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Hercules at the Crossroads: Confirmation as a Rite of Passage in the Nineteenth-Century Netherlands Reformed Church

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What did it mean for eighteen- to twenty-year-old men and women in the nineteenth-century Netherlands to be confirmed—that is, to sit in the front row of the church, dressed in Sunday dress, and be accepted into full church membership? Previous scholarship on confirmation in the Netherlands Reformed Church has mostly focused on theological controversies surrounding the wording of the so-called confirmation questions (three questions about Christian doctrine and morals that confirmants had to answer during the service), treating these controversies as markers of growing struggles between ‘wings’ or ‘parties’ in nineteenth-century Dutch Protestantism. Important as these theological controversies were, this article nonetheless approaches confirmation from a different, less frequently explored angle, arguing that confirmation was also, and perhaps especially, a social rite of passage, which symbolically marked transition into a new stage of life, with adult responsibilities in church and society. Drawing on a rich array of published as well as unpublished sources (sermons, booklets, letters, and diaries), the article examines what kind of meanings were associated with this rite of passage, by both clergy and confirmants, and to what extent these meanings changed over the course of the century. It shows that Protestants throughout the nineteenth century tried to hold together, in one way or another, what one may call the ‘inward’ and the ‘outward’ aspects of the ritual (expressions of personal conviction and conformation to societal standards of morality). Although they insisted that professions of faith must be made “from the bottom of the heart,” they simultaneously equated confirmation with a promise to a virtuous life. Also, while accepting sighs and tears as testifying to the sincerity of a confirmant’s profession, many authors explicitly warned against strong emotions that could carry newly confirmed church members away from the narrow path of virtue.

Affiliations: 1: Gouda ; 2: Leiden University


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