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Modern Heretics: Global Perspectives


Admission requirements

General knowledge of the history of Christianity, via courses like ‘Geschiedenis van het christendom’, ‘Christendom: Middeleeuwen en Reformatie’ or ‘Modern Christendom I’. Students from outside Leiden are advised to contact Prof.dr. E.G.E. van der Wall in order to see whether they meet the requirements via other trajectories.


In the early twentieth century religious liberalism or modernism developed into a worldwide movement, encompassing all world religions. Due to a rapidly emerging modernity all religions faced the necessity of modernizing their thinking. This novel phenomenon in religious history led contemporaries to believe that a new religious consciousness would permeate humanity as a whole. Though acknowledging the differences between the various world religions, modernists, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, hoped for a common modernized worldview.
In order to realize the global modernist ideal and inspired by the World Parliament of Religions (Chicago 1893) people started to organize international and inter-religious conferences in Europe and North America which, in the early twentieth century, were attended by religious liberals from countries all over the world. Denounced by conservative believers as ‘conferences of heretics’ these gatherings were of major importance in forging a global alliance between representatives of liberal and modernist currents within Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other religions. These conferences are being organized up till today.

The focus of the seminar will be on an in-depth analysis of the proceedings of these conferences.These sources do not only provide us with very interesting material on a wide range of key issues (intellectual, religious, social and political) but also familiarize us with the varied state of affairs with regard to liberal religion in diverse areas on the globe – from America to Australia and from Europe to Asia -, including the often harsh repression of the ‘modern(ist) heresy’ by conservatives and fundamentalists.

Course objectives

  • students shall be familiar with the main themes of religious liberalism/modernism, conservatism and modernity – students shall be able to analyse relevant religious and social phenomena in relation to concepts of liberal religion, traditionalism and processes of modernization – students shall be able to grasp and specify various theories concerning these and other major concepts – students shall be able to critically analyse and evaluate primary sources and put these in wider contexts (historical, theological, ecclesiastical, cultural, social, political).


See Timetable.

Mode of instruction

The course is based on a combination of presentations, close reading of primary sources, class room discussion (seminar style) and individual studies.

Assessment method

Assessment will be based on:

  • participation in class, including weekly readings and assignments (25 %) – a short lecture on a case study (25 %) – an essay that explores the case study (50 %)



Reading list

Primary sources:

  • Copeland Bowie, W. (ed.), Liberal Religious Thought at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century. Addresses and Papers at the International Council of Unitarian and Other Liberal Religious Thinkers and Workers, Held in London, May 1901, London 1901. – Hugenholtz Jr., P.H. (ed.), Religion and Liberty. Addresses and Proceedings of the Second Congress of the International Council of Unitarian and Other Liberal Religious Thinkers and Workers, Held in Amsterdam, Holland, Sept 1. to 4, 1903, Leiden 1903. – Montet, E. (ed.), Actes du IIIme Congrès Internationale du Christianisme Libéral et Progressif.
    Addresses and Proceedings at the Third Congress of the International Council of Unitarian and Other Liberal Religious Thinkers and Workers, Held in Geneva, Aug. 28-31, 1905,Geneva 1905. – Wendte, Charles W. (ed.), Freedom and Fellowship in Religion. Proceedings and Papers of the
    Fourth International Congress of Religious Liberals, Held at Boston, U.S.A., September 22-27, 1907, Boston 1907. – Fischer, Max & Friedrich Michael Schiele (eds.), Fünfter Weltkongress für freies Christentum und Religiösen Fortschritt, Berlin 5. bis 10. August 1910, Berlin 1910. – Viénot, John Emmanuel & Paul Fargues (eds.), Travaux du 6e Congrès International du Progrès Religieux (Chrétiens progressifs et libres-croyants), Paris 1913, Paris s.a. [1913]. – Wendte, Charles William (ed.), New Pilgrimages of the Spirit. Proceedings and Papers of the Pilgrim Tercentenary Meeting of the International Congress of Free Christian and other Religious Liberals Held at Boston and Plymouth, U.S.A., October 3-7, 1920. The Seventh Congress of Religious Liberals, Boston, Mass. 1921.

Centennial Reflections. International Association for Religious Freedom, 1900-2000, Assen: Van Gorcum, 2001

For a list with further reading material see Blackboard (about two weeks before the start of the semester).


uSis and blackboard

Exchange and Study Abroad students, please see the Study in Leiden website for information on how to apply.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Registration Studeren à la carte via:
Registration Contractonderwijs via:

Contact information

Prof.dr. E.G.E. van der Wall


The language of instruction is English (unless all participants are Dutch); Dutch students may write their papers in Dutch.

The class may be part of the ‘Keuzepakket’ Geschiedenis van het christendom / History of Christianity (15-30 EC). A selection can be made from the following classes:

  • Geschiedenis van het christendom: algemene inleiding (najaar) – Modern christendom I (najaar) – Modern christendom II (voorjaar) – Rituelen en symbolen van het christendom (voorjaar) – Werkcollege Wereldchristendom / Seminar Global Christianity (voorjaar) – Werkcollege Moderne ketters: religieus liberalisme, conservatisme en
    moderniteit / Seminar Modern heretics: religious liberals, conservatives and modernity – Christendom: Middeleeuwen en Reformatie – Werkgezelschap: Kerkhistorisch Gezelschap S.S.S. (8 bijeenkomsten per jaar)