Universiteit Leiden

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‘Belief in the end of time slowed down modernisation’

In the nineteenth century many Dutch people believed in the end of time and the coming of God's thousand-year reign. This belief effectively slowed down the process of modernisation that was taking place in the Netherlands at that time, concludes historian Rie Kielman. PhD defence 13 April.

In the century after the French Revolution (1789), Western Europe was undergoing rapid modernisation. Large-scale factories were constructed and steam-powered machinery led to new forms of production and transport. In politics, too, there were many changes: new laws were introduced to improve the working conditions of factory workers, and socialism slowly but surely gained a hold. 

Day of judgement

‘In the same period Western Europe also witnessed a strong revival of the Biblical "end of time",' PhD candidate Rie Kielman explained. In her dissertation she studies this so-called eschatology in the Netherlands in the period from 1790 to 1880. 'At that time many believers thought that Christ would return to Earth, or that the day of judgement would soon be upon them. Secularisation and modernisation, on the other hand, would lead to apostasy or even the coming of the antichrist. This type of Armageddon-thinking took hold in the Netherlands because the influence of the Enlightenment was weaker here.' 


That the end of time was a subject that occupied much of the Dutch population is apparent from the numerous documents that appeared in all denominations of the Christian religion. The Reformed poet Isaac da Costa (1798-1860) wrote in his Objections against the spirit of the age that a confrontation with the non-believers was unavoidable, and agitated against the enlightened thinkers of the establishment. Rotterdam Catholic Hendrik Nüse in his turn predicted a Kingdom of God under papal authority. And yet others - including Jan Masereeuw, Claas Siegers from de Würde and the so-called Zwijndrecht New Lighters - believed that they were sent to Earth by God as prophets. 

Delaying effect

According to Kielman, this fierce resurgence of eschatology had a delaying effect on social developments in the Netherlands. Resistance against the 'anti-Christian' socialists was stronger here than in the neighbouring countries. The alarmist end-of-days expectations also diminished the confidence in parliamentary democracy as a means of ramping up modernisation. Kielman: ‘In around 1850 the so-called Christian Friends proposed a large-scale faith offensive to reverse the continuing secularisation of society. Their resistance against socialism and modern Bible criticism found fertile ground with the workers and middle classes.' 


In around 1840 the first cracks started to appear in the religious world view of the Dutch. Liberal magazine De Gids regularly published article on scientific discoveries that contradicted the Biblical creation story. In the subsequent decades the polarisation between these progressive liberals and orthodox Christians only worsened. It was not until after 1870 that the breeding ground for eschatology lost its power, partly because the long-predicted end of time did not materialise. 

Image: Bethlehem almshouses in Leiden where Maria Leer lived, one of the leading figures behind the Zwijndrecht New Lighters. Source: Wikipedia

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