Netherlands Missionary Society

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Netherlands Missionary Society

In the seventeenth century the Dutch, under the colors of their East India Company (VOC, 1602) and West India Company (WIC, 1625), gained a foothold in Southeast Asia, Africa, and America. Everywhere they brought the Reformed Church with them. For two centuries the two companies paid all expenses of church life in their dominions, but the close ties between church and state also prevented the Christian faith from expanding beyond the boundaries of the Dutch possessions. In Southeast Asia during these centuries Protestantism was adopted by indigenous populations only in Ceylon and in eastern Indonesia, where the island of Ambon was the main center. The large congregation of Batavia (present-day Jakarta) consisted mainly of Europeans and Eurasians. The military power of the VOC was occasionally used to protect Christian populations from their enemies, mostly Muslims, but not for spreading Christianity.

This situation was changed by political, cultural, and religious developments in Europe toward the end of the eighteenth century. The WIC and VOC were liquidated and their overseas possessions were taken over by the Dutch state (1791, 1799). At the same time, in the Netherlands as elsewhere in Europe, the separation of church and state was effectuated (1796). The Netherlands Reformed Church (NRC) could have taken advantage of this turn of events by starting missions in its own right, unhampered by a state pursuing its own interests. But it was weakened by the separation, and by a reorganization (1816) that encroached upon its reformed character and brought about a century of confessional strife. Consequently in the Netherlands, as in other European countries (Great Britain, Germany, and France), this task was taken up by missionary societies. Inspired by activities of the Moravian Brothers and following the lead of the London Missionary Society, in 1797 a number of Dutch pastors and laypeople founded the Nederlands Zendeling Genootschap (NZG, Netherlands Missionary Society).

The Netherlands Missionary Society was of an ecumenical nature, but throughout its history members and leadership were mainly Dutch Reformed. During the first half of the nineteenth century it was the only missionary society in the Netherlands, but between 1847 and 1859 the strengthening of confessionalism led to the foundation of a number of sister organizations. At home, these events were accompanied by passionate polemics, but in the mission field the various societies respected each other. After 1900, Society director Dr. J. W. Gunning (1862–1923) made overtures to the other societies that had their roots in the NRC. This led to increasingly close cooperation and ultimately to the merging of these societies into the Mission Board of the NRC (1951).


The beginnings of work overseas were slow. Between 1795 and 1815 the Netherlands, being in the sphere of influence of revolutionary and Napoleonic France, was almost continuously at war with England and consequently cut off from its overseas possessions. When peace came it left Holland with only the Indonesian Archipelago, the territory of modern Indonesia. After a short spell of activities in former Dutch possessions like Ceylon and South Africa, Dutch missionary work concentrated upon this area. But because the mission was not broadly based in Dutch society, the Netherlands Missionary Society and its Dutch sister societies were not able even to adequately serve the Netherlands Indies. The German Rhenish Mission Society (RMG) and (at a later stage) the American Christian and Missionary Alliance had to lend support, occupying a number of areas left vacant by the Dutch missionaries.

Society missionaries arrived in the Indies from 1814 onwards. During the first decades they were employed by the government to minister to the existing Protestant communities, who at that time numbered 40,000. Gradually the government organized these communities into the Protestant Church of the Netherlands Indies. This left the missionaries free to work among non-Christians. For the first time in Dutch mission history, systematic mission work was started among Muslims (East Java, 1848). In addition, the Society started work in North Celebes (Minahasa, 1831), East Sumatra (1890), and Central Celebes (Poso, 1892). At the time, the last mentioned region did not yet belong to the Dutch sphere of influence. The same was the case with a number of mission fields served by other societies, like Batakland (North Sumatra, 1857) and New Guinea (1855). These statistics point to another difference between the nineteenth-century Dutch missions and the Reformed Church in the preceding centuries: the Netherlands Missionary Society and other societies did not hesitate to establish mission posts in territories not (yet) administrated by the colonial government. In the case of Batakland, this did not prevent the RMG mission from prospering, whereas in New Guinea, Central Celebes, and other regions conversions were extremely few until colonial law and order was established.


Throughout the nineteenth century the missionaries' attitude toward non-Christian religions and non-Western culture was rather negative. Islam was viewed as the greatest enemy of the Christian faith; tribal religions were considered to be the result of a degeneration process. In this paradigm, "dark(ness)," "blind(ness)," and "sunk low" were the words most frequently used in describing the religious and moral state of the people evangelized. Consequently no elements from indigenous religion or culture were incorporated into church worship; newly converted were told to keep away from traditional feasts as well as from cultural expressions like music and dance; in haircut and dress they were urged to follow Western customs as much as the tropical climate could permit.

The emphasis on personal conversion denied the collectivistic nature of traditional society. However, the missionaries' view on religion as a matter of the heart caused them to use the local language, at least when working among language communities of a sufficient size. This policy contrasted with that pursued by the Reformed Church during the preceding centuries and by the established Protestant Church, which almost exclusively used Malay, as well as with that of present-day Indonesian churches, which increasingly adopt the national language, Indonesian, in worship and church organization. The missionaries not only preached the Gospel in the vernacular, but in many cases they also were the first to reduce it to writing and publish grammars and dictionaries, all in preparation of the Bible translations, which were to be the crown of their linguistic studies.

Toward the turn of the century missionary theory, and increasingly missionary practice, began paying more respect to indigenous culture. In the face of the refusal of the indigenous population to convert on the terms set by the mission, A. C. Kruyt (1892–1932 in Central Celebes) and other missionaries embarked on a new course. During the first decades of the twentieth century, Dutch and German missions no longer ignored or suppressed indigenous culture, but endeavored to study it and to conserve it in a purified form, that is, after having eliminated the elements that were considered pagan. In this way a (rather artificial) Christian culture was created. Language was viewed as a core element of this culture, and linguistic studies were intensified. Because the motives for using the vernacular were not only religious, but also ideological, not only Islam-tinged Malay but also Christian Dutch was discouraged. In this way the missionaries cut their flock off from developments in the outside world: from Indonesian nationalism, of which Malay was an important vehicle, and from higher education, which during the colonial era was only taught in the Dutch language. The negative effects in the field of politics and economics were felt after Indonesia became an independent state.

The relationship between the Netherlands Missionary Society (indeed the Dutch mission in general) and the colonial state and ideology was rather ambivalent. The missionaries often denounced injustices done to the population among whom they lived and whose language they spoke. On the other hand, the missionary societies depended on the colonial state for permission to work in a given region; in most fields mission work bore fruit only after pacification; in Muslim regions it would have been simply impossible without government protection (which was often only grudgingly given). From 1900 onward mission activities in the fields of education and medical care were generously subsidized. Despite their harsh criticism of colonial policy, the missionaries shared the conviction of the superiority of Western civilization, which served as a justification for the colonization of non-Western peoples.

Because the colonial government hardly created structures that could become the nucleus of an independent Indonesian state, the mission only reluctantly set up church structures that would enable Christian communities to function independently. In both cases the reason given was that Indonesians were not yet mature enough to staff such structures. In this respect a new course was set by Hendrik Kraemer (1888–1965). He persuaded the missionaries to grant autonomy to local and regional churches. In this way a number of churches in West and Central Indonesia became independent before an independent Indonesian state came into being. In most of East Indonesia, however, when World War II came and the Dutch missionaries were interned, there were not even Indonesian ministers authorized to administer the sacraments, nor was there a church organization. Here the churches became independent after the state.


When the Netherlands Missionary Society first entered the territory of present-day Indonesia, in 1814, there were approximately 40,000 Protestant Christians in that region, less than 1 percent of the total population. In 1942 this number had grown to 1.8 million Christians, or 2.5 percent, of whom only 100,000 belonged to the churches that had come into being on the four mission fields served by the Netherlands Missionary Society. (In 2000 these numbers were approximately 16 million and 600,000, besides approximately 5 million Catholics.) Among these, one-half (33,000) of those converted to Christianity from Islam. Moreover, in the 1870s the Society had surrendered its most promising mission field, the Minahasa, to the Protestant Church. The NZG was important not on account of its size, but because during the 150 years it was in the vanguard of Dutch missions as regards to the quality of the education of its missionaries and the theoretical reflection on missionary practice.

see also Dutch United East India Company; Dutch West India Company; Religion, Western Presence in East Asia; Religion, Western Presence in Southeast Asia.


Akkeren, Philip van. Sri and Christ: A Study of the indigenous Church in East Java. Translated by Annebeth Mackie. London: Lutterworth, 1969.

Kraemer, Hendrik. From Missionfield to Independent Church. The Hague: Boekencentrum, 1958.

Rauws, Joh, and H. Kraemer et al., eds. The Netherlands Indies. New York: World Dominion Press, 1935.