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Talk of Robert P. Swierenga for the Van Andel Educators Institute, Holland, MI July 29, 1999

"Holland's Unique History"

My challenge is to capture Holland's uniqueness for you in twenty minutes and without a video! As an historian of Dutch immigration and acculturation, I will give you a long view of Holland's past.

But first, several facts about contemporary Holland's uniqueness deserve mention. Did you know that Holland was the setting for the award-winning film, "Mr. Holland's Opus?" Holland has a tradition of excellent high school music, so it was appropriate that a Holland High teacher should be the inspiration for the film's story line. The film conveys a sense of the kind of community Holland is--warm, caring, and cohesive.

Secondly, Holland is the only city with an authentic Dutch windmill, De Zwaan, located on Windmill Island. Given today's newspaper headline, "Engler OKs Windmill Island funding" of $4 million, it is very likely that the windmill will soon be surrounded by an authentic Dutch village. The $54 project envisions 84 homes, numerous stores and shops, and a church and school, all with traditional Dutch facades. Some historic buildings in the Netherlands are even now waiting in shipping containers, with every brick labeled, to be transported from Rotterdam to Holland and reassembled.

Thirdly, Holland and Ottawa County was the first county in Michigan to achieve the goal of Project Zero under the state's program to help welfare recipients enter the workforce. In 1997 the state announced that Holland had placed every eligible recipient in a job. To reach this goal required the cooperation of the public and private sectors, and was possible mainly because in the Holland area the leading business owners and CEOs take their civic responsibilities seriously. They share a common commitment to give something back to the community.

This sense of obligation stems in part from the strong deaconal tradition in the Reformed churches. Already in colonial New York, every Dutch Reformed Church had an active program of charity run by the deacons. The churches of Holland have carried on this practice of benevolence, as have the business people.

For more than one hundred years, Holland was a stable, homogeneous community with a strong sense of identity and caring. Netherlanders first settled the area in 1847 and more kept coming over the years, including a large number in the 1950s who were fleeing the wartime devastation of their country.

Holland was not unique as an ethnic enclave. The United States in the last century was dotted with culture islands like Holland, especially in the Midwest. If not Holland, a Michigander could live in German Frankenmuth, Swedish Houghton, Cornish Ontonagon, British Albion, Norwegian Norway, Finnish Hancock, and so on. Each of these places was dominated by a single nationality group with their historic church tradition, be it Reformed, Lutheran, Catholic, Congregational, Methodist, or Presbyterian.

Holland is unique in that the pioneer settlers were mainly Seceders from the Dutch national church who were persecuted for their faith and ostracized by family and friends. The first contingents in the 1840s emigrated in congregational groups led by their ministers, in hopes of religious freedom. Thus, Holland's Dutch Seceders are often compared to the Puritans who settled Massachusetts in the 1620s.

But economic factors were also at work for the Dutch, notably the failure of the potato and rye crops on which the poor relied for their daily food. The potato famine hit the Netherlands, as it did Ireland, although not with the same severe consequences of mass famine.

By 1850, nearly half of all Dutch immigrants to America were Seceders, even though they numbered less than 2 percent of the population at the time. So, Holland like its sister colony of Pella, Iowa, from the outset bore the stamp of religious fervor and orthodoxy. Subsequent immigrants were drawn here for that reason. Those who did not wish to live in a strict religious community under the control of clerics went to cities such as Chicago or Grand Rapids. Thus, a selective process was at work to guide the more devout Calvinists to Holland.

The decision to plant a Dutch colony in Michigan was wholly unintended. The two Seceder clerics, Albertus Van Raalte and Henry Scholte, who led the first emigrant groups in 1846-47, intended to create one big religious colony in Wisconsin or Iowa. But Scholte's wife took seriously ill, and he had to defer to Van Raalte taking the lead.

When Van Raalte and some 50 followers arrived in Detroit in late November of 1846, having followed the Erie Canal to Buffalo and a steamer across Lake Erie, they intended to take immediate passage to Wisconsin over the Mackinac Straits. But cold weather and early ice up north closed the shipping season suddenly, stranding the Hollanders in Detroit for the winter. Van Raalte decided to use the time to scout out land in Wisconsin and Iowa. He was predisposed against Michigan, because the state had a bad reputation in western Europe as financially unstable and in the grip of land speculators.

Detroit was then the state capital and the legislature was in session, pondering among other things how to attract more European farmers to settle in the state. When the leaders learned that the first contingent of a large wave of Dutch immigrants was in town, they sprang into action. The job was straight forward. Convince the leader, Van Raalte, to chose Michigan. This they did by sending fellow Calvinists to gain his trust. Key contacts were Detroit attorney, Theodore Romeyn, an Old Dutch New Yorker, and Romeyn's pastor at the First Presbyterian Church, Rev. George Duffield.

These men explained to Van Raalte that Michigan was virtually a colony of the Old Dutch. It was Yankee Protestant territory, unlike Wisconsin, which was German Catholic country. The second telling argument was that southern Michigan had a better climate and was closer to the rail lines being laid from the east coast. Van Raalte was wined and dined by the politicos and even taken to see a legislative session.

Van Raalte then began his trip to Wisconsin, stopping first at Kalamazoo where the Detroiters had directed him to the meet their friends. The key person was Judge John Kellogg of Allegan, a large land investor in northern Allegan county, who was in Kalamazoo on business. Kellogg convinced Van Raalte to investigate lands in Allegan and Ottawa counties before going further west.

In early January of 1847, Kellogg and Van Raalte, with an Indian guide, tramped on snowshoes over the future site of Holland. Van Raalte saw that the area met his criteria--the mouth of Black Lake would make a fine harbor on Lake Michigan, the trees were money in the bank with their wood products to be exploited by the poor Hollanders; the Black Lake watershed lay between the growing villages of Allegan, Grand Haven, and Grand Rapids; and above all, the area was still unpopulated and land could be obtained cheap.

Van Raalte was convinced. But when Scholte, who emigrated a few months later with his followers, heard that his associate had chosen heavily forested lands over rolling prairie lands ready for the plow, Scholte was furious and broke ranks, taking his group to central Iowa where he founded the Pella colony. From then on, the erstwhile colleagues became rivals, competing vigorously for new immigrants.

As soon as the colonists had roofs over their heads, they built a log church in Holland and in each of a half dozen outlying villages. Within six years, the Holland log church was too small and carpenters began construction of the magnificent Pillar Church, which took three years and was dedicated in 1856. In 1850 the congregations in the colony had accepted an offer from the Reformed Church in America (RCA) to join this 200 year-old denomination centered in the East, which desired to plant new churches on the frontier.

The Union of 1850 seemed like a natural one; the 19th century Dutch immigrants shared the same church roots as the 17th century Dutch. But some objected from the start, believing that the RCA was too Americanized and not sufficiently orthodox. They viewed the Union as a sell-out of their Dutch Seceder heritage.

In 1857 four churches, with 10 percent of the total membership of the Classis of Holland, seceded from the RCA to form the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). This second secession sowed bitter discord among the Dutch in Michigan and the movement soon spread to Dutch settlements from New Jersey to Minnesota. The rival churches usually faced each other directly across Main street. Hence, after 1857 most immigrants had a choice of churches, the more Americanized RCA or the very Dutch CRC.

In the 1880s the RCA suffered a third secession. The overt issue this time was membership in the masonic lodge. The objection to freemasonry was that it was an oath bound society with strongly humanistic beliefs and rituals. However, many leaders in the RCA in the East were masons, believing that freemasonry and Christianity were fully compatible. When the immigrants in the Midwest objected, the Eastern leaders would not yield. This turned many immigrants away from the RCA and into the arms of the CRC, which condemned freemasonry in no uncertain terms. So, the CRC won the competition for immigrants.

The deeper issue in the anti-masonic struggle was Americanization. The lodge was the quintessential high brow social club of the American elite. New Dutch immigrants, all from the lower classes, felt far more comfortable in the CRC, which retained the Dutch language in worship until after World War One. The most salient marker differentiating the two denominations after the masonic issue died down in the mid-1880s was Christian day school education. In the 1890s the CRC committed itself to a system of Christian schools, but the RCA continued to endorse public education. Christian schools, for the CRC, were viewed as an extension of the home and church, which together were necessary to fulfill the baptismal vow of raising children "in the fear and knowledge of the Lord." The RCA, by contrast, talked of their children being "salt and light" in the public schools, while the church and home could well tend to the religious upbringing.

For a hundred years, the RCA-CRC fault line ran deep through the Dutch Reformed community and determined every aspect of life. Marriages across the divide were even labeled as "mixed marriages." Yet, what the Dutch Calvinists held in common was far greater than what separated them. Non-Dutch residents, in fact, seldom understood the subtle distinctions and disputes that only insiders could fathom. In a sense, the religious infighting set boundaries around the Dutch community that walled it off and helped to preserve it.

Today the RCA congregations in the Holland-Zeeland area total 26,000 persons, compared to 18,000 in the Christian Reformed churches. The old spirit of rivalry is largely gone, except on the basketball courts, and the two denominations increasingly are cooperating in ministry programs and holding joint worship services. But Christian education continues to separate the faithful.

The Christian school system in Holland historically enrolls about 25 percent of all pupils, although charter schools are now putting a damper on enrollments, as they are in the public schools. This is forcing the Christian schools to recruit outside their church base, and the schools today are more broadly evangelical Protestant than Dutch Reformed. The ethnoreligious glue is thus weakening rapidly in the schools, as it is in the supporting churches.

Indeed, the Holland community itself has changed drastically in the last 25 years. Today, nearly one-fifth of the population is Hispanic Catholic, and 3-4 percent is African American. Less than half the population is of Dutch ancestry, compared to nearly 100 percent 150 years ago. But the dominant cultural mores, the work ethic, and the attitudes of the movers and shakers in town, is still shaped, to a large extent, by the Reformed vision of building "a city on a hill."

Giving back to the community in time and money, a spirit of volunteerism, and the practice of benevolence, remain cardinal virtues that will enable the community to meet the challenges of the present and the future.