Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer (1801-76), was born into a life of aristocratic privilege, was baptised as an infant in the Reformed Church of the Netherlands, received a classical education, and came to a living faith in Jesus Christ in the early 1830s. His birth and attainments resulted in his moving in the highest circles in The Hague. He was influenced by the movement of renewal known as le réveil, which started in Switzerland and spread to France and beyond, and that included figures such as César Malan (1787-1864), Adolphe Monod (1802-56), and the historian Jean-Henri Merle d’Aubigné (1794-1872). The work of the Scottish evangelist Robert Haldane (1764-1842) was central to this development.1See Kenneth J. Stewart, Restoring the Reformation: British Evangelicalism and the Francophone ‘Réveil’ 1816-1849, (Eugene OR: Wipf and Stock, 2006), esp. 65-96.

Groen first came to serious attention through the initial volumes of the Archives ou Correspondance inédite de la Maison de l’Orange-Nassau (1835-61). Groen published Ongeloof en Revolutie (Unbelief and Revolution) in 1847. A second edition appeared in 1868.2Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer, Ongeloof en Revolutie, (Leyden: Luchtmans, 1847), second edition, (Amsterdam: Höveker, 1868).

van Prinsterer and the French Revolution

My purpose here is not to recount Groen’s life, but to focus on this book, its contents and overall message. First delivered as lectures in 1845-6, Unbelief and Revolution (hereafter UR) was published a year before Europe was again racked with revolutionary violence in 1848. The book applied an Augustinian-reformed understanding of the sovereignty of God and the human condition to the causes, course, and consequences of the French Revolution—and in so doing Groen authored a book that continues to shed great light on the politics and culture of the contemporary West. 

Groen applied an Augustinian-reformed understanding …to the French Revolution

For more than a century there was no English translation of this key work. Although some well-informed English-speaking Christians were aware that this was an important book, for a long time it remained a closed book to those who could not read Dutch. Harry Van Dyke remedied this deficiency with his English translation in 1989.3Groen van Prinsterer’s Lectures on Unbelief and Revolution translated and edited by Harry Van Dyke (Jordan Station, Ontario: Wedge, 1989). Van Dyke is Professor Emeritus of History at Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ontario, Canada. A two-volume re-publication appeared in 2018. The first volume being Unbelief and Revolution, (hereafter UR) itself.4Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer, Unbelief and Revolution translated by Harry Van Dyke, (Bellingham WA: Lexham Press, 2018). The second is Challenging the Spirit of Modernity: A Study of Groen van Prinsterer’s Unbelief and Revolution (hereafter CSM).5Harry Van Dyke, Challenging the Spirit of Modernity: A Study of Groen van Prinsterer’s Unbelief and Revolution, (Bellingham WA: Lexham Press, 2018).

In his initial lecture, Groen makes clear that he does not identify “revolution” simply with changes in governments or constitutions. He is not so much concerned with the details of the French Revolution, but with its religious roots and consequences. Groen insisted that “The Revolution doctrine is unbelief applied to politics” (UR, 4), and that the prime requirement is for Christian believers to understand in depth the spiritual character and historical significance of the forces that now confront them. Groen’s approach was deeply historical.6Jantje Lubbegiena van Essen, “Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer and his Conception of History,” Westminster Theological Journal 44 (1982), 205-249, reprinted in Jantje Lubbegiena van Essen and H. Donald Morton,Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer, Selected Studies, (Jordan Station, Ontario: Wedge, 1990), 15-64. Moreover, he stressed that revolutionary developments in history arise from the formulation and advocacy of revolutionary ideas. In the face of such challenges he called upon Christians to not shrink from their responsibilities, but to be salt and light, however oppressive the cultural atmosphere (UR, 1-10)—wise counsel, also for our times.

In the second and third lectures, Groen emphasises how the Revolution flew in the face of past experience, not least as its proponents exhibited a superficial attitude towards the past itself. This said, he does not consider himself to be without allies. For example, he speaks highly of the testimony of the lawyer, poet, and historian Willem Bilderdijk (1756-1831). He also draws on the work of Friedrick von Gentz (1764-1832), the writer on international relations (UR, 15-18). Groen also took note of the writings of Friedrich Julius Stahl (1802-61), the German legal and constitutional scholar (UR, 70-1). He makes clear that he does not wholly concur with any of these authors. He reserves his highest praise for Edmund Burke (1729-97) the Anglo-Irish politician and author (UR, 15).

In the following two lectures he considers the pre-revolutionary Christian past. He is clear that the centuries before 1789 were far from flawless (UR, 44), but insists that the revolution itself was not attributable to the shortcomings of the ancient régime (UR, 32-3). Nevertheless, the old order did recognise that governance was of divine institution, it resisted assertions that might was right and was suspicious of centralization (UR, 20-3, 39-40). Groen was appreciative of the “mixed monarchy” (Crown, Lords and Commons) of Great Britain, and the moderation of the 1688 “Glorious Revolution” (UR, 42-3). He asserted that the Dutch “restoration” of 1814-5 did not represent a genuine return to a non-revolutionary outlook (UR, 34).

In the Fifth lecture Groen addresses in greater depth the abuses that preceded the revolution. He concurred with Burke’s assessment that pre-revolutionary France was not beyond orderly reformation. Moreover, the revolution was not initiated by the most oppressed, but by the privileged for their own purposes. It was not launched to bring about improvements, but to achieve a complete overthrow of all existing institutions, resulting in a full political and social transformation (UR, 45-50, 53). 

The Reformation and Revolution

Thereafter Groen transitions in his Sixth lecture to a discussion headed “The Perversion of Constitutional Law.” Here we encounter some intriguing questions, and we should keep in view the reality that words such as “sovereignty,” “rights,” “liberty,” and “liberal” have, over the centuries, acquired a wide semantic range. Indeed, this applies also to the term “revolution” itself—which might mean a restoration or a revolutionary overthrow. Groen’s concern was that the Calvinistic reformation itself, in the place it awarded to church members in the appointment of office-bearers, and in the ways its second generation called for liberty in the face of persecution may have unwittingly set a course towards Revolution. Theodore Beza (1519-1605), François Hotman (1524-90), and Philippe du Plessis Mornay (1549-1623) had eloquently pleaded for toleration in the face of cruel persecution. Groen certainly had his doubts about these developments (UR, 66-69). However, these writers did not embrace any notion of human autonomy, as did the revolutionaries of 1789. Moreover, while the literature on these writers is important, the reader needs to be constantly on the alert for the possibility that latter-day, liberally-minded historians might retrospectively impute the revolutionary principles of the 1780s to an earlier period.7Donald R. Kelley, François Hotman: A Revolutionary’s Ordeal, (Princeton University Press, 1973), esp. 101-25, 172-3; John Witte, The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism, (Cambridge University Press, 2007), 8-10, 81-207, and Julian H. Franklin (translator and editor), Constitutionalism and Resistance in the Sixteenth Century: Three Treatises by Hotman, Beza, and Mornay, (New York: Pegasus, 1969).

Predictably, Groen then turns to consider the protestant reformation. Did the reformation in some way open the door to the revolution of 1789? Groen observes that the Reformation called for freedom from tradition only where tradition contradicted Scripture. At the same time, “liberty,” including “freedom of religion,” was not the first objective of the reformation. Indeed, the first reformers were conspicuously submissive to the dynastic rulers of the day (UR, 72-75). After the Reformation, as dead orthodoxy came to prevail, protestant leaders often displayed hostility towards the spiritual vitality of early evangelicalism (UR, 79-80).

Here Groen makes two assertions. Firstly, the only effective response to revolutionary ideologies is the Christian gospel. This is where the centrality of the reformed emphasis on preaching the Word of God is evident:

The preaching of the gospel is the lever whereby world history is made to serve the execution of God’s counsel (UR, 81).

These words merit the sustained reflection of all who preach the Word of God, and all who reflect on the meaning of human history. Secondly, and alongside this insight, Groen issues a sobering warning—especially to those Protestants who have forsaken the faith of the Reformation and turned their backs on the truth that they previously received. Citing Matthew 12: 43-45 (“the last state … is worse than the first”) he points to the deep perils of Protestant apostasy (UR, 82). When a culture deliberately turns its back on gospel light, the consequences can be very dark. As we might expect, Groen concluded that the Revolution is not to be laid at the feet of the Reformation (UR, 199-200).

Revolution, Unbelief and Culture

In the eighth and ninth lectures, Groen argues that the eighteenth century desired the fruits of a Christian culture while abandoning the foundational doctrines of the faith. It asserted the autonomy of man and rejected the sovereignty of God. This philosophy emerged gradually, with deism functioning as a kind of half-way-house in the process (UR, 85-87, 93). In politics, authority became confused with absolutism and liberty with lawlessness. He observed that the advocates of revolutionary “freedom” were often themselves highly intolerant, and that the promotion of popular sovereignty led to state tyranny (UR, 94, 107). For Groen the spirit of unbelief became ever more apparent in the writings of the enlightenment philosophers (UR, 89-91). Groen pays particular attention to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), whose influence was extensive (UR, 98-103).

In his tenth lecture Groen develops these themes further. The ideologies of Revolution always collide with reality, they fail to deliver because in truth they cannot meet the deepest needs of humankind. These can only be fulfilled in the gospel. In its fervent assertions of human autonomy the revolutionary temperament seeks to banish God, but only and inevitably ends up inventing and worshipping substitute gods. These fail, and the resulting disappointment, or disenchantment, drives men to extremes of even more radical revolution or counter-revolution (UR, 109-111). Groen contended that the Revolution gave rise to despotic forms of rule in order to contain the anarchy that it had itself generated. It was subject to its own inner contradictions. It promised “liberty, equality, and fraternity,” but it moved to an inversion of its own purported ideals—a despotism (or dictatorship) that acknowledged no limits (UR, 114-129). The only remedy is a return to belief in the sovereignty of God in public life (UR, 130-1).

In lectures eleven to fourteen, attention turns to the actual course of events in the pre-Revolution, the Revolution itself, the “Reign of Terror,” the Napoleonic era, and beyond (UR, 135-41). The notion of human autonomy was a key driver of the revolutionary impulse, fermented for a long time prior to the 1789 eruption. Once the revolutionary process was underway the “tide of revolution went further than anyone had intended at the outset” (UR, 173-5). The revolution undermined existing legal structures and gave rise to a political culture much given to mob violence and the coup d’état (UR, 171).

The revolutionaries were typically blind to the consequences of their own dogmas. As the revolutionary momentum increased, and as each party strove for dominance they were in turn overwhelmed by the revolutionary momentum that they sought to direct. The result was “the reign of terror” (1793-4), which for Groen was the most instructive of all episodes (UR, 175), and of whom Maximillian Robespierre (1758-94) was the foremost exemplar (UR, 181-6). Groen regarded Robespierre as exemplifying in his life the teaching and outlook of Rousseau (UR, 194-7). At this time, as in our own, language itself was distorted by revolutionary fervour: the terror was imposed in the name “safety” (UR, 175-8). And when it comes to the Committee for Public Safety, Groen insists that: “even when most horrifying, [their conduct] was the natural consequence of their conviction, the faithful application of the Revolution ideas” (UR, 186). In short, the Revolution could always find ways of justifying its application of revolutionary ideas using barbaric methods. Human rights were not extended to the opponents of the Revolution itself, even as the revolutionaries could be “inhuman for love of humanity” (UR, 187-9, also 220).

In his discussion of the period 1794-1845 in the fourteenth lecture, Groen states that although the terror ended, the Revolution resumed its course. The resulting instability produced a succession of constitutions, which provided a façade behind which brute force could prevail (UR, 201-5). The result was the military dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821). Yet even the Napoleonic era did not see the end of revolutionary policies in Europe (UR, 206-10). The Revolution continued even under the forms of the monarchies restored after the devastation wrought by Napoleon (UR, 212).   

In his concluding fifteenth lecture Groen expands upon this theme. The powers of continental Europe made the error of resisting the Revolution in a revolutionary manner. The one possible exception was England and the “shrewd men” who governed her (UR, 223-4). He held the British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806) in high regard (UR, 15, 224-5 n. 2). Groen feared that post-1814 the Netherlands had become a kind of “revolutionary autocracy” (UR, 237). He spoke out against the way in which education was controlled by this state (UR, 229, 241).

At the same time, Groen was encouraged by the partial recovery of Catholicism and Evangelical Christianity (UR, 230-2). He is clear that Christian principles are strong enough to confront the revolutionary surge, and it is the calling of all Christians to uphold that principle (UR, 242-7). In a passage that anticipates the terrors of the twentieth century and that remains powerfully pertinent today, Groen asserted that:

It may be that without encountering any noteworthy opposition in the Evangelical religion, the radical principle will for a season gain a complete victory. It may be that without any dangerous tensions or conflicts we are heading for a reformation of faith and morals of greater scope than in the age of the Reformation. It may be—and this seems most probable—that we are living in a lull before the storm: that the fermentation of all kinds of ideas and the menacing posture of warring principles portend the coming of a contest between light and darkness whose equal has not been seen before in world history, either in scope or intensity (UR, 232-3).

Given the spiritual condition of the contemporary West, Groen’s arguments continue to be relevant for all Christians seeking to understand and grapple with the spirit of our age.

Debating the French Revolution

And what of Groen’s interpretation of the French Revolution? Has it stood the test of time? Certainly, Groen was greatly indebted to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Burke had grasped the centrality of religion for human life and already in 1789/90 understood the Revolution as a religious event. Burke influenced many historians, for example, Herbert Butterfield (1900-79), who wrote about the Revolution in strongly anti-revolutionary terms.8Herbert Butterfield, Napoleon, (London: Duckworth, 1939), 13-18, and The Englishman and His History, (Cambridge University Press, 1944), 98-117.

The truth is that the Revolution brought forth an array of rival ideological standpoints, and that these have in turn shaped the historiography of the Revolution itself—and ideologies always exhibit their particular reductionism and therefore deceptively oversimplify the complexities that the historian confronts. Marxian accounts tended to reduce matters to the socio-economic, and therefore could not penetrate to the heart of things. In the 1930s and 1940s many historians were influenced by the Marxian standpoint. Georges Lefebvre (1874-1959) offered the most influential Marxian interpretation of the French Revolution at this time.9Georges Lefebvre, The Coming of the French Revolution, (Princeton University Press, 1947); The French Revolution, 2 volumes and Napoleon, 2 volumes, (Columbia University Press, 1962 and 1969).

However, perceptions shifted, and by the 1960s the English historian Alfred Cobban (1901-68) subjected the Marxian interpretation to withering criticism. In France, François Furet (1927-97) led the assault on the Marxian interpretation even more decisively. Indeed, there are significant affinities between the standpoint of Furet and the much earlier L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution by Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59). By the 1980s, the historiographical consensus had settled towards the kind of post-revisionist synthesis exhibited in the work of William Doyle. At the bicentenary many historians were ambivalent—embracing liberalism, but wary of the follies and repelled by the excesses of the Revolution.

In 1969 Richard Cobb (1917-96) wrote that: “despite all the minute analysis of short-term and long-term causes … there still remains a zone d’ombre of impenetrable mystery” about the French Revolution.10Richard C. Cobb, A Second Identity: Essays on France and French History, (London: Jonathan Cape, 1969), 274. The truth is that the repudiation of Christianity lay at the heart of it all (UR, 94), a point that is hard to discern for those who view religion as optional or peripheral to human life. That said, Groen did not rest with what we might call a “mere conservatism.” He penetrated to the spiritual heart of the Revolution because he first held to biblical views concerning the centrality of religion and the human condition.

Harry Van Dyke’s Challenging the Spirit of Modernity: A Study of Groen van Prinsterer’s Unbelief and Revolution (CSM) is a valuable companion volume to UR, providing the reader with contextualising information that helps bridge the gap between Groen’s time and our own. Groen’s life and work are comprehensively described (CSM, 1-100). The sources, style, content, and original audience of the UR lectures are comprehensively discussed (CSM, 128-196), as is his monarchism (CSM, 253-61) and the differences between the UR editions of 1847 and 1868 (CSM, 197-239). 

Groen deserves a wide readership, and these volumes make that possible. For me the following points emerge: Firstly, while all historians are wary of counter-factual speculation, such alternative “what might have been” scenarios do serve to heighten our awareness of the crucial nature of what actually did happen. For example, the fact that France as a nation did not embrace the Calvinistic reformation must be considered as decisive for French, and all European history. The France that eventually fell into revolutionary courses was the France that had already repudiated the Reformation. The negative consequences were immense.

Secondly, Groen (UR, 49, 135, 233) and Van Dyke (129, 302-3) both mention the 1780s Patriot movement in the Netherlands. These Dutch “Patriots” of protestant background strongly influenced the revolutionaries of Paris. Sometimes the enemies of the gospel are closer to hand than its faithful servants realise. Moreover, we should not forget Rousseau’s close connection with Geneva. We need a discerning English language treatment of the revolutionary movement in the Netherlands of the 1780s, written from an authentically anti-revolutionary standpoint.   

Finally, as Van Dyke states, it was Edmund Burke who “caused the scales to fall from Groen’s eyes.” Groen quotes Burke at the crucial points in his argument (CSM, 152-4, cf. UR, 15, 42-3, 49, 88, 94, 134, 165). It is pertinent that Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) declared: “Edmund Burke was an Anti-revolutionary through and through” and proclaimed: “We Dutch Calvinists want to be like Burke.”11Abraham Kuyper, “Calvinism: Source and Stronghold of our Constitutional Liberties,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, edited by James D. Bratt, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1998), 314, 315. Burke was not a hardened conservative—he was in fact a Whig. He supported a young William Wilberforce (1759-1833). His long-term influence helped preserve Great Britain from revolution and in the longer run turned an empire into a commonwealth. 

To read Groen’s Unbelief and Revolution is to realise the debt that he owed to Burke. It is to read a man who influenced Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) and Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). Also, to read Groen is to read a man who offers in-depth insight into the revolutionary temper of the times in which we live.

Keith Sewell is Professor of History Emeritus at Dordt College, Iowa, but resides just out of Melbourne. Before teaching at Dordt he taught history at Deakin University and Presbyterian Ladies' College in Melbourne. He has published widely on evangelical as well as general history, and his doctoral research was on the Christian historian Herbert Butterfield.