“Editorial Correspondence,” by Reinhold Niebuhr
April 14, 1947

Amsterdam, Holland, March 12

During my visit just completed to the universities of Holland, I probably talked too much and listened too little to be entitled to any opinions about Holland. I spoke in the four Dutch universities, to the ministers of Utrecht, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague, beside other business men’s and labor meetings. Yet impressions are left upon the visitor.

The religious life of Holland runs in deeper channels than our own and the channels are as narrowly and sharply defined as a Dutch canal. The ministers of Holland are more theologically minded than we and undoubtedly more deeply rooted in Scripture and in the traditions of the Reformation. On the other hand their sermons may not be as relevant as our own. One layman, at least, complained to me that the ministers “speak a special kind of holy language” which seems unrelated to the problems which ordinary men face. But I think I have heard that criticism in other nations, including our own.

Sharply defined theological positions tend to make for divisiveness. In my very first meeting with the student movement members of Leyden University, I was proudly informed that it was a joint meeting of the “orthodox” and the “liberal” student organizations. I discovered that the differences between them was hardly as great as those comprehended in almost any Christian organization of America.

It would be very wrong to leave the impression, however, that Dutch religious life is merely traditional. There are deep reservoirs of spiritual power in it and some new creative impulses. One of them is a “Church and World” movement seeking to relate the message of Christ more directly to the life of the people in all avenues of work. Its school at Driebergen, only founded since the war, has 75 young men and women in training to become lay evangelists, social workers, youth leaders, etc.

Coming from Scotland, where the church liturgy is free but well formed and beautiful, one is impressed by the austerity, not to say bareness, of the worship of the Dutch church. It is even less formed than our own; and one is reminded that it springs from the same traditions which produced the architecture and the service of our New England meeting house. The service is of course frequently held in a church, the beautiful architecture of which was inspired by the Middle Ages, and one cannot help but feel that it does not make full use of the beauty of those magnificent churches. A church which can maintain the vitality of the religious life by pure instruction and with so little to express the whole range of Christian faith and hope in prayer, or at least in worship forms which embody the whole range of the Christian life, must have hidden resources not apparent to the casual visitor. Perhaps it is the sermon, which is very eloquent I am told. The only one I heard certainly was.

The Calvinism of Holland embodies a Puritan legalism and moralism of about the state of consistency of our own Puritanism in the middle of the last century. Just now the Synod of the Dutch church has forbidden the remarriage of divorced persons absolutely, in the precise year in which the Episcopal Church in America has extricated itself from the full rigor of that prohibition by wise and just rules, allowing for the remarriage, particularly of indubitably innocent parties to a divorce. Such legalism always makes for sharply defined political, as well as moral positions. The relation between Christian idealism and conservative political opinion is therefore more intimate, because organizationally expressed, than in our own country.

I found myself in debate with this legalism in every conference with ministers and reminded them that much of it seemed unaware of St. Paul’s strictures against it: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty with which Christ has made you free.” A minority of the ministers supported these criticisms with obvious approval; but I must report that even the responses of the unconvinced were generous.

A word ought to be said about the relation of Holland to the international situation. One notices everywhere how conscious the people are that the future depends upon America. American power is fully recognized and I think there is hint of apprehension about Britain’s economic weakness. Holland is of course typical of western Europe and expresses its concern about a possible Communist domination of the continent. It is at the same time not certain, as no one in Europe seems to be, whether we intend to keep our power in Europe or whether we will express it consistently enough to prevent further economic decay in the West. This concern tends also to mitigate the inevitable hatred of Germany and to create a desire for the economic reorganization of the vanquished nation, lest the whole of Europe fall into decay.

President Truman’s Texas speech on free enterprise was delivered during my visit here and prompted the raising of eyebrows even among conservative classes. It seems to be an almost universal conviction in Europe, quite beyond party lines, that the completeness of the American devotion to free enterprise doctrines is a hazard to the reorganization of an impoverished and war torn continent, the economy of which will require more management than Americans seem to realize. America is, in other words, a rich and powerful uncle, for whose past services one is deeply grateful. But one wishes that the uncle could, in his opulence, understand a little more how poor people have to live and what rules they have to adopt to share their meager resources.

Vacuum cleaner in action during flooding on the Westermarkt in Amsterdam on March 11, 1947, the day before Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the preceding correspondence. Photo by Ben van Meerendonk, via Wikimedia Commons.

“On the Political and Religious Struggle in the Netherlands,” by Willem Banning
January 6, 1947

It is my purpose to say a few things about the spiritual struggle now being waged in certain sections of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands—a struggle for a new vision in social and religious problems, and toward new life and new forms of living. The reader should bear in mind that this struggle is still raging and its outcome is far from being settled.

I will begin with the political and social aspects. During the last 50 years, political life in the Netherlands has been dominated by a so-called antithesis line of policy based on the idea that a Christian should belong to some Christian political party or other, and that he cannot and must not have any dealings with non-Christians, since there is no such intercourse in confession. Hence we saw in the Netherlands three large parties whose principles were based on a confession: the Roman Catholic party, the anti-revolutionary party (supporting the Reformed Churches), the Christian Historical party (supporting the orthodox group of the Dutch Reformed Church). The origin of these parties must be sought in their opposition in principle to the French Revolution and liberalism, later also to socialism and the struggle for emancipation on the part of some sections of the church. These parties are to a large extent dominated by the theology and culture-philosophy of the Neo-Calvinists (Dr. A. Kuyper), who, on the ground of a special view concerning particular and general grace, advocated the introduction of Christianity into politics, and a Christian science and art; who fought for the founding of denominational schools (even up to their own universities), Christian hospitals, Christian recreation, and Christian trade-unions. This had two results. On the one hand, a strong self-consciousness was developed in these groups, so much so, that since 1918 they have been in power in the Dutch government. On the other hand, that portion of the people calling themselves Christians have become more and more isolated from the rest of the people, giving rise to a great gulf, to malice and hatred.

Whoever tries to look the situation squarely in the face must admit that this antithesis-idea has really and practically thrown up a dam against secularism and de-Christianization, yet on the other hand it has brought about hostility against and estrangement from Christianity. Especially during the peri­od between the wars did Christian politics begin to be tinged more and more with capitalistic conservatism. There were, it is true, both in the Roman Catholic and Protestant parties, a few figures who stood out for radical progressive policy and in particular identified themselves with the demands of labor, but they remained solitary figures and failed tragically; the conservatives took the lead. This was one of the reasons why numerous working people went over to socialism and left the church at the same time, the more hot-headed ones becoming atheists. In Holland we were faced with this contrast: Christian politics is conservatism; a progressive policy is anti-Christian. Theoretical arguments that this need not be so at all were of no avail. This contrast continued to live on, deeply rooted in the consciousness of the nation.

Even before the second world-war, resistance to this miserable state of things came from Protestant circles. A group of adherents led by our present very able minister of finance, Prof. Lieftink, strove for a radical social policy resembling very closely the policy of the social-democrats, especially when unemployment was so rampant in our midst. Within social democracy itself, the influence of a group of religious socialists became more and more felt, a group that was critical of Marxism soon made room for religious motivation of a socialistic conviction. Mutual discussions took place among members of both camps, which made the falseness of the already developed political relations more and more deeply felt.

Then came the second world-war and the occupation. People of widely different religious persuasions discovered each other in the resistance movement, in “illegality,” in prison and in the concentration camp. It was found by experience that men could fight the common foe, national-socialism, better in close comradeship, collectively. Would they not be able to do the same after a while when the liberation came, to do the same in respect to conservative capitalistic policies? It came to be seen that character, courage, readiness to give one’s life was more significant, made closer ties than theories and dogmas, Christian or anti-Christian. There arose in anticipation, a vision, a will that the new Netherlands, after her liberation, should be a different one from the old one of before 1940, and this new Holland would have to be built upon a combined effort exerted by those who had found each other. It would be epitomized in the idea: Necessary above all things is a renewal, a “break-through” of the old political fetters, of the antithesis idea.

After the liberation this idea began to take shape in a Dutch national movement. It was the convergence of two currents: one having its source in a camp for hostages and the other from the “illegality” centering around the journal “Je Maintiendrai”. In each group there were social democrats, Protestants, Catholics, and persons who, until 1940, had stood aloof to party politics on account of the illusionary dividing line in the world of politics. The idea that accompanied this break-through was positively charged with the slogan: for a personalistic socialism. This idea was brought to the fore in order to emphasize that the people of Holland were neither individualistic, nor collectivistic, nor Marxist, but wished to realize a type of socialism in which respect for the human being should form the essence. People felt themselves in this way to be closely bound with spiritual ties in other countries (the personalism in France, the personalistic socialism of Berdjajew) and with the best traditions of European civilization.

In the world of politics the idea of the break-through was initially attended with success in the founding of the Dutch Labor Party, emphatically intended to be a new start, a new page in the history of socialism. It comprises the old social-democratic party, the old liberal-radical party, and a small Christian democratic party (a group of orthodox Protestants, who broke with the antithesis parties, and a group of Roman Catholics, who broke away from the old Roman Catholic party). The new party acknowledges the inner bonds between their religious convictions just as much as they reject the old antithesis. It cannot be averred that the new party dominated Dutch politics at the moment—even if it is one of the two government parties—but it does affirm that the politics of the antithesis is a thing of the past, and that the founding of a new party spells release for countless numbers of people.

In the meantime, the depth and significance of the struggle that is now going on in this country is not equally clear to everyone. The old social-democrats cannot be blamed for paying special attention to political motives. The Protestants, especially the theologians among them, know that the whole question centers around a theological-religious struggle where much more is involved than mere politics, viz: the Neo-Calvinistic vision of a Christian culture which is closely connected with the meaning of the Church, her relations with society and social and political problems. For this reason the spiritual conflict in the Dutch Reformed Church must be the subject of a separate discussion. It is to a large extent also a struggle of her own, unconnected with the Labor Party and must be judged on her own religious motives.


The Dutch Reformed Church, to which almost one third of the Dutch people belong, was, until the second world-war, characterized by three phenomena, around which, now, after the war, the struggle has begun. In the first place: the parties in the church itself, which for the greater part at least were organized into fairly strong organizations who ofttimes quarreled violently and pitilessly among themselves. There were in the main, four different schools of thought: the fundamentalists, the confessionalists, the moderate orthodox section, and the liberal minded group. In the second place: the dominant bourgeois-minded elements in the church; the intellectuals have for the most part left her; the working-people turned their backs on her; in some parts of the country even the farmers were lost to her; a large proportion of the younger people took no heed of her. She had degenerated into a secluded society not to be moved by the alarming nature of the social and political evils of society at large. She never voiced her opinion about these evils and failed to give a lead to the conscience of the nation. In the third place: the organization of the church councils were preponderantly technical-administrative. The Synod, as part of the church order of 1816, was much more an administrative than a spiritual organ; it was not able to give spiritual leadership; it could not accept the task of spiritual decisions as legally imposed upon it. In the various groups of the church, there was, it is true, albeit from different motives, a revolt against this state of affairs, but this, principally on account of the strife among the different sects within the church, proved futile. The last unsuccessful attempt to bring about a reorganization in the Church dates back from 1938.

The war and the occupation marked a turning point. I shall refrain from mentioning any other names in this article, but it would be unjust if I failed to make mention of Dr. Gravemeyer, secretary to the Synod since April, 1940, and Prof. Kraemer, of international fame in the missionary cause, as the leading lights in the new revival movement in the Church. They found, God be praised, supporters in every group and school of thought. War and occupation had a remarkable effect on the Church and her leadership. First, the conflict with national-socialism, an ideology diametrically opposed to the Gospel of Christ. Second, the responsibility for the whole of the Dutch people in their oppression and resistance had to be taken on by the Church; again, not on political grounds but on religious, because the Church with her divine duty to perform, cannot but proclaim: “Land, land, land, hear ye the word of the Lord.” This responsibility for the whole na­tion was clearly demonstrated in the famine-winters of 1944–45 when, under the guidance of the Church, help and food supplies were organized in aid of the starving, especially in the cities in the west of the country.

I have mentioned here two series of facts: the degeneration of the Church prior to 1940, and the effects of war and occupation. Both of them made us search deeper into the causes of this decay and to the conditions that would bring about a genuine revival. This coming to one’s self as it were, this coming to one’s senses, has given rise to a movement to bring about a renewal in Christian life in church congregations. This simple but fundamental question, this direct and burning question, must be put to the conscience of every member of the church, of all parties, persons and organs: Do we know, or realize, what it means now, during war-time and occupation of national socialists to be a member of the Church of Christ? It must be discovered anew that the Church, because she has been founded by God, has a holy charge, a divine commission, both for herself and for the world at large. It is indeed with a deep sense of shame, but at the same time a veritable deliverance, that we cannot but discover from this fundamental question that a radical criticism of the existing church must follow in its wake: of her dissensions due to internal strife; of her bourgeois-spirit and narrow-mindedness and of her purely secular organization. Hence there was a religious storm a-brewing all along the line, although it could not develop in its full fury during the occupation; a storm or struggle which might also be termed a break-through into the rigid sectarianism, the bourgeois spirit, the intolerable methods of administration and organization; above all things a break-through towards the living wells from which flows the Christian life of the Church: the apostolic witness of the New Testament—obedience to the Lord Christ (Christos Kurios).

The first results are already visible. The church order of 1816 has been abolished. A new General Synod met on 31st Oct., 1945, in the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam (the national church edifice par excellence) having as its first task the preparation of an entirely new Church order.

This may sound very much like business, but when one bears in mind the fact that the proposal for this new General Synod was accepted with only two dissenting votes out of 64, we see at the same time that there is a breaking up of the old parties. Another result is the installation of a number of councils, who are occupying themselves with the problems of our youth, training and education, the inner mission, the press, commissions for evangelical work on broad lines and modern methods. Still another tangible result is that the church has been giving the lead in thinking and acting by her proclamations of principles concerning capital punishment as affecting national socialists convicted for high treason, concerning trade-unions, and concerning Indonesia. These and other signs are being brought more and more before the public mind, so that the vision is indeed becoming a real one, alive and vivid. Of these we will mention a few more fundamental characteristics.

In the first place, the church is learning anew the nature of her own essence and task, apostolically and prophetically: she wishes to become a professing national Church of Christ, all parties being called upon to give up their self-sufficiency by obedience to Christ Jesus. In the second place, she realizes on these grounds her responsibility also for the social and political problems, because the demands of the Gospel embrace all the different walks of life. She is trying in accordance to her charge to be a city set upon a hill, the light on a bushel, the conscience of society amidst the troubles of the world. In the third place, she is preparing herself for a great struggle extending over many years for the re-Christianization of the people of the Netherlands; to lead into the church the required number of workers needed for this purpose, by the foundation of an Academy “Kerk & Wereld” at Driebergen, which is to train its own type of religious workers in a world that has forgotten Christ.

In closing I may point out that behind all this revival movement in the church there is more than an urge to action. There is a deep religious feeling, characterized by a painful sense of guilt toward God for having neglected the true calling of the Church. I said there is a break-through in the various parties within the church herself. This applies only to those who are suffering under the collective sense of guilt and who are prepared to admit with the others: “we have fallen ill together and now we must see to it that we get well again together and change our lives together.” Not until then can we get rid of all self-will, all exaltation of our own particular way of thinking, or our own particular theology. We are all collectively bound to obey Christ, the Lord of the Church Universal. Of a new theology—which might be compared to Barthianism— there is no question. Concentration on theology is not the most important thing, but concentration on Christ is the thing that is wanted, recognizing the fact that various theologies are able to interpret the saving grace that He has brought into the world, and likewise recognizing that a good or an excellent theology is not at all a guarantee of the genuineness of Christian living.

If I had to summarize the dominant motives in this revival, I should mention: 1.) The recognition of the authority of the Bible in announcing the undoubted goodness of God in the life and works, death and resurrection of Christ; 2.) The re-discovery of the apostolate of the Church with her prophetic message of the kingdom of God and her readiness to serve (not to rule imperialistically) ; 3.) The necessity of a revival of the Reformation, the conversion of the Church and of Christians, which should proceed every attempt at converting non-Christians.

What is taking place in Holland, is most certainly determined by the political and religious situation of the Dutch people, and yet it is not only of significance for one little nation; the struggle in which we are involved (and which is rousing strong opposition, not to mention endless misunderstandings) is but a part of the great world-wide struggle of the church in her entirety: how she can again truly and verily become the Church of Christ.

Willem Banning (1888 – 1971) was in 1947 a professor of sociology at Leiden Universify and leader of the Religious Socialist Group of Bentveld. He was also editor of the weekly of Tijd en Taak.