Works of Power and Grace: Michigan and Iowa

The Christian Reformed ChurchBack in 1978, the Christian Reformed Church had ten classes, 205 congregations, and more than 90,000 members.  In the state of Michigan.  Alone.

I apologize that these statistics are 35 years out of date; despite its spiffy new website, the Christian Reformed Church doesn’t make its congregational statistics readily accessible today.  The latest Yearbook I own dates from 1978.  Still, you get the picture: the CRC has a huge base in Michigan.

Why is Grand Rapids the hub of the Dutch Reformed world, the center of gravity of the entire Christian Reformed denomination—and why does it remain a key location even today among the United Reformed Churches?  Dr. Henry Beets offers at least a rudimentary answer to this question in the fourth chapter of his book The Christian Reformed Church.  It is to this chapter that we turn today.

In the previous chapter Beets described the first wave of immigrants from the Netherlands to the United States, who were primarily responsible for the settlements in modern-day New York and New Jersey.  These Dutchmen established the denomination known as the Reformed Church in America, but they had little to do with the founding of the Christian Reformed Church.  That denomination would not be formed until the second wave of emigration from the Netherlands, which would begin in the 1840s.

Primarily worldly reasons motivated the first Dutchmen to settle in New Amsterdam, but what were the motives of the second group of settlers?  Beets says, “We take pride in saying that our forefathers can, through grace, stand the comparative test between the two waves in these respects with favorable outcome.”  Although there were certainly economic factors at work in nineteenth-century Holland (Beets refers to a “paralyzing depression” and “general economic unrest”), much of the reason for emigration stemmed from the oppression and discrimination suffered by those who had seceded from the state church of the Netherlands.  “Moreover, and that is another side of the matter, in the case of Scholte and some of his followers, emigration was promoted by a sense of disgust in their hearts, created by the constant bickerings among the brethren about all kinds of things, from contention about the dress of preachers, and ‘second holidays,’ up to weightier matters of baptism, church government, and the petitioning of the government for liberty of worship.”  Two of the principal advocates of emigration, Revs. Brummelkamp and Van Raalte, expressed two more objectives for coming to America: “to have their children enjoy education in Christian schools, and to have an active part in the propagation of God’s truth among the heathen.”

The Hollanders who were interested in emigration began making plans to travel to America in groups, rather than individually.  Van Raalte and a group of about fifty reached New York on November 17, 1846, and from there began a trek westward to Michigan, where they settled with the aid of some Reformed brothers already in the States.  Scholte and his followers began a colony in Iowa, which they called “Pella” after the name of a city to which the early Christians had escaped just before the fall of Jerusalem in A. D. 70.  Other settlements sprang up in Wisconsin, Indiana, New York, and New Jersey; but, says Beets, “we are particularly concerned in this history with the followers of the Rev. A. C. Van Raalte in western Michigan, because their life and particularly their actions pertaining to church matters determined much of the history here sketched.”  Even at this early date, Michigan was becoming a home base of sorts for the new group of Christians!

Trials plagued the Michigan settlers—there was a shortage of money, food, and shelter, and an abundance of mosquitoes, disease, and weakness—but they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distresses.  Beets says of these dedicated men and women in Michigan and Iowa that “they had left Holland after seeking prayerful guidance at God’s throne, with the purpose of making our country the permanent home of themselves and their posterity.”

In 1848 the local churches formed the “Classis of Holland,” which assembled, like our modern classes, twice a year, and whose ministers met quarterly for mutual edification.  By 1849 the combined membership of the churches included 928 communicant members.  The prospects were bright.  As Beets puts it:

Surely, it looked for a time as if our people in Michigan and other settlements with a Reformed stamp, in Wisconsin and Illinois, had before them a wonderful opportunity to build up a Christian community after Calvin’s model of Geneva, as their special contribution to America, to develop and apply the great principles of Calvinism so sorely needed and to some extent so sadly forgotten in our land, and of erecting in the course of time a ‘Calvin University,’ to have proclaimed in every domain of life, ‘Pro Rege’: for the King.

Chapter 5, the topic of our next discussion, addresses these issues: “How and why our pioneers flung their own banner to the breeze in 1857.  The story of the return, to be ‘by themselves’; the motives and ideals of the day.”  Won’t you join us then?


1 Response to “Works of Power and Grace: Michigan and Iowa”

  1. 1 Works of Power and Grace: The Reformation of 1857 | URC Psalmody Trackback on April 25, 2013 at 7:03 am

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