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Low Countries

The modern Netherlands and Belgium, the Low Countries, are roughly divided by the Rhine estuary. In Roman times the S Lowlands were a frontier province along the Rhine boundary. Christianity spread there during the third century, and Tongeren and Cambrai were centers of bishoprics (the Armenian St. Servatius, from the E regions of the far-flung empire, was bishop at Tongeren in mid-century). During the fourth century, imperial rule in the West crumbled, and there were only scattered survivals of Christianity in the S Lowlands, now under barbarian rule. The conversion of Clovis,* chief of the Franks, in 496 opened the way to the expansion of the faith; the Merovingian kings encouraged missions, and during the fifth and sixth centuries the S Lowlands were gradually converted (Vaast, Falco, Herebert, Lambert were among the better-known missionaries), the effort culminating in St. Amandus, the “Apostle to the Belgians,” around 650. The region north of the Rhine, then known as Frisia, was a strong pagan kingdom, suspicious of Frankish expansion. Mission effort there came from the Anglo-Saxon Church. The isolated effort of Wilfred of York (678) was soon followed by the mission of Willibrord* (690), the “Apostle to the Frisians,” who from 695 was bishop of Utrecht. His successor Boniface,* working with the expanding Frankish power, was martyred by the N Frisians (still independent) at Dokkum (754). Mission efforts by Willehad,* Lebuinus, Ludger,* and others, and the conquest of most of the independent Frisians by Charlemagne, completed the Christianization of the Lowlands by around 800.

The temporary stability furnished by Charlemagne's tribal “empire” was soon followed by the invasions of the pagan Northmen (Vikings), and much of the N Lowlands came under Viking control (Rorik, mid-800s). The Viking storm passed, and the Northmen too were converted. Feudalism emerged from the wreckage of the Carolingian state. The N Lowlands were part of the German feudal “empire” while the south was part of the kingdom of Frankland, or France. The cathedral school at Liège in the ninth century gained fame as the center of learning. In the north the bishop of Utrecht became an important political figure. By around 1050 feudalism had evolved into a system furnishing a relative degree of political stability, and the religious history of the Lowlands merged with the general religious history of feudal Europe. The S Lowlands became a center of commerce and industry; the counts of Flanders played important roles in the Crusades*; the Lowlands produced philosophers (Henry of Ghent,* Siger of Brabant*) and church reformers (Norbert* of Xanten) and in general took part in the religious life of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

By the 1300s medieval institutions were in disarray. The church suffered through the papal “Babylonian Captivity”* at Avignon, followed by the Great Schism.* Attempts at reform were many. The Lowlands produced a strong mystical movement (particularly Jan Van Ruysbroeck*), and the “new piety” associated with Gerard Groot* and the Brethren of the Common Life.* This movement, during the 1400s, stressed not only piety (Thomas à Kempis,* The Imitation of Christ) but also education; the young Erasmus* was among those trained at its schools. Meanwhile, theologians such as Wessel of Gansfort* and Cornelis Hoen worked out positions which in some ways anticipated Luther. Politically the Lowlands were to some extent united, under the dukes of Burgundy (Philip the Good, Charles the Bold); but towns and nobles alike strove to retain their feudal “liberties.” The Burgundian heritage passed to the Hapsburgs, so that Charles V* (as well as being Luther's sovereign) ruled the Lowlands in the early 1500s.

The Lutheran “heresy” found fertile soil in the Low Countries. By the 1520s not only Lutheranism but Anabaptism found adherents. Dutch Anabaptist militants (John of Leyden*) took part in the Anabaptist “New Zion” at Münster: more significantly, Menno Simons* reorganized the peaceful wing of the movement. The “heretics” were sporadically persecuted under Charles V,* with the Anabaptists in particular suffering. In the next generation Calvinism spread rapidly and overshadowed other versions of Protestantism in both north and south. In 1555 the Spanish-born Philip II,* fervently Catholic, striving to centralize the administration of his domains, became the ruler of the Low Countries. The persecution of the Calvinists and other “heretics” was escalated; the Spanish attempts to ride roughshod over the cherished “feudal liberties” of towns and nobles aroused opposition; and by 1568 the Low Countries were in revolt under William of Orange. During the next forty years the fortunes of war changed many times. By the Twelve Year Truce of 1609, the north had gained its independence and become Protestant; the south remained Catholic and under Spanish rule. Renewal of the war (1621-48) did not change the situation.

During the seventeenth century the Netherlands (the N provinces) became a major European power. The Calvinists secured at the Synod of Dort* (1618-19) a victory for scholastic orthodoxy against the followers of Arminius*: The Remonstrants, who wished a Reformed church with a good deal of tolerance in matters of dogma, were expelled from the church. The great universities (e.g., Leyden, Utrecht) became internationally known centers of Calvinist learning, drawing students not only from the English Puritans,* but from all over Europe. But orthodoxy became increasingly defensive, and the church was soon factionalized by controversies over minor doctrinal matters (Voetius* against Cocceius*). In the “Spanish Netherlands,” the S provinces, the Counter-Reformation made great strides, and the south became a center for Catholic orthodoxy. It, also, had its internal problems: Jansenism* spread to France, where Port-Royal became its headquarters and Pascal* its most famous defender. It eventually resulted in schism (1713: the Old Catholic Church* of Utrecht). For Catholicism, the N provinces were mission territory; the normal hierarchical organization was replaced by direct control from Rome, through vicar-generals or other special officials. In the north many remained Catholic, but the Reformed church was for all practical purposes the established church.

The “Enlightenment Era” of the 1700s found religion generally on the defensive against new currents of thought, secular in emphasis, stressing reason rather than divine revelation. In the Netherlands the Reformed church settled into what seemed to many to be a petrified orthodoxy, a bulwark of privilege, increasingly infiltrated as the century wore on by Deism.* The common people turned to an experiential Pietism,* while the educated classes lost interest in theology. In the S Lowlands, now under Austrian rule, the Catholic Church likewise took a defensive posture. No longer a center of intellectual development, it could no longer attract the ablest talents. Internally the main controversy of the era arose over the antipapal emphases of “Febronius” (J.N. von Hontheim*).

This era of religious torpidity was not to last. In 1789 the French Revolution broke out, soon to become a “European civil war.” Revolutionary troops occupied the Lowlands in the 1790s, set up revolutionary regimes, and took away the privileges of Catholic priest (in the south) and Reformed minister (in the north). Napoleon, the “organizer of the Revolution,” viewed religion as a useful ally and was willing (in return for support of revolutionary regimes) to grant recognition to existing religious bodies. After Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in the S Lowlands (1815), the anti-Revolutionary allies planned to set up a strong state on the northern borders of France. The Lowlands were briefly again united, as a kingdom, under the Dutch leader William I.

Following Napoleon's general approach to religious matters, the king encountered problems. The Belgian Catholic hierarchy opposed his constitution as too liberal; the Belgian “Liberals” (who wanted a share in government for parliament) opposed it as being too conservative. Both groups, temporarily in uneasy alliance, opposed rule by the Dutch. Belgium became independent in 1830-31. The temporary allies soon fell out. The Belgian constitution of 1832 was, for the Catholic hierarchy, far too liberal, and Catholics consequently found it difficult to engage in politics. Agitation on the “school question”-state subsidies for religious schools-grew after mid-century, and (after Leo XIII, in 1879, approved participation in politics in a religiously neutral state) a Catholic political party emerged in the 1880s. It soon became the dominant party, held a majority until World War I, and pushed through legislation giving state aid to religious schools. The introduction of universal suffrage weakened its hold, but it remains a major party. Catholic trade unions and numerous other organizations were formed, making Belgium (like the Netherlands) in some ways a “split society,” with religion playing an important role in social and economic life.

In the Netherlands the Reformed church was the major recognized religious body. Partly due to this state recognition, it was tolerant of dogmatic differences. A conservative-pietist wing emerged with the “Awakening” (Réveil) of the 1820s (Da Costa,* Groen Van Prinsterer et al.); in 1834 a small group of orthodox split off (the Afscheiding, or “Separation”). The main emphasis of the Reformed church as stressed by the “Groningen School”* at mid-century, was on way of life rather than on dogma. Thus the growing tensions between evangelical and modernist could be held in check. In 1886 A. Kuyper* led a second separation (the Doleantie: the two separatist groups soon united in the Gereformeerde Kerk, the second largest Protestant group in the Netherlands). Catholicism, meanwhile, had allied uneasily with the Liberals in politics. Both opposed the Reformed “establishment.” In 1853 the Liberal leader Thorbecke arranged for the restoration of the traditional hierarchy in the Netherlands. But growing agitation on the “school question,” among orthodox Calvinists as well as among Catholics, raised problems for the Liberals. Kuyper's charismatic leadership produced a “Monstrous Coalition” between Geneva and Rome in politics, and the coalition of Catholic and orthodox Calvinists parties gained political control from the Liberals and gained state support for religious schools. Catholic and orthodox Calvinist trade unions and other organizations were formed also, thus producing the “splintered society,” or “plural society,” of the present-day Netherlands.

Bibligoraphy: J.J. Altmeyer, Les Précurseurs de la réforme aux Pays-Bas (2 vols., 1886); P.H. Ditchfield, The Church in the Netherlands (1893); H. Pirenne, Histoire de Belgique (7 vols., 1902-32); T.M. Lindsay, A History of the Reformation, vol. II (1907); J.H. Mackay, Religious Thought in Holland during the Nineteenth Century (1911); E.C. Vanderlaan, Protestant Modernism in Holland (1924); E. de Moreau, Histoire de l'église en Belgique (2 vols., 1940-48); A. Keller, Christian Europe Today (1942).