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In 1898, Benjamin B. Warfield wrote, “Dr. [Abraham] Kuyper is probably today the most considerable figure in both political and ecclesiastical Holland.” He spoke well, for Kuyper was a scholar, theologian, preacher, reformer, educator, journalist, writer, orator, politician, and statesman. But even more, he was a devout Christian, a passionate family man, a prodigious worker, a patriot, and the leading exponent of Calvinism’s world and life view.
Childhood and Education
Kuyper was born Oct. 29, 1837, in the small fishing village of Maasluis. He was the eldest son of Jan Frederick Kuyper, a minister in the Hervormde Kerk, the Dutch state church, and Henriette Huber, a teacher of Swiss descent.
In 1841, the family moved to Middleburg, provincial capital of Zeeland, where young “Bram” was homeschooled. In 1849, his father took a call to Leiden, where for six years Bram attended the Leiden Gymnasium in preparation for university. In 1855, he entered the University of Leiden, graduating summa cum laude in 1858.
Kuyper prepared for the ministry at Leiden (1858–1861), where the theological faculty was uniformly liberal. He never succumbed fully to modernism, but he flirted with liberal theology, which helps explain why he became such an ardent foe of modernistic thinking after his conversion to orthodox Calvinism.
Kuyper earned a doctorate in theology on Sept. 20, 1862, after completing a dissertation comparing the ecclesiology of the Polish reformer John à Lasco with that of John Calvin.
Conversion and Early Ministry
Kuyper said his conversion to Reformed orthodoxy was influenced by three factors. The first was the extraordinary way in which he located a treasury of à Lasco’s writings in the home of a Leiden professor’s father after a fruitless search of the holdings of major university libraries. The second was Charlotte Yonge’s novel, The Heir of Redcliffe. This book, the story of a proud man who is humbled, convicted Kuyper. Third was the congregation of Kuyper’s first pastoral charge at Beesd (1863–67).
The summer after his graduation, Kuyper married Johanna Schaay and moved to Beesd. The church included several committed Calvinists, such as Pietronella Baltus, a young peasant woman who confronted Kuyper about his modernistic thinking, lack of Reformed experiential preaching, and lack of saving faith in Christ. God used those persistent parishioners to lead their pastor back to Calvin and the Reformed fathers, to the Scriptures, and to faith in Jesus Christ.
Preacher and Pastorates
Not surprisingly, Kuyper’s preaching changed dramatically. It now satisfied the hunger of the spiritually minded kleine luyden (“little people,” or common folk) such as Pietronella Baltus.
In 1867, Kuyper accepted a call to Utrecht, a church with 11 ministers and thirty-five thousand members. In 1870, he moved to the Reformed Church at Amsterdam, the most prestigious church in the country, consisting of one hundred and forty thousand members, 136 office-bearers, 28 ministers, and 14 sanctuaries. Here Kuyper reached the height of his ministry as a preacher, though his sermons also evoked opposition from the modernists.
The battle lines drawn between Kuyper and the modernists in the Dutch Reformed Church eventually led to a major secession of conservatives from the state church in 1886. The breach was called the Doleantie, meaning “grievance” or “complaint.” Kuyper and his followers were dubbed the Dolerenden, “the aggrieved ones.” The Dolerenden were protesting the doctrinal tolerance of the state church. Kuyper and others called for a return to the theology of the Reformed confessions, strove for a church free from the domination of the state, and stressed personal piety. They were supported strongly by the common people.
An earlier Secession movement of 1834 had been strictly a church-reform movement. The Doleantie wanted more, because of Kuyper’s expanded interpretation of Calvinism. For Kuyper, Calvinism stood for a total world and life view, not merely an ecclesiastical, confessional, or theological system. His goal was not only church reform but also a spiritual victory in all areas of life over the atheistic worldview of modernism.
Despite these differences, Kuyper was instrumental in merging the Doleantie churches with the majority of the 1834 Secession churches in 1892, giving birth to the Gereformerde Kerken in Nederland (“Reformed Churches in the Netherlands”). The new denomination consisted of four hundred Secession churches, three hundred Doleantie churches, and three hundred thousand members. Similarly, in North America, the Christian Reformed Church, founded in 1857 by Secession immigrants, welcomed large numbers of Doleantie immigrants who crossed the Atlantic in the 1890s and later.
In 1869, Kuyper got to know the secretary of the king’s cabinet, Groen Van Prinsterer (1801–1876), the mastermind of what would evolve into the Anti-Revolutionary Party (ARP) in the Netherlands. This party would assert Christ’s lordship over public affairs and oppose the principles expressed by the French Revolution and political liberalism.
Kuyper united with the ARP, and in 1874, he was elected to the Second Chamber of Parliament. He thoroughly reorganized the ARP with a constitution, a statement of principles, and a well-formulated platform.
In time, Kuyper’s ARP formed a coalition with the Roman Catholics. That coalition defeated the liberals in the election of 1888, but lost again in 1891 and didn’t regain power until 1901, when Kuyper was asked to head the new government as prime minister.
Kuyper’s stint as prime minister was only partially successful. A school bill was passed that gave Christian schools legal parity with government schools. However, most of the ARP’s goals were not achieved and his coalition was defeated in the election of 1905.
In subsequent generations, the ARP abandoned most of its principles. By 1980, it merged with the Catholic People’s Party to form the Christian Democratic Appeal.
Journalist and Writer
In 1869, Kuyper became editor of the weekly De Heraut (The Herald), calling “For a Free Church and a Free School in a Free Land.” In 1872, he became editor of De Standaard (The Standard), a Christian daily newspaper and the official organ of the ARP. He edited both papers until he was 82 years old, writing thousands of articles on theology, history, philosophy, politics, and aesthetics.
His greatest work was probably his three-volume Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology. He wrote four volumes on the Heidelberg Catechism, three volumes on common grace, a massive volume on the Holy Spirit, and a book on Revelation. He published four volumes on eschatology, Van de Voleinding (“Of the Consummation”), three volumes of Pro Rege (“For the King”), and allowed his Dictaten Dogmatiek (“Notes on Systematic Theology”) to go to press unedited.
Kuyper’s writings influenced thousands, and generated praise as well as criticism. Herman Bavinck and Herman Dooyeweerd, though not uncritical of Kuyper’s thinking, were greatly influenced by him. Cornelius Van Til advanced Kuyper’s ideas in the United States, particularly in the area of presuppositional apologetics. Francis Schaeffer also helped popularize some of Kuyper’s ideas. Various Dutch Reformed denominations in North America have been greatly impacted by Kuyperianism. And South Africa’s Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education was modeled after the university Kuyper founded.
Dissatisfied with government schools and universities, Kuyper established a Christian university free from state control or influence. The Free University of Amsterdam, designed to affirm a biblical and Reformed worldview throughout its curriculum, was established on Oct. 20, 1880. Kuyper organized it as a school operated by Christian parents and supported by the prayers and gifts of Reformed Christians. The university began with five professors and only five students, but continued to grow, training ministers and schoolteachers for the Gereformeerde Kerken. Kuyper served as rector and professor at the Free University from 1880 to 1901.
As prime minister, Kuyper helped pass a law granting full legal standing for private universities and technical schools that were preparing students for higher education. The Free University then received state recognition of its awarded degrees.
As a Man
Kuyper lived out his Calvinistic faith as a believer. He reveled in the life of his family, with his wife, five sons, and two daughters. Like others, he struggled with losses. His 9-year-old son passed away in 1892 and his beloved wife in 1899 at the age of 58.
Though short of stature, Kuyper’s appearance was commanding. He held audiences spellbound with his uncompromising convictions and compelling oratory. Spiritually, communion with Christ sustained him throughout his long career.
Perhaps Kuyper’s greatest personal flaw was his intolerance of those who disagreed with him. His tendency to act in a dictatorial manner in ecclesiastical and political matters seemed to grow with age.
Kuyper died on Nov. 8, 1920, at the age of 83. Thousands attended the funeral.
His influence did not die, however; it remains powerful even today. Many throughout the international Reformed community continue to wrestle with the implications of Kuyper’s declaration: “God’s majesty and sovereignty require that we believe God’s Word, not because of what it says, but because it is His Word, not because we think it beautiful and true, but because He has spoken it.”