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Rev. C. Hanko – Chapter 4: Church Life

Editor’s Note: As a lad, Rev. Hanko attended the Eastern Avenue CRC. Rev. Johannes Groen was his first pastor. When Rev. Groen left, Rev. Herman Hoeksema became his next pastor. No doubt the reader will smile a bit as he reads this next chapter, as many of the characters and their quirks are recognizable in our modern congregations. Some of the elements of Sunday worship are also recognizable. Yet, there are many differences too that will capture one’s interest.

Sunday was a special day. As far as possible, we made all preparations on Saturday. We checked Sunday clothing, peeled potatoes, prepared vegetables and meat, and whatever else had to be done. At ten thirty my father arose from his chair, wound the clocks and, no matter who was there, announced that it was bed time.

Sunday morning we all had an egg. We also generally had fresh baked bread and a slice of raisin bread. At 8 o’clock the church bell rang for everyone to adjust his or her clock. There was a time when the three girls that were still home wore tight shoes that came almost to their knees. Because the girls were already strapped into their corsets, they could not bend down to string them. So it was my task to tie the shoes. We each received our collection money along with two peppermints, and Corrie and I started out for church to save seats for our folks.

Our church was a white, wooden structure. It had fourteen steps to the front entrance; there were two side entrances and two back entrances. One evening the church caught fire. Whatever the cause, much of the fire was between the sidings and the inner wall where the firemen could not get at it. It smoldered for quite a while. The result was that the sidings were removed, the exterior was rebuilt with brick and a new front entrance replaced the fourteen front steps.

The services were conducted in the Dutch language. The English language was not introduced without a bitter struggle. Many, including my father, were convinced that if English was introduced into the churches modernism was sure to follow. The members feared this more than usual in the Eastern Avenue Church because our minister, Rev. Groen, was known to lean toward the more modern views. For a number of years after it was introduced, some of the Hollanders refused to attend the English service. The same struggle took place before we started using individual rather than the common cup at communion.

Our minister was Rev. Johannes Groen, who served our church for 18 years. Although I did not understand at the time, he was a Janssen man.1 Often I heard criticism of Groen’s liberal preaching, but really never understood why. Outsiders referred to his church as “Johnnie Green’s Opera House.”2

He always addressed the congregation as “esteemed audience.” When he reached his last point he always said, “And finally, esteemed audience,” which sometimes meant that he was almost finished. But that could also very well mean that he would continue for another fifteen minutes. During the last song he put a velvet cap on his head, evidently because he had been sweating.

The first elder always led the visiting minister to the pulpit, and shook hands with the minister to show the congregation that he was officially appointed to preach. This first elder was usually Mr. Bishop, the kerosene peddler who sat in the first row, along the north side of the center aisle. During the service he had the habit of turning the beard under his chin up to his mouth and licking it. On the opposite end of the pew sat our catechism teacher, Mr. Sevensma. He always held his hand on the head of his son to keep him quiet.

Behind the elders sat Mr. Karsies, the baker of Logan Street. Whenever the organ gave out during an electrical storm, which happened quite often, he would step forward and lead the singing. In the meantime, Mr. Hoek from under the south balcony would hasten to the back of the organ to start pumping the bellows, which produced the air for the organ. If only he succeeded in getting there first, which was not always the case, he would remain official organ pumper throughout the service. In fact, he would bring a chair up on the pulpit to be all ready for the next act.

Later, Mr. Karsies had throat cancer and had to have an opening put in his throat to breathe. He still wanted to lead the singing when the occasion demanded so he would get up, solemnly place his finger on the opening of his throat and give the pitch.

When the Griffioen family (my future in-laws) began coming to Eastern Avenue Church they would come in the side door by the elders. Usually there was no empty row for the whole family to sit together, so Pa Griffioen would spread them around, but always saw to it that Arie sat by him, because Arie could not sit still.

Under the north gallery sat Mr. De Good, the janitor of the Christian School on Sigsbee Street. He always smoked his old pipe right up to the door of the church, then slid it into the inside pocket of his suit coat and sat down. One time he failed to knock out all the ashes. Shortly after he was seated he began to hit his coat as hard as he could. Then he hurried out. Just what damage was done, we never heard.

In the middle section behind the elders on the opposite side from Mr. Karsies sat Prof. Janssen, whom I mentioned before, and his family. He was deposed in 1922, mainly through the work of Rev. Hoeksema, for denying the infallibility of the Bible and the miracles.3 Behind him sat Rev. J. Vander Mey and his family. At the Classis of 1924 at which Rev. Hoeksema was deposed, he made the statement that almost caused the hair of the delegates to rise from their heads, yet was more truth than fiction. He said that Rev. Hoeksema had a different God than he had.

The deacons sat in the south section of the auditorium. In early years they had a black velvet bag that was extended on a pole and passed along from aisle to aisle. The people could quietly drop their money into the bag. When the pole was extended to its full length the bag was carefully lifted over the heads to the next row. When the collection was finished, the bags were hung alongside the organ room.

We always sat in the front row of the south balcony directly across from the pulpit. This was an ideal spot on communion Sundays. Around the pulpit were lined up five tables, the center one for serving. Usually Rev. Groen had us sing Psalm 25 going from verse to verse since there were usually eleven or twelve turns of partaking.4 That is, the elders would take their places about the table first. Then the deacons and others were invited to fill the chairs around the four tables. Even in the second round people were reluctant to come forward to partake of the sacrament—this was considered bold and presumptuous. But by the time the seventh or eighth round was reached there was a rush to come forward so that some had to return to their seats. No one wanted to be first, nor did anyone care to be last.

On baptism Sundays, father and mother would come in with their baby and take their places in the front row of seats, which had been provided with a small stool for the mother to support her feet. Usually the baby cried because it sensed the tenseness of the mother. Then a grandmother or a neighbor lady would get up and take the baby out. She would usually stand in the hallway at the back entrance until the Baptism Form had been read, and then dutifully bring the baby to the parents. It was very common for the mother, or even both parents, to leave as soon as the baptism service was ended.

Before church started, Mother had prepared a big pan of rice for Sunday dinner. This was made with milk, baked in the oven, and came out with a beautiful brown crust over it. In later years, during more prosperous times, we had potatoes, pork roast and green beans.

There was time for a short nap before the two o’clock service, the second of three services. All went to that service until the time when the English service was introduced in the evening. Then the older girls and brother Fred went in the evenings.

On Sundays, we never considered letter writing, games, or playing outside. I well recall that someone had reported that our large wooden telephone that hung on the wall in the kitchen was out of order. So on Sunday afternoon a repairman came into the kitchen and began to work on the phone. My father came from the living room, took one look and in a loud voice, literally drove him out of the house. This man was so amazed at the yankee-dutch scolding that he received that he quickly packed up and did not return.

Our Catechism teacher was Mr. Sevensma, a hunchback and a cripple. He was very stern, holding us down with terror. We had to address him always with more than one word: for example, we had to say “Ja, Mr. Sevensma,” or, “Neen, Mr. Sevensma.” He could make scathing remarks to those who failed to learn their lesson. He picked in his nose while he was telling the story, and also had his own unique applications of the lesson. For example, Eutychus was an example of what happened if we slept in church.

In the summer we had a very special event, the annual Sunday School picnic. We children all met in the church and marched to Wealthy Street where we boarded waiting streetcars, some of them open cars that took us through downtown to John Ball Park. We received twenty-five cents in tickets that could be spent at the park. Ice cream cones and Cracker Jacks were still a nickel. There was also a large wash tub with lemonade. The mothers and some of the fathers came for dinner. After the dinner a minister gave a speech and then the children played games. Streetcars took us home again.

On Christmas afternoon at five o’clock we had our Christmas program. All the speeches and songs were in Dutch, even though the Sunday School lesson was taught in English. After the program we each received an orange and a box of candy.

We sometimes hear people speak of the “good old days,” as if the church then was spiritually much better than at present. That may be true from certain aspects, since sin does develop from year to year in the church as well as in the world, requiring constant need for reformation. But there was much in those days of which one could hardly approve.

There were the neighborhood “toughies.” They did not hesitate to steal, as long as they did not get caught. They sought every opportunity to obtain their beer and have their pleasures. On Sunday they sat in the back row of the balcony, where they either slept, talked or played cards. The consistory appointed a muscular individual to keep order among them, and when necessary to strong arm them out of the church. He had the authority to make arrests, although I do not know of any instance that he did this. There was still a carry-over of this practice when we were in First Church.

What was strange was the fact that the consistory did nothing about these outlaws. They took the attitude that they were still only baptized members, so that they were hardly subjects of discipline.

We ended our Sunday in the twilight singing Dutch Psalms, with Father as Voorzinger (lead singer). My dad had been in a choir in The Netherlands, so he enjoyed singing. Dad would also read to my mother from the religious paper, “De Standaard,”5 or from some religious book. In the winter, the hard coal stove with iced glass windows glowed in the corner of our home. What a wonderful way to end the Sabbath!

Endnotes

1Prof. Janssen taught at Calvin Theological Seminary. He favored a higher critical view of Scripture.

2Johnnie Green is the English translation of Johannes Groen.

3Rev. Hoeksema was appointed by the Theological School committee along with six other ministers to study Prof. Janssen’s teachings. The majority of the committee drew up a report condemning these teachings, which report was adopted by the Synod of 1922. The majority report was chiefly the work of Rev. Hoeksema. For more information on the Janssen case, see Prof. Herman Hanko’s master’s thesis “A Study of the Relation between the Views of Dr. R. Janssen and Common Grace.”

4The bread and wine were not distributed as they are now, but the people came forward in turns to the table to be served.

5“De Standaard” was a Christian newspaper written and published in the Netherlands. It was edited by Dr. Abraham Kuyper.