The Reformation that Failed to Occur: Liberal Protestantism as an Organised Movement in the Netherlands (c. 1860 – c. 1920)

“We are the true Protestants! We are the heirs of the sixteenth-century Reformers! We are the heralds of a second Reformation!” With these battle cries a new current of “liberals” or “modernists” manifested itself in Protestantism in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. The “second Reformation” that these liberal Protestants deemed necessary to keep Christianity credible and relevant in the coming age was supposed to be a double-edged sword. Inspired by the results of historical-critical biblical scholarship, liberal Protestants aimed to “modernize” Christianity intrinsically and institutionally by stripping it of all practices and ideas rooted in a supernatural worldview. In addition, they aspired to permeate contemporary society with such a modernized Christianity by liberating individuals from all the “obstacles” on the road to spiritual self-fulfilment. Focusing on the Netherlands, this article demonstrates that liberal Protestants, however, were not as radically reform-minded as might be expected based on the expectations and pretensions that were implied in their pursuit of a “second Reformation”. Moreover, it substantiates that the discourse in which this pursuit found expression lacked appeal outside of bourgeois circles, causing liberal Protestants to be overtaken by developments in church and social life.