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Dutch Reformed Church - 360 years of history

by Dr. K.D. Paranavitana  - Daily News Saturday Oct 19 2002

Christianity was introduced into The Netherlands between 700 and 750 A.D. Later at the time of the renaissance in Europe, the teachings of the French theologian, Jean Calvin (1509-1564) greatly influenced Christianity in The Netherlands. The Dutch as a dynamic nation preferred the freedom and realistic outlook of Calvinism that orthodox Christianity. The teachings of Calvin influenced the Dutch as a trading nation with 'love of gain'. Prof. C.R. Boxer asserts that the Calvinism was the main driving force in the Dutch commercial expansion and cultural flowering which were marked features of the 17th century scene.'

The United Dutch East India Company (VOC) was established in The Netherlands based on the charter issued by the States General in 1602. The birth of the 'True Dutch Reformed Religion' took place as a result of the National Synod held in Dordrecht in 1618/19. This reformed religion was considered the state protected religion in The Netherlands since 1619. At this time the Dutch East India Company was busy with gaining control over the spice trade in the East from the Portuguese. The crew of each of the Dutch voyage to the East accompanied several predicants for the purpose of performing religious rites on board and on land. They were hand-picked by the Board of Directors or the Heren XVII in Amsterdam and paid by the VOC itself.

The religion to the VOC was of secondary importance. Profit was its prime objective.

Once a Dutch envoy speaking about religious liberty in The Netherlands in the presence of Charles X of Sweden, the king in reply pulled a rix-dollar from his pocket and said Voila vote religion. The policy of the VOC on religion was always defeated before the 'love of gain'.

The charter of 1602 made no provisions for promotion and maintenance of religious institution in the East. The Company directors were not obliged to spread the light of the Christianity practised in The Netherlands.

When the VOC established its administrative headquarters in the East in Batavia (present Jakarta) the policy adopted was well defined in the following statement of the Board of Directors dispatched to the then Governor General in Batavia, Joan Maetsuiker.

It states 'Nature of government is such that it cannot suffer two equally great controlling powers, any more than a body can endure two heads'. Similarly, the civil power always had full and unfettered control over the ecclesiastical.

It was on this background the Dutch Reformed Church was introduced to Sri Lanka by the VOC with its first church ministrations held in Galle on 6th October, 1642, almost 360 years ago. Its consistory in Colombo was established in 1658 marking the beginning of protestant church or what they called 'True Christian Reformed Church' (Waare Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk). Subsequently, church councils were formed in Colombo, Galle and Jaffna stationing several Dutch predicants to commence proselytizing activities.

The Wolvendaal Church is the oldest Protestant Church in use in Sri Lanka. It celebrates its 253rd anniversary this year. The name of the church derived from the place name Wolvendaal. When the Dutch took over the administration of Colombo and suburbs, the surroundings of the church came to be known as Wolvendaal (Valley of Wolves) John Penry Lewis in his work List of Inscriptions on Tombstones and Monuments in Ceylon (1913) explains, '..... a marsh or a swamp frequented by jackals.

The hill on which the church stands must have taken its name from the surrounding ground. Several variations of the name Wolvendaal had been used in the British times including Wolfendhal and Wolfendahl.

The Wolvendaal Church is situated on a higher elevation with a panoramic view, overlooking the Colombo harbour and the fort.

The Dutch chose to erect this magnificent church in Wolvendaal to replace the old Roman-Catholic church, the Church of St. Francis, located in the former Gordon Gardens (in the present Republic Square) in the Colombo Fort. Construction of the church started in 1749 during the tenure of office of Governor Julius Valentijn Stein Van Gollenesse (1743-51). His initials J.V.S.V.G. are placed in the front light, perhaps to remember his contribution to the building. The style of the building is Doric and the foundation takes the shape of a cross.

The Church, therefore, is referred to as the Kruiskerk in Dutch.

The high roof in the middle of the building resembles a dome resting on strong walls of approximately five feet thickness built of kabok of unusually large size with coral and lime plaster. The original dome with its covering of blue Bangor slates had to be replaced due to the destruction that occurred in 1856 as a result of lightning. Later the slates were replaced with an iron covering. The iron covering, however, needs frequent repairs probably due to the salty sea breeze.

The Wolvendaal Church is a living edifice of the Dutch colonial architecture and a monument of the Dutch Christian zeal. It has been constructed with local material utilizing predominantly local labour, certainly with technical skills of the Dutch construction engineers at the time. It is, therefore, a national monument of dual parentage and outstanding example of combination of two cultures and traditions, the Dutch and the Sri Lankan.

Island Tuesday Nov 5 2002

by Revd. S. E. Faber
Dutch Reformed Church in Ceylon

History records that in the 17th Century the Dutch began their political work around the Indian Ocean. Then their headquarters were Batavia or present Indunisia. During this time the Portuguese had the power about commercial and spices. Yet the Dutch won over them and got the commercial power into their hands.

According to ancient records in 1638 when king Rajasinghe the 2nd was ruling Sri Lanka from Kandy, the Dutch discussed with him and came to an agreement. In this way the Dutch got the power of the cinnamon and other commercial which grew nicely in the island of Sri Lanka. Also King Rajasinghe promised to pay the cost (for war expenses etc) to drive away Portuguese from the Land of Sri Lanka.

As a result of this in year 1639 the Dutch won over Trincomalee and Batticaloa from the Portuguese and handed over to the Sinhala Rule. In 1640 they won over Galle which is a very beautiful area in the South and Negombo from the Portugese. But they refused handing over Galle and Negombo to the rule of the King in Kandy. As King Rajasinghe did not pay the cost of the war expenses the Dutch proclaimed that they cannot give over the areas to the rule of King Rajasinghe. In this manner the Dutch got hold of the coastal areas of Sri Lanka.

After a very hard fight in 1656, the Dutch got hold of Colombo and in 1658 got hold of Jaffna. They were able to spread their navigational power in the whole of the Indian Ocean and got hold of the power of commerce into their hands. As time went on Dutch society was able to get hold stable in the island.

It is recorded that although in year 1640 Galle was captured, the first reformed worship service was held on 6th of October on 1642 in Utreckt by Revd. Anthonius Hornhovius.

In this way the Reformed faith spread through the island. To spread education they established schools in association to the churches. They introduced home, schools and church Concept to the society.

The Dutch donated many valuable things to the society and Sri Lankan culture. They introduced registration of Birth, Death, Marriages, that every child must go to Schools, Printing, Carvings, Canal, transport system, Roman Dutch Law, which are existing till the present.

Other valuable services which can be accepted are social service centres to serve persecuted people, hospitals, refugee homes, Hendala Leprosy hospital etc.

On October 6, 2002 it is 360 years since the Dutch Reformed Church was born. This Reformed Church which was along colouring pages of our history at present hold their services in Sinhala Tamil and English while there are churches throughout Sri Lanka, at present churches that are older than 250 years are in Galle, Matara, Wolvendaal and Kalpitiya. Galle and Matara fort are live relics which proclaim a valuable History.

The "motto" of the church is "Spes Est Regerminat." which is a Latin saying which means "Therefore if a tree is cut down there is a hope that the branches and roots will sprout again. This is mentioned in the Holy Bible Job 14:7. The Latin motto is "Again there is a hope that it will sprout again"

Let us go forward thinking about this motto on this day that we commemorate the 360 years. Let us remember all the Priests and Believers who served in the Reformed vineyard up to now.

Let us also remember the present President Revd. Charles N. Janze and the Ministers and the other lay and ordained leaders well wishes and God who granted His Grace and mercy for the church to go forward.

We join and wish that as long as Sri Lanka exist the Dutch Reformed Church will in this way go forward and be a blessing to our society.