Jacob Haafner the Writer

 Jacob Haafner

[Part 2: The Writer]

Kees Boukema

Soon after his return to Amsterdam in 1793, Jacob Haafner was forced to acquire additional income as a consequence of the severely disappointing results of his investments. Citing his experiences gained in ‘De Oost’, his acquired skills and his knowledge of Indian society, he applied for a job with the ‘Oost-Indisch Comité’ (successor to the now declared bankrupt VOC) on June 20, 1796. [Note: VOC is “Vereenigde-Nederlandsche Oostindische Compagnie”. That is, the ‘United Dutch Chartered East India Company] Haafner was rejected. Attempts to work elsewhere as an administrator or accountant also failed.

Haafner achieved greater success as a translator and writer. He turned out to have a skilled pen, an almost photographic memory and a natural talent for languages. At the annual meeting of the society on May 9, 1797, passages from the adaptations of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, which he had sent to ‘The Amsterdam Poetry and Literature Society’, were read out and received favorably. An article by him ‘About the island of Ceilon’ was published in the magazine ‘Algemene Vaderlandsche Letterdiensten’ [Some letters from distant lands] in 1801. Due to the topicality of the article (Peace Treaty of Amiens), it grew into a series [Paul van der Velde, Wie onder palmen leeft, p.158 and 155].

His most controversial publication appeared in 1807: “Research into the usefulness of Missionaries and Missionary Societies”. It was Haafner’s (extensive and adapted in a number of places) entry in the contest organized by the ‘Teylers Theological Society’ November 1803:

What results have missionaries achieved in spreading Christianity over the past two centuries? and

What results can be expected from missionary societies now active?

During his travels in Asia, Haafner had formed a strong and well-founded opinion about the usefulness, necessity and results of the Christian mission. His dire financial situation must have prompted him to put that opinion on paper, and thus to acquire the offered prize of f. 400 (currently € 6,873).

In November 1804, Haafner completed the work and submitted it under the telling phrase, borrowed from Voltaire: “Il est difficile de servir un Dieu qu’on ne connait pas, plus difficile encore d’aimer le Dieu de ses Tyrans”. [It’s difficult to serve a God whom we don’t know, but more difficult to love a God of the Tyrants.] His polemical essay of almost 200 pages was based, partly on his own experience and partly on the experiences of writers who had worked in Africa, South America or Asia.

The introduction immediately sets the tone: “Of all the religions and sects known to me, there are none whose followers propagate their religion with more zeal, or better yet with more fanaticism, than the Mohammedans and Christians. They have imposed their religion on other peoples with ruthless violence. The difference between Mohammedans and Christians, however, is that the former, after converting the nations, regard them as their brothers and respect their property, and they do so to this day. With Christians, on the other hand, this is not at all the case. They have a hatred of religion rather than a desire for religion, which, combined with their lust for power and thirst for gold, has caused great devastation and disaster all over the world.”

Haafner knew what he was talking about. As a teenager, he had witnessed and had also been a victim of cruelty bordering on sadism towards slaves and subordinates, both on VOC ships and in VOC branches. (Works, Part 1, p. 15 and 17). Official correspondence that Haafner had consulted in London made it abundantly clear that the VOC was not only a paramilitary trading company, but also considered the ‘dissemination of the light of the true faith among the indigenous population of Asia’ to be its task. In its 200 years of existence, the VOC had not only financed the passage and subsistence of approximately 1,000 missionaries, but also financed the construction of churches and schools and the printing of Bibles and edifying literature. Governors of the VOC decided where and for how long missionaries should serve. VOC officials had a decisive vote in the church councils (Harm Stevens, De VOC in bedrijf 1602 – 1799, Amsterdam, 1998).

Haafner did not limit himself in his essay to India, the area where he had lived and worked. His essay also contains an overview of the work of missionaries elsewhere in the world: East Asia, Tahiti, America and South Africa. They generally proved unable to make good contact with the local population, because they did not master the language and did not understand the customs. However, their own immoral behavior was the greatest obstacle to preaching the gospel.

According to Haafner, Indian civilization is older than European civilization and he considered Hinduism superior to Christianity. In his opinion, Indians are so attached to their own traditions and ways of thinking that missionary work there has no chance. All the more so because ‘the European missionaries sent here are, without exception, uneducated, incompetent and most of them completely depraved types’.

Haafner does have some appreciation for the Roman Catholic mission in China and Japan. The Jesuits who worked there were well trained. They knew the Chinese and Japanese worldviews and religions, elements of which they incorporated into the doctrine they themselves preached. Through their study of the language and culture of those countries, they also gained respect among the political elite and succeeded in making converts.

However, Haafner’s final judgment on Christian mission was damning. Yet it is not surprising that his entry was awarded. The Teylers Foundation was founded in Haarlem by the will of Pieter Teyler van der Hulst (1702 – 1778). Teyler came from an English family of Mennonites. Since they were persecuted because of their faith, they emigrated to the ‘Republic of the Seven United Netherlands’. There their religion was ‘tolerated’.

In addition to ‘infant baptism’, the Mennonite confession of faith also rejects military service and the carrying of weapons. The aim of the ‘Theologian Society’ of the Teylers Foundation is to ‘promote the study of the Christian religion’. Included in this is organizing contests. The gold medal of honor that was awarded to Haafner bears the saying: “True religious knowledge flourishes through freedom.” This requires: no government interference, no conversion under duress, and certainly not if it involves violence.

The awarding of the prize was subject to the condition that the author would make changes to his treatise and add source references. These had less to do with the content, but more with the harsh tone in which Haafner had expressed his criticism of the current missionary movement. Compared to the manuscript, the final published version is more balanced, but certainly no less critical. On the contrary; some parts have even been tightened by adding quotations that were desired by the Society (Van der Velde, l.c. p. 165).

The current Mennonite mission has taken Jacob Haafner’s sharp criticism of the Christian mission to heart. She sees the following as the starting point of her work:

“Serving God’s peace and love in the wake of Jesus Christ. This is only possible if we work together in a dialogical manner. We regret that mission in the past was often accompanied by colonialism, oppression, violence, Western pedantry and arrogance.” (See: www.doopsgezindezending.nl).


Mr Kees Boukema is a scholar in Vedanta and Comparative philosophy. His brilliant and thorough-going articles on various philosophical and spiritual subjects  are being published since the first issue of the magazine. His latest work is De Beoefening van Meditatie.