Abraham Kuyper

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The Routledge Companion to Modern Christian Thought


As I write this, a decade into the twenty-first century and one hundred years after he reached the apex of his remarkable public career, the best way to understand the motivation as well as the challenges faced by nineteenth-century giant Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) may be to think of him as a preacher who turned into a politician. His life’s work was driven by a preacher’s passion; the opposition he faced was fueled by anti-clerical, anti-theocratic fears. For us to understand him well today we need to momentarily set aside our own prejudices and engage a sympathetic imagination. The chapter that follows is an attempt to do just that. I begin with a comparison to one of our contemporaries, televangelist Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network and host of The 700 Club. This naturally makes us wary. Pat Robertson triggered a storm of nervousness in 1988 when he unsuccessfully sought the Republican Party nomination for President of the United States, and the skittishness has not abated (Hedges 2008; Phillips 2007). There are good reasons to avoid any point-for-point comparison, but there are some interesting parallels between the two men and their careers. Both could be labeled as traitors to their class. Born to privilege – one the son of a United States senator, the other raised in the manse of a minister in the national Dutch Reformed Church – both were educated at one of their nation’s top universities, – Yale and the University of Leiden, respectively – and each consciously chose to identify himself with and become a leader of a marginalized group of religiously conservative Christians and give them a public voice and vehicle for political action. For this, they both received the fury and scorn of the “establishment” of their day. Curiously, both are, in their own ways, emancipatory figures (Bolt 2001: 72-79). In addition, their emancipatory visions were directly tied to a recovery of a national, patriotic zeal and religious revival, what I have elsewhere termed “a Christian-historical imagination” (Bolt 2001: 72-79). In Kuyper’s judgment, the Netherlands and America were both providentially blessed by God and could only be great to the degree that they understood their providential purpose and obeyed God’s ordinances (Bolt 2001: 47-72). Robertson shared this view about America and made it an important part of his presidential campaign (Robertson 1986). Additionally, two important concrete parallels come to mind. Both effectively pioneered use of the media of their day in the service of aggressive Christian sociopolitical activism. Kuyper started, and for forty years edited, a daily newspaper (De Standaard), while also editing a weekly journal (De Heraut [The Herald]). Had he lived and been active one hundred years later, one could easily imagine Kuyper starting a television broadcasting empire such as Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network. And there is more. Convinced that the state universities in the Netherlands had been captured by an Enlightenment worldview that left no room for the knowledge of God in the quest for human scientific knowledge, Kuyper founded the Vrije Universiteit (Free University) of Amsterdam in 1880. Similar concerns led Robertson to start Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia, in 1978. Both universities intentionally set out to be places of Christian scholarly and academic excellence as part of a vision to change the world. It almost seems unnecessary to add here that neither university initially received much respect from the broader academic guild. It would also be fair to say that both institutions have disappointed their critics with their quality facilities, faculty, and academic contribution. James Bratt draws a similar comparison between Kuyper and another culturally despised preacher/political actor, Jerry Falwell: Both undertook the same twofold mission: to awaken a culturally disinherited and despised constituency from its pietistic slumbers and to turn its power against liberal, secularistic, or humanistic hegemony in church and state. Both promised that the venture would return their nations to godly foundations and vanished glory. … Both began with local congregational renewal and ended up trying to transform the nation; and both built the same steps in between – Christian lower education, grass-roots political networking, a Christian University.

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