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Robert P. Swierenga, "Family Quarrels in the Dutch Reformed Immigrant Churches in the Nineteenth Century"

The Pillar Church (Holland, Michigan) Sesquicentennial Lectures, 1997

Robert P. Swierenga and Elton J. Bruins
A.C. Van Raalte Institute, Hope College

To our grandchildren, the future of the church

Jacob, Trent, and Jillanne Groenhout
Sydney Swierenga
baby Breems
James, Katherine, and Thomas Plasman
baby Bruins

Table of Contents

Editor's Preface
Preface by Michael De Vries
Chapter 1 1834--Afscheiding and Emigration
Chapter 2 1850--The Union of 1850: The Classis of Holland Joins the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church
Chapter 3 1857--Secession Again: Origins of the Christian Reformed Church
Chapter 4 1882--Secession Yet Again: The Masonic Controversy
Bibliographic Essay
Sources of Illustrations


The authors contributed severally and jointly to the book. Robert P. Swierenga is primarily responsible for the Introduction, chapters 1 and 3, the index, and illustrations; Elton J. Bruins is primarily responsible for chapters 2 and 4. Chapter 4, here revised, originally appeared in 1983 in Perspectives on the Christian Reformed Church, edited by Peter De Klerk and Richard R. De Ridder, and is used with permission of Baker Book House. The authors acknowledge their indebtedness to Elisabeth Dekker, former colleague at the A.C. Van Raalte Institute, for translations of primary sources; to Richard Harms, director of the Calvin College Archives, for research assistanceand obtaining the photographs; to Larry J. Wagenaar, director of the Joint Archives of Holland, Hope College, for assistance in obtaining the photographs; and to Karen Schakel, administrative assistant at the A.C. Van Raalte Institute, for her careful proofreading and editorial assistance. We also express our gratitude to Peter H. Huizenga, benefactor and founder of the A.C. Van Raalte Institute.

Preface -- the Reverend Michael De Vries, pastor of Pillar Church

As part of its sesquicentennial celebrations, Pillar Christian Reformed Church of Holland, Michigan, sponsored a lecture series in March of 1997 that focused on the religious history of the Dutch Calvinist immigration to West Michigan and the church struggles of the first settlers. One month earlier, on February 9, 1997, Pillar Church celebrated Dominie Albertus Van Raalte's founding of the town and church by holding a "Unity Service" with its long-estranged daughter congregation, First Reformed Church. I preached on the theme of "The Beauty of Unity," based on Psalm 133, and presented to the Reverend Daniel N. Gillett, pastor of First Reformed Church, a complete copy of the consistory minutes for the years 1850-1882, which include the years prior to the painful separation in 1882.

Despite an ardent desire for reconciliation in the Reformed community, this lecture series deals as much with divisions and strife as with unity. Every one of the pioneer pastors of the Holland colony--Albertus Van Raalte, Cornelius Van der Meulen, Marten Ypma, Seine Bolks, and Hendrik Klijn--were seceders from the Nederlands Hervormde Kerk (Reformed Church), the national church. If these leaders had not separated in 1834, there would have been no Holland colony to celebrate. Moreover, as I observed at the Unity service, while God does not condone divisions in the church God has blessed the local congregations and their respective denominations. One must also know that the founders, even when they disagreed, did so in the conviction that they were being obedient to God's Word.

We are pleased to give these fine lectures a wider audience. Becoming knowledgeable about these early struggles within the colony will help us understand the past and, hopefully, encourage us to go forward in faith and hope. We all live by grace!

-- Rev. Michael De Vries


In Dutch Reformed circles certain dates resonate with meaning. Mention the year 1834 and the Afscheiding or "Secession" from the Nederlands Hervormde Kerkimmediately comes to mind. This reformation movement, which harked back to the even more weighty years 1618-1619 (the Synod of Dort), gave birth to the Christian Seceded Church (Christelijk Afgescheiden Kerk) with its fervent spirit and stern orthodoxy. Seceder pastors and congregations led the immigration to North America in the 1840s and placed their stamp of pietism and reverence for Dortian polity on the immigrant churches of the Midwest.

The year 1857 similarly carries great emotional freight. It is the year of the second secession, when some 10 percent of the members of Classis Holland in western Michigan rejected the Union of 1850 with the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and founded the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC). The 1857 seceders were convinced that they were remaining true to the principles of 1834, whereas the 1850 unionists placed a higher value on the oneness of the visible body of Christ.

The seeds of 1857 were sown in 1834. Factions formed in the Christian Seceder Church between the Brummelkamp-Van Raalte party in the south and the De Cock-Van Velzen party in the north. The ecumenical spirit of the south conflicted with the sterner Calvinism of the north. Both mind-sets were carried in the religious and cultural baggage of the immigrants. Consequently, as the Reformed Church in America moved toward the American evangelical mainstream, the sterner Dortians withdrew and formed the Christian Reformed Church to maintain their revered religious heritage.

The third secession, in 1882, centered on this very issue of Americanization. Freemasonry, the quintessential American upper-class social movement, had made inroads among the leaders of the Reformed Church in the East, to the consternation of the midwestern immigrant churches. They had learned in the Netherlands to abhor freemasonry for its "pagan ceremonies" and beliefs grounded in the Enlightenment, although American Masonic lodges blended rather easily with mainstream Christianity. A majority of Van Raalte's own congregation, First Reformed of Holland, seceded only six years after his death and affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, which is now known as the Pillar Church. The appeal of the junior denomination was its "Dutchness," upheld by the motto, "In isolation is our strength." This ideal guided it for several generations, until the influence of Abraham Kuyper's Doleantie movement gained a place among the leaders while the 1834 spirit waned among the laity.

The events of the years 1850, 1857, and 1882 made clear the divergent paths of the Dutch Reformed denominations in America. While the Reformed Church took its place in the American Protestant mainstream, the Christian Reformed Church resisted Americanization and tried to cling to its religious roots in the Netherlands. This allowed it to gather in the waves of immigrants from 1880 until World War I and again after World War II. This immigration has now ceased, and the Christian Reformed Church is rapidly adapting to the multiethnic American culture and the ecumenical spirit of American Protestantism.

This adaptation, which is inevitable and even necessary, together with the accelerated pace of secularization in all western societies since the 1960s, explains in part the turmoil and secessions that again plague the Christian Reformed Church. Since 1990 more than 30,000 people, about 10 percent of the membership, has withdrawn, transferred out, or seceded to form new associations and alliances. This loss rate is the same proportion that initially seceded from Classis Holland of the Reformed Church in 1857 to form the Christian Reformed Church.

This fledgling body struggled for a decade or more before a flood of new immigrants secured its survival after the Civil War ended. The key to enfolding most of the newcomers in its congregations was the condemnation by the mother church in the Netherlands of the Reformed Church in America because of its acquiescence to Freemasonry. This emotional issue has its counterpart today in the decision of the Christian Reformed Church to ordain women as elders and pastors. A potentially more devastating issue, that of accepting practicing homosexuals as members in good standing in the churches, which has been considered in several classical assemblies, would greatly accelerate the loss rate and hasten the formation of seceder denominations. In a real way, the Dutch Reformed communities today are reliving the struggles of the pioneer generation 150 years ago to maintain a pure church.

No one has yet studied the religious mentality of the 30,000 departed Christian Reformed members of the 1990s. Their reasons for leaving are varied and complex. A few left, in fact, because the pace of modernization was too slow! But judging from numerous writings by seceder leaders in the periodical press, letters by lay people to editors of church papers, and comments of elders and pastors at church assemblies, those separating from the CRC share the mindset of the 1834 and 1857 seceders. These dissenters actually included at least two camps, the individualistic pietists (who worshiped in lay conventicles) and the stern Calvinists of the northern Netherlands who valued the Dortian church order and the three historic Reformed creeds.

The Christian Seceded Church of 1834 managed to hold these diverse factions together through compromise and accommodation. The Christian Reformed Church in North America had done the same for more than 100 years. But the consensus has broken down. Today, the pietists in the CRC are gravitating to the experiential American denominations--Wesleyan Methodists, Assemblies of God, Peoples Churches, Baptists, and nondenominational megachurches. The sterner Calvinists, on the other hand, are seceding to form orthodox congregations modeled after the "original" Christian Reformed churches of the pre-World War II era, complete with the 1934 or 1959 Psalter Hymnals, weekly catechetical preaching, regular family visits, and care for discipline. The pietists stand in the tradition of the Brummelkamp-Van Raalte wing of the Afscheiding, and the orthodox hark back to the De Cock-Van Velzen wing. The Kuyperians in the CRC have generally stood firm and are the backbone of the denomination today.

It is the authors hope and prayer that this book will remind the Dutch-born Reformed churches of their rich religious heritage that our ancestors defended against bitter assault and preserved with blood. It was a history of factiousness and strife, but also of deep piety, love for Christ's church, defense of truth, and bold action to work out the faith in "world and life."