Ernestine van der Wall, born in Ermelo, the Netherlands, in 1953. Ph.D. from Leiden University. Professor of the History of Christianity at Leiden University.
Fellow (1 February 2003 – 30 June 2003)
My research at NIAS (1 February – 1 July 2003) has explored the debate between religious liberals and conservatives in the Netherlands in the period between ca. 1640 and ca. 1880. Central to the debate is the question to what extent Christianity should adjust to modernity, that is, to the new philosophies as well as to the findings of the higher Bible criticism and the natural sciences. Whereas enlightened intellectuals viewed adaptation to modernity as a sure way of preserving Christianity, traditionalists feared that by doing so the Christian faith would be seriously undermined. The discussions that flared up between them will be dealt with in my planned book: “The Quest for a Modern Religion. Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment in the Netherlands 1640 – 1880”.
The Dutch debate first revolved around the repercussions of Cartesianism and Spinoza. From about 1730 onwards, the focus was on British and French deism and its impact on religion and society. Subsequently, in the 1770s, the Dutch turned to German radical theology – and Germany led the way for the time to come. Thus, during the eighteenth century we observe a geographical shift as to the Dutch focus of attention. Moreover, there is a shift from outsiders to insiders with regard to the enlightened critique of religion. While up until about 1770 the critique of Christianity and religion in general was largely a matter for intellectuals outside or on the fringes of the official churches, there was a notable change when religious functionaries themselves turn into (radical) critics of the Christian faith. This highly interesting process deeply affected the debates on religion and Enlightenment in the Netherlands well into the nineteenth century, occasioning vehement discussions about ‘true’ and ‘false’ enlightenments. It is important to note that these debates over the enlightened critique of religion had a wider political and societal relevance. Well into the nineteenth century (and even the twenty-first?), it was generally assumed that to attack religion was to fundamentally undermine society. The collapse of Christianity would imply the collapse of the state.
Much of my analysis centres on the dynamic interplay between both the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment forces in the Netherlands as they manifested themselves from seventeenth-century Cartesianism up to nineteenth-century Protestant modernism. By dealing with the Dutch debates in an international perspective, I hope to contribute to recent discussions among historians of the Enlightenment about the relationship between national and international Enlightenments, as the concept of a national Enlightenment seems no longer appropriate. As neither the enlightened critique of religion nor conservative apologetics were hampered by geographical boundaries, I feel that a study of the Dutch developments in their international context can provide us with a fresh way of looking at the important issue of the relationship between nationalism and cosmopolitanism.