Herman Bavinck’s ‘My Journey to America’

My translation of Herman Bavinck’s (short) book, Mijne reis naar Amerika, is now available in Dutch Crossing: Journal for Low Countries Studies (Taylor and Francis).

‘Herman Bavinck’s ‘My Journey to America’

Bavinck travelled to North America in 1892. Although travel journals were relatively commonplace in late nineteenth century Europe (Bavinck’s colleague Abraham Kuyper also published a book, Varia Americana, on his own travels around America), Bavinck’s observations on American culture are fascinating for three reasons.

  1. His travel writing attempts to understand American culture ‘from the bottom up’. He tried to understand the American poor, the working classes, the African-American population. (And in that regard, his book forms a striking contrast with Kuyper’s Varia Americana, which is more focused on those who embodied the American dream – the rich, the powerful, those who had ‘made it’).
  2. His prose is based on the idea that travel is an art, from which a consistently wonder-struck story emerges. This perspective is thoroughly theological.
  3. He deliberately sets out to observe the ‘foreign’, without rushing into value judgments.

The original (unpublished) Dutch notes were transcribed and published by George Harinck in 1998. The Dutch version, published by Uitgeverij Vuurbaak, won the Dutch Royal Library’s 2010 prize for outstanding travel writing.

These original notes are held in the Bavinck Archive at the Historische Documentatiecentrum voor het Nederlands Protestantisme at the VU University Amsterdam.

While in America, he took extensive notes, which were then edited (by hand) into a book form.

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The various drafts of his manuscript include this one – where he leaves a margin on every page for notes, corrections, and even drawings. In this example, where Bavinck describes the layout of a typical American house, he also draws a picture.

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When he returned to the Netherlands, he gave public lectures on his ‘Impressions of America’ (Indrukken van Amerika) – as advertised in the invitation below. The text now available as ‘My Journey to America’ is the content of this lecture.

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In terms of Bavinck’s theology, and specifically his view of Calvinism, ‘My Journey to America’ is particularly interesting because it ends with the line,

Having seen so much that is good, one shrinks back from critique. May American Christianity develop according to its own law. God has entrusted America with its own high and great calling. [May America] strive for it, in its own way. Calvinism, after all, is not the only truth!

Provocative indeed!

 

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