Editor’s note: The trials continued through the spring and summer of 1927. This time they came in the form of sickness and death in the author’s own family. But his training for the ministry continued, in spite of this difficult first year.
In April of 1926, my sister Lucy, who had married Bern Woudenberg, had her first baby at our home. It became evident almost at once that the child had certain infirmities which would result in an early death. About a month later the baby died. About that time, my mother’s step mother in Byron Center also died.
On May 30 of the same year, my brother Fred died after an operation for a ruptured ulcer. For some time he had complained of pain in his stomach. One Saturday he was at the job when severe pains gripped him. These were so severe that he could not drive the car. My dad called me to come and drive him home. The doctor was called. Fred was taken to the hospital. But the doctor failed to diagnose the cause of the pain. On Sunday another doctor was called in to perform the operation, but the infection had already spread through his abdomen. On Sunday morning he died. He had planned to marry in three weeks.
My parents grieved sorely over the loss of their older son. My father felt as if his right hand had been taken from him. Because of my father’s sorrow, I felt compelled to keep him active by working along with him as much as possible. Daily he had to be brought to the job in the morning and taken home at night. Father took very little interest in his business any more. He was getting on in years and had intended to pass the business over to Fred. He soon gave up, especially as his eyesight was failing on account of the diabetes he had had for some time.
There were now but two professors at the seminary, but peace and harmony were restored. Five of the ten students who attended classes the first year dropped out, but three new ones entered the seminary that fall of 1926: Andrew Cammenga, John De Jong, and Bernard Kok. Everything ran much smoother and even the practice preaching was a much less terrifying experience. During the first year, practice preaching was very uncomfortable. Not only did we have to bear the sharp criticism of the professors, but while we were delivering the sermon, most of the students lay back in their seats with their legs on the desks. About all one could see of them was two feet. All this changed drastically during the second year. Emphasis was placed on the fact that we were dealing with the Word of God and things holy. There was much more reverence in the entire experience.
Shortly after the second year started, I came down with rheumatic fever. I had pain sometimes in the ankle, sometimes in the knee or elbow. For one whole week I lay in bed swallowing pills that caused me to perspire to the extent that even the bedding was daily wet and yellow with sweat. By the end of the week I was so weak that I could hardly walk. The first time I preached again I had to stand on one leg during the sermon. At this point I was also teaching catechism for First Church on Saturday morning in a store building on Wealthy Street.
By March of 1927 there was a crying need for preaching in Iowa—Hull, Sioux Center and Doon. Gerrit Vos, Richard Veldman and I were requested to go to Iowa to take care of these three churches. There was a small house in Doon across from Henry Kuiper that became known as “the parsonage.” From there we took charge of the three churches, even teaching catechism and leading the consistory meetings. Old Model T Fords were made available to us for traveling to Hull and Sioux Center.
During our stay, Gerrit Vos returned home because of trouble with his back. But Veldman and I stayed until June of 1927. School was already finished when we returned, so each of us took our exams separately in the consistory room of First Church. When I had finished my last exam Rev. Hoeksema asked me if I would be willing to go back to the Midwest for the summer. Although I had been quite home sick at first in an entirely Dutch environment, I thought a moment and then consented to return. This time, Andrew Cammenga accompanied me.
During the summer months of 1927, Gerrit Vos was appointed to serve temporarily in the Sioux Center congregation, while William Verhil received and accepted a temporary call to Hull.1
By the time we returned to Michigan the third school year had begun. But we still had to preach, not only in the Grand Rapids area, but also in South Holland, Oak Lawn and Waupun. That meant that every other Sunday we were out of town to preach. In the early spring of 1928 a call for supply came from Pella and Oskaloosa, Iowa. So once more I was drawn away from school to try to keep up with the studies and to supply these two churches. We had morning service in Pella, had lunch with the congregation in the consistory room, and then would take the bus to preach in Oskaloosa at night. Once more I failed to end the school year with the rest of the class. But at least it was a good experience as an internship for the ministry.
I spent six weeks of the summer of 1928 in Waupun, Wisconsin. What stands out in my memory is the family visitation that I was asked to carry out there. These people, with their mystical tendencies, dreaded family visitation. One lady who was in her eighties told me that this was the first time that she stayed for family visitation, and now the only reason she stayed was because she wanted to find out what this young kid would say. In another family of ten children the only ones we found home were the parents. When asked where the others were, we were told that it was impossible to keep them home when the dominee came. The youngest of them was four years old. So we arranged to call on them at supper time. The mother agreed to have everything in readiness at six o’ clock sharp, so that the elder and I could come into the house, sit down at the meal, and thus prevent any one from getting away. This succeeded to a point. All went smoothly until I began to talk to the oldest girl, who turned her back to me, and after a while got up and left. The next one stayed but was unresponsive. And so down the line. But at least we tried.
Then there were two girls from another family, one of whom was married. Her husband refused to go to church and her baby was still not baptized. I asked her whether her husband prevented her from having the baby baptized. The answer I received from him is better not repeated. The younger girl looked and dressed like a harlot. Soon it became evident that she was virtually as she appeared. The excuse was, “I am not converted.” That seemed to be a cover-up for much of the evil in the congregation. When I admonished the two girls for their sinful walk, the mother interfered by reminding me that after all, they were not yet converted. Never in all the years of ministry did I experience anything like those six weeks in Waupun, and never did I lose more sleep after my visits.
You may wonder whether during this busy time I had opportunity to do any dating. It was in the fall of 1927 that I met my future wife, Jennie Griffieon. Some time during the first semester, Arie Griffioen invited Len Vermeer and me to visit him at his home. His two oldest daughters impressed me as complete opposites. The older one was quiet and reserved, the other loud and giggly. Shortly after this I was invited to attend a wedding and I took the older daughter, Jennie, with me.
I was still crippling from the effects of rheumatic fever when we went together to Central High School to attend a program given by the Young Men’s league of the CRC. Our dating when at home was limited to three nights in two weeks; that is, two nights attending Rev. Hoeksema’s Bible class and the one Sunday night when I was not out of town. Later she often accompanied me when I went out to preach in the Grand Rapids area. The rest of the time we had to depend on correspondence.
At the end of my six weeks’ stay in Waupun, Walter Griffioen and his girl friend Minnie took my girl friend, Jennie, to Waupun by car, so that we four could travel home together. We came home by going over the Straits of Mackinaw and arrived back in time for the last year of seminary to begin.
During this last year none of us was compelled to go out to spend a period of time in the churches, but we all could make full use of the opportunity to prepare to enter the ministry. We did make our visits to Waupun, South Holland and Oak Lawn, but apart from that we could devote our time to our studies and making sermons.
It was around Christmas time 1928 that Jennie and I became engaged. My fiancé came from a large family. As a result of the caste system in the Netherlands, her mother, who was of the upper class, did no housework. When the children were small they had a maid. But when Jennie, who was the oldest daughter in the family, was finished with school, she took over in the family. That meant making meals for thirteen people, getting some of them off to work in the morning, cleaning the huge house, doing the laundry, besides all the other chores that came with a large family. She was often so tired at the end of the day that she fell asleep on the bed without undressing. The younger girls often thought of her as their mother, since she assumed the responsibility of caring for their needs. I think this undermined her health along with the fact that she had a form of rheumatic fever when she was 12. This affected her heart. Jennie looked forward with relief to leaving home and marrying.
Since she had been working at home for room and board, she gained permission from her parents to go out a few days a week to gain money for the necessities involved in getting married. She obtained a job doing housework on the East End, so that she was able to accumulate a little money for things for her future home.
June 1929 came all too soon, as far as I was concerned. This was the time for the classical examination, which was held in the First Church.2 Each of the six students, Len Vermeer, John De Jong, Andrew Cammenga, Richard Veldman, Bernard Kok and I, was allowed twenty minutes for his sermon. This was hardly sufficient to get into the subject, so that one of the elders remarked afterward, “If I had to judge you on these sermons, not one would pass the exam.” Rev. Vos and Rev. Verhil also took part in examining us in subjects assigned to them.
All six of us were made candidates and all of us eagerly awaited the anticipated calls. I can distinctly remember the evening when Rev. Hoeksema called me on the phone. He appeared to be as excited as I was. He said, “Neal, you have the call to Hull!” Then he asked me to call John De Jong to inform him that he had the call to Doon and Andrew Cammenga that he had the call to Rock Valley.
The summer of 1929 was very busy. Rev. Hoeksema decided to spend this summer in the Netherlands. He would not return home before the middle of September. In the meantime, we had to make wedding arrangements, purchase furniture, schedule our move to Hull, and also prepare for the examination that would be held in the auditorium of First Church.3
I admit that we six did not pass the exam “magna cum laude.” The lower section of the auditorium was filled with people who had a high expectation of these first students who had completed the course in our seminary. But there was too much of the unexpected in the exams. For one thing, Prof. Ophoff decided the last minute to examine on a different subject than that for which we had prepared. Besides, the professors sat up in the balcony with the students on the pulpit, and the questions and answers did not always carry through clearly. Especially the Polemics exam (today’s Apologetics) was quite a failure. But the six men were declared eligible for the ministry.
Since the churches were eager to have their ministers ordained into office so that the catechism classes could get started, everything was arranged to take place as soon as possible after Rev. Hoeksema’s return. Thus the examination was scheduled for the 18th; on the 19th Jennie and I were married; on the 20th Andrew Cammenga and Richard Veldman spoke their marriage vows; on the following Monday, John De Jong entered the married state. On that same Monday, September 23, 1929, the Hankos and the Cammengas boarded the train for Iowa.
1 Vos and Verhil were sent out into the churches even though they had not completed their training. When the seminary produced its first graduates, these two men came back to finish their training.
2 These classical exams were comparable to our synodical exams, for as yet there was no synod.
3 This was comparable to our present day classical exams.