William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company has been a family-owned and operated business for over a hundred years, reflecting the unique visions of its two long-time leaders–William B. Eerdmans Sr. and Jr.
The first half of An Eerdmans Century 1911-2011 is largely a dual biography of the father-son team that guided one of the most significant religious publishers over the last century. Family connections, early educational experiences, the roles of the Depression and World Wars all come into play. The last half is more of what you would expect in a corporate history.
Sr.’s publishing sensibilities arose from the Netherlands where he was born and raised. He inherited a culture of entrepreneurship from his extended family as well as its Dutch-Calvinist commitments. Helping with the family’s varied import business from Europe, William Sr. soon focused on books, beginning with those in the Dutch-Calvinist vein for western Michigan immigrants (think Kuyper and Bavinck). Yet he maintained a “big-tent” evangelical attitude rather than being merely sectarian in his publishing interests.
William Jr.’s vision, beginning in the 1960s, made the tent even bigger. He sought to put his own stamp on the program, opening the door beyond evangelical concerns to a wide range of ecumenical interests. Combining this with the company’s European roots meant it was natural for them to soon be publishing Karl Barth, Jacques Ellul, Gerhard Kittel, Helmut Thielicke, Thomas Torrance and the like. Three of Barth’s students also entered the list–Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jürgen Moltmann, and Eberhad Jüngel, followed by two of Moltmann’s (Michael Welker and Miroslav Volf).
Children’s books (yes, Eerdmans originally published the Sugar Creek Gang!) and some fiction had been part of the list from the earliest days. Anita Eerdmans (who became president and publisher in 2014 after the book was published) took on the children’s program in 2005. Books for pastors, such as those by Eugene Peterson, and a healthy load of religious reference works and textbooks rounded out the program.
The book moves a bit haphazardly regarding chronology, and Jon Pott in a “Coda” acknowledges the somewhat last-minute nature of some of the manuscript. But the book also winsomely focuses on the people, not just the books, of the publisher.
It is heartening to know that publishers, like Eerdmans, exist more for the sake of producing quality books than just for making money. Of course, given today’s publishing realities, the former may seem easier than the latter.