May 23, 2009

Abraham Kuyper Neglected Titan

In these posts and particularly this one I have sought to show just how crucial Abraham Kuyper one time Prime Minister of the Netherlands, founder of the Anti-Revolutionary Party was to the development of Dutch Politics in the early 20th century. Among other things he founded it's first mass political party, pioneered popular politics founded the religious coalition that dominated Dutch politics for decades, split traditionalist Protestants, converted many of them to a more plural model of politics and massively weakened aristocrats within their ranks, introduced the modern Dutch school system and coalesced the entire system of "pillarisation” that dominated the Netherlands for many decades and still matters today. Indeed even the current Prime Minister of the Netherlands has talked about him very favourably as his political inspiration and stated he is a "Kuyperian heart and soul" - a rare feat for a political eighty years dead- I imagine for example Barack Obamaa and George Bush would be delilighted to get such an epitah from any head of government in a century.

It should be noted this only covers part of Kyper’s importance- he was hugely important outside domestic politics (to which he gave many other contributions I lack space to list- and many others I’m sure I’m ignorant of). For example in Foreign Policy he played a significant role strengthening the natural Dutch tendency to side with the Boers in the Boer War and lean (as a neutral) to Germany in World War 1. Theologically he was hugely important- his failed attempt to purge liberals who would not subscribe wholeheartedly to the Reformed confessions led him to lead a significant breakaway form the Dutch Reformed church and he latter organised a merger with latter sececessions to form the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands- a third force in the Dutch theological world. In a (very narrow and in the light of subsequent history slightly ironic) sense this may have been the first significant "fundamentalist" secession denomination. He led the first major secession break in protest at the modernism of the late 19th century on the grounds it was incompatible with the Reformed Faith and was supreme among clergymen in the creation of a new denomination formed of groups that papered over their huge differnces out of a common hostility to protestant liberalism

Kuyper was also a huge influence on Princeton Theological Seminary which ended up being crucial to the first significant American Fundamentalist (so defined) denomination the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. To this day he is a big influence on some of the more intellectual sections of American Evangelicalism including (but not confined to)the "religious right". At the same some of his views such as Presumptive regeneration and his rejection of a sharp notion of "infelicity" of scripture laid the foundations for some more liberal types of Christianity!

Nor did this exhaust Kuyper's titanic contributions. He was also one of the foremost writers of his age- even being on a committee concerning the Dutch language! He founded (as part of his religious work essentially ) the Free University of Amsterdam as an alternative to secularising universities - to this day it is one of the Netherlands a leading university. In its early days it was the subject of strong persecution and attempts to exclude it’s graduates from government jobs-but he grew so mighty that he was able to overturn and overule this.

So in politics, in theology in the Dutch language even in the history of academia he was a true Titan who played a transformative and giant activity In British terms he was like a combination of William Gladstone, Robert Cecil (3rd Marquis of Salisbury) Thomas Chalmers, John Stuart Mill, John Henry Newman, Ashley Cooper 7th Marquis of Shaftesbury, and Bishop John C Ryle all rolled into one!

And yet my suspicion is that even the extremely well educated average reader of this blog would never have heard of him- and as I said it's incredibly difficult to find good works in English on him or his activists. Why is this -and what does this illustrate about the nature of current Historiography?

I thick by far the most important reason is that he was after all Dutch. This is partly a strong (and in a sense) justified bias against small countries- though the Netherlands dwarfs Ireland Demographically. More problematically I think this is due to the linguistic barrier. Dutch is a language very few Dutch people know partly because of its small demographic base and partly due to the proflicany y of the Dutch in foreign languages in part due to the excellent education system Kuyper did so much to shape. . If Kyper had been Prime Minister of Canada- a less historically significant country at least in that era I suspect he'd been much better known to Anglo-Saxon historians.

But I don't think that bad reason is the only one. Partly this is due to neglect of or contempt of religion's importance for history in general -and particularly late 19th and 20th century politic. This is the dead hand of the "secularisation thesis"- that society naturally follows a development where organised religions and traditional orthodox ideas gradually dimities in their hold. Kuyper is an enormous embarrassment for such theories and so like many such is politely ignored.

One should add that the changes of the Netherlands over the last few decades in the direction of secularisation and sexual liberalism (both generally exaggerated by outsiders but still very real) add to amnesia about it's interesting past.

Another is increasingly specialisation in the type of history people do. Kyper's contributions cross an incredible number of fields including electoral politics, political ideology, theological history, diplomatic history and educational. To sum up his contributions would require incredible breadth in terms of our modern historical discipline - a Gibbon is rare indeed among modern historians.

Still in however small a way I hope I have shown the enormous importance and achievements of this now obscure figure. Like or loathes his achievements he did “great things” in the true sense of the term.


Vino S said...

Have just written a blog post on my blog in response to this. I agree his political impact has been neglected - but i think that's the case for a lot of prominent historical figures from small, non-english-speakign countries.

As the Netherlands moved towards universal suffrage, a mass Protestant conservative party was going to emerge - to challenge the Liberals, Social-Democrats and Catholics' party. If Kuyper had not been around, do you think such a party would have been weaker? I think it might have been less well-placed to make electoral pacts in the pre-PR era, but I still think it would have done well. After all, about 70% of Dutch voters were Protestant at this time (c.19th) and, if half of them were right-wing, that gives such a bloc about 35% of the vote.

sulla said...

I'll try and publish a post on this latter in the week in response to your comment and article


Vino S said...

OK, thanks, sulla. I myself will write an article shortly on the Netherlands and Belgium since it has always puzzled me about the fact that Catholic Dutch-speaking areas ended up on both sides of the border after the Belgian independence in 1830.

Internation Musing said...

it has always puzzled me about the fact that Catholic Dutch-speaking areas ended up on both sides of the border after the Belgian independence in 1830.
Being a Dutch myself:
The southern part of the Netherlands, as we called 'below the 2 rivers' is dominantly Catholic, so the Northern part of belgium is that as well.)

James Higham said...

He led the first major secession break in protest at the modernism of the late 19th century on the grounds it was incompatible with the Reformed Faith...


Sulla said...

I'm sorry James-don't quite get your meaning?