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Robert P. Swierenga, "Ohio's Calvin College"

     Did you know that Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan had a twin in Cleveland, Ohio in the nineteenth century? The October 1, 1890 issue of the Christian Intelligencer, the weekly periodical of the Reformed Church in America (RCA), carried an article by "A Calvinist" about a Calvin College in Cleveland, owned by the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS), the German sister of the Dutch Reformed Church. "A Calvinist" noted that Ohio in 1890 is a "stronghold" of the RCUS, with 37,000 communicant members organized in two synods, an English-speaking one with 20,000 communicants and a German-speaking one with 17,000. Cleveland alone counted ten congregations in 1890, nine German and one English, with a total of 2,200 communicants. All grew from the mother congregation planted in 1860 by immigrants. The writer is very likely a member of one of the Cleveland congregations.

     After this brief introduction to the German Reformed Church in Ohio, "A Calvinist" tells in his quaint way the story of Calvin College in Cleveland, Ohio.

          We have a college here, named by its founders after Calvin. This is probably the only literary institution in all the world named after the great Reformer. Perhaps it was right that our Reformed people thought best not to make Calvin's name an ecclesiastical landmark, in view of the fact that Lutherans came near idolizing Luther and forgetting paul's warning to the Corinthians with respect to such partisan names. But when we remember how unpopular is our Calvin, and how shamelessly he has been maligned and misrepresented, we feel like standing up for him, braving his enemies and professing our love and admiration for him in some public and permanent manner. And this gives us great joy.

          But we wish Calvin College were more of an honor to Calvin than it is, for it is not in a flourishing condition for various reasons. In the first place, it was founded by German congregations who were poor and who needed all their resources for themselves, i.e., for building of churches and for the support of the pastors. In the second place, our German congregations were too tenacious of their language. When the College was under the control of the German Synod the German language was made the medium of instruction. Another drawback was that the same person who had been God's instrument in planting the Reformed Publishing House in the same city, also was the founder of this College, and it was felt, perhaps unconsciously, but not the less strongly, that the Reformed principle of equality of brethren was seriously endangered, if not impaired by these facts. However this may be, Calvin College has not prospered greatly.

          Five years ago Synod almost concluded to close its doors. But its friends pleaded so earnestly for it, that Synod permitted it to be entrusted to Erie Classis, within whose bounds it was located. This Classis now owns it. One of the first steps taken under the new government was to make English the medium of instruction, and to enable the young brethren here educated for the ministry, to preach English where necessary. Besides, the plan of studies was adapted to American life. Since then the number of students has slowly grown from year to year, and the number of friends. The growth, however, has been very slow.

     "A Calvinist" admirably defended the great reformer, but he also revealed the surprising insularity of the German Reformed community in Ohio. There actually were three Calvin Colleges when he wrote (1890), the oldest being the French-speaking Calvin College in Geneva, Switzerland, founded by John Calvin's student Theodore Beza in 1559. Cleveland's German-speaking Calvin College was founded in 1863, thirteen years before the Dutch-speaking Calvin College in Grand Rapids in 1876, an institution of the Christian Reformed Church. All three colleges began as academies, or preparatory schools, tied to theological seminaries.[1]

     Ohio's German College stemmed from the vision of one man, the Rev. Dr. H.J. Ruetenik. In the midst of the American Civil War in 1863, he founded the school and served as its main teacher. He even owned the building, which stood near the city center on Pearl Street near Trowbridge. Ruetenik, a product of the East Pennsylvania Classis, came to Cleveland in 1860 to organize the First German Reformed Church there. By 1888 Cleveland boasted seven congregations numbering 2,000 souls.

     Ruetenik rose to be a leading cleric in the German section of the RCUS. He was president of the 1881 General Synod and in 1888 represented his denomination in Philadelphia at the conference on church union with the Dutch Reformed Church.[2] His publications added to his reputation. He founded and edited the monthly magazine, Evangelist (1856-75), which gained 6,000 subscribers in Ohio German churches, and was merged into the Kirchenzeitung (1875-81), an organ of the anti-Mercersburg, low-church faction of the church. For twenty years he also edited Der Wächter (1865-85), the German voice of the western wing of the church. His pen and his post as the first agent of the German Bible Society enabled Ruetenik to launch the German Reformed Publishing House (later the Central Publishing House) in Cleveland. Its successful Sunday school paper had 20,000 subscribers.[3]

     Ruetenik is described in a church booklet as "an extraordinary man, with a mind richly endowed by nature, of splendid attainments, a persevering worker, firm of will, who knew what he wanted. He had an no ambition for worldly gain or honor, but devoted his service to the Master and the Reformed Zion."[4]

     After launching Calvin Institute as his private mission, Ruetenik arranged for the Ohio Classes of Heidelberg, Erie, and St. John's to assume ownership. The Institute would be a second preparatory school for seminarians in the Synod of the Northwest, alongside Mission House College (now Lakeland College) in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, which was founded in 1860. In 1881, Calvin Institute came under the control of the newly-created Central Synod, which comprised the three Ohio classes. Ruetenik served as president of this General Synod, and it was his driving energy that made the regional institute a denominational school, under its own synodically-elected board of trustees, which elevated it to full college status.[5]

     Although Ruetenik managed to have Calvin College gifted to Central Synod, which recommended it to the "liberal support of the congregations," he could not ensure that support. Indeed, the school suffered financially more as a synodical than a classical institution. The German Reformed churches could not, or would not, support two literary institutions. At its 1884 meeting, Central Synod proposed to merge the two colleges and move to "some centrally located city." But the plan was rejected by the higher assembly, the Synod of the Northwest.

     At this, Central Synod, meeting in special session at Galion, Ohio, in 1884, renewed its commitment to Calvin College: "It is the conviction of this Synod that in the present situation it is our positive duty to continue Calvin College in the future, to care for its needs and support it until the time comes when, through God's providence, a union with the college of the Mission House in Wisconsin can take place." The body concluded by calling on the congregations "to send the larger part of their gifts for educational work of the church, to Calvin College."

     But the gifts were meager. "Many ministers and members of our Synod seem to doubt the real necessity of another German institution in our Synod besides the college in the Mission House," which also included a seminary. In 1887 Central Synod returned legal ownership of Calvin College to Erie Classis, recommending it to the "friends of education." The next Synod authorized the Classis to raise $10,000 "within her bounds" for Calvin College, but to little avail. The Ohio congregations lacked a commitment to the Cleveland school. Perhaps they had never taken "ownership" of Ruetenik's project. The lack of a seminary on campus was also critical.

     Erie Classis in 1895 made another attempt to save "German-English education" in the church by asking the four eastern synods of the denomination--Central, Eastern, Potomac, and Pittsburgh--to assume ownership and direction of the college. Its real estate at the time was valued at $20,000 and enrollment ranged from thirty to forty students. Under Ruetenik's lead, Classis convened a conference in Cleveland between representatives of the four synods and the college board of trustees to lay out the proposal. The conference acknowledged that the "thorough and satisfactory nature of the training given at Calvin College is fully attested by the fact that the seventeen graduates of this institution and the seventeen other young men who partially took their college courses there, and who are all now in the ministry of the Reformed Church in the United States, uniformly are men of mark, and are preferred to other men for responsible positions in German-English communities."

     The meeting dealt primarily with financial issues. Classis Erie asked the four synods to permit College agents to raise $20,000; $5,000 to liquidate Ruetenik's ownership in the property, $5,000 to renovate the dilapidated classroom building, and $10,000 to erect a commercial building on the lot fronting on Pearl Street, to be rented at $1,500-1,800 annually to "furnish revenue sufficient to continue the work of the college."

     The general assembly rejected the conference proposal and continued to recommend merger with Mission House College of Classis Sheboygan, which was thriving under the enthusiastic support of the churches, especially the mother congregation, Immanuel Reformed Church of Sheboygan.

     Erie Classis was now desperate to find another solution. In 1896 it offered to disband the college and merge it into the Sheboygan institution, which was already owned by Central Synod, "provided the Theological Seminary of Mission House be transferred to Cleveland, Ohio, or some other large city." Erie offered to pay $10,000 to cover part of the consolidation and removal costs. But Central Synod in 1897 "resolved to drop the matter of relocating the Mission House for the present." Sheboygan Classis would not hear of the loss of its institution.

     By 1899, Erie Classis had no choice but to close Calvin College and dispose of its property. "The action was taken with a feeling of sadness and sincere sympathy for the founder. The struggle had ended. A number of prominent Christian educators and some very efficient pastors came from the halls of this school. Calvin College being dead, yet speaks and exerts its beneficial influence."

     Thus ended Ohio's Calvin College, after nearly thirty years of fighting for its life. Its proprietor and advocate, the churchman Dr. H.J. Ruetenik, was never able to build a broad base of support among the German-speaking congregations in Ohio and the eastern United States, like the Wisconsin congregations did for their beloved college. His congregation, First German Reformed Church of Cleveland, failed to match the commitment of the Sheboygan congregation to its college. And the nearest RCUS seminary was Heidelburg in Tiffin, Ohio, many miles away. Calvin College in Cleveland showed promise in preparing men for the ministry, but it never gained a loyal constituency in the church.



[1]. James I. Good, Historical Handbook of the Reformed Church in the United States (Philadelphia, 1915), 81; John J. Timmerman, Promises to Keep: A Centennial History of Calvin College (Grand Rapids: Calvin College, 1975); Henry Ryskamp (Harry Boonstra, ed.) Offering Hearts, Shaping Lives: A History of Calvin College, 1876-1966 (Grand Rapids: Calvin Alumni Association, 2000); Harry Boonstra, Our School: Calvin College and the Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001).

[2]. Conference on Union Bewteen the Reformed church in America and the Reformed Church in the United States, Held in Philadelphia April 3d and 4th, 1888 (Philadelphia, 1888), 143.

[3]. Joseph Henry Dubbs, Historic Manual of the German Reformed Church in the United States (Lancaster, PA, 1888), 321, 324-25;  James I. Good, History of the Reformed Church in the U.S. in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Board of Publication of the Reformed Church in America, 1911), 475-79, 640-43; David Dunn, et. al., A History of the Evangelical and Reformed Church (Philadelphia: Christian Education Press, 1961), 139.

[4]. F. Mayer, "A Brief History of the Central Synod, 1881 to 1923," 70-74 (quote 73), in Centennial Souvenir Booklet: One Hundred Years of Reformed Church History in Ohio and Adjacent States (Canton, OH, 1923),  

[5]. This and the next paragraphs rely on Acts and Proceedings of the Ohio Synod of the Reformed Church in the United States (Convened at Fort Wayne, Ind., October 2-7, 1895), 75-79.