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Theological pamphlets reveal passionate religious debate

They might not have had Twitter, but they did have brochures (pamphlets), the Roman Catholics and ‘modern’ Protestants between 1840 and 1870. In these, they launched a passionate attack on each other’s ideas. Ineke Smit has catalogued the brochures from the collection of the University Library and outlined the discussion. PhD defence on 17 September.

Every now and then, a minister pops up in the media claiming that we shouldn’t take the resurrection of Jesus literally. It never fails to surprise theologian Ineke Smit – a lecturer in academic English at the Faculty of Social Sciences until she retired – that such claims still hit the headlines. ‘For me, it proves that there is nothing new under the sun. Minister Zaalberg said this back in 1860 and he certainly wasn’t the last.’

Boundless optimism

Zaalberg was a representative of the ‘modern’ Protestants, a movement that no longer viewed the Bible as the literal word of God and a historical account. They believed that miracles were a thing of the past and were full of boundless optimism about the salvation that modern ideas would bring. The motto was think for yourself, and the result was the numerous divisions within the Protestant church that are now so familiar. They promulgated their ideas through brochures, that were quick and easy to produce and spread, and didn’t need to pass the scrutiny of an editor.

The modern Protestants had many opponents, including the Roman Catholics. Smit: ‘In contrast to the modern Protestants, they believed that you couldn’t leave the interpretation of the Bible to the average believer. They had a powerful central authority with the Pope at its helm. Thinking for yourself wasn’t wrong, but you did have to watch out.’

Surprisingly passionate

Smit studied the hundreds of brochures from the two groups that are held in the Leiden University Library Special Collections. She catalogued over 540 of them: The Leiden List. Her dissertation is about this list and her analysis of the discussion. What struck her was the passion with which the writers defended their ideas. L.S.P. Meyboom, a Protestant, writes in 1861, for instance: ‘[The day shall come] when the message of salvation shall shine like a ray of light from the heavens over the pastures.’

Catholics better informed

‘The brochures are often written in a lively, sharp and sarcastic style,’ says Smit. ‘Catholics often reproach the Protestants for not knowing enough about Catholicism, and they were right to some extent. In their brochures, the Catholics show that they are better informed about modern Protestant ideas than the other way round.’ The two sides often reproach each other for getting personal, says Smit: ‘Unlike on Twitter, the convention was that you played nicely by the rules of rhetoric, which included being polite.’

Optimism evaporates

By 1870, which is when Smit’s research stops, the modern Protestants’ optimism has evaporated. ‘They appreciate that it is difficult to get their ideas to take root. And nowadays we see how an orthodox minister who claims that Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead still attracts attention. And the pews are practically empty in liberal churches, whereas evangelical and orthodox churches are packed to the rafters each week.’

Smit doesn’t have an opinion on this: she’s not religious, although she does go to church every Sunday to sing in the choir. ‘In the past, I conducted a student choir. It was the beautiful church music that aroused my interest in religion as a cultural phenomenon.’

Text: Rianne Lindhout
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