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Robert P. Swierenga, "First Reformed Church of Chicago's Storied Past: 150 Years of Faithful Service"

Lecture by Robert P. Swierenga, October 4, 2003, at the First Reformed Church of Chicago in Berwyn

                First Chicago is the not the oldest Dutch Reformed congregation in Chicagoland; the South Holland and Roseland congregations antedate it by 4 and 5 years, respectively. But First Chicago has the distinction of being organized by the Rev. Albertus Van Raalte himself in February 1853.

The congregation began in 1847 when a few families began meeting in homes for a lees kerk (reading church)--Albertse, Kroes, Labots, Meter, Steginga, Sterenberg, Vanden Belt, Van Heest, and Van Zwol, among others. Van Raalte and his colleague Rev. Cornelius Vander Meulen of the Zeeland church encouraged the house church by preaching and bringing the sacraments whenever they were in the city.

                As George Birkhoff relates in his reminiscence (1910):

"The increase in numbers made for a well filled home of H. Van Zwol. Rev. Van Raalte, the father of all the Hollanders, especially in Michigan, driven by his warm heart and religiosity, came to preach every once in a while and would pay his own expenses."  

                In 1852, the group named a 7-man steering committee to organize the church. They asked Van Raalte to come and convene a congregational meeting to elect a consistory. The group chose elders Albert Kroes, Lucas Vanden Belt, and Herman Van Zwol, and deacons Roelof Pieters and Jan Vander Kooi. Elders Van Zwol and Vanden Belt brought the formal application of the congregation to Classis Holland at its April 1953 meeting at Zeeland.

                The minutes of Classis state the following:

                The brethren from Chicago thereupon present a request to be provided with the ministry of the word and the sacraments; which request is seconded by Rev. Van Raalte. He says that "the need of the Hollanders resident there impelled him to labor there, and that he had found the ravages wrought by error, worldliness, and quarrels to be great. Some had joined the so-called Spiritualists [this was a "new age" religion of the time that involved communicating with the spirit world in seances, rapping and banging on tables, and consulting mediums], one young man had gone over to the Romanists, others dispersed themselves among all kinds of denominations, many lived in indifference and sought the world, while others who confessed the name of the Lord lived in isolation. One of the chief causes of all these woes was to be sought in the lack of the ministry of the word and pastoral care. Not only for the sake of the Hollanders who live there, and who are constantly arriving, with whom we have so close a relation, it is bounden duty to train and strengthen that young and tender church (p. 111).

Thus, under Van Raalte's tutelage, First Chicago was accepted into the 225-year old Reformed Church in America. This meant that the congregation would be tugged in two directions--the Dutch ways of their mother church--the Christian Seceded Church, a  product of the 1834 Secession, and the American ways of their new denomination.

                The membership trend line looks like a mountain peak. The line goes up sharply in the 1860s and 1870s, until reaching the high point of 1,200 souls in 1884. Then the line gradually drops off, falling below 500 in the 1940s.

                This is the fate of mother churches generally. First Church gave birth to 5 daughter congregations--Englewood (1886), Trinity in Chicago (1891)--the first English-speaking church, Bethel in Summit (1899), West Side in Cicero (1911), and Calvary in Berwyn (late 1930s). Years later, First Chicago nourished granddaughter churches in the far western suburbs, notably Fellowship RCA.

                A congregation is more than its pastors, but they are critical in providing leadership. Nineteen pastors served First Chicago since 1853, several for many years and with great success. Bernardus De Bey holds the tenure record--23 years (1868-91). Harold Rust is close behind at 21 years (1979-2000). The first three pastors--Cornelius Vander Meulen, Seine Bolks, and H.G. Klyn were all associates of Van Raalte in West Michigan and are counted among the great pioneer immigrant pastors.

                Church buildings are always the focal point of congregational life. First Chicago built four edifices; the first three were known by the name of the street--Foster Street (1856), Harrison Street (1868), and Hastings Street (1894). The current building, if the historic pattern was followed, should have been called Oak Park Avenue church.

                The Foster Street building was humble indeed--a frame structure 20' by 45' that cost $550 ($375 for the lot, $175 for the building, which the members erected themselves). As the congregation grew, the building in 1860 was widened by 10'. It served for 12 years (1856 to 1868).

                The church was little to boast about. The walls were of "raw planks without plaster," recalled member George Birkhoff. Regardless of the aesthetics, Birkhoff added: There "they worshiped the Triune God, and Christian love tied them together. No carpet, no fine seats, no well sounding organ could be found there. In this most minimal tabernacle, the congregation met with hearts that glowed with brotherly love and piety."

                The second building, a frame structure at Harrison and May, to seat 500, cost about $10,000 ($3,300 for the lot and $6,600 for the building). It was dedicated in 1868 and was used for 25 years, until 1893. The property was sold for $15,500 and turned into the Deaconesses' Home of the Society of Light and Hope. It quickly fell into total disrepair and the city condemned it and tore it down in 1903. I have found no photo of this building, but an ink drawing was published in the Chicago Sunday Tribune in 1898 (See DC, p. 19). 

                The Hastings Street building and parsonage were brick and most impressive in appearance. The lots alone cost $10,600--as much as the entire church on Harrison Street. This reflected the growing prosperity of the members. The building, to seat 1,000, was dedicated in 1894 and was used for 51 years, until 1945. I think that this building is still in use.

                The Berwyn church had been used for 55 years, since December 1948. It is the best edifice by far, in terms of appearance and quality of construction. It provides an impressive and comfortable place to worship.


Body Life              

                Turning from bricks and mortar to the body life of the congregation, First Chicago stood squarely in two worlds--the Netherlands of its religious heritage and the USA, its adopted land. The members and pastors were Dutch-born for the first 50 years at least. Henry Harmeling, who came in 1900, was the first American-born pastor. But two successors, Henry Schuurman (1910-13) and Marinus Broekstra (1918-29) were Dutch-born. Broekstra served until 1929 and could preach Dutch fluently.

                The Netherlandic tradition was evident is several ways. First in the devout pietism that marked congregational life from the beginning. A deep, heart-felt faith was the hallmark of the Secession of 1834, which caused many Seceders to immigrate to America for freedom of religion. The Seceders stressed the heart more than the mind. Theirs was a fervent faith that revered the truths of pious living as taught by the "Old Writers" of the Nadere Reformatie (Later Reformation) in the 17th century.(Kats, a'Brackel, and Lodenstein).

                Sermons at First Chicago called the congregation to live for Christ in humility and trust. Ministers preached from the Heidelberg Catechism and had the young people memorized it. The elders disciplined the wayward and excommunicated those who would not heed the warnings. Lodge members need not apply, nor those who were divorced and remarried.

                In the early years the consistory was so strict they would not accept the membership papers of immigrants from the State Church (Hervormde Kerk) without an examination "to find out if their faith is based on the infallible Word of God as revealed in the Bible and also to ascertain if these people subscribe to the teaching of the 1834 Secession in the Netherlands." The second part of this line of inquiry speaks volumes about the Seceder character of the Chicago congregation. Not accepting the membership papers of those in good standing in the national church was a hard stance, but adding the additional qualification that one must endorse the secession of 1834 and accept its doctrine and polity was radical indeed. Nothing less than the Canons and Church Order of Dort was acceptable.

                Although First Chicago was plagued by poverty in the early years, yet they practiced benevolence by regularly collecting offerings for their poor. Within six months of organizing, the congregation also decided to take a collection every three months for Van Raalte's hoped-for preparatory school "for the training of ministers." This became Hope College. Neither Van Raalte nor the congregation could know that deacon Roelof Pieters would go on to study for the ministry at the Academy and then in 1869 follow Van Raalte into the pulpit at his Pillar Church (First Reformed Church).

                The early worship in homes put a strain on both the host family and the worshippers. In 1855 thirty families jammed into elder Kroes's home and most people had to stand. This led to a problem of fatigue, because the written sermons might take an hour to read. The solution was simple--they found a book with shorter sermons! Services still exceeded by far the now customary one-hour format.

                During the long vacancy in the pulpit, elders read the sermons, heard confessions of faith, called on the sick, visited very family four times per year, and carried out all the administrative and pastoral duties. They examined every prospective member "in a simple but dignified way" and admonished the delinquent with the purpose of promoting peace." Their faithfulness in handling such heavy responsibilities is remarkable. The credit goes to Van Zwol (reader), Vanden Belt (pres.), and two newcomers, Martinus Hoogbruin and D. Van Berschot (clerk).          

                One issue that the elders had to face was one that also had troubled the Seceders since 1834--that of covenantal baptism. Specifically, may non-confessing parents present their infants for baptism? Classis (then Classis Wisconsin) said no; only confessing members who accept the covenant or believing godparents may do so. (In the Netherlands state church, elders or other confessing members could "stand in" for parents who were baptized, but not confessing, members). The elders accepted this ruling.

                To deal with the stress of running the church without an undershepherd, the elders often sang Psalm 90:9:

May Thy grace enrich us with Thy comfort,

And reveal Thy work to Thy servants;

May Thy bounty never leave Thy children,

May Thy love and power keep us from faltering.

Strengthen our hand and bless our industry,

Crown our work now and forever!  

                Uncouth behavior in church concerned the consistory in these years as well. The minutes in 1857 report:

                The children as well as grownups do not behave themselves in church. The young men are in the habit of laughing at each other, while others when coming into church do not listen but turn their backs while coming in late when the preacher has already started with prayer, instead of standing to wait till the prayer has been concluded, they walk in as if walking on the street, move chairs noisily while prayer is going on, thus disturbing everyone present.

Catechumens were similarly unruly and the teaching elders struggled to keep order.            

                Eleven years after its founding and seven years after joining the Reformed denomination, Rev. Vander Meulen was installed in May 1859. The church then numbered 24 families.

Vander Meulen was a strong leader, plain spoken, warm, and humble in spirit, and the church thrived. Indeed, it doubled in three years to forty-eight families by 1860. His salary was $600 a year (the denominational board of missions paid one half), and the overjoyed members contributed additional monies to buy a new pulpit and pews. Vander Meulen temporarily left his family in Michigan and boarded with an elder, to spare the expense of renting a parsonage "because of the scarcity of money." The congregation was so poor that total contributions for the church budget were only $12 per month. In 1860 the yearly giving totaled $425, plus $71.58 for benevolence.

                Vander Meulen had to deal with the continuing problem of unruly behavior. In 1861 he even preached a sermon on Lord's Day 47 of the Catechism, on the phrase of the Lord's Prayer "Hallowed be thy name," and warned his flock against dishonoring and blaspheming God's name.

                To strengthen the training of the youth, Vander Meulen's successor, Rev. Hendrik Klyn, had the congregation establish a parochial school. Elder Hiram Vanden Belt sold a house with an adjacent empty lot near the church for the school building. A "brother" Huizenga was schoolmaster. This was the first Dutch Reformed day school in Chicago, with instruction in the Dutch language, but enrollment was small and the school did not flourish. The will was weak and pocketbooks thin.

                During Klyn's tenure, in 1867, First Church was rent by schism, when fifteen families, led by elders Vastenhouw and Van Duersen, left to form First Chicago CRC. Despite the turmoil, First RCA nearly doubled between 1866 and 1868, growing from 64 to 105 families. This gave them the confidence to proceed with plans to buy a parsonage and build a new church on Harrison Street.

                Klyn was mission-minded and once a month at the Sunday evening service he read accounts of mission work around the world. He faithfully called on the church families by horse and buggy. The same year the church rejoiced to send the first son of the congregation, Peter Schipperus, to study for the ministry at Hope Academy. The body provided financial aid for his studies.

                Klyn put an emphasis on spiritual renewal. The pastor led weekly Wednesday evening Bible studies and Monday evening prayer service. The goal was to bring revival, especially among the young people.

                A refusal to use civil courts to settle disputes between fellow believers was also normative among Seceders. So when a business dispute erupted in 1866 between three elders in which two threatened legal action, the consistory intervened to prevent the "worldly" civil court from getting involved. The elders worked out an compromise between the parties and thereby upheld the good name of the church.

                Dutch was the language of worship at First Chicago until the twentieth century. When members with children demanded in the 1880s that the church change to English, which the children had mastered in school, the majority refused. "Father must live too," said Dominie De Bey. The pressure was reduced when in 1891 those families were allowed to found the first English church--Trinity.               De Bey's successor, Rev. Joldersma, in 1898 gained consistorial approval on a trial basis to deliver the Sunday evening sermon in English, but this proved less than successful and after a year the service was changed to an hour of prayer. It was 1907, under Rev. Boer, when English was again used in the evening service.

                During the patriotic First World War, Rev. Henry Schipper (1913-1918) led First Church in its transition to English as the primary language. In 1915 the primary morning service and all catechism classes were switched to English. Three years later every other afternoon service was English, which in effect reduced Dutch services to two times a month. This momentous change, according to a church report to Classis, "slightly ruffled the calm" of the congregation. This must have been the understatement of the year.

                Marinus Broekstra, formerly of the First Englewood Reformed Church, welcomed the soldier "boys" home from the war and led First Chicago in the "roaring twenties" (1918-29). In contrast to Schipper, he preached in fluent Dutch and loved to sing the Dutch Psalms in worship, but his ministry did little to hold back the process of acculturation.

                Because First Chicago from the start was affiliated with the eastern-based RCA in New York, the congregation was tugged toward  American ways. During the American Revolution, the RCA declared independence from the Classis of Amsterdam of the State church, and began joint ministries with the Presbyterian and Congregational churches. In the next decades, the RCA was greatly influenced by the Second Great Awakening and its new techniques of religious revival--intense prayer meetings, emotional music, the anxious bench, and alter calls.

                By the time the Dutch arrived in Chicago in the 1840s, the RCA had long given up the Dutch language and was soon to drop the word Dutch in its official name. All church assemblies were conducted entirely in English. Moreover, the RCA had little knowledge of, or appreciation for, the persecution that the Seceder immigrants had experienced before immigrating. The newcomers had to get on board or get off the train.

                Rev. Vander Meulen, the first minister, introduced an American Sunday school, which was unknown in the homeland. And Dominie De Bey, the dominant preacher of the first generation, taught the rythym of American evangelicalism. De Bey was much taken with popular preaching methods and attended a nearby Presbyterian church every Sunday night to practice the English language and pick up tips on sermonizing. De Bey particularly admired Yankee ministers for focusing on the central idea of the text and applying it in practical ways to everyday life without much Biblical exegesis, analysis, or synthesis. He also marveled at the full orbed ministry of American Protestants.

                In a personal letter to his cousin in Groningen, De Bey reported:

                In our churches here we have something going on virtually every evening of the week--prayer meetings, preaching, catechism, youth societies, choral groups.... I could no longer feel at home with some of the pious customs and exclusively Sunday Christianity which characterized my life in Groningen. Here Christianity is more a way of life, an active love, a devotion to God--preaching his Word and laboring for the kingdom.

Clearly, the Dominie from Middelstum had become the American preacher.

                When revival fires burned brightly in Chicago in the 1870s under Dwight L. Moody, the father of urban evangelism, Be Bey adopted his spiritual themes of conversion, backsliding, and renewal. Moody's understudy, George F. Pentecost, held revival meetings in the neighborhood of First Church in 1878-79, and De Bey signed on as a counselor and encouraged those members of his congregation who understood English to attend. The spiritual condition of his congregation was languishing, he wrote his cousin, and Pentecost brought the hope of revival.

                He is a blessed awakening whom my people (as many as understand English, and most do) attend regularly. I also attend as often as possible. He holds meetings four times each day: from 12 noon to 1 p.m., an hour of prayer; from 3 to 4 p.m., Bible study; from 4 to 5, dialogue and testimonies; and from 7:30 to 9:00 p.m., preaching. Hundreds remain until 10 p.m. to receive added counsel from Pentecost and other pastors, and I am also among the counselors. Here in this land our divine worship is a lively activity. Conversion and renewal are the fruits of Rev. Pentecost's work.

                First Church's reports to Classis about its spiritual condition were also couched in the idiom of revivalism. An 1881 report was typical:

                Chicago reports a good attendance upon the means of grace and points to evidences of their good effect in general. There is a spirit of mutual appreciation, peace, love, and labor of love. Of the many conversions resulting from a general revival a few years since, some have persevered, others give but feeble tokens of full consecration, others seem quite worldly minded. At present it seems children of the covenant do not understand what God has sealed to them upon their foreheads. Conversions and returns to God are scarce. Planting and watering is however continued in obedience and faith that God will give the increase. For De Bey, First Church was clearly in a "dry season."

                In youth ministry, De Bey was also in line with the dominant evangelical spirit. He introduced Christian Endeavor, a national youth program developed in the Methodist denomination and adopted by many mainline churches. A few members complained that C.E. was unReformed, i.e., Arminian, but the consistory endorsed it. No wonder. The RCA Synod had recommended the program to its churches nationwide. With its focus on prayer meetings and missionary outreach, C.E. bore the marks of American evangelicalism.

                In 1919, when Rev. Broekstra was in the manse, the appreciative congregation took the very American step of buying their pastor a new car. In other ways the congregation adopted American ways too. Offering plates were substituted for the "sackjes" at the end of long poles, women members were allowed to vote in congregational meetings, and deacons come to the front of church for a pastoral prayer before the collection. The church also appointed a "reception committee" for morning worship services to "look out for strangers ... [and] to shake hands."

                By the 1920s the edge of the black ghetto had reached Ashland Avenue from the east and church families were moving west. First Reformed considered following them, but the majority decided to wait. They ended up remaining on Hastings Street for another two decades, until 1945.

                Already in 1934, however, Rev. Bart Van Zyl and the consistory positioned First Church for the inevitable relocation to the western suburbs. They began catechism classes in Berwyn in the basement of elder N. Diephouse's home. The next step was to rent facilities and open a mission church with Sunday evening worship services and CE meetings. The mission station soon became Calvary Reformed Church.

                Calvary was led by Revs. Raymond Beckering (1940-42) and Henry Kik (1943-49). In 1944, when Van Zyl left Hastings Street for Hollandale, MN,, Kik became the sole pastor of both Hastings Street and Calvary. The mother and daughter churches had merged. The next year, 1945, the Hastings Street facility was sold to the Shiloh Baptist Church.

                For three years the flock worshiped together in various rented places--Timothy Christian School, its sister church of West Side Reformed, in a store on Cermak Road, and in a United Presbyterian church in Oak Park. In December 1948 the congregation its new sanctuary on Park Park Avenue and the unsettled years mercifully came to an end. So First Church had its ups and downs, but the Lord of the church, Jesus Christ, was faithful and you not only survived but flourished.