Protestant Church's role in slavery investigated in new study

AMSTERDAM - Church historians, art historians, and theologians from the Vrije Universiteit launched a new study into Protestant churches' involvement in slavery and colonialism, Trouw reported. The Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN) is cooperating in the investigation.

The churches that merged into the PKN for long excused slavery and the slave trade with Bible in hand, theologian and study leader Heleen Zorgdrager said to Trouw. Dutch churches benefited enormously from the slave trade and colonialism, including through large donations from slave traders and plantation owners.  And evidence of that can be spotted in the slave traders' tombs in Dutch churches. And the caricatural depictions of black people in paintings, gravestones, and stained glass windows.

Zorgdrager's part of this study will focus on mapping out how thinking about slavery and racism developed within the Protestant churches. "For this, we will reconstruct the theological lines of thought and point out turning points. Church and theology must account for their part in this history. I hope that our research can be a first step in reflecting on this," the theologian at the Protestant Theological University said. 

Dienke Hondius, a historian specializing in the history of slavery, will look into the material ecclesiastical heritage for this study. She will try to identify who among those buried in and around churches were involved in slavery and who of them got tombs or funerary monuments. "These funerary monuments were often made in the 19th century, a time of strong cultural nationalism. At that time, you saw an explosion of monuments all over Europe. That's when they were made heroes."

The PKN is participating in the study to come to terms with the past, especially given the commemorative year of the abolition of slavery in 2023. "We want to let the past be a mirror for the present," PKN scribe Rene de Reuver said to Trouw. "So it is crucial for us to be clear about exactly what happened in the name of the church. I think that a lot of people have increasingly mixed feelings about the tombs. We are still at the beginning of the discussion, but the embarrassment about this is growing."

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