In the religious marketplace of today many therapeutic and religious movements have emerged offering personal growth and healing (Hanegraaff, 1996; Heelas, 1997; Van Otterloo, 1999; Aupers, 2000, Heelas and Woodhead, 2005). Even the traditional churches have tried to join in with this trend. The charismatic movement for instance that has come into being in some of these churches, although seeming to go back to the practice of the first Christian community, is actually an imitation of what is carried out in new spiritual, evangelical or other movements. It is therefore also an attempt to bind the following and to compete on the religious market (Krol, 1997; Runia, 2000; Blessing, 1999; see also: Amesz, 1993). In this article I want to pay attention to a religious movement that in the early 1980ies has gathered around the prophetess and healer Mrs Sonja de Vries. By her, in the eyes of followers and others, miraculous healings, she became well known especially in the Northern parts of the Netherlands. Healings, however, are considered to be instrumental, meant to draw attention to the message the angels Mrs De Vries order to deliver, i.e. to bring people back to the original form of Christianity, as it was in the days of the first apostles. Since 1987 the movement, called Stichting Uit de Bron van Christus (Foundation From the Source of Christ), is based in Oudehorne, a small village in the Dutch province of Friesland.
The movement around Mrs De Vries exists for almost 25 years now and is characterised by a high degree of institutionalisation. It seems therefore in some respects to be an exceptional phenomenon. Firstly, the movement is opposing the general trend in The Netherlands’ domain of church and religion. In the Netherlands as in more Western European countries we have seen for years now falling rates of church attendance. Institutionalised religion seems to lose ground in modern society, religion has become a private matter. (Luckmann,1967; 1996; Becker, De Hart & Mens, 1997; Verweij, 1998; Becker & De Wit, 2000; Jansma, 2000). Notwithstanding the decline of church-attendance and the deinstitutionalising of religion there is nowadays a broad interest in religious phenomena and the emergence of all kinds of new forms of spirituality can be observed. These forms, mostly because of their low degree of institutionalisation are short living(Becker et al. 1997; Verweij, 1998; Becker & De Wit, 2000). Some scholars have therefore even characterised these movements as flashes in the pan (Strijards & Schreuder, 1990; Becker et al. 1997). Especially in the field of spiritual healings loosely-knit structures are formed, consisting of healers and their patients or clients. So movements, like the one around Mrs Sonja de Vries, with a high degree of institutionalisation seem to be also in this respect rather uncommon (Brown,1997: 70). The question is therefore relevant how these kind of movements have developed a relative long lasting belief system, which is adhered to by a well-structured group. How have they, to rephrase the old question of Schelsky, in contrast with many others, been able to institutionalise the ‘Dauerreflexion’? (Schelsky, 1974).
This question I will try to answer with data I gathered from the movement around Mrs Sonja de Vries. So attention will be paid to both the organisation of the movement and its belief system. Because it concerns here a prophetic healing movement, where illness and cure are important elements I will give these aspects due attention. Before concentrating upon the central theme of this article, however, I first attend to the methods used to gather the data and a very brief description of the history of the movement.
I have been studying the movement of the prophetess Sonja de Vries since the mid-1980s. Up until 1998 the gathering of information was not done systematically. I collected written material (newspaper reports, brochures) and I conducted some interviews. From 1998 onwards I intensified my research. I approached members of the board of the Foundation From the Source of Christ, the Council of Seven, and told them of my research plans. With their permission and that of the angels, I attended monthly lectures, bible study sessions and information evenings organised in many locations in Friesland; I viewed videos of celebrations and group sessions and held in-depth interviews with thirty members and ex-members, informal interviews with another forty and had group-interviews with 60 members where the prophetess was present. Further, I studied brochures published by the movement, in addition to its Kontaktblad (Contact Magazine), of which four issues appear every year. I once interviewed the prophetess and I interviewed her husband three times.
In my description of the theology of the movement I will refer to information given by angels. In using such terms my intention is to remain in keeping with linguistic usage within the movement. From such usage one may not automatically infer that I belief that such information is indeed coming from the unseen world but neither does it mean that I reject that possibility. My point of view as a scientist ties in with what Tennekes has called ‘ideological agnosticism’. That is to say that I keep my mind open in these matters and respect the religious reality of the subject group under research (Tennekes 1999, also Droogers et.al, 2006).
According to the views of the movement, its history on this planet began on the 12th of August 1798, with a message from the Divine cosmos that Mother Earth had again to be stimulated by a heavenly missionary (see the brochure De Hemelse inzettingen, Sonja en de Apostelen, 1991: 2). The reason for this heavenly initiative was to once more give humanity a chance to obey the God of all times. The heavenly messenger selected was an angel from the fifth sphere of Light. She came to Earth on 20th December 1944 and lives there under the name of Sonja de Vries (De Hemelse inzettingen, 1991: 3).
In 1983 the angels considered her capacities far enough grown for her to undertake her arduous task. She then received the assignment to bring people back to obedience to God. As a reward for turning back to God’s law people may be healed from (a number of) diseases, even from diseases incurable for earthly doctors. Sonja the Vries is the instrument through which the healing can take place. She herself can not cure people; it is the angels from heaven that perform the healing act. These angels take her over and use her vocal cords to express their message to the people. This influence of the angels is almost complete. As Sonja herself has said, “the angels have taken over my life and body” If she wants to go to the right and the angels tell her to go to the left, she can not but obey them (Hemelse inzettingen: 8). The angel that mostly speaks through her is called Roravyanus, but there are others. Roravyanus is from the seventh sphere of Light. The husband of Sonja, Marcus, has also been sent to earth in order to help her with her difficult task. An angel inspires him too but he is not taken over; ‘only’ his feeling is stimulated. The couple De Vries was initially very reluctant to fulfil the heavenly assignment but has since wholeheartedly accepted it.
Knowledge of Sonja’s healing acts has spread from mouth to mouth. At first patients were received and treated in her terraced house in the village of De Rijp, in the province of North-Holland, where she then lived. The angels gave lectures through her and a core group of adherents that wanted to assist in spreading the word frequented the home of the family. The terraced house became too small for all these people and activities, so the followers sought better accommodation. After some provisory accommodation in various places they bought a cottage in Oudehorne in 1987. In 1986 and 1987 a number of core adherents that wanted to assist in the work of the prophetess were appointed apostle. Later, other members of the movement have also become apostles but these are no longer officially appointed. Being a member of an apostle-training group suffices to call oneself an apostle.
An increase in healing and preaching work led to the establishment of the already mentioned Foundation on 4th July 1986 that has since been accountable for the day-to-day organisation. This Foundation, was given the name Apostel Andréüs Stichting uit de Bron van Christus (Apostle Andréüs Foundation from the Source of Christ), recently the name has been changed into Stichting Uit de Bron van Christus (Foundation from the Source of Christ)and, as has been said already, is based in Oudehorne. Andréüs is one of the angels that speak through Sonja de Vries. Since 1990 the Foundation has had a board of seven members: the Council of Seven.
From 1987 onward the husband of Sonja de Vries has been assisting in the healing. He, inspired by an angel called Yoravyanus, carries out initial interviews with patients. Sonja de Vries (i.e. the angel Roravyanus) is involved in training the apostles for their prospective tasks. This change in the intake has caused the numbers of patients to drop considerably. The explanation was given by Marcus de Vries (inspired by the angel Yoravyanus):
‘Sonja de Vries is a very sensitive soul; she approaches a human being much more carefully than her husband. He somewhat intimidates them, at least that is what he sends out. Because his person selects differently; the number of patients did drop drastically, when he took over this task, although lately an increase can be observed again’
Let me first state that the religious movement gathered around Mrs and Mr De Vries presents itself with some emphasis as a Christian movement. And, again with some emphasis, it states that no new belief is preached but rather the old Biblical truth as it existed in the days of the first apostles. As already said, heaven has given the movement the task of bringing people back to how God and Christ wish the church to be. Over the ages people have been drifting away from original Christianity (De Hemelse inzettingen:15).
In 1992 a confession was published in the Kontaktblad from which I now take the most important aspects. The group believes in an Eternal God. All that is comes from Him and goes back to Him. Christ is the firstborn from death. He has cleared for others the road back to God and given us new instructions for life (especially in the Sermon of the Mount). He has conquered evil and through him people can grow again spiritually and return after many reincarnations to the Divine Light. The last aspect, life after life, is of central importance to the movement. People were originally part of God and were dispersed as little sparks throughout the universe. These sparks have to move, in a process of learning, back to God. The Earth is a training school for the human soul. Heaven has always stimulated man to grow in spirit. This occurred 2000 years ago in the person of Christ. In His time the spiritual development of man had practically come to a standstill. His sacrifice on the cross has given people once again the opportunity to go up the road to the Light. Today, the heavens, by means of the angels that speak through Sonja de Vries and her husband, reach out anew to mankind, stimulating its spiritual evolution. An angel is a soul that has completed the training school of Earth and has been in the other world for a considerable time. Such souls have acquired a certain spiritual level and have therefore earned the title of angel. They are the servants of Christ and with his permission may use a human being as an instrument to address people on earth. (De mens en zijn ontplooiing: 1)
The evolutionary process of the soul will take millions of years to reach its destination. There are seven cosmic grades, which again are divided into many stages. To complete the training school of Earth a human being has on the average to be reincarnated thirty thousand times. Christ was the first to complete the whole course; He is the first soul that returned to God. That is why He may rightfully be called the firstborn son of God.
People on earth, when they have reached a sufficient level of spiritual maturity, may move on to a next stage and leave the training school Earth. Actually, the soul will go to ‘heaven’, which is a stage between the third an fourth cosmic grade. The people that have almost completed the terrestrial training school live in a land or region called ‘an area of discharge’. The Netherlands/Friesland is at the moment such a region. That the message of the angels is now (first) preached to Friesland is not an accident. In the days in which Christ lived on earth the people of Judah did not acknowledge him. Many souls living in Judea in those days, live now, via reincarnation, in Friesland. So, the Frisians are now given another chance to recognise and to acknowledge a high Messenger of Heaven.
From interviews with apostles (see section Methods) it became apparent that for them the belief in life after life solves some fundamental religious problems. In the acceptance of reincarnation an answer may be found to the old question: is God a righteous God? How can it be accepted that one person is healthy while another is ill, one rich and another poor, one life long and another so short? In accepting reincarnation the conclusion can be reached that during all the lives a person has lived he will have been ill, poor, rich, etc. Everyone has to meet bad and good things, so there is justice after all. Furthermore, the principle of reincarnation is used as an argument contrary to eternal damnation. As a result of reincarnation and stimulation from Heaven every soul will in the end return to God. Nobody remains behind; everyone will eventually be saved. This last point of doctrine is characterised by the movement as a “very Glad Tiding” (De mens en zijn ontplooiing: 2). Very attractive to the followers is also the fact that reincarnation endows everything a person does with meaning. It is part of God’s great plan for mankind. All that an individual does and experiences is connected to developing the capacity of the soul, to evolution. This means also that you have to be aware of your conduct, especially in relation to your fellow man. This is why in the apostle groups all kinds of training courses and instructions are given concerning how to organise life in accordance with God’s law. These instructions may also involve practical issues such as hygiene, choice of profession, nourishment, choice of clothes and cars, child rearing, health, etc.
One can come to the conclusion that the religious movement discussed here is part of a wave of newly emergent New Age like groups, however, its followers do not support this point of view. They see the theology of the movement as a pure, Christian religion. Although it contains some new and non-traditional elements, these are not conceived of as syncretism but as a fundamental rediscovery of a forgotten, or perhaps concealed, truth.
Organisation and Background of the Following
Some aspects of the organisation have been discussed already. We have seen that it concerns a religious group of apostles under a prophetess, who is inspired by messengers from the beyond. The group of apostles has the task of assisting in all work connected with spreading the message of the angels.
Regarding the formal organisation, we have mentioned the Board of the Foundation, the Council of Seven, regulating day-to-day activities. This council does its work via workgroups, of which there are again seven (three for external contacts, one for the celebrations like Christmas, Easter and Holy Communion, one for editing the contact magazine, one for overseeing the premises and one for administration and finances). The most important task is of course spreading the word of the angels to the (Frisian) public. This is done via the contact magazine but also through brochures and public lectures, the last form being the most important. The objective of the movement is to visit the Frisian population at least seven times, giving public lectures in towns and villages, so that everyone will be informed about the message of the angels.
Besides these workgroups, other subgroups may be distinguished based on an important element in the doctrine of the movement: personal growth and, in connection with this, learning skills. So people are brought together based on their stage of growth, or some other characteristic they have in common, so that they can learn from each other. Further, and for some part following on from the foregoing element, members of the movement are advised to develop their artistic talents, e.g. by studying music and play-acting. Four choirs have been formed. The choirs have given concerts, including for a general public, and a number of operas and musicals have even been performed. In line with the adults, the youngsters have organised themselves in the Council of Six. This board sets up activities especially for younger members up to the age of 35. It concerns here performing musicals, practising sports, computer training, playing bridge. All these activities are meant to contribute to personal growth.
The number of apostles can be estimated at 200. Further, there is a group of interested people that follow public lectures on a somewhat regular basis. The number of followers is no longer greatly increasing. Some interested continue to join having found their way via the patient route and some new members are adult children of apostles who want to participate. Besides the apostles, there exists a large group of patients, the size of which may not be precisely indicated for reasons of privacy. However, our information suggests the number of patients who have personally consulted the angels to be around 2000.
A large proportion of the following (apostles) originate from the province of Friesland, North-Holland coming in second place. However, small numbers also come from other provinces.
Regarding the social strata to which members of the following belong, it may be stated that most come from the middle strata of Dutch society, or just above. It must be borne in mind that this somewhat elevated social position may be a consequence of joining the movement. Because of the angels’ insistence on personal growth, many have started anew upon courses of education and in this way have improved their social position.
Most apostles have a Protestant background, i.e. Dutch Reformed and Reformed Protestant (neo-Calvinistic), a considerable minority is Roman Catholic in origin and a very small number has no religious background at all. Of this latter category, many declare themselves always to have believed in God or to have been convinced that there was more between heaven and earth than meets the eye. Among the neo-Calvinistic group are quite a few who describe having experienced the orthodox belief as a dogmatic straitjacket. Others, mostly Dutch-Reformed and Roman Catholic, indicate that their former religious socialisation was rather superficial.
The group members celebrate among themselves Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and monthly Holy Communion. Some apostles have their children baptised by the angels and marriages have also been consecrated.
In order to answer the central question of this paper we have to look at the character of the movement. It concerns here a prophetic healing movement. Healing, however, as I mentioned before, is instrumental, the emphasis is laid on the message of the angels. The message has to be brought to other people. This means that the message must be crystal clear and the apostle who conveys it to the people, i.e. up till now the people in Friesland, must be a qualified, well-trained instrument. Based on this starting point the institutionalisation of the movement has to be understood: the organisation of the movement is centred around the inspired message of the prophetess. It concerns here, the apostles believe, information that originates, and the healings are proof for it, from the world beyond. The prophetess together with apostles has the assignment to bring the message to the world. This task because of its heavenly origin the members of the movement may not take light-heartedly. The great importance that is attached to spreading the world of the angles is also shown in the division of labour that has been established. The training of the apostles is done by the prophetess herself, the intake of patients by her husband. Healing how important it may be comes second place and has never been of great influence on the formation of the organisation. Many patients went their way after being treated. Just a minor part of them stayed to support the work of the movement, and became apostel, together with friends and acquaintances, who were witness of the miraculous healing of someone near to them. So the healing aspect has been beneficial to the recruitment process and has not contributed to the structure of the organisation.
Spreading the word has as its logical consequence contacts and mostly confrontation with the outside world. From the early beginnings already this confrontation has had its effects on the organisation of the movement.
The organisation as a whole
As has been stated the Council of Seven supervises seven workgroups of which three are concerned with external relations. These three workgroups not only handle the relations with persons and organisations outside the movement, they also take care of the Contact Magazine, the finances, the premises of the centre etc, and organise the public lectures that are given in towns and villages in the province of Friesland every year. So many activities have to be undertaken that require organisation.
Being an apostle means of course spreading the message of the angels. As has been said before this is done mostly via the public lectures. Training courses are given by the prophetess in order to make apostles good instruments suitable to convey the message of the angels as perfectly and clearly as possible. These courses, however, have a broader perspective; they are meant to enhance the sensitivity of the individual, that is to contribute to his personal growth, or, to put it otherwise, to intensify his awareness of his shortcomings, to get insight in his motives and the consequences of his behaviour towards his fellow human beings. Other activities as practising music are also meant to enhance personal growth. This improvement of his capacities helps the apostle when giving a public lecture, to be a good transmitter of the message of the angels.
Apostles frequently related to me how formerly they had doubted their ability ever to address a public audience and how very proud they were upon finding that they could now do so. Their explanation for this was that their training as an apostle had made them capable of it, together with the spiritual support of the angels. Many, indeed, feel the presence of angels during these happenings.
Many efforts are given to bring the message of the angels clearly to the public. In a number of brochures and the Contact Magazine aspects of the doctrine are mentioned. A written confession was laid down in a brochure in 1992. Regarding institutionalisation of the doctrine, however, more important than these written documents are the public lectures held in towns and villages in the province of Friesland. The content of these lectures given by a panel of four apostles may vary but they relate the history of their joining the movement, disseminate information about miraculous healings and the existence of the angels and about the theology of the movement. The last element is of course of central importance. When reference to the healings are made, apostles in the panel often tell how they themselves or friends and relatives have been cured by the angels. The healing, as said before, is always presented as a token, indicating that what is happening in the movement is not a human but heavenly inspired affair and therefore the audience should give the message serious thought. The goal of such sessions is not to gain proselytes; the apostles even express some reluctance in this respect. The goal is primarily to inform as many people as possible of the fact that in our own time the angels of God are addressing us through Sonja de Vries (and her husband). The message itself will do the work.
Every lecture is evaluated afterwards by the panel itself and by other apostles of whom a number always forms part of the audience. Not only the lectures are evaluated also the way the panel has answered questions posed by the attendees. When in the eyes of the apostles the lecture has been performed well and the questions are answered satisfactorily, they mostly come to the conclusion that they have been inspired by powers from beyond. The result of all these activities is a highly structured, well measured well-balanced communication.
The preaching activities but also other chores that apostles do together (training, music, lectures), that are very (free) time consuming have strengthened the internal bond
The work for the movement, their contact with fellow members and the need to be as often as possible at the Centre in Oudehorne have incited more than a few apostles to move to this village or its surroundings. So people from Rotterdam, Nijmegen and other towns sold houses and quit their jobs, moving to a place nearer to the Centre. In many cases a new school had to be found for their children, and new jobs acquired. Old networks of family, friends, and acquaintances are considered of less importance than the new networks established amongst fellow apostles and with the prophetess and her husband.
Not only have many apostles moved to places nearby Oudehorne in order to give more time to activities of the movement, in some cases apostles have decided - advised by the angels - to live together in one house. This trend has recently set in and has as a consequence that the mutual contacts between members are increasing even in the private domestic environment. Furthermore the apostles have a tradition to spend a part of their holidays together, the last years in a camping in the southwest of France. A part of these holidays are used for training courses.
The apostles stressed in interviews the importance of their contact amongst themselves, which as they told me has grown in intensity and quality over the years and is experienced as very rewarding. As one of them said:
Resp: I had a small circle of friends and some of them I see now and then but I have got here (in the movement, lgj) a circle of friends that is much larger. There are two hundred people here and they know a lot about me and I know a lot about them; also very personal things. This gives a deep feeling of friendship, of being connected.
The outside world
A new religious movement lead by a prophet who puts forward to have a message from angels and with help of these forces from beyond to be able to cure people of all kinds of diseases, runs the risk of being confronted with scepticism and mistrust. This was also the case with the movement around Sonja de Vries. The reception of the movement in the North of the Netherlands was not in every aspect favourable (Jansma, 2006). Relatives were mostly not overwhelmed with enthusiasm, the churches were standoffish, the medical world negative, some ex-patients dissatisfied, the village inhabitants kept their distance. Especially the ex-patients and concerned relatives got wide attention of the local news media. In the news papers the prophetess more than once was accused of illegally practising medicine and being possessed with demons. The movement, however, has from the start managed to defend itself. Neither the Board of the Foundation nor the prophetess has ever lacked the courage to stand up for their perceived good cause. Whenever possible, false or deceptive messages have been corrected and, when necessary, legal action taken.
The negative attitude and treatment of persons and organisations outside the movement has strengthened the ties between members. Many apostles told me that they felt more connected through the conflicts and opposition they experienced and the emotions they shared during those events.
As a consequence of all the activities the apostles have undertaken and the attitude of the outside world a process of encapsulation has taken place with regard to the network of personal relationships. This does not mean that the apostles dissociate themselves from society. On the contrary, they are stimulated to take part and do so. The reason for certain apostles to take up a course of study is not primarily to further their career but because learning is beneficial for the development of the soul; it is also meant to improve the quality of their contribution to society. This is why the angels favour certain professions: teaching and nursing. These professions, it is stated, allow one to make a very worthwhile contribution to society, whilst offering a good opportunity for learning to love one’s neighbour.
Conclusion and discussion
Summing up: it concerns here a movement that emerged around a prophetess that sees it as her task to bring mankind back to the true Christian gospel. The healings that were done, have convinced the following that the message she brings comes from heaven. This belief has inspired them to act conform the norms and values of the movement, to grow spiritually and especially has incited them to bring the message to the people. These two aspects, and in particular the second one, have given shape to the high degree of institutionalisation of the movement. In this respect the healing element has been of minor importance. It has played an important role in the recruitment process, convincing the prospective members that ‘something extraordinary’ is happening there. So perhaps the observation of the social scientist I quoted at the beginning of my lecture, is correct: healing cults are loosely structured. Exceptions occur, as it is shown from our case study, when the healing aspect is part of a broader comprehensive belief system.
We have concluded that contact between members has intensified over the years and encapsulation from the outside world has occurred. Nevertheless, the group may not be described as being isolated from the outside world, not from friends and relatives nor from society at large.
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 Apostles and angels always use this concept in plural.
 As in many other religious groups, the number seven has a symbolic meaning.