Daily Archives: October 5, 2017

An interesting approach to history

I am an admirer of the Dutch historian A.Th. van Deurssen (d. 2011).  One of his books has especially fascinated me. It is entitled: Een Dorp in de Polder (A village in the polder, 1994).

In Een Dorp in de Polder van Deurssen writes about daily life in Graft in the 17th century. Graft is a small town not far from Alkmaar, about 25 miles North of Amsterdam. As a child and teenager I lived about 6 miles away from Graft. But at the time I had no idea about the illustrious history of this tiny town, which in the seventh century was well-known for its whale hunting far away in the Northern part of the Atlantic Ocean. All kinds of coincidences have resulted in the interesting fact that more sources about the daily life in Graft during the ‘Golden Age’ have been preserved than of any other town or village in Holland. The interesting thing about van Deurssen’s book is not only that it informs us in detail about the lives of a few families in Graft in that period, but that it, by doing so, in fact offers us a much better insight into this period than we get from most classical history books.

Some other historians have used the same model. A famous example is the study by Emmanuel le Roy Ladurie, who a few decades ago—in his book Montaillou— gave a detailed description of how the Inquisition operated in a small fourteenth-century village in the Spanish Pyrenees. The inhabitants of that village were suspected of belonging to the sect of the Cathars (often also referred to as Albigenses), a movement that was hated by the medieval Church. Though the book seems to be very limited in scope [a few families in a small village], one gets nonetheless the feeling that it provides an in-depth survey of the Cathar movement—of what these ‘heretics’ believed, of what motivated them, and of how they were treated. (Unfortunately, I no longer have the book. When in the late 1980’s I lived in Cameroon, I lent the book to the Dutch ambassador, but he failed to return it!)

History books often focus on the role of important leaders and their great achievements (or the lack thereof). Usually little attention is given to the lives of ordinary people, and, as a result, the reader gets a very limited and rather one-sided picture of what, in fact, happened. That is also true with respect to the history of the church. When dealing, for instance, with the history of the reformation of the sixteenth century, the emphasis usually is on men like Calvin and Luther and their associates. We hear preciously little, however, about the experiences of the men and women in the pews, or about how it was for a village priest to evolve into a Reformed minister.

Historians of the Advent movement tend to stress the role of important church leaders—the ‘pioneers’ of the early period and the presidents of the General Conference who followed—and the proceedings of the most prominent church meetings (such as the conferences of 1888 and 1901). But that does not tell the full story of the development of Adventism.

The history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the Netherlands cannot be pictured by means of the photo gallery of union presidents in the corridor on the ground floor of the union office building (even though I am pleased to see my picture among them).

If someone would consider to write a history of the Adventist Church in the Netherlands, he/she might want to focus on just one or two local churches, and research the history of these particular churches: What has happened there over the years, and what processes were at work? How did these churches function in, say, the 1950’s? What did worship look like fifty years ago? And thirty years ago? And today? What families have played an important role through the years? How did that affect their church? How did evangelism change over the years? What do the minutes of the church board reveal about disciplinary measures? Etc. Etc. This could give a fascination picture of the actual history of Dutch Adventism. Let us hope that someone will some day feel the calling to write such a book.