April 11, 2023 | Lynn Bolt Rosendale

A photo of a man on the left with

From his lifelong scholarship to his passion for the culture, food, wine, people, and chansons, Dale Van Kley ‘63 found his joie de vivre in all things French.

He shared this passion with students as professor of history at Calvin, his alma mater, for 28 years and later at Ohio State University for 14 years. Van Kley died on March 14, 2023. He was 81 years old.

A ‘scholar’s scholar’

He devoted his career to the study of religious and political life in 17th and 18th century France, resulting in numerous influential publications on the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. His book, The Religious Origins of the French Revolution: From Calvin to the Civil Constitution, 1560-1791, published in 1996, received considerable acclaim from scholars around the world.

“Dale exemplified as well as anyone I know what it meant to have a vocation,” said David Diephouse, Calvin history professor emeritus. “He was a scholar’s scholar. If historians talk differently today than they may have done a generation to two about the Enlightenment and the origins of the French Revolution, that is due in no small part to his contributions.”

Van Kley, who earned master’s and doctoral degrees from Yale University, viewed his faith as central to his work as a historian. 

“My faith is that of a Christian in an Augustinian tradition,” he said, in a 1991 interview for Calvin’s Spark magazine. “I stress faith as a prerequisite rather than a complement to knowledge or understanding.”

At the time, he delighted in being a force in the movement of linking politics and religion in his research of 18th century France.

“Suddenly, religion and religious historians are being taken seriously,” he said, “It’s an advent that is very exciting for me as a Christian historian.”

A former colleague at Calvin, Doug Howard, interviewed with Van Kley before acquiring his position at Calvin. "That interview blew me away," said Howard. "The intellectual substance and caliber of the discussion was unlike anything I had ever experienced.

"The seriousness of the conversation about what it meant to be a Christian historian, about how one might or ought to see history as a Christian, about what difference it made to be a historian who was a Christian, left me in awe," he said.

His faith foundation was apparent in all of his work, said Diephouse. “His scholarship was illuminated by his faith,” he said. “He never preached, but he brought a deeply Christian understanding of the human condition to bear on every question he pursued. And it made a difference.”

A rigorous professor

As a student, Calvin president Wiebe Boer was impressed with the rigor of Van Kley’s scholarship. “I was so grateful to have someone with his depth of knowledge as my professor,” he said.

“It was Dale who encouraged me to apply to Yale; he wrote my recommendation letter,” said Boer. “He recognized things in me that I didn’t recognize in myself as a young college student.  He believed in me, and that is why I am where I am today.”

A ‘warrior for righteousness’

While French history was his scholarly focus, his pursuit of social justice equally compelled him. 

In the early 1970s, shortly after joining Calvin’s faculty, Van Kley moved his young family into the urban core of Grand Rapids and walked a beat to look out for his neighbors and address neighborhood issues.

“Dale was passionate about justice,” said Jim Bratt, Calvin history professor emeritus. “To put it in biblical terms, he was a warrior for righteousness. He inspired students who shared that passion by his example of living fearlessly in Grand Rapids’ city center when others were fleeing it, or reviling it, and by encouraging them to pursue justice in their own spaces and careers.”

Van Kley was also an avid runner. He found running the streets a great way to experience the joys and complexities of a new city. He completed many races throughout his lifetime, including eight marathons.

He is survived by his wife, Sandra; his children, Annique, Erik and Kristen; and two grandchildren.

A celebration of Van Kley'’s life will be held at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids on Saturday, April 22, at 11 a.m.

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