It is March 24, 2008, and I am at the residence of Mr. Herman Ophoff in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
MHH: Mr. Ophoff, where and when were you born?
HO: I was born on Butterworth Avenue in Grand Rapids. And when I was two years old, my folks moved because my dad (Rev. George M. Ophoff) took the call to Byron Center (he had been at Hope Protestant Reformed Church —I think he was there for five years.) It was after the split of 1924. He got the call to Byron Center, and that was the call he took. At that time I was two years old
MHH: You grew up in Byron Center then?
HO: Yes, I did. The church was kitty-corner across the street. We were all raised there in that same house. When I got to be seventeen, I joined the Navy. I quit high school and went back later. So I did live there for the first fifteen years of my life because the first two years were on Butterworth Street.
MHH: Just out of curiosity, what led you to join the Navy?
HO: That’s a good question. It was during the war, by the way. I guess it was something that everybody was doing. But it was partially my dad’s thinking. My brother George was in the Navy, and my brother Fred was in the Army. And he was so concerned he made the comment that he didn’t want me to get into the Army (for his own personal reasons), and I wasn’t making any work of joining the Navy. So one day, it was perhaps in June, and he got to thinking about that, sitting in his study, and I guess worrying about it, because I wasn’t doing anything about it. And he says to himself (I guess this is the way it went), “I’ll make work of it myself.” So he came to Christian High. There was a knock on the door. I was in Helen Zandstra’s history class. She went to the door and it was my dad. He said “Come on. We are going to join the Navy” (laughter). So I got up and I was thinking, “Boy this is really swell. In front of all these young guys, I’m going to be a big hero here —joining the Navy.” So we went from there to Reeds Lake Center in East Grand Rapids. They had a Naval Induction Center there. The man in charge asked me some questions. My dad had to sign because I was only seventeen.
I don’t think my father realized the magnitude of what he was doing. I don’t think so. I think that what it did was gave him some kind of reason to pause and not worry about it because he was afraid I was going to get in the Army. And I guess I can appreciate that.
MHH: He had a fear that you would, perhaps, be more likely to be killed in the Army, maybe the Navy was safer?
HO: Yes, that was his reasoning. My brother George was already in the Navy, and he just felt that it was safer in the Navy. Well, it really wasn’t, but he thought that way (laughter).
So that’s the way that began. I wasn’t in too long because the war got to be over and I was in the Philippine Islands. I was stationed on a floating dry-dock, which is a tremendous piece of machinery, but I won’t get into it here. So later on I came home. I came home and my folks had moved. But I didn’t know that (laughter). So I came home to what I thought was their address, but they weren’t there. So I had to go look up my folks when I got home (laughter).
Now I was not much of a sailor. I was probably, on the whole list of the US Navy, the lowest on the list, because I went in as a non-swimmer. And I came out as a
non-swimmer (laughter). I was graduated as seaman first class, which, if you’re in long enough, you’re going to be that anyway. I really didn’t enjoy it. But I knew I had to do something. But time came when I was shipped home. But when I look back over those years, I have to say that it was a good experience.
So I went back and finished high school. I stayed at my grandmother’s house on Eastern Avenue, near Hall Street, while I was in high school. And looking back, that was probably the biggest mistake that I ever made.
MHH: Why did you not stay with your parents?
HO: Well, living in Byron Center was getting to be just a little bit of a trial. So my dad asked his mother if that could work out. She needed somebody there anyway to kind of look after her. So that’s why I stayed there—I could walk to school.
But you know, it was not a good move, practically, because I was too young for that and there was no discipline. I was not under the shadow of the home life. It was a terrible mistake. I recognize that today—have for years. But high school was not one of the nicer times of my life.
I have to interject this as I go. I want you to know this, Mark, that even when we were young, we understood the whole history of the beginning of the Protestant Reformed Churches. It was just on the agenda. My folks talked about it. At the time our churches were not in existence very long, and my dad was having his struggles in Byron Center during the depression. The church finally dissolved, and most of the people went to other churches—they drove to Grand Rapids and Hudsonville.
MHH: Why did that church dissolve?
HO: Well, I think I can answer that in fairness. My dad was in the seminary (and I might add right now that that was really his first love).
MHH: He was teaching?
MHH: In addition to being pastor of Byron Center?
HO: That’s right—and a father.
MHH: He had his hands full.
HO: Because of the time, he had his hands too full. He could not, as I look back, do justice to being a minister (with its problems, particularly at that time), and the seminary. He drove to Grand Rapids every day. That was really his full-time work. But the congregation got to be almost secondary as far as attention was concerned. Of course, that breeds problems when you can’t give your full attention to whatever you’re doing.
In all fairness to my dad, I think he did a good job, because most of the people, with very few exceptions, loved my dad’s preaching, but it was probably too much for one man to do justice to both causes. His first love was the seminary. But he also was one of the writers in The Standard Bearer—in every issue. He spent a great deal of time in the Old Testament, as you probably know.
My father was not an easy man to know. You had to know him intimately in order to really know my dad. We were not, outwardly at least, close to my father. He was not often available. But I don’t think he knew how to be available because his first love was the cause. He was so embedded in love with the truth of the word of God. That was his first and major prioritized concern. Whether that was right or wrong to put all of that into one basket, that’s beside the point.
But I add this in parenthesis, that from eternity, God raised men like that (as your grandfather, Rev. Herman Hoeksema) to be separated unto the gospel from their mother’s womb. And that doesn’t always paint a pretty picture of family life. But he had a certain calling to perform there, and I see that today. He was a very congenial fellow. You could get along with him real well as long as you didn’t malign what he knew to be the truth. Then you had yourself a bit of a problem, if you couldn’t prove it.
But it required men like that. God raised him up and give him those gifts (like your grandfather). They were fearless, Mark. Your granddad, too, you know that. They were fearless. It’s hard to understand. But I understand it very clear today. My dad was a meek person, he was a humble guy. But that doesn’t mean that he was weak. He was meek but not weak. I say this not because he’s my father, but because he is my father. I learned to know him that way like nobody else could. Every person in that congregation would have to say, “We learned tremendous much from Rev. Ophoff in those days.”
But he had very little conception of time. It would not be unusual that he would go overtime. And that got to be kind of irritating to some of the folks.
So, you know, I could go on for a day and a half about this, but I don’t want to because I don’t want to be guilty of just rambling on. But that is such an important time in the life of the church—that men, given that caliber, were ready to go, as it were, to the stake if necessary. They were fearless men with courage that is almost incomprehensible. And they cared little or nothing what people thought about them personally. But it was those personal things about my dad (he oftentimes would work all night) that I can remember in those years. He had to get the Standard Bearer article out and he was usually behind schedule in what he was doing. I can remember lying in bed and hearing that typewriter going at 3-4:00 in the morning.
That went on for years. That wears on a man. But we were kids and we didn’t know any different.
I want to give a fair appraisal here. If a person had my father as a friend, he would put his head on the block for that man if he believed that he was right in his thinking. That’s the kind of a guy my dad was. And he knew HH (Herman Hoeksema) very well. He worked alongside of him, as it were. But they were two different men. They were absolutely opposite in personality. But for the sake of the cause they functioned together quite well because that was their only priority. They never socialized together outside of the seminary and that became his full-time work.
MHH: How would you say they were different?
HO: They were different in this respect (if you can use this language and not be misunderstood): they were both their own men. One would not hesitate to criticize or correct the other (laughter). They did not fear each other, but they had a tremendous respect for each other—an undying respect for each other. In fact, my dad would refer to Rev. Hoeksema, as the “champion of the truth.” And he really meant that. He used to tell us kids, “There is no one who has a hold of the Reformed faith like Herman Hoeksema.” He saw that in him. He was not a follower, but he was an ally. There is a big difference. Neither one of them followed the other one. They worked together going down the same road with the same goal, but with their own private thoughts. But they were not indifferent to each other in that respect. I think that’s why they functioned—because other things did not enter in to mar that relationship of two men.
They never in my lifetime referred to each other by their first names. They had that kind of respect. I can remember my father would be calling your grandfather up on the phone for one reason or another, and it was either “Rev. Hoeksema,” or it was “Dominie,” but never “Herman.” And your grandfather never called my dad “George.” As I said, they had undying respect for each other. I want to add this because it proves the human part of people. When all the trouble was a-brewing (in our denomination prior to 1953), the trouble was serious, serious trouble. It appeared that we were on the brink of extinction. Your grandfather was having a serious time one evening, which my father learned later. He was becoming discouraged, and he related this to your grandmother.
He said, “I can’t understand why these people are this way. I never laid a straw in their paths. I always told them the truth.” So he was trying to reason that out. He was feeling very, very low. And there was a knock on the door. Your grandmother went to the door, and it was my dad. Now, this is what I put to that, and I live with this. Your grandfather needed to be encouraged at that moment of his life, and the Lord knew exactly whom to send and when. My father didn’t know that. He was there for another reason, which was trivial compared to that. But that was the real turning point in the time of their lives together. They were “soldiers of the cross” together, and in a sense separately, if that’s possible. But they were.
If I’m babbling, let me know.
MHH: No, tell me more.
HO: I have to tell you this. People ask me sometimes, “How did your dad become acquainted with this whole thing of common grace?” He was four years behind Rev. Hoeksema in the CRC [Christian Reformed Church] seminary, and common grace was in its early years of discussion. It wasn’t at that time yet accepted, because this was perhaps four years before the 1924- time came. One night (this is an exciting story, Mark, I think!), when my dad was in the seminary, he was asked, as an assignment, to give a paper on the biblical proof of common grace. Now, no one really understood yet at that point just exactly the fine points of common grace. It was too early—it was in discussion stage. So my dad accepted that. He too wanted to learn. So he went home that day from the seminary, and he struggled with that. He had to give that paper in two months. He struggled and struggled and struggled. He could not see where common grace could be “friendly,” as he put it, with the scriptures. And he struggled till the time finally came that he had to give that paper. But he yet wasn’t prepared. He was not at peace with it.
On the way to the meeting (it was kind of a large gathering—all the students), there was a serious thunderstorm. It was so serious that lightening hit the electrical system where they were meeting. The lights went out, and they stayed out.
Now, this sounds a little bit superstitious, but it isn’t. The lights stayed out long enough that they dismissed to come back a month later.
Well, that gave my dad some extra time. You know, no matter where you turn, you see the hand of God in everything, don’t you?
So he went back and struggled with that and struggled with that. Finally he woke up at three o’clock in the morning and got to thinking about that. Then it finally dawned
on him. He said, “I’m going to treat this as there is no common grace.” Then the light came on, and he built his whole paper opposing common grace.
Now here’s the punch line. He got to that meeting finally, and the moderator (one of the professors) and all of the students were sitting there. He had to give his paper, but it was in opposition to common grace. Now it hadn’t been accepted then yet, but nonetheless, there were some serious thoughts in that direction. When he got all through, it was quite clear, at least in his mind, there could not possibly be the theory of common grace. The moderator of the meeting got up after he had done his speech, and he said “Are there any questions from the student body?” Well, there may have been, but he referred to the student body as “victims”—“are there any more victims?” (laughter). That was the language that was used. But my point is this: this was four years before meeting Rev. Hoeksema. His mind was solidly stayed on the fact, through that experience, that there could not possibly be a common grace. And from there on he did not struggle with that any more. There was still the battle of denial—that is to say, of those that still adhered to and wanted the common grace theory. There was that battle. But his own personal battle was over and he never again questioned even the remote possibility of there being a common grace.
That’s the story that I wanted you to know. Your grandfather had his own way of coming to that conclusion. Of course he did. He was in seminary (he was four years ahead of my dad). But even that space is an important thing because they both did not leave the seminary at the same time. They both had their own time of preparation. I think that is a very important factor.
They didn’t say, like two people meet after school, “Hey, I think we really got something here.” No. That wasn’t it. They didn’t even know each other then. But he learned of your grandfather by his reputation and his writing. He read those, and that added fuel to his conviction.
Looking down the road, that was the essence of their beginning of the Protestant Reformed Churches.
Quite a story, isn’t it?
MHH: It is indeed. That certainly helps to explain their later relationship.
HO: Oh, it does. There was such a tremendous respect because they trusted each other. They relied on each other. There was nothing in this world that could move your grandfather or my father off from that position.
And that was really the foundation, humanly speaking, of the movement.
Now, here we sat out in Hope Church. My father had no idea what was going to happen after that, whether he’d even have a church left.
I want to insert this. You learn to know whom you can lean on. He knew of four people while he was still in the CRC at Hope. This was during the split and a short time after. There were three people at Hope: Richard Newhouse and Ike Korhorn. There is one more. Oh, my, let me not forget this, there’s another one. And in Byron Center there was Neal Dykstra. These men made this statement to my brother George: “Your dad is a man’s man.” That’s how they viewed him, because he was fearless in his conviction. They knew that, and those that didn’t feel that way were totally afraid to debate this subject with him.
When they were in Hope Church yet (it was the time of troubles), there was no arrangement made on who owned the property. Nobody really had a legal right yet. But the followers of those who went with my father at that time came to church that morning. He was into his sermon when two men walked in. They came down the center aisle, and they stopped about half way. How do I know this? Old Grandma Kuiper, one of Ike Korhorn’s daughters, told me this happened when she was 8 years old—she experienced it. They came halfway down, and they stopped. He did not stop preaching. He didn’t say, “What are you doing here,” or “What can I do for you.” He didn’t stop preaching.
She told me this when she was 92 years old. She remembered it all her life. They stood there, and they turned around and left without saying a word. They became, I think, very, very conscious of the fact that they were defiling the sanctuary when the gospel was being preached—a terrible position they put themselves in.
I think often of Ananias and Sapphira. It amazes me that they weren’t struck dead. It was the house of God.
And that’s the kind of stories that I was brought up on (laughter). But they all had good meaning. They weren’t just stories, Mark, They all had a certain substance. They had a beginning. But they had a point. And the point was conviction at any price. Not just some, but any price. Your grandfather was that way. They would have literally, as they did in the Reformation period, go to the stake, go to the gallows—whatever it took. They knew that they would be given the strength of the grace of God to be faithful.
That’s more than the Protestant Reformed Churches, as you and I both know. We’re talking about the continuation of the Reformed faith with our roots deeply rooted in the Reformation. We really go back to the days of the apostles. And we go back to the
Garden where the antithesis became very obvious. That’s the truth of the word of God. That was their position.
They cared nothing, Mark. Consequences did not enter into it. It so happened that there were quite a few who followed with your grandfather. Very few with my father, but that too was meaningful. I said to him one day when I was a young kid— maybe 15 years old— “Do you ever get discouraged, Pa, when you get in church and you’re only preaching to 25 families?” By the time the church dissolved there were only about 10. He said, “No, I don’t. I’d like to see a big church, but” he said, “I had only one calling, and that’s to preach the gospel. I can’t do the Lord’s work for him in that respect. If he wants to send people here, wonderful,” But he had courage.
One time, at Hope Church, the catechumens were not coming to catechism because of the split in Hope Church. The minister was taking over on the side of the CRC. He persuaded those young people to come to his house for catechism, rather than be taught by Rev. Ophoff. So my father said to the young people, “Now, you just go with me. We’ll go over to that minister’s house and we’ll teach our catechism at his house.”
So he did. He knocked on the door (now that takes guts, doesn’t it!—laughter). Well, the minister let him in. He came in with his four-five-six or seven students. They all sat down in his house, and he taught the catechism in that minister’s house. Now I don’t have that kind of guts.
There’s one thing about these stories we talk about. In themselves, they’re meaningless, to a great extent—that’s all immaterial. It kind of adds to the picture. But the bottom line— and you know this and I know this—was that they were called by almighty God from eternity to do exactly what the Lord gave them to do. And that was to defend the Reformed faith, if it took their lives to do it. That’s what this is all about.
You and I are knowledgeable of the history. We are of another generation. Yet we’re close enough that any time I read the history of the church in history books, these two men were of no lesser calling than anyone in the Reformation period or even the apostolic times. I put these men in exactly that same category. Absolutely!
MHH: Because they were definitely two of the main individuals who actually stood up for and defended the faith.
HO: Absolutely! But they were two different personalities. There couldn’t be two HHs, and there couldn’t be two GMOs either. Your grandfather was a very organized person.
It took a man like that to do exactly what he had to do. And such was my father too. But it was important that they passed through that learning stage.
HO: Let us return to 1953 to make the following statement. In 1953, I question whether the vast majority of our people understood the defining position of the Protestant Reformed Churches as it relates to the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Almost every Reformed church will say, “We’re from the Reformation too.” But that is not true in the legitimate sense of the word. Your dad [Homer C. Hoeksema] made a statement I never forgot. He said, “We are legitimate children of the Reformation.” That says it all. And there are ways to prove that with the confessions, in the preaching, in catechism instruction. Living as long as I have, I can look back and see and witness the departure when they deny that which really held it together —the confessions. Then that moves into divorce and remarriage and conditional theology. And those are all effects, not causes, of throwing that out. What a price. But we were given, by the grace of God, men to see the error of that in 1924 and also in 1953.
We are small in number. I’ll say this the best I can say it. Our churches, to me, are a picture of the remnant of the church as that church unfolds according to the counsel of God throughout all history. I’m talking now about the Reformed faith in its purest form. I believe that denominationally, our churches are a picture of that.
Do I say that right?
MHH: I understand very clearly what you mean.
HO: Not exclusively, but a picture of the total sum as far as belief and pure doctrine. This isn’t calling everyone else unbelievers. That’s not my point. But anybody that wants to know what really is the Reformed faith, then you come to the Protestant Reformed churches to learn that.
MHH: Allow me to follow up on one of your statements. Regarding the troubles prior to and including the division in the churches in 1953 and those who forsook what you referred to as the pure path of the Reformation, I’m interested in your opinion.. Do you think that that was because they did not know and understand what it meant to be truly Reformed? Or, because they did not want to be truly Reformed? I’m curious as to your thoughts on that question.
HO: Simply stated, there were those that were deceived and should have known better but were influenced by the leaders of the “schism” later to regret their foolish decision. What a price! There were also those of a larger segment who knew the position of the PRC but willfully joined the “schismatics.” They saw the opportunity to become “big.” They no more wanted to be Reformed, much less PRC. They hated everything the PRC stood for.
They stole the name PRC to present themselves as the “rightful” PRC to the liberated church (Dr. Klaas Schilder). Many lies were told endeavoring to achieve their
evil goal, but it wasn’t to be.
I think to a great degree there were many (I’m talking about the man in the pew), depending on age, who did not really understand the issues of 1924. The leadership certainly did (CRC). And that’s what makes it such an abominable thing because they convinced the constituents, for the most part, of their position. So in a real sense, I believe that not only were they ignorant, they were ignorant of the truth as it pertained to that issue of that day.
There were all kinds of ways to know what the truth was. But there was also a considerable amount of politics connected there too. There were men who were not in agreement with this whole issue of common grace, but they saw no future there without it. They were not ready to step out and become members of a small group. All these things enter in. I was taking a walk the other day, and there was a fellow up the street who is about 75 years old. He goes to the Christian Reformed Church, and he’s a good guy, and he’s a child of God. He waved at me and said, “Come on over a minute.” So I went over there. He said, “What is this thing of years back, what’s this about common grace?” Now he’s sitting in a church listening to the affects and results of all of that. But he is totally oblivious to what truth is.
MHH: Doesn’t even know it.
HO: If I told him, he wouldn’t know. I have a certain lament for that, because I believe that he is a serious-minded child of God, else he wouldn’t have asked me that. But what he should have known all of his life, he still doesn’t. I’m not passing judgment, Mark.
But we’re talking about what the issues were.
MHH: Nevertheless, you make a sharp point.
HO: It has been said, “Where the truth is most purely preached the devil is hardest at work.” The PRC is no exception and has once again passed through trial (1953 schism) and again preserved to rejoice in God’s covenant faithfulness. After the battle was over and a life-time defending the faith, the Lord took them [HH and GMO] home at the appointed time. We were given a sacred trust that is so awesome that even our most faithful people shuddered under the responsibility of it. But that’s the way it had to be. The result of all of that today is we can say the Lord has blessed that remnant. It amazes me that in every RFPA publication over the many years there is no contradiction. The preaching is consistent. The teaching is consistent and the singing is consistent. The Standard Bearer for over 91 years—never a contradiction. See, they’re all built on the same absolute truth of the word of God. It’s like a diamond that has many facets, but it’s still the same diamond.
MHH: That’s a wonderful figure of speech. I’ve never heard it put that way. I definitely like that.
HO: I like it, too. I gave a little talk at Eastside School years ago, and it just happened to pop into my mind.
MHH: It’s very appropriate. Now, after Byron Center, where did your father go next or what did he do? Tell me about the history subsequent to Byron Center, which now puts us into the 1940s.
HO: They dissolved as a congregation in 1945. My father was already teaching in the seminary, and that became his full-time work. So that part of his life continued. Occasionally he would preach. I remember that he preached when we were holding services in Christian High. He would preach there occasionally. So he was a professor in seminary, and he was really at home there. He didn’t say, “I really feel at home here,” but I know he was because he had a large burden taken off his back. Not that he called it a burden, but it was that, anyway.
They were not afraid of the faces of men, HH and GMO. I don’t know if you ever saw this. It was in the Grand Rapids Press the day that the Christian Reformed Church was examining my dad as far as whether he would or would not agree or disagree with the three points of common grace—in court. I have a copy of the original Press notification (see footnote).
A remarkable thing is, they had no textbooks like they have today. As Lindberg would say, they were flying by the seat of their pants. They had no material. They had no curriculum other than what they themselves wrote and knew what was important to teach. But it was bare bones-sitting in that basement of First Church.
MHH: This concludes the interview. Thank you, Mr. Ophoff, for sharing your interesting information and insights.
Footnote: A Must Read – Portraits of Faithful Saints by Prof. Herman Hanko, page 414, RFPA publication.