Abraham Kuyper

Stephen N Williams
de bruijn.jpg
Jan De Bruijn. Abraham Kuyper: a Pictorial Biography. Grand Rapids, MI/ Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2014, x + 418pp, $40.00/₤25.99

From the cover of James Bratt's recent and fine biography, Abraham Kuyper's eyes look out at you and ask the question: 'Are you my rival or my subordinate?' Jan De Bruijn's biography, with a rather similar picture of Kuyper on its cover, is neither the rival of nor subordinate to Bratt's. The two volumes are complementary. They are not doing the same thing. A reader with either a general or a specialist interest in Kuyper would do well to read Bratt's biography first; it will provide the prose biographical narrative, the big and detailed picture alike and the intellectual history. De Bruijn's work was in fact published before Bratt's, which came out in 2013, but it has only now become available in translation from the Dutch. The prose narrative is somewhat broken up by commentary on the photographs, portraits, and documents which make this book what it is: a pictorial account. Less interested in bold contours and analysis, with less text, it will fill in the account of Kuyper which we find in Bratt with a mass of personal and often political detail. Described as a work for the non-specialist, it has no footnotes or end-notes. Comparison of merit is invidious because of the contrasting, albeit overlapping, aims of the two volumes.

Jan De Bruijn's volume is beautifully produced at an extraordinarily low retail price; its weight in the hand reveals the quality of the paper and its pictorial quality is stamped on practically every page. One way of reading it would be to read the introduction, followed by the potted summaries which begin each chapter of the events covered in that chapter and then to read the whole, prepared for some breaks in thought and flow as we study the pictures. The reader who is interested in the theoretical underpinning of Kuyper's thought, his dogmatic theology and deep political philosophy will soon discover that it is not De Bruijn's intention to satisfy his curiosity very much. Conversely, the reader who is interested in images of Kuyper's world, circumstances, family, friends and foes and - of course - the man himself will be amply rewarded. De Bruijn is more interested in description than direct evaluation; when he very occasionally ventures the latter, he is dispassionate and light, his style being to allow the various actors in the drama of Kuyper's life and Kuyper himself to do the talking. I was left unclear on only one general matter in connection with Kuyper. He is described in the 'Introduction' as a 'charismatic personality', but the reader of the volume is likely to conclude that this must refer specifically to his oratorical personality until the rather surprising description, late in the volume, of his charm (p.369). Unless I am reading too unimaginatively, it would have been good to get a clearer sense of the charisma and charm.

This conducts us into an arena which we are bound to enter. Kuyper causes more difficulty to those who are in agreement with the governing principles of his wide-ranging thought than to those who are not. Those who are not can dismiss the man along with the thought. Those who are have to reckon with Bratt's troubling judgement, which seems hard to gainsay (and it is not gainsaid, even if not said, in De Bruijn's biography) that 'Abraham Kuyper was a great man, but not a nice one'. Is this greatness in the kingdom of God? The response must surely be self-examinaton: 'Let him who thinks he stands take heed...' As we should expect, Kuyper emerges from De Bruijn's work as a superlatively driven and, we must surely conclude, basically unhappy man, whose inward turbulence is frequently expressed in pretty miserable external relationships. De Bruijn gives every appearance of being dispassionate and not heavy-handed or judgmental in noting Kuyper's faults; the question of Kuyper on race is avoided; he gives praise where praise is due. It is even possible that he and some readers might complain that I have just one-sidedly exaggerated the negative image. Yet, unless we chuckle at some of the caricatures, our faces may light up noticeably only at one point in the text, namely, where Kuyper, aged 73, was questioned by the police for exercising nude in front of his hotel window in Brussels. There are no pictures of this and, if a caricaturist picked it up, we are spared the product.

The caricatures enliven the book's already rich photographic ensemble. It takes a better pen than mine to describe the attraction of the pictures which range over events, scenes, buildings, people and documents. There are also memorable descriptions of Kuyper: the booming reed organ, as opposed to the violin, in his debating contributions in the second chamber of the Dutch parliament (p. 96); the dusk speech in the field where he responded to a question on capital punishment (pp. 233-34). Characters other than Kuyper come to life, such as A. F. de Savornin Lohman, one-time political ally and Domela Nieuwenhuis, the isolated republican Socialist. What kind of life Kuyper's wife, Johanna, had, we are left to imagine. If we already knew that she endured Kuyper's domineering during their courtship and his frequent illnesses or absence during their marriage, we learn from Dr Bruijn's account that she had also grown up the subject of her father's 'unrelenting discipline' (p. 27). 

If we look for exemplars of the Christian life, it is usually not to the leaders, but to the countless invisible men and women who are humble, faithful and suffering that we must look, whose great reward is not now and not yet. However, there are those in leadership whose vision, strength of theology and strength of mind have enriched and guided the Church of Jesus Christ in a way that makes room for his lordship to pervade every aspect of life with the force of truth. To my mind, Abraham Kuyper belongs here (although this does not come across in De Bruijn's volume). Unless there is a specific edifying purpose for it, we should not to dwell too much in judgement on Kuyper's character, else we - certainly we men - shall risk sickening from self-righteousness. Ours to expose ourselves to the immense and wonderful contagion of his vision and penetration of his thought.

Stephen N Williams
Union Theological College