Until a week ago I knew absolutely nothing about the Apostolic Society. I had no idea where this religious community originated, what “apostolic” people believe, and how their philosophy impacts on their daily life. But that changed after I read Renske Doorenspleet’s recent book entitled Apostelkind (literally: Apostle’s Child). The subtitle of her book expresses exactly what it is about: In the grip of a closed community. The author, a political scientist who now lives in England, bade farewell to the faith community in which she had been raised and to which she had vowed her loyalty. However, gradually she began to feel so claustrophobic, that she began to distance herself more and more from the thinking of this community, until she finally decided to leave. But only many years later was she able to look back and put her experiences on paper.
Often books written by former members of religious communities are full of bitterness and resentment about what they
experienced in their church or group. They tend to urge others to take the same step and free themselves from the spiritual straitjacket that kept them imprisoned for such a long time. Some started a foundation to assist others who also want to leave. This is clearly not the intent of Renske Doorenspleet. But throughout the book one senses her regret and amazement: How in the world could I stay in this oppressive club for so long?
In the Netherlands the Apostolic Society has about 30,000 members. Strangely enough, for a very long time they remained almost completely under the radar. They didn’t get publicity because of sexual or financial scandals. Occasionally the name “apostolic” surfaced, for example in connection with Volkert van der Graaf, the murderer of the Dutch populist politician Pim Fortuin. Volkert was a member of the Apostolic Society.
The picture sketched in the book is oppressive. The Dutch branch of the organization is led by an apostle, to whom (at least until recently) a kind of semi-divine status was attributed. He is assisted by an elaborate network of men and (nowadays also) women who diligently perform a range of precisely prescribed tasks. The word of the apostle is law and his weekly letters have more authority than the Bible. Although Christian in origin, little is left in the Society of the Christian faith. The hope for an afterlife has been completely abandoned. The members are indoctrinated and have to live in such a way that they become a kind of leaven in the world, through which it can become better and better. How that can happen when the members do not tell others about their ideals has remained a mystery to me, even after reading this book.
What probably struck me most was that the members of this Society live in two completely separate worlds – the world inside the Society and the world outside. Those two worlds hardly, if at all, meet. Renske Doorenspleet describes in detail how all-absorbing her world was during her time in the Society, but how she tried to keep it hidden from her friends and in her everyday life. And this was true for all fellow-members of the Society. This raises the question of the value such faith commitment can possibly have. If you have found an ideal in which you invest a lot of emotion, time and energy (and also a lot of money!), it would seem obvious that you want to share this ideal with others. And you may expect to be encouraged to convince others to follow that same ideal! Moreover, how that ideal is developed and expressed must certainly be influenced by what is going on in the wider world and by what the members of the community experience in their daily life! This applies not only to members of the Apostolic Society but to every faith community. Life inside a faith community and life outside that community must be communicating vessels. The content of what the group believes and how it is practiced must have meaning for everyday life. And, conversely, experiences in life in the wider world must be brought inside the group, so that it continues to deal with things that really matter to its members in their daily lives.
Thank you, Renske Doorenspleet, for your book which so clearly illustrates this vital point.
(Renske Doorenspleet, Het Apostelkind: In de greep van een gesloten genootschap. Publisher: Uitgeverij Balans, 2020. Paperback, € 22,90.)