Abraham Kuyper by Jan de Bruijn: A Review Article

Danny E. Olinger

Ordained Servant: November 2014

Science and the Humanities

Also in this issue

The Two Cultures: A Lifetime Later

The Sursum Corda and Biblically Shaped Worship

The Perspective of Love by R. J. Snell

Music at Midnight by John Drury: A Review Article


Abraham Kuyper: A Pictorial Biography, by Jan de Bruijn. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014, 418 pages, $40.00.

In his biography of Abraham Kuyper, Jan de Bruijn, professor of political history at the Free University of Amsterdam, takes the unusual path of having pictures play a major part in his telling of the story of Kuyper’s life. In each of his ten chapters de Bruijn provides an opening summary of one or two pages of that period of Kuyper’s life. He then proceeds to the pictures not only of Kuyper, but also of the main people, places, brochures, and documents of that period of Kuyper’s life. Each picture has an explanation that often runs one paragraph.

The strength of the book is the intimacy that comes through the art, particularly as it relates to Kuyper’s personal life. Given this familial touch, one might think that de Bruijn would be light on interpretation, but that is the surprising aspect of this work. De Bruijn proves himself a first-rate biographer who persuasively shows how Kuyper increasingly gravitated towards politics.

The book starts with art that vividly portrays the sense of mid-nineteenth-century life in the Netherlands. Although Kuyper’s father, the Rev. J. F. Kuyper, always had a call in the Dutch Reformed Church, the family had to live frugally in order to survive. Death was also common as four sisters of Kuyper died in childhood, and one picture shows a lock of hair from his younger sister Louise Susanna who died when she was nine years old.

De Bruijn then follows Kuyper from his home school education, to his magna cum laude graduation from the Leiden gymnasium, to receiving his Bachelor of Arts summa cum laude at the University of Leiden, often showing Kuyper’s actual report cards. Kuyper proposed to sixteen-year-old Joanna Schaay on September 14, 1858, and her parents approved two weeks later on the condition that it would not be announced publicly until after her confession of faith at Easter. However, word of the engagement leaked to such an extent that Kuyper exclaimed that the news had even spread to Rotterdam. The two would be engaged for five years before their 1863 marriage, when as a new pastor Kuyper finally felt equipped financially to enter into the union. During the engagement period, Kuyper often gave advice to Jo on how she should develop herself so that she could move in academic circles. In one letter to her, Kuyper wrote:

If I enumerated all the grammatical mistakes you make in your letters I would frighten you—but alas, that’s an obstacle for all young girls. When you are here again we shall go over them together; it’s easier that way. (28)

Kuyper would pastor Dutch Reformed congregations from 1863–1874, the last being the Dutch Reformed congregation in Amsterdam. Here de Bruijn cleverly develops the outworking of Kuyper’s belief that the church has both a spiritual task and a secular task, emphasizing Kuyper’s close relationships with two men, one a politician and the other a theologian. Politically, Kuyper grew close to Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer, leader of the Anti-Revolutionary movement. Theologically, he turned for advice to Dr. H. F. Kohlbrügge, the Calvinist pastor of the Reformed congregation in Elberfeld, Germany. The question of whether to remain a pastor or become a politician dominated this period of Kuyper’s life and came to a head in 1871 when Groen Van Prinsterer threw his support behind the election of Kuyper to Parliament. Kuyper sought out Kohlbrügge’s advice on what to do. Kohlbrügge encouraged him to remain a pastor. Said Kohlbrügge, “I quietly made it quite clear to him that he was arguing too much with the world in mind.” However, Kuyper was already inclined towards government service and allowed his name to stand.

Kuyper would lose the 1871 election, but three years later he ran again for Parliament and this time was elected. On March 16, 1874, Kuyper not only resigned as pastor of the Dutch Reformed congregation in Amsterdam, but also gave up the office of minister, in accordance with the requirement of the law for serving in Parliament. On March 20 he was sworn in as a member of the second chamber of Parliament. De Bruijn makes the compelling case that, after this election to Parliament, Kuyper was primarily a politician for the rest of his life.

During the same period in which Kuyper was aspiring to Parliamentary office, he began writing articles for the weekly newspaper De Heraut, which eventually became the daily newspaper De Standaard. He became De Standaard’s editor-in-chief in 1871, a position that he would hold for the next half century. In line with Anti-Revolutionary principles, Kuyper continually argued in De Standaard that Calvinism was by nature democratic and progressive, and that if the people of the Netherlands wanted to be free, they should look to the principles of the Reformation and not the French Revolution. Although Kuyper gave up his seat in Parliament in 1877, he stayed in the political spotlight by organizing the national petition campaign that formed the basis for the establishment of the Anti-Revolutionary Party in 1879.

In 1877 Kuyper reinstituted De Heraut as a weekly publication where church issues would be discussed in contrast to the political issues that were discussed in De Standaard. Although he never returned to the pastoral office, Kuyper used De Heraut to comment upon the Dutch Reformed Church and also to publish a weekly devotional.

One of Kuyper’s constant personal battles was with exhaustion from trying to do so much. In 1876 a nervous breakdown led to a prolonged rest. For the rest of his life he would keep to a very fixed schedule. He would write between nine and twelve in the morning, and then work on the newspapers. His afternoon included a daily two-mile walk. He also incorporated into his yearly schedule a two-month stay abroad in the summer, during which time he would climb mountains. Pictures of Kuyper as a mountaineer in Switzerland and hiking with his adult sons in South Tyrol beautifully illustrate this side of Kuyper’s life.

Disappointingly, and also somewhat shockingly, Kuyper also became infrequent in his church attendance from this time forward. Instead of attending the morning worship services on the Lord’s Day, he would spend the time writing his devotions for De Heraut.

The pictures and commentary on the establishment of the Free University in 1880 display Kuyper’s showmanship—he had a special bench for journalists up front while he delivered the inaugural address. He also had an official staff topped by Minerva created for the occasion. Seceders, members of the Christian Reformed Church that had broken away from the state church in 1834, characterized the staff as “heathen.” Kuyper replied that the image of Minerva had appeared in the works of the Reformed theologian Voetius. When others criticized the opening for its extravagance, which included serving wine at dinner, Kuyper commented that his enemies “said of the banquet that those Reformed were not the sort to water down their wine. That’s true. From the chocolate kettle and the milk-and-water bottle one does not breed a race of bold Calvinists” (130).

After such fanfare, when the Free University opened with only eight students, a prominent political cartoon in the Uilenspiegel ridiculed the smallness of the student body by showing Kuyper teaching a single student. The reason for the low enrollment was twofold. On the one hand, the state did not recognize the institution. On the other hand, the Dutch Reformed synod, which was primarily modernist in orientation, had prohibited Free University graduates from becoming ministers within the Dutch Reformed Church.

This led to conflict between the consistory in Amsterdam where Kuyper had begun serving as an elder in 1882 and the classis and synod. The classis suspended eighty members (five ministers, forty-two elders, and thirty-three deacons) of the consistory on January 4, 1886, including Kuyper. Kuyper did not acknowledge the suspension, and with two others forced open the door of the Nieuwe Kirk to take control of the church archives and the safes containing the savings of the church. A picture of the door of the vestry of the Nieuwe Kirk with a missing panel shows that the events of January 1886 were not mere philosophical clashes but the actual struggle over physical control of the church property. Kuyper and his allies would hold the consistory room until December when the synod permanently discharged the suspended members from office.

As a result of these events, the discharged consistory members on December 16 formed the Dutch Gereformeerde Churches with the affix “Lamenting,” indicating their grievance over what happened. Here, de Bruijn reproduces a January 1887 political cartoon of Kuyper dressed as the Pope making a plea for the Lamenting congregation at Amsterdam to give generously to the new church. By 1889, two hundred congregations with 180,000 members had joined the Dutch Gereformeerde Churches. In 1892 the Lamenters would join with a majority from the Christian Reformed Church to form the Gereformeerde Churches in the Netherlands.

In 1898 Kuyper travelled across the Atlantic to receive an honorary doctorate in jurisprudence from Princeton University and to deliver the Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary on the cultural importance of Calvinism. Although de Bruijn does not mention that Kuyper stayed with Geerhardus Vos and his family during this time, he does mention Vos’s role in helping to get Kuyper’s theological writings into English and includes a rare picture of Vos from that time. Kuyper’s five lectures over a two-week period at Princeton were met with great enthusiasm, and when Kuyper received his honorary degree, there was continuous applause. Kuyper would later tell his wife, Jo, that it was a perfect day.

Kuyper extended his stay in America with a tour to Grand Rapids and Holland, Michigan, Pella, Des Moines and Orange City, Iowa, Chicago, Cleveland, and Rochester, primarily addressing Dutch immigrants. His constant message was that in order for Calvinism to penetrate the social life of America, the Dutch people themselves would have to learn English.

He concluded his stay in America by visiting President William McKinley. Kuyper did not think much of McKinley as a statesman, but he held him in high admiration as a man of prayer.

In 1901 Kuyper’s political ascent climaxed when the Confessional coalition, which included the Anti-Revolutionary Party, gained victory in the elections to Parliament. Kuyper was given the task of forming the new government, but before Queen Wilhelmina would appoint him as prime minister, he had to give his word that the Netherlands would remain neutral in the Boer conflict in South Africa. Kuyper would lose public support for his handling of the 1903 railroad strike. Liberals and Socialists, who had been split in 1901, successfully united to defeat Kuyper in the 1905 election.

The last years of Kuyper’s life were spent initially trying to regain a place at the political table. He resumed leadership of the Anti-Revolutionary Party in 1907 from Herman Bavinck, then professor at the Free University. However, Kuyper’s reputation suffered greatly from a decorations scandal (in which certain honors—decorations—were awarded to political donors) in 1909, and his political career was essentially over, although he returned to the first chamber of Parliament in 1913.

The end of the book features some of the best art in the entire volume with numerous pictures of Kuyper in old age. Among the interesting tidbits was his friendship with Kaiser Wilhelm. Although Kuyper took the stance of Dutch neutrality for the Great War in print, he was personally pro-German and visited Germany every summer during the War. In February 1917, the Kaiser even sent Kuyper a portrait of Martin Luther.

Pictures of Kuyper’s funeral on November 12, 1920, show the streets lined with mourners. De Bruijn states that conservative estimates put 20,000–30,000 people lining the streets and 10,000 people at the churchyard. The book ends with a photo of Kuyper’s grave in the cemetery in the Hague.

Overall, this is a fascinating book on Kuyper. It is a quick read, but de Bruijn’s editorial skill in selecting the art and his accompanying commentary leaves a lasting impression about who Kuyper was and what he sought to accomplish politically, leading with a Calvinistic worldview.

Danny E. Olinger is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as the General Secretary of the Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, November 2014.

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Ordained Servant: November 2014

Science and the Humanities

Also in this issue

The Two Cultures: A Lifetime Later

The Sursum Corda and Biblically Shaped Worship

The Perspective of Love by R. J. Snell

Music at Midnight by John Drury: A Review Article


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