The October 15, 2012, issue of The Standard Bearer, a magazine of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America, bore a surprising title: “The Reformation of 1857.” Of course most Christians are aware of the Protestant Reformation whose beginning we commemorate as October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg.
There was indeed another reformation of sorts in 1857. It transpired on a much smaller scale and in a much shorter timeframe. But its key motivation was no different: the desire to return Christ’s church to a system of Biblical, confessional, God-glorifying worship. And for many of us in the United Reformed Churches in North America, we owe the very existence of our congregations to it.
Henry Beets devotes the fifth chapter of his historical account, The Christian Reformed Church, to an explanation of this “Reformation of 1857.” It’s a complicated story, and its ramifications have continued right up to the present day. I’ll do my best to summarize Beets’s chapter here.
By the early 1800s, it is safe to say that the Dutch in the Netherlands were practically oblivious of the existence of their kinsmen who had settled in America in the preceding centuries. Even the fact that Van Raalte and Brummelkamp’s letter to America was addressed “to the Believers in the United States” demonstrates their ignorance as to the existence or condition of the Reformed churches there.
By God’s providence, however, this letter made it into the hands of Rev. I. N. Wyckoff of Albany, New York, a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church (RCA), and he diligently spread the word about the Hollanders’ desire to immigrate and made preparations for their arrival. It was he who fraternally sent on the immigrants to their new homes in Michigan and Iowa, as Beets related in his last chapter.
In June of 1849, Rev. Wyckoff (a fluent Dutch speaker) paid a visit to the settlement in Holland, Michigan, on behalf of the Board of Domestic Missions of the RCA. The settlers there were certainly desirous to enter into ties of unity with the true Reformed church wherever it existed in the new continent, but they also expressed concerns about uniting with the Dutch Reformed Church (RCA). Wyckoff himself recorded their reservations in his official report on the meeting:
At the classical meeting it was soon made known that the brethren were a little afraid of entering into ecclesiastical connection with us, although they believe in the union of brethren, and sigh for Christian sympathy and association. They have so felt to the quick the galling chains of ecclesiastical domination, and have seen with sorrow how exact organization, according to human rules, leads to formality on the one hand, and to the oppression of tender conscience on the other, that they hardly know what to say. I [Wyckoff] protested, of course, that it is furthest from our thought to bring them in bondage to men, or to exercise ecclesiastical tyranny over them. And I stated that they would be perfectly free, at any time they found an ecclesiastical connection opposed to their religious prosperity and enjoyment, to bid us a fraternal adieu, and be by themselves again.
This qualification appeased the fears of the Michigan settlers, and they agreed to join the Dutch Reformed Church. In 1850 the General Synod ratified their membership in the denomination as a distinct entity, the Classis of Holland, but—and this is where the misunderstanding began—the provision Rev. Wyckoff had promised to the colonists was apparently overlooked.
There was an ominous rumbling in this diplomatic fumble, but Classis Holland continued in the Dutch Reformed Church and attempted to learn more about the denomination it had just joined.
Soon, however, the rumbling began to grow louder. An increasing number of settlers began to feel and express that they believed the decision to join the RCA had been a wrong one. Why was this? Beets explains (pay close attention!):
Charges were made, and to our mind substantiated, that the Reformed Church in the East was not displaying the ‘marks’ our fathers had attributed to the faithful Church. These charges included specifically the neglect of preaching on such fundamental doctrines as election, and limited atonement; the practice of private baptisms and open communion; the toleration of Free Masons as members in good standing; the use of 800 hymns, crowding out the Psalter; neglect in Catechism preaching and teaching and family visiting, as required by the Church Order, was evident.
The dissenters presented their concerns by way of the proper avenues at consistorial and classical meetings, but for the most part, their arguments fell on deaf ears. It would be but a small group that would withdraw from the Dutch Reformed Classis of Holland—a very small group.
Rev. K. Vanden Bosch
On April 8, 1857, the Classis met in Zeeland, Michigan. Only four consistories had sent in notices of withdrawal: the churches of Graafschap, Polkton, Noordeloos, and Grand Rapids. And these four churches were served by only two pastors, the Revs. Koenraad Vanden Bosch and H. G. Klyn. The seceding group held their first classical meeting shortly thereafter, “and ratified as their Standards, subject to the Word of God as supreme law, the Creed, Catechism and Canons of the Reformed Church of the Netherlands, its liturgy and Church Order.” This was the official beginning of the group of churches that would come to be called the Christian Reformed Church.
Lest the founders of the CRC be condemned as divisive schismatics, Beets is careful to emphasize the purity of their motives. In fact, their heartfelt desire was that their brothers and sisters in Classis Holland would share their convictions and reunite with them. As the Graafschaap congregation expressed it, “Brethren, we rejoice that nearly the entire congregation again stands on the platform on which our fathers enjoyed so much joy.…O, we should rejoice still more if the King of the Church would persuade you that it is the duty of all.”
Although this is where Beets’s chapter ends, it ought to be noted that this confused union and division between the RCA and the CRC has complicated relations between the two denominations ever since. Only recently have the RCA and CRC begun to seriously talk about reuniting, and this, I must conclude, is due more to the increasing liberalization of the CRC than to a desire to return to the orthodox Reformed faith on the part of the RCA. It’s an intricate story, of which I’ve only barely scratched the surface.
Close parallels could also be drawn between the secession of 1857 and the secession of the 1990’s. Like those four churches in Michigan, it was the desire of the founders of the URCNA to return to a confessional, Biblical, historic Reformed view of worship, doctrine, and life. It is only with the profoundest sorrow that we can behold the liberalization of the broader church, as we say with the Graafschaap church of 1857, “[W]e rejoice that nearly the entire congregation again stands on the platform on which our fathers enjoyed so much joy.…O, we should rejoice still more if the King of the Church would persuade you that it is the duty of all.”