Liberalism in the Dutch Mennonite Church

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Liberalism is a concept found both in politics and theology. In politics Liberalism is the opposite of all kinds of totalitarianism; on the one hand it rejects absolutism and conservatism, on the other hand socialism and communism. Religious liberalism is the antithesis of fundamentalism and orthodoxy. What has been the attitude of the Mennonites toward Liberalism?

Political Liberalism

Before the end of the 18th century Mennonites hardly had any opportunity to influence political life of the countries in which they lived. In most countries they lived more or less as closed groups, which were merely tolerated and were completely dependent on the favor of the rulers. Only in the Netherlands and in some German cities like Hamburg and Krefeld conditions were somewhat better, but even here political freedom and equality with the members of the state church was not acquired until about 1800. Even in the mid-20th century Mennonites were in many countries still only tolerated groups; in others, like America, they took little interest in politics. Only in the Netherlands and the North German cities like Emden, Hamburg, and Danzig have the Mennonites been engaged in the political life since the early 19th century. As to the Netherlands, in the course of the 19th century there were a striking number of Mennonites holding office as city councilors, provincial councilors, members of both the first and the second chambers of the legislature, and ministers of state. With one or two exceptions they were all (political) liberals, opposed to too much state interference, upholders of religious and political tolerance, and in many ways opposing the Calvinistic political parties. Though at present many Dutch Mennonites are attached to or vote for the Labor Party and occasionally also for some Christian political parties, many Mennonites in politics are still adherents of liberal principles.

Religious Liberalism

On the whole the Mennonites in the past and present have been attached to orthodoxy and even to fundamentalism, though there have been exceptions from the very beginning of Anabaptism; e.g., Hans Denck and Jacob Kautz in Germany in some respects differed from their co-religionists as to the orthodox Biblical doctrines. In the Netherlands the martyr Herman van Vlekwijk was an anti-Trinitarian; the elder Adam Pastor denied the deity of Christ and the doctrine of satisfaction and was excommunicated because of it; a number of early Dutch leaders, especially among the Waterlanders, such as Hans de Ries were less orthodox than most other Mennonites. But in general Mennonitism was orthodox until about 1860, when most of the Dutch Mennonites and many in the city congregations of North Germany turned to Liberalism. It should be emphatically pointed out that in Holland and Germany Liberalism has a somewhat different meaning from the usual meaning of this term in America. In America Liberalism usually means free thinking and even atheism or agnosticism, i.e., a complete rejection of faith, while in Western Europe Liberalism means a critical conception of the Bible. Although there have been and still are great differences within liberal theology and between its adherents, it may be asserted that all liberals are unanimous in the following views: (1) the Bible is not the word of God in a strict sense, but contains the word of God; (2) Jesus Christ is not the son of God, but a son of God in the sense that all men are; His birth was not supernatural, but natural, His death was not expiatory, but exemplary; (3) man on earth is not a victim of Adam's sin and fall in Paradise, to be justified only by the atoning blood of Christ, but a natural creature, gifted with free will and the possibility of serving God in following Christ's example; (4) doctrines like the inspiration of the Scriptures, satisfaction, trinity, and hell are denied.

When Liberalism, then mostly called Modernism, arose about the middle of the 19th century, most Dutch Mennonites were soon won over to its ideas. It was largely due to the influence of S. Hoekstra Bzn, then professor of the Amsterdam Mennonite Seminary, that Liberalism among the Mennonites did not assume as radical a form as it took elsewhere. The turn of the Dutch Mennonites to Liberalism was not unexpected nor accidental; it was in a sense rather self-evident, being the consequence of Dutch Mennonite piety of especially the 17th and 18th centuries. During these centuries and even before gradually more stress had been laid upon personal (individual) conviction and practical Christianity than upon church doctrines, which, though accepted in a traditional way, became more and more "dead capital" (Hoekstra). Besides this the spiritualistic tendency, found already in the early Dutch Anabaptist martyrs (see Spiritualism) and in the 17th century among the Waterlanders and the Lamist Mennonites, created a type of individualistic piety, which though it does not necessarily lead to Liberalism (neither Hans de Ries nor Galenus Abrahamsz was liberal), easily opens the door to Liberalism by its conception that the inspiration of man by the Holy Spirit is more basic than the "written word of God." Moreover influences from outside, like the strong contacts of the Mennonites with Collegiantism  and the teachings of Socinianism in which Liberalism is already found as in nuce, made them receptive to Modernism. Foecke Floris and particularly Jan Klaasz van Grouw (De leer der Doopsgezinden, 1702) in their time were almost complete liberals. Doctrines such as original sin, satisfaction by the atoning suffering and death of Christ, were even in the 17th century a tradition for the Mennonites, rather than a part of their real faith, and the doctrine of the Trinity never was part of their essential creed. These doctrines were easily lost after new views came into prominence. But this came not only because Liberalism in the Mennonite congregations produced the new trend of criticizing the Scriptures by rationalistic human understanding; it was particularly the religious pathos of Moralism in Liberalism that appealed to the Mennonites, who by their preference for practical Christianity always had laid much stress upon "Christian ethics."

Liberalism not only changed the type of faith, but being opposed to galling bonds also criticized church practices, leading to the practice not only of admitting members of other denominations to the Lord's Supper, but even heartily welcoming unbaptized persons to the communion services. It is also due to Liberalism that in a few congregations baptism was abolished, or that at least some persons were admitted into the church without adult baptism. Only in one congregation (Franeker) was the Lord's Supper abolished (but has since been restored). The background of these measures is the radical liberal idea that a Christian church is in fact like other human organizations, being a union of people for the sake of religion, and not a church of God strictly speaking. This radicalism, however, was far from being generally adopted in Dutch Mennonite congregations. Thus, for example, in 1867, when the preachers Straatman and Corver of Groningen suggested that church services be modernized by abolishing prayers and Scripture readings and by speaking "on general actual cultural problems," the church board and the majority of the members did not consent, and both preachers retired.

Since its rise, about 1860, Liberalism in Holland has undergone great changes. The words "Liberalism" and "Modernism" have nearly all dropped out of use. At present liberals call themselves vrijzinnigen. This vrijzinnigheid has grown less self-confident, leaning less on the results of modern science (e.g., the theory of evolution), and subjective philosophy; less optimistic too as to a gradual development of God's kingdom from within by the natural goodness of man; Liberalism now is undoubtedly more religious and more Biblical than a century ago, open for the mystery of God's mercy to man, not natural to man's own mind. And though it maintains its critical conception of the Bible, it is more disposed to accept the exceptional signification of the Scriptures and the particular essence of Jesus Christ.

The rise of Liberalism in Holland and its adoption by most Mennonites brought about the co‑operation of the Mennonites with liberals from other churches; e.g., with some of the Reformed Church and the Remonstrants. An interchurch organization for the promotion of liberal Christianity was the Nederlandse Protestantenbond, founded in 1880, in which a large number of Mennonites have been active until the present. Its hymnals have been used in many Mennonite congregations. Dutch Mennonites also cooperate in the "Central Committee of Liberal Protestantism" and are largely interested in the VPRO (liberal Protestant broadcasting organization).

In the foregoing exposition it has been repeatedly said that most Dutch Mennonites have embraced liberal ideas. There have, however, always been a number of Mennonites who did not accept Liberalism. The congregations of Ouddorp and Blokzijl never tolerated liberal preaching. Against the growing influence of Liberalism some members of the Amsterdam Mennonite congregation in 1892 founded a union "for the maintaining of God's infallible Word in the Mennonite Church of Amsterdam."

This group supported its own preacher (C. P. van Eeghen, Jr.) and its own Sunday school for children until 1912. In 1892, when Hoekstra retired from his professorship at the Amsterdam seminary, a number of representatives in the Algemene Doopsgezinde Sociëteit made a strong attempt to have an orthodox professor appointed. Some Mennonites, unhappy with Liberalism, joined the Reformed, or sometimes the Baptists. Orthodoxy at present, though still in the minority, is more influential than it was half a century ago. This is partly due to the Vereniging voor Doopsgezind Broederschapswerk (see Broederschapswerk), founded in 1917, in which, especially in its first two decades, orthodox Mennonites found an opportunity to assert themselves. The orthodox views of such professors of the Amsterdam seminary as W. Leendertz and W. F. Golterman have also influenced a number of younger Dutch Mennonite ministers. Some of them cooperated in the "Ecclesiologische werkgroep" (ecclesiological unit), publishing their views in 1954 in Doopsgezind Belijden Nu.

Notwithstanding these differences, orthodox and liberal members of the Dutch Mennonite brotherhood wholeheartedly live together and cooperate in church activities.

See also Liberalism

Author(s) Nanne van der Zijpp
Date Published 1957

Cite This Article

MLA style

van der Zijpp, Nanne. "Liberalism in the Dutch Mennonite Church." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. 2 Jul 2022.

APA style

van der Zijpp, Nanne. (1957). Liberalism in the Dutch Mennonite Church. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 2 July 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 332-334. All rights reserved.

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