Vincent van Gogh's turn to religion and his subsequent spiritual crisis are essential periods of his life. Not only does his attempt at religious life represent his second major career failure after being dismissed from the art trade, but his almost fanatic religious devotion and obsessive asceticism help illuminate both his psychological struggles and the ecstatic, otherworldly, spiritual nature of his later artwork.
In an 1888 letter, reflecting on the "form" of his "madness," van Gogh comments that "when in a state of excitement my feelings lead me...to the contemplation of eternity...rather than to persecution mania" (L 556, Oct. 1888). Eleven years earlier, in a March 1877 letter to Theo, van Gogh had already decided on his religious mission: "Someone in our family has always been a minister of the gospel...it is my prayer and innermost desire that the spirit of my father and grandfather may also rest upon me" (L eighty-nine). However, despite his tremendous exertions and concentration on this one true religious mission to the detriment of his mental health and happiness (the same rigorous, but dangerous disciplined attitude and ethic that would eventually make him a brilliant artist), Vincent failed as a preacher. In May 1877, he moved to Amsterdam to study theology, and, under the supervision of a tutor hired by his family, he began studying for his theological entrance exams with zeal, but he discovered that the requirements in Greek, Latin, and math were strenuous and seemingly utterly unrelated to his personal brand of ecstatic spiritual inspiration and revelation. By July 1878, he had dropped out of this academic program, and in August he moved to Brussels to enter a shorter course of study to prepare to become an evangelical missionary rather than a minister. Apparently this program didn't suit his sensibilities either, so he left after three months to pursue a position as a lay preacher and evangelist in the Borinage, a poor rural mining region in Belgium.
Throughout his truncated religious studies, Vincent read and drew extensively, pastimes he continued after moving to the village of Wasmes in December 1878. Initially unpaid, eventually he took a temporary paid job ministering to the sick and teaching Bible studies, but his fanaticism and asceticism (he insisted on living in a shack, calling himself a peasant, and owning no worldly possessions) were offensive to his employers, so he was asked to leave. In August 1879 he moved to a town called Cuesmes to preach without pay, where the residents appreciated his humanitarian missionary work with the sick and needy and his generous, sincere disposition. However, he failed as a preacher, because he lacked eloquence as a speaker, and his sermons were convoluted and confusing to his congregation.
Sometime in 1879, Vincent finally came to the realization that he was not cut out for a religious life, and apparently he underwent a profound spiritual crisis about which we have no written information. His letters to Theo had become less and less frequent over the course of his religious failures and his family's vocal disappointment in him. We do know that he felt "homesick for the land of pictures [The Netherlands]" (L 127, Dec. 1878), and that he was reading voraciously (gradually more and more literature–Dickens, Hugo, and Shakespeare–and less religious material). He also began drawing a great deal in 1879, and he wrote his brother to ask for books about drawing and rendering and for some art supplies. He especially enjoyed drawing the miners. But in July 1880, he still mused to Theo: "How can I be of use in the world? Can't I serve some purpose and be of any good?" (L 133). Vincent asked Theo for prints and reproductions of famous works by Millet and others for him to copy to better his technique, and Theo began to send money monthly to support his suffering, confused brother. By the fall of 1880, Vincent had decided to abandon his religious mission entirely to become an artist.