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Coping with Covid-19 in Dutch Christianity: A Comparison with the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic (Part Two)

Date:27 April 2020
De Groene Amsterdammer 1918
De Groene Amsterdammer 1918

One hundred years before Covid-19, the world was faced with the Spanish flu. What does a comparison between religious responses to these pandemics tell us about religion in general, and Christianity in particular, in the Netherlands (past and present)? Dr Tom-Eric Krijger, lecturer at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen, explores this question in a two-piece series.

In the first part of this series, we looked at the ways in which Dutch Christians and the Dutch central government tried to deal with the Spanish flu in the late 1910s. As we saw, many ministers and priests exhorted the faithful and, by extension, the entire Dutch nation to trust in God and vigorously seek Him through His Word, prayer, and church rituals. Accordingly, rather than preventing people from flocking together in churches or during processions, they stressed the value of churchgoing—and so did the Ruijs cabinet. Both in church and in society, coordinated action against the Spanish flu was lacking.

How differently did the Dutch government and church officials respond to the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the Netherlands in March 2020! Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his cabinet established a nationwide “intelligent lockdown” when the number of infections started to rise. Initially issuing a ban on mass events of more than 100 people that were to be held in March, the government decided on March 23 to prohibit all public gatherings until June 1, 2020. It made an exception for divine services with fewer than 30 attendees, but urged religious communities to stream their services online without a live audience.

Being urged to do so by their national leadership, the great majority of local churches complied with the government’s request. Nonetheless, a handful of orthodox Reformed congregations continued to make full use of the abovementioned exception, causing some journalists and opinion makers to hold them responsible for the rapid increase of infections in the so-called Dutch Bible Belt (e.g. De Stentor, April 2, 2020; Algemeen Dagblad, April 3, 2020).

The Bible Belt, a region running diagonally across the Netherlands from the southwest to the northeast, is home to a relatively high concentration of strict or Pietist Calvinists (bevindelijk gereformeerden), in whose circles echoes can be heard of one hundred years ago. For instance, in words reminiscent of century-old tijdredes, the ministers Jochem Roos and Rinie van Reenen, who belong to the Reformed Congregations in the Netherlands (Gereformeerde Gemeenten in Nederland) and the Restored Reformed Church (Hersteld Hervormde Kerk) respectively, interpreted the Covid-19 pandemic as one of many signs of God’s anger over the deterioration of biblical morals in the contemporary world and an exhortation to humanity to submit to His commandments (Nederlands Dagblad, March 9, 2020; Elsevier Weekblad, April 11, 2020).

As we saw in the first part of this blog series, such opinions were not particularly uncommon around 1920. Yet they have become rather obsolete and dissonant in present-day Dutch society and church life. Recent research suggests that a mere 2% of Dutch Christians regard the Covid-19 pandemic as a divine punishment, while only 9% of them see it as a sign of the End Times (NRC Handelsblad, April 10, 2020).

This is due to the numerical decline of, and significant theological changes within, the largest denominations in the Netherlands over the past few decades. With regard to these changes, Dutch population surveys show that the image of God as a loving Father Who comforts and forgives His children has preserved its appeal, whereas the image of a stern, authoritative, and punitive God and the belief in hell have declined.[i]

A case in point is that church initiatives taken in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, such as the simultaneous ringing of church bells across the Netherlands and the joint repetition of the Lord’s Prayer, were phrased not in calls for repentance, but rather in terms of “contemplation” and “consolation.” This also applies to the “Day of National Prayer” (Dag van Nationaal Gebed) that the Evangelical public broadcasting association EO and the ecumenical Dutch Council of Churches (Raad van Kerken), which represents a majority of Dutch church members, promoted with the tagline “A Message of Peace and Trust” (“Een boodschap van rust en vertrouwen”) on March 18, 2020. 

In 1918, such a national day of prayer was initiated by the national government (which would be inconceivable today). The Ruijs cabinet ignored appeals to reduce the duration of religious services, close churches, or even institute what nowadays would be called a “lockdown,” appeals that were just as much part of the public debate as they were in March 2020. Indeed, the previously cited letter in a Groningen newspaper (see part one) was certainly not the only one to regard church buildings as hotbeds of infection par excellence.

Yet, in government circles, the view of Christianity as a positive social force outweighed potential health risks. Moreover, the presence of Christianity in Dutch society was taken for granted. The Ruijs cabinet could interpret the “massive” response with which the national day of prayer was met all over the country as a justification for one of the only two nationwide measures it took to tackle the outbreak of the Spanish flu. Only after the 1918 pandemic did the conviction take root that the central government should do much more, by assuming a coordinating role, to defuse national crises.[ii]

When we compare the responses in Dutch church life to the Spanish flu in the late 1910s and the coronavirus in 2020 from a historical and theological perspective, as we have done above, the differences between the two cases are striking. Yet when we approach these responses from a sociological or psychological point of view, the picture alters. We may ask why, at the very height of the Spanish flu pandemic, an influential theologian like Abraham Kuyper was so eager to resist a temporary closure of church buildings, crowded processions were held in Catholic communities, and the central government called for a national day of prayer.

Of course, we could attribute such behaviour to ignorance: after all, the virus that caused the Spanish flu was discovered only in 1933. We should also keep in mind that the technologies that now enable religious services to be broadcast or streamed online simply did not exist. And as far as the national day of prayer is concerned, we could argue that the Ruijs cabinet did nothing else but respond to voices within society (or at least within the Catholic and orthodox Protestant communities from which its constitutive political parties recruited their voters).

But these explanations are only part of the answer. To get to the heart of the matter, we must dig a little deeper, all the way into the psyche of someone like Kuyper or Ruijs and all the Dutch who flocked into the churches when the Spanish flu was rampant. Deep down, all of them were driven by the need to make sense of what could not be made sense of by falling back on what they were accustomed to and clinging to what made them feel safe.

This need has not changed over the past century. Those who are accustomed to churchgoing still try to give meaning to what is going on, and give expression to their emotions, by means of traditions and practices that are part of church life. Age-old rituals that seem merely folkloristic to some are of sacred importance to others. In Maastricht, for example, the relics of the city’s patron saint, Saint Servatius, were taken out of their treasury on March 18, 2020 – although they are no longer carried all around the city in procession, as they were in case of calamities centuries ago (Dagblad De Limburger, March 18, 2020).

In the nearby city of Sittard, Catholics devote their prayers to Saint Rose, just as Catholics in Macharen relied on the assistance of their patron saint a century ago. To the bafflement of its organisers, the online broadcast of a low mass dedicated to Saint Rose on March 22 was viewed by more than 7,000 people (Dagblad De Limburger, March 27, 2020). This was not an exception: all over the country, church services are streamed and attract larger audiences than they would do in “real life.”

Whether such a rise should be attributed to a growing interest among the unchurched or simply to what sociologists call a “circulation of the saints” (Christians who “hop” from church to church) is hard to determine, but, according to a recent survey, the Dutch do seem to be thinking more about the meaning of life today than they did before the Covid-19 crisis (Nederlands Dagblad, April 15 and 16, 2020).

 In some congregations, online services have not entirely replaced physical attendance at church, as media reports on the Bible Belt suggest. Judging by their own words, those who attach great importance to churchgoing and make use of the opportunity to congregate with a maximum of thirty attendees are motivated by a strong sense of dependency on God (tending, in some cases, towards fatalism) as well as a strong belief in the truth of their own convictions and the need to find comfort with likeminded others.

Echoing the Groningen city council members who opposed a shutdown of churches in 1918, the abovementioned minister Van Reenen, for instance, felt relieved that church services can still be attended by small groups; churches, he stated, “are like hospitals for the soul.” To him, he added, it is “a comforting thought” that “we live under God’s sovereign rule” (Elsevier Weekblad, April 11, 2020). Accentuating the supreme sovereignty of God as well, Ton Kort, a minister in the Old Reformed Congregations (Oud Gereformeerde Gemeenten), sketched an apocalyptic scenario in a letter to the municipal council of Krimpen aan den IJssel: “if the Lord were to go through with His judgment, houses will be empty due to a lack of inhabitants.” To prevent this from happening, the local authorities “should once again be tuned to His will and law” (Trouw, April 3, 2020).

Kort’s words caused a stir on social media and in his hometown (De Telegraaf, April 8, 2020), but his wife did not understand what the fuss was all about: she described her husband’s letter as “kind and cordial” and explained that it was meant to “encourage and hearten the local community in these [difficult] times.”[iii] Outsiders might have heard the jeremiads of fire-and-brimstone preachers, but Van Reenen and Kort themselves believed they were offering a message of hope. As with ministers like Wisse in 1918, they tried to console their congregations and confirm them in their beliefs, telling them that God is more powerful than a disease and that it is not too late to seek certainty of their salvation. In strict Calvinism, this is what ministers are expected to say.

In conclusion, the three cases with which the first part of this blog post opened seem less “exotic” or “singular” when we include Dutch Christian responses to the Spanish flu pandemic into the picture and adopt a social scientific approach to religious responses to pandemics in general.

Whether all of the responses that we have discussed are sensible from a medical point of view is, of course, open to debate. Endangering others’ health—even without the intention to do so—is something we should not keep silent about, even when it is motivated by faith. It is understandable that those who do not share this faith are alarmed or irritated by what they regard as “reckless” behaviour.

Moreover, from an outsider’s perspective, the outrage over interpretations of pandemics as divine punishments for “non-biblical” lifestyles is no surprise either: contrary to a popular saying, words do hurt. In the above cases involving strict Calvinist ministers, tensions become manifest between freedom of worship and expression on the one hand and a nominally “secular” society, in which Christianity, let alone orthodox Calvinism, is not (or no longer) an obvious frame of reference, on the other – yet this is a different, judicial, issue that we cannot discuss here.

The point here is that although the religious responses to the 1918 and 2020 pandemics may make sense to insiders only, they are rooted in the same emotions that dramatic events stir up in outsiders. In one way or another, everyone must deal with the anxiety, fear, despair, and uncertainty caused by the global spread of an unknown, extremely contagious disease.

In terms of self-affirmation, is there a fundamental difference between a strict Calvinist minister who regards the Covid-19 pandemic as an outburst of God’s anger and an environmentalist who argues that it is Mother Nature’s way of saying that she is running out of patience with humanity? What is the difference between a preacher who exhorts people to reorganise their lives along biblical lines and a politician or futurologist who uses the pandemic to call for the radical restructuring of society? And how does a churchgoer who watches an online sermon to forget their sorrows differ from a Netflix aficionado who binge-watches an entire season of Money Heist to escape their lockdown stress?

Does the latter act in a more “modern” way than the former? The answer could be affirmative, but only if we are to take for granted the long-held narrative of secularisation, which postulates a dialectic or even a clash between “modernity” and religion. This answer would oversimplify things. It goes without saying that a worldwide catastrophe may ultimately shatter someone’s worldview and lead to a loss of faith. Yet even today, as we have seen, dramatic events could just as easily prompt people to find meaning and comfort in their religious beliefs, perhaps even more so than in “normal” circumstances.

For various reasons, many Dutch Christians responded differently to a pandemic in 1918 than most Dutch do today. Yet their responses stemmed from the needs that we all have in times of calamity, regardless of our convictions about life: we all give meaning to what we experience in accordance with what is valuable, familiar, and comforting to us.

In that sense, nothing much has changed.

 

Dr Tom-Eric Krijger obtained his PhD at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of the University of Groningen in 2017 with a dissertation on the history of liberal Protestantism in the Netherlands. He has previously lectured at Leiden University and returned to the UG in November 2019.

 

Newspaper and magazine references are derived from: Delpher, Digibron, and NexisUni.

[i] Ton Bernts & Joantine Berghuijs (eds.), God in Nederland 1966-2015 (Utrecht: Ten Have, 2016).

[ii] Eric Mecking, Het drama van 1918: Over de Spaanse griep en de zoektocht naar virus en vaccin (Amsterdam: Mets & Schilt, 2006), 116.

[iii] http://cip.nl/cip+/78839-domineesvrouw-begrijpt-ophef-over-lief-briefje-ds-a-kort-niet.

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