Unbelief and Revolution

The above caption is the title of a book written about a hundred years ago in the Netherlands, by the Christian statesman and author, Groen van Prinsterer.

It was written in connection with the very concrete historical struggle of unbelief and its consequences in the economy of the state as it appeared in the terrible French Revolution.

There were in the life of the author some very favorable circumstances that made such a work possible and successful. Groen van Prinsterer lived in the most intimate connection with the terrible seething revolutionary developments of his time.

Born in 1801 of wealthy and cultured parents he had the choicest education of his day and in his early twenties he already used the classic languages with great adeptness and spoke the European languages as readily as his own native tongue.

He was a young man of only 26 years when he already became secretary of the King’s cabinet and in this position he was required to travel to the neighboring countries as minister extra-ordinary.

It was in connection with this office that he received the responsible task of editing the Archives of the House of Orange-Nassau, a task that occupied him for some 25 years (1835-61) yielding a work of thirteen volumes, known at that time as one of the most fruitful and informative sources of history and statesmanship, in which Groen was also several times elected to the Dutch Parliament, a great mass of writings issued —series of articles, instructions and advices, documented proposals of legislation, eloquent parliamentary speeches and debates, and several, yes, many books.

And since the same spirit that manifested itself in the French Revolution inevitably drifted over the borders into Netherland, Groen was led to hold a series of readings with a group of his personal friends in his private study.

The content of these readings was published in 1847, in the book entitled “Ongeloof en Revolutie”, and a second publication in 1868.

It is to be regretted that such a book is not available in our English language. It is a book of which Dr. Bavink, borrowing the old simile, says in the foreword to the Second Edition, “. . . there are a few books which, just as the staff of Moses among the staves of the magicians, have a devouring power. This book has such a devouring power that it consumes other books.”

The book in its present form is uninviting to the reader. It is known that Groen as a Christian statesman and forerunner of Dr. Abraham Kuyper was a general without an army. He did not have the gift of writing for the common people. Anyone who reads this book will understand this. The organization is not perspicuous; the style carries the stamp of his aristocratic spirit. It is overloaded with tedious parenthetical over-dignified reflections, with cumbersome qualifications made enpassable and it carries the mark of its surroundings with its German and French documentation.

But there is, of course, something else that makes this book so valuable for us today. It is not merely because it is a great source on the history of the revolution. Rather it is because of the ringing Christian testimony that sounds thru it. It is the book of a Christian historian and a Christian statesman. At the age of twenty-eight years the author saw the impossibility of a mediating to a deep principle change that grew through the years. It is echoed in the theme of his humble motto: Not a statesman am I, but a witness of the Gospel.

And as a real Christian statesman, pioneering a path through the confusion of his own time he was a lone figure. There were Christian statesmen of a fashion in his day, and he repeatedly refers to them with appreciation. Among them Friedrich Stahl, a Christian with a ‘“Lutheran view of the state; and Francois Guizot who as a Christian, and a first-rank statesman nevertheless, unbelievable as it may seem, supported the French Revolution for 30 years “before the lightning-stroke of 1848 opened his eyes.”

In such a world Groen wrote his book.

And now the ruling theme of the book is that the abandonment of faith in the God of the Scriptures must inevitably bring the dissolution of order and law in life and society and the state. That is the theme supported with great masses of material and true Christian insight.

And that is a wonderful thing for us to hear and see in our day of growing Atheism, and at the same time of hopeful clinging to the back-log of conservative, traditional forms.

There is much in this work that causes us to open our eyes in the day in which we live with its constant agitation for change, for radical reconstruction.

Groen takes great pains to show that the revolution and Reign of Terror was not really caused and necessitated by the evils and wrongs and maladministrations of the foregoing years and generations. Many of the goals which ancient statesmen, philosophers and social leaders had envisioned for a happy world had been approximated. And many of the evils which were ascribed to the late ages were grossly exaggerated. Certainly the authority of princes had not degenerated into boundless despotism. The mutual relation between the provinces and crown was far from senseless and intolerable. He makes the strong statement that the 18th Century was free from the feudal burden of the 10th and from the religious wars and the princely tyrannies of the 16th. The griefs were to a great extent unreal and existed only in the imagination of those whose memories were systematically refreshed regarding this distant past by revolutionary leadership. Had the evils been much greater than they really were, they would still not have caused the revolution.

These things are worthy of our consideration in our own world where hand in hand with a climbing standard of living there is always the complaint of injustice, inequality, oppression, enslavement.

And over against this trumped-up cause for the anarchy and reign of bloodshed and pillage and incendiarism, Groen asserts and defends with great masses of documentation the judgment that the true cause was the unbelief in God, the reign of reason, the glamor of individualism and a new false freedom for all and every one.

And his pervading emphasis is that this outcome was inevitable. It was the logical outcome of a principle. “We are inclined to launch the charge of anarchy and despotism against leaders such as Robespierre and Napoleon, and of Atheism and rebellion against such as Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau. And rightly so. But they were also the tools of the spirit of their time (Tijdgeest). They were the mouth-piece rather than the teachers of the populace; leaders to urge a step farther that which could not be halted.”

But he goes farther than this by pointing out that even the most horrible of the terrorists were not really men naturally more vicious and cruel than those who hesitated and checked themselves, but were only more courageous in carrying out the fundamental principles which all alike held essentially.

This principle could not rest until that vaunted freedom, in which all were to enjoy the wealth and riches of all, should become a reality.

And so one of the leaders of the revolution, most lusciously enriched by the socialistic “equalization” closes his “History of the Revolution” with the statement, “The freedom has not come; it will come.”

It is a mirage by which man is stimulated to strive, to hope. But it is a vain hope that ends in destruction.

In a moving close our author holds before his friends the call of the hour. “We may have little power and that is also our guilt and shame. But let us not pause there. Let us rather point each other to the only fountain from whence freely flows all the strength we need…at the foot of the cross which has by God’s mercy become for us a tree of life … peace through the blood of the cross, an offer which has paid the ransom for many, working a change of heart and issuing in love and good works, of which the Saviour Himself testified, “I thank thee Father, Lord of heaven and earth that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent and hast revealed them to babes” … In this humble submission we shall not strive after high things but condescend to men of low estate, and shall cast down every high thing and lead our thoughts into the obedience of Christ. And let us remember that no work of ours is of any value to Him who knows our hearts unless it is sanctified by these two places, “God be merciful to me a sinner” and the other “my soul cleaves to the dust, make me alive according to thy Word.”

I wonder how well we are aware of the pertinence of this testimony in our day in our lives, with its turmoil in home and abroad, in society and in government.

The forsaking of God brings destruction of the state inevitably.

And we are seeing the forsaking of God on every hand before our eyes…

Do we know where we stand and how to stand in such an age?