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. 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
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
In the very year of the
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."
CRC congregations, in contrast,
remained connected to the
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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."
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
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
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. 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.
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."
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.
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." 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
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 (
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."
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.
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
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
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.
They had the best minds and won the
struggle for the hearts and minds of the church, beginning in western
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.
. Robert P. Swierenga, Dutch Chicago: A History
of the Hollanders in the Windy City (
. 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.
. 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.
. 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.
. Letter of B. De Bey to A.P. Lanting, 26 May 1873.
. 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).
. Reformed Church
. Swierenga, Dutch Chicago, 159-60.
. 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.
. Lewis Smedes, My
God and I (
.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).