Praying helped during eighteenth-century disasters (but not because God intervened)

Praying in a packed church for a whole day, singing psalms, and hearing thunderous sermons about your sinfulness was what eighteenth-century Dutch people did during a prayer day. Governments and churches organised these days after a disaster hit a community. Did these rituals have any use? According to historian Adriaan Duiveman, they did. On Tuesday 4 April, he will receive his doctorate from Radboud University. “Religion was not a sign of despair, but a form of collective resilience.”

“Religious emergency rituals are often dismissed by scholars as simple superstition,” Duiveman says. “Something people only turn to because they have no real means to do anything about a disaster - a last resort.” With that view, they are missing something, according to Duiveman. In his research on eighteenth-century prayer days, he concluded that rituals had an important function: to create solidarity.

“Religion, of course, is about the stories and dogmas about God and gods. But besides that "vertical" element, religion also has a "horizontal" dimension.” Duiveman saw that dimension in religious emergency rituals after disasters, specifically prayer days. In the eighteenth century, the vast majority of Dutch people believed that God punished people for their sins with disasters. Prayer days were rituals to confess guilt and thus avert God's wrath.


But that is only part of the story, according to Duiveman. “Preachers and community encouraged participants to feel all kinds of bad feelings during the prayer day: grief, guilt, pity for victims. The idea was to swell in that dysphoria and cry tears. All those emotions were seen as proof of repentance. Lived-in guilt could convince God not to punish the community further. But those feelings also connected churchgoers with each other.”

“In prayer sermons and prayer guides,” the historian continues, “churchgoers were encouraged to pray for their own families, but also for the city, for fellow believers and even for the entire Dutch Republic.” Duiveman refers to all these communities as 'circles of solidarity'. Churchgoers were invited to feel with and for others. And that compassion paid off: during prayer days, participants put many guilders in the collection bowls. With that money, local victims and local poor could be cared for by the church.

COVID services

During the COVID crisis, Duiveman saw that religious rituals were important then as well, precisely when people were not allowed to gather together. He lists a few examples. “In Maastricht, they took the plague saint Saint Servaas out of the crypt. There was no procession, as there used to be, but the body stood in the basilica. In 2020, when the crisis had just started, there was an ecumenical Day of National Prayer on TV. And in the town of Barneveld, a local church organised a prayer meeting - a shortened version of a prayer day.”

During these services, there was no guilt over sins that had brought disaster upon us. They also took place (partly) digitally, or under strict conditions. The rituals were thus different from the eighteenth-century crammed churches Duiveman studied. Yet the historian could not take off his eighteenth-century glasses when he saw the fuss about church services in the media. Not that he wants to condone them, he stresses. “But from my research, I did gain something of an understanding for churchgoers. A ritual connects the participant to a community. And especially in times of disaster, you want to feel part of a group.”

Adriaan Duiveman is one of four PhD students in the 'Dealing with Disasters' research group of Lotte Jensen, professor of Dutch literary and cultural history. Duiveman will receive his doctorate from Radboud University on Tuesday 4 April 2023.

Contact information

More information? Please contact Adriaan Duiveman (adriaan.duiveman [at] (adriaan[dot]duiveman[at]ru[dot]nl)) or team Science Communication via +31 24 361 6000 of media [at] (media[at]ru[dot]nl).

History, Art & Culture, Religion