From ten cent specials for Dutch farmers in 1910 to over 1000 titles in print currently, the William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan, has firmly held to the motto established by its founder William B. Eerdmans, Sr.: "The finest in religious literature."
The son of a Dutch textile manufacturer, Eerdmans immigrated to Grand Rapids from the Netherlands in 1902, and began peddling books to support himself while attending Calvin Theological Seminary. In 1911 Eerdmans quit the seminary, convinced that he would be "a misfit in the ministry," and on August 16, 1911, he and Brant Sevensma formed the Eerdmans-Sevensma Company, a dealership specializing in theological textbooks.
By 1915 Eerdmans was sole owner of the company, then renamed the William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Many of Eerdmans earliest books were classic theological works by European scholars, and the initial volumes were printed in the Dutch language.
The company distinguished itself in the early years with its numerous volumes on and about John Calvin, including a new printing of the 50-volume "Commentary of John Calvin" published at a cost of $300,000. Calvin's Institutes are still to be found on Eerdmans' list as well as a number of books about John Calvin.
Eerdmans' reputation gradually spread through philanthropic book awards, through generous financial backing of Christian organizations, and through William Eerdmans' propensity for publishing only those books which lived up to his standards of excellence.
Although much of Eerdmans' initial success was predicated on theological and reference works, the company also concerned itself with other genres. In the Fall 1945 issue of "Eerdmans' Quarterly Observer," William Eerdmans elaborated on the scope of the company:
"We should not limit ourselves to a certain field or type of book. There are good books in all the various phases of life and human experience. We should feed our minds with a variety of thoughts, as we do our stomachs with a variety of foods. . . .
Great books are like mountain tops. They take us toward the skies, a new realm, and a new vision of the world and creation . . . . The greatest of all books are those that bring us near Divine truth, with a message of righteousness to all mankind."
That sort of continuing commitment has, over the years, brought into the Eerdmans fold a wide range of authors, including C. S. Lewis, William Dever, Charles Williams, George MacDonald, Karl Barth, Russell Kirk, Richard Lischer, John Stott, Lewis Smedes, John Howard Yoder, Richard John Neuhaus, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Richard Mouw, N.T. Wright, James D. G. Dunn, Marva Dawn, Eugene Peterson, Philip Yancey, Martin Marty, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Rowan Williams, Joan Chittister, Dorothy Day, and John Polkinghorne.
William B. Eerdmans, Sr., died in 1966 and was succeeded by his son, William B. Eerdmans, Jr., who maintains the high literary and intellectual standards the company has always known.
The social ferment of the 1960s introduced a new sphere of books to the company. With the belief that responsible viewpoints from all along the Christian spectrum should be given opportunity for expression, Eerdmans has welcomed books on social criticism, politics, church-state issues, and a myriad of current issues from abortion to racism to medical ethics.
But the mainstay of Eerdmans' backlist remains the numerous volumes of biblical and theological reference works like the New International Commentary series, and various Bible dictionaries, concordances, and handbooks. Massive reference works, like the ten-volume Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (commonly known as "Kittel") and the companion Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (still in progress) have been translated from the German. 1999 saw the publication of the first volume of another important reference work, The Encyclopedia of Christianity, a translation of the acclaimed German work Evangelisches Kirchenlexicon. In 2000 the one-volume Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible was released and quickly became an invaluable tool for Bible readers.
Current president Bill Eerdmans foresees a healthy future for the company. "It's true that we are a small company, and we will probably remain small, but that allows us a certain amount of freedom to say what we will and will not publish," says Eerdmans. He also foresees a further broadening of the kind of books the company will publish: "We recognize that there are sides and positions and distinctions. As publishers we'll publish both sides if the contribution is responsible."
But whatever the future and despite the growth and inevitable change—Eerdmans can no longer boast of offering books for a mere dime!—what has not changed, and seems likely not to change, is the determination to serve the reading public with high quality religious publications—books that "take us toward the skies. . . ."
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