The Disputed Origins of Dutch Calvinism: Religious Refugees in the Historiography of the Dutch Reformation

Jesse Spohnholz, Mirjam G.K. Van Veen

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According to historiographical convention, the experience of exile by Protestants from the Habsburg Netherlands between the 1550s and the early 1570s played a critical role in promoting confessional Calvinism in the early Dutch Republic. But there are too many problems in the evidentiary basis to sustain this conclusion. This essay traces the historiography on the Dutch Reformation in order to isolate where and why this idea emerged. It demonstrates that no specific role for religious refugees in the development of Dutch Calvinism can be found in historical writing from the late sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. Only in the late nineteenth century, during a debate about the role of the Dutch Reformed Church in the Netherlands, did the experiences of religious refugees come to take on a specific role in explaining the development of Dutch Calvinism. The idea first emerged among Neo-Calvinists who critiqued state supervision of their church. By the twentieth century, it came to be used by orthodox and moderate Reformed Protestants, as well as liberal and secular academic historians. This paper thus demonstrates that this key interpretive framework for understanding the Dutch Reformation was the product not of developments in the sixteenth-century Habsburg Netherlands, but of religious politics in the Kingdom of the Netherlands in the late nineteenth century.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)398-426
Number of pages29
JournalChurch History
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2017


Jesse Spohnholz is Associate Professor of History at Washington State University. Mirjam G. K. van Veen is Professor of Church History at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Spohnholz and Van Veen are co-directors of a large research project on Reformed refugees in the German Rhineland, funded by the Dutch National Organization for Scientific Research.

FundersFunder number
Washington State University
National Council for Scientific Research
KME Germany


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