Looking back on a notable service record | Sunday Observer

Looking back on a notable service record

DRC Jaffna , a photo taken in 1967 by Sam Fernando
DRC Jaffna , a photo taken in 1967 by Sam Fernando

The Dutch first arrived in our emerald isle on July 29, 1600, which was the beginning of Dutch influence in myriad spheres. Their presence is still felt in food, furniture, architecture and religion, the latter strictly adhered to by them.

On May 31, 1602, three ships under the command of Admiral Joris van Spilbergen, arrived in Batticaloa and the first thing the Admiral did was to summon his men on deck to offer thanks to God for bringing them here safely. Prayer and thanks-giving to God were foremost in the minds of the Dutch at all times. One of their objectives was to elevate and Christianize the races they subdued

It has been said, that the Dutch came to Ceylon with the Bible in one hand and the sword in the other. But, it is obvious that the sword was less used than the Bible. Their chief task was to revolutionize religious thought and feelings among the people. When they first wrested the Maritime Provinces from the Portuguese, the Dutch found three religions already well established in Ceylon - Buddhism, Hinduism and Roman Catholicism. So at first, the efforts of the Dutch to introduce the austere reformed faith were rather feeble. They faced continuous plots and sabotage by the Portuguese and realized that no security could exist for them as long as the Roman Catholic Church and clergy exercised their influence. With this in mind, all Roman Catholic Churches and Monasteries were taken possession of and converted for the use of the Reformed faith as Schools and Alms Houses. But, these religious buildings were never put to secular use. Although the Dutch occupied Galle in 1640, it is accepted that the date on which the Reformed Church was established in Ceylon was October 6, 1642. The Reformed faith was treasured and maintained with great care during their tenure of rule here and the East India Company contributed to promoting what they thought was the true reformed religion. This was their objective and to do this, they built churches in all stations they occupied with a regular staff of ministers.

Zeal

These men were all of academic highs, ordained and sent here by the Classis in Holland. They were selected on their individual high standards of piety, fitness and missionary zeal. Almost every village had a school. Some like Bentota had a church and it was through both, churches and schools that religious and secular education was spread. Besides the regular ministers or predikants there were two lower grades of ministerial assistants, the proponents who were both Dutch and Ceylonese. These were men who had done Theology, were licensed but not permitted to perform ministerial duties, and the zeikentroosters or comforters of the sick, whose duty was hospital visiting, looking after the wellbeing of orphans and orphanages and conducting weekly meetings in the GebedZaal or Prayer halls. Among those who left their footprints in the sands of history of the Dutch Reformed Church here, were, Predikants Antonious Hornhovious in 1642 in Galle, Philipus Baloaeus in 1658 in Jaffna, Ludovicus Boagaard in 1660 in Colombo, Felkco Weijosma in 1658 in Matara, and Antonius Stamperius in Negombo. The first named who was a former Minister at Ermyes in Holland was appointed as the first Prediikant of the newly acquired territory at Point de Galle. The Church here felt it was their duty to propagate Christianity among the Ceylonese to make instrumental the conquest of the Dutch. Seminaries were opened in Jaffna and Colombo with this objective and young men who they felt were promising were sent for training to universities in Holland at Government expense.

On completion of their studies and ordination, they returned here to spread their message among the people. Rev Henricus Phillipsz, son of a Maha Mudaliyar was among the first to go to the University of Utrecht and return to Colombo as a Predikant. His son, Gerard also followed his father’s footsteps.Through his messages, many of the middle and higher classes became true believers in the doctrine of the Dutch Reformed Church and conscientious performers in their duty to the Church. Much attention was paid to religious education. Ministers from Holland were encouraged to learn the vernacular languages and together with local proponents and school masters, translated the scriptures and other doctrinal works.

Faith

There were many among them who stuck strongly to the faith, were true to it and passed it on, through generations of their families. It was the Council of XV11 in Holland who framed the rules for the guidance of minsters and the lesser clergy, here.

The Dutch built many churches all over Ceylon, to introduce the faith of the early reformers, a faith that found full expression in the Reformation, standing four square in the Bible. The doctrinal standards introduced by them still govern the Church, 1] The Belgic confession 2] The Heidelberg Catechism, 3] The Canons as ratified by the Synod of Dordrecht [1618 to 1619].

The Dutch believed that no empire was secure unless it was founded on true religion and that all parts must be bound together by the laws of God to which the laws of men must always be subservient and auxiliary.

Of the numerous churches built by the Dutch, only those in Wolvendhal built in 1743 which has a collection of Dutch period furniture, Galle and Matara are still well preserved. After the arrival of the British, the Dutch, including the Church suffered, and those were dark days for the Reformed Church. Religion and education begun by the Dutch suffered the most, and work stood at a standstill. Dutch clergy became prisoners of war and no provision existed to continue their work. This was so till the first civil Governor, Frederick North arrived in 1798. Unlike his military predecessors, Governor North was interested in the moral and spiritual uplift of the people.

One of his first acts after assuming office was to issue a Proclamation in 1799, permitting the freedom of worship. There were a faithful few who kept the flame of the Reformed Church alive through its darkest days. The little leaven of Reformed Christianity introduced by the Dutch, if it failed to leaven the whole lump, had yet left its impact, here and there, in little nooks and corners.

These under nourishing care took root and grew into great trees. This was indeed a clear manifestation of the Church’s motto ‘Spesestregerminat’ which means, ‘For there is hope of a tree, if it is cut down, it will grow again’. The Church began to look to other countries who professed the reformed faith for assistance. Ministerial assistance came in response to its requests to Ireland, South Africa and the US.

The Dutch Reformed Seminary and Bible Institute was started in 1954. Many young men came forward to take up the challenge of being trained for the Ministry. The Church has been blessed in this respect and is still sending men to be trained to serve the Church with vigour and enthusiasm.

The Church, in spite of its problems through the years has grown in Colombo and the outstation, carrying its message in Sinhala and Tamil, and proving its spiritual vitality. A cordial relationship exists with other Churches, both here and abroad. They are members of The Reformed Ecumenical Council, The World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and The National Christian Council here. As the Dutch Reformed Church celebrates its 375th anniversary in Sri Lanka, it can look back on its record of service with pride. It has achieved what It has with discipline, unity and vision.

Cemented

The bind of these cornerstones in their history, if cemented with collective memory, can continue to face and overcome challenges as they have done with responsibility, in the past. They have been guided by the high standards of those who began their church through the changing scenes of life, and will I’m sure pass down the torch of faith, hope and enlightenment to the generations of the future. The Church has lived through and come through admirably through terror in this country, of war, the passion and anger of a warring people. While old treasured traditions fade away, it’s more important than ever that the Church playsa significant role in inspiring people to let spirituality rule their minds, thoughts and lives.

Therein lies the only hope for the future. 

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