Who was Groen van Prinsterer?
In 1801 Guillame (the French name for William) Groen van Prinsterer was born in The Hague. He grew up in a wealthy, aristo-cratic family. His father was a physician, who was for a time a member of the Council of State, the highest advisory council to the government. His parents belonged to the liberal wing of the Reformed Church. Like almost all of the leading elite of that time, they were averse of what they saw as extreme opinions, both in religion and in society. Groen van Prinsterer was a very gifted man. On December 17th, 1823, he graduated at 10 o’clock in law, and at 11 o’clock in literature. Something that is quite unique.
While at Leyden University, Groen van Prinsterer had visited the ‘private lectures’ by mr. Bilderdijk, the father of the Reveil in Holland. The Reveil was an international movement in Switzerland, France and Holland, where believing Christians tried to edify each other in a true and living faith. Though it is true that Groen van Prinsterer never fully accepted all Bilderdijk’s thoughts, yet the seed sown by Bilderdijk later on came to full fruition. Bilderdijk was an advocate of the absolute monarchy, while Groen van Prinsterer was a champion of a constitutional monarchy. In 1827 Groen van Prinsterer was appointed chief of the cabinet of the king, in fact the king’s private secretary. A year later he married Betsy van der Hoop. Like Groen van Prinsterer himself she came from a wealthy family. Her significance for her husband has been enormous, not in the last place in a spiritual respect.
In his official function Groen van Prinsterer was in Brussels during the prelude of the secession of Belgium from Holland. This was one of the factors that changed his political views. Till that time he had been like many in his time, a conservative liberal, or a liberal conservative, according to the circumstances. But he became more and more conscious of the deadly danger that lies in the principles of the French Revolution. And also they both experienced a spiritual change, first his wife, and later on he himself. That was instru-mentally by the influence of the court chaplain Merle d’Aubigné, a Swiss preacher who was a representative of the Reveil Movement and has become famous as historian of the Reformation. All this led to a change in the lifestyle of the young couple. Without speaking much about it, they stopped visiting the theatre and balls.
Quite in accordance with Groen van Prinsterer’s character this change in his life went on gradually. In 1831 Groen van Prinsterer wrote to his friend Van Rappard: ‘But that faith, by which one becomes a new creature, by which instead of my own will, the desire to serve God rules, that faith I do not have, or in such a small measure that I am almost unconscious of it. But having that faith is absolutely necessary. It must be given to us. Daily prayer and reading the Bible are the means to get it. Continually I acknowledge God’s guidance in my vicissitudes, and I trust more and more in God’s help, Who hath begun a good work in me, will complete it.’
In January 1833 Groen van Prinsterer became seriously ill. To the great joy of his wife he was not just restored to good health, but he found rest for his soul in the complete surrender of his person to Christ, as a complete Saviour. That year he resigned from his function. Not just because of his health, but also because he did not fully like his present function. Already in 1831 he had been charged with the supervision of the archives of the House of Orange-Nassau. From that time on he could dedicate all his time to that new function, which was completely in accordance with his gifts and interests.
By publishing in the French language his book Archives de la Maison Orange-Nassau he made a name in all learned Europe. His later work, Manual of the History of our Country, is a fruit of his studying these Archives. The main characteristic of the Manual is Groen van Prinsterer’s firm conviction that God reigns over all the world according to His council, and that the birth of the Netherlands as an independent state was closely connected with the birth of the Reformed Church. And apart from this bond between church and state, there was the bond that connected both with the House of Orange-Nassau. In the 16th century William I, Prince of Orange, had been the leader of the struggle of the Dutch Provinces against Spain. He died by the hands of a murderer, who had been hired by the king of Spain. His last words were: ‘My God, have compassion with me and with this poor people.’
Groen van Prinsterer never neglected to emphasise the importance of the House of Orange for the Dutch state, and for the Reformed Church in the Netherlands. He correctly stressed the fact William III of Orange was not only important for Protestantism in the Netherlands but also in the whole of Europe because of the Glorious Revolution. By coming to Britain with his army he was in the providence of God the means that preserved Protestantism both in the Britain and in the British colonies in America.
The motto of Groen van Prinsterer ever was: ‘It is written, it has happened.’ For him, Holy Scripture was the highest and final authority. By the light of God’s Word he viewed history, and did he point to God’s hand in history. The historic development of such institutions as the state and the church was for Groen van Prinsterer a weighty factor. In this he was a disciple, among others, of the English parliamentarian and thinker Edmund Burke. Groen van Prinsterer frankly spoke about his convictions, and he always fought the view that it is impossible to be neutral in church, state and society.
Groen taught that only those who are well conscious of their own principles, can be fair towards others who proceed from other principles. ‘It is written’ points to the biblical revelation. And: ‘It has happened’ points to that which God has done in history, and very surely also in the history of the Netherlands. And also God’s revelation itself has the form of history. It speaks to us of God’s great acts in Christ Jesus. By the light of God’s revelation in His Word Groen van Prinsterer wanted to view history, in his conviction that only in this way the deepest significance of history becomes visible; namely that Christ Jesus gathers and protects His church. Only in the light of God’s Word this becomes clear to us.