Rev. C. Hanko – Chapter 11: Trouble in Seminary

Editor’s note: Rev. Hanko continues his story with the beginnings of the Protestant Reformed Theological School. The first year was a difficult one as problems arose quickly in the faculty and student body.

For some time already I had felt a call to the ministry, more particularly to be a missionary in some foreign field. It was with this in mind that I had enrolled in a seminary preparatory course in Calvin College. But now that the controversy with Rev. Hoeksema had come to a head, and I had become a defender of his position, I spoke to him about my problem. At that time he told me that the intention of the combined consistories of the Protesting Christian Reformed Churches, as we were then called, was to start a seminary as soon as the second semester in Calvin was ended. He also informed me that they would need missionaries and urged me to look forward to attending classes in our own seminary as soon as the school was opened.

A call went out for men who were interested in seminary training. God sent ten men to appear before the consistory of the Eastern Avenue Protesting CRC to seek entrance into the seminary and all ten were accepted. A unique group it was. Five were married men, two of them with families; five were single. They ranged in age from teenagers to middle-aged men. Some had a year or more of college training; others had received only an elementary school education. The married men were: Andrew De Vries, Arie Griffioen (my future father-in-law), Andrew Kuyvenhoven from Kalamazoo, William Verhil and Gerrit Vos. The younger single men, besides myself, were: Gerard Borduin, John Griffioen, Richard Veldman and Leonard Vermeer.

The three ministers, Rev. Danhof, Rev. Hoeksema and Rev. Ophoff readily agreed to instruct these men to serve in our churches. They made a schedule according to which Rev. Hoeksema was to teach on Monday afternoon: Greek Reading, New Testament Exegesis, Hermeneutics and New Testament History. A separate class was held for Beginner’s Greek. Rev. Ophoff consented to teach on Wednesday afternoon: Hebrew Grammar, Old Testament Exegesis, Old Testament History and English Composition. Rev. Danhof would come from Kalamazoo by interurban train on Friday morning to teach Introduction to Dogmatics, Dogmatics, Homiletics and Church History.

The meeting place was not ideal, nothing like our present seminary. The class met in the basement of the Eastern Avenue Church in a large assembly room with seating capacity for about two hundred people. There were no desks, no tables for writing. There was one advantage, a platform with a pulpit. But we had no library; not even one reference work. For books we had to go elsewhere or purchase our own. But no one seemed to mind.

Let me add that we did not make use of these facilities for very long. In December we lost the church property and had to find another meeting place. There was an old elementary schoolhouse in the Kalamazoo Avenue, Oakdale Street area. This was about to be torn down, but the second floor was made available to us for our use. Andrew Kuyvenhoven took advantage of this and moved his small family into part of the second floor. There was one room with desks and chalkboard that became our classroom. This was little better than our former facilities, but it would serve our purpose.

There was great enthusiasm among both professors and students as the school opened in the first week of June 1925. This was a new venture and all were eager to see the reformation grow. Besides, there would be a great need for preaching and ministers when new churches were organized. All went to work with determination and zeal, prayerfully seeking the guidance and blessing of the Lord upon their work.

But a cloud did hang over the seminary. There was a rift among the professors, which soon became evident to the students. Somehow a tension had developed particularly between Rev. Danhof and Rev. Hoeksema. Was it jealousy on the part of Rev. Danhof, since he was the senior minister and Rev. Hoeksema was receiving the requests to lecture at various places? Was it a clash of personalities now that they worked so closely together? We did not know.

We did know that Rev. Danhof had two nephews, Ralph and Benjamin Danhof, who also had joined our churches. Benjamin Danhof had been minister in Allendale, had withdrawn from the CRC and had taken a few families with him. Later he received a call from our Hull congregation, which he readily accepted. Ralph Danhof had come to us as a candidate for the ministry in the CRC. Rev. Henry Danhof wanted the consistory of Eastern Ave. to start a new congregation consisting of members of Eastern Avenue, who lived in the Dennis Ave. area, so that Ralph Danhof could serve there. This, the consistory refused to do for the simple reason that already there were other requests for organization, and these churches would need to be supplied. Soon Ralph was requested to work in Waupun, Wisconsin. He did agree to this.

One more incident ought to be related. Two young men of the Eastern Avenue congregation had seen Ralph Danhof coming out of a theater. They reported this to their consistory. Rev. Henry Danhof heard of this and demanded that, because Ralph was a candidate, this matter should be treated by the combined consistories. The consistory of Eastern Avenue insisted that this was a case of discipline and belonged to their jurisdiction. This small incident helped to disturb the already troubled waters.

On the very first Friday morning that Rev. Henry Danhof began his classes he informed the students that he did not intend to come all the way from Kalamazoo to Grand Rapids to teach four subjects. Also, he felt that the students must be prepared for the ministry as fast as possible. He would teach from nine to five, with an hour break for lunch, thus covering eight subjects, four more than he was asked to teach.

The result was that the students diligently took down extensive notes all day Friday. In order to preserve them, we had to type these notes out the very next day. Since this was Saturday and some of the men worked, that gave no time for preparing for the classes of Rev. Hoeksema on Monday. When students complained to Rev. Hoeksema, he quite properly answered with a shrug of the shoulders, “That is not my problem. I expect you to be prepared for my classes.”

Rev. Hoeksema was a very capable teacher. It was a pleasure to attend his classes and receive his instruction. For Rev. Ophoff, this was an entirely new venture. He had some new subjects, such as Hebrew Grammar and Old Testament Exegesis. But he also applied himself with diligence, working far harder than any of us realized. Rev. Danhof, as well as being a theologian, had a very broad knowledge of many subjects, among which was astronomy. This also became evident in his teaching.

Texts were assigned to all the students with the intention that, as soon as sermons were prepared, they could be delivered in practice preaching sessions. These sessions were held on Friday. Before the end of the school year students were being sent out to speak a word of edification in the churches. Both professors and students realized that these fledglings were not capable of making a thorough exegesis of a text, but the need was there. But that did not mean that the professors spared us. Our sermons and delivery were sharply criticized. I recall one incident in which Rev. Danhof told one student that he had put everything he knew in one sermon; he had left nothing for another sermon. On another occasion, a student was told by Rev. Hoeksema to put his sermon in a drawer, lock the drawer and throw away the key. But our serious efforts were also appreciated and valuable advice was given to improve the message or delivery.

The churches graciously understood and were appreciative, mainly glad to be supplied on the Sabbath. They encouraged the men as much as possible.

My first venture into preaching occurred when I was 19 years of age, on a Sunday morning in Byron Center. I took a friend with me, and we arrived a bit early. We stood by the coal stove in the Town Hall, where the church was meeting, since as yet no one else had arrived. The janitor came in, took one look and asked in a surprised tone, “What are you boys doing here.” I answered, “I am going to preach.” With still greater surprise the man asked, “You, preach?!” When I arrived in the consistory room, one of the elders looked askance at the “preacher.” The other, reading his mind said, “It’s all right. Rev. Hoeksema said so.”

Another student had to preach at Hope Church at Riverbend where Rev. Ophoff was minister. He was standing in the consistory room when he noticed the organist coming through with a Psalter in her hand. He asked the consistory, “Are the services in English this morning? Rev. Ophoff told me that they were to be in Dutch.” One of the elders looked at him in amazement and remarked. “What does Rev. Ophoff have to say about our services? You evidently belong in the schoolhouse across the road (where Hope Protesting CRC was meeting).”

On Monday, Rev. Hoeksema always eagerly awaited the report of the students on their experiences the previous day. The same young man who had gone to the wrong church remarked one day, “The services lasted only an hour. I did not know what more to say, so I said ‘Amen’.” Rev. Hoeksema responded with a smile, “That’s right. When you are finished, quit. Do not try to drag your sermon out.”

Another small incident gave the students occasion for a hearty laugh at their professor. Rev. Ophoff had to come from the southwest part of the city near John Ball Park. On this particular morning something held him up so that we were watching for him through the window. He soon appeared in his car, but two police officers on motorcycles drove right up behind him. He stepped out of his car and urged them to give him a ticket, explaining, “Hurry, I’m late and I must get to my students.” The officers were so completely baffled by his reaction that they passed off the incident with a mere warning to stay within the speed limit.

But the tension mentioned before remained. In the early months of 1926, Rev. Danhof took aside three or four of the students and invited each one individually to accompany him to the Midwest the next summer to organize churches. When any one of them raised the objection that he had just begun to preach or was actually not capable of preaching a Dutch sermon, all objections were brushed aside with the answer, “You can help.” Evidently, he wanted to go out on his own.

A combined consistory meeting was planned for the third week in May. Rev. Benjamin Danhof came a week earlier and met with three of the students in the home of his parents. Evidently the subject of the theological school was brought up and these students must have complained that Rev. Hoeksema and Rev. Ophoff showed partiality to some students. A protest was drawn up and signed. Rev. Henry Danhof was informed of this protest by phone and remarked merely, “Do what you will, but keep me out of it.”

The next day other students were informed of what had happened and were asked to sign the protest. The fact was that this was something entirely new to the other students, and the document did not have a single ground. One of the students informed Rev. Hoeksema of this protest, so that before beginning his class on Monday he told the class about the document, stating that these students had not contacted him or Rev. Ophoff before presenting their charges. He gave those who had signed the document opportunity to withdraw their signatures in a written statement. One student withdrew his name. The other two refused.

The next day the combined consistories met in Kalamazoo. A committee was appointed to deal with the protest. Each student in turn was called before this committee and asked about affairs in the school and whether he thought one or the other professor had shown any particular prejudice. The final result was that the protest was cast out. But the school term came to a sudden halt.

In August another meeting of the combined consistories was held in which Rev. Danhof was reconciled with the other professors and promised to continue teaching in the school. Also, at the meeting the name Protestant Reformed Churches in America was adopted.

But soon after that Rev. Henry Danhof informed the faculty that he would no longer teach in the school, nor would he write in the Standard Bearer. In other words, he had withdrawn himself completely from our fellowship. His church would be an independent congregation.

To add insult to injury, Rev. Danhof rented the Woodmen Hall on Wealthy Street near Eastern Ave. Church where he publicly revealed all his grievances. Not only a goodly number of our people were present, but also four professors from Calvin College. Shortly after this, Rev. Hoeksema went to Kalamazoo where he publicly answered the charges that Rev. Danhof had made against him. One can imagine the delight of outsiders in seeing our churches crumble already at the outset. Rumors ran wild that we would not last long. Some gave us five years, some ten years. Others thought that the entire movement would die out at the death of Rev. Hoeksema. In spite of evil predictions, God has preserved and blessed us even until this very day!

Rev. Danhof eventually went back to the CRC on the condition that he would not have to sign the Three Points. He would not ask for any ministerial status except that he would like to have the privilege of preaching the Dutch service in his church. This was allowed but he had no other duties or functions in the church. It did not take long and he was criticizing the preacher. He soon was suspended for a second time.

Now the two remaining ministers, Rev. Ophoff and Rev. Hoeksema, were burdened with more work. As if their load had not already all but exceeded capacity, they now were called upon to take over all the classes in the Theological School. They also took over most of the writing for the Standard Bearer. George Ophoff, son of Rev. Ophoff, once made the remark, “One thing that stands out in my memory of my dad is the light that shone from under the door of his study almost all night.”

Rev. Benjamin Danhof went back to Hull and placed a notice in the town paper, stating that his congregation was not, and had never been affiliated with the PRC. He also announced from the pulpit that the congregation had become independent. There were some members who objected to this, but those who approached the consistory on this matter were placed under censure. A congregational meeting was called to decide whether or not to return to the CRC. One of the members that was under censure attended that meeting and was told to leave. He refused. Rev. Danhof started toward him to force him to leave, but he took hold of a leg of a chair, lifted the chair and dared Rev. Danhof to throw him out. The minister drew back and the man was allowed to remain. The congregation, which formerly had consisted of about thirty-eight families, was now reduced to twelve families that remained loyal to us. The others returned to the CRC, and offered the new church edifice and the parsonage with the debt of $12,000 to the faithful remnant. Although especially during the Depression this was a great burden to them, they bore it willingly. Today they have a new church building and have become a large and thriving congregation. Ralph Danhof also returned to the CRC. Obviously the Lord no longer had any purpose with these men in our churches. Under the blessing of the Lord the work could well go on without them. As it did.