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Pella Iowa: Tulips in a Crumbled Castle (2)

In our study of the history of Pella, we have noted the reasons why Reformed believers wanted to leave the Netherlands. In addition to persecution, the farmers suffered from a severe potato blight. What makes Pella unique is the man who led the Reformed believers out of the Netherlands and to the plains of America. Scholte was a cultured Reveil man, yet he had a dream which he could fulfill only if he severed his ties and plunged into the uncivilized land of America.

We already noticed that he was ready to leave provided the conditions were right. Now he was at odds with the Afgescheidenen and his congregation was dwindling due to emigration to America. Then on “May 3, 1846, A. Hartgeringk had written his now famous letter to Brummelkamp and Van Raalte, reporting the glories of a possible colonial venture.” Although conditions did not warrant flight, with the idea of a glorious colonial adventure in his mind, Scholte imagined that conditions would most likely become worse. For good measure, he predicted that God would soon visit the Netherlands with horrible judgment. Now he was ready to go. He destroyed the bridges behind him and marched forward with Pella in his eyes.

Confident that he should leave the Netherlands, Scholte worked together with Van Raalte and Van der Meulen to make plans for departure. They decided (among other places such as the East Indies, Africa, and South America) that North America was the place “where they sought to establish a ‘Pella,’ the land where they could establish a free school alongside a free church.” Meetings were then arranged to stir up interest among those who wished to emigrate and to prepare for the journey.

Notice that the leaders stated “a free school alongside a free church” as grounds for leaving. In large measure the leaders were spiritually motivated, but Scholte makes it clear that he was also motivated by social, economic, and political factors. Many of the people left primarily for economic reasons. Bratt points out that of the people emigrating, spiritual motives were secondary to economic motives. Especially was this true with Scholte. He admits that “the reason of emigrations was princi­pally the conviction that the social conditions in the old country was such that there was no opportunity for the honest poor.” His refuge was not to be a spiritual refuge, but also a refuge from the evils of society, economics and politics. This is not to criticize the emigrants, for many were very godly men and women, who looked forward to establishing free churches and sound Christian schools.

During this time of preparation, two schools of thought formed over the question of where in America to settle. Scholte favored Iowa and Van Raalte favored Wisconsin. As was mentioned earlier, it made more sense to settle somewhere around Lake Michigan because that is where earlier Dutch emigrants had settled. But Scholte was above all else an individualist and would have found it difficult to play a role that was subsidiary to another person, which might have been the case had he located in Michigan. He also opposed the idea of “transporting a Dutch church to the new land,” whereas Van Raalte envisioned a church that would adhere strongly to the religious traditions and practices of the Netherlands. Furthermore, Van Raalte was interested in establishing a kind of theocratic society in which the church would play an important role in the government—an idea that Scholte abhorred.

Scholte wanted a refuge from traditionalism. This is already evident when he advertised for interested emigrants. He wanted those who would be attracted to a congregationalist, not Reformed style. Society members must “consider themselves bound in truth by the revealed Word of God, in such a way that they will agree most nearly with the Congregationalist.” He did not want to be bothered by the other leaders. His independentism is one reason for Pella’s unique location far from any other Dutch settlement.

On October 2, 1846, Scholte sent a “scouting party” of eight families before the main body. They arrived at New York on November 19, and from there the main body of the Utrecht Association departed in the following spring in four sailing vessels expressly chartered for the purpose. Carrying about eight hundred emigrants and loaded with household goods and farm machinery, these vessels arrived in Baltimore in late May and early June….

Scholte, who, with his family, made the crossing by steamship, arrived a few weeks before the main body of immigrants. While awaiting their appearance, he visited New York, Albany, and Washington to secure information on possible settlement sites. Upon hearing of the arrival of his followers, he immediately went to Baltimore and soon had them on their way west. After three weeks of travel by rail, canal boat, “mountain car,” and steamboat, the main body joined the vanguard group at St. Louis. Here they remained while a committee of five land-seekers, headed by Scholte, searched for a settlement site.

By now Scholte had found a number of more objective reasons to support his subjective reasons for settling in Iowa. He argued practically “that the Michigan colony was too far north, lacked good roads, and was too distant from other white settlements. He especially criticized it for being forested;” it was too much work to cut down all the trees and clear out the stumps. I doubt whether Scholte had much experience clearing trees, or even farming for that matter, but the arguments made sense, supported his dream, and eventually proved to be true.

Through connections with a Baptist preacher, Scholte learned about some desirable land, only slightly inhabited, in Marion County, in southeastern Iowa. After investigating this region on July 29, 1847, he and his committee decided the location and soil were good, and proceeded to purchase over eighteen thousand acres of government land and partially developed farms. Shortly thereafter, most of the immigrants who had been waiting at St. Louis departed for their new home.

Because Scholte had purchased whatever houses and crops happened to be on the land, the Pella settlers were better off than the Michigan colonies, but still had a great deal of work breaking the sod and preparing for winter.

While the settlers were taking care of their own business, Scholte was working to mold the community into his idea of a Pella. Noteworthy are the street names he wanted. Symbolic of their sole allegiance to America, the streets included such names as “Columbus, Washington, Franklin, Liberty, Union, Independence, and Peace.” Symbolic of the spirit of Pella, the avenues included such names as “Entrance, Inquiry, Perseverance, Confidence, Expectation, and Accomplishment.” On September 17, 1857 about 200 of the men vowed to eschew all allegiance to foreign powers and pledged their allegiance to America. He did not want Pella “to be the church, but [rather] the world, in which God’s people would be found, together with unbelievers…. He wanted the town to be a decent habitation but not a new Jerusalem.”

The congregation that was formed within Pella also reflects Scholte’s independentism. Article 2 of the constitution reads as follows:

“All those who confess for themselves to believe in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and do not contradict this confession in their actions, can be accepted and recognized as members of the congregation and shall share in the privileges and duties of the congregation. The women shall only be excluded from discussion and voting about public matters, except in cases of recognized necessity.”

Within this congregation the elders could all preach. Scholte preached sometime but was generally so involved with other things that he did not have time. He was involved deeply in politics and gave the nominating speech at the convention which nominated Abraham Lincoln.

His church, however, was not impressed with Scholte’s political involvements. His increasing lack of involvement with the church, especially in the preaching, began to cause some problems. The congregation wanted him to preach more and to disentangle himself from his extensive financial dealings. Scholte paid little attention and eventually his congregation told him to give an account of his finances and preach more or else be kicked out of the church. Scholte agreed to preach once a Sunday and was allowed to stay in the church.

But that was not the end of the problems. The congregation was still upset with Scholte’s haphazard involvement and shady financial dealings with the people and the church. In addition, they did not like the mixed marriages that were taking place in the church and were dissatisfied with the inadequate preaching of some of the elders. Finally in 1854 the congregation forbad fellowship with Scholte and took him to court over the financial matters.

Scholte started up his own church with his followers but it disbanded a year after his death. This put an end to Scholte’s experiment and Pella could develop from then on like the other Dutch communities. On September 9, 1856 the original congregation united with the church in Holland Michigan and was now called the “Protestantsche Gereformeerde Hollandsch Gemeente te Pella.”

From Scholte’s point of view, his dream was shattered. Instead of producing a community free from Dutch heritage, he produced a community that today out-Dutches the tulip festivals in Michigan and Wisconsin combined. His church backfired, and blew him out the door. About the only one who gets very excited about Scholte and his dream today is the tourist guide at the information office in Pella. Nevertheless, the faith of those who were led to Pella continues in the thriving Reformed community found there today. ❖

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John is a member of Southwest Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan.