Religious Controversy in Comparative Context: Ulster, the Netherlands and South Africa in the 1920s

Stuart Mathieson, AC Flipse

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


This article introduces a comparative element to the study of the fundamentalist–modernist controversies of the late 1920s, demonstrating that similar ideas are manifested differently in different spatial contexts. Although fundamentalism is primarily considered an American phenomenon, the article argues that the concerns animating fundamentalists in the United States also caused fierce debates elsewhere. It uses three heresy trials – in Belfast, Amsterdam and Stellenbosch – as case studies. In each case, the participants were part of an international Calvinist network, sharing the vast majority of their intellectual commitments and ecclesiastical structure. Yet these shared intellectual commitments did not result in the same outcomes when each group attempted to confront the idea of ‘modernism’ using their church disciplinary procedures. This study demonstrates that social and historical factors played a decisive role in the outcome of each trial. In Belfast, the violent legacy of the recent Irish War of Independence and partition of Ireland lent extra weight to calls for restraint and Protestant unity. In Amsterdam, the social structure of ‘pillarisation’ meant that debates were largely confined within one denomination, and so could be contested more fiercely. In Stellenbosch, meanwhile, the question of how the church should approach the fraught issue of race was the key factor.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)429-455
Number of pages27
Issue number371
Early online date20 May 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by a Leverhulme Trust Research Project Grant (RPG‐2018‐062) which is acknowledged here with thanks. The authors would also like to thank Andrew Holmes, David Livingstone, and the anonymous readers for their comments on an earlier version of this article.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Authors. History published by The Historical Association and John Wiley & Sons Ltd

Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


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