Gerardus van der Leeuw

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Gerardus van der Leeuw

Gerardus van der Leeuw (born March 18, 1890 in The Hague , † November 18, 1950 in Utrecht ) was a Protestant theologian , religious scholar , Egyptologist and a Dutch politician.


He was born the son of Gerardus van der Leeuw (1861-1922) and Elisabeth Antoinette Nelck (1863-1949).

From 1908 to 1913 van der Leeuw studied theology at the University of Leiden , specializing in the history of religion , specializing in Egyptology . In 1913 and 1914 he studied in Berlin and Göttingen and obtained his doctorate in 1916 at the University of Leiden on the gods of ancient Egypt . Shortly thereafter, he married.

From 1916 to 1918 he worked in the service of the Reformed Church in 's-Heerenberg . In 1918, at the age of only 28, he was appointed professor for the history of religion and the history of the doctrine of God at the University of Groningen , where he was in particular responsible for the “Theological Encyclopedia” department. In addition, he taught Egyptian language and literature at Groningen University.

Van der Leeuw turned down several offers from other universities and taught in Groningen until his death. Since 1940 he was commissioned by the Reformed Church to teach liturgical science independently of his state teaching assignment. In 1943 he was arrested by the German side.

After the end of the Second World War, his chair was renamed to a chair for the phenomenology of religion. He held the professorship until 1950. He interrupted his work at the university for a year when he was the first post-war education minister for the Labor Party in the Netherlands in 1945 and 1946 . In addition to his professorship, he continued to be involved in the Reformed Church . In September 1950 he was elected the first president of the Association for the History of Religions at the first international post-war congress for the history of religion in Amsterdam . A little later he fell ill and died.

The Volkenkundig Museum Gerardus van der Leeuw in Groningen is named after him.

His grave is in the Dutch cemetery Oud Eik en Duinen in The Hague .


As a scientist, van der Leeuw is one of the main representatives of the phenomenology of religion . His work was less aimed at the formation of a methodologically uniform system than at the understanding of the religious content experienced. He pursued psychological and theological approaches. His psychological endeavors are particularly expressed in his work on some recent results of psychological research and their application to history, especially the history of religion (1926), in which he specifically focuses on psychological approaches within existential philosophy (e.g. Karl Jaspers and Ludwig Binswanger ).

Among his publications, the handbook Phenomenology of Religion from 1933 should be mentioned as a fundamental work of comparative religious studies and religious phenomenology . Van der Leeuw understood phenomenology as an "experiential science" in contrast to an empirical, inductive and verifying science. He solved the problem of the subjectivity of understanding by postulating a legitimate religious reliving of a religious phenomenon.

He made a clear distinction between early and modern forms of experiencing religion. According to him, the early forms were not characterized by a transcendence of the divine, but rather by the feeling of power in the sense of the mana of the Polynesian peoples. “God” is just another word for this power, which leads to a factual equation of religion and magic . Man inevitably has to do with this power in his life, and this experience is expressed in religious forms. For his part, man searches for this power in order to acquire it. Through this search human life finds meaning and expresses itself in culture.

As part of his work for the church, he campaigned for an understanding of theology as religious ethics and anthropology and for the liturgical movement.


  • The do-ut-des formula in victim theory. In: Archive for Religious Studies. (ARW) Vol. 20, 1920/21, pp. 241-253.
  • Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion. Reinhardt, Munich 1925.
  • Phenomenology of Religion. Mohr, Tübingen 1933.
  • Man and religion - anthropological attempt. Haus zum Falken, Basel 1941.
  • The balance sheet of Christianity. Rascher, Zurich 1947.
  • Of the sacred in art. Bertelsmann, Gütersloh 1957.


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