent death to convert people – who, in most cases, didn’t appreciate the effort – if God had already decided the outcome? This question comes from the way we think today, which is not the way Calvinists in the 17th century thought. They believed that preaching the word of God from the Bible was the means by which the saved would respond to God’s promise of salvation. They could point to many figures in the Old and New Testament, such as Jonah, the prophets, John the Baptist, and the apostles who followed God’s command to preach, even when God knew most people would reject the message. So, it’s been only fairly recently that historians have begun to investigate more fully the global work of Calvinists, and their legacies.

What did Calvinists do overseas? First of all, they planted churches. Setting up congregations functioned as the primary way the Dutch Reformed Church spread its message and ministries. Ordained ministers preached the gospel and administered the two sacraments recognised by Reformed Protestants: baptism and holy communion (also the Lord’s Supper). Lay elders provided leadership and, in collaboration with ministers, imposed moral correction by visiting members and chastising those who fell short of the Church’s expectations. There are a lot of juicy stories in the records of these interactions by church folk who felt dissed and pissed! Cheating husbands, outraged wives, hopeless drunks, angry brawlers, petty thieves, conniving gossipers and others make appearances too. Alongside elders, lay deacons managed forms of social welfare, distributing alms, caring for orphans, and overseeing hospitals.

Since clergy were few and far between, not every congregation had an ordained minister. So, Calvinists set up satellite congregations in outlying areas, where a local lay member would read a sermon and lead the congregation in songs and prayers on Sundays. Every several months, a minister, sometimes along with an elder or deacon, would visit these communities, like a circuit rider, to examine affairs, give a sermon, baptise new converts, marry couples and do other pastoral stuff.

The most important activity, in terms of spreading the influence of Calvinism, was setting up schools. Schools sprang up most everywhere the Dutch established themselves. The governor Cornelis Matelief established the first Dutch school outside of Europe in Amboina in Indonesia shortly after the VOC put down roots there in 1605. Its first teacher was Johannes Wogma, who gave lessons to Amboinese children in the Dutch language, writing, arithmetic, and taught them several prayers. Ministers and chaplains set up schools in outlying areas not served by a resident minister. Dutch Calvinists organised hundreds of schools across the Molucca Islands, Jakarta, Banda (Indonesia), Melaka (Malaysia), Formosa (Taiwan), Sri Lanka, sites on the Coromandel and Malabar coasts of India, the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, Brazil, New Netherland (New York), along the West African Coast and in the Caribbean. For example, by 1633, 32 schools across the East Indies offered instruction to 1,200 students – a number that grew to 54 schools with 5,190 students by 1700. In Ceylon, approximately 30 schools were in operation in the 1660s with 18,000 students.

Indigenous schoolmasters represented the best hope for the success of global Calvinism

Setting up schools and managing them was a joint venture between Reformed ministers, regional governors, company directors in the Netherlands, and Indigenous teachers in the various locales. The companies negotiated contracts, paid wages, and invested heavily in hundreds of theological books for ministers, grammar books for teachers, translated catechisms, postils, portions of the Bible, and other pedagogical materials. Though the VOC and WIC exercised jurisdiction over schools, clergy resident in a more central location conducted visitation circuits to inspect the quality of instruction and the progress of students out in the hinterland. These visitations were supposed to occur at regular intervals, but were often delayed or cancelled for a variety of reasons. When they did visit schools, ministers preached, examined the students and schoolmasters, baptised new converts, married couples, and checked the inventory of religious materials. Pastoral inspectors then drafted an account of the ‘state of native Christendom’ within the circuit. The description offered a quantified summary and a qualitative assessment of the progress of the Reformed faith. The ministers submitted these reports to their fellow ministers and colonial authorities, who then distilled them in annual letters for Church bodies back in the Netherlands.

Dutch ministers and colonial authorities relied heavily on Indigenous teachers to serve as schoolmasters in company schools. The companies recruited natives with language expertise to teach students to read, write, and to comprehend the Reformed faith. Indigenous teachers, therefore, bore enormous responsibilities for spreading Calvinism by teaching children, keeping records, leading Sunday services in areas without a minister, and translating materials into local languages. Some teachers in Jakarta served as private catechists. Overseas clergy recognised that Indigenous schoolmasters represented the best hope for the success of global Calvinism. This recognition is what prompted ministers and lay officers to devote so much time and energy to inspection rounds. Rightly or wrongly, inspectors often drew a direct connection between the industry and piety of a schoolmaster and the progress of students in the Reformed faith.

Company authorities attempted to employ a mixture of compulsion and compensation to entice parents to send their children to company schools. The customary school day for children lasted two hours in both the morning and afternoon, broken by a two-hour interval on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Students attended only the morning session on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Since parents depended on the labour of children, the loss of productivity, in addition to any hostility to Dutch rule, acted as a strong disincentive for school attendance. To combat this impediment, governors attempted to subsidise school attendance by providing a stipend to families whose children attended school. Thousands of people around the world attended these schools, where they learned to read and write, sometimes in Dutch but usually in a local vernacular or in Portuguese, the lingua franca of the Indian Ocean. But, most especially, teachers attempted to educate youths in the teachings of Christianity as understood by Calvinists.

Records kept by the Dutch about schools and teachers indicate that they were not terribly popular among local peoples. Calvinists, who tended to complain about most everything, grumbled about the educational ability of local peoples, so sometimes we need to take their negative assessments with a grain of salt. Yet, like children most everywhere, boys and girls preferred to be out fishing, hunting, and having fun. As Dutch clergy were trying to get out of Formosa ahead of invading Chinese forces in 1661, an administrator noted bitterly that local children ‘are delighted that they are now freed from attending the schools. Everywhere they have destroyed the books and utensils.’

As part of their missionary programme, Calvinist ministers collaborated with local linguists to translate materials, such as catechisms, grammar books, sermons and portions of the Bible into local languages and Portuguese. For many years, the Dutch ministers Melchior Leijdekker and Petrus van der Vorm laboured to put the entire Bible into a dialect of Malay (a forerunner of Indonesian), and an edition finally saw the light of day in 1733. Complete editions of the Bible also appeared in Tamil in 1759 and in Sinhalese in 1813, languages in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). The VOC and WIC were eager for teachers and ministers to cultivate Dutch as the language of the settlements, but it did not take so well. Dutch ministers reasoned that it must be because their native tongue was so advanced and sophisticated. One Flemish language theorist, Johannes Goropius Becanus, argued that a form of Dutch was the oldest language in the world – so old, in fact, that it was spoken by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden!

Since ministers faced difficulties garnering excitement for Dutch, they opted for local vernaculars, much to the chagrin of company officials. Ministers, alongside Catholic missionaries, played an important role from the 1500s to the 1700s in creating lingua francas that are spoken in many parts of the world today. In Latin America, Spanish missionaries standardised Nahuatl, an Aztec language, and Quechua, an Inkan vernacular, and Guarani, a dialect in Paraguay. Dutch missionaries made significant contributions to the linguistic development of Malay, Tamil and Sinhalese. One of the greatest challenges in a missionary enterprise is communicating obscure tenets (try Trinity, Incarnation and Resurrection on for size) accurately across linguistic divides. This problem was even more pronounced in the 17th and 18th centuries as dialects remained largely oral and very local. Missionaries then teamed up with local linguists to identify an appropriate mother tongue in a region, codify it, impose European grammatical rules on it, translate materials into it, and then educate as many regional people as possible in it.

Calvinist ministers who opted for overseas service did so for a number of reasons. Most were inspired, at least in part, by the missionary ideal of carrying the gospel to ‘the poor, blind, heathen’. Many ministers, like Robert Junius in Formosa, Justus Heurnius in Jakarta and Ambon, and Philip Baldaeus in Ceylon, distinguished themselves as evangelists, writers, translators and organisers. Others, such as François Valentijn in Amboina and Jacob Canter Visscher on the Malabar Coast in the early 1700s, found a sense of adventure, and wrote about their observations and exploits. Valentijn wrote a multi-volume work, Old and New East-India (1724-26), in which he described the lands, peoples, plants and customs found in Southeast Asia. Visscher wrote letters to his mother in Harlingen (Friesland). In one letter, he recounted a strange episode in which he pleaded with company soldiers to share some of their loot from a temple they had plundered. He wrote: ‘[I] collected [from the soldiers] many heathen idols that were taken out of the temple, which I keep as a memento.’ Perhaps Visscher saw the images as keepsakes to show others back home and tell them about his days on the mission field converting strange peoples. It is remarkable that the diabolical idols that Calvinist missionaries regularly and loudly condemned became souvenirs of a strange culture for this minister.

It was a brave new world of idolatry and superstition for these austere, idol-hating, bible-thumping Calvinists

Other ministers belied the derring-do aura that often comes with images of missionaries. Some simply fell apart in an unfamiliar tropical environment far from home. Johannes Anthoniszoon Dubbeltrijck in Ambon engaged in heavy drinking and disorderly conduct and, in 1625, his wife left him for another man. Johannes du Praet earned the scorn of fellow ministers, in 1633, for his extensive slave trading. Abraham Ruteau, in 1638, got drunk and got a woman pregnant who was not his wife. Johannes Nathaniel Doncker sexually assaulted women, drank heavily, and used profane language, according to reports in the 1660s. Of course, most ministers were competent and above board, but, when pastors were few and far between, a few bad apples could spoil the missionary corps.

It was indeed a brave new world of idolatry and superstition for these austere, idol-hating, bible-thumping Calvinists from the boggy lowlands of northern Europe. They absolutely abhorred religious imagery, condemning it as idolatry, and looking askance at all ritual as superstition. Yet, most people around the world engaged in some sort of ritual practice and used amulets, pictures, objects and statues to make connections with the divine. Catholics, many Dutch complained, had an unfair advantage on the mission field as they could employ their images of the Virgin Mary, the saints, the crucifix, etc as bridges to Catholicism. In Cochin (on the Malabar coast), for example, Visscher, the same minister who made off with ‘heathen idols’ from VOC soldiers, grumbled in the late 1710s that the chances for converting Indians were quite limited because ‘Roman priests had dangled alluring images before their eyes for so long, which agreed with their heathen idols.’ Almost a century later, the Dutch ethnographer Jacob Haafner repeated a common maxim on the shortcomings of Calvinist missions, namely that pagans could relate to Catholicism because of the external nature of their worship practices, with their array of rites, images and objects.

Despite what Calvinists would have preferred, local peoples had their own reasons for getting baptised, attending church, sending their children to school, and participating at other levels. When doing so, Indigenous peoples often continued to practise their traditional religion, much to the consternation of red-faced ministers. Converts could receive church alms, marry a Christian, acquire a teaching position, and curry favour with the company. Dutch Reformed churches offered material benefits, but then ministers complained that people converted for worldly motives. Caspar Wiltens, the first Dutch Calvinist overseas minister, put it this way:

It is unheard of in this region that a Moor would become a Christian unless he considers himself in great need … They always have other motives and then come saying make me a Christian without having any question what it means to be a Christian or what one should believe or must do.

These conflicting expectations led to a pessimism among Dutch Calvinists about the aptitude of heathens and Moors for true Christianity. Many ministers simply concluded that heathen and Muslim cultures were so infested with idolatry and rampant sexuality (Calvinists had a tough time with polygamy) that they were blind to truth. Of course, there was always hope that God’s grace would break through the fog of idolatry and debauchery, so Calvinists continued to follow the call to preach to and teach infidels.

Calvinist efforts at spreading Christianity took place within the grim business of the Dutch Empire. Perhaps because the Dutch were so far from home and surrounded by enemies, VOC governors could be ruthless when they perceived threats. When the governor general Jan Pieterszoon Coen learned in 1621 that Banda merchants were selling cloves, nutmeg and mace to the English in violation of a contract with the Dutch, he invaded the Banda Islands in 1621, killing or chasing off many Indigenous people. He subsequently imported enslaved people to cultivate spice crops. This bloody episode was one of many stories that circulated around the Indian Ocean and Europe about the Dutch. This was part of the bargain that Calvinists made with empire building in the early 1600s.

And Calvinism contributed immensely to Dutch empire building. Ministers and elders played a critical part in forming households in Dutch settlements. All European empires before the 19th century depended on a married household to foster order and stability. The sinews of empire – the sailors, soldiers, merchants, administrators and free labourers – were, of course, all men and most of them belonged to a rough and rowdy lot interested largely in plunder and predation. To keep these men and their libidos in check, imperial administrators worked to cultivate families. The Dutch did this by encouraging their personnel to marry local women. Since marriage took place within the framework of Christianity, wives of these men had to convert to the Dutch Reformed Church. Anyone else who wanted to marry a Christian, perhaps the daughter of an interracial couple, had to meet the requirements of the Calvinist Church board. Ministers and elders exerted enormous energies in policing sexuality and keeping families intact.

Calvinists also supported imperialism by using the missionary enterprise as a defence of enslavement. Dutch writers relentlessly criticised their Catholic Spanish and Portuguese enemies for their cold, cruel embrace of slavery and slave trading in their American colonies. Despite the blaring polemics about Catholic cruelty, Calvinists did not have much to say on the principle of enslavement. But after the trading companies took over clove fields in Banda (1621) and sugar plantations in Brazil (1630), Calvinists changed their tune. They contrasted the humane enslavement of the Dutch with the brutal regimes of Catholics and Muslims. Both the VOC and WIC were heavily invested in slave holding and slave trafficking. Claiming to promote the gospel, ministers and theologians contended that owners should present the gospel to enslaved people and, if they converted, the enslaved person should be freed at some point in life. The results were mixed. Some Dutch settlers manumitted their slaves when they were no longer healthy and productive, but others simply refused to have them baptised. Even a former enslaved person from Ghana who converted to Calvinism and became an ordained minister, Jacobus Capitein, also known as Jacob Eliza Johannes, wrote a dissertation in defence of slavery and claimed owners need not free their bonded labourers. Some ministers lost interest in converting enslaved persons, claiming that they converted just to obtain their freedom. Hampered by deep inconsistencies, the Calvinist missionary effort threw its full support behind enslavement in the empire.

Heathens enlightened many Protestants about their fears of the devil and superstitions about witchcraft

Calvinist ministers went out into the world to convert non-Christians, yet infidels also made their way into the cities and towns of the Dutch Republic. Pagan and Muslim men and women who had converted to – and then backslid from – Calvinism filled pastoral reports read at church meetings across the Netherlands. Hindu and Buddhist images, similar to those collected by dominee Visscher, crept into the curiosity cabinets of cosmopolitan elites; the Amsterdam burgomaster Nicolaes Witsen owned 23 idols. Willem Konijn, a minister in Ceylon who overlapped with Visscher in South Asia, sent local sketches of Buddha (and Buddhist holy sites) to collectors in Amsterdam, who misidentified the figure as Adam. As these cases attest, Calvinists and other Dutch Protestants had complicated relationships with pagans and their idols.

What effects did the wider world have on Calvinism? What did Indigenous peoples teach Calvinists? These are big questions. Here’s one episode to suggest what education the heathens and Moors, from their years of engagement with Europeans, gave to Dutch Calvinists, and then to Europe.

One important lesson: heathens enlightened many Protestants about their fears of the devil and superstitions about witchcraft. In 1691, Balthasar Bekker, a Calvinist minister, wrote a controversial anti-witchcraft treatise, The Enchanted World (De Betoverde Weereld), to criticise the prosecution of ‘witches’. Witchcraft prosecution was a legal pandemic in Europe from 1500 to Bekker’s time, as authorities investigated more than 100,000 people and executed half that number for doing the devil’s work. But Bekker argued that the so-called ‘Empire of the Devil’ was a delusion, as practices taken to be witchcraft in Europe were nothing more than silly pagan superstitions. Bekker called on societies around the world as witnesses to show that most peoples believed in spirits and conducted strange rituals, which most Europeans chalked up as weird but harmless. His book was immensely popular (even if the Dutch Reformed Church expelled him). Calvinists believed that the devil and witchcraft were alive and well. A minister in Amsterdam, Bekker used the experiences that his Calvinist brethren had recorded and amassed to make the case that witchcraft, the common currency of paganism, was nothing more than a ruse.

What is distinctive about Bekker and Dutch Calvinists is that a global perspective provided a new vantage point from which to view common assumptions and accepted practices in Europe. Attention to world societies revealed the universality of pagan rituals and fables, not only in Asia and Africa, but in Europe as well. Since the Amsterdam consistory to which Bekker belonged corresponded with all the overseas churches, he was deeply ensconced in the information flows about pagans and Moors in the Dutch Empire. Bekker also read widely among other missionaries and ethnographers, including the Dutch Calvinists Baldaeus and Abraham Rogerius, who published works on ‘heathendom’ based on their experiences in South Asia in the mid-1600s. Though ostracised, Bekker was not alone, as the experience of Calvinist missions and empire, and the relationships therein formed with pagans and Moors, were teaching some Europeans to take a comparative and relativistic view of world religions.

ReligionGlobal historyNations and empires

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