Rev. C. Hanko – Chapter 23: The Split of 1953

Editor’s Notes—The year 1953 was a trying one for the PRC and its members. The cost of schism is high. Rev. Hanko paid with his own health. The stress of dealing with a divided consistory and congregation took its toll. His son remembers that after consistory meetings, his father sat up late at night, munching on soda crackers to calm his churning stomach. Was the cost too high? Rev. Hanko answers that question with a resounding “NO.” After the split, the churches could confess with Job, “But he knoweth the way that I take: when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold.”

During these years, there was plenty of unrest within our churches. Rev. Petter began writing about “conditions” in the church papers. On Tuesday afternoons, De Wolf and I would take a walk after catechism to discuss the affairs of the week. I mentioned Petter’s articles, to which De Wolf responded, “I can agree with him as long as he does not make faith a condition.” Soon, an article did appear with the heading: “Faith a Condition.”

One Tuesday morning, our missionary called me to assure me that he was so happy, especially after working with the Liberated in Canada, that he was PR. I told him that I was glad to hear that, and that he should inform our people of that. He was under a cloud of suspicion for his lack of distinctiveness.

Evidently what he was looking for was an opportunity to preach on our pulpit. I was aware of that, so on Thursday morning I offered him the Sunday morning pulpit, with the understanding that he preach a strong PR sermon, assuring the people of his faithfulness to our churches. Instead of that, he preached a wishy-washy sermon that might be preached from almost any pulpit. He made no statement that could be branded as heretical, but the whole sermon was so completely man-centered that it could hardly be considered a defense of the Reformed truth as taught in the Scriptures.

I was upset, but no more so than the consistory. The next evening, at the consistory meeting, there were numerous complaints about that type of sermon being preached by our missionary. It was decided to make copies from the tape, to study the sermon, and to bring up the matter again at the next meeting. Thereupon, we decided to call him in and admonish him in regard to that type of preaching, which certainly did not represent us on the mission field. He came to the meeting. At first he revealed a bit of bluster, but finally listened to what we had to say without comment. Evidently he was glad that we were not making a greater issue of his sermon.

About this time the Adams school opened, even in spite of the fact that De Wolf and his friends openly opposed it. Reluctantly he encouraged all to support the school, since it was there anyway.

Somewhere around January of 1953, one of our ministers called and wanted to visit me. Soon we were in a heated argument, since he was flinging charges at our churches. We had changed, not he. Finally I suggested to him, “Why don’t you leave? Get out, and leave us with peace.” He got up, took the doorknob in his hand, and said: “We’ll split first!” With that he stormed out. But he revealed that destroying our churches was foremost in their minds. He had gone through our churches, and we were paying him for it, spreading all sorts of propaganda against our doctrine, our people, and our ministers, especially the Revs. Hoeksema and Ophoff.

De Wolf came to me one Thursday morning and said, “Do you suppose I could say something like this off our pulpit?” The statement he mentioned reeked of conditional theology. I told him that that statement was not reformed. He claimed he could say it and remain Reformed. This shows that his statements were deliberately planned.

On April 15, 1951 Rev. Hubert De Wolf preached a sermon on the text in Luke 16:29, “Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” In the course of the sermon, he accused some of the members of the congregation of being proud of being Protestant Reformed. He said that wearing Protestant Reformed on their coat lapel would not bring them to heaven. It was in that connection that he added, “But I assure you, that God promises every one of you that if you believe, you will be saved.” This statement bore all the semblance of a general, well-meant promise to all who hear the gospel. Besides, it spoke of faith as a condition to salvation.

After his infamous sermon, Rev. De Wolf reportedly said to one man, “Well, I said it.” “Yes,” said the man, “but it took you long enough.”

I must admit that I was deeply grieved by that sermon. When I came home I said to a group of young men gathered with our boys in the living room, “It seems to me that Rev. De Wolf is going to leave us.” No more was said, but the next day Rev. Hoeksema, who was not at that service, called me and asked about the sermon. I told him as reservedly as possible what I thought of it. On Tuesday Rev. De Wolf called me and asked, “What makes you think that I intend to leave?” I answered, “After the sermon of Sunday evening I cannot imagine that you want to stay.” To which he replied: “Well, I have no intention of leaving.”

At the next consistory meeting, there were at least two protests against this sermon. Rev. Hoeksema appointed a committee to study these protests and to supply the consistory with an answer, but added that the committee should not be too ready to condemn Rev. De Wolf, because the matter might not be as serious as it appeared to be. Obviously, he wanted to protect his colleague as much as possible.

Since there was a division in the consistory in regard to this statement, the case dragged on for some time. The elders were plainly taking sides for or against this pastor. Finally, when those in favor of Rev. De Wolf were in the majority, they decided to drop the entire matter.

Although this was improper, since the case should have been settled one way or another, there was a sense of relief that maybe peace had been restored. The last Sunday in August Rev. De Wolf preached a sermon that was thoroughly reformed. Rev. Hoeksema was so pleased that he made a point of commending the Reverend on it, and added, “Keep it up, Hubie.”

Two weeks later, on September 14, Rev. De Wolf made his second statement that created offense in the congregation. He spoke on Matthew 18:3, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” In the course of the sermon, he stated that conversion is a prerequisite for entering into the kingdom.

By that statement he again introduced the idea of conditions that man must fulfill, making conversion a requisite to enter the kingdom. Scripture plainly teaches that it is God who converts the wayward sinner. God certainly does not place himself before prerequisites. This could only mean that it is necessary for us to convert ourselves.

Someone may ask, but does not God call to repentance? Did Paul not say to the Philippian jailer, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved and thy house?” True. But when God calls to repentance and faith he is actually arousing in our consciousness his own work of grace (Eph. 2:8, 9). We read that Jesus said to the father of the demoniac son, “If thou canst believe…” (Mark 9:23, 24). To which the man replies evidently in amazement, “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.”

I may well insert here that on that same Sunday evening another minister told his congregation in Holland: “This is my stand on the issue of conditions: When God speaks about his people he speaks unconditionally, when he speaks to his people he always speaks conditionally.” During the week, I offered to show him passages of Scripture that showed that God spoke to his people unconditionally, but he refused to discuss it with me.

Now Rev. Hoeksema and the consistory had had their fill. They realized how deceptively Rev. De Wolf was working to win over as many as possible in the congregation. New charges were made, and the entire case was once more opened. Not a Sunday went by that De Wolf did not try to create sympathy by choosing Psalter numbers that stressed how much he had to suffer as a martyr for the cause.

This controversy in First Church came to a head in the Spring of 1953 at Classis East, where a minority report was adopted, composed by two elders, in which recommendation was made that Rev. De Wolf should publicly retract those two statements as heretical, regardless of what interpretation might be given to them.

The matter was clarified when Rev. Rich Veldman tried to defend him on the floor of Classis East by showing how his statements could be interpreted in a Reformed manner. I was ready to jump up and say, “But De Wolf doesn’t mean that.” But De Wolf himself stood up and said, “Rev. Veldman knows very well that’s not what I mean.”

Rev. De Wolf delayed as long as possible with making his apology. When it finally came to the last part of June 1953, he made an apology that actually laid the blame on those who regarded the statements as heretical. They should have known better.

With a close vote, and with the reluctant agreement of Southeast consistory, Rev. De Wolf was suspended from office and those of the consistory who agreed with him were deposed. Although De Wolf was suspended, not everybody agreed that he should be deposed. Yet his censure was important for our existence as churches. While we may have remained a PR denomination, we would have lost all we gained in 1924.

The rest of the facts concerning the appeal to classis east and its decision, the deposition of De Wolf and those of the consistory who supported him are likely well known to all of you and need not be repeated.

You may wonder why, after the deposition, we left the church building to meet in the Grand Rapids Christian High School on the corner of Franklin and Madison. The De Wolf faction notified the consistory that they intended to hold services in our church auditorium on the coming Sunday. The consistory discussed whether to insist on our right to meet there, but decided against it. This would only stir up more trouble. Besides, we were confident that all those who loved and had so consistently fought for the truth in the past would be willing to meet elsewhere until the matter of the church property was settled.

An announcement was made in the Grand Rapids Press that the First Protestant Reformed Church would hold its services at the regular time in the Christian High School auditorium on the corner of Franklin and Madison.

Everyone wondered how many would be at Christian High that Sunday. One man warned his children that they must not be disappointed if there were but a few. To his surprise, as he approached the school, he saw numerous cars parked in the area and told his children, “Hurry, or we won’t get a seat.”

There were many present. The auditorium was filled. True, to our sorrow many familiar faces of those whom we would have liked to see there were missing, but everyone felt a sense of relief that once more the struggle was over and peace restored.

Again, as in 1924, Rev. Hoeksema chose for his text that morning John 6:67: “Then Jesus said unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?” Once again we were reminded that we should continue to stand for the truth, for God’s blessing rests only upon those who are faithful even unto death.

This temporary loss of property had one big advantage. There were many in the large congregation of First Church, who were mere hangers-on, driftwood, as it were. These would remain with the church edifice, no matter who took over. We were delivered from them, for it took determination to break away and meet in another place.

We wrote the De Wolf faction and asked them if we could come to some amicable settlement. To that they responded that they would receive no correspondence from us unless we addressed them as the First Protestant Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan. That was more than we could grant. Our name meant more to us than all the property. That name not only designated us as the defenders of the truth for which the property was dedicated, but it also involved all the other churches who remained faithful with us. For our own sake, but also for the sake of the other churches, we had to defend our name as First Protestant Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan. This is also in harmony with Article 28 of the Church Order.

When the matter of the property went to court, it was immediately evident to the judge which side was in the right, as he said to us in private, “This young whippersnapper wants to take the church away from you.” He maintained, as did later the Supreme Court of Michigan, that the property had been dedicated to the PR truth.

Classis East met in September with two sets of delegates from First Church. The classis stood before the question as to which delegates would be recognized, those of the faction that De Wolf and his elder, or those represented by Rev. C. Hanko and his elder. Without much hesitation the latter were recognized as the proper delegates. De Wolf and his elder left the meeting and those who sided with him also left.

Classis West met and, with the exception of Rev. Homer Hoeksema and his elder, decided to refuse to recognize the deposition of De Wolf and his supporters.

True, our churches were sorely decimated. Some congregations, namely, Bellflower, Manhattan, Orange City, Oskaloosa, Rock Valley and Sioux Center faded out completely. Others lost many of their members and had quite a struggle to survive. We also lost seventeen ministers. It is well known what repercussions this had throughout the denomination. First Church was reduced to about 40 percent of its former membership.

The question may arise, was this controversy necessary? To that there is but one answer. The very fact that so many left us shows that they did not love the truth of God’s sovereign grace sufficiently to fight or even to die for it. I grant you that a number of our members were misled, even deceived into leaving, as is evident from the fact that some of them returned. But those who were well aware of the issues involved are responsible for forsaking the truth of God’s sovereign grace, whatever their motive may have been.

One might ask, might it have been avoided? To that there is again but one answer, no. Even though many may have had personal grudges or left us for other personal reasons, they were obviously not content among us. Defending the truth always demands sacrifice. He who will be Jesus’ disciple must take up his cross and follow him. He who loves father or mother, sister or brother more than him is not worthy of him.

Did they leave because they agreed with the covenant view of the Liberated rather than with our view? Obviously that was not always the case. Almost immediately, most of them turned their backs to Prof. Schilder and joined the Christian Reformed Church. De Wolf and his followers for a short time continued under the name of Orthodox Protestant Reformed, but before long, they too joined to the CRC.

The Lord had spared and restored Rev. Hoeksema sufficiently to face this last struggle for the truth. One is reminded of the words of the patriarch Jacob concerning his son Joseph (Gen. 49:23, 24): “The archers have sorely grieved him, and shot at him and hated him: but his bow abode in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the mighty God of Jacob.”

Have we profited from it? We certainly have, especially from the aspect that the truth of God’s sovereign grace has been preserved among us. You can be sure that if we had continued without the purifying fires of 1953, today we either would no longer exist or we would have no right of existence, because for the sake of peace we would have sacrificed the heritage God has entrusted to us.

There was also progress. This is particularly true in regard to the beautiful truth of God’s covenant as we may confess it, the relationship between God and his people as a fellowship of friendship in which he is our sovereign friend and we are his peculiar possession and friend-servants.

We see, possibly more clearly than ever, that there are no conditions in God’s covenant, no, not in the old dispensation and not in the new. God had privileged the church of the old dispensation to know him and to address him as Jehovah, the sovereign, eternally unchangeable, covenant God. That name strongly emphasized the sovereign friend-friend servant relationship between God and Israel. God gave Israel his name Jehovah even while Israel was still under the bondage of the law. When Jesus came, he taught his disciples, among many other things: “When ye pray, say: Our Father who art in heaven.” Imagine the surprise of these men who had been taught from infancy to address God as Jehovah. It must have taken some time before they could fathom this new address in their prayers. In fact, it took until Pentecost when the Spirit of the glorified Christ was poured out in the church. This is the Spirit of adoption, who cries within the heart of the elect Jew, “Abba,” and in the heart of the chosen Gentile, “Father.” Together they could address God in unison as, “Abba Father.” Since we are adopted as sons and daughters in God’s house and are heirs of everlasting salvation, God testifies by his Spirit in our hearts, that we have the right to know him and call him our Father in Christ Jesus, our Savior and Lord.

That precious truth seals to our hearts the one and only comfort for body and soul, in life and in death, I am not my own. I belong, yes, I belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ as part of the family of the living, covenant God and as an heir of life eternal with him in glory. I shall see him in all the riches of his holiness in Christ Jesus, shall know him perfectly, and delight in his praises forever and ever! Completely, with my whole being, I will live solely to his glory! God is GOD! Soli Deo Gloria