Bavinck on racism in America

Herman Bavinck travelled to North America twice: first as a wide-eyed young theologian in 1892, and later, in a more mature phase of life, in 1908. The purpose of his 1892 trip was to serve as an emissary for the Calvinist movement that had been making great waves in the Netherlands from the late 1870s onwards – a movement that would later become known as neo-Calvinism. Although he found his American audiences were largely unreceptive to his Calvinism (“The American is too aware of himself, he is too much conscious of his power, his will is too strong to be a Calvinist”) he mostly withheld from passing negative judgment on them. Rather, he held tightly to an idealistic philosophy of travel. His notes on this journey begin with,

Travel is an art that one must learn.

Moving oneself easily, opening one’s eyes, preferring observation [to judgment].

Observing, perceiving, and valuing.

At this point in his life, he was committed to the idea that travel was wasted on those who disdained the foreign on account of its otherness. Far better, he thought, to train one’s eye to appreciate the delight of the foreign. For that reason, then, he largely held back from criticising American culture for whatever made it unyielding to his Calvinistic charms. Surprisingly to his Dutch audience, he would rather tell them that while Americans were not likely to embrace Calvinism, Christianity would nonetheless survive in the New World because their beloved Calvinism “was not the only truth”.

By the time he returned to America in 1908, to give the Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary (published as Philosophy of Revelation), Bavinck had largely given up on that view of the artfully appreciative globetrotter. He certainly remained diplomatic: on this trip, he and his wife, the gifted Johanna Bavinck-Schippers, were received at the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt (although in private it seems he found the President personally underwhelming). His own public statements to an American audience wrote warmly of their positive impressions of the land and its people.

However, Bavinck was now 54, and had become much less careful about speaking his mind on foreign affairs. Various aspects of American culture troubled him: teenagers openly showing disrespect for their elders, a public school system that he thought was a training ground for unbelief, the fact that many Americans retired without pensions, and so on. The most troubling aspect of American culture, though, by some way, was its deep-seated racism – a topic covered in his journal entries during the trip, and in public lectures across the Netherlands following his return. In a journal entry from that period, he wrote about how “a Southerner” had told him African Americans were “not humans” (rather, he was told, they were a mixture of human and ape). This shocked him. (By this point, in the Reformed Dogmatics he had already written an elaborate account of the imago Dei as the entire, organically united human race. And shortly after this trip, he took an anti-apartheid stand at the Vrije Universiteit.)

His American notes list things he was told by white Americans about their African American neighbours (that they steal, that they were given to immorality, etc). In response, his notes show that he tried to understand the African American experience by reading authors like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois: the picture above this post is taken from a manuscript on race showing Du Bois in the centre of his reading list. Bavinck’s response, ultimately, was to condemn white Americans on account of their “prostitution, alcohol, and mammonism [i.e. love of money]”. On this point, the mature Bavinck did not hold back: because of its racism, America was “a disaster”.

In his public lectures on his impressions of America, he made dire forecasts on the future of a country founded on enslaved labour, and warned young Dutch people not to emigrate there. He predicted increasing violence and bloodshed on account of racial hatred, and even contemplated publicly that this would lead the American experiment to fail altogether. In a lecture in Rotterdam in 1909, for example, he warned that,

In the future, there truly lurks a danger, and in the future a struggle will doubtless be fought between black and white, a heated struggle, fanned into flame by the strong antipathy on both sides.

Strikingly, in one public lecture, he argued that only “the way of religion” could prevent this future violence: the gospel teaches people that “the whole human race is of one blood”. Even then, it seems, Bavinck was struck by the reality of American segregated church attendance. Hope for the future, he thought, “was still far off”. In contrast to the breezy travel writings produced through his 1892 voyage, his notes in 1908 are traumatic.

What might Bavinck have said, had he crossed the Atlantic in 2021, to the America known by George Floyd, or Ahmaud Arbery? I think he would not have held back. Once again, observation would have to give way to judgment.

I have written in more detail on Bavinck and race, as well as his journeys to (and views on) America in Bavinck: A Critical Biography (Baker Academic, 2020).

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