The Fifties

When first asked to write about the 1950’s, they appeared in my mind as a shapeless, featureless segment of history. But a little more concentration and the perusal of some “Standard Bearers” of the era began to give it dimensions. One bit of information suggested another and soon the “50’s” came alive again.

January 1, 1950 was the beginning of what was supposed to be a great decade of peace and prosperity: World War II was ended, the GI’s had almost all returned, there were plenty of jobs available, so here we go! But what was this “police action” in Korea? This “police action” soon flamed up into a fighting war, and the reserve units of the army and navy, and the National Guard (which many of our young men had joined in order to stay at home and continue their education) were being called into active service. Activating an already organized and half-trained unit was a lot faster than drafting new recruits, and every company had its favorite rumors. The most persistent rumor heard in the 3rd battalion, 126th Infantry (a Grand Rapids Unit which a half dozen of us from First Church had joined) was that we were to be transferred to the state of Washington in a week or two and then shipped to Korea. It never happened. Although not as unpopular as the Vietnam War, we were all relieved when it ended in a half-hearted compromise at the 38th parallel.

Being a Protestant Reformed student at Calvin during the early 50’s gave one plenty of opportunity to debate the common grace controversy, which of course, was fresher in our minds than it is now, twenty-five year later. The scene of many of these debates was the infamous “Boiler Room”, the closest accommodation Calvin had to a Men’s Lounge and the only place where smoking was allowed. It was no difficult trick for several of us to point out the absolutely illogical position one must assume when he (only men were allowed in the Boiler Room) dared attempt to defend his church’s position on common grace. In just a few minutes our task would be complete: with his arguments reduced to ashes, our victim would be left leaning against the wall, mumbling incoherently to himself, while we regrouped into our “Little Consistory” formation and marched down the center aisle of the auditorium for chapel exercises, smugly satisfied that once again we were technically correct and had been able to “prove” it. Was our action a positive witness for either Christ or the P.R. Churches? I don’t think so. We had merely used sacred matters to satisfy our own egos!

The number one subject tin the P.R. synod in 1950 was the Declaration of Principles, a document which was requested by the Mission committee to show prospective new members exactly what the P.R. churches believed. Both the content of the document and the need for it were debated in the 1950 and 1951 synods. Generally, Classis West opposed it while Classis East, which had experienced the need for such a document more keenly supported it. The Declaration opposed the doctrine of the Liberated Churches in the Netherlands which had been infiltrating into churches in Classis East. Several ministers had met with Dr. Schilder of the Liberated Churches and were enamored with their doctrines. The debate in synod was long and hot. Such terms as “conditions” and “conditional promise of salvation” were beginning to crop up in our church papers. These eventually became important in the “split of 1953”.

The validity of the newly adopted Declaration of Principles was debated in societies and in official church gatherings. Protests against the documents were processed through consistories, classis, etc.

In 1951, the year the bride and I exchanged our vows in First church, firecrackers punctuated the September evening. One of those creating the racket told me later, “We were trying to make your mother-in-law believe in conditions!” When I appeared puzzled he explained further: “We were waiting for her to say, ‘What a terrible condition’. If she did she would then realize how valid conditions are!” They might just as well save their firecrackers!

Prior to the split, feelings ran very high. Christian brother refused to shake hands with Christian brother if he were “on the other side” of the rapidly developing dispute.

By 1952 the protests had been processed up to the synodical level, and Synod, in two separate sessions, verified the legality and validity of the contents of the Declaration.

The critical shortage of P.R. teachers was discussed in two articles in the “Standard Bearer” and a reader contributed an article deploring the lack of representation in church matters experienced by single women (And this 20 years before “Women’s Lib!”).

The first of our six daughters made her appearance in 1952. This changed our life style, and eliminated any chance of my being drafted to fight in the Korean War which was still consuming men and materials. The Reformed Free Publishing Association asked all consistories for the addresses of servicemen so they could be sent free subscriptions to the “Standard Bearer”.

The “Period Theory” of Creation was being taught and generally accepted at Calvin, and the “Standard Bearer” responded with a series of articles on creation. The Convention as at Hull.

1953-the “year of the Split” arrived. First Church divided into two factions. The one led by Rev. De Wolf changed the church locks and assumed ownership of the building, the other met in the G.R. Christian High Auditorium. The legally constituted consistory of First Church was reluctant to take the matter to court for settlement, but eventually did. A few members opposed this action, but the majority favored it as being the proper exercise of “stewardship”. Feelings ran high, even families were split, and “The Other Side” is referred to with words and phrases which Scripture uses in reference to the reprobate. GI’s who have been away for several years are returning to a time of turmoil in the church, procedures which were totally adequate in the past, failed under the pressure of the times and groups within the groups debated minor issues. These were unhappy times for the churches. Late in the summer, Classis West recognized the suspended Rev. H. De Wolf, and now the denomination as well, was split.

Attending classis and synod becomes the “in” thing to do among certain groups. These same spectators were in evidence a few months later in the courtrooms where the evidence of the various “sides” were weighed by the judges. No verdicts were awaited with greater eagerness nor debated with greater heat that these. I personally felt that we reached our lowest level of witnessing when we resorted to the worldly courts to settle mundane, material matters between Christian brethren.

The years following were years of reconstruction. Societies were reorganized, choirs re-formed with new zeal, and the congregations generally experienced a resurge of unity and brotherhood. Even the meetings of classis and synod became demonstrations of peace and unity, to the comfort of the participants and the churches generally.

One of the more popular groups which formed during the reconstruction era was the Protestant Reformed Men’s Chorus. This group met at First Church on Sunday afternoons to practice their particular blend of close harmony and exuberance. One particular anthem, “Creation”, still resounds in my memory, especially the climactic line: “And there was light.” The Chorus gave concerts in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and South Holland, Illinois.

It was during the late 1950’s that the Loveland Congregation joined our denomination; followed soon after by the congregations at Isabel and Forbes.

Late in 1957 the Russians orbited their first satellite, Sputnik, much to the surprise of most of the world who wondered that such a marvel could come from such a backward country. The U.S. government reacted in many ways, but the one which affected us the most was the number of scholarships suddenly available in the sciences and educational fields. A few months later the U.S. orbited a satellite also, and somehow our national pride seemed to be salvaged.

Space does not permit me to recall and relate much detail of other significant bits of history from these years, so the mention of them will have to suffice: The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the appearance of the controversial Revised Standard Version of the Scriptures, the uprising in Hungary and the resultant drive in our churches for relief goods which were sent to Protestant churches there; and Professor Ophoff’s temporary incapacity due to a stroke.

As for the setting in which this history took place, again, a few words will have to suffice.

The downtown districts in our various cities were still the centers of activity; groceries were purchased at the supermarket or at one of the many neighborhood grocery stores which were far more numerous than today. Corners not occupied by a grocery store had one or more gasoline stations. Again, many of them are still visible, but have been closed or converted into something else. Only a few tourist attractions gave out bumper stickers, so they constituted the vanguard of what has now become the rage of today. The fifties were a pre-pizza, pre-Kentucky Fried Chicken era. TV sets were just beginning to be sold in large numbers during the early part of the decade and countless millions of hours were spent watching fixed wrestling matches and the children’s “Howdy Doodie Time”, the latter probably making more sense.

Looking back at the fifties has been satisfying, not as if reviewing a superior age, but seeing in a slightly different way how God’s will progresses continuously. Our churches experienced a reformation and emerged from the experience as a stronger and more united group. Our attitude towards each other and towards Christians of other denominations has been changed. Our mission activity was strengthened and several churches were added to our denomination.

During a few years in the mid-fifties it seemed to some of us that our denomination simply couldn’t survive. Humanly speaking, it couldn’t.

But God had plans for us, and we were not only brought through the fifties, but were strengthened by the experience.