Gerardus van der Leeuw

Gerardus van der Leeuw is today one of the best examples of an early to mid-twentieth century scholar applying some of the methods of philosophical phenomenology to the study of religion, conceived as something distinct from theology. As with many of his--and even subsequent--academic generations of religious studies specialists, he began with the study of theology, earning a Doctor of Theology degree at the University of Leiden, in the Netherlands, in 1916, with a dissertation on the gods of ancient Egypt. After working briefly as an ordained minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, van der Leeuw was appointed in 1918 to a newly created position in the History of Religions at the University of Groningen--a position that also entailed teaching Liturgy [Greek leitourgia, meaning public service to the gods; the study of how to carry out the proper rituals of worship]. Arrested briefly by the Germans in 1943, during their occupation of Holland, he later served as the first post-World War II Dutch Minister of Education, and, shortly before his death in 1950, was elected as the first president of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR)--which remains the primary international organization of scholars of religion. Although the phenomenological method is still largely employed in the field--despite a number of criticisms of (i) the presumption that someone's experiences can be understood by another and (ii) the presumption that it is sufficient to study something merely "as it presents itself," without inquiring into its natural causes--today, van der Leeuw's work is likely read mostly as an example of an early attempt to distinguish the study of religion as a cultural, historical practice from long-established theological studies that sought to assess the adequacy of each religion and religious practice. Given his life-long interest in Christian theology and the phenomenology of religion, the success of establishing this distinction has been questioned by commentators.

Major Works

Historical Christianity (1919)

Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion (1924)

The Structure of the Primitive Mentality

Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy In Art (1932; English translation 1963)

Religion in Essence and Manifestation (1933; 2 vols.; English translation 1938)

Introduction to Theology (1935)

The Primitive Man and Religion: Anthropological Studies (1937)

Theology of the Sacrament (1939)


"[R]eligion implies that man does not simply accept the life that is given to him. In life he seeks power; and if he does not find this, or not to an extent that satisfies him, then he attempts to draw the power, in which he believes, into his own life. He tries to elevate life, to enhance its value, to gain for it some deeper and wider meaning.... He who does not merely accept life, then, but demands something from it--that is, power--endeavors to find some meaning in life. He arranges life into a significant whole: thus culture arises. Over the variety of the given he throws his systematically fashioned net.... From the stone he makes an image, from the instinct a commandment, from the wilderness a tilled field, and thus he develops power."

- from Gerardus van der Leeuw, Religion in Essence and Manifestation (1933)

Select Web Resources on van der Leeuw

Van der Leeuw Foundation in Groningen, the Netherlands

Secondary Literature on van der Leeuw

Eric J. Sharpe, Comparative Religion: A History, pp. 229-35. Open Court, 1986.

Ninian Smart, "Foreword," to Gerardus van der Leeuw, Religion in Essence and Manifestation. Princeton University Press, 1986.

Walter Capps, Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline, 128-32. Fortress Press, 1996.

Jacques Waardenberg, "van der Leeuw, Gerardus," The Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd edition. vol. 8, pp. 5390-5393. Macmillan Reference USA, 2005.

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