Lecture of Robert P. Swierenga at Graafschap Christian Reformed Church, Holland, Michigan, March 10, 1997
1834 and 1857--Church Secessions and the Dutch Emigration
Historically, the Christian church as an institution has moved in its doctrine and life from orthodoxy to heterodoxy. Its teachers and pastors are always "pushing the envelope," widening the bounds of what has been settled interpretations of Scripture. That is why, given the fallen nature of people and institutions, the church must always be reforming.
The Seceders of 1834 and 1857 shared a deep concern for this creeping liberalism in the Reformed Church. The issues they seized upon--baptism, catechism, church order, the form of subscription, use of Gospel hymns, and freemasonry, to name the main concerns--were all markers of change in the direction of heterodoxy.
For most people in the pew, loyalty to the church overrode their concerns and they remained within it; like lobsters in the pot they were oblivious to the danger. But a minority felt compelled, for conscience sake, to try to reform the church and failing that, to withdraw or be expelled. The 1834 Seceders numbered 5 percent of the Dutch national church and the Seceders of 1857 numbered 10 percent.
To make our historical topic come to life today, I cannot help but note that since 1990 or so the CRC has lost 30,000 members or 10 percent. While the specific issues are different, the same mentality and concerns about heterodoxy have been heard. Perhaps the next generation of church historians will be studying the Secession of 1996 as we are recalling those of 1834 and 1857.
Despite our desire as Reformed believers for the church to be unified in Christ, the historical record deals as much with divisions and strife in the church as with unity. Every one of the pioneer pastors of the Holland colony--Albertus Van Raalte, Cornelius Van der Meulen, Maarten Ypma, Seine Bolks, and H.G. Klijn were Seceders from the Netherlands Reformed Church (Hervormde Kerk), the national church. If these leaders had not seceded in 1834, there would have been no Holland colony to celebrate. The founders, even when they seceded, did so in the conviction that they were being obedient to God's Word. Hence, though Jesus prayed for unity in the church, His Spirit has blessed the separating churches and denominations.
II. Importance of Seceder Emigration to America
I have tried to imagine what life would have been like in the United States among the Calvinist immigrants if there had been no Afscheiding of 1834. First, without the religious motive perhaps the total emigration would have been cut back by 25 percent. Some 13,000 Seceders emigrated between 1845 and 1880, mostly in the first wave of the 1840s. Seceders made emigration the "thing to do" among the distressed "kleine luyden." The Seceder dominies also organized and led the emigration so that the believers could live together and be saved from apostasy. Some eight Calvinist colonies were founded before 1860 and more than 100 by 1900. The colonies acted as magnets, attracting members of the Reformed Church as well. Remember that many true believers remained in the national church.
The Seceders were the most focused of all Dutch emigrants. They left in the largest proportions and almost all settled in colonies. In 1849 Seceders numbered only 1.3 percent of the Dutch population, but they contributed two-thirds of all emigrants from the Netherlands in the peak years of Seceder emigration--1846 thru 1849. The intense and focused migration of this religious minority, therefore, gave them a strong presence
in the Midwest that was far out of proportion to their numbers.
III. Antecedents to the Secession of 1834
A. Rational Religion
The golden age of the Dutch national church was the century after the Synod of Dordrecht (1618-1619). In the late 1700s, during the time of the French Enlightenment, Reformed clerics and professors in the universities increasingly accepted rationalist thinking, which viewed the Bible and the three forms of unity as man-made creeds.
By the early 19th century the signs that the church leaders "had fallen asleep" were everywhere. Few protested when Napoleon's revolutionary army came into the Netherlands in 1795 and purged traditional Calvinism from public life. The new secular regime disestablished the national church, cutting off public funds to pay pastor's salaries and replacing the teaching of Reformed doctrine in the public schools with deistic religion. This was done under the banner of nonsectarianism.
B. National Synod of 1816
The crowning blow came after the restoration of the House of Orange, when King Willem I in 1815 convened another national synod, the first since 1618. In choosing the delegates, church leaders bypassed local congregations and provincial assemblies and instead hand-picked men who reflected the modern temper. With little debate Synod made a number of momentous changes that threatened completely to undo the Reformed church. Synod altered the Form of Subscription so as to render its meaning ambiguous. The oath now allowed candidates to accept the creeds "in so far as" (rather than "because") they agreed with Scripture. This subjective clause emasculated the creedal foundation of the church and protected pastors who denied the Trinity and other vital doctrines. Synod also dropped the requirement of weekly catechism preaching.
Most importantly, Synod changed church governance by created a standing executive committee to run the church and made delegates to all classes and synods royal appointees. Instead of the revered Dordtian form of governance, the national church now became an administrative arm of the state. Given the close bond between church and state, any future church conflict would quickly become a threat to the social order. In one fell swoop the king undermined the historic national church and weakened the church and the nation.
This arbitrary decree aroused very little public dissent, apart from a few orthodox local congregations and a small group of intellectuals. In the countryside passive resistance arose when the first national synod to meet under the revised structure mandated pastors in each worship service to select one or more hymns from the new hymnal, which included 192 Gospel songs to augment the traditional Genevan psalms. Synod had adopted this hymnal in 1807 and recommended it to the churches, but did not make its use obligatory. When that changed in 1816, some "stijf kops" refused to sing the "man-made songs" that they thought smacked of Arminianism. They stood silently, or put on their caps, or even marched out until the singing was over. A few sympathetic ministers defied the ruling and selected only the psalms, but they were subject to discipline.
In the next years pious members of the national church quietly began to leave it and assemble in conventicles, which were rump worship services held in homes and barns where elders read sermons of the old fathers.
Opposition also formed among a few ministers and intellectuals in the major universities, including Leiden, the seat of the major Reformed university and theological school, and the University of Groningen. Some professors were influenced by the religious revival (or Rèveil) that began in Geneva. The father of the Dutch Rèveil was Willem Bilderdijk, a noted lawyer and the founding teacher of a private theological school at Leiden, who launched a pamphlet war against unbelief. His major disciples were Groen van Prinsterer, the future political leader, and the Portuguese Jewish converts Isaac Da Costa and Abraham Capadose. At Groningen Professor Petrus Hofstede de Groot (1802-1886) rejected the popular rationalistic theology and emphasized the importance of the heart in Christian belief. This became known as the Groninger Theology. The Rèveil sparked a spirit of renewal and piety in Reformed circles and made resistance to rationalism intellectually respectable.
IV. Secession in 1834
A. Hendrik De Cock of Ulrum: Father of the Secession
Hofstede de Groot's best friend was Hendrik de Cock, the preacher of the Reformed church in Ulrum. De Cock's devout parishioners pushed him to reexamine historic Calvinism and he read Calvin's Institutes for the first time. His revitalized preaching touched a nerve and people flocked to Ulrum from all over the northern Netherlands by the thousands to hear him. He became a watchman blowing the "trumpet to warn the people." Many parents who believed their own preachers were unconverted beseeched him to baptize their children. It was a violation of Reformed principles to baptize children of nonmembers, but De Cock did so anyway. This sparked official action; the Classis of Middelstum instituted formal proceedings against him.
De Cock lambasted the leaders in the national church in a biting pamphlet. He charged that they were "wolves in the sheep-fold who can preach much better about eating and drinking, nice weather and long days, about gardening and farming, about newspapers and war, than about the Kingdom of Heaven, as they lead the way for their congregations to the markets and horse races, drinking and singing until early dawn, or attending meetings for the so-called [society for the] common good." De Cock also wrote a pamphlet attacking hymns as "contrary to the word of God;... a concoction of siren lovesongs fit to draw the Reformed believers away from the saving doctrine." He certainly had a way with words!
Despite an immediate suspension and the start of proceedings to depose him, De Cock carried on, and his friend, Rev. Hendrik Scholte came to give support. Thousands of people gathered on Friday evening to hear the famous Scholte preach and proclaim the Reformed faith. He too attacked state church ministers as "idolaters and prophets of deceit." Classis Middelstum was not pleased and would not let Scholte preach again at the Sunday afternoon service. When the police closed the church, a near riot occurred. Scholte preached outdoors instead and left Ulrum immediately afterwards.
The treatment of Scholte was the last straw for De Cock, and he and his entire congregation seceded from the Reformed Church. It was apostate, he said, and showed few marks of the true church. The date was October 1834. De Cock explained: "Everything now fitted together for me as if it were an indication of the Lord what I had to do and which way I had to go." Scholte was suspended from his pulpit two weeks after De Cock's secession, and 287 members of his congregations in Noord Brabant withdrew with him. The reformation of the Dutch Calvinist church was now underway.
B. Scholte Club at University of Leiden
The second seat of secession developed at Leiden University, when the brilliant student Scholte gathered around him a group of five students of theology to form the so-called Scholte Club. The group included Anthony Brummelkamp, Simon Van Velzen, and Albertus Van Raalte. These men married the De Moen sisters and became brothers-in-law. The youthfulness of these "soldiers of the cross" is also noteworthy. The average age in 1834 was 26 years; Scholte was oldest at 29 and Van Raalte and Brummelkamp were youngest at only 23.
The young dominies went to work as "home missionaries" planting churches in particular areas. De Cock worked in the province of Groningen, Scholte in Utrecht and Noord Brabant, Brummelkamp in Gelderland, Van Raalte in Overijssel, Van Velzen in Friesland, and Van der Meulen (who later studied under Scholte) was the apostle of Zeeland.
C. Graafschap Bentheim--Harm Schoemaker and Jan Barend Sundag
The German Reformed Church across the Dutch border in Graafschap Bentheim in Westphalia was affected by the spillover of the Dutch Secession. Harm Schoemaker, a popular lay preacher, had since his conversion in 1823 preached pious orthodox sermons. He gathered around him the same kind of spiritually hungry people that Van Raalte did just across the border in Overijssel. The outcome was the same too. In 1837 the German church expelled him, so Schoemaker contacted Van Raalte who came over to organize the first congregation of German Reformed Seceders at Itterbeek.
Twenty miles south, at Bentheim, Jan Barend Sundag, a student of De Cock, had his mentor come in 1840 and organize the second German Seceder congregation. For eight years, until 1848, Sundag was the only ordained preacher in the German Seceder church and his influence was strong. So the Graafschap Bentheim church had two factions, with the De Cock party far larger than the Van Raalte party.
V. Official Persecution
King Willem I meanwhile condemned the unauthorized worship services of the Seceders and demanded that they dissolve their organization, obey the law, and submit to the "established and recognized church." The king denouncing them as schismatics, fomenters of unrest, and secret agitators. Trying to suppress the free church movement was not only ill-advised, but it went against the Constitution of 1814 which granted religious liberty.
Government officials moved to quell the Separatist movement by expelling the rebel clerics and levying heavy fines and even jail terms for their civil disobedience. The legal instrument they used (actually misused) was an old Napoleonic statute that forbade public assemblies of twenty or more persons for worship or politics without official permission. On this basis, the courts levied fines of f100 ($40) on clerics every time they conducted an unauthorized worship service. Consistory members were fined f50 ($20) each and owners of a house or barn used for worship had to pay f100 for each violation. Jannes van de Luyster, the founder of Zeeland, and an elder in the Seceder church, was fined repeatedly as an elder and for allowing the use of his barn. Van Raalte and Hendrik Budding were fined more than f40,000 ($16,000) each. Van Raalte was jailed for one week, Budding for many weeks. Despite fines totaling in the hundreds of thousands of guilders, and the deployment of thousands of troops to break up the illegal worship services, which the government defined as "riots," the Seceder clerics and elders carried on, preaching to as many as a thousand spiritually thirsty people at a time in open air worship services.
Persecution always strengthens the church. The Seceder preachers tried to avoid the police by assembling in groups of less than 20, or if larger than that, they fled the jurisdiction immediately after the service, keeping one step ahead of the law. They would obey God rather than misguided government officials. No wonder that in America Van Raalte cherished freedom of religion as such a precious right!
The official persecution was relatively short-lived, as one would expect in the generally tolerant Netherlands. The government also learned that it was not only very costly but impossible to stifle the devout believers, who declared that the government would have to ban them from the Fatherland or behead them to stop them. Quartering of soldiers in homes of Seceders was stopped after three years, jailings ended in four years, and within six years soldiers no longer broke up worship services. But fines continued to be levied in scattered places for ten years.
Beginning in 1838 Seceder congregations began applying for regular legal status, which the government allowed under certain conditions. Scholte was the first to do this for his Utrecht congregation, which adopted the name "Christian Seceded Congregation." The law forbade the use of the title Reformed, and each congregation had to take care of its own poor and be entirely self-supporting. Scholte's unilateral action broke the Seceders' "united front" against the government, and prompted several other churches to petition for recognition, including congregations Van Raalte had planted at Genemuiden, Ommen, and Den Ham (1839).
By 1849 40,000 people (1.3 percent of the population) belonged to Afscheiding churches, and the Hervormde Kerk had lost 5 percent of its members. There were many more sympathizers still in the national church who could not face the family fights and public ridicule hurled at Seceders. Seceders continued to suffer social ostracism, economic boycotts, and job blacklists long after the official suppression stopped. Nevertheless, over the next twenty years, by 1869, the Christian Seceder Church grew to 100,000 souls and boasted 328 churches served by 232 ministers.
VI. Divisions among Seceders
A. Purpose and Goals
Religious reformation is difficult to channel into constructive rather than destructive ways. The Afscheiding leaders proclaimed independence from the national church, but they could not agree on what should take its place? Some, like De Cock and Van Velzen, wanted to restore the historic Reformed standards of Dordt. Others, like Scholte, wanted to recreate the early church of the apostles, like the Campbellites or Disciples of Christ in the USA. Yet a third way, that of Van Raalte, was to defend liberty of conscience and build a more ecumenical and evangelical Reformed church. Strong personalities in the center and extremists and bigots at the fringes plagued the Seceders, as they do every popular movement.
The differences gradually crystallized around the major issue of the role of the church in society. Was it to establish a state church or to be the assembly of true believers? The Netherlands Reformed Church clearly was a "realm-religion," but most Seceders were wary of the heavy hand of the state and leaned toward a "free-religion."
The issue affected views of the sacraments and the church order. De Cock, Van Velzen, and Van Raalte followed the standard practice in the national church of baptizing children of baptized but not confessing members, in the belief that God's promises apply to all who attend. This was public christening rather than covenant baptism. Scholte and Brummelkamp rejected this "half-way covenant" and insisted that only confessing believers could present their children for the sacrament, since they alone were members of the church of Christ. Van Raalte said: "Children do not become members of the Congregation by confession of faith, but are members by virtue of the Covenant of Grace.... [Thus] the children of the children of the Congregation must be baptized." Scholte's antithetical view, that of a church free of government funding and control, won out in the synod of 1836 and his position became the policy of the Gereformeerde Kerk in the Netherlands and the Christian Reformed Church of North America. But most Seceders followed De Cock, whose position was adopted at the synod of 1846.
C. Church Order and Lay Preachers (Oefenaars)
On church governance Scholte feared synodical power and generally wanted the locus in the individual congregation rather than in major assemblies. In 1836 he took the initiative and called the leaders to convene at Amsterdam for the first Synod, but they could not agree on a church order until the 1837 synod, when they adopted a very short document written by Scholte. The synod also banned lay preachers, who were the backbone of the Seceder ministerial corps, and were permitted under the Dordt church order. De Cock believed that the Secession had flourished primarily because of them, but Scholte wanted them banned and his views won out at first.
The decision to replace the church order of Dordt did not sit well with some Seceder churches. Churches in the southern Netherlands withdrew and formed their own denomination, the Church Under the Cross (Kerk onder het Kruis). Several of Van Raalte's congregations, including Zwolle, Zalk, and Mastenbroek, also joined the breakaway group. It was 1869 before the two factions joined together again.
A leader in the breakaway movement, and one of its four lay leaders, was Douwe Van der Werp, a student and associate of De Cock at Ulrum, who in 1864 became pastor of the Graafschap church and a leader in the Christian Reformed Church. So here was one division in the Secession of 1834 that carried over into the Secession of 1857.
D. Scholte deposed--1840
The disagreements among the Seceders finally led to Scholte's being deposed from office in 1840. The matter came to a head when Scholte charged that Van Velzen's preaching over-emphasized divine election and was coldly formal. Van Velzen, Scholte said, "preached a conglomeration of theoretical truths without the living Christ, without a regenerating Spirit, and without the living and active faith." To this, Van Velzen cried "Slander!" The upshot was that the Synod of 1840 demanded that Scholte retract the charges. When he refused, Synod suspended him from the ministry. Thus did the young Seceder denomination lose "one of its most capable leaders." The major voting block against Scholte was De Cock plus four brothers-in-law--Van Velzen, Brummelkamp, Van Raalte, and Carl de Moen (the brother of their wives). No wonder the struggles among the Seceders were called brothers' quarrels. Synod also gave up all attempts at revising church government and adopted almost verbatim the Dordt church order.
E. Southern "center" party (Brummmelkamp, Van Raalte), Northern "right" party (De Cock, Van Velzen), Scholte "left" party
The various factions by 1840 had coalesced into three mani parties. In the "center" of the religious spectrum was an urban and liberal "Southern party," led by Brummelkamp, Van Raalte, Scholte (in the early years), and Van Der Meulen, which was concentrated in the provinces of Overijssel and Gelderland, with lesser contingents in Noord- and Zuid-Holland, Utrecht, Noord-Brabant, Zeeland, and Ost Friesland. On the "right" stood the rural and very orthodox "Northern party" led by De Cock and Van Velzen, which was concentrated in the provinces of Groningen, Friesland, and Drenthe, with related groups of conservative Zeelanders led by Budding, plus many of Sundag's Graafschap Bentheimers.
The northern party defended the doctrine, liturgy, and polity of Dordt as Biblically grounded; they were strongly traditional Calvinists who stressed the need for Christian schools and catechetical instruction of the youth. The northern faction had steel in their bones, while the southern party had rubber. The southern party was more broad-minded, inclusivistic, and even tempered; they stressed experiential piety and evangelism to the point that some charged them with Arminian leanings. They were willing to cooperate with the national church, recognizing that it included many true believers.
I stress these factions in the Seceder churches because they presage the future divisions in America, which were merely a continuation of old battles, with a new issue thrown in, that of Americanization.
VII. 1857 Secession
The 1857 schism must be viewed in the context of 1834. The immigrants were of two minds from the start, one separatist and desiring a pure and true church, and the other ecumenical and desiring a vital, experiential faith.
Initially in 1848, the Dutch Seceder congregations in western Michigan led by Van Raalte created an independent church organization, Classis Holland, which the leaders considered as an extension of the Seceder Church in the Netherlands. Within two years, however, Classis decided, rather on the spur of the moment, to unite with the Reformed Church in America, centered in New York and New Jersey.
The lay people in Classis Holland went along with Van Raalte and their leaders on the merger, but there was considerable uneasiness about this Americanized Dutch Reformed denomination. The tradition of separatism and suspicion of autocratic synods also made some colonists wary. The fact that Classis Holland demanded to join as a unit, rather than be fused with the American-speaking Classis of Michigan speaks volumes. Even Van Raalte wanted to maintain the Dutch way at church.
A. Graafschap and South Holland--Revs. K.S. Vander Schuur and J.R. Scheper
Even before the Union of 1850, secession movements within Classis Holland began in two congregations, Graafschap and Drenthe. This provided a kind of dress rehearsal for 1857.
The Graafschap church took the lead from the outset. In 1848 a faction living in the hamlet of South Holland called as its pastor Rev. K.S. Vander Schuur (Verschuur, Ver Scheur), a student of De Cock who was under censure in the Netherlands. Even though the call was totally irregular, because the group acted on its own, yet Classis acquiesced and accepted Vander Schuur's credentials.
But he soon left for the Grand Haven church, and the South Holland group induced J.R. Schepers, who was studying for the ministry under Rev. C. Van der Meulen at Zeeland, to serve as unordained minister. Neither Schepers nor the South Holland leaders officially informed Van der Meulen or Classis Holland of this action. When the church asked Classis in 1851 to install Schepers, it refused without first ordaining him. Schepers harbored objections against the RCA and apparently did not want to face the classical candidacy exam. Since his brother was serving as pastor of the Associate Reformed Church in Gun Plains, Michigan, which was a conservative, psalm-singing Scottish Calvinist body, Schepers obtained ordination in that Presbytery and the South Holland congregation effectively seceded from the RCA.
B. Drenthe and Rev. Roelof Smit
A second precursor of 1857 was the trial and deposition by Classis Holland of Rev. Roelof Smit, who came from the Netherlands in 1851 to pastor the Drenthe congregation, which also had a history of factiousness and strife. Smit claimed that Classis was "sold to the Old Dutch Church by Van Raalte for a good purse of money." Smit insisted on keeping the festival days--Christmas, Good Friday, Resurrection, and Pentecost, which was mandated by the Dordt church order, but which Classis Holland made optional, on the flimsy grounds that it was impractical to force busy farmers to assemble for mid-week services. Smit even celebrated the Lord's Supper on such days, which did not sit well with some members who thus missed out on the sacrament.
When Classis in May 1853 rebuked Smit "for his arbitrary and carnal conduct in oppressing the church," he and two thirds of the congregation seceded, and like Scheper's South Holland congregation, they joined the Associate Reformed Church.
C. Gysbert Haan, father of the 1857 Secession
Gysbert Haan, elder in the Vriesland church and after 1853 in the Grand Rapids church, was another one who complained of "irregularities" in the RCA. He charged that many ministers and elders held membership in "secret societies," that churches practiced "open" communion, used choirs in worship services to the detriment of congregational singing, sang "man-made" hymns rather than psalms, and neglected catechism preaching.
Haan's name appears regularly in the minutes of Classis Holland. In 1853 elder [William] Van de Luyster of Holland brought a letter from Milwaukee to Classis asking "whether it was lawful for a member of the church to be a Freemason." According to Haan, who was present, the dialogue went like this: Van de Luyster was asked, "'What is your purpose in bringing this matter to Classis?" 'None other,' he replied, 'than to hear the opinion of the brethren.... No,' was the response, 'you want to throw a bomb into the Dutch Reformed Church.'" At this Haan took the floor of Classis and said: "'Brethren, this evil, Freemasonry, is so prevalent in America that even many ministers are members of this order, and this, together with all the other un-Reformed matters that are present, makes it desirable, in my opinion, to exist here as a separate body, but connected with the Seceder church in the Netherlands, and to abandon the tie with the Dutch Reformed Church; what need do we have of it.'" Classis minutes show that the body took no official action about freemasonry, but they do report the sentiment that "all look upon it as works of darkness, and thus unlawful for a (church) member." So Classis expressed its collective opinion, and presumably consistories acted accordingly in counseling and disciplining members.
Underlying all the grievances was Haan's suspicion that the RCA was tainted with heterodoxy. Both Dominie Van der Meulen and Van Raalte tried to dissuade him, but failed. Haan was a troublemaker, they concluded, who manifested a "wrongness in his attitude of heart." In 1856 Haan withdrew from the RCA before Classis could discipline him. But he had posed the critical question: Why not abandon the tie to the RCA and return to the original mother church in the Netherlands?
D. Noordeloos and Rev. Koene Vanden Bosch
The subsequent arrival in "de Kolonie" of new colonists fresh from the Netherlands brought reinforcements for Haan's position. These newcomers, such as the Noordeloos congregation of Dominie Koene Vanden Bosch (1818-1897), could not appreciate the crucial help from the East in the early days. Vanden Bosch, who had heard from dissatisfied brothers in Graafschap and Holland even before emigrating and was much taken with Haan's complaints against the RCA, decried the 1850 union. When Vanden Bosch voiced his concerns, however, classical leaders told him: "We will not act on these matters, and in no way will you be able to get us to bring these matters to Synod."
The end result was the creation of the True Dutch Reformed Church in March and April, 1857, when two clerics--Vanden Bosch of Noordeloos and H.G. Klijn (Kleijn, Klein, Klyn) of Grand Rapids, together with four congregations--Noordeloos, Polkton, Grand Rapids, and Graafschap--decided by majority vote to withdraw from the Reformed Church in America and "return" to an independent status. A fifth church, Vriesland, joined them shortly.
The lengthy letter of the Graafschap consistory to Classis, signed by President J.F. Van Anrooij and clerk Henry Strabbing, was the only communique that brought specific charges: the RCA introduced 800 hymns in worship "contrary to the church order;" it practiced open communion; it failed to teach the catechism and ignored family visiting; and "what grieves our hearts the most in all this is that there are members among you who regard our secession in the Netherlands as not strictly necessary, or (think that) it was untimely."
The Graafschap letter of secession did not mention the issue of freemasonry, but the consistory two months earlier had expressed among themselves a deep concern about the presence of freemasons in the RCA.
E. Van Raalte answers the Seceders
The letters of secession "grieved" Van Raalte and he responded on the floor of Classis to these "serious (and) unsubstantiated accusations,...which are the fruit of a lust for schism already for a long time manifested by a few leaders." Joining the RCA in 1850 in no way abandoned the 1834 Secession, he insisted, because the RCA, contrary to the Netherlands Reformed Church directorate of 1816, upheld the traditional principles of Dordt and the standard form of subscription for ministers.
Van Raalte charged that "the whole affair (excepting a few leaders who fan the fire of distrust and suspicion), is a mixture of ignorance, sectarianism, and a trampling under foot of the brethren, of which the ministers of the Classis of Holland have been constantly for years the prey." In a voice dripping with sarcasm, Van Raalte wished those "who fancy that they can create a holier and purer church than the Dutch Reformed Church of this country may serve to put us to shame and to be a blessing to us by spiritual prosperity and an active fruit-bearing Christianity." Such "gross ignorance, and palpable slanders," Van Raalte concluded, is impossible to refute by reasonable arguments.
One can sympathize with Van Raalte and his frustration with the conservatives. His profound sense of gratitude to the RCA for its constant and generous financial help to the colony was not shared by all. And he was dealing with a skittish people who had suffered much in the Netherlands from distant synods and religious elites. They brought a separatist mentality to Michigan and wanted to be free of formal ties to any American denomination.
The people in the pew also understood from their experience in the Dutch Reformed Church that the spirit and life of a church might be wrong while the formal doctrines yet appeared sound. The people had seen and heard enough since arriving in the United States in 1847 to be wary about various practices in the RCA of the East, which had become increasingly diverse and Americanized after cutting itself lose from the Classis of Amsterdam early in the Revolution. Three of the four documents of secession pleaded with the classis to join them in remaining tied to the mother church in the Netherlands, rather than accepting union with the RCA and being oriented toward the American scene. John Kromminga may well be correct in stating that the seceders of 1857 did not have a "schismatic intent;" they were "expressing the true character of the church in the colony."
VIII. The Infant CRC
Most people in the colony, in fact, did not leave the RCA. Only 10 percent seceded in 1857, totaling 150 families, 250 communicant members and 750 souls. Graafschap was most united. Almost the entire congregation of 113 souls seceded. The Graafschap church was also unique in that 65 percent were from across the border of Overijssel and Drenthe.
Growth in the new denomination was slow the first 15 years. The Grand Rapids congregation had less than 100 members and was plagued with instability. Pastor Klijn returned to the RCA after six months and chief elder Haan shifted loyalties between the CRC, RCA, and being independent. The second pastor, W.H. Van Leeuwen left after four hard years, and the third pastor, R. Duiker, transferred to the RCA four years later, in 1872. Noordeloos began with twenty members and was embroiled in a long conflict with Jan Rabbers who wished to organize a Zeeland church. Polkton virtually disintegrated, while Vriesland and Grand Haven were weak sisters.
When the Groningers arrived after the Civil War, however, things turned positive for the CRC. From 1873 to 1900 the church grew 800-fold, compared to a 100-fold increase in the immigrant congregations of the Reformed Church of America. By 1880 the younger denomination had 12,300 baptized and communicant members.
The CRC appealed to immigrants who wished to preserve their Dutchness. It captured the bulk of the big immigrant wave of the 1880s, which came mainly from the northern provinces, because of the decision of the Gereformeerde Kerk to recommend that its members join the CRC and not the RCA. The GKN was greatly disturbed that the RCA synod would not condemn lodge membership, even though the two western classes of the RCA did so.
Graafschap played a very important part in the history of the CRC until 1880 at least, and if Brinks is correct, as I think he is, Graafschap under Rev. Van der Werp was the key to the survival of the CRC. Van der Werp was the dominant minister in the CRC in the post-Civil War decade. He trained many student ministers in his parsonage at Graafschap and then in Muskegon, finally passing the task to the newly-created Calvin Seminary in 1875. As Brinks has written, Van der Werp "offered the 1857 seceders in America their closest link to the 1834 secession in Holland.... He was, in effect, "the Van Raalte of the Christian Reformed Church." Roelof T. Kuiper, who came to Graafschap in 1879, wrote the first history of the CRC in his Voices from America about America (1881). You can be proud indeed of your spiritual heritage. Celebrate it with joy and thanksgiving.
Lecture of Robert P. Swierenga at Graafschap Christian Reformed Church, Holland, Michigan, March 10, 1997, as part of the church's sesquicentennial celebration
1834 and 1857--Church Secessions and the Dutch Emigration
II. Importance of Seceder Emigration in America
III. Antecedents to the Secession
A. Rational religion of French Enlightenment
B. National Synod of 1816
D. Revèil--Willem Bilderdijk, Groen van Prinsterer, Isaac Da #9; Costa, Abraham Capadose, Petrus Hofstede de Groot and #9; Groninger Theology
IV. Secession in 1834
A. Hendrik de Cock of Ulrum: Father of the Secession
B. Hendrik Scholte and the Scholte Club at Leiden University
Members--Anthony Brummelkamp, Albertus van Raalte, Simon 9; van Velzen, and Georg Gazelle Meerburg
C. Graafschap Bentheim--Harm Schoemaker and Jan Barend Sundag
V. Official persecution
VI. Division among the 1834 Seceders
A. Over purpose and goals of the church
C. Church Order and lay preachers
D. Scholte deposed--1840
E. Southern "center" party (Brummelkamp, Van Raalte), Northern #9; right" party (De Cock, Van Velzen), and Scholte on "left"
VII. Secession of 1857
A. Graafschap and South Holland--Revs. K.S. Vander Schuur and #9; J.R. Schepers
B. Drenthe and Rev. Roelof Smit
C. Gysbert Haan, father of the Secession of 1857
D. Noordeloos and Rev. Koene Vander Bosch
E. Van Raalte answers the Seceders
VIII. The infant CRC--Douwe Van der Werp and Roelof T. Kuiper