The Village Churches of Friesland


Here is the main page for this entry: #6 of 52: The “Greats” of the Netherlands, So Far Away

I’ve spent a good amount of time researching the cemeteries in the small villages and towns that make up the province of Friesland, the Netherlands, and I’ve discovered one outstanding feature of cemetery hunting in Friesland: in almost every case, the cemetery surrounds a village church. It’s easy to imagine how much these structures dominated each village. And yet today the Netherlands is known as one of the most secularized countries in the western world (Knippenberg, 209). What happened to religion in the Netherlands, and particularly the province of Friesland, between the time my ancestors were living in these villages in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, and today in 2015?

I found an interesting article about the process of secularization in the Netherlands by Hans Knippenberg at the University of Amsterdam: “Secularization in the Netherlands in its Historical and Geographical Dimensions.” Perhaps there are contrary views to his about the hows and whys of the changes, but his viewpoint provides a starting point, particularly about the issue of the geography of religion. Knippenberg’s article was published in 1998. No doubt the numbers have changed a bit since then, and whether the trend is toward more secularization or less, I can’t yet say. This is what occurred up to 1998.

A Dominating Influence

If we could transport ourselves back to a village in Friesland before the 1880s, like my 2x great grandparents living in the villages of Finsterwolde or Peins, Berlikum or Pietersbierum, we would find that almost everyone belonged to a church. Church membership, says Knippenberg, was seen as socially desirable (Knippenberg, 210). In “Farewell to Windmills and Dikes,” John Clover Monsma remembers his childhood years in Berlikum, one of the Friesland villages where my ancestors lived; he writes of the four classes of people that existed in his c.1900 Berlikum: the State Church people, the Free Church people, the small group of Mennonites, and a large number of irreligious or “worldly” people. There was very little association between persons of different groups: “Religion was the dominating factor in the town’s life. There were, of course, the usual classes and distinctions. But the thing that counted most was a person’s religion or lack of it” (Monsma, 37).  Even though the church of Monsma’s childhood was still a dominating force of life in the community, yet church membership was changing drastically, and within the 50 years between 1880 and 1930 so much would change that by 1930, 1.1 million people in the Netherlands would not belong to a church or religious community. Something was changing during those years that made church membership seem unnecessary.

I can see this trend in my own Dutch family. The ones who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1880s to early 1900s tended to hold onto their religious practices and make the church central to their lives, perhaps because immigration changed so much else in their lives, and the church community provided much-desired stability. Conversely, many who stayed in the Netherlands followed the secular wave of that country, a notable example being my great uncle Gerrit of Tynje, Opsterland, Friesland, whose gravestone is illustrative of the political/secular trend that was central to his life.


Gerrit Roorda, my grandfather’s brother, a fascinating man who was passionate about his political views.

Non-Denominationalism and Secularization

First, a couple of definitions. Secularization can be defined as a diminishing importance of religion in society. Non-denominationalism is not belonging to any church congregation. Knippenberg believes that one follows the other.

Knippenberg writes of a geographical pattern in the Netherlands to the distribution of non-denominationalism (Knippenberg, 212). Until 1880, almost everyone belonged to a church. The northern part of the country, which includes the province of Friesland, was “homogeneously Protestant,” while the southeastern part was almost homogeneously Catholic (Knippenberg, 213). [Knippenberg goes into the reasons for that split in his article, but that’s not my interest here.]  Although in the north there was a long tradition of freedom of religion, the Calvinist Church (the predecessor of the Dutch Reformed Church) held a privileged position. Therefore, a villager in Friesland in the 1880s, like my ancestors, almost certainly belonged to the Protestant church and were likely to identify as Dutch Reformed.

Then along came something that Knippenberg refers to as “church resignation,” which seemed in those years between 1880 and 1930 to be mainly a Protestant thing. The Catholics lived mainly in the southeast provinces, and they held onto their religion longer. The first noticeable centers of non-denominationalism happened, not in the big cities, as one might expect, but in the northern Friesland countryside. A check of the 1889 census shows that with only 7% of the population, Friesland had 36% of the non-denominationalists (Knippenberg, 213). In that year there were eight Frisian communities with more than 10% non-denominationalists. That’s a big change in less than a decade, when in 1880 “almost everyone” had belonged to a church.

Why did this happen? Knippenberg suggests that poverty among the rural population (the small villages in the north in Friesland) as a consequence of the Great Agrarian Depression (1878-1895) caused church resignation and also caused people to be drawn towards the socialist movement. He writes specifically about Friesland: “In almost no part of the country were the social contrasts so great as in the countryside of Friesland and Groningen” (Knippenberg, 213). Prosperous farmers on one side, low educated and poorly paid agricultural laborers on the other–landowners vs. people who would never have a chance to own their own land. My great grandfather’s brother, Pieter Tjerks Roorda, was part of the immigration wave caused by the agricultural depression. He emigrated to Iowa in 1893 with the express wish of owning his own farm, something that would have been impossible in his town of Sexbierum in Friesland.

In general, resignation from church during the late 1800s meant resignation from the Dutch Reformed Church (Knippenberg, 214). I’ve found that many of these village churches surrounded by cemeteries in the Frisian villages were once Dutch Reformed churches. Some of them remain so today. In fact, in the 1950s a counter-movement against secularization occurred, known widely as the evangelical movement. Knippenberg says this movement is recruited almost exclusively among people with a church and not among non-denominationalists and non-believers. Therefore, the movement has not stopped the secularization trend; rather, it has merely slowed what has been happening in the country for over 100 years. Since younger people are more secularized than the elderly, forecasts for the next decades foresee an increase in non-denominationalism.

What Happens to the Village Church?

In a January 2015 article titled “Europe’s Empty Churches Go on Sale,” by Naftali Bendavid, it is written that 700 of Holland’s Protestant churches are expected to close within four years. Many of these churches have been the center of their communities for centuries. “In these little towns, you have a café, a church and a few houses–and that is the village,” says Lilian Grootswagers, an activist who fought to save the church in her Dutch town. “If the church is abandoned, we will have a huge change in our country.” Bendavid points out that though the people want to find an “important” use for the old buildings, they are expensive to maintain, and there is a limit to the number of libraries or concert halls a town can financially support.

All over Europe, pragmatic use is being made of old churches: a skate hall, a supermarket, a florist, bookstore, or gym. Many of the smaller ones are becoming homes. The Future for Religious Heritage is a European group, including the Netherlands, which works to preserve the churches (the group has its own Facebook page). The country has adopted a national “agenda” for preserving the buildings, where in Friesland alone, 250 of 720 existing churches have been closed or transformed (Bendavid). Making the transition from a place of worship to some other purpose can be tricky: “You can only manage a building if it has income,” said Leen Seim, executive officer for the Future of Religious Heritage (Bohlen).


A former Franciscan church in Weert, the Netherlands, has temporarily been turned into an indoor ice skating rink.

One of the issues of this “pragmatic” use of old churches that bothers me is the fact that our Dutch ancestors in medieval and early modern times were often buried in and under the church. People visiting an old Dutch church are often literally walking over graves. Here’s an example of grave memorials inside the church in the Village of Ried.


Gravestone memorials are part of the floor inside the church at Ried. Photo Credit: Private collection of author, c.2005.

So if this building or one like it were sold, what happens to these memorials? Are they merely “inconvenient”–or maybe not even that? Is there no sense of sacred ground, even in a secular society?



Bendavid, Naftali. “Europe’s Empty Churches Go on Sale.” The Wall Street Journal, 2 Jan 2015. Internet edition. No page numbers.

Bohlen, Celestine. “An Afterlife for Europe’s Disused Places of Worship.” The New York Times, 2 Jun 2014. Internet edition. No page numbers.

Knippenberg, Hans. “Secularization in the Netherlands in its Historical and Geographical Dimensions.” GeoJournal, Vol. 45, No. 3 (1998), 209-220.

Monsma, John Clover. “Farewell to Windmills and Dikes.” Origins, Vol. XIV, No. 1 (1996), 32-38. Origins is the historical magazine of the archives of the Heckman Library, Calvin College and Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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6 Responses to The Village Churches of Friesland

  1. Pingback: 52 Ancestors: #6 of 52: The “Greats” of the Netherlands, So Far Away | The Shoebox Under the Bed

  2. Very interesting read. This is West Friesland, no? My own ancestors hailed from East Friesland (Ostfriesland), which a lot of people have never even heard of. I have actually been told, “Well, that’s not a real country”. Then I have to say, “Well, sure it is!”.


  3. labwriter says:

    Hi Hollie, and thanks for your post. I have to be honest and say that I’ve never heard of the distinction between East and West Friesland, and looking it up on the internet only seems to add to my confusion–ha. I’ve heard of West Friesland in the context of the Fries language, which is the language my Greats all spoke. So yes, I would say that the Friesland I’m referring to would not be what you refer to as East Friesland. How’s that for a definitive statement?


  4. Kathryn Post says:

    Hi, it was SO nice to find your website; thanks for all the information. My maternal grandfather was John Clover Monsma (quoted in the article). I am making a family history photo book and am trying to find a photo/information relating to the Christian school in Berlikum, Friesland that was there in 1895. I have a photo of all the children in the school on that year and would like to see the school itself. Thanks for any information you may have.


  5. labwriter says:

    Hi Kathryn. I get a lot of very friendly help from the people at a facebook page called “Friesland Groningen & Drenthe Genealogy.” It’s very likely that someone there could help you. I was fascinated by the John Clover Monsma article. Are you putting any of your genealogy online? I’d love to hear what you find. Good luck with your search.


    • Kathryn Post says:

      Hi, Becky. Thanks for your reply and the Facebook tip. I am in the initial stages of my genealogy search and have not thought of posting it online, but now I will think about it. Thanks again!


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