Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Though it does not happen often, there are times when God is pleased to raise up in His church men of such outstanding ability and conviction that their work leaves an indelible mark on subsequent history. It is as if, by them, God alters significantly the course of events. Augustine was such a man. So was Martin Luther, and so was John Calvin. One hesitates somewhat to put Abraham Kuyper in such lofty company, and there are reasons why he does not completely fit. Nevertheless, Abraham Kuyper came close to being one of them.
Usually such men as God is pleased to use are men of extraordinary ability not only, but alsomen of forcible personality. They are men towards whom it is impossible to be neutral. Every acquaintance either loves them deeply or hates them passionately. Augustine was such a man; Calvin and Luther also were hated by many and loved by many. Kuyper, perhaps more than any other person of his generation, was devoutly loved and profoundly hated.
And his shadow over the church is long. It reaches to the present.
Abraham Kuyper was born in a parsonage on October 29, 1837 from Rev. and Mrs. J.F. Kuyper, in the small fishing village of Maassluis, the Netherlands. The Reformed churches in the Netherlands had fallen on bad times. Over the course of the centuries it had become thoroughly apostate. Modernists occupied thousands of pulpits and held all the significant posts in the universities and seminaries. While Reformed people could be found and Reformed ministers still preached here and there, the church itself was in the hands of and was directed by those who had become enemies of the faith.
Abraham’s father, a pastor in this denomination, was himself somewhere between liberal Modernism and orthodox Reformed.
Two significant reformatory movements had swept the Netherlands. The first was called De Reveil (The Renewal), a movement which was found in every country in Europe in which Protestantism had taken root. It bore, however, some marks of Humanism in the Netherlands; and it refused to engage in true church reformation, believing that the State church could be reformed from within. The second was called De Afscheiding (The Separation), of which DeCock was the leader. The movement had demonstrated powerfully that the common people thirsted .for a return to Scripture and the confessions, to sound biblical preaching and a holy walk. It spread like wildfire through the Netherlands, but soon became the object of the persecution and oppression of the government. It was a movement that attracted thousands, but was composed mainly of the common folk, the simple and uneducated people, those on the lower rungs of society, those whom Kuyper himself was later to call “de kleine Zzlyden” (the small folk). This separation was three years old when Kuyper was born. That hardly any mention of it can be found in Kuyper’s writings in the first 20 to 25 years of his life is perhaps indicative of the fact that it was scorned by the educated and ignored by the majority in the State church – after all, the sophisticated leaders in the church could not take seriously a movement which attracted such lowly and despised throngs. None of the influences of De Reveil or De Afscheiding seemed to have touched Kuyper.
Bram (as he was called) did not attend grade school, but was instructed by his parents in his home. Particularly his mother was his instructor. From her he learned French. His father, fluent in German, taught him that language. Kuyper showed early in life an aptitude for languages and the ability to master any subject.
In 1841 the family moved to Middleburg, the capital of the province of Zeeland. This historic city was also on the sea, and while growing up here Kuyper developed a strong love for the sea and a strong desire to spend his life on board ship.
In 1849 the family moved to Leiden when Rev. Kuyper took up new ministerial duties. Abraham had access to excellent schools here. For six years, Kuyper attended “gymnasium,” a school which was geared to the preparation of students for university studies. -He graduated in 1855 and delivered the valedictory address, but delivered it in. German and spoke on the topic: “Ulfilas, the Bishop of the Visigoths, and his Gothic Translation of the Bible.”
Upon completion of his studies in the gymnasium, Kuyper entered the University of Leiden, a university 280 years old, with an enrollment of 500-600 students. Kuyper earned sufficient money to support himself during his three years of university studies by doing some private tutoring.
It seems as if all the influences on Kuyper at this time were bad, something not so strange when one considers the sad state of orthodoxy in the nation’s universities. His most influential teacher was Dr. Matthias DeVries, professor of literary studies, under whom Kuyper learned the beauty and power of good writing and under whose tutorship Kuyper developed a unique and forceful style of writing that was to stand him in good stead all his life.
Kuyper graduated in 1858 summa cum laude, but a modernist from a modernistic school. What little orthodoxy his parents may have communicated to him was lost in the swirl of liberal thought.
In 1858 Kuyper entered the Leiden Divinity School to study for the ministry. Again the influences were uniformly bad. Dr. L.W. Rauwenhoff, committed to an evolutionistic view of history, taught church history. Dr. Abraham Keunen, a higher critic, taught Bible studies. Dr. Joannes Henricus Scholten, an arch-heretic who denied the bodily resurrection of Christ, taught Dogmatics.
In addition to these influences, two current schools of thought in the Netherlands also moved Kuyper in the .direction of Modernism. One was the Groningen School of thought, which really was nothing else but a promoter of a Christian Humanism after the order of Erasmus, the Humanist of Reformation times. The other school was the so-called Ethical School, which promoted an ecumenical religion of wide tolerance on the basis of an emphasis on the inner, ethical life of man.
It is no wonder that when Kuyper graduated on December 6, 1861 he came out of the school a rather thorough modernist. Yet even during j these years God governed events in such a way that Kuyper’s surrender to Modernism was not complete.
From divinity school, Kuyper went on to gain his doctorate, something which he accomplished in 1863.
God made Kuyper a powerful Reformed preacher and an amazingly effective defender of the Reformed faith. How did all this come about?
Three events in Kuyper’s life can be described as elements in his conversion.
The first took place during Kuyper’s university days. The University of Groningen was offering a prize for the best essay submitted on the subject of a comparison of Calvin’s and a Lasco’s view of the church. With characteristic thoroughness and zeal Kuyper devoted all his time and energy to the researching of this subject and the development of the thought. Not content with secondary sources, I he scoured Europe’s libraries to find the writings of a Lasco, but to no avail. Finally, in desperation, he went to the home of his old teacher, Dr. DeVries, who sent Kuyper to DeVries’ father, now an old man, but one with a good library. The old minister was too old to remember what he did and did not have in his library, but asked Kuyper to return in a week. KuyRer, not expecting any help from this source, was astounded to find on the table a high pile of a Lasco’s works. Kuyper considered this so wonderful, especially in the light of the fact thatthis was apparently the only collection in Europe, that he received it as a special miracle, a miracle which forced him to consider the reality of God’s providential direction of his life and the lives of men.
The second event was directly related to the first.
Kuyper plunged into his studies of a Lasco with such vigor that he hardly slept at all: The result was that, although he completed his paper (written in Latin), and although he won the coveted prize; he suffered a total, nervous collapse from overwork. He could not read or write, but had to content himself with trying to buid a model ship while vacationing in Germany in an effort to recoup his strength.
It was towards the end of this eight months of recuperation that Kuyper read Charlotte M. Yonge’s book, The Heir of Redcliffe. The story of a proud successful man who is humbled and a poor and lowly man who is exalted had a profound effect on him. He himself said, “What I lived through in my soul in that moment I fully understood only later, yet from that hour, after that moment, I scorned what I formerly esteemed, I sought what I once dared to despise.”
The third event came during Kuyper’s ministry.
After completing his doctorate in 1862 (his thesis was a modification of his prize-winning work on a Lasco and Calvin), he took the call to a congregation in Beesd and married Johanna Hendrika Schaay, a girl from ,Rotterdam.
The congregation, a small village church, was composed of simple villagers, some of whom were themselves modern and worldly, but some of whom were orthodox and sincere. In an effort to get to know his parishioners, Kuyper visited each in turn. He was surprised and chagrined when one, peasant girl of thirty, Pietronella Baltus, refused to shake his hand. Finally Kuyper prevailed upon her to do so, but she made it clear she would do this only because he was a fellow human being, not a brother in Christ.
It is quite amazing that Kuyper had the grace and humility not only to inquire from her concerning her reasons, but also to return again and again to her home when she told him that he was preaching false doctrine and that his soul was in danger of eternal hell. It was here at the feet of these humble parishioners that Kuyper was led back to Calvin and the Reformed fathers, and from them to the Scriptures, the one great fountain of the Reformed faith.
Kuyper was a powerful and effective preacher. As he moved steadily towards the Reformed faith, his preaching reflected his commitment to the truth of Scripture and the heritage of the Reformed fathers. His sermons attracted others: some because they could delight in his oratorical skills and his masterful use of the Dutch language; others because Kuyper preached a gospel for which their souls thirsted and which was difficult to find in any other place in the Netherlands.
That Kuyper’s influence upon his times and subsequent history was so great was undoubtedly due to the fact that he was first of all a preacher. God uses preachers: Augustines and Calvins and Luthers and Knoxes. The power of reformation in the church is above all else the power of preaching.
Kuyper soon moved from Beesd to Utrecht, a church of 35,000 members and 11 ministers. The year was 1867. It was a ministry of about three years, filled with many events. Here Kuyper met Groen VanPrinsterer and cast his lot once for all with the Antirevolutionary Party. Here Kuyper became an editor of De Heraut (The Herald), a post he was to hold the rest of his life. And here his church reformation work really began, although at the time there was little evidence of it.
This latter involved the failure of the consistory to answer a questionnaire which was sent by a committee of the Classis and which was a substitute for the practice of church visitation. The consistory refused to answer, first, on the grounds that the work was not properly being done when done by questionnaire, and, secondly, that the work was hypocritical when an apostate body was inquiring into the spiritual health of a congregation. This refusal could have been construed as an act of rebellion, punishable by the Classis. But the broader ecclesiastical assemblies chose not to force the issue and backed down without requiring compliance.
In 1870 Kuyper went to Amsterdam, a church of 140,000 members, 136 officebearers, 28 ministers, 10 sanctuaries, and four chapels. It was the most prestigious church in the country, the most influential, and the most venerable. It was a strategic place for Kuyper to continue his work.
Kuyper was without any doubt the most popular minister of his day, and he drew throngs of people whenever and wherever he preached. Not only were his sermons powerful defenses of the Reformed faith; but they were masterpieces of literary style and oratorical delivery. Yet always his preaching was directed towards the common folk, the kleine luyden. Kuyper had that ability to address his preaching and teaching to everyone an ability which great preachers have. He could teach the children in catechism in a way which would pull them to the edges of their seats. And he took the time and made the effort to visit regularly the orphanages, where the orphans could also be taught the Word of God.
Not only were his sermons powerful and masterful, but his liturgical work in the pulpit was meticulously done and carefully delivered. His prayers were eloquent and led the soul of the humble saint to God. His reading of Scripture was an experience in itself. One fellow professor, Dr. Rutgers, said once that hearing Kuyper read, just read, Psalm 148 was clearer exposition of that Psalm than most sermons preached on it and brought tears to his eyes.
It was during his work as minister in Amsterdam that he strove mightily for the renewal and reformation of that church. It was a time of struggle and bitter infighting, but the result was that the church in Amsterdam became a strong Reformed church, with the majority of the elders and ministers supporting Kuyper. This did not mean that the modernists and liberals were expelled from the church: this was impossible in a State church. But it did mean that the orthodox were in the majority and could control the affairs of the church, so that Reformed preaching and instruction became the order rather than the exception.
Polarization was, however, the result. When Kuyper preached a sermon on “The Assurance of Election,” a modernist minister followed immediately with a ‘sermon on “Let Anyone Who Comes With Another Gospel Than That Christ Died For All Men Be Accursed.” Nevertheless, for the first time in years and years, the Reformed faith and the truth of the confessions were being proclaimed and defended from the pulpits in Amsterdam.
Because of Kuyper’s great ability as a preacher, it is more ,than sad that he laid down his office so soon to give himself to politics.
Personally I can never understand this move of Kuyper. One who is called to be a minister is called for life, and this highest of all callings has such a grip on the soul of the faithful ambassador of Christ that to leave it is impossible. Paul himself struck the only possible note: “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel.” Kuyper resigned in 1874. He had been elected to Parliament and he could not take his seat in that body without leaving the ministry.
A case can be made for the fact that Kuyper’s departure from the ministry was in some respects the beginning of his loss of power. That may strike some who have read his biographies as strange and untenable. It is arguable however; and we shall take a closer look at some aspects of this question.