Though the sun shone brightly overhead, the shadows were thick and dark in the forest. The trees were massive and the foliage was dense. The faraway rat-a-tat beat of a woodpecker’s tapping was the background to other bird melodies nearby. It was a joyful chorus, with only the rustling of leaves in the breeze now and then for accompaniment. This was western Michigan in the early 1800s.
A small village of Indians camped alongside Black Lake, with one Congregationalist missionary and one government agent living close by. It was a quiet life, but primitive. Travel was difficult and roads were little more than hiking trails through the woods. Visitors were few—until one December day in 1846.
Rev. Albertus C. Van Raalte came from the Netherlands to look for a place to move with his congregation. Life had been difficult for them in Holland. The Reformed doctrines of God’s absolute sovereignty in salvation that he and his congregation confessed and loved were not tolerated there. They had been forced to separate from the State Reformed Church along with a handful of other congregations. They were a poor and persecuted little band. No one would hire them to work if they were from that church. They were fined and arrested. Soldiers were stationed within their own houses to harass them. The potato crop in the Netherlands, their main source of food, had failed. The situation for these devout Dutch farmers had become desperate. Maybe life would be better for them in America.
Van Raalte dug through the snow to see what kind of ground lay beneath the trees. It was good, dark soil. His farmers would like that. Lake Michigan and several rivers were situated nearby. Transportation could be had through these waters. Yes, life could be better here.
He looked up at the trees. Trees could be used to build houses and shops. He could see many houses lining the streets here in a new town. It would be a new Holland for them. And a new church, without persecution, could be built here too. And schools. Yes, life could be better.
But easier? He looked at the trees again. They would need to be cut down, and sawn, and nailed. They would need to be cleared away to make room for gardens and fields. The men who followed him to this new land were not lumbermen or builders; they were only poor farmers. No, it would not be easier. They would need help. He looked up again, this time in his soul. Help would surely come.
Help would come from their Lord in heaven.