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Ellul, Jacques (1912-1994) | Archival Collections at Wheaton College

Name: Ellul, Jacques (1912-1994)

Historical Note:

Jacques Ellul, author and educator, was born an only child to Joseph and Marthe Ellul on January 6, 1912. From the age of fifteen, impoverishment compelled him to tutor Latin, French, German and Greek, earning his own and often his family’s livelihood. He received no religious upbringing, his father a “complete Voltairian” and his mother a devout but uninsistent Protestant. Ellul’s family did possess a Bible, which he occasionally read.

As a young man he enjoyed unimpeded freedom exploring the port city of Bordeaux, befriending sailors and longshoremen. Here was, he recalls, “…a totally astonishing milieu for a child; an environment that was very educational and, of course, rather dangerous, even though nothing ever happened to me.”

He received his formal education at the University of Bordeaux. In 1937 he married Yvette Lensvelt, and together they raised three children: Jean, Yves, and Dominique. A fourth child, Simon, died during the writing of The Meaning of the City (1970); the book is dedicated to him.

While attending the Faculty of Law, Ellul encountered the philosophy of Karl Marx, which beguiled his intellect for some time. As he studied, however, he realized that Marxism was entirely inadequate to answer existential questions, issues of life, death and love. Ellul remembered the Bible stories from his childhood, and began searching.

At that time he joined an assembly of Protestant students for worship, and closely studied Karl Barth, whose thought, next to Marx, Ellul describes as “the second great element in my intellectual life.” Eventually he entered the Reformed Church of France.

In 1937 he began his academic career in academia by accepting a position as lecturer at the University of Montpellier. The next year he moved to the University of Strasbourg. During WW II, he served in the French underground. Shortly after the war, he was named professor of law at the University of Bordeaux.

Ellul was a consultant to the Ecumenical World Council of Churches from 1947-53. He was also a member of the National Council of the Reformed Church of France. In addition to developing his spiritual life, Ellul participated in local civic affairs, serving successfully as Deputy Mayor of Bordeaux for several months in the mid-1940s. As a private citizen he worked tirelessly with troubled youth and drug addicts.

Ellul’s work focuses on socio-political analysis, establishing him as a sharp critic with particular emphasis upon the increasingly destructive influence of modern technology on Christianity and Western civilization. His primary concern is the tyranny of television, press and radio over human destiny. Far too many educated adults, he complains, are passively accepting the media’s steady dissemination of propaganda. Ellul did not object to the advancement of technology, but rather to the moral and spiritual vacuity of those who operate and receive it.

If a society possesses no foundational values through which to evaluate the relentless onslaught of elec-tronic information, then its citizens are hardly better off than the subjects of any totalitarian regime. According to Ellul, the answer to the predicament is a simple faith in the living, loving God who liberates His children from a bland conformity, releasing them to an infinitely higher purpose in serving the unassailable heavenly kingdom.

Ellul wrote in French and has been widely translated into English. His works, philosophical, theological and sociological, number over 50, plus hundreds of articles. He is described by editor Saul Padover as a “fresh political thinker, something of a cross between an academic Eric Hoffer and a French enfant terrible.” Padover continues that Ellul’s “analysis of modern society reminds one of the child who blurted out that the emperor was naked.” Ellul’s work has evoked responses ranging from sharp criticism to admiration expressed by those who will no longer allow themselves to remain neutral.

Professor David W. Gill observes that “Ellul removes our commonplaces…Both through sociological criticism and through biblical exposition, he leaves us with no way out…After everything has been closed off, [he] throws open doors, batters down walls, and opens out on a whole new life of freedom in service of God and our neighbor.”

In his later years, Ellul wrote during the morning, assiduously guarding his office hours before welcoming visitors in the afternoon. Aside from the impact of his revolutionary theories, he insisted that his most important message to the world was his simple witness to the saving power of Jesus Christ. He died in May 1994, near Bordeaux.

Ellul’s titles include: La Technique ou l’enjeu du siècle (The Technological Society, 1964) Propagandes (Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, 1965) Exégèse des nouveaux lieux communs (A Critique of the New Commonplaces, 1968) Autopsie de la Révolution (Autopsy of Revolution, 1971) La parole humiliée (The Humiliation of the Word, 1985) and Ce que je crois (What I Believe, 1987).

Note Author: Wheaton College Archives & Special Collections staff

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