From Dort to Today (17): The Development of the Reformed Faith

In our last article we finished the history of the Reformed faith in the Netherlands. It is now time to cross the ocean and come to our own shores to trace the history of the truth of the Calvin Reformation and of the Synod of Dordt in our own country.

The Reformed faith was brought to this country through emigration.

The emigration with which we concern ourselves was that which followed upon the secession. However, we must understand that prior to the emigrationists of the secession, there were many people from the Netherlands who had found their way to this country. They had begun to come already before the Revolutionary War. They were predominantly members of the Hervormde Kerk (The State Church), and they had established in this country what became known as the Reformed Church of America—a denomination that exists under that name to today. This Reformed Church of America does fit into the picture of the history with which we now deal; but how precisely this was we shall presently see.

The emigration which is of chief importance to us began soon after the secession and continued throughout the entire 19th century. These people were mostly people who ahd separated from the State Church in 1834 and following years behind the leadership of De Cock and his colleagues. There were many reasons why they came to America: 1) The persecution was still sporadically severe in the Netherlands, and they moved to the “land of religious freedom” to escape it. 2) They were very poor people on the whole, poor because of the class distinctions in the Netherlands between the landholders and the common workers who were oppressed; poor because of the intolerable burdens of taxation imposed upon them by the government; poor because of persecution; poor because of famine in their fatherland. It is not an exaggeration to say that they were starving; and they needed to find a place where they could feed their families. 3) America was the “land of opportunity”. Its vision appeared to the eyes of men throughout the world as a golden “Canaan” of peace and plenty. It beckoned irresistibly and stretched out its seemingly welcome arms to those who were crushed under the burden of hardship. Dutchmen, as a general rule, are not immune to the attraction of wealth.

As the emigrants trickled over to these shores, the ministers in the Netherlands were concerned about their spiritual welfare. Pious people of God were going to a foreign land which was large and unsettled and which was considered pretty much barbarian as far as the Christian faith was concerned. The danger therefore was very real that the Hollanders would be scattered from one another beyond the possibility of contact; that they would imbibe the heady elixir of worldliness in a foreign culture; and that they would lose their faith and their hope in the truth of God’s Word for which they had so valiantly fought in their homeland.

The result was that several ministers determined to go over with the bands of emigrants and help establish colonies where the faithful could remain together and where their spiritual needs could be cared for. Although there is little purpose in giving all the names of these ministers, some of the better known ones we will mention. Van Raalte (who was to play such an important part in the later history of the colonists) went over in 1846 to settle in what is now Holland, Michigan, on the shores of the Black Lake. Scholte led a band of colonists to the fertile land of Iowa, east of Des Moines, near the Skunk River to form a town which is now known as Pella. C. Vander Meulen settled in Zeeland, Michigan; M.A. Ypma in the area west and north of Zeeland.

As these colonies were established and various churched formed, a classis was organized—although the classis was limited to the Michigan Churches.

We now have to bring into the picture the Reformed Church of America. A certain Rev. I.N. Wyckoff, a minister in the Reformed Church in New Jersey, had spent a great deal of time and effort in aiding the Holland colonists as they came over to these shores. Especially when they first landed in this foreign country, they were helped over their first difficulties by this generous minister. And, understandably, Wyckoff retained his interests in the colonists even after they had left the East for points in the distant West. So it was that in 1849 Wyckoff made a trip to Michigan and visited the Churches in that area. He formed a deep friendship with Van Raalte, and the two became the engineers of church union. A meeting was called at which the ministers and elders of the colonists were present; and to this meeting union with the Reformed Church was proposed. There was some dishonesty somewhere it seems; at least the colonists were not given a correct picture of spiritual conditions in the Reformed Church. For this Van Raalte, who strongly favored union, was certainly to blame, at least in part. Wyckoff’s purpose was to bring these struggling churches, faced with the monumental task of making a home in a new land and taming the forests of Michigan, into his own denomination where they would have stronger church ties and from which they could receive financial help.

It seems as if this meeting passed a resolution favoring union with the Reformed Church with the one provision that their classis could remain intact. However, the meeting was unofficial and had no real ecclesiastical authority. It was not an official decision to join the Reformed Church. But Wyckoff returned to his home and informed his Synod that the colonists favored union. In June 1850 the Synod of the Reformed Church in America approved this union and took the colonists into their denomination.

This union however, has a vague history among the Michigan Churches. There is no mention of union in all the official minutes of the classical meetings until the spring of 1851. Nevertheless, with Van Raalte pushing for all he was worth, the union did become an accomplished fact.

But this was only the beginning of trouble. Many of the colonists were apprehensive about the whole thing. They questioned the wisdom of it, agitated against it, and, in general, showed every sign of preferring their own denomination.

These apprehensions of the colonists were soon strengthened. Reports kept coming in from the East through the medium of new immigrants, and the news was not good. First of all, it was learned that the Reformed Church had tampered with the confessions. The colonists had not known of this. The Reformed Church had made extensive changes of some importance in the Church Order; they had modified the Belgic Confession; and they had dropped the negative part of the Canons—the rejection of errors. The colonists were not happy about this, for they had struggled to preserve these Confessions in the Netherlands and had no intention of giving them up now.

Secondly, the new immigrants reported that there were some very strange practices going on in the Churches “back East”. In some churches there was no preaching on the Heidelberg Catechism; ecclesiastical holidays were not observed; baptism was often administered in the homes of parents with new babies or in the Consistory rooms, but not in public worship services; and colored communicants were set apart at the table of the Lord’s Supper.

It was about the time when fears were mounting and when doubts were on the increase that the colonists had made a very bad move in affiliating with the Reformed Church, that there arrived on the scene a man by the name of Gysbert Haan. He was an elder in the church of the secession in Netherlands. He was a very bright, articulate and gifted man. He had, in later years, much influence in the churches in Michigan, and was a leader in the beginning of the Christian Reformed Churches; but he seems to have been a man who regarded himself rather highly with an inflated opinion of his abilities; and his basic love of the cause of the truth is suspect.

Yet he brought some very grave reports back from he East. He informed the colonists that he knew of an elder “back there” who, although he had several children, had baptized none of them on the grounds that they must be free to choose their own denominational affiliation when they come to years of discretion since very church was but another road to heaven. Further, Haan spoke of Arminianism as being very common teaching in the Reformed Churches, the Arminianism which their fathers had so strenuously resisted in the “old country”. Besides, there were lodge members in the churches and this practice of membership in secret organizations was not condemned. Hymns had, in some instances, taken the place of the Psalms; Sunday School was taking the place of Catechetical instruction. Conditions were deplorable, Haan insisted; and he could not understand how the colonists had ever gotten themselves into such a fix t belong to such a denomination. He was of the opinion that they ought to bend every effort to establish their own denomination.

The years 1855-1857 were years of trouble with Haan leading the fight to sever relationships with the Reformed Churches, and Van Raalte leading the fight to remain in this denomination. Although at one classis Haan was censured for agitation in the churches, gradually his views prevailed. Many new immigrants refused to join the church, and others, already members, withdrew.

In 1857 a new denomination of four churches met in classical session. A new name was adopted: “The Holland Reformed Church”; which was later changed to the “True Holland Church”; later still to the “Holland Christian Reformed Church”; and finally, in 1890, to the “Christian Reformed Church”.

Haan’s instability shows through in that, after some addition trouble, he returned to the Reformed Church from which he had withdrawn after a bitter fight.

This new denomination grew rapidly both from new waves of immigrants and from other congregations of the Reformed Church who separated (primarily on the question of lodge membership) and joined the Christian Reformed Church.

There is no doubt about it that the colonists had made a mistake in joining the Reformed Church. The fact of the matter was that the Reformed Church had, in this country, lost its distinctiveness. It had frittered away its heritage and drifted the way of worldliness and apostasy. It had tolerated Arminianism in its fellowship, had lost its distinctiveness as a church of the Reformation, and had become much like other denominations in this country. It had not the spiritual energy and stamina to carry on the glorious traditions of Calvin and Dordt in this new world. Someone else had to do it if the Reformed faith was to prevail. Hence the secessionists and the Christian Reformed Church were formed by the providence of God. God preserved His truth in a new denomination so that the “faith of our fathers” was established in this land.

….errors can never be uprooted from human hearts until true knowledge of God is planted therein.
John Calvin