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A Life in Books

By March 3, 2017 5 Comments


Last Monday a friend and I pulled up to a duplex in Pella, Iowa to load some books into the back of my van. The books were a part of the library of Dr. John Hulst, former president of Dordt College. I remember the first time I met John and Louise; we had just moved to Sioux Center, Iowa, a few days earlier, and both of my children were in full meltdown mode. Face down on the carpet, my then 4-year-old and 2-year-old were in the throes of a temper tantrum with Dora the Explorer playing in the background. John and Louise greeted us in our dining room, stopping by to welcome us to Sioux Center. I distinctly remember talking to John across my dining room table, kids screaming, Dora yelling something about “no swiping”, realizing there was nothing I could do. No worries—John and Louise were so gracious, so understanding, so very human. “Believe me, we understand” John said. This was the beginning of our friendship.

The days after returning from Pella were spent looking through box after box of John’s books. For book lovers, there is no better way to take a peak into someone’s soul. Some of the books were worn out, underlining and margin notes throughout; others were barely touched, as if someone had given it as a gift, but they had misjudged the theological and political orientation of the recipient. As I looked through the numerous commentaries I thought about all the sermons John preached as a pastor and chaplain. The pastoral counseling books prompted me to think about the various personal and family crises he guided people through. His years at Dordt College, first as chaplain and then as president, were evident in the enormous amounts of reformational literature I discovered—everything from Out of Concern for the Church, Spykman’s Reformational Theology, even paper copies of PhD theses and book manuscripts from the leading voices in the reformational movement. When I arrived at Dordt ten years ago I was fortunate to catch the tail end of the reformational experiment. Now, as I unpacked his books, I imagined President Hulst butting heads (graciously and professionally of course) with passionate and stubborn professors. I thought of all the difficult decisions he had to make, as well as all of the joyous occasions for celebration. Much of the reformational voice is gone from Dordt these days, but Hulst’s library bears witness to a once lively reformational heritage.

These books provide a snapshot of Dr. Hulst’s life, from his Calvin Seminary notes (including a course by Cornelius Van Til) to a recent book by Richard Dawkins on evolution. They reveal a man who was passionate about his faith, passionate about Christian education (in the reformational sense), and passionate about learning. I found numerous volumes addressing political and social issues, from the condemnation of apartheid in South Africa, to an engagement of Liberation Theology. I even found a Koran, which is good, because I didn’t have one. Taken together, they reveal a man steeped in tradition (there are a number of Abraham Kuyper books in Dutch) who was not afraid to encounter other cultures, traditions, and religions. This is the person I knew—a man of conviction and grace.

All of this makes me wonder: What do my books say about me? What will some future scholar think about all my books on Heavy Metal, Julian of Norwich, Karl Barth, and Slavoj Zizek? Too bad I won’t be around to find out.

Jason Lief

Jason Lief teaches Practical Theology at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. He served as editor of Reformed Journal for many years and was one of the original bloggers on the RJ blog. You can find more of his writing at


  • Clyde says:

    I hope my children read some of my books when I am gone. I have a few of which I purchased a copy for each of them I will be giving them.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Jason. Hope you have made a good transition to Northwestern. Blessings.


  • Susan Hulst DeYoung says:

    Thank you, Jason. I know Dad would be so pleased that his beloved library is in good hands.

  • It can get even more personal. I had my thoughts turn toward various aspects of my life as I first went through our home library prior to our downsizing from a house to a condo and then again as I prepared to vacate my office for retirement and had room for only a remnant of my office in our condo. Don’t say I didn’t warn you! 🙂

  • Louise Hulst says:

    Your blog brought a smile and a tear, but mostly a thankful, happy heart that you are enjoying the books. They could not have found a better home.

  • James Hart Brumm says:

    I have experienced similar profound moments acquiring pieces of libraries from teachers, and I will, before too long, be passing on pieces to others as I downsize. We aren’t just passing along tools; we are sharing a legacy, a treasure, a shared spirit.

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