Dutch Efforts to Establish the Reformed Church in Ceylon – Clergymen in Holland

It has been said that the example of the New Englanders in America and their success in converting the Indians to Christianity first aroused the energy of the Dutch for the conversion of the natives in Ceylon. A variety of motivations must have inspired Dutch ministers to sail to the East. Some came to gain experience and prestige,. some came seeking adventure, while others wished to escape from unpleasantries in Holland. For example, the Remonstrant minister, Anthony Hornhovius, who conducted the first worship service of the Dutch Reformed Church in Ceylon, had had difficulties in the homeland due to his theological views, and when he began his work in Galle, on the 16th October, 1642, he undoubtedly rejoiced in his new-found freedom. The prospect of converting the heathen, however, was the principal reason for coming East in the minds of many Reformed ministers, and with them lay the hope of Christian missions in Ceylon.

Work in the East demanded courage. The long voyage around the Cape of Good Hope was tedious and sometimes treacherous. Pirates roamed the seas, and navigation carried many uncertainties. Not all the ministers who sailed from Holland eventually reached their destination. Some were drowned in shipwrecks, and others died at sea from illness. The reminder that in 1661, thirty Reformed Church ministers had been killed or taken prisoner when the Chinese expelled the Dutch from Formosa, must have made more than one Dutch clergyman think twice about venturing to the mysterious East.

The European ministers were nominated by a Classis in Holland and appointed by the Dutch East India Company for service in the colony. Upon his arrival in the country to which he had been assigned by the Company, the minister presented his credentials to the Governor, and the Governor, in Council, made the final appointment.

Most of the ministers went first to Batavia where they received their specific assignments, and from there they traveled to the country designated for them. Those that were sent to Ceylon usually landed at Colombo. The majority of the Reformed ministers did not remain long in Ceylon, although there were exceptions, and some men retired after many years of service and then chose either to return to Holland, or Batavia, or to remain on the island.

Most of the Dutch clergymen were married, and they were supplied with houses by the Company. Many of these parsonages were left by the Roman Catholics, when the Dutch drove the Portuguese from the island. The Company paid the clergymen a substantial salary, and they received in addition certain provisions of food from the Company stores. The widows of Reformed ministers, however, were not always looked after, and there were instances of ministers’ widows reduced to great poverty.

The ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church in Ceylon, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, were called upon to labor among the native peoples as well as among the Europeans. Men spoke of “one Church,” not two, a native and a European. As soon as a place had been conquered by the Dutch, it came under one of the three consistories, either that of Galle, Colombo, or Jaffnapatnam. Whatever missionary work the Portuguese had begun was generally continued, or new work was begun. In either case, each area was under the spiritual care of a consistory and its ministers. Since they had a dual responsibility, therefore, to the natives as well as to the Europeans, it could be said of the Dutch clergymen that they served as pastor-missionaries during the Dutch colonial period in Ceylon.

The Ecclesiastical branch of the East India Company provided for two grades of clergymen: fully qualified and ordained preachers called predikants, and the unordained, and often lesser qualified, proponents, krankbezoekers and z.iekentroosters, who were usually younger men, employed to visit the sick, conduct instruction classes, and carry out benevolence. Clergymen needed to have certificates of authorization both from their Classis in Holland and from the East India Company, before they could take up their duties in Ceylon. Failure to supply either of these documents meant delay and inconvenience for the minister until his credentials arrived.

Quite frequently the krankbezoekers and ziekentroosters proved to be troublesome people. They wished to be looked upon as ministers, and they yielded to ecclesiastical authority with great reluctance. Their appointment was intended to be of help to the predikants in the larger towns, and to serve in place of the ministers in—small villages where no minister was located. They also served as catechists and several were assigned to the civil and military hospitals at Colombo, Jaffna, Negombo, and Galle. In some cases, krankbezoekers were later ordained into the ministry, but there were also instances when they were dismissed and sent back to Holland.

The duties of the Reformed ministers in general included both the everyday pastoral care of the European community in the larger towns, and tours of the villages where schoolmasters or catechists were carrying on Christian work. The larger congregations at Colombo, Jaffnapatnam, Galle, and Matara, were usually served by one or more clergymen. Ministers conducted two worship services each Sunday in the Dutch language, taught catechism classes on Thursday, led in prayer every evening at the Governor’s residence and twice each day at the hospital, besides visiting the homes of the congregation. Services in the Portuguese, Tamil, and Sinhalese languages were held on Sunday afternoon, and during the week. The Lord’s Supper was celebrated once in three months. The Europeans often made disappointing parishioners. The large church buildings were often less than one-third full, and the Dutch governors themselves varied greatly in respect to religious interest.

Where there were several ministers attached to one congregation, as often happened at Colombo, a “Predik Orde” was issued which announced the officiating clergyman of each particular Sunday. The ministers who were not preaching were seated in specially reserved, and elevated, pews. When the Governor entered the church, everyone was expected to rise and remain standing until he was seated, even if this occurred in the middle of prayer or during the celebration of Holy Communion. Many people were offended by this, but if any person refused to arise and show this courtesy, he was sent back to Holland.

The outstation visits of the Dutch ministers consumed a great deal of their time and energy. Usually the ministers took turns making these visits, although it is recorded in 1658 that the matter was decided by lot. Traveling was done by horseback or palankeen a covered chair carried by four men. Sometimes the ministers also accompanied the army and navy on expeditions, as in the case when, in 1658, Baldaeus marched with the Dutch troops in the conquest of Jaffna and its surrounding territories. Such excursions were not meant for men with timid hearts. They had to travel over land and water, through marshes and jungle. Roads, where there were any, were poor. Wild animals abounded and sometimes were dangerous. The Reverend Joan Fereira D’ Almeyda, a Portuguese who served in the ministry of the Dutch Reformed Church, and his wife, were at one time traveling between Galle and Colombo, when they faced sudden danger from a wild elephant. The coolies who were carrying the minister’s wife in a palankeen, hastily put down the palankeen and fled when they saw the beast approaching. The Reverend D’ Almeyda was on horseback and was too far away to assist his wife. The elephant came close, but did no harm to the lady. He only struck his trunk on the roof of the palankeen, trumpeted loudly and went away. Not all travelers were so fortunate, however, and every year a considerable number of persons were killed by elephants. Needless to say, the ministers’ wives did not usually accompany their husbands on their outstation visits.

Bad roads and wild elephants were minor matters, however, when compared with another problem which confronted the Reformed ministers. The domination of ecclesiastical affairs by the government was the bane of the whole enterprise. The clergymen were employees of the Company, and this relationship was never forgotten. The political authorities intended to keep the clergymen in strict subordination and, as will be seen later, in isolation from one another also. Whereas the Portuguese allowed the Church officials to exercise great power in administrative affairs, the Dutch went to the other extreme of keeping the Reformed ministers as little more than paid servants of the state. It is no wonder, then, that many of the more energetic Reformed ministers refused to remain long in the East under such circumstances.

Not only did the organizational structure impinge on the free exercise of religious operations, but the personal character of the Company officials sometimes added an unpleasant factor. The clergymen were responsible primarily to the Governor and Council at Colombo, but the Commandeurs in the two principle outstations of Galle and Jaffna also exercised personal authority over the local clergy. For example, some of these officials claimed the right, in order as they expressed it, to test the ability of the preacher and to maintain a strictly ex tempore style of preaching, of selecting the text for each minister after he had mounted the pulpit. The late R. C. Anthonizz, Government Archivist of Ceylon, told of one particular Governor, who was known for his avaricious character, who on one occasion attempted to play a most humiliating trick on the predikant. The usual practice was for the Governor to write the text on which he desired the morning sermon to be preached on a slip of paper and send it up to the minister on the pulpit. But this time the Governor sent up a blank slip of paper. The minister glanced at this, and with perfect poise, held up the bare paper for the whole congregation to see. Then repeating aloud to himself, “Er is niets hier,” he proceeded to give as his text for the morning sermon:

Wij hebben niets in de wereld gebracht, het is openbaar, dat wij ook niet kunnen iets daar uit dragen.

This he made the basis for a powerful sermon against the sin of avarice.

The Reformed ministers were not always able to turn the impingements to their advantage, however, and the most energetic and promising predikant of the seventeenth century, Philip Baldaeus, fell as an early victim of governmental interference.

Baldaeus came to Ceylon in 1656, at the age of twenty-three, only two years after his ordination as a minister of the Reformed Church. He was strongly devoted to the task of evangelism, and it was in this area that he made his greatest contribution. Baldaeus accompanied the Dutch forces as army chaplain in their campaign against Jaffnapatnam, Tuticorin, Mannar, and Nagapatnam. As these places fell into Dutch hands, Baldaeus was placed in charge of the religious establishments left by the Catholics. His task was to convert the Churches, by removing the images and other vestiges of Catholicism, and to convert the people, by instruction and gentle coercion, to the Reformed religion. As long as there were Catholic communities scattered through Dutch-held territory, these communities were pockets of potential danger to the Dutch, since the sympathies of these people still lay with the Portuguese. In the eyes of the Company, therefore, Baldaeus had an important task to fulfill.

It was an important assignment from the point of view of the Reformed Church as well, and Baldaeus was equal to it. Nowhere else on the island had the Portuguese missionaries made so great an impression on the Ceylonese people. Baldaeus moved carefully in deciding what had to be discarded and what could be retained of the Roman Catholic beginnings. He had an appreciable understanding of the principles of adaptation, and missions, and he stated openly that he taught the “doctrines and tenets of our own worship and religion…as far as it was calculated to suit the nature and capabilities of the nation,” for it is very necessary in a teacher that he shall know the pupils he has to deal with, so as not to confront immature would-be Christians with difficult problems, tedious questions and deep secrets, but lay before them the bare, simple truths in as short and concise a manner as possible, both verbally as well as in writing.

Baldaeus made a study of the Hindu religion, the religion to which the Tamil people historically adhered, and he tried earnestly to learn the Tamil language. Baldaeus was one of the pioneers of Protestant efforts to become proficient in the languages of Asia. He spoke and wrote in the Portuguese language, for the benefit of the many former Portuguese citizens who remained in Jaffna after its capitulation to the Dutch. He was assisted by an able interpreter, named Francois, and through the Portuguese medium, Baldaeus sought to learn the Tamil language and preach to the Tamil people.

While not neglecting his preaching ministry, for he preached regularly both in the churches and out· doors under his favorite tamarind trees, Baldaeus put forth much effort to produce Christian literature for the Portuguese and Tamil speaking people in Ceylon. Baldaeus also pioneered in the area of literature evangelism, and he was without question the outstanding promoter of Christian literature as an instrument of Protestant mission work during the seventeenth century. Baldaeus realized that the limited number of Reformed ministers in Ceylon could not adequately instruct the thousands of Tamil people in the Christian faith. Therefore, he arranged for the translation and publication of catechisms in the Tamil and Portuguese languages, for the purpose of instructing larger numbers of people without dependence on the clergy.



Baldaeus was a missionary strategist, and he presented his plans for the evangelization of the whole island of Ceylon at the general meeting of all the Refonned ministers at Colombo in February, 1659. At this meeting, the clergy sought to come to agreement in various matters, in order to secure a greater amount of organization and cohesion in their religious work. The duties of the clergy were defined at this meeting, and the learning of the native languages was included among these duties. The plan which Baldaeus submitted for systematic and uniform mission endeavor among both the Tamils and the Sinhalese was accepted. Certain coercive measures, such as fines for non-attendance at Church, were among these proposals and they too were adopted by the clergymen. The meeting also made additional suggestions concerning the relations between Churches and with the government. And that is where trouble began, and the domination of the ruling government over the Church came to light.

The assembly of ministers decided that it was necessary to establish a central ecclesiastical authority in Ceylon to coordinate and supervise the various religious undertakings. They suggested that there be, each year, one presiding Church which would handle all correspondence from abroad which related to Church affairs. This responsibility would be shared by the Churches in rotation. Second, the meeting suggested that one of the ministers, by huns, should make a yearly inspection tour of all the Churches on the island. Third, the ministers decided that for the good of the whole Church in Ceylon, all the predikants should meet together once in three years, to discuss their common problems and needs. These proposals were submitted to the Governor and Council in Ceylon, where they were favorably received. From there the report was sent for final approval to Batavia, but there the Company officials looked at the matter quite differently.

The Batavian authorities of the East India Company turned down everyone of the proposals relating to Church organization which the ministers in Ceylon had made. They rejected the suggestion that there be a presiding Church by rotation, and ordered that all correspondence be handled by the Church nearest the Governor’s residence, where the Governor’s personal representative held a seat at all Consistory meetings. Furthermore, the suggestion concerning yearly island-wide tours of inspection by a minister was turned down on the ground that the task of the oversight of the Churches and schools on the island properly belonged to the Governor and Council, and each predikant was expected to look after his own individual Church. The proposed triennial meeting of ministers was similarly rejected. The East India Company had no intention of allowing the Church such freedom of organization or operation, or even of fellowship among its clergymen. The authority of the Company over the Church and its mission work was boldly spelled out by the decisions of 1659.

A man like Baldaeus, whose youthful zeal envisioned the evangelization of the whole island, could not be bound by the narrow, commercial interests of the East India Company for very long without open conflict. Trouble began when the government refused to accept the suggestion made by the ministers at the assembly in 1659, that each minister should periodically inspect the Christian schools in his district and exercise general supervision over these schools. The policy of the government was that the government alone held the right to administer school affairs and the ministers should do only what they were told. For a while the government allowed Baldaeus a measure of latitude in the Jaffna area, and Baldaeus did all that he could to make the schools effective as centers of both education and evangelism. The schools were more than mere institutions of learning for children: they were the center of Christian influence in the community. Baldaeus realized this, and as a Reformed minister, he coveted the right to administer these schools in such a way that the propagation of the Christian faith would be given first priority. He saw that this would not be done if the schools were left in the hands of men who were primarily soldiers and merchants.

Matters came to a head in 1664, when Governor Van Goens returned from Batavia for his second term of office, with instructions from the authorities of the Company at Batavia to tighten control over religious activities and not allow the ministers to exercise any administrative control. Under the new rules, ministers of the Reformed Church were not permitted to travel into the country, on any business whatever, without orders from Company officials. Baldaeus revolted at these restrictions, and in July 1665, he asked that he be relieved from his duties in June of the following year. At first the Governor and Council sought to prevail on him to reconsider, for it was agreed that he was the most successful of the Dutch ministers in Ceylon. But when Governor Van Goens learned that Baldaeus had already sent word of his intentions to the Supreme Government at Batavia, Van Goens became indignant and declared that Baldaeus was guilty of insubordination in that he implied, by his action, that he regarded the ministers as subordinate only to the government at Batavia, and not the Ceylon administration. The Political Council in Ceylon immediately passed a resolution reiterating its complete control over all matters, temporal and spiritual, on the island.

From that time on, Baldaeus became the object of numerous, bitter criticisms on the part of Company offiCials. He was called a huyrlinge (hireling) instead of a herder (Shepherd). Baldaeus had offered to remain in Ceylon until his successor arrived, but the government insisted that he leave by the end of 1665. Instead of being sent to Batavia and there given a new assignment somewhere in the East, the Council in Ceylon ruled that since he had defied their authority, he should be dismissed entirely and sent back to Holland.

From the Cape of Good Hope, Baldaeus sent a letter to the Governor General at Batavia, complaining that he had been treated badly. But it was too late for· redress, and the promising missionary career of the man who might have paved the way for the Christianization of Ceylon was ended. Back in Holland, Baldaeus wrote a book about Ceylon, which was published in 1672 at Amsterdam. Throughout the book there is an undertone of regret that the author could not have done more for the spread of the Gospel in Ceylon. This sentiment might well be shared by those who have sought to carryon the work after him. Whatever happened, the Company stood firm in its authority over the clergy.

In the third in a series of articles on early Dutch Missions in Ceylon, Prof. Roger S. Greenway discusses the means by which the Dutch attempted to evangelize the island for the Reformed faith.