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Robert P. Swierenga, "Ethnic Glue and a Three Legged Stool: The Chicago Experience"

Lecture for annual meeting, Reformed Fellowship, Sept. 11, 2003

Published as Ethnic Glue and a Three Legged Stool: The Chicago Experience, The Outlook (March 2004): 5-11.

Historians often quote the phrase over the front door of the National Archives: "Past is Prologue." To the extent that we, or any other faith community, ignore the past, we risk losing the future. The past has shaped us, but if we don't look back, we don't know who were are, how we got here, or where we're going. This, I fear, is the present predicament of many Reformed churches.

Writing Dutch Chicago gave me a new appreciation of our rich heritages. I was particularly intrigued, when tracing the history of the churches over the past 150 years, that some thrived and some died.[1] Why the different outcomes, I wondered.

The contrast was especially apparent between congregations of the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). The two mother congregations on Chicago's West Side--First RCA (1853) and First CRC (1867), were so alike and yet so different. They stood a stone's throw from one another. Groningers dominated in both. Both were made up of immigrants from the same villages and even the same congregations. Both had roots in the Secession of 1834, the religious revival that swept across the Netherlands, as well as Western Europe and the USA in the 1820s and 1830s. The two churches were also bound in doctrine and in life by the three forms of unity. Both birthed daughter congregations, went through the painful transition from Dutch to English services in the era of the First World War, and both relocated to the western suburbs after World War II.

Despite the many similarities, there were differences from the outset. First RCA was eager to interact with the American scene, while First CRC looked inward and guarded its Dutch theological and cultural treasure. First CRC began in a secession of fifteen families from First RCA. This was ten years after the schism in West Michigan in 1857 that gave birth to the True Dutch Reformed Church (later CRC). The "Chicago fifteen" shared the same concerns that fueled the 1857 break. They feared changes occurring in the RCA that signaled the loss of its Reformed orthodoxy.

In the very year of the Chicago schism, 1867, the RCA officially Americanized its name by dropping the word "Dutch." This is a telling marker of more profound changes. RCA congregations found themselves on the fast track to Americanization. Why? Because they were tied to the 250 year-old RCA denomination headquartered in New York. This historic church, one of the nation's oldest, became independent from the Classis of Amsterdam just before the American Revolution. It then aligned itself with the English Calvinist churches--Presbyterians and Congregationalists primarily, which had come under the influence of American evangelicalism and the Second Great Awakening.

The RCA, like its American sister churches, introduced mid-week prayer services; Sunday schools; the use in worship of organs, choirs, and hymns; Sunday evening programs for young people; youth ministries; mission outreach programs; English-language services; and in modern times, women suffrage and women in ecclesiastical office.

The RCA de-emphasized Heidelberg Catechism preaching and instruction, and practiced "open," i.e., unregulated communion. Elders were less diligent in "family visits," and they sat with their families in the sanctuary, instead of in official pews under the pastor's nose. Further, they openly allowed elders and pastors to be freemasons. In short, the RCA began losing its "Reformedness" and "Dutchness."[2]

CRC congregations, in contrast, remained connected to the Christian Seceded Church in the Netherlands, and for this they were derided as the "Dutchy" church. This is where the term "ethnic glue" in my title comes in. The CRC held on to its ethnoreligious identity and heritage rooted in Dutch Calvinism. It followed Groen van Prinsterer's motto: "In isolation is our strength." In the 1880s and 1890s, the CRC established separate Christian schools to put legs under this motto. The schools, of course, are one of the three legs of the stool of faith, along with the parents and the church. Given its ethnic glue and a three-legged stool to raise the young, the CRC slowed the inevitable process of Americanization for several generations. Thus, the CRC lagged the RCA in adopting American ways in worship and church life.

The long-term impact on church membership of this "lag rate" is remarkable. In 1899, RCA congregations (First Chicago and its English-speaking daughter church Trinity RCA) had 1,400 souls. First CRC had 1,250 souls. One hundred years later, in 1999, the CRC congregations in the western suburbs (8 in number) had a total of 3,800 members--more than a 300 percent increase. In telling contrast, the RCA congregations in the western suburbs (6 in number) had 1,080 members, a loss of 25 percent. Thus, in 1999 the RCA had barely one-fourth the membership of the CRC, even though it had 10 percent more souls a century earlier.

Why was this? At first, it was due to immigration. Until the great 19th century immigration was halted by the outbreak of WWI, the CRC gathered in most of the new immigrants. Thereafter, the CRC held on to its youth mainly because of the Christian school system, especially the Christian high schools, where young people found their marriage partners.

First RCA--Bernardus De Bey

Revivals began in the RCA in New York City in 1857, at the Fulton Street Noonday Prayer Meeting at North Church. This revival prepared the RCA later to embrace other evangelists, especially Dwight L. Moody, the father of urban revivalism. Moody found Chicago so hospitable to his ministry that he established a church and missionary training school there (Moody Bible Institute), which has deeply influenced Dutch Reformed believers to the present day.

First RCA of Chicago was impacted by American revivalism under its most dominant pastor, Bernardus De Bey. De Bey arrived in 1868 from his prominent pulpit in the Christian Seceded Church in Middelstum (Groningen). At 53 years of age, he was at the height of his powers, with a reputation for effective leadership in church and society. De Bey dominated First RCA for the next quarter century (1868-1891).

Church life at First Reformed Church under De Bey took on more and more aspects of the American style. He 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 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.[3]

Given his new-found activities, De Bey dispensed with "huis bezoek" (family visitation); such "superficial chats" were a "waste of time." He substituted informal Bible studies on Saturday evenings at the vestry.

More importantly, De Bey adopted the spiritual rhythms of American evangelism--conversion, backsliding, and renewal. Like his denomination generally, he was "methodized." In 1878, when George F. Pentecost, an understudy of Dwight Moody, held revival meetings in the neighborhood, De Bey volunteered as a counselor and encouraged his congregants to attend. The spiritual condition of his flock was languishing, he believed, and Pentecost brought hope for 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 [Pentecost] holds meetings four times each day.... 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.[4]

Another of the "fruits" of revivals was ecumenism, which De Bey adopted wholeheartedly:

We have here a number of churches or denominations, and in very many of these the gospel is preached, and they contain a good Christian element. The best denominations are included in the general category of evangelical churches.... Besides working in their own circles, these churches work together for the general promotion of Christianity. Thus, there are combined gatherings, prayer meetings, and other occasions in which there are no references to particular denominations. Together, then, they preach, speak, and pray to influence the unbelieving world and lead sinners to Jesus.

I have a high regard for that work because, after all, faith in Jesus, turning to God, and renewal of the Holy Spirit are really what counts where Christianity and eternity are concerned. Fighting for one's own church and the remote, unimportant, and speculative doctrines has no significance for true Christianity and eternity.... A practical Christianity--faith, living, and doing--is earnestly recommended everywhere.... I tell you, cousin, I feel genuinely at home in this Christian life.

After quoting this very telling letter at length, historian Herbert Brinks concluded: "Though not explicitly embracing the nondenominational dictum 'No creed but the Bible,' De Bey's perspective clearly encompassed the essence of that peculiarly Anglo-American anticredal expression." Immigration had happily offered him the opportunity to throw off the Old Dutch Reformed ways and associate with conservative American churches. As Brinks put it succinctly: "Fine theological distinctions, denominational boundaries, and traditional piety were, from his [De Bey's] perspective, no longer crucial."

De Bey had become an American preacher, and his six children lived out these convictions; only three remained in the RCA. The others joined American churches. Most all the grandchildren left the Reformed Church; one became Congregational, and two ended up at the liberal Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids.

Since De Bey had rejected his religious roots in the Secession of 1834, it is no wonder that he and Adriaan Zwemer in 1871 wrote the first major tract condemning the 1857 secession in West Michigan (Stemmen uit de Hollandsche Gereformeerde Kerk). De Bey castigated "our separated brothers" for "proceeding along the old paths." They were, in his words, "beneath criticism." Ignore the self-righteous "True Brothers" and they would quickly disappear. "They can say and write what they want," he declared, "and no one pays any attention to them. That is the best and quickest way to kill them off."[5]

Little did De Bey realize that soon the explosive issue of freemasonry would come to a head in his denomination and its refusal to ban it would send 10,000 members (10 percent) into the CRC. The Masonic lodge was the quintessential American institution; it was an early version of the chamber of commerce, the businessmen's association, etc., and many RCA clerics and leaders in the East had gladly joined. The Particular Synod of Chicago, made up of the two Midwestern immigrant classes of Wisconsin and Michigan, condemned the "God-dishonoring sin of Freemasonry" in the strongest terms, and it would not admit a freemason to membership in any congregation.

Nevertheless, the denominational leadership insisted that freemasonry was entirely permissible under its "local option" policy. This policy was a direct odds with the GKN, the mother church in the Netherlands, which had always condemned freemasonry. So in 1882 the GKN decided to send membership papers with its blessing only if immigrants joined Christian Reformed congregations.

Under De Bey, First RCA also established a youth program, Christian Endeavor. C.E. is a nondenominational youth ministry founded in 1881 by a Congregational pastor that became a big success with 500,000 members in 7,000 local societies by the late 1880s.. In 1888 the RCA Synod endorsed the program and strongly recommended it to all pastors and churches. The C.E. focus on prayer meetings and missionary outreach bore the unmistakable marks of American evangelicalism, rather than the traditional Reformed emphases on God's sovereignty and covenantal faithfulness.[6] Orthodox members at First RCA complained that C.E. was Arminian, and for a time, under De Bey's successor, the consistory considered disaffiliating, but finally it reaffirmed its support of the program.

During World War I, First RCA made the transition from Dutch to English, first by adopting English in the primary morning service and all catechism classes, and soon thereafter in the afternoon service every other week, which in effect reduced Dutch services to two times a month. This momentous change, according to a classical report, in what must have been a gross understatement, "slightly ruffled the calm" of the congregation.[7]

Following the War, the congregation made further concessions to modern ways; it substituted plates for the offering "sacks" at the end of long poles, it allowed women members to vote in congregational meetings, and deacons came 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."[8]

First CRC

While the RCA embraced Yankee piety, First CRC of Chicago maintained a steady course. The first pastor, Jan Schepers, brought a conservative, separatist mentality that set the tone for the congregation. Schepers' roots in the stern De Cock-Van Velzen wing of the Secession of 1834 stood in sharp contrast to the more latitudinarian and outward-looking De Bey.

Schepers was not alone. From 1857 to 1900, every one (100 percent!) of 114 clerics ordained in the CRC had been affiliated with the Christian Seceded Church, as compared with only one-quarter of 116 Dutch-born clerics ordained in the RCA.[9]

The CRC remained an immigrant denomination that walled itself off from American evangelicalism. Indeed, the very name the CRC initially chose--True Reformed Dutch Church, signified its self image as a "bride of Christ,...a garden enclosed, a well shut up, and a fountain sealed" (to quote Groen Van Prinsterer).

The late Louis Smedes, in his memoir My God and I, labeled this type of group as "people of the gap" who read Torch and Trumpet. Gap thinking, said Smedes, builds a "spiritual ravine between the mind of Reformed Christians and the mind of unbelievers and liberals. The gap people wanted to build walls along the edge of the ravine to protect the innocent from the allure of the siren songs they heard coming from the other side."[10] Smedes contrasted the gap people to the "people of the bridge" who read the Reformed Journal--his crowd, those who "build bridges across the gap so that they can cross over and reap the benefits of contact with the people on the other side." Bridge people, he said, want to "dialogue" with unbelievers and liberals. But, it's two-way traffic, and pagan thinking then infiltrates and corrupts the mind of believers.

This is the nub of the common grace issue. Just two weeks ago, David Engelsma, professor in the Protestant Reformed Seminary in Grand Rapids, debated Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Seminary, on the topic of whether common grace is rightfully a Reformed doctrine. Engelsma charged that common grace theology is not in the creeds, it undermines the antithesis, and it leads to universalism. Abraham Kuyper developed the doctrine to undergird his politically activist Calvinism in the 1890s, and intellectual leaders in West Michigan soon brought the new teaching to North America. The CRC Synod of 1924, as you know, made it official church doctrine and expelled those who disagreed. Engelsma believes that this decision opened the CRC "wide to the world" and thus "has severely hurt and corrupted it."

Prior to 1924, the CRC roots in the orthodox, northern Van Velzen wing of the Afscheiding protected it bridge thinking. CRC pastors taught the antithesis and warned parishioners against "being conformed to the image of this world." The clear stands against freemasonry and "worldly amusements" gives evidence of this non-conformity.

But the commitment to Christian schools is the best evidence of antithesis thinking. In 1893, First Chicago CRC established a parochial day school (Ebenezer Christian School), which soon became a "free school" after the Kuyperian model. In 1918, Christian school advoactes established Chicago Christian High School for students who sought further education. While CRC youth went to Christian schools, RCA youth for the most part attended public schools. This had dire consequences, as I already pointed out.

In the three decades from 1890 to 1920, First CRC clung to its Dutch ways and attracted new immigrants with considerable success. "The pastor of the Seceders is commendably prompt and zealous to welcome these strangers," admitted Rev. Peter Moerdyke of Chicago's Trinty RCA, "and he is gathering nearly all that kind of material into his church, where they find a really Holland congregation, and feel at home."[11]

But pressures for change were building at First CRC too. Younger families demanded English language worship and catechism classes, and they left when the consistory put them off. Ebenezer Christian School had cut Dutch instruction to only an hour a week, and the churches had to change too. The elderly immigrants, however, "wished to maintain the Dutch language in the worship services, fearful that a change to the English language would break down the barriers to the inroads of modernism, while the younger generation growing up in an American climate of English usage would be lost to the church." (So declared a school anniversary booklet.) One stalwart elder of the congregation expressed the sentiments of many, declaring (in Dutch): "When English is preached, the Devil is in the pulpit."[12]

Finally, to relive the pressure, in 1912 First CRC and its Dutch-language daughter, Douglas Park CRC, jointly birthed the first CRC English congregation--Third CRC. The second English congregation, Fourth CRC, followed in 1923.

First CRC in this era had a Dutch-born pastor with a doctorate from the Free University of Amsterdam. This was John Van Lonkhuyzen (1918-28), the most educated and traveled pastor ever to serve the congregation and also its last "Dutch" Dominie. Van Lonkhuyzen was a friend of Abraham Kuyper, fluent in six languages, and a former missionary pastor to Dutch Reformed immigrants in Argentina. Van Lonkhuyzen was named editor of Chicago's Dutch-language newspaper, Onze Toekomst (Our Future), where he addressed the key issues of the day--Christian schools, the language question, and the rising pre-millennial movement. The denomination stood solidly in support of Christian schools, but friction arose over the issues of English usage and millennial teachings. Van Lonkhuyzen encouraged English but condemned millenialism.

Over the next years, Van Lonkhuyzen succeeded in gradually introducing English in his won congregation, but only by doubling the number of services from two to four. Usually a guest pastor conducted one or two of the services, but his successor, the energetic Benjamin Essenburg (1929-45), led all four. Even more amazing, a few zealous, bilingual members could boast of attending all of them. However, attendance at the Dutch services declined steadily in the 1930s and 1940s. The last Dutch worship at First CRC was on Christmas Day of 1955, eighteen years after First RCA dropped Dutch services.

Essenburg was a very popular preacher, a "pulpit pounder," who drew large audiences with his dynamic messages, which he modeled after the renowned British evangelist, Charles Spurgeon, much to the chagrin of some "amateur theologians" in his congregation who thought Spurgeon's Reformed Baptist theology too Arminian. Essenburg had a heart for community evangelism. His congregation organized a "Community Mission" with a Sunday school and evening gospel meetings. Thus, under Essenburg, First CRC moved toward mainstream American evangelicalism, like First RCA across the street.

After relocating to Cicero in 1945, the two Reformed Dutch churches continued to Americanize. In 1929 the English-speaking, First Cicero CRC allowed its choir to sing during the morning worship service. Synod subsequently gave its blessing to such choirs, and in 1934 synod commissioned the first Psalter for worship that included hymns as well as the familiar psalms.

The War had a major impact on the CRC. Thousands of sons served in the military, and dozens of pastors enlisted as chaplains. Many returned with a new appreciation for mainline Protestantism and a desire for the CRC to end its isolation and make its mark on the American mainstream. The ex-chaplains and post war intellectual leaders in the CRC, such as Henry and George Stob, Harry Boer, and James Daane, were bridge people.[13]

They had the best minds and won the struggle for the hearts and minds of the church, beginning in western Michigan. But in Chicago, CRC congregations were slow to follow the new thinking. Perhaps because of the threatening environment of the big city, and being such a small minority, they remained more traditional in thoer thinking. Holding the line in the church brought a sense of stability in an otherwise rapidly changing environment. The church was a cultural island where tradition was desired and valued. So Chicago churches were among the last to install women in office and to fight worship wars. They are also loyal to the denomination. Only in the "colony" of South Holland did church secessions occur in the 1990s--Lynwood (formerly First Roseland) and First South Holland.

Yet, the signs of bridge thinking are evident in Chicagoland. Women serve as elders in some CR congregations, worship wars have broken out, and an increasing number of students in the Christian schools come from non-Reformed homes, thus weakening the Reformed foundation in the classroom and cirriculum.

Indeed, the key role of Christian schools in the life of the CRC is appreciated less and less. Christian schools increasingly reach out to non-Reformed families to fill the seats, CRC pastors do not single them out in congregational prayers as they once did, elders rarely visit families who chose public education for their children, and many congregations are unwilling to fund tuition costs for member families. Synod 2003 shocked its own study committee by refusing to give Christian education its unqualified support and endorsement.

Richard Blaauw got it exactly right in his comments on Synod in the current Outlook:

If the church and the covenant community were to survive and flourish it needed to begin with our families training covenant children in the way they should go. Studies have shown that if a church simply manages to keep its own children it will grow (25-30% in a decade.)

Blaauw notes that CRC leaders rate such internal growth as less desirable than external growth through evangelism. "Money spent on Christian schools is money spent on 'ourselves'" which actually impedes "true evangelism." I agree with Blaauw. Evangelism has to begin at home. God has no grandchildren; every generation must own the covenant for themselves. And historical evidence, as I noted at the outset, shows that money spent on training covenant youth in Christian schools bears much fruit in families and in the church.

The CRC in Chicago looks more and more like the RCA. The wooden shoes were burned in the 1980s and the ethnic glue is weaker with every passing generation. The CRC has closed the generational lag with the RCA and given away its advantage. The three-legged stool is wobbling. My prayer is that Reformed Christians will learn their history anew and hold on to the institutions, beliefs, and values that sustained them for more than a hundred years.



[1]. Robert P. Swierenga, Dutch Chicago: A History of the Hollanders in the Windy City (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 283, 286-87.

[2]. That evangelicalism de-ethnicized and modernized the Dutch Reformed churches in America is the thesis of Firth Haring Fabend, Zion on the Hudson: Dutch New York and New Jersey in the Age of Revivals (New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 2000); and Gerald F. De Jong, The Dutch in America, 1609-1974 (Boston: Twayne, 1975), 87-108, esp. 105.

[3]. Letter of B. De Bey to A.P. Lanting, 9 Mar. 1871, quoted in Herbert J. Brinks, "The Americanization of Bernardus Be Beij (1815-1894)" Origins 6, No. 1 (1988): 27-28.

[4]. Letter of B. De Bey to A.P. Lanting, 2 Feb. 1879, quoted in Brinks, "Bernardus De Beij (1815-1894)," Origins 1, No. 1 (1983): 28-31.

[5]. Letter of B. De Bey to A.P. Lanting, 26 May 1873.

[6]. Acts and Proceedings of the General Synod of the Protestant Dutch Reformed Church in America, 1888, 569; 1890, 153; Timothy P. Webber, "Christian Endeavor Society," 256-57, in Dictionary of Christianity in America, ed. Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990).

[7]. Reformed Church in America, Minutes of the Particular Synod of Chicago, 1-2 May 1918, 7.

[8]. Swierenga, Dutch Chicago, 159-60.

[9]. Robert P. Swierenga and Elton J. Bruins, Family Quarrels in the Dutch Reformed Churches of the Nineteenth Century (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999), 102. Herbert J. Brinks compiled the statistics.

[10]. Lewis Smedes, My God and I (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2003), 112-13.

29. Moerdyke, "Chicago Letter," Christian Intelligencer (Weekly of the Reformed Church in America), 25 May 1892, p. 11.

][12]. Ebenezer Christian Reformed Church, Centennial Booklet, 1867-1967, 6. The Rev. Eugene Bradford recalled the phrase in an interview with the author, 16 Mar. 1998.

[13].Robert P. Swierenga, "'Burn the Wooden Shoes': Modernity and Divisions in the Christian Reformed Church in North America," 94-102, in Reformed Encounters with Modernity: Perspectives from Three Continents, eds. H. Jurgens Hendriks, Donald A. Luidens, Roger J. Nemeth, Corwin E. Smidt, and Hijme Stoffels (Stellenbosch, SA: ISSRC, 2000).