The doctrine of God’s everlasting covenant of grace has always been the doctrine uniquely characteristic of the Reformed faith as it developed in the Netherlands. This doctrine has never been merely an abstract tenet of dogma, but always remains in the lives of God’s people, a very precious confession of the truth. As a matter of fact, many of our readers can speak at length about the covenant lines into which they were born. They can trace their spiritual ancestry back over many generations. Rev. Ophoff used to speak in school of what he called “Gereformeerde Gevoelhoren,” I suppose that the translation of this expression would be, “Reformed Antennae,” but by this expression Rev. Ophoff meant that a person who is born in a covenant home and brought up by covenant parents develops over the course of the years these Reformed antennae. They are the antennae which one finds on bugs, and which are used by these bugs as feelers. A bug, as he feels his way along with his antennae, makes these antennae quiver every time it meets with a foreign object. By means of this rather expressive metaphor, Rev. Ophoff meant to convey the idea that a child born in a covenant home and brought up under the influence of covenant instruction, is able to develop a sense for the Reformed faith which it is almost impossible to gain in any other way. He believed deeply in the importance of covenant instruction from infancy on. He believed so strongly in this that he maintained that it was next to impossible to develop such sensitive Reformed feelings unless one was instructed in the Reformed faith from days of earliest childhood. There is a great deal of truth in this. There is no substitute for covenant instruction.
This truth of which Rev. Ophoff spoke is a truth which was characteristic of his own life.
It seems as if the story of George Ophoff has to begin with the story of a man by the name of Gerrit Klaas Hemkes. Gerrit Hemkes was the maternal grandfather of George, and the story begins with him because of the influence of this man on George during the latter’s formative years.
A brief sketch of the life of Rev. Hemkes is given in the “Semi-Centennial Volume” of the theological school at Calvin College. (This volume was published by the Semi-Centennial Committee of the Christian Reformed Church in 1926, H.H.) We quote the sketch this volume presents concerning Rev. Hemkes. “Gerrit Klaas Hemkes was born in the Netherlands May 6, 1838, at Hallum, in the province of Friesland. He had a religious training and feared the Lord from childhood. When still very young, he was afraid that he had committed the sin against the Holy Ghost. The attacks became so severe at times that he would forget his play and seek a secluded spot, there to present his troubles to the Lord and to pray that out of His fullness God would supply all things needful. In his 16th year the Lord delivered him from this burden, and he became conscious of his salvation in Christ.”
It is striking to note that this maternal grandfather of George Ophoff was born four years after the separation in the Netherladns under DeKok, Van Raalte and others. In fact, the parents of Gerrit Hemkes were members of the Churches of the Separation. Apparently, they had separated from the apostate State Church along with one of the leaders of this movement. They were therefore, among those who were deeply concerned about the spiritual deterioration in that church which only 200 years before this had fought so valiantly against the errors of Arminianism. They were therefore part of that important movement by which God preserved the cause of the Reformed faith in the Netherlands.
There were always among these churches of the separation certain mystical elements. And it seems, from the paragraph quoted above, that the family of Gerrit Hemkes was not entirely immune to these mystical tendencies.
Soon a desire to study for the ministry came to him, but his parents had no means with which to aid him. Through the help of kind friends, however, he was enabled to study for two years with the Rev. Kreulen of Hallum. Then he was given support from the Student Fund of the Friesland churches and received a through course at the Gymnasium of Faneker. Here he was brought under the influence of the Rev. K.J. Pieters, pastor of the Franekeer Church at the time. He sat at the feet of prominent men such as Dr. Junius, the rector, and Verwey, the ‘con-rector’ of the school.
After five years at the Franeker school he was graduated, delivering an oration in Latin on “Oedipus Coloneus.” (This was a tragic play by Sophocies, an ancient Greek playwright, produced near the end of his life and published after his death about 400 B.C. It is interesting to note that even in those days Latin was so thoroughly mastered that the graduates of the schools could speak in Latin. H.H.) He then proceeded to Kampen, and was graduated from the Theological School in 1865. After passing a successful examination at Enumatil, he became pastor of the church at De Leek, in the Province of Groningen. He also served the church of Stads-Musselkanaal in the Netherlands from 1873 to 1874. Then he received a call from Bunde, Oostfriesland, Germany, where he served from 1874 to 1877. Here he also had the opportunity to give instruction to two young men who desired to study for the ministry.
In 1877 came a call from Vriesland, Michigan, and after due consideration it was accepted. Here he labored until 1884. In 1883, he became assistant professor at our Theological school in order to relieve Prof. Boer somewhat in his aruduous tasks. During this time, he received aid from other pastors in supplying his pulpit in Vriesland. In 1884, he was appointed regular professor, at first with Prof. Boer giving instruction in many branches both in the literary and theological departments, and later especially as professor of church history. He was faithful in his work, and loved by his students. Especially did they enjoy the many stories told in connection with his work in the classroom.
One of these stories has come down to me, by what means I no longer recall. It was told me, and the story may be apocryphal, that one day Prof. Hemkes was strolling across the campus of Calvin College when he was see by three students who decided to try to play a joke on him and see, if possible, whether they could embarrass him. After hurried consultation amongst themselves, one of them came up to Prof. Hemkes and said to him, “Good morning, father Abraham.” The second one hastened up and said, “Good morning, father Isaac.” The third one followed immediately and said, “Good morning, father Jacob.” Pausing only for a moment, Prof. Hemkes turned to the students and said in a most serious voice, “Young men, I am not father Abraham; nor am I father Isaac; nor am I father Jacob. However, I am Saul the son of Kish, and I think I have just found my father’s asses.” Prof. Hemkes was quite a story-teller in his own right. Especially the children loved to hear him tell his stories, for he included in the stories all the motions and expressions necessary to convey the full impact of the tale, even if this meant laying aside his professorial dignity and crawling all over the floor.
In 1905 he became emeritus, but still went out preaching. His last sermon was delivered in Allendale, in which he spoke on “The Fulness of Christ.” In March 1916 he fell, breaking a leg at the hip. A stroke of apoplexy, paralyzed the other leg, and made it difficult for him to use his hands. In this condition, he lingered along for three years. Finally, diabetes set in, and he died December 4, 1920, not having lived in vain. This not only those of his parishioners still living can testify, but also the students who were favored with his instruction. Of this his many writings, both in the Netherlands and here in America are a testimony. For four years he was editor-in-chief of De Wachter and for 40 years one of the editors of our Yearbook. His was indeed a life well spent, and a great blessing to many.
George Ophoff stayed with his grandfather a number of years during his college days. But to this we shall return presently.