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Robert P. Swierenga, "Fruits of the Reformation in West Michigan"

Dr. Robert P. Swierenga is Research Professor, A.C. Van Raalte Institute, Hope College, and Professor of History Emeritus, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio, where he taught American history for twenty-eight years. The Van Raalte Institute is a research center devoted to preserving the Dutch Reformed history and heritage in North America and particularly in West Michigan. This article was presented as a lecture at Messiah's Independent Reformed Church of Holland on November 1, 2006 in commemoration of Reformation Day.

The Reformation first and foremost was a religious awakening to bring the Roman Catholic Church back to its biblical foundation. The main themes of the Reformation are the five solas: sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone), sola gratia (by grace alone), sola fide (through faith alone), solu Christus (by Christ alone), and soli Deo gloria (to the glory of God alone). Good works cannot save, and no church traditions, however old and treasured, can take priority over biblical truths. Martin Luther, professor of theology at Wittenberg University, while teaching the book of Romans was converted, and under the leading of the Holy Spirit he came to the conviction that salvation was by faith alone (not good works), through Christ alone (not Mother Mary, saints, or angels), and by grace alone (not papal indulgences to buy forgiveness of sins).

The Reformation began in Luther's study and classroom, spread to the local university and church when he nailed the 95 theses (statements) to the chapel door, and then to Germany and the rest of Europe, including younger scholars like John Calvin in France and Henry Bullinger in Zurich. Much more can be related about the spread of the Reformation of the 16th century in Germany, Switzerland, the Low Countries, and the British Isles, and especially its impact on the development of the West these past 400 years.

The Reformation is the reason for the progress and prosperity of the West, as compared with the backward development of the East and South. This religious reawakening made possible the rise of political and economic freedoms and birth of modern science. "Real science" began only once in world history, in post-Reformation Europe among devout Christians. Only in Europe did alchemy develop into chemistry, astrology into astronomy, monarchy into democracy, and feudalism into capitalism. Christianity, alone among the major religions, values reason and logic as primary guides to truth. Herman Bavinck titles his classic compendium of Reformed theology Our Reasonable Faith. God is a God of order and consistency, and these traits are imbedded in the cosmos, which enables scientists to study it.

Let's bring the Reformation heritage closer to home and consider how it impacts our lives in West Michigan. I have thought a good deal about this and will share my reflections with you. But first a caveat. It is difficult to separate the general affects of historic Christianity from the specific effects of the Protestant Reformation. We inherited both the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Reformed faith brought here by immigrants from the Netherlands and Grafschaft Bentheim (the region just across the southeastern Dutch border in Germany). I will try as best I can to differentiate Christianity in general and the Reformed faith in particular.

Why do you like living in West Michigan? What makes the Holland-Zeeland area appealing?

You can say this is a special region because it was shaped and formed by its Reformed heritage. The Dutch brought a culture centered in the churches, high moral values, a strong work ethic, entrepreneurial skills, and a deep commitment to Christian education. This region boasts of fertile farmland, great recreational opportunities, many business opportunities, good schools from kindergarten to college level, churches on nearly every corner, cultural activities galore, specialty shops and eateries on Eighth Street, etc.

Most important, the Reformed faith still plays a role in balancing community life. Charles Colson noticed this when he came for the dedication of the De Vos Worship Center at Grand Rapids Christian High School in 2003. "For those who think the Reformation no longer influences American life, I recommend a trip to Western Michigan," Colson wrote in his monthly column in Christianity Today (Aug. 2003). He noted that "hardy and industrious" Dutch pioneers had planted churches here that embodied their Calvinist cultural mandate, the belief that the lordship of Christ extended over all, and that each social institution--church, school, workplace, in its respective sphere, must claim every inch of creation for the Creator. "This Reformation-influenced vision continues," Colson declared, and is seen in a "Christian commitment to community, in sharp contrast to what's happening elsewhere in our culture."

No wonder people from other parts of the country come here to live. The Holland Sentinel in October 2006 ran an article that described Holland as a "retirement destination." Holland ranks among the best five towns in America for retirees and many come here to live, even though this is far from the Sunbelt. The city offers reasonable housing prices, low crime rates, many fine doctors and excellent hospitals, golfing and boating, a first-class senior center (Evergreen Commons), Freedom Village and other retirement homes, an ice-free downtown shopping district, fine restaurants, etc. The ambiance and quality of life continue to please the home folks and attract outsiders.

            Culture is everything. Of all the factors that make the Holland area an appealing place to live, I believe cultural values are the key, and they are derived from religious beliefs. Holland began as "contractual community"--sociological jargon for an ethnically homogenous and religiously monolithic community, in which the distinction between insiders and outsiders was clear and the boundaries kept sharply defined. This locality was settled by conservative Reformed believers who had seceded from the liberal Netherlands Reformed Church in 1834 and suffered persecution for doing so.

Since the Second World War, the Holland-Zeeland area has become diversified in culture and religion. Sunday shopping is more common since an Ottawa County judge declared local "blue laws" unconstitutional and Meijer supermarkets broke long-standing policies and opened on that day. The last barrier was in 2000 when Spartan bought Family Fare Stores and opened them 24-7 and stocked alcoholic beverages. Taverns and restaurants with liquor licenses have also proliferated in recent years, now even in Zeeland. Today there are thirty denominations, plus the sects (Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, and Christian Science), Unity, Bahai, and Buddhist. But some eighty Reformed, Christian Reformed, and other Reformed churches still dominate in Holland-Zeeland.

Despite the growing diversity, Holland is still different. An editorial in the Sentinel three years ago said it well:

Ask anyone here who's lived in the east side of the state or in other metropolitan areas. They'll note how family-oriented Holland is, how much less contentious life is here, and how much better employee-employer relations are. They find here a stronger work ethic, a greater sense of security, a deeper sense of community, and a religious faith, which, if not more prevalent, is certainly more evident than in other places.

What Reformation principles have shaped our culture?

I have identified seven:

1. The belief that true religion is, at heart, a life that seeks to please God. True religion is based on sound doctrine and teaches about sin, rather than sweeping it under the rug. True religion is not wishy-washy salve for itching ears, but the truth of God's word.

The Holland area is blessed with many churches, some still holding to the pure gospel. In 1944 a survey of Holland and environs found that of 4,400 families contacted, only 141 (3 percent) had no church affiliation. Church affiliation by 1989 had fallen to 55 percent, which was still above the national average of 42 percent. Today both these numbers are certainly lower, but Holland-Zeeland is still above the national norm for church attendance.

2. The belief that one's work is one's calling. God calls each person to a vocation in life and equips one to fulfill that vocation. Moreover, no calling is too insignificant to serve God. "Whatever your hands find to do, do all to the glory of God." A firm sense of calling nurtures a strong work ethic ("he who does not work shall not eat"), integrity in one's work, healthy labor-management relations, regard for fellow employees and customers (the golden rule), and a commitment to earth-keeping (God's charge to Adam--"till the garden and keep it"). Mike Koppenol, director of the Christian Labor Association, headquartered in Zeeland, has rightly said: "Every person has a calling. Plumber, carpenter, minister, farmer; all are called to fulfill their God-given gifts of labor."

            Fulfilling one's calling requires individual initiative and responsibility. On Labor Day 2003 local political leaders, including Holland mayor Al McGeehan, Zeeland mayor Les Hoogland, Congressman Pete Hoekstra, State Representative Wayne Kuipers, and a half dozen others, took out a full-page ad in the Holland Sentinel. They asserted that the strength of the West Michigan economy was due to its recognition of the "extraordinary value of individual labor." Open communication, teamwork, and employee participation have given our region an edge, the leaders declared, compared to the strong tradition of trade unionism in the southeastern part of the state. Secular unions are based on an adversarial model between workers and management that relies ultimately on the power of the strike. Unions foster conflict and tension in the workplace. Today the economic picture in our area is not quite as rosy as 2003, but despite the frequent layoffs, in each of the last three years, more than 1,000 new jobs have been created.

            The recipient of the 2006 Small Business Person Award selected by the Holland Area Chamber of Commerce was Doug Ruch, the CEO of Fleetwood Group, a 50-year-old company with 145 workers that manufactures furniture and electronic parts. Ruch, a member of a Reformed church, told the Holland Sentinel reporter: "We are a Christ-centered, employee-owned business…. A wonderful byproduct of this is an extremely positive corporate culture. That culture inspires a level of commitment among our team members that gives Fleetwood a very real competitive advantage."

3. The belief that our money is really God's money, lent for our use. Dutch Reformed folks have a "saving mentality," a giving heart, and a strong sense of stewardship. Ottawa County ranked sixth on a recent national list of counties in terms of the rate of saving. The county also stood above the national average in a dozen categories of savings--passbook accounts, pension and retirement savings, net worth, home values and home equity, personal debt, etc. Ottawa County lottery sales lag the rest of the state by a large amount. The average annual betting in Ottawa County is $51 per person, compared to $99 per person in Allegan County, and $278 per person in Wayne County.

Benevolence has always been central here. From the beginning, the Dutch Reformed churches cared for the poor, widows, and orphans. A report in the local newspaper, De Hollander, in 1854 noted that the Dutch churches did not abandon their poor to the public authorities, but supported them without murmuring, despite the heavy burden. Generous giving is a habit in West Michigan. The Holland-Muskegon-Grand Rapids area is second nationwide only to Salt Lake City in total gifts to charity, and the Mormons make tithing a requirement for salvation. Here giving is from the heart.

Philanthropy is common too. Successful businessmen willingly gave back to their communities when God has blessed them. Edgar Prince, the man more responsible than any other for shaping Holland since the 1980s, was determined to leave Holland better than he found it. Why? Because he viewed his wealth as God's money. Prince and many fellow Reformed businessmen considered themselves as stewards of their time and talents; they know God the Father will hold them responsible for how they invest their ten talents. Ed and his wife Elsa sprang into action when the Westshore Mall opened and they saw that Eighth Street was doomed unless it was redeveloped. They set up a development company (Lumir Corporation) to do just that and restored one building after another to its original beauty. City leaders cooperated by first installing a snowmelt system. Prince also was the spark behind Evergreen Commons and Freedom Village.

Ed and Elsa ran Prince Corporation the same way, according to Christian principles. When Elsa sold the business to JCI after Ed's sudden death, she shared the proceeds with all the employees. Depending in length of service, some factory workers received checks in the six figures.

            In Grand Rapids, Claire De Graaf sold his manufacturing company and took up full-time discipling of his colleagues. He said: "Reformed theology says we ought to reform the world around us. We ought to be in the business of changing the culture around us. It isn't simply enough to get people saved." Congressman Vernon Ehlers, former physics professor at Calvin College, says that "being religious means doing good in the world." Peter Cook, multimillionaire owner of Great Lakes Mazda in Grand Rapids, and his wife always donated 35-50 percent of their income and "we've never been poorer at the end of the year because of it," Peter insisted. Dutch Reformed businessmen like Prince, De Graaf, Cook, Richard De Vos, Jay Van Andel, the DeWitts, among others, do God's work with their millions.

4. The belief that God instituted marriage and the family as the primary social institution, that he commanded spouses to be fruitful and multiply, and that he designated fathers as the head of the family and the ones who must answer on the judgment day for the souls entrusted to their care.

            In a current series of articles in Christian Renewal, by Rev. Patrick Edouard of the United Reformed Church of Pella, entitled the "Four Reformed C's," the first C is Children. "It is impossible to overstate the importance God places on children and posterity in the covenant," Rev. Edouard writes. "The future of the covenant people was [and is] literally and inextricably intertwined with fertile godly wombs." In the Old Testament, to be childless was the ultimate curse, because one's line became extinct and the covenant promises went unfulfilled.

Modernists 35 years ago came to believe the lie of Paul Erlich's book Population Explosion, that overpopulation would destroy the world. But now the biggest problem in the West is under-population. The West is dying off, especially in Europe. Children are no longer a "heritage from the Lord." They reject the promise: "Blest is the man whose quiver is full of them." I remember well the Zero Population Growth Movement (ZPG) of the 1970s. When my wife and I had our fifth child while I was teaching at Kent State, I did not announce the birth on campus to secular colleagues, for fear of being derided as a selfish man who was contributing to global overpopulation and the degradation of the environment.

The ZPG zealots did not foresee that in thirty years, the major world problem is just the opposite--too few children rather than not enough. One-fifth of men and women 40 years and older are childless today in the U.S., and the rate is rising. Worst of all, since Roe v. Wade, expectant mothers have killed 42,000,000 babies in the womb. God will not be mocked. In the next few decades, you will see nations collapsing in turmoil because governments cannot fund the social security and retirement programs they promised the elderly. There simply are not enough younger workers to fund them.

While pagans never marry and kill their babies, Reformed Christians must value marriage and children above all. They need to "shun the world's philosophy of family planning and opt for a covenantal outlook," Rev. Edouard says. You may find this advice too radical, but you can agree with his closing prayer: "When we are called home to glory, may our best contributions to God's kingdom be our covenant children."  

The baby-bust mentality has deeply impacted American politics. A recent study of the 2004 presidential election revealed a startling fact, as reported by Dennis Praeger on a recent afternoon talk show on AM 1260 "The Pledge" radio station. A nationwide study found that Democrats carried ALL fifty electoral districts with the highest proportion of unmarried and never married persons, while Republicans won ALL but one of the fifty districts with the highest proportion of married couples. Clearly, the major political parties hold diametrically opposed positions on the vital importance of marriage and family, on the value of babies, and the role of government tax and regulatory policies to nurture and protect marriage and the family.

Feminism, with its destructive attitude toward marriage and men, has taken a huge toll. The majority of children in America grow up in single parent homes, and boys are vanishing from college classrooms. Feminist activists have so trumpeted discrimination against women in education that the pendulum has swung 180 degrees and women are becoming dominant in the classroom. The current philosophy stresses group learning over leadership and individual responsibility, skills are more important than knowledge and wisdom, and generalization is better than specialization. These ideas all deprecate masculine virtues and tout feminine ones. Boys are portrayed as bullies on the playground and late learners who can't sit still in class and concentrate without drugs like Ritalin. Girls, it is said, read faster, verbalize better, work better in groups, and are eager to please.  Feminists refuse to differentiate between the sexes. They reject the creation order: "So God created man in his image, male and female created He them," two halves of one whole, but with Adam placed in charge of creation and the first family. Reformed Christians reject all modern ideologies that destroy the family.

5. Commitment to serve the poor and sick, or "social action." The Apostle James wrote: "Faith without works is dead. Show me your works, and I will show you my faith." No people give of their time and money to charity like Reformed Christians. President Bush in May 2006 honored recipients of his Volunteers for Prosperity Initiative. The Grand Rapids Press reported on the nine local citizens honored in the city. All nine were Dutch Reformed, most graduates of Calvin. They had carried out volunteer work in South and Central America, Asia, and Africa (Haiti, the Philippines, Kenya, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Sudan, Darfur, and Uganda).

In the Holland-Zeeland area one finds the Holland Deacons Conference, Good Samaritan Ministries, Kids Hope, Project Rehab, Love INC, Bethany Christian Services, Jubilee Ministries, and in Zeeland, The Bridge and Water Missions International. This list is far from complete. Bethany, with offices in 32 states and 13 countries, is the largest private adoption agency in the U.S. The work of Bethany is why the Holland area has a long history of international adoptions, especially from Asia. Reformed churches have also stepped up to sponsor refugees, notably those from Indo-China after the Vietnam War. The result is Laotian and Cambodian Reformed congregations in Holland. Hispanic congregations are flourishing too, ever since Reformed churches and lay members began ministries in the migrant camps in the 1950s.

CROP Walk in West Michigan has been the biggest walk in the state for the last twenty years, raising $2.5 million. This year again, the Holland-Zeeland area surpassed the $100,000-mark for the nineteenth straight year. More than sixty churches and organizations participated. Similarly, Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids leads the state in organ donations.

In 1996 the State of Michigan launched Project Zero, a welfare-to-work program that aimed to get every able-bodied adult, except mothers with young children, into the workforce. When the program began, Ottawa had 767 residents on welfare and only one-third (239) had jobs. Within a year, Ottawa County claimed the honor of being the first to reach "zero." Kent County followed two years later; it was first among the most populous counties. Why? Because dozens of churches, community agencies, and some forty businesses teamed up to train and hire the hardcore unemployed. Meijer hired many.

6. Christian education. "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it." Reformed churches since the early nineteenth century in the Netherlands established Christian schools, and the immigrants came with a commitment to such schools. Since 1900 the Holland and Zeeland Christian schools have provided a Christ-centered education. Holland Christian in 2006 enrolled 2,000 students, about 20 percent of all students in the Holland-West Ottawa school districts. Unfortunately, the numbers are declining every year. Only a few years ago, Holland Christian enrolled 25 percent of all students.

7. Economic and political freedoms rest on the rights of the individual. The Reformed faith fosters this, because it teaches that God saves sinners one by one, and individuals will stand before the Judgment Seat of God someday to answer for their deeds. The genius of the American way of life rests on the high value placed on the individual. Socialism has never gained much traction as a political philosophy in America because it rests on collectivism and statism. It ends up being coercive and destructive of individual initiative and responsibility.

            Politically, the state needs a vital church. The naked public square that so many have lamented in recent years is the result of a decadent church. Irrelevant Christians produce irrelevant churches, which results in co-opted members who go along to get along and leave public life without a faithful witness. Reformed Christians are politically involved citizens. Since the 1950s the path from West Michigan to the Michigan statehouse had often begun at Calvin College. In 1999 eight Calvin alumni were serving in the legislature--this from a college whose total alumni are less than the current student enrollment of the University of Michigan. The Calvin lawmakers use words like "calling," "service," and "mission" to explain their motives.    


As Reformation Christians in West Michigan, in obedience to Christ we must recommit our talents and energies to the glory of God and the building of His kingdom. This includes sharing the gospel by our words and living the gospel by our deeds. Miroslav Volf, in an article in the October 2006 issue of Christianity Today ("The Church's Great Malfunctions"), says it best: "For Christian faith not to be idle in the world, the work of doctors and garbage collectors, business executives and artists, stay-at-home moms and dads and scientists, needs to be inserted into God's story with the world. That story needs to provide the most basic rules by which the game in all these spheres is to be played. And that story needs to shape the character of the players."

Are you shaped by the great Reformation solas, the beliefs that sparked the rebirth of the church in Western Europe, and moved across the Atlantic Ocean in the next centuries? That spark has died out in its birthplace and in much of the western world. We are a remnant that still honors the Reformation and enjoys its benefits in our community. God requires us to remain faithful until He comes again. May he find us busy--not idle, and living faithfully according to the Bible and the principles that Calvin derived from it and clearly taught. It all stems from his motto: "My heart, I give, promptly and sincerely."