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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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,
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.
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.
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),
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.