The years 1904–5 seemed to mark the birth of neo-Calvinist political economy in the Netherlands. It was then that three jurists affiliated with the Free University of Amsterdam, an institution founded by the theologian Abraham Kuyper, published their first economic writings. This article deals with the rise of neo-Calvinist political economy, which mirrored the emergence of Catholic economic thought that took place in precisely the same period, and seeks to explain where the ideal of this religious approach to economics came from. It describes the awakening of a socioeconomic commitment in Dutch Réveil circles, the influence of Thomas Chalmers's Christian political economy on the antirevolutionary statesman Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer, and the place of economics in Kuyper's neo-Calvinist worldview. It is shown that Groen van Prinsterer's desire to infuse economic science with biblical views was eventually replaced by Kuyper's vision of formulating a full-fledged Calvinist alternative to mainstream economics. Despite some attempts at Calvinist political economy at the dawn of the nineteenth century, this project never really got off the ground.
Dealing with “contemporary theological economics,” the second part of The Oxford Handbook of Christianity and Economics (Oslington 2014) presents the approaches to economics of seven different Christian traditions. Some of them have led to distinctively Christian systems of economics, of which Roman Catholic economics and Reformed Christian economics (Yuengert 2014; Goudzwaard and Jongeneel 2014) are arguably the oldest. The former is closely related to Catholic social teaching that emerged with Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical letter Rerum Novarum. Interestingly, most Reformed Christian approaches to economics can ultimately be traced back to the year 1891 as well. Back then the famous Dutch theologian, politician, and journalist Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920) gave an influential speech on the relevance of Christianity for the so-called social question of poverty and unemployment. With reference to Pope Leo, Kuyper implicitly called for a neo-Calvinist science of political economy as an alternative to the “liberal economic school.”
Needless to say, many more professional economists and economic thinkers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century were religiously inspired (e.g., Bateman and Banzhaf 2008). To them the Christian faith either formed an inspiration to engage in economics or somehow informed their economic theories. However, they generally saw no need to devise systems of Christian economics. Typical for a neo-Calvinist political economy is that it was empathically based on and built from Calvinist “principles,” as Kuyper and his followers liked to call it. These included such central Calvinist notions as creation order, divine sovereignty, and sin and grace.
Rather than a denomination or theology, Dutch neo-Calvinism was a religious and social reform movement instigated by Kuyper in the second half of the nineteenth century. In response to the 1789 French Revolution and its liberal influences in European society, it sought to develop a comprehensive Calvinist worldview and philosophy of life. According to Kuyper, Calvinism in its purest form was a vital power with a bearing on the whole of human life, including science, politics, business, and art. He regarded other possible worldviews as fundamentally religious perspectives opposing each other and presented neo-Calvinism as a superior alternative. The idea of an “antithesis” between worldviews that either accept or reject God's sovereignty over all creation had direct implications for academia. In economics, the fact that existing schools of thought could be linked to different, non-Christian ideologies cried for the development of a truly Christian and hence Calvinist approach. Kuyper's call for a neo-Calvinist political economy, which he repeated several times in the 1880s and 1890s, was finally answered in the early twentieth century.
Between 1904 and 1905, the leading Dutch economic journal, De Economist, reviewed four attempts at “Calvinist political economy.”1 Their publication marks what appeared to be the birth of neo-Calvinist economics in the Netherlands. What their authors had in common is that they were jurists affiliated or associated with the Free University (Vrije Universiteit) of Amsterdam and—former, in one case—members of the Anti-Revolutionary Party in the Dutch parliament and the Reformed Churches (Gereformeerde Kerken, a split-off from the major Dutch Reformed Church). All three—the Free University, the Anti-Revolutionary Party, and the Reformed Churches—were creations (respectively in 1880, 1879, and 1892) of Kuyper as corollaries of his neo-Calvinist project. For reasons to be discussed below, Calvinist economics was not long-lived and basically died in an embryonic state. One of its protagonists, P. A. Diepenhorst (1879–1953), was to lecture on economics at Kuyper's Free University for over forty years but failed to erect a system or school of neo-Calvinist economics.
The neo-Calvinist engagement in economics during this period has been outlined elsewhere (Knol 1980; Hengstmengel 2013). More interesting—from a history of economics perspective—than the failed project of neo-Calvinist economics is its germination period in the nineteenth century. Just like early Roman Catholic economics, the simultaneous neo-Calvinist attempt built on earlier reflections on the relationship between the science of political economy and religion. These ideas stemming from the tradition of the Dutch Réveil have never been described and are central to this article. It examines the tradition of orthodox Christian and, later, neo-Calvinist thinking about economics from the Réveil and its most prominent member, the leading antirevolutionary politician Groen van Prinsterer, to Kuyper and beyond. Showing that the ideal of a Christianized economics first developed in Dutch Réveil circles, it argues that the Réveil's desire to infuse the science of political economy with Christian views was eventually replaced by Kuyper's vision of a distinctively neo-Calvinist economics.
The remainder of this article is organized as follows. The next section discusses the Dutch Réveil movement and explains where its socioeconomic interest came from. I then zoom in on Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer (1801–76). “Groen,” for short, was one of the first to express the need for a political economy “with the Gospel,” and as an advocate of a historical approach to economic questions he has been identified as a forerunner of the historical school in the Netherlands (Diepenhorst 1932: 484, 487). The article then moves to Kuyper and shows his role, both institutionally and substantively, in developing an explicitly neo-Calvinist version of political economy. Regarding himself as “merely an amateur economist,” Kuyper viewed the science of political economy through the lens of the problem of poverty and unemployment, and he sympathized with the German historical school. The penultimate section describes the actual birth of Dutch Calvinist political economy at the beginning of the twentieth century. The final section discusses why in the end the Calvinist school envisioned by Kuyper did not get off the ground and draws some parallels with the history of Roman Catholic economics.
The Economic Interest of the Dutch Réveil
The Réveil (“revival” or “awakening”) was a nineteenth-century international revival movement that sought to revitalize and modernize Protestantism. In response to the influence of Enlightenment rationalism in theology, it stressed the importance of individual piety as well as the unity of Christian doctrine, experience, and practice. Having originated in Swiss and southeastern French Protestantism in the 1810s, the Réveil soon blew over to other European countries, including the Netherlands (Kluit 1970, 1976). The Dutch branch, with the poet Willem Bilderdijk (1756–1831) as its spiritual father, was of an orthodox Protestant nature and placed great value on individual religious conversion and experience. It came into existence in the 1820s with weekly meetings of like-minded adherents in Amsterdam and lasted until the 1860s when the so-called Confessional Movement within the Dutch Reformed Church was established.
Initially, the interdenominational Dutch Réveil was little interested in social and economic questions. Bilderdijk showed scant evidence of a social consciousness, which was little developed before 1850 anyway (Brugmans 1929: 193–95). One did not distinguish a working class yet and generally regarded the various ranks in society as God-willed. The poor were privately supported and were expected to be content with their position. If Bilderdijk feared anything, it was not the tensions between labor and capital but the capitalist spirit as such (van Eijnatten 1998: 573–80). He associated trade and commerce aimed at profit making rather than the satisfaction of basic needs with sin and the loss of aristocratic virtues. He feared that the commercialization of society infected people with greed for money and would lead to the collapse of ancient hierarchies and ranks. Bilderdijk's elitist aversion to the capitalist spirit is clear from his thirteen-volume History of the Fatherland (1832–51), and it also occurs in his vast correspondence with H. W. Tydeman, one of the pioneers of the science of political economy in the Netherlands.
In the 1840s, Bilderdijk's pupils such as Isaac da Costa and Groen van Prinsterer were among the first publicists in the country to signal the downsides of the nascent industrialization (Ridder 1944; Deij 1991; cf. de Graaf 1923). They saw a causal link between the industrial revolution of their day and growing pauperism, which they found inadmissible in a Christian society. In his poems, da Costa envisioned an “insurmountable war between poor and rich,” caused by egoism, unbridled competition, and the ever-increasing power of capital. Some of these themes were handed to him by his friend Willem van Hogendorp, who was among the first in Réveil circles to combine his religious convictions with social concerns (Sneller 1922a, 1922b). The eldest son of Gijsbert Karel van Hogendorp, the godfather of Dutch academic economics, he sided with Adam Smith's view that no society can be called happy of which a great part of the members is poor. Willem van Hogendorp feared that industrialization would lead to increasing economic inequality. The concentration of capital could not but result in a decrease of wages and impoverishment of laborers. The use of machinery on the one hand generated leisure, but on the other hand it aggravated economic differences. Unfortunately, van Hogendorp died too young to develop his views into an economic theory.
As of 1845, the Dutch Réveil entered its second phase. Its focus shifted from individual piety to social commitment, resulting in numerous initiatives in charity, education, mission, and politics. Its members, beginning with Rev. O. G. Heldring, came up with all kinds of philanthropic initiatives that they combined with evangelization. Unlike socialists and communists, whom they held for revolutionaries, they stressed the importance of noninstitutional, private charity. Poverty ultimately was a moral problem that required religious education, self-help, and—as a last resort— private donations. This precisely was the solution to poverty proposed by the Scottish theologian, political economist, and social reformer Thomas Chalmers (1780–1847), an “excellent writer” who enjoyed great popularity in the Dutch Réveil movement. Particularly Groen van Prinsterer (1856: 428; cf. 1925–92, 3:63) was very pleased with Chalmers's views, using them in parliament to attack the “system of charité légale.” As Groen saw it, the belief that the poor had a state-guaranteed right to live eventually destroyed the very idea of Christian charity.
The interest of the Réveil in such problems as poverty, labor conditions, and unemployment was also of a theoretical nature.2 Their economic contributions could be found in two periodicals, Dutch Voices (Nederlandsche stemmen), edited by da Costa, H. J. Koenen, A. M. C. van Hall, and Willem de Clercq, and the Association: Christian Voices (De vereeniging: christelijke stemmen). According to its editor in chief, Heldring (1863: 244), the latter journal was “not committed to political economy” and discussed economic subjects from a “practical point of view.” Over the years, Heldring himself contributed various pieces on poverty, child labor, and the asylum he founded for ex-prostitutes. Dutch Voices, by contrast, had academic ambitions and interestingly paid attention to political-economic questions too. The first volume contained articles on labor, class struggle, wealth, money, and population written by the jurists Koenen and van Hall.3
Initially, da Costa called the “ideal of économie politique,” of increasing production without labor, immoral and even antireligious because it thwarted the divine verdict of working by the sweat of one's brow. The economic contributions to both Dutch Voices and Christian Voices, however, were rather critical of the prevailing systems of political economy, not of the new science per se. Van Hall explained that political economy, like any other branch of science, depended on God's blessing. While the new study was open to Christians, they had to be careful, as it was dominated by a “liberal and thoroughly materialistic school.” The same author in the article on wealth claimed that writers on political economy had, from the outset, tried to dispense with religion and revealed truth. This explained why they defined value and wealth in purely materialistic terms and ignored the link between piety and welfare.
One of the articles of the “Political Considerations” section of Christian Voices (9 : 533–38) presented a comparison between the liberal system of political economy and the antirevolutionary view. The author—probably the later antirevolutionary politician A. Mackay—argued that in the liberal system “materialism, particularly the promotion of material interest, is the prevailing spirit. Political economy is the gospel of the liberals, and contemporary political economy is thoroughly materialistic,—a genuine worldly wisdom, which connects cause and effect so that there is no place left for God's blessing and influence.”4 Equally concerned as he is with the people's material interests, the anonymous author continued, the antirevolutionary does not stick to the material. He links material welfare to higher principles and reckons with God's indispensable blessing. “He highly appreciates the lessons of political economy but does not accept it as a conclusive authority.”
With their tentative critique of classical economic doctrine in the 1830s, the Réveilistes in the Netherlands were ahead of their time. At the time political economy in the Netherlands was strongly influenced by the English and French classical school (Hasenberg Butter 1969; Zuidema 1992). Central figures who transmitted and shaped the liberal doctrines were H. W. Tydeman, J. Ackersdijk, S. Vissering, and N. Pierson. From the 1820s to the 1830s, political economy was taught at law faculties throughout the country. Jurists by training, Dutch professors of political economy were preoccupied with practical economic problems and initially mainly produced translations from English, French, and German. Their economics was basically a liberal apology for freedom of production and trade. A few exceptions aside, there was no need for economic interventions, as the economy was ruled by immutable economic laws. Réveilistes such as Groen were cautious about government interference as well but for different, noneconomic reasons (Boschloo 1989: 70–73). It is to this most prominent member of the revival movement that we now turn.
Groen van Prinsterer on Oeconomia Politica
Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer was a self-declared layman in economics. As compared to some of his colleagues in Dutch parliament who counted as specialists, Groen had very limited knowledge of political economy, which he admitted in various debates (1850: 191; 1851: 167; 1857: 424; cf. van Malsen 1923). Even though his private library did contain several titles on political economy, near the end of his life he still could not answer Kuyper's inquiry for “the best, most Christian-Historical work written on political economy” (1925–92, 6:321–22). His lack of economic expertise did not stop Groen from participating in debates on political-economic questions in the House of Representatives. He, for example, spoke on colonial issues, freedom of navigation, specific taxes and duties, and the question of poverty, trusting more on practical and historical experience than theoretical knowledge (for details, see Diepenhorst 1932: chap. 12).
One of Groen's opponents claimed that his ignorance in economics sat well with the antirevolutionary undervaluation of the new science. He quoted Groen's newspaper the Dutchman (De Nederlander), which once spoke of “idle speculations of a science falsely so called” (Fruin 1854: 86). In reality, Groen van Prinsterer did see the importance of the new science of political economy. “The Oeconomia Politica,” he wrote upon one occasion, “is an invaluable science, practiced far too faintly in our fatherland. But, with the full excellence of its research and effort, it becomes powerless or at least comparatively infertile, when it seeks its strength in material considerations only” (1849: 246–47). Groen, of course, could not suspect that these lines would become programmatic: they were quoted by virtually all later neo-Calvinist writers on economics. What Groen responded to was the idea that political economy could dispense with religious considerations. He believed that the science promoted systems idolizing the material (1872: 211). As a matter of fact, welfare, morality, and piety were closely related. Dutch economic history provided ample evidence that there is “no welfare without morality, and no morality that has no higher foundation than self-interest well-understood.” Poverty bred immorality, but vice versa immorality resulted in poverty. Therefore, political economists better acknowledged the basis of morality, namely, piety.
Groen van Prinsterer's ideal of a nonmaterialistic political economy, which set the agenda for one and a half centuries of Reformed economic thought, stemmed from at least three sources. As we have seen, it was common first of all in Dutch Réveil circles. In the early 1830s, Koenen wrote to Groen that liberalism and materialism negatively affected economic practice. As da Costa had pointed out in his private lectures (possibly those on national history held in 1831–32), Koenen continued, “even the oeconomia politica has, or at least depends on, higher and religious principles” (Groen van Prinsterer 1925–92, 5:26). Koenen knew what he was talking about since he came from a wool trader's family and published various studies on the history of Dutch trade (policy), manufacturing, and agriculture, based on lectures he gave for the economy department of the Amsterdam society Felix Meritis. He advocated a historical approach to political-economic questions, and as an antirevolutionary he defended freedom of trade.
A second and perhaps more important source of Groen's ideal was Chalmers. Groen's writings and correspondence show that he and his friends were inspired not only by Chalmers's views on church and education (Harinck 2013) but also by his views on political economy. A writer on Christian political economy who devoted himself to the poor, the Scotsman was a shining example of how sound theory and practical experience could go hand in hand (Groen van Prinsterer 1848: 108; 1857: 570). Immediately following the statement on oeconomia politica provided above, Groen quoted Chalmers's On the Christian and Economic Polity of a Nation to support his idea that economic welfare depended on religion and morality. According to Chalmers, the great problems of society in his day could be solved only if economists and divines joined forces and came to recognize morality as a shared interest. Temporal blessings were to be expected only if religion nurtured morality. Groen (1857: 570–71) later quoted the same words in parliament to substantiate his claim that temporal blessings could not be viewed separately from a people's highest, religious interests.
A final source of inspiration was Friedrich Julius Stahl's analysis of socialism and communism. In his private notes for his political activities, Groen (1990: 211, 270) justified the study of political economy by referring to Stahl's Philosophy of Law (1847: 323). In the corresponding section, Stahl argued that socialism and communism were logical consequences of the materialistic worldview that began with Locke, Helvétius, and others. To the three other slogans—down with Christianity, kingship, and marriage—they added another: down with property. However destructive for the divine moral order, socialism and communism in Stahl's eyes did respond to a basic need, to wit, the satisfaction of man's material needs that is part of the moral order of life. Both isms contained elements of truth in criticizing extreme inequality and poor labor conditions but meanwhile proposed perverse solutions—hence the importance of adopting the socialist concern, which is of a nationalökonomischer nature, in a more comprehensive view of human society. As Groen summarized it, in socialism one should not condemn oeconomia politica per se. Rather than rejecting it, one must “strive for a better political economy.”
Building on Stahl, Groen van Prinsterer's main contribution to the later project of neo-Calvinist economics was an account of the dangers of isms in political economy (see 1848: 37–46; cf. Woldring and Kuiper 1980: 28–29, 38–40). Liberalism, socialism, and communism he regarded as three branches of the same revolutionary—and hence atheistic—principle. The spirit of the French Revolution abolished traditional economic structures and replaced them with such liberal ideals as free trade and unbridled competition. No wonder that capitalists and workers came to oppose each other, resulting in growing poverty and unemployment. The so-called social question, or “state of the lower class by which, in the midst of the bread-drunkenness of wealthy idlers, in nameless misery, it has neither money nor work” (1848: 72), could therefore be directly linked to the principle of revolution (1847: 2, 405; 1848: 83–84). The widespread pauperism of the mid-nineteenth century was not an isolated phenomenon but the effect of pernicious doctrines in political and economic theory. Ideas had consequences.
In a way socialism and communism were perfectly understandable reactions to society's economic disorder, Groen (1849: 51–52) argued. Their most remarkable characteristic was not their fallaciousness but their irrefutable correctness. They would be right if there were no faith in the living God. However, born from irreligious love and humanity, socialism and communism failed to recognize the root of socioeconomic evil: sin. In their exclusive focus on the material aspect, attack on private property, and denial of individual liberty, they were themselves applications of the doctrine of unbelief. Socialism, “the political economy of the Revolution” or “radical oeconomia politica” (1868: 412–13n), was a utopian dream. Communism, in turn, came down to large-scale looting and thus was a downright sin against the divine commandment “Thou shall not steal.” But as communists responded to a legitimate concern caused by sin and unbelief, one should either “return to God or turn to communism,” Groen quoted his friend Mackay (Mackay 1848: xv).
Abraham Kuyper and the Social Question
Groen van Prinsterer (1868: 413) believed that “the key to the future” lay in adequately addressing the problem of poverty and unemployment. This theoretical and practical task he largely left to others while recommending the German bishop Von Ketteler (1811–77) for further reading (Groen van Prinsterer 1868: 413n). The next character in our story, Groen's follower Kuyper, took this advice to heart. Alarmed by the working and living conditions of Dutch laborers, Kuyper, at that time pastor in the city of Utrecht, started to read and write about the “social question.” It all began in 1869 when he borrowed one of Von Ketteler's books, probably Die Arbeitersfrage und das Christenthum (The Laborers Question and Christianity, 1864), from Groen van Prinsterer's wife. Kuyper came to realize that the social question was essentially a moral and religious problem, and that those who neglected its spiritual roots only worsened it. Poverty and unemployment occupied him until his death, resulting in various writings, speeches, and practical activities, in his role as both theologian and antirevolutionary politician (Kuyper  provides an English anthology). Kuyper's best-known contribution is his famous address The Social Question and the Christian Religion, delivered at the First Christian-Social Congress in the Netherlands in 1891. It can be seen as the neo-Calvinist equivalent of Rerum Novarum from the same year, which built on the work of Von Ketteler as well.
Kuyper opened his address by observing that the Christian-Social Congress came too late rather than too early. The Christliche Arbeiterspartei in Berlin, Christian Socialists in London, the Genevan Société Chrétienne Suisse pour l’économie sociale, and the Roman Catholic school of Von Ketteler and Frédéric Le Play in many ways preceded it. Meanwhile, Kuyper and his people stood in a venerable tradition. Had not “God-given leaders” such as Bilderdijk, da Costa, and Groen called attention to the social question well before Marx founded his First International? In what followed, Kuyper discussed the close link between the social question and the Christian religion, the causes of the socioeconomic problems of his day (the individualism of the French Revolution and, ultimately, sin), the varieties of socialism from nihilism and anarchism to state socialism, and the solution to the question (a restoration of society based on biblical principles). Such an analysis, Kuyper argued, should have been done by Christian thinkers twenty or thirty years before. It was precisely in the thorough study of the social question that the power of socialism lay. “Also on our side, there must be study and work. One won't get further with the social question by sentimental talk or superficial generalities,” he wrote in a footnote (1891: 70).
As far as “study and work” were concerned, Kuyper practiced what he preached. Between 1869, the year that he borrowed Von Ketteler's book, and 1891 alone, he studied a great many writings on political economy (Hengstmengel 2021). It strengthened his belief inherited from the Réveil that from classical economics no good was to be expected. Adam Smith's liberal economic school was a typical product of the French Revolution that had only worsened the deep social distress. Its “mercantile gospel” of laissez faire, laissez passer had resulted in a struggle for money and hence a struggle for life in society (Kuyper 1891: 28, 21). The (German) historical school, by contrast, which began to influence Dutch academic political economy in the 1860s and 1870s (Tieben and Schoorl 2016), won Kuyper's sympathy. It introduced an “ethical element” in an otherwise “egoist” economic science. In the Dutch parliament, Kuyper as antirevolutionary politician once openly sided with the historical school of Henry C. Carey, Friedrich List, and Wilhelm Roscher. Christian political parties, he claimed, could not but applaud the rise of this school that “put forward the national element against the cosmopolitan, the social and organic against the individualistic, and no less the ethical against the Mammonist” (Kuyper 1908: 213). Their ways parted, however, where the Germans preferred evolutionary principles over the mandates of scripture.
Nowhere in his works does Kuyper explicitly speak of “Calvinist political economy.” All the same, a distinct Christian economics was a natural corollary of his neo-Calvinism. In this respect, he diverged from his political mentor Groen, who envisioned a revision of political economy as it existed in his day. Witnessing a statement like “no effective political economy without the Gospel” (Groen, in da Costa 1872: 28n3), he wanted to infuse economic science with evangelical notions. Kuyper's idea of an antithesis between Christian and non-Christian thought, by contrast, required a more fundamental reformation of political economy.5 According to Kuyper (1874), an example of a truly Christian economist was the founder of Christian socialism, Frederick D. Maurice (1805–72). Since copies of his Lectures on Social Morality, which Kuyper valued highly, were scarce, he decided to devote a feuilleton of eight parts in De Standaard, a newspaper of which he was editor in chief, to “Maurice, the Christian-economist” (Kuyper 1874–75). Unfortunately, he did not explain what made Maurice an economist.
To Kuyper, a Christian system of political economy had to be rebuilt from the ground up. Although he himself outlined its preconditions (Hengstmengel 2021), the task of actually designing it had to be shouldered by others, preferably in academia. If any place was predestined for this purpose, it was the university on Calvinist principles he helped to found in 1880: the Amsterdam Free University—“free” meaning free from government interference and ecclesiastical supervision, and to distinguish it from the older University of Amsterdam. For nearly fifty years, Kuyper's Free University had only three departments, a Faculty of Theology, a Faculty of Law, and a Faculty of Letters, of which the second was responsible for the study of political economy. In his speech at the dedication of the Free University, Kuyper stressed the importance of having an own Faculty of Law to be able to oppose “the prevailing political economy, the current business practices, and the rapacious nature of social relationships” (1880: 34).
The Birth of Neo-Calvinist Political Economy
Kuyper's ideal of Calvinist political economy remained unanswered for a long time. Over ten years later, in his opening address at the Christian-Social Congress, he regretfully observed that the Calvinists had “not yet produced any [economic] expert; none of us at this congress stands out as specialist in political economy” (Kuyper 1891: 5). Impressed by the congress in which he actively participated, one of the trustees of the Free University, Anthony Brummelkamp Jr., proposed that the Faculty of Law should take the lead in the academic world in formulating a Christian perspective on the social question (van Deursen 2005: 58, 96–98). The idea was to have a course on the social question open to theology students, who would face socioeconomic issues in their future role as ministers of the Gospel. The professors were unwilling to expand their workloads, though, seeing that the study of political economy demanded one's full attention. Only in 1895, W. H. de Savornin Lohman was found willing to teach a course on economie politique, but he soon after resigned as a professor.
Before 1883 and after 1896 the Faculty of Law had only one professor, D. P. D. Fabius (1851–1931; see de Gaay Fortman 1932), and a handful of students. Due to his solitary position, Fabius could teach only one or two courses a year and hardly paid any attention to questions of political economy. In his Philosophy of Law course, he occasionally lectured about property and ownership, subjects about which he also reported to the Christian-Social Congress. Only in the academic year 1901–2 did Fabius deal with political economy and statistics as “auxiliary sciences” in the Encyclopaedia of Law course. His later publications, as well as two early articles he wrote as a student (Fabius 1870–71, 1871–72), show that he did have a professional interest in political economy. Resuming Groen van Prinsterer's analysis of liberalism and socialism as fruits of revolutionary thought, Fabius (1898: 91) maintained that “also for political economy the major and first question remains with whom one begins. With God or with man.” This rendered implausible any system founded on anything other than God's Word, whether it was the “old” or “younger” economic school.
In 1905, Fabius published Social Questions. A review in De Economist referred to in the introduction of this article identified it as an attempt at neo-Calvinist political economy. The book shows the influence of Groen van Prinsterer, whom Fabius adored. Its central idea is that while social policies to fight social problems such as unemployment and poverty are necessary, they need to be based on solid principles. Antirevolutionaries are not averse to “social politics,” Fabius argued, but in addressing social questions they do not allow themselves to be swayed by the issues of the day. In what followed, he respectively discussed the duty to labor, the right to employment, the right to labor, strikes, the material conditions of laborers and ways to improve these conditions, and poor relief, while attacking state socialism and engaging with Dutch—mainly University of Amsterdam professor M. W. F. Treub—and foreign political economists.6 The book concluded that if in constitutional law and (political) economy there is no “real reckoning with God” (Fabius 1905: 346), the law will be infringed and the boundaries between state and society will be erased. Fabius's warning that political economists too should not neglect the “divine factor” did not convince at least one reviewer, C. A. Verrijn Stuart. About the essence of Calvinist economics Verrijn Stuart did not find a single word.
One candidate to become the first specialist in political economy at the Free University was Tiemen de Vries (1865–1936; see Langeveld 1993)—or, at least, so he thought himself. Trained as a jurist at the same university, de Vries for many years begged Kuyper in vain for an appointment. This partly explains why his economic writings are packed with references to “Dr. Kuyper.” All the same, he seems to have had a genuine interest in political economy and was a true Kuyperian in socioeconomic questions anyway. His interest in the young science went hand in hand with a fear of socialism, which enjoyed considerable popularity in the Netherlands. As early as 1893, he published a booklet with objections to socialism, claiming that it was materialistic, antireligious, utopian, and revolutionary. Over the years, de Vries, as editor in chief of a local antirevolutionary newspaper, debated prominent socialists, including the well-known anarchist Tjerk Luitjes (de Vries and Luitjes 1893), and delivered various lectures on the dangers of socialism. Existing Christian workmen's associations in the Netherlands such as Patrimonium, De Vries believed, served the true interests of laborers much better.
De Vries's first venture in economics proper, titled Revolution and Evolution in Political Economy, appeared in 1904. It can be regarded as the nascence of neo-Calvinist political economy. A decade earlier, the author had already explicitly stressed the need for such a science. Like the socialists who derived their ideas from learned “armchair socialists,” Christians too needed “scientifically trained men” to deduce an economic view from scripture and to unmask depraved fallacies (de Vries 1894: 7). The latter was precisely what de Vries pursued. Contributing only a little to the construction of a “Calvinist political economy” (de Vries 1904b: 3), he explained how the science had been dominated for over a century by revolutionary and evolutionary ideas. Revolutionary ideas he associated with physiocracy and Smithian political economy. A product of the typically eighteenth-century worldview of rationalism, deism, and unbridled individualism, it preached a “Mammonistic gospel” that led to oppression and overall crisis. Despite the rise of the German historical school, people sought refuge in socialism, Marxism, and the like, which as applications of the “evolutionary dogma” to political economy were even more anti-Christian—hence the vital importance, de Vries ended his lecture, of the further development of “Christian economics.”
Invoking Kuyper's opening address of the Christian-Social Congress, de Vries identified the social question as the most important issue at the turn of the century. The science of political economy he justified on the same ground, defining it as “the social question in scientific form” (de Vries 1904b: 7–8). In his Principles of Political Economy, published later in the same year (and the second title reviewed in De Economist), he similarly argued that in political economy all pressing social questions converged. Whereas the second and third volumes would be devoted to the history and theory of political economy, the first volume offered merely an introduction to the science by discussing its methodology, name, object, division, and relationship to other sciences. Throughout de Vries claimed that the Calvinist worldview is “based on principles, which shed a special light on questions of political economy” (1904a: 5). A fruit of common grace, Calvinist political economy is “receptive” rather than deductive or inductive, and it searches for the divine ordinances of economic life. It views the economy “in the light of Revelation” and “with the recognition of Divine Providence.”
To de Vries's regret, the same year not he but P. A. Diepenhorst was appointed professor of “Economics, Statistics, and Related Subjects” at the Free University. With Fabius, A. Anema, and Diepenhorst, the law department now had three professors, the last of whom offered the long-awaited courses in economics. Other than his dissertation Calvin and Economics (the third title De Economist reviewed), the twenty-five-year-old Diepenhorst had no publications to his name. However, he was known as an outstanding student and competent speaker alike. In 1903 and 1904, Diepenhorst delivered a dozen lectures on socialism and Marxism for antirevolutionary constituencies across the Netherlands. Judging from the newspaper reports, each of them circled around the same theme. According to Diepenhorst (see, e.g., Diepenhorst 1907), too few people were aware of the pernicious principles of socialism. Whereas socialism was antireligious in nature, communism assumed a historical materialism that reduced man to an animal and left no room for God. In that sense, one faced a choice between Marx or Christ. Liberalism could not sufficiently resist socialism and communism since it shared with them a denial of supernatural sovereignty. Only an antirevolutionary politics based on scripture formed a convincing answer to the red specter.
Diepenhorst (1904a: 20–21) did not regard his dissertation on Calvin and economics as a blueprint for Calvinist economics. Without denying the relevance of the Calvinist worldview for the science of economics, he intended it as a historical-economic study. To Diepenhorst, Calvin's work contained a “goldmine of thoughts that have great significance for economics.” Having summarized Calvin's views on interest, commerce, labor, luxury, and communism, the final chapter he accordingly devoted to Calvinism and economics. Contra Herbert Spencer's suggestion that Calvinism, science, and political economy more specifically are mutually exclusive, Diepenhorst argued that the Calvinist worldview cultivates an interest in political economy. He applauded the rise of the German historical school that stressed the need for an “ethical element” and underscored the close relationship between economics and worldview. Meanwhile its historical approach to economics, law, and morality led to an inexcusable relativism. A Calvinist economics, by contrast, departs from the eternal and immutable principles of scripture. It puts God's sovereignty over all of creation—and consequently sin and common grace—in front, thus distinguishing itself from an economics based on the Lutheran or Roman Catholic worldview (1904a: 326).
In his inaugural address given several months later (Diepenhorst 1904b; the fourth title reviewed by De Economist), the newly appointed professor again expressed his conditional preference for the historical school over the classical school. Of course, the aversion of classical economics was a constant in antirevolutionary thought, but its influence remained undiminished, as Diepenhorst showed in an intellectual tour of various European countries. A fruitful development of economics at the Free University and elsewhere required a break from the principles of classical economics. These included self-interest, which basically functioned as natural law, and a natural-scientific search for economic laws. Regarding the homo economicus assumption as its gravest mistake, Diepenhorst continued by criticizing the abstract, materialistic, and ahistorical nature of classical economics that consistently ignored spiritual—religious, legal, and moral—aspects. As the main cause, he identified its underlying deism, calling it “nothing but a gilded atheism.” What was needed in economics, Diepenhorst concluded in his address, was more intellectual depth. This precisely a Calvinist economics could offer.
In the first year of his professorate, Diepenhorst lectured about economics and statistics. The former offered a historical introduction, covering not only the mercantilists, physiocrats, and classical economists but also Marxism and the historical, mathematical, and Austrian school. The latter schools by now had all penetrated Dutch economic thought (Elzas 1992) and apparently did not escape Diepenhorst's attention. In the second course, which from the next year was dropped from the curriculum, he dealt with the history of statistics and also made a start with the theory of statistics. In the years that followed, he taught two courses a year, one on the principles of economics and one on selected chapters, the subjects of which changed annually. As always, Diepenhorst paid attention to history, theory, and political-economic practice, addressing an audience of only between seven and ten students.
The Project of Calvinist Political Economy
As the first professor of economics at the Free University, Diepenhorst realized that one expected him to develop a Calvinist political economy or economics—as it was by then increasingly known (Diepenhorst 1904b: 41–42; cf. de Bruijn and van der Woude 2003: 16). He could not live up to this high expectation. Although in the course of forty years he wrote numerous (hand)books and articles on economics and political economy, Kuyper's ideal of an economics built from Calvinist principles proved a utopia. Those who knew him well (e.g., Zijlstra , Smeenk , and Sillevis Smitt ) agree that Diepenhorst showed a lack of theoretical originality, which he compensated for with rigor, hard work, and rare productivity. He sympathized with the historical school, but in the end believed that biblical Christians deserved better. A truly Christian and hence Calvinist economics was not constructed from Bible verses, which one had to employ with great caution, but from fundamental Calvinist principles. These principles he kept in mind his entire life, however, without arriving at some sort of system of Calvinist economics.
As one of his students rightly observed (van der Kooy 1953: 342), Diepenhorst was the first and for a long time the only one in his circle to reflect on the relationship between neo-Calvinism and economics. At a later stage, other economists started to contribute as well (Kouwenhoven 1987; Hengstmengel 2013) but either were outside academia (J. A. Nederbragt, 1880–1953), died too young (J. Ridder, 1910–46), or moved in a more ecumenical direction (T. P. van der Kooy, 1902–92). How about de Vries? He abandoned his work in economics after he published the first, historical part of his trilogy. Outside his own milieu, de Vries's Principles received but little praise. Except for appreciating the author's extensive reading, reviews were mostly negative and criticized the book's methodology, exclusive Calvinism, and overdependence on Kuyper.7 What is more, de Vries felt passed over by Diepenhorst, accused him of plagiarism, and claimed that his dissertation on Calvin and economics at times was “closer to Marx than to Calvin” (1904a: v). The latter, substantial disagreement made a newspaper conclude that Calvinist political economy was threatened from the outset.8
In retrospect, we must conclude that it never got off the ground either. The project of neo-Calvinist political economy died a quiet death. At least three reasons can be given for this. First, a real school of economic thought never developed among Dutch neo-Calvinists. There were only a few trained economists who also differed on fundamental points, as the quarrel between de Vries and Diepenhorst demonstrates. As late as 1921, Nederbragt completely ignored his predecessors by writing that thus far no attempt had been made at developing a Christian economics (1921: v). Second, the focus of neo-Calvinist economics in the making was too much on getting the first principles right. Everyone would agree with de Vries that Calvinist principles “shed a special light on questions of political economy,” but they generally failed to show what theoretical difference these principles make. The strength of the movement lay in criticizing other schools and thinkers, not in developing a system of economics of its own. Finally, neo-Calvinist writers on economics believed the science is inevitably and necessarily value-laden while the discipline at large increasingly demarcated positive economics from normative economics. As a result, the envisioned debate with professional economists from outside did not materialize. Secularization, Diepenhorst (1948: 20–23) noted at the end of his career, turned out to be one of the characteristics of twentieth-century economics.
Even if the Kuyperian dream of reforming economics did not come true, this article has shown that it had an interesting germination period of at least seventy years. What started in the 1830s to 1860s with the Dutch Réveil as an early critique of classical political economy eventually led to the Kuyperian vision of reforming the science of political economy more fundamentally. Whereas Groen van Prinsterer and other Réveilistes favored a historical approach to economic questions that acknowledged the relationship between piety and prosperity, Kuyper wished for a system of political economy based on Calvinist principles as part of a broader neo-Calvinist worldview. Some of the ideas that emerged with Groen, including the role of worldviews in economics and the economist's responsibility for the poor and the oppressed, survived in Kuyper and his followers. This Groenian-Kuyperian legacy lives on in today's (Reformed) Christian economics in the United States, Britain, and Australia (Goudzwaard and Jongeneel 2014; Oslington 2020).
As stated in the introduction, the history of neo-Calvinist economics has striking parallels with Roman Catholic economic thought (Almodovar and Teixeira 2008, 2012; Teixeira and Almodovar 2008, 2014). By the late 1830s, the first Catholic political economists in France and Belgium tried to infuse basic Christian values into classical economics too. Like the members of the Dutch Réveil, they shared most socialist concerns while advocating private charity over state intervention and support, thus offering a third way between liberalism and socialism. The year 1891, which saw Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum on the condition of industrial laborers, ushered the golden age of Catholic economic thought. Later in the same year, Kuyper as the father of neo-Calvinism sought to ignite a sacred fire among his people too. In Roman Catholic circles, the first decades of the twentieth century saw multiple attempts at developing systems of political economy embedded in Catholic values. In that respect, Pope Leo's encyclical letter bore more academic fruit than Kuyper's address.
I am grateful to the two anonymous referees of this journal for their helpful comments.
See De Economist 53 (1904): 923–32; 54 (1905): 272–93, 298–302.
This corrects van Deursen’s (2001: 11) observation that the “oldest generations of antirevolutionaries had no interest in economic questions.”
See Nederlandsche stemmen over godsdienst, staat-, geschied- en letterkunde, vol. 1, no. 2 (May 17, 1834): 6–8; vol. 1, no. 4 (May 31, 1834): 5–6; vol. 1, no. 6 (June 14, 1834): 5–7; vol. 1, no. 7 (June 21, 1834): 3–4; vol. 5 (1837): 115–18. Surprisingly, de Clercq, the author of two publications defending free trade, did not contribute.
On “cause and effect,” see also Brandt 1870, which dismisses statistics as part of political economy because it analyzes human society in terms of natural-scientific laws and hence denies man’s moral freedom.
Before Kuyper, the ideal of an explicitly “Christian” or “heavenly political economy” was voiced in De Heraut, probably by Groen’s Réveil friend Josua van Eik. Examples include J. E. 1867 and I. E. 1869.
For example, C. A. Verrijn Stuart, De Economist 53, no. 2 (1904): 923–32; De Nieuwe Courant, November 2, 1904; L. van Andel, Ons tijdschrift 9 (1904): 651–54; D. van Blom, Rechtsgeleerd magazijn 24 (1905): 351–57; J. van Loenen Martinet, Theologisch tijdschrift 40 (1906): 67–73.
“De Calvinistische Staathuishoudkunde bedreigd,” Het vaderland, April 18, 1907.