Solving the Social Problem in the Netherlands

In our preceding articles we gave a brief picture of the economic situation of Western Europe in the first half of the 19th century and of the advent and development of social reform in that part of the world. Being a part of Western Europe the economic and social development of Holland ran parallel with that of the other countries, although its economic structure, geographic position and lack of raw material made it more suitable for agriculture, shipping and commerce than for industry.

Why Did Holland Lag Behind?

We need not, therefore, be surprised that the industrial development of Holland started a few decades later than it did in other countries. On the other hand, it is doubtful whether this industrial backwardness was mainly due to its natural position. The period covering the years 1815 to about 1860 is known for its lack of the spirit of enterprise. A spirit of conservatism, of self-containment, prevailed in this period. “At the London World Exhibition in 1851 the products of Holland and the leaders of economic life were so poorly represented that every Dutchman in Cristal Palace denied his name as such,” an author of that time wrote. “The leading men of trades and industry and the working class showed a serious lack of sufficient education.”

In spiritual and religious life a similar spirit has to be recorded. Christian faith had been replaced by rationalism, and the aid Calvinistic spirit, which in the golden years of Holland’s greatness had permeated all the realms of life, had subsided to a tiny flame, which burnt in the heart of a very few, mostly common people. It became apparent in the struggle within the church. Thousands of plain believers, dissatisfied with the rationalistic preaching in the official church, met in conventicles, in which mostly unlearned men and only very few ordained ministers preached the Gospel as they had been taught by the Fathers. The official church tried to subdue this movement with the help of the police. Tn those years the emigration to the United States was organized, partly in view of the persecution of this faithful people, partly also due to the economic depression.




In this connection we have to make mention of the Religious Revival (known under the French name of Reveil) which had its start round about the year 1810 in French Switzerland, where British dissenters came and preached the Gospel. This religious movement spread over France and also reached Belgium and HoIland. Mr. G. Groen van Prinsterer, a doctor of law, who was to become the spiritual leader of the believers in The Netherlands, came into contact with this movement in Brussels. It emphasized the necessity of personal conversion. In 1830 he returned to the Hague as a changed man.

Since the restoration of the independence of Holland in 1815 another lawyer, Mr. William Bilderdijk, had gathered it group of students (among them men such as Dr. Is. da Costa, Dr. Abraham Capadoce, and others) to study and discuss his objections against the spirit of the age and the implications of the Word of God in this respect. Unwittingly these men had prepared the soil for the Reveil, which was going to exercise a great influence in the spiritual life of The Netherlands.

Many workers of Christian charity, which still exist to this day, found their origin in the Reveil: Homes for destitute children, Sunday schools, young men’s associations, Christian schools, etc.

Is Christian social action also rooted in the Reveil?

This is true in a sense, in that the religious revival could in the long run not help to influence the plain people. However, at the outset the religious revival was a revival among the more well-to-do people, and in those times there was an enormous distance between the wealthy people and the “needy worker.” Although the revival abounded in good works for the poor, the social problem itself was not tackled. Yet there was an open mind among the men of the Reveil for consideration of the evils of society. A few statements may prove that.

An Open Mind

William van Hogendorp, a son of a man who belonged to the “triumvirate” which in 1813 restored the independence of Holland, wrote to his friend, Mr. Is. da Costa, a converted Jew and poet, who took a leading part in the Reveil, that working hours, being from 12 to 16 hours it day, should he reduced to half of that time. He thus advocated an 8-hour working day or less, some 80 years before the International Labor Conference at Washington D.C. in 1919 adopted the 48 hour week. da Costa himself wrote many poems in which he condemned in fierce words the hardships imposed upon the working men. In his poem entitled “1648 and 1848” (1648 was the year, in which the war with Spain ended, which brought independence for a prosperous people—1848 was the year, in which that same people lived in poverty and many revolutions took place in various countries of Europe) da Costa compared these two years and clearly showed his disapproval of the fact that in a time of wide-spread unemployment new machines were installed to take the place of men who wanted work and wages. He pointed at the necessity of better relations (toenadering) between Prince and People, between big and small, between rich and poor, between classes and interests. This is the demand of God’s Order and the need of the time, he said.

In the last October-November issue of this periodical we quoted a phrase (page 3) from one of the publications of Mr. G. Groen van Prinsterer, which we will now Cjllote again in its full connection. It is from his book Freedom, Equality and Fellowship (Vrijheid, Gelijkheid en Broederschap). The chapter from which we quote is entitled: “The Complete Cure.” It is still of real interest, also for this continent.

The worst trouble is perhaps that which is called pauperism. Poverty, no work; severed relations between the higher and the lower classes; no relation save of wage and labor; proletarians and capitalists. What will be the outcome? This is uncertain, but it is not doubtful whence this situation came.

From “Freedom and Equality” in a revolutionary sense ! I content myself with mentioning one particular thing. When that cry was raised the Guilds and Associations had to fall. Free competition was desired, no hindrance for artistry and industry; no hateful monopoly of persons or institutions; then the development of individual industry and commerce would be the guarantee of a better future. The future which was predicted is present now and may it be called better ? I am in complete accord with the leaders of the actual Revolution. It is this freedom this unlimited competition, the elimination, as far as possible, of the natural relations between boss and workman, which rent the social bonds in the supremacy of the rich and the sovereignty of the bankers, deprived the working man of regular sustenance, split society in two hostile armies created an enormous crowd of poor people, prepared and would, in the mind of many, even excuse and nearly justify, the attack of “the have-nots” on “the haves.”

It has brought Europe to a state dismal and gloomy enough to make many cry out, trembling : is there not a means to revive in some form or other the Associations, which have so recklessly been crushed under the hammer-strokes of the Revolution?

A few pages further it reads:

If you desire improvement, don’t seek for it in principles which have caused the decay, but in respect for justice and history and in the Christian principle, whIch alone can stand up to alluring theories by giving heed to the highest truth. It is from the Holy Scriptures alone, that the Christian learns which duties have been imposed upon him; what development of the events he has to face; how important the advantage that in the midst of disorder and misery is bestowed upon him, and of which kind, against the freedom of a sinful world, is the freedom of the children of God.

Legal Measures Advocated

The above quotations show very clearly, that in the Reveil-circle many had an open mind for the social evils. This fact confirms the saying of Rev. Tommy Fallot (quoted in our preceding article) : “…it is impossible that anybody who is being brought to the Father through Christ is not at the same time brought to the brethren.”

However, the men of the Reveil were involved in a struggle for the nation’s soul and therefore had to do foundational work. Especially the questions of church-polity and of the public school needed their attention and their care. Besides, in the slums of the cities they were well-known for their practical help, though they themselves were not satisfied with these palliatives.

So the social problem itself was not tackled, but it became more and more the topic of the day among the Christians. Ministers of the Gospel gave their opinion of the various questions involved, Petitions were sent to the King, asking for legal measures to abolish child labor and other evils. Occasionally publications advocated the improvement of labor conditions. In 1871 a paper was issued in Utrecht called De Werkmans-vriend (“Workingman’s Friend”) a weekly for the people, in which the most important questions were discussed from a biblical point of view. The Synod o[ the Reformed (Hervormde) Church invited the church councils to promote the moral and religious interests of the workers.

In this ever increasing choir of Christian men the baton was, round about the year 1870, taken over by Dr. Abraham Kuyper. Especially when his daily paper De Standaard was issued in 1872 many articles concerning the social problem were published. Legal measures to improve the deplorable situation of the working men were recommended.

Undoubtedly all these publications had made the people conscious of the existence of the social problem, hut how the problem was to be tackled was still a puzzle. Till…

“A Certain Man Drew a Bow At a Venture”

During the fifth decade of the last century there was a growing desire among the workers to set up associations. Probably the law of 1855, regulating the right to unite and to hold meetings, was one incentive thereto.

The awakening-Socialist movement, organized in the First International and stimulated by the Communistic Manifesto of 1818 tried to play a leading role in the social struggle. However, they could not gain much influence among the Dutch workers during the first years of their activity. The International was closely connected with unbelief, atheism, repudiation of the church and or the national idea. A worker in those days wrote ‘that the Dutch workingmen was too much attached to the faith of the fathers.

In 1872 a Christian bricklayer who was of good standing among-his comrades, especially on account of his better education (he read a paper, which he read aloud for his comrades during rest periods) appeared in a meeting of bricklayers in Amsterdam, organized by the International. This man, Klaas Kater, opposed the speakers, which had come over from elsewhere.

He argued:

We may not join as Christians. We cannot join as Dutchmen. We don’t wish to join as workers.

This was the last time the International was heard of in Holland. In the next meeting of the bricklayers Klaas Kater was elected president. Under his leadership the number of members increased to 200, which was an important number in those times.

This man became the unintended founder of the Protestant Christian labor movement of the Netherlands. Unintended, because he had in mind to unite all the workers in one union.

The bricklayers’ union, of which he became president and the General Dutch Workers’ Union, which he supported as much as he could, were not what we call now Christian unions. Klaas Kater built upon the idea that the Dutch people were a Christian people and consequently an association of workers, aiming at better labor conditions, would, as a matter of course, accept the sovereignty of God, fight against revolution and defend order, justice and fairness. He did, however, not reckon with the fact, that decline of faith and religion was already far advanced in Holland.

On May 9, 1873 he was asked to preside over· the meeting of the General Dutch ‘!\lorkers Federation. As president he strongly protested against the infringement upon the right to organize, in that the employers in the cigar industry proclaimed a lock-out of those workers who were members of a union. Nearly 80 years afterwards (in 1948) the International Labor Conference in San Francisco discussed at length the freedom of organization. Klaas Kater had died long before, but he had no need in his time of an international conference to proclaim the freedom of organization.

Gradually his objections against the prevailing spirit in the General ‘Workers’ Federation increased. He had to oppose the idea of the class struggle, the sympathy which was expressed in the union paper with the First International, and those publications which ridiculed Christian faith. When an article offered by him to oppose these ideas was turned down, and when it became clear to him that the large majority of the board were against co-operation with the employers, he retired.

In the bricklayers’ union, of which he was still president, the same spirit was developing. He had to face a growing opposition against the ideas he defended and an open rupture was unavoidable. On July II, 1873 he resigned as president and ceased to be a member. It is clear that an illusion was broken, and that his resignation was submitted reluctantly.

“Patrimonium” Established

Until the last moment Klaas Kater had testified that the social problem can only be solved in the power of God, who sent his Son in the world that he might “destroy the works of the devil.”

Very few did understand this. Some of his close friends, seeing that his testimony was rebuked and that unbelief, Marxism and class struggle more and more prevailed in the existing unions, urged him to start a Christian organization. However, Klaas Kater hesitated. Only 251 years later, on January 3, 1876, under the stimulus of the revolutionary action of the General Workers’ Federation, a meeting was held in Amsterdam and The Netherlands Workers Association “Patrimonium” was established, which on March 2, 1880 became a nation-wide organization. The name referred to the Patrimony, the Heritage of the Fathers, which was and is the Christian faith according to the Confession of Faith of the Christian Church in the Netherlands.

Theory and Practice

We have enlarged on the above historic facts as up till now many Christian workers, ofttimes backed up by their religious leaders, advocate the idea that the Christian workers should join the general or “neutral” unions so as to exercise in them a Christian influence. Klaas Kater tried to do that. But he failed. And everyone who has tried it or who will try it, has fail-ed or is bound to fail, unless the prevailing or adopted principle is the Word of God. The so-called neutral union is not neutral, because it does not accept the only principle which can improve the world and can improve society, namely the principle of the new life, which is in Jesus Christ, in his Cross and in his Resurrection. Every Christian worker, who will try in joining a neutral union .to introduce that principle will be disappointed, as Klaas Kater was.

There is much to tempt one in the idea of having one organization for all workers. Many spiritual leaders in all the countries of the world have advocated that and many workers have followed their advice. The unity of the working class has always been propagated by Marxists, by National Socialists, by Communists. It belongs to the philosophy of the labor movements. However, it has never been reached, nationally nor internationally. In Great Britain alone they have reached that stage but at the expense of a certain labor force which is seceded from the Church.

The question of unity in the world, which fascinates the heart of mankind, is a Christian idea and is innate in all men. The tower of Babel was a token of the unity mankind was aiming at. However, that which is all important is the question on what basis unity can be reached. That foundation, that basis, can only be Jesus Christ. The split in the labor movement was caused by those who dislike that foundation. They try to regain. unity by applying compulsion. Behind the Iron Curtain there is one strong labor movement and everyone in the Free World abhors the methods which are being used there to reach that unity. But in the Free World itself other means of compulsion are in operation, such as the closed shop and the union shop. In spite of this compulsion no unity has been reached.

Among Christian leaders of higher education there are many who argue that the Christian worker should join the “general” or “neutral” unions to exercise influence in them. Many have done so but the outcome has delivered proof that theory and practice are wide apart. Instead of having changed the policies of the unions these Christian men, at least the bulk of them, have changed in that they turned away from the Christian life.

We recall a visit we once paid to a man, who was a member of a Church and at the same time a member of a “neutral” union. He was not at home when we called, but we talked with his wife. We asked her whether she was aware of what type of union her husband was a member. Did she read the weekly paper of that union? Her answer was: “Oh, yes sir, as soon as that paper arrives, I put it in the stove. I won’t have him read it!”

Many Christian workers do so. Sometimes they are proud of that attitude. If you talk with them they say: “Oh, but I don’t read their (!) paper and I don’t go to their meetings!” In this connection we cannot help thinking of the Parable of the Pounds: “And another came, saying, Lord, behold, here is my pound, which I have kept laic! up in a napkin.”

The great Reformer of Switzerland Zwingli said to the men of his time: “For God’s sake do something courageous.” Klaas Kater showed that courage. Is that the same spirit as is shown by Christian workers in this country who join the neutral unions?

Some people, who know something of the spiritual struggle in the Netherlands, say that the Christian labor movement in that country was established because Dr. Abraham Kuyper, the man of the antithesis, was behind it.

This is not true!

To the contrary, Dr. Kuyper was opposed to a split in the labor movement and to the starting of Christian unions. He also was a theorist in this respect and it was not before the First Christian Social Congress that he supported “Patrimonium.” In (act, a close relationship between Dr. Abraham Kuyper and the Christian labor movement has never existed. Dr. Kuyper was a church leader and a politician, a theologian and a scholar, a philosopher and a publicist, but he was not, and has never shown himself to be a social leader.

As a politician and as a publicist he has surely done much pioneering in social matters, but with the Christian labor movement he had no relation. However, his leadership was recognized w hen he was asked to preside over the First Christian Social Congress in 1891 when he gave an opening address which is still now of significance for Christian social action.

In our next contribution we hope to enlarge upon this Congress and its consequences.