Calvinism played a significant part in the revolt of the Netherlands (q.v.), and when the country became virtually free from Spain in 1609, the Reformed (Presbyterian) Church held sway. It spread wherever the Dutch colonized or emigrated, to the East Indies (including Indonesia), Sri Lanka, the West Indies, South America, and the United States of America.
In South Africa, the Dutch settlement at Cape Town in 1652 led to the establishment of the Dutch Reformed Church; when the Cape became a British colony in 1806, formal links with the Church in the Netherlands were severed, but it had been agreed that ‘public worship, as at present in use, shall be maintained’, and until 1851 the British government paid the salaries of ministers. Only in the 19th cent. was there any serious attempt to convert the local population of Khoi, slaves, and people of mixed race, the Coloureds. As late as 1857 the Synod asserted that it was desirable, wherever possible, that ‘our members from among the heathen be received and incorporated in our existing congregations’, but by 1859 the Synod accepted that separate congregations for Coloured Christians should be the norm. In 1881 these congregations became an autonomous Church. The Dutch Reformed Church had such little impact on Africans that it was only in 1910 that enough congregations existed for another racially defined autonomous Church to come into being. Until 1986 the main Dutch Reformed Church supported and theologically justified apartheid. In 1961 it withdrew from the World Council of Churches and in 1983 was expelled from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. In 1986 it renounced any attempt to justify apartheid and further in 1998 the Church confessed support for the concept of apartheid as a sin and was readmitted to the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. In 1994 the Coloured and Black Churches united. There are also two small, very conservative Reformed Churches in the Transvaal which broke with the main Dutch Reformed Church in the 1870s.