This article looks at church history with the focus given to the history of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.

Source: Lux Mundi, 2006. 7 pages.

Reformed Churches in the Netherlands An Historical Overview

One of the regions in Europe in which the Calvinist Reformation rooted and flourished was the ‘nether’ or Low Lands, formed by the deltas of the rivers Schelde, Maas, Rhine and Ems, between Germany to the east, France to the south, and the North Sea to the west, and comprising Belgium and The Netherlands of today. Not that the entire area became Protestant Calvinist. In this area, the north-west region became mixed (Protestant and Catholic), the central part from Zeeland to Groningen conservative Calvinist (and known as the Dutch Bible belt), the south-east remained Roman Catholic. In what follows I will present a brief overview of the church history of Calvinism in what today is The Netherlands.

During the sixteenth century the Lowland provinces formed part of the kingdom of Philip II of Spain. Officially the religion was Roman Catholic, and Protestants of all sorts – Lutherans, Calvinists and Anabaptists – were persecuted. Led by members of the house of Orange, the Dutch were engaged in a war of independence. One of the issues in this war became freedom of religion. During the mid sixteenth century Calvinist churches were organised for Dutch refugees in London, Emden and the Palatinate. However, all longed for the day that Calvinists could live in peace in their own land and organise church life in the Lowlands proper.


In parts of Flanders French speaking churches had been organised, meeting for the first time in 1563 at the Synod of Armentieres. Here the Belgic Confession was adopted as articulating the confessional identity of the church. Buildingon the experience of the Flemish Francophone churches, as well as that of individuals coming from stays in Switzerland and the refugee churches, a meeting was held in 1568 of leading Dutch Calvinists. This convent of Wezel paved the way for the organisation of the Reformed Church in the Lowlands. The first proper synod was held in Emden 1571, and in 1574, 1578, 1581 and 1586 further synods followed on Dutch soil. Besides the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism became popular, though officially also the Genevan Catechism was used. Each synod also refined the church government system. Key figures in these early years were J. a Lasco, M. Micron, P. Datheen, G. van der Heyden, and M. van St. Aldegonde. Thus the  Dutch Reformed Church was beginning to take shape.

Hervormd and Gereformeerd🔗

The Dutch terms hervormd and gereformeerd both translate into English as ‘reformed’. Hervormd has a Germanic origin, gereformeerd has a Latin origin. Prior to 1816 the Dutch Reformed Church was referred to variously as the Hervormde Kerk and the Gereformeerde Kerk. After 1816 the term Hervormd was reserved for the church, the term gereformeerd came to designate orthodox Calvinism.

Canons of Dort🔗

The Dutch Reformed Church had, however, a serious battle with false doctrine on their hands. Already in the early days it became clear that not all were fully in agreement with the adopted confessional standards: the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism or Genevan Catechism. The debates found a focal point in differences between two professors in Leiden: F. Gomarus and J. Arminius. These debates led to the State convoking a general synod at which the issues could be settled. This General Synod of Dordrecht 1618-19 marks a milestone in Dutch church history. First, it formulated a reaction to the teachings of J. Arminius on the issue of God’s election to salvation, thus creating a third confessional standard: the Canons of Dort. Second, it drew up a standard church order (book of government). Third, it commissioned the translating of Scripture into the Dutch language (accomplished in 1637 with the publication of the Staten Vertaling). The General Synod of Dordrecht 1618-19 is thus for Dutch Calvinists what the Westminster Assembly is for English speaking Calvinists.

However, interference of the state authorities meant that church life did not become what Dordrecht had envisaged. On the one hand, confessional orthodoxy was assured, not only via a subscription form for ministers, but also via placards issued by national and provincial authorities. Though not the state church, the Calvinist church was the privileged church. However, because the country was in fact a confederation of independent provinces, and the political environment was one of provincial sovereignty, national synods were forbidden. Between 1619 and 1795, when the short period of French domination began, there was not really a single Dutch Reformed church, but seven or eight independent church federations exercising cooperation to various degrees with each other. Some of these federations were organised provincially, some (again for political reasons), only through the ‘classis’ (local area) bodies. The extent to which the measures proclaimed by General Synod of Dordrecht 1618-19 were executed depended mainly on the position of the provincial and local governments.

For this reason there was, organizationally speaking, little change in the Dutch Reformed Church between 1619 and 1795. There were doctrinal battles, such as that between Voetius and Cocceius, but a synod never decided such issues. There were doctrinal discipline cases – such as those surrounding the B. Bekker, H. A. Roëll, and J. Vlak, which even led to the classis Walcheren formulating a separate doctrinal statement known as the Articles of Walcheren – but a clear definitive stance could never be taken nationally. In name the government was Calvinist, in practice it proved more frequently to be humanist of a religiously indifferent sort.

Batavian Republic🔗

During the late eighteenth century the political pendulum swung to centralism, increasing the powers of the house of Orange. A counter movement arose and gained the upper hand: in 1795 the Batavian Republic was proclaimed, supported by the French army, as the House of Orange was forced to flee. It introduced the separation of church and state, leaving the Calvinist church more or less penniless. Reorganization of the church became a priority, but the unstable political climate – the French had interests in the Low lands and changed the political organisation of the country almost annually – regularly confused the situation. It was not until the Dutch regained their independence in 1815 and politically constituted as a monarchy, that reorganization of the church could be completed.

The existing powers had considered reorganization of the privileged church a necessity. Thus in 1816 the General Regulations replaced the Church Order of Dort. Major changes included the formation of a single Dutch Reformed Church (Nederlandsche Hervormde Kerk – NHK), the switch to a more centralized, top-down organizational structure, and the loosening of the confessional requirements.

In particular a third issue became an increasing matter of concern. In 1827 D. Molenaar argued that in theory a Roman Catholic priest or Jewish Rabbi could preach from a Reformed pulpit. In various places – primarily along the Bible belt – resistance against all manner of measures and teachings perceived to be unreformed led to a schism in the church during the mid 1830s. Led initially by a handful of young ministers – most prominent were H. de Cock, A. Brummelkamp, S. van Velzen, H. P. Scholten and candidate A. C. van Raalte – tens of thousands of people officially broke with the NHK. This breach, usually dated to its first year 1834, has gone down in history as the Secession. Those who broke with the NHK argued that as long as the NHK did not promote Biblical truth, secession was warranted.

A Varied Group🔗

The Seceders were a varied group, concentrated in a few geographical regions and led by a few strong characters. Initially there were three larger groups: the Christian Secession Reformed Church (Christelijk Afgescheiden Gereformeerde Kerk – CAGK), the Reformed Churches (Gereformeerde Kerk in Nederland – GKN) often referred to as the “Churches under the Cross” or “Cross-minded” (Kruisgezinden), and the Ledeboerianen (followers of L.G.C. Ledeboer). The CAGK was internally divided – it was not until the 1850s that one can speak of a properly functioning federation of churches.

It was not until 1869 that the CAGK and the GKN reached unity with each other. Though many matters were cause for division, it was primarily the issue of the church-state relationship that separated them. In principle both held the same stance – separation of church and state – but the CAGK felt it was not improper to seek government recognition in order to avoid persecution, while the GKN felt it was improper. This issue diminished in importance during the late 1840s, when King William III introduced the full separation of church and state, implying that government recognition was not required for religious association. In 1869 the two churches united to form the Christian Reformed Church in The Netherlands (Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk – CGK). A number of “Cross-minded churches” did not unite with the CAGK, but continued as independent churches. They united with the more or less independently organized Ledeboerianen in 1907 under G. H. Kersten to form the federation of Reformed Congregations in The Netherlands and North America (Gereformeerde Gemeenten in Nederland en Noord-Amerika – GGNNA; in America known as the Netherlands Reformed Congregations). In 1907 some churches had refused to join the merger: these eventually organized themselves as the Old Reformed Congregations (Oud Gereformeerde Gemeenten – OGG).

While on paper the CGK and GGNNA were identical, practicing the same church government and holding the same confessions, the Dutch would say that the GGNNA was ‘heavier’ (stricter) than the CGK. Doctrinally the GGNNA tend more towards strict Calvinism, pietism and experientialism, the Dutch variant of Puritanism in English speaking countries. The OGG might be described as even stricter again as the GGNNA.

The ‘Therapeutic Way’🔗

Not all orthodox Calvinists left the NHK during the 1830s. A large number remained, arguing that since the right to proclaim the truth had not been suspended by the NHK, secession was not warranted. However, there was much strife within this group over the way the truth should be defended. Some, such as N. H. Beets, I. da Costa, and D. Chantepie de la Saussaye, defended the ‘therapeutic way’: proclaim the truth and convince unbelievers of the fact that they ought to leave the church. Others, such as G. Groen van Prinsterer, G. Barger, and J. van Toorenenbergen, defended the ‘judicial way’: start doctrinal disciplinary measures to have false teachers deposed. In any case, during the course of the nineteenth century the NHK became doctrinally more liberal and pluriform. Two theological schools of thought – the Groninger Theology and Modernism – were even allowed room to deny the divinity of Christ. In the end, those propagating reform along the judicial route had caused so much strife that they were condemned by the church boards for their actions. During 1886­ 1887 many churches, including many ministers, reorganized as dolerende (mourning) churches: they cut the bond with the NHK organization, but attempted to stay in contact with likeminded churches. This church schism is usually referred to as the Doleantie. Key figures in this schism were A. Kuyper, F. L. Rutgers, W. van de Bergh and J. J. A. Ploos van Amstel. The mourning churches adopted the name Nether-German Reformed Churches (Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerken – NDGK).


The NDGK and CGK became convinced of the requirement to attempt a merger. In 1892 this merger was realized nationally. The NDGK and most of the CGKN united to form the Reformed Churches in The Netherlands (Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland – GKN). On account of doctrinal objections against some teachings of A. Kuyper (especially regarding baptism), some CGK’s did not join the union, and in later years other churches left the GKN to (re)join the CGKN. On paper the CGK and GKN were identical, in practice the CGK was more ‘subjective,’ emphasizing conversion, and the GKN more ‘objective’, emphasizing the validity of the sacraments.

Thus in the first decade of the twentieth century orthodox Calvinists churches were found in various circles: the OGG, the GGNNA, the CGK, the GKN and the reformed believers in the NHK. In the NHK the reformed believers worked together in two organisations: the Confessional Association (Confessioneele Vereniging – CV) formed in 1865 and the Reformed Alliance (Gereformeerde Bond – GB) formed as a split-off from the CV in 1906. The GB and CV parted ways on account of difference of opinion on the route to be followed to reform the NHK organisationally and (re)‘Calvinize’ the church.

Since the 1870s the NHK had struggled with its pluralist identity. Many attempts were undertaken to organize the church in such a way as to accommodate all theological currents. In 1951 the deadlock was finally broken (apparently), with the adoption of a new church order. Structurally the NHK came closer to the model of the Church Order of Dort. However, the NHK continued as a pluralist church. Though a form of doctrinal discipline was regulated, it never functioned to restore the NHK to its original Calvinist identity.

Church Schisms🔗

The GKN had been born from the conviction that the church ought to hold a clear confessional identity. This implied the exercise of doctrinal discipline if needed. Two such cases led to church schisms. In 1926 J.G. Geelkerken was deposed for leaving room for the denial of the literal historicity of Genesis 3, thus undermining the Reformed doctrine of Scripture. It led to a schism in the GKN and the formation of the GKN in Restored Federation (GKN in Hersteld Verband – GKNHV).

The teachings of A. Kuyper, or rather, logical consequences drawn from these teachings, also created division in the GKN. He believed in ‘presumptive regeneration’, that is, that children of believers are presumed to be regenerate until it appears otherwise. In 1905 the GKN decided that these teachings, as well as other views, could be tolerated in the churches. However, during the late 1930s and early 1940s it became clear that opposition to the teachings of Kuyper would not be tolerated. When, in 1944, subscription was demanded to these teachings and those who refused were deposed, a schism took place. A second factor in this schism was of a church political nature. While there was agreement that Geelkerken taught false doctrine, not all believed that a synod had the power to depose a minister. This was considered an undue form of hierarchy by some. Hence churches and office-bearers liberated themselves from what they considered undue confessional binding imposed by the General Synod. This church schism is usually referred to as the Liberation (‘vrijmaking’). Key figures among those who liberated themselves were S. Greijdanus, K. Schilder and B. Holwerda.

These churches continued to use the name GKN, using various additions between parentheses for the sake of getting mail delivered to the right address. The designation that has stuck is‘liberated’ (‘vrijgemaakt’), hence these churches are generally referred to as the Reformed Churches in The Netherlands (liberated) (GK vrijgemaakt – GKv). (To avoid confusion the other GKN will be referred to as the GK synodaal – GKs).

The CGK experienced a church schism over the view of the covenant in 1952. A number of ministers and church members left the CGKN to join other church federations.

The GGNNA also experienced internal strife. In 1953 C. Steenblok was disciplined with respect to matters relating to the offer of the gospel and of grace – a matter related to the degree to which eternal election dominates the preaching of the Gospel. Steenblok denied that there is to be a ‘free offer of the Gospel’ to all. His exodus from the GGNNA with a number of sympathizers and churches led to the formation of the Reformed Congregations in The Netherlands (Gereformeerde Gemeenten in Nederland – GGN).

During the course of World War II the NHK became convinced of the need for church unity. It undertook serious attempts to gather all Protestants into one church. The first to unite with the NHK was the GKNHV, the small group formed by Geelkerken supporters following his ouster in 1926, in 1946.        

Timeline Summary         From: Michael Zwiep


The first Reformed synod is held in Antwerp.


National Synod of Dordrecht


William I (1772-1843), King of the United Netherlands, introduces a new church order called ‘Het Algemeen Regelement’ (General Regulations), usurping the ecclesiastical authority of the Reformed churches. The Reformed churches in Holland are consolidated, granted official state status and renamed the Nederlands Hervormde Kerk (NHK = Netherlands Reformed Church).


‘De Afscheiding’ (Secession) of 1834: Hendrik de Cock (1801-1842) is suspended by the NHK resulting in the formation of the Christelijke Afgescheiden Kerk (Christian Secession Church), others also known as the Gereformeerde Kerken onder het Kruis (Reformed Churches under the Cross) and later, the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk in Nederland (CGK = Christian Reformed Church in the Netherlands).


Lambertus Ledeboer (1808-1863) is suspended by the NHK resulting in the formation of the Ledeboeriaanse Gemeenten (Ledeboer Congregations), also known as the Gereformeerde Gemeenten onder het Kruis (Reformed Congregations under the Cross) or later, the Gereformeerde Gemeenten (GG = Reformed Congregations).


‘De Doleantie’ (The Mourning) or Secession of 1886: Theologian, journalist and future Prime Minister, Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) leaves the NHK resulting in the formation of the Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerken (NDGK = Nether-German Reformed Churches).


The NDGK and the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk (CGK) merge at the Synod of Amsterdam resulting in the formation of the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (GKN) (Reformed Churches in the Netherlands). Some churches decline to participate in the union and retain the name Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk (CGK).


Gerrit Kersten (1882-1948) unites thirty-five of the independent Ledeboeriaanse Gemeenten resulting in the formation of the Gereformeerde Gemeenten (GG = Reformed Congregations).


Laurens Boone (1860-1935) unites another group of independent Ledeboeriaanse Gemeenten resulting in the formation of the Oud Gereformeerde Gemeenten in Nederland (OGG = Old Reformed Congregations in the Netherlands).


Another group of independent Ledeboeriaanse Gemeenten unite resulting in the formation of the Federatie van Oud Gereformeerde Gemeenten (Federation of Old Reformed Congregations).


‘De Vrijmaking’ (The Liberation) or Article 31 Controversy: Klaas Schilder (1890-1952) is suspended by the Gereformeerde Kerken (GKN) resulting in the formation of the Gereformeerde Kerken vrijgemaakt (GKv = Reformed Churches liberated).


Cornelis Steenblok (1894-1966) is suspended by the Gereformeerde Gemeenten (GG) resulting in the formation of the Gereformeerden Gemeenten in Nederland (GGN = Reformed Congregations in the Netherlands).


A renewed controversy within the Gereformeerde Kerken vrijgemaakt results in the formation of the Nederlands Gereformeerde Kerken (NGK = Netherlands Reformed Churches).


A controversy within the Gereformeerde Gemeenten in Nederland (GGN) results in the formation of the Gereformeerden Gemeenten in Nederland buiten verband (GGN(bv) = Reformed Congregations in the Netherlands unaffiliated).


The Nederlands Hervormde Kerk and Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland merge, along with the Evangelisch-Lutherse Kerk in het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden (ELK = Evangelical Lutheran Church) resulting in the formation of the Protestantse Kerk in Nederland (PKN = Protestant Church in the Netherlands). Some churches decline to participate in the union resulting in the formation of the Hersteld Hervormde Kerk (HHK = Restored Reformed Church).


Opposition to General Synod of the Gereformeerde Kerken vrijgemaakt decisions regarding the celebration of Sunday as a day of rest, marriage, liturgy, and church unity efforts, leads to the formation of the Gereformeerde Kerken (hersteld) = Reformed Churches (restored).

Remarkable Change🔗

During the 1950s and 1960s a remarkable change took place in the GKs: it changed from uniformly confessional to pluralist, with more and more room for liberalism: the decisions of 1944 and 1926 were in the course of the years retracted, and prominent leaders such as H.M. Kuitert were tolerated even when they denied most basic Christian doctrines such as Christ’s death as a vicarious satisfaction and the divinity of Christ. This opened the way for dialogue with the NHK – a process that became known as Travelling Together (Samen op Weg – SoW). During the 1980s the small Evangelical Lutheran Church became part of the SoW as well and eventually this process led to the formation of the pluralist Protestant Church in The Netherlands (Protestantse Kerk in Nederland – PKN) in 2004. For confessional reasons a number of NHKs (primarily churches belonging to the GB) did not join this merger and formed the Restored NHK (Hersteld Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk – HHK). A small number of GKs did not join the merger either, forming the continued GKN (voortgezette GKN – vGKN).


The GKv experienced a church schism during the 1960s. Many factors played a role, of which the two most prominent were the extent of confessional tolerance and the relationship between the local congregation and the federation of churches. Because a number of churches did not keep to the adopted church order, they were considered to be ‘outside the federation’. These churches regrouped to form the Netherlands Reformed Churches (Nederlands Gereformeerde Kerken – NGK). In the period 2003-2005 a second schism took place in the GKv over a number of issues including the view of Sunday as a day of rest, divorce, liturgical matters, and church unity efforts. Those that seceded, a small group, are generally referred to as the ‘newly liberated’; they refer to themselves as the GK restored (GK hersteld – GKh).

Churches in Holland        From: Michael Zwiep


Protestantse Kerk in Nederland (PKN) = Protestant Church in the Netherlands Adults and children: 2.3 million (on paper)


Hersteld Hervormde Kerk (HHK) = Restored Reformed Church Adults and children: approx. 70,000


Gereformeerde Kerken vrijgemaakt (GKv) = Reformed Churches liberated Adults and children: 125,000


Gereformeerde Kerken hersteld (GKh) = Reformed Churches restored
Adults and children: 1,250


Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken CGK) = Christian Reformed Churches Adults and children: 75,000


Nederlands Gereformeerde Kerken (NGK) = Netherlands Reformed Churches Adults and children: 30.000


Gereformeerde Gemeenten in Nederland en Noord-Amerika (GGNNA) = Reformed Congregations in the Netherlands and North America. In the Netherlands.
Adults and children: 100,000


Oud Gereformeerde Gemeenten (OGG) = Old Reformed Congregations
Adults and children: approx. 18,000


Gereformeerden Gemeenten in Nederland (GGN) = Reformed Congregations in the Netherlands
Adults and children: 23,000


Gereformeerden Gemeenten in Nederland buiten verband (GGNbv) = Reformed Congregations in the Netherlands unaffiliated
Adults and children: 3,000

Although the GKv and the CGK have sought unity since the Liberation, this has not yet taken place on a large scale. The two churches have, however, recognized each other as faithful churches of Jesus Christ and continue to work on eventually forming one federation of churches. The NGK are also involved in such discussions. Quite a few NGK churches work together with CGK churches, and there is growing cooperation at the local level between quite a few GKv and CGK churches, as well as such cooperation between a number of GKv and NGK churches. However, at the national General Synod level, both the GKv and CGK have concerns about the adherence of the NGK to the Reformed confessions. The CGK also have contacts with the GGNNA and the GB in the NHK, later PKN. Contacts are being established with the HNHK.

Within the GGN a schism took place in 1980, leading to the formation of the GGN unaffiliated (GGN buiten verband – GGNbv).

Number of Churches🔗

Thus today believers and churches with their roots in Calvinism can be found spread over a number of churches. The ‘experiential’ or stricter Calvinist wing consists of the OGG, GGNbv, GGN, GGNNA, and the HHK as well as much of the GB in the PKN and a sizeable portion of the CGKN. This group is sometimes referred to as the “Gereformeerde Gezindte” (“Reformed Persuasion”) or the “Reformatorischen”. The bulk of the CGK, and further the GKh, GKv, NGK, HHK as well as the CV and vGKN are generally confessionally Calvinist, without a Puritan orientation. The PKN is a pluralist church, holding (on paper) to both Calvinist and Lutheran confessions, but continuing to tolerate liberalism as the dominant influence at the theological faculties of the universities where it’s ministers are trained, and the dominant influence in its church life.

Some church leaders expect that in the next decade the Dutch ecclesiastical chart will be drastically reshaped – the formation of the PKN in 2004 could have started that process. It is indeed true that like-minded persons often find themselves in different churches and those who seriously differ in opinion can be found in the same church.

Whether a reshuffle will take place, only the Lord of history knows. In everything, however, the church is to take seriously the divine mandate to maintain Scriptural purity, and to seek to unite with all who in faith serve the one Lord Jesus Christ. May the Triune God continue to bless the church with insight and wisdom in fulfilling this divine calling.

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