Antique Map of Amsterdam
Antique Map of Amsterdam

The religious policy of the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century was not only remarkably tolerant and forward thinking for its own time, it was unique and drew religious refugees from all over Europe. The Dutch Republic's religious freedom contributed to its stability, harmony, dynamism and innovation in its society and helped it to rise to the status of a major power.

The Dutch Republic's Founding and the Move Toward Religious Freedom

The Dutch Republic was founded in the 1580s in midst of a rebellion against Spanish and Holy Roman Imperial Habsburg rule and "tyranny." This rebellion, and the declaration of independence from Spain in the 1581 Act of Abjuration, followed years of power grabs and bloody persecutions by the Spanish Habsburgs. Those experiences helped to shape a religious policy that was very different from the intolerant persecutions of the Dutch Spanish overlords and the other monarchies around them engaged in bloody religious violence against other countries and their own people. This was era of the the Spanish Armada, the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, the massively devastating Thirty Years' War, "Bloody" Mary, Cromwell's punishing invasion of Ireland and the English Civil War, and massive violence in France between Huguenots. The Dutch Republic's experience is that much more unique when this context is considered.

Founding Values of the Dutch Republic

In 1579, even before the break from Spanish rule, the Dutch wrote into the Union of Utrecht--which would later function as their national constitution--that "each person shall remain free, especially in his religion, and that no one shall be persecuted or investigated because of their religion." Even though the Reformed Church was dominant, it was not a state institution, and freedom of conscience was guaranteed. This was even so two years before the Dutch declared their independence from Spanish rule. One of the main forces that pushed the Dutch Republic in this direction was and economic one, as commercial trade was such a main part of the Dutch economy and it made sense for them to have as few barriers to interacting with different sorts of people as possible. Tolerance of diversity translated directly into more profits from a wider customer base and wider markets. Such a culture led the Dutch Republic to be the most diverse and progressive European culture for its time.

Dutch Tolerance Stays Strong

Some people in the Netherlands, or the United Provinces (of the Dutch Republic) as they were also known, knew of the bloody religious violence across Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries and thought religious unity under Calvinism was the way to avoid such strife. Others saw forcing religion at sword and gunpoint as a mockery of Christian doctrine. The debate came to a head in the 1620s, and in the process, a very well-reasoned argument from the Dutch theologian Simon Episcopius that religious freedom and freedom of thought were ways to strengthen, not weaken, a state triumphed over the arguments for intolerance. The founding values were reaffirmed formally by the government in 1651, only a few years after a final peace with Spain had been reached. Still, hardline Calvinists would regularly resurge and challenge the status quo, but would fail. Throughout the seventeenth century, the Dutch Republic was a unique safe place for those persecuted elsewhere for religious reasons. Not only minority Christians, but even Jews could practice their religion generally free from harassment and threat of violence, and religious minorities had rights unparalleled elsewhere in Europe.

Limits of Tolerance; Tolerance in Practice

Tolerance is not, of course, legal and political equality. It did not mean that the dominant Calvinists did not enjoy privileges others did not, or that religious minorities were not barred from political office -- they were. While not subject to massacres and forced conversions, religious minorities could be subject to extortion. Each minority had difference circumstances governing them, but all could still worship free form persecution and violence. Even if the Dutch state favored Calvinists,its founding document was notable for permitting freedom of religious worship In the world of the seventeenth century, this was revolutionary. While religious violence tore other European societies apart, the Dutch rose to great power in this period.