Calvin's "true heirs" prosper in Dutch Bible Belt

Calvin's "true heirs" prosper in Dutch Bible Belt

18th November 2009, Comments 0 comments

In a small town not far from Amsterdam, orthodox Calvinists live a life of religious piety, shunning many modern conveniences.

A 90-minute drive from liberal Amsterdam, a pocket of orthodox Calvinism thrives where women shun trousers, swearing is banned and television is scorned as an ungodly intrusion.

Pious sobriety dictates politics, fashion and other aspects of daily life in the town of Staphorst, nestled near the top end of the so-called Dutch Bible Belt that stretches from Zeeland in the southwest to northeastern Overijssel.

"People here see themselves as the true heirs of (the reformist Protestant theologian) John Calvin," said 82-year-old Jan de Wolde of the town he moved to 54 years ago and has written widely about. "They view much of the rest of the world as godless."

Statistics from cable company Ziggo show that nearly 80 percent of locals have no television. De Wolde explains this as an attempt to shutter out the hedonistic outside world.

Residents flock to church in thousands twice every Sunday, when no buses run and shops and the town swimming pool are closed.

Bans and taboos

The topics of euthanasia, abortion and gay marriage, which the Netherlands was first in the world to legalise, are taboos here. And four years ago, the municipal council banned swearing, though no penalty is imposed.

Dutch children wear their traditional orthodox Calvinism clothing for a show in Staphorst on 5 August 2009

In the most recent municipal elections, most residents voted for the SGP Christian party, which bars women from holding public office.

"From the outside it can appear medieval," a 66-year-old inhabitant said. "But people are mostly tolerant of others. And it is comforting to live in such a tight-knit community."

The town of 16,000 people has one of Europe's highest birth rates, few career women and fewer restaurants. It also boasts nearly 1,000 women who still wear the chaste, cover-all outfit of their great-grandmothers.

Layers, layers, layers

The traditional ensemble comprises over a dozen items of clothing in summer, including a calf-length, black, pleated skirt; apron; shawl and bonnet; and black shoes or wooden clogs.

Also key are the black thigh-high socks, traditionally hand knitted and fastened with an elastic band, that gave rise to the Bible Belters' nickname of "zwartekousen" (black stockings).

Even among women who have abandoned the traditional dress as old-fashioned, hardly any wear trousers which they regard as "men's clothing, unbiblical,” according to De Wolde.

"A dress is what I feel comfortable in," said Jentje Veijer, 21, adding she had no desire to visit Amsterdam with its famous red-light district and cannabis-vending coffee shops, "because they have different values there."

A Dutch child wears a traditional orthodox Calvinism clothing before a show in Staphorst

Half of young people in Staphorst move directly from their parental home to marriage.

Only one in 30 babies are born to unmarried parents and the enclave has one of the Netherlands' lowest divorce rates: 39 per 1,000 residents.

Women must wear a hat to enter the town's biggest church, and the most widely read paper is the Reformatories Dagblad (Reformed Daily), which has no sports pages and much church news.

"It is too stifling," said 19-year-old Vic van Vuuren, who studies in nearby Zwolle, proclaims to be an atheist and hopes to find work outside his native Staphorst. "Everything is closed here on Sundays, except for church. That is no way to live."

Sneaky discos

Church historian Mirjam van Veen believes the Bible Belt had its origins in the Dutch 80-year war against Spanish dominion that ended in 1648

"It lies where the frontline between government and Spanish troops used to be,” she said. The government of the Netherlands of the time, "promoted the emergence of an orthodox Protestantism in the area as a barrier against the Catholic Spanish influence from the south."

Bible Belters have remained true to these roots and still pride themselves on thrift and hard work.

Those who do leave the town are quickly replaced by others who wish to raise families in a traditional environment, said Van Veen.

But De Wolde said these "outsiders,” along with industrialisation, were changing the town's character.

"There is a disco here now," he shrugged, and more and more people have the Internet at home.

The traditional opposition to inoculation as interference with God's will has also abated, with some 80 percent of Staphorsters now vaccinated against polio compared to less than 50 percent when an outbreak hit the town in 1971.

Dutch women wear traditional clothing as they knit in a stand on the market in Staphorst

"Whatever people may think, time has not stood still in Staphorst," said De Wolde. "But some things will always remain the same: religious dedication and a strong sense of community."

Mariette le Roux/AFP/Expatica

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