After all, its precursor, the Netherlands School of Commerce, was established in 1913 by a group of Rotterdam businessmen who wanted to satisfy the demand for staff with solid commercial qualifications. They didn’t hope to ‘edify the common man’ – the mission of Amsterdam’s VU University. Or to promote the emancipation of the Catholic population of the Netherlands – as was the case in Nijmegen and Tilburg. A hundred years ago, they had the same ambition in Rotterdam as they do today: to be the self-proclaimed ‘warranted purveyor to the country’s boardrooms’. No Supreme Being involved.

But a closer examination reveals a different story. Because the founding fathers of our institution did come from a demonstrably religious background. J.A. Ruys (who sold typewriters) was the son of a Dutch Reformed minister, while Messrs C.A.P. van Stolk (grain merchant) and W.C. Mees (ship mortgages) were both members of the Remonstrant church. They attended the Arminiuskerk, near Eendrachtsplein in the city centre. Every Sunday the cream of Rotterdam’s business community gathered here. Indeed, people referred to the Arminiuskerk as the ‘fur coat church’, Tjaard Barnard – one of the congregation’s three ministers and church historian – doesn’t hesitate to say.

“There’s even an expression that gives a good idea of the Remonstrants’ status at the turn of the last century. If it was busy somewhere, people would say it was ‘as crowded as a ship owner’s wedding at the Remonstrant church’.”

Existential questions

Can we establish any other connections between the Remonstrants and the University? Certainly. If only our institution’s name giver since 1973: Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536). Erasmus was the founder of religious humanism, which is also one of the basic tenets of the Remonstrant church: faith starts with humanity. Erasmus was the first person in his times to state that human beings had free will and that faith was not about rules, but about the ideal. He looked back to the origins of Christianity and argued for maintaining a critical perspective. “The Remonstrant Brotherhood is very open to scholarly pursuits,” explains Barnard. “There’s a reason why every minister in Rotterdam has a doctorate.”

”The most recent census in the 1970s also revealed that the Remonstrant Brotherhood has the highest share of academic graduates. Giving careful thought to things is encouraged in our church.”

Nevertheless, the Remonstrant minister doesn’t think that faith played a role in the decision of Messrs Van Stolk, Mees and Ruys to establish the Netherlands School of Commerce. “The rest of the week they focused on earning money; Sunday was for spiritual development. Although this isn’t to say that the Remonstrant elite didn’t feel a social responsibility. In the 1920s and 1930s, the traders actually tried to outbid each other in their donations to the Remonstrant diaconate.”

Horizontal faith

More than one Remonstrant liberal in Rotterdam made it all the way to Mayor of the port city. However, according to Barnard, after founding the University, the Remonstrants didn’t play a prominent role in its senior management. Further enquiry within the University does not yield any new insights. Still, a Remonstrant thread continues to run through EUR from its establishment to the present day: Huib Pols, its current Rector Magnificus, is also a member of the Remonstrant community. However, he emphasises that he has no desire to call attention to his personal beliefs. “I do not have extremely deep convictions. For some people, faith is a vertical line that leads up to the heavens. My faith is more horizontal. There are many things that I am far from certain about. There is a God – but as far as appearance is concerned… occasionally, I have an image in my mind, but it’s very unstable. It is precisely within my church community that I can find peace.”

The reasons for Pols and his wife to join the Remonstrants were very pragmatic. Raised in a liberal Reformed church, Pols moved to Rotterdam from Dordrecht for his work. By sheer coincidence, the Arminiuskerk was around the corner from the Pols’s new home. The couple liked what they saw there. They started as friends of the church, and later became members. “What appeals to me about the Remonstrants is the absolute freedom to believe and to experience your faith. To be who you are. I feel very happy with this approach – because if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s being hemmed in. At the same time, I need a community like this, because otherwise faith becomes too noncommittal. Just like at the University, it’s about the fact that you can share things and are able to achieve far more together.”

Everything’s allowed

Although he wasn’t aware of the background of founding fathers Van Stolk and Mees, Pols does see a logical connection between being a Remonstrant and founding a university. “The Remonstrants are one of the groups that helped build modern-day Rotterdam. In addition, one can find quite a few members of the elite in our congregation, so it doesn’t surprise me.” At the same time, Pols doesn’t believe the gentlemen’s motives for setting up the first school of commerce in the Netherlands were religious. Rather, they simply required more people with commercial expertise.

Pols personally sets great store by a secular university – one ‘that offers scope for every thought’. “I feel more comfortable working here than at a university based on Reformed Protestant principles like VU University. That would amount to a restriction.” According to the Rector, secularity isn’t necessarily the same as being against organised religion or faith. “Everything’s allowed here – and indeed can be found here. That’s why I don’t oppose a ‘quiet room’ at the University. It’s a place that anyone can visit for a moment of peace, or for reflection. Who am I to determine what’s right or wrong? Indeed, that’s a typical Remonstrant trait, this tolerant approach. Although there are limits. If you plan to hold a service in the quiet room twice a week, I prefer you do it at your own place.”