Robert P. Swierenga, "Walls or Bridges: The Differing Acculturation Process in the Reformed and Christian Reformed Churches in North America"
Professor, A.C. Van Raalte Institute,
Paper for the "Morsels in the Melting
Pot" Conference, Free
[Published in revised form, pp. 33-42, in Morsels in the Melting Pot, eds. George Harinck and Hans Krabbendam (Amsterdam: Free University Press, 2006)].
European group in
Walls give some protection against outside forces and influences; bridges do not. Bridges provide two-way traffic across the cultural chasm between new immigrant groups and North American society, and eventually in-traffic overwhelms out-traffic. The dominant society, with its values and life-styles, has modified or subverted the cultural "baggage" of every European ethnoreligious group.
Reformed denominations in
Theological tenets have much to do with this. Denominations on the left end of the spectrum stress that Christians must put their faith in action by participating in various benevolent crusades. These acts make it easier to shake off old cultural patterns and adopt new ones. An example is the social reform movement of the nineteenth century, known as the Second Great Awakening, in which many crusaders exchanged their first love for a social gospel. In theological language, they imitated Christ but failed to appropriate Him.
Denominations on the right, with an orthodox theology and clerics to whom the laity defer, stress doctrinal purity and cultural separation. This is inherently countercultural. The theological rationale is the doctrine of the antithesis, which holds that believers' value systems are diametrically opposed to those of unbelievers. This is why Adriaan Barnouw asserted in a 1937 piece that orthodox Calvinists offered the "stubbornest resistance to Americanization."
Emigration and church affiliation
RCA is the oldest Protestant denomination in North America, dating from 1628 in
It is not possible in this short paper to deal with the colonial Dutch Reformed, nor can they be compared to the CRC, which did not begin until 225 years later (1857). I will consider only the "Young Dutch" RCA that sprang from the post-1846 immigration, which I label the "Immigrant RCA." I also ignore the immigrants who joined non-Dutch churches or dropped out of organized religion altogether.
Process of Assimilation
In the first decades, the immigrant
churches were mirror images of the churches in the homeland, reflecting the
pietism of the Afscheiding
(Secession) and after 1880 the Kingdom building of Abraham Kuyper's Doleantie.
Every "changing wind" of doctrine in the
This seems to bear out the adage—“words
divide and actions unite.” As a practical matter, the Immigrant RCA and the CRC
followed a similar path of assimilation, although the senior denomination was
always in the vanguard by a generation or two. The Immigrant RCA was first to
follow distinctly American practices, specifically the evangelical movement.
The Immigrant RCA opened Sunday schools; held revival meetings; used in worship
the new hymnology of Fanny Crosby, Dwight L. Moody, and Ira Sankey; substituted
organs in place of voorzangers; and
introduced interdenominational youth ministries such as Christian Endeavor. In
the wider society, RCA youngsters in the public schools joined the Boy Scouts
and Girl Scouts, and adults joined Masonic lodges. RCA cleric Peter Meordyke,
Americanization in the Immigrant RCA was
a natural outgrowth of the decision in 1850 of Rev. Albertus Van Raalte and his
associates in Classis Holland (
The CRC delayed Americanization for
several generations by clinging to its Seceder roots. This was the inner wall,
or first line of defense. From 1857 until 1900, every one of its pastors was raised in the
By contrast, in the Immigrant RCA in the years 1847-1900, less than half the pastors were ordained in the Netherlands. Most graduated from the English-speaking New Brunswick Seminary, and after 1869, from Western Seminary in Holland, Michigan. Western Seminary was staffed by faculty from the eastern wing of the RCA who could still speak Dutch, although most instruction was in English.
Despite its Dutchness, the CRC also became more American. It introduced Sunday schools in the 1870s, organs and English-language worship in the 1890s, evangelical hymnology in the 1930s, and joined Billy Graham crusades in the 1960s. But the commitment to the Dutch language in worship, the doctrine of the antithesis in the pulpit, and Christian day schools for covenant youth slowed the process of Americanization.
P.H. Holtman, founding editor of Chicago's Dutch language weekly, Onze Toekomst, best expressed the CRC viewpoint in 1894. Churches that jettison the Dutch language in worship risked "casting off Calvinism, our confessions, and the form and spirit of Reformed worship," said Holtman. Such churches, he continued, "discard everything that is sound and conservative," they deliberately cast their youth "adrift" by not teaching Reformed doctrines, and they "fling away" their honor as Hollanders and even denigrate their heritage. Worse, they surrender their children to "un-Christian" public schools. Thus, rapid Americanization was "safe" and "Christian" for RCA youth, but for CRC youth it was "un-Christian" and involved "risk." These perspectives of Moerdyke and Holtman in the 1890s could not be more opposite.
The larger role of the Sunday school in the Immigrant RCA is a rough indicator of Americanization. Sunday school pupils outnumbered catechumens by a ratio of 1.6:1 in 1900. In the older American (eastern) wing of the RCA, Sunday school enrollment in 1900 exceeded catechism attendance by almost 5 to 1. In the CRC, by contrast, catechumens outnumbered Sunday school pupils (by 3 percent). The historic practice of Dutch children memorizing the Heidelberg Catechism and pastors preaching weekly from the 52 "Lord's Days" fell by the wayside, although instruction in the catechism is still required for membership in most congregations.
The impact of revivalism is also seen in the changing ratios of infant to adult baptisms. In 1900 the Immigrant RCA had 56 infant baptisms to 1 adult baptism, but the American RCA had only 4 infant baptisms to 1 adult baptism. The American RCA clearly was aging and trying to make up for an internal decline by an external campaign among the "unwashed," while the Immigrant RCA counted on the birthrate. Unfortunately, the CRC did not report on the two kinds of baptism, presumably because adult baptisms were so rare.
The Masonic lodge controversy, which crested in the early 1880s, cost the Immigrant RCA some 10,000 souls, over half its total membership. This issue had Netherlandic roots, but Americanization was at the heart of the matter. In Europe "secret societies were ardently anti-Christian and the Reformed churches condemned freemasonry and excommunicated men who joined. Freemasonry in the America was ardently pro-Christian, and clerics and lay leaders in mainline denominations were faithful members. It was the quintessential "power club" of Protestant professionals. Many Old Dutch were lodge members, including presidents of RCA national synods. This concerned the Immigrant RCA churches greatly, and throughout the 1870s they demanded again and again that Synod bar freemasons from church membership. Synod refused and in 1880 declared that it would no longer even put the issue on the agenda. This sparked a mass secession, and the CRC, which from its inception had proscribed freemasons, was the beneficiary. Even Van Raalte's former congregation, the flagship Pillar Church in Holland, MI, went over to the CRC.
The offical stance of the RCA condoning freemasonry caused the CGKN in 1882 to withdraw its blessing from the RCA and gave it to the CRC, a body it had considered illegitimate since 1857. This gave the CRC the edge in gathering the immigrants. Between 1880 and 1900 the number of souls in the CRC quadrupled (12,000 to 47,000 souls) while souls in the Immigrant RCA tripled (18,000 to 53,000 souls). Only the fact that many Hervormden joined Immigrant RCA churches kept them from falling even farther behind.
If the battle of the first generation was freemasonry, the struggle of the second generation was language--the use of English in worship and in catechism. This pitted children against parents. The language struggle came to a head in the RCA between 1890 and 1920 and in the CRC between 1915 and 1935. Consistories relieved the pressure temporarily by allowing young families to form all-English daughter churches. After a while, however, the mother churches had to begin English-language services on Sunday evenings "for the young people" or risk their future. Since the morning and afternoon services remained in Dutch, preachers who could exhort in both languages were at a premium. Second generation seminary graduates who were bilingual found the job market excellent, while those tied to the mother tongue were relegated to the country churches.
The next stage began when the second generation became the majority and demanded English morning services. Since their parents would not, and often could not, worship in English, this required four services—English and Dutch in the morning, Dutch in afternoon, and English in the evening. Some clerics in the 1920s and 1930s boosted of the fortitude to lead all four services, but usually a guest preacher stood in at the evening service.
A growing rate of out-marriage and the transfer of membership to mainline American denominations marked the next stage of assimilation. RCA youth, who largely attended public high schools, often chose non-Dutch spouses from American churches. This was quite common by the 1920s. But the CRC delayed the much-derided practice until the 1960s, because beginning in the 1880s the churches founded Christian day schools and then, in the 1910s, high schools. Here the students found mates within the church. CRC members were so in-group oriented that they labeled unions with RCA members as "mixed marriages." The CRC thus had a stronger grip on its young adults than the RCA. And studies have shown that if a church simply manages to keep its own children it will grow 25-30% in a decade.
The long-term impact on church membership of Christian schools is remarkable. The West Side of Chicago is an example. In 1899 the RCA mother 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--an increase of more than 300 percent. In telling contrast, the RCA congregations in the western suburbs (6 in number) had only 1,080 members, a loss of 25 percent. 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 nineteenth century immigration was halted by the outbreak of World War One, 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.
In the 1920s, the CRC built yet another wall, this time to shield the members from the inroads of popular culture, specifically the "Roaring Twenties" with the newfangled "flapper girls," "speakeasies," dance halls, and theaters screening silent films. The 1928 CRC Synod adopted the famous ban against "Worldly Amusements," namely dancing, movies and "devil cards." Rook was okay. In the consistory interview before making a public confession of faith, elders routinely asked young people to confess if they had soiled their hands and souls by participating in any of these banned activities. An honest answer might not forestall joining the church, but it would bring a stern warning to go and sin no more.
RCA leaders shared the same dismal view of movies and the Immigrant RCA demanded a denominational ban in 1922. But, as with Masonic lodge membership, no official action was taken. Rather, the RCA counseled "proper discrimination." Many movies were morally objectionable and harmful, but since church members went anyway the best advice was to attend only "good" movies. The same advice was given in the early 1960s about television viewing. In this the RCA showed itself again to be a mainline American church.
The CRC moved in this direction too, but only after forty years. The 1928 policy crumbled in the counter-cultural 1960s. The bans would have stood firm longer if the CRC had not in 1924 espoused the doctrine of Common Grace, which essentially declared that God showered his general grace, though not his special saving grace, on unbelievers and their pagan culture. Common grace is a bridge doctrine that opened the CRC to the "world." So the strictures of 1928 were set aside and Reformed believers were told to go out and claim all of culture for Christ, including the film arts. The weekend dances in the dormitories at Calvin College, the denominational college, which in the Sixties had been masked by the euphemism "Parties with Music," now were openly acknowledged.
Thus, despite the early success of the CRC in building walls around its churches, schools, and homes, the culture did penetrate. The doctrine of common grace weakened the walls, while the social upheaval of the world wars opened the church to the world. As a result, when the CRC commemorated its centennial in 1957, it stood with one foot looking back to Hendrik De Cock and Kampen, and the other foot looking forward to Karl Barth and the World Council of Churches. Even the CRC commitment to its schools has weakened in recent decades. No longer do church elders discipline parents for sending "covenant children" to the public schools.
The final stage of assimilation began in the 1960s when the counterculture made rapid inroads. Following the feminist movement, Reformed churches opened church offices including the pulpit to women, the RCA in 1973 and the CRC in 1995. More recently, practicing homosexuals are gaining acceptance as confessing members in some congregations and several elect them to leadership positions. Worship committees brought contemporary music with its beat and emotions into church services, and this sparked "worship wars" that were just as divisive as the language wars of eighty years previous. The traditional liturgy of worship, practiced since the seventeenth century, has given way to informal worship styles, contemporary music, and multimedia techniques.
When the CRC celebrates its 150th anniversary three years hence, in 2007, the denomination will have become a mainline American church, almost indistinguishable from its American mother, the RCA, in theology, worship, and polity. There is talk of merger, although that is still a bit premature and Christian day schools remain a sticking point. Both denominations have become ethnically diverse, the CRC more so than the RCA. (The CRC includes American Indian, Korean, Hispanic, African American, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Loatian congregations, among others.)
Although the CRC retained its Dutchness in language, theology, and culture for several generations, it went through the process of Americanization belatedly but in tandem with the RCA. However reluctantly, the CRC followed the path blazed by its older sister.
Moerdyke recognized this pattern already in 1906:
It is noteworthy that, whilst our dear brethren [the CRC] are so staunch and loyal in their conservatism, their churches are nevertheless progressing in many ways of imitation and transitional adoption of new ideas and methods. It is inevitable. Not a few of our plans and methods and developments against which their people protested years ago are no longer foreign to them, but are now followed. It is often remarked that they are simply a generation behind us in Americanization.
In both Dutch Reformed denominations, bridges are "in" and walls are "out." The churches are more open to the culture than ever before, and they are making a greater impact on it. But they are also at greater risk than ever before of losing their distinctive heritage. The challenge is to transform the culture without being captured by it. Co-option, as the experience of the mainline Protestant churches shows, is far more likely than transformation.
 The Scriptual basis of the doctrine is Gen. 3:15, in which God cursed Satan, who as a talking serpent had deceived Adam and Eve. God declared: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed...." This prophecy drew a sharp distinction bewteen the two lines--that of the woman (believers) and that of the serpent (unbelievers). The Barnouw quote is from Robert P. Swierenga, Faith and Family: Dutch Immigration and Settlement in the United States, 1820-1920 (New York: Holmes & Meier, 2000), 165. Cf. Johannes J. Mol on the differing theological orientations in the RCA between the pro-American Ceotus faction and the pro-Netherlandic Conferentie faction in the 1760s. Mol, "Theology and Americanization: The Effects of pietism and Orthodoxy on Adjustment to New Culture" (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1960); "Churches and Immigrants (A Sociological Study of the Mutual Effect of Religion and Immigrant Adjustment)," R.E.M.P. Bulletin [Research Group for European Migration Problems] 9 (May 1961).
 Swierenga, Faith and Family, 156, Table 5.1.
 Christian Reformed Church Yearbook, 1880; Acts and Proceedings of the General Synod of the Dutch Reformed Protestant Church in America, 1880.
 We have no data on prior church affiliation in the Netherlands for emigrants after the year 1880, except for five provinces for which the data run to 1900 or later years (Swierenga, Faith and Family, 324).
 Firth Haring Fabend, Zion on the Hudson: Dutch New York and New Jersey in the Age of Revivals (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000). See also Gerald F. De Jong, The Dutch in America, 1609-1974 (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975).
 Jacob Van Hinte coined the terms "Old Dutch" and "Young Dutch" in his book Netherlanders in America: A Study of Emigration and Settlement in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries in the United States of America (2 vols., Assen, 1928), English-language one-volume edition, Robert P. Swierenga ed., Adriaan de Wit, trans. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), ix, xiii.
 Doleantie is a Latin word meaning to sorrow, or to bear pain. Kuyper and his orthodox followers objected to the declension in the National Church, in which some pastors rejected the Three Forms of Unity, and they called for reform. As in 1834, the churchmen and government officials condemned them. Kuyper led the orthodox members out of the National Church, established the Free University to train pastors and leaders, and founded the Anti-Revolutionary Party to take the battle for reform of church and state into the political realm.
 Swierenga, Dutch Chicago, 73.
 Janet Sjaarda Sheeres, "The Struggle for the Souls of the Children: The Effects of the Dutch Education Law of 1806 on the Emiigration of 1847," in The Dutch in Urban America (Holland, MI, 2004), 34-47.
 Robert P. Swierenga, "True Brothers: The Netherlandic Origins of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, 1857-1880," 62, in Breaches and Bridges: Reformed Sub-Cultures in the Netherlands, Germany, and the United States, eds. George Harinck and Hans Krabbendam (VU Studies in Protestant History, 4)(Amsterdam: VU Uitgeverij, 2000). I am indebted to Herbert J. Brinks for the statistics.
 Swierenga, Dutch Chicago, 72.
 I am indebted to Dr. E. William Kennedy for the suggestion to use rates of catechism to Sunday school and infant baptism to adult confession as proxies for Americanization.
 Robert P. Swierenga and Elton Bruins, Family Quarrels in the Dutch Reformed Churches in the Nineteenth Century (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1997), 106-38.
 The Immigrant RCA figures include the classes Dakota, Grand River, Holland, Iowa, and Wisconsin and individual "Holland" congregations: Holland Albany, Holland New York City, Sixth Paterson (NJ), and Sayville, Long Island.
 Swierenga, Dutch Chicago, 194.
 Richard Blaauw, "CRC Synod 2003," The Outlook, 53 (September 2003): 24-25.
 Robert P. Swierenga, "A Tale of Two Congregations: Acculturation and its Long-term Impact on the Chicago's West Side Reformed Churches," paper for the International Society for the Study of Reformed Communities conference, University of Edinburgh, June 28, 2003, 14-15.
 Harry Boonstra, "To Go Or Not To Go (To The Movies)," Origins (Historical magazine of the Archives, Calvin College), 22, No. 1 (2004): 24-29, esp. 25-26.
 See Calvin Van Reken, "Shifting Visions of the Christian Life," Convocation Address, Calvin Theological Seminary, 4 September 2003.
 The CRC Synod 2003 rejected a key recommendation of its own study committee, that "Christian day school education is a communal, church responsibility and not only a parental commitment." Report of "Committee to Study Christian Day School Education," Agenda for Synod 2003, 361; and Acts of Synod 2003, 620.
 Peter Moerdyke, "Chicago Letter," Christian Intelligencer, 11 July 1906, quoted in Swierenga, Dutch Chicago, 74.
21 The literature is immense. See, for example, Lynn Japenga, The Rain of God: RCA Growth and Decline in Historical Perspective (Lecture Series No. 2, Van Raalte Institute, Hope College, 20 April 2004); Nanne E. Haspels and Corwin E. Schmidt, Being Reformed Today: Beliefs and Practices," Perspectives (March 2002): 12-18; Donald Luidens and Roger Nemeth, The RCA Today: Painting a Portrait, The Church Herald (five part series, beginning Feb. 6, 1987); Roger Nemeth and Daniel Hendricks, "The Religious Practices of Christian Reformed Church and Reformed Church in America Clergy and Laity," paper for the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Nov. 1, 2002; Calvin P. Van Reken, "Shifting Visions of the Christian Life," Convocation Address, Calvin Theological Seminary, Sept. 4, 2003; Johan D. Tangelder, "Pop goes the culture: Change goes the church," Christian Renewal (April 12, 2004), 18-19; Al Mulder and Robert J. Price, Jr., On Becoming a Multicultural Church, The Banner (Sept. 27, 1999), 6-7.
Cultural Continuum of Dutch Reformed denominations in North America
◄----"bridge churches"--------▐------------"wall churches"----►
Reformed Church in America
Christian Reformed Church In North America
United Reformed Church
Orthodox Christian Reformed Church
Canadian Reformed Church
Free Reformed Church
Protestant Reformed Church
Associate Reformed Church
Independent Reformed Church
Puritan Reformed Church Netherlands Ref. Church
Immigrants from the Netherlands from the 1850s onward who wanted to remain within the Dutch Reformed Church had the choice of two main denominations, the Reformed Church in America, which dated from 1628 in New Netherlands, or the Christian Reformed Church, formed in 1857 in West Michigan. The RCA was a thoroughly American church by this time and immigrants joining it found themselves on the "fast track" to assimilation. The CRC remained the "Dutchy" church for several generations and its members preferred the "slow track." Nonetheless, the CRC assimilated in tandem with the immigrant wing of the RCA, but with a lag rate of one to two generations.
In the RCA, a "bridge" mentality prevailed in which the church opened itself to the culture and allied with the mainline Protestant denominations. The CRC had an isolationist or "wall" mentality that stressed separation from the culture and American churches. Only after the Second World War did new intellectual leaders in church and school open the CRC to the culture. This cultural opening has been very pronounced since the 1970s. Today the Immigrant RCA and the CRC are hardly distinguishable in polity and practice, and they are talking merger. But the issue of Christian day schools still divides. The process of assimilation has run its course and both churches are truly American in style and practice. The Dutch Reformed are hardly distinguishable from mainline Protestant denominations.