How Learning About Abraham Kuyper’s Influence on Apartheid Changed Me
One Day in Seminary
I remember it distinctly. One day in lecture for a capstone church history course for my seminary degree, a student named Blake sitting near the back of the classroom asked a question while we were learning about the life and theology of Dutch theologian, Abraham Kuyper.
“Did Abraham Kuyper have anything to do with the system of apartheid in South Africa?” was the substance of Blake’s question. Many years of education in world history raced in my mind as I recalled the monstrous institution of apartheid and the havoc it wreaked in the name of White supremacy.
Is that possible? I thought. Could the Abraham Kuyper have been an influence of that terrible stain in modern history? Surely, a Reformed theologian couldn’t have been guilty of that.
To my comfort, I was immediately assured by the professor of the course who denied that Kuyper had any influence on the creation and propagation of apartheid in South Africa. Relieved, I went home after class and thought nothing more of the matter…
Until I returned to the next class session a few days later. In the middle of class, the same student who had asked that curious question about Kuyper and apartheid began to read the following quote from two Kuyper scholars:
“Reading Kuyper’s writings more than a century later, one cannot help but notice Kuyper’s frequent and quite blunt references to the inferiority of the indigenous peoples of Southern Africa and the pejorative terminology which he employed in this regard. He regarded African tribes as the descendants of Ham — Who lack the long-term benefits of both common grace and special grace. They are therefore located at the very lowest level of human development and should be subservient to the descendants of Japheth and Seth. This was seen as a matter of divine election in nature, in providence as in redemption. He also referred to the aspirations of the indigenous peoples of South Africa as ‘the black danger,’ since their numbers would soon become a menace for whites. He sympathized with Boer resistance to the mingling of ‘white’ blood with ‘black’ blood, arguing that the ‘Hottentots and Bantus were an inferior race’ and that ‘to put them on an equal footing with whites in their families, in society, and in politics would be simple folly.’* No wonder apartheid theologians were attracted to Kuyper’s sentiments!” (emphasis added)**
The student boldly yet fairly asked the professor why he had earlier denied that Kuyper had been a cause for apartheid. The professor responded that he never denied this fact.
A few thoughts came to mind as I sat in the classroom during this tense exchange between the professor and this student. First, did the professor lie to our entire class, and potentially all of the classes of previous years about Kuyper’s influence on apartheid? Second, even if our professor hadn’t lied, had he been withholding the whole truth about Kuyper’s relation to apartheid? And third, was there anything else in this course or in the entire seminary curriculum that we had either been lied to about or had the whole truth conveniently withheld from us?
A Serious But Needed Interruption
As I look back on this relatively trivial event that took place several years ago in a small classroom on a small campus in northern San Diego county, I am filled with nothing but gratitude toward this student. This event was a serious but needed interruption to my overly naive understanding of the history of my tradition. It gave me reason to pause and learn more about the dark “close family history,” as it were, and to begin to read those in my “extended family” in a more charitable light.
I could no longer hide behind the excuses I and others in my circles had conjured up to not read James Cone and Gustavo Gutierrez. I could no longer pridefully read other theological perspectives on a heresy hunt. If the heroes of my tradition were actively promoting injustice and oppression, I could no longer play the “who’s more Reformed?” game because, perhaps, being “more Reformed” wasn’t the goal of the Christian life.
So, I’m grateful for that uncomfortable class period when I shuffled in my seat more than I had ever done before. That was one of the catalysts that pushed me to dig deeper and more honestly about the proclaimed heroes of my tradition, like J. Gresham Machen, Cornelius Van Til, and Charles Hodge. I’ve learned about “forgotten” figures in my tradition, such as the strong Civil Rights voices of American Presbyterianism, the short-lived existence of an abolitionist Presbyterian denomination, Black Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism, among others who, quite frankly, paint a more diverse and lively portrait of my tradition. I’ve come in contact with historians who have made it their goal to really tell the truth about the past the best that they can.
And through it all — through exploring the skeletons in my tradition’s closet — I have come to see that God is bigger and greater than I could have ever imagined. He doesn’t need my theological tradition, my heroes, or even me. I don’t need to pretend the bad and the ugly don’t exist and I don’t need to try to hide some or all of the truth. I’ve learned more deeply what it means that the body of Christ — that blessed communion spanning across time and space — needs each member to grow into full maturity in Christ. I and my tradition are immature in our faith if we do not learn from the brothers and sisters outside of our tradition.
Everyone’s a Historian
At the end of the day, I’ve learned a very simple fact — everyone’s a historian. I don’t mean that everyone has academic training in historical studies and has the capacity to write long-standing historical treatises. What I mean is that everyone is a shaper and carrier of the story we tell about the past. We all have received a story about the past, and we in one form or another shape that story or simply carry it on through the present and into the future. Sometimes we’re shapers and carriers of honest history, and sometimes we find ourselves passing on untruths and partial truths as pristine history.
Christians especially have a heightened calling to critically assess the stories that have been passed down. In the pursuit of truth — a reflection of the God who is truth and cannot lie — we bear the weighty responsibility of being historians who tell the truth about the past and correct the errors wherever they may crop up — especially in the places where it may make us uncomfortable and look like our tradition has gravely erred.
Knowing what I know about Kuyper makes me see him on the same playing field as anyone else in human history. We have to“chew the meat and spit out the bones” with any Christian figure, and our heroes aren’t exempted from that reality. In good conscience, I can learn much from Kuyper while not thinking too much of Kuyper.
*James D. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 339.
See also Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007), 84, 196.
** Ernst Marais Conradie, Creation and Salvation: Dialogue on Abraham Kuyper’s Legacy for Contemporary Ecotheology (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 18.
Many thanks to Blake Struve for providing me the citation of the quote that he read out loud and for reviewing the contents of this article to make sure it accurately reflects what happened in class that day in seminary.