100 Years of Eerdmans: An Interview with Larry ten Harmsel

Larry ten Harmsel
Larry ten Harmsel

Next week, Eerdmans Publishing will celebrate its 100th birthday. In honor of the occasion, historian Larry ten Harmsel has authored a history of the company, entitled An Eerdmans Century, 1911–2011. We couldn’t resist the chance to ask him a few questions about what his research uncovered about Eerdmans and its place in the history of religious publishing. 

What would you say is unique about Eerdmans in the world of religious publishing?

I’m not sure Eerdmans is unique in this regard, but it is certainly unusual in the world of religious publishing for such a wide spectrum of ideas to emerge from one publishing house. Rather than carving out an ideological niche or adhering to a particular orthodoxy (which many religious publishers do), Eerdmans has fostered an astonishingly diverse body of books — by Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and people from other faith traditions.  In fact, there have been instances in which an Eerdmans book comes out by an author whose major goal is to refute another Eerdmans book. The company is determined to be a forum for serious ideas and to allow those ideas free rein.

What was the most unexpected thing you discovered while researching the company’s history (that’s fit to print)?

In the course of my research I discovered many interesting things about the founder, Wm. B. Eerdmans Sr. (Many of these discoveries aren’t written about in the book, since they had no direct bearing on the publishing business.) In dusty old files I found letters describing his many acts of kindness to friends and strangers around the world. I was especially touched by his spirit of charity in the wake of World War II, when he went to great lengths to help people in both his native Holland and in Germany. I came away from the research process with a great deal of respect for this man I never met — and with a strong sense that the company he began continues to operate in ways that he would approve.

It may surprise many of our readers to know that Pat and Bernie Zondervan, founders of Christian publishing giant Zondervan, were nephews of William B. Eerdmans, Sr., and got their start in publishing working at Eerdmans. How has being a family-owned and -run company — with all the complicated dynamics that entails — shaped Eerdmans’s character and history over the years?

Pat and Bernie Zondervan both managed to get themselves fired by their uncle – after which they established their own phenomenally successful publishing house. However, many other members of the extended family have worked in the company over the years, sometimes for a short while and sometimes for decades. Anyone who studies corporate history in America knows that it’s rare for a family-owned enterprise to endure for a century. The fact that Eerdmans has done so with only two corporate leaders, the founding father and the enterprising son, is testimony to the perseverance and consonance of their vision.

Four of the oldest and most highly regarded religious publishers in the U.S. — Eerdmans, Zondervan, Kregel, and Baker — all have their roots in the Dutch immigrant community in and around Grand Rapids, Michigan. Why do you think this relatively small community has historically been such fertile ground for Christian publishing?

It is astonishing that so many successful religious publishers are rooted in the Dutch community of West Michigan, and it’s not easy to explain why, although historians have occasionally tried. The relative homogeneity of the early Dutch immigrant community explains part of it — they were mostly Calvinists who had left their homeland in a spirit of contentiousness about religion.  Upon arrival in the American Midwest they remained in closely-knit communities rather than integrating themselves into the wider society. They also tended to create their own churches and educational institutions rather than joining existing organizations, and they were, as a group, fiercely committed to the idea of education — they bought books and read them and argued about them. It was fertile ground for publishing.  Although they held themselves apart, however, these immigrants were at the same time determined to become American. It should not be a surprise that the books they read within their community would also find an audience across the country and around the world.

An Eerdmans Century
An Eerdmans Century

How has Eerdmans evolved as a publisher over the past 100 years?

In its earliest years, Eerdmans sold more books in Dutch than in English, and many of its publications were tailored specifically for the churches and schools of Dutch immigrants in the American Midwest. Within the first decades of the company’s existence, however, its sense of audience began — and continued — to broaden, so that now, as Eerdmans approaches the century mark, its publications reach across a wide spectrum of religious and secular concerns and its books are read around the world.

In what ways has Eerdmans stayed the same?

Eerdmans’s commitment to excellence, its determination to examine a variety of beliefs, its ecumenical approach to religion, and its respect for the thoughtful reader: these things have remained constant.

You must have encountered a great many Eerdmans books while researching this history. Which are your favorites? 

An early favorite of mine is the 1912 history of the sinking of the Titanic, written in Dutch, which Wm. B. Eerdmans composed and published within a month of the ship’s sinking.  Since I’m not theologically oriented, my favorite Eerdmans books are generally those that deal either with local history or with quirky visions of the world — a murder mystery set in Holland, Michigan; an anthology of essays about growing up in Grand Rapids; an ethnic history of Chicago; a study of prehistoric Michigan; a novel set in the depths of Stalinist Russia; a history of whaling in the Antarctic; a study of the ethical vision of Clint Eastwood.  None of these books are central to the company, and yet they all show the liveliness of vision that continues to carry Eerdmans into the next century.

 Click here to preorder An Eerdmans Century: 1911–2011.