PhD research conducted by historian and religious studies scholar Tom-Eric Krijger refines and corrects existing ideas about the history of Dutch liberal Protestantism between 1870 and 1940 by approaching this movement from an entirely new historical perspective.
The first generation of liberal Protestants saw themselves as forerunners of a new era. Driven by the fear that Christianity would lose its importance and credibility, they aimed to forge Christianity and modern culture into a close-knit synthesis. They were convinced that as time moved on liberal Protestantism would set the tone in church and society and that Christian orthodoxy, in both its Protestant and Roman Catholic forms, would die out. But these expectations failed to materialize....
Krijger investigated the causes of what he describes as ‘the steady decline of liberal Protestantism in the decades following its rapid emergence in the 1860s’. Applying an intensive qualitative analysis to the liberal Protestant political press, which had previously hardly been studied at all, Krijger conceived of liberal Protestantism as a ‘discourse community’. The idea behind this concept is that individuals can be recognized as a group through their shared communication channels (newspapers, magazines, broadcasting, etc.). This approach led the PhD candidate to a surprising discovery: ‘The fate of liberal Protestantism in the Netherlands is usually attributed to three factors: internal division, poor organization and a religious perspective that was felt to be too ‘vague’. In my PhD thesis, I argue that the downfall of liberal Protestantism was due to more fundamental causes.’
Krijger clarifies these more fundamental causes: ‘My research shows that the liberals were less reformist than one might expect based on the claims which supported the emergence of their movement in the 1860s. Around 1900, they abandoned the term “modernist”, which implicitly pointed to such claims, and which up to that point they had frequently used to refer to themselves. My approach to liberal Protestantism as a discourse community also revealed that the discourse they used did not resonate with any audience other than the bourgeoisie (upper middle class). I call this discourse “spiritually aristocratic”.’
‘When liberal Protestant circles started realizing that earlier expectations had failed to materialize, a growing sense of disappointment, marginalization and persistent identity crisis developed. As a result, they no longer anticipated a future in which liberal Protestantism would be leading, but developed a strategy to prevent further marginalization instead. Rather than becoming the driving force behind ecclesiastic and social developments, liberal Protestants ended up going along with these developments. I provide many examples of this in my PhD thesis. There is a clear parallel with political liberalism. Initially, liberal Protestants identified with political liberalism. Later, due to their marginalization, they developed a love-hate relationship with it.’
‘As of the late nineteenth century a number of initiatives arose in liberal Protestant circles to increase their sphere of influence and appeal. These included forming a stronger power bloc within the Dutch Reformed Church, attempts to connect liberal Protestantism with social democracy, and the creation of liberal organizations in the social midfield, such as the VPRO broadcasting association. These initiatives were not so much driven by the urge to reform, but rather undertaken in the hope of preventing further marginalization. As I show in my thesis, liberal Protestants abroad suffered the same fate, developed the same “bourgeois” profile, and used the same discourse as in the Netherlands. This strengthens my conclusions,’ says Krijger. For his research on liberal Protestants outside the Netherlands, Krijger spent several months at Harvard Divinity School.
On 16 March Tom-Eric Krijger will defend his PhD thesis in the presence of his supervisors Prof. Mirjam de Baar, Professor of the Cultural History of Early Modern Christianity at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of the University of Groningen and at the Faculty of Religious Studies of Leiden University, where she also holds the position of Vice Dean, and Prof. Hans-Martin Kirn, Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the Protestant Theological University, Groningen.
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