A Review of James Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat.
In history today, studying the “little people” is in and studying the giants is out. Kuyper was a colossus and has not been particularly well-served by biographers. When we study him, we can see further ahead since we are dwarves standing on the shoulders of a giant. Consider his accomplishments and the highlights of his life.
Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) had two conversions, three nervous breakdowns, and at least four vocations in his extraordinary life. He started a political party, a university and a denomination. He wrote book after book, column after column, gave speech after speech, and was one of the finest devotional writers of his era. As we say in my family, he was..."not entirely normal."
Born into the parsonage of a liberal pastor in the Reformed Church in the Netherlands, ultimately Abraham proved himself very bright although his early instructors thought him dull. His work ethic was legendary. He received a Doctorate in Theology (1862) for his work on the reformers John à Lasco and John Calvin. On the way to this academic goal, he suffered his first nervous breakdown caused by overwork on his dissertation and the strain of trying to re-shape a young girl (Joanna, who would later become his wife) into his image of the ideal pastor’s wife.
He recovered after five months of rest. That autumn, while reading the novel, The Heir of Redclyffe by Charlotte Yonge, Kuyper saw himself in the life of the selfish protagonist and found himself on his knees. The details of the conversion are a little sketchy but he started going back to church and taking the Lord’s Supper.
After defending his thesis, Kuyper began his ministry (in 1863) as a pastor in a small rural town. While ministering with the commoners (“little people”) of Beesd, he came to understand what had happened to him when he was reading that novel and fell to his knees. Choose yourself whether to call it his second conversion or the Biblical and Christological grounding of the first. Kuyper also abandoned the liberal theology in which he had been trained (at Leiden) and moved to Calvinist orthodoxy (during this and his next two pastorates in Utrecht and Amsterdam).
Despite the particularities of his pastoral work, Kuyper was a macro-thinker preoccupied with the problems of his age. His concern was never simply for the conversion and sanctification of his parishoners. He wanted to reform all of Dutch society and culture. Christ is the Lord over all of life and so everything had to change. His “career” as a pastor lasted until 1874 when he resigned to take a seat in parliament (though he continued to sit on the Amsterdam consistory for many years).
By this time, Kuyper had already assumed the editorship of a daily newspaper, De Standaard, and he would use the editorial page as his pulpit for almost 50 years. [Note for Younger Readers: A newspaper is made up of large pieces of paper (a product made from trees). Pages usually measured 15” by 25” folded in half with 10 to 20 pages in each section. In former times, papers had a news section, a sports section (a little like ESPN’s web site), and a very primitive version of what we know as Craigslist upon which newspapers' profitability depended. Early man used to read his newspaper with almost religious devotion, but at a terrible cost that proved to be unsustainable. Just one Sunday edition of the New York Times required the sacrifice of 62,860 mature trees, and thus the tragic deforestation of Utah and Nevada still today. There are unconfirmed reports some newspapers still exist. ]
Over the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Kuyper’s activity seemed almost frenetic. In 1875, he attended meetings in England where holiness teaching was propounded (with a Wesleyan slant) and brought it back to the Netherlands. Over time, he integrated these teachings into his Calvinism, and they helped to fuel his devotional writings for the rest of his life.
In 1876-77, he suffered his second nervous breakdown and it was followed by a long recovery period in southern Europe. Yet he was soon back at work and before the decade was over, he had begun the Anti-Revolutionary Party and a society to fund what became the Free University of Amsterdam. Both of these works entailed much fund-raising, back-room deals, coalition-building, and arm-twisting with Kuyper dominating meetings and getting people to do his will. He was the first Professor of Theology at the Free University from 1880-1901 (later followed by Herman Bavinck and G.C. Berkouwer). He took a tiny minority of the Reformed Church and forged a merger with conservatives who had left that church a half century earlier. Together they formed the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (in 1892). Again, this involved much arm-twisting and negotiating and dominating. It would be a great understatement to say Kuyper's personality was strong.
Overwork and stress from a split in the Anti-Revolutionary Party let to a third nervous breakdown in the mid-1890s, but that decade culminated with him giving the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary in 1898 (later published as Lectures on Calvinism). There was no one better prepared to speak to this topic. Kuyper had chapters on Calvinism and Religion, and Politics, and Science, and Art, and the Future, all of it grounded in Calvinism as a Life-System (we would say “Worldview”).
Abraham Kuyper served as the Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901-05. Unable to accomplish what he desired while serving in this office, Kuyper's party was defeated and he failed to serve a second term. Kuyper’s personality had little personal softness and he was unable to convince capable men to serve in his cabinet. It was said that Kuyper had “disciples but no colleagues” (p.356). There are limits to how much strong male leaders will allow themselves to be dominated by a giant and Kuyper paid a heavy price for his faults.
The rest of his life was somewhat anticlimactic. Kuyper continued writing books and editorials, he served in the upper house of parliament and tried to influence his church and country, his university and party, from the sidelines. It must have been a sore trial.
Here are some concluding judgments on the man.
Let me close with a few comments about the author of this worthy biography. James Bratt teaches at Calvin College, a Christian Reformed Church institution that is trying to lead its mother church away from her own parochial and Bible-believing heritage. Having read many books by men from Calvin, I’m aware of how they can abuse history in the service of their propaganda. As some of the few who actually reflect on how history should be done, Calvin historians might well respond to this criticism by saying there is no such thing as objective history. Point granted, but readers who share Kuyper’s opposition to feminism and evolutionism should be on their guard for verbal digs and revisionist history. Speaking for myself, I have grown tired of these digs.
As I read the book, I started to wonder if you need to be a great man in order to write the biography of a great man. Maybe. Few of us have expertise in theology, pastoral work, journalism, politics, practical spirituality, art, science and cultural criticism. I found the sections of the book on politics to be boring and too much given over to details. It must be tough to read lots of books on the intricacies of Dutch politics and then not include them in your book. Likewise, Bratt’s sections on Kuyper’s spirituality were not so insightful. He seemed cynical that such an alpha male could be as God-intoxicated as Kuyper evidently was. Bratt lacks sympathy for his subject (and admits as much) and this is often fatal to a biography.
Is this book a hard read? Yes. Is it a good biography? It is as good as we’ve got. Is it definitive? No. Can it be bettered? Not sure. Does it give you a good feel for Kuyper as a man? Not really, though admittedly he was a very complex man. Should you read it? Yes, if you are concerned about a Christian worldview and want to join in the work of transforming your culture for Christ. I certainly learned a lot from it.