A handful of Reformed churches make the difficult decision to break away from their parent denomination. Troubled at the trends of increasing liberalism and waning orthodoxy among their fellow churches, they at length determine that their only option is to form a new body with the express purpose of remaining faithful to the Bible, the creeds, and the confessions.
In many ways it is an exciting time for this new little group. They have the chance to root themselves firmly in the historic Reformed faith, to spread their branches into a functional and God-glorifying federation of churches, to bear the fruits of Biblical preaching, sacraments, and discipline, and to sow the seeds for a whole new generation of faithful Christians.
But this period in the churches’ life is also filled with immense struggles, possibly the greatest they will face for decades. It is what some have aptly called “the crisis of youth.” Although the churches are united in their desire to remain faithful to Biblical orthodoxy, they differ in their origins, their ethnicities, their traditions, and even their theology. Individuals with identities emerge who, intentionally or unintentionally, lead their followers in slightly different directions. Debates develop and factions form over various aspects of doctrine, be they trivial or essential. Being composed entirely of human beings, they are all too prone to sin and stumble. But, striving to seek God’s will and to remain faithful to his Word, do they still comprise his church? Absolutely.
Dr. Henry Beets
The scenario I’ve just related is, of course, an historical one. You may already have in mind the founding of the United Reformed Churches in North America in the 1990s, and their life and growth over these past 17 years. However, the above account comes not from the history of the URCNA, but from a mildewy old hardcover entitled The Christian Reformed Church by Dr. Henry Beets. Those words represent Beets’s summarized account of the founding of the CRC in 1857. It is to Chapter 6 of his insightful work that we turn today.
There, in 1857, stood the little group of churches—four of them, in fact, with only two ministers. In a few years there were only two churches and one minister. It would take many years for the Christian Reformed Church to build enough of a presence even to form a denomination proper. Along the way there were a host of impeding factors, some of which Beets comments on here.
Enough Dutch stereotypes have permeated our communications here in the URCNA that we probably fail to realize the significant cultural and psychological differences even between Dutchmen in those early days. Beets points to three ethnic sub-groups in the first CRC congregations: “Friesians, Saxons, and Franks—considerably differentiated physically and psychologically. As a result, the people of the provinces of the Netherlands differ among themselves as to several characteristics. People speak of the Friesians as predominantly intellectual, of the Groningen folk (of Saxon origin) as practical, sober-minded, realistic; of the Drenths as conservative; of the Hollanders on the whole as phlegmatic, and of the Zeelanders as inclined to mysticism.”
Also, due to the history of the Secession in the Netherlands, the religious training the CRC’s early ministers had received varied considerably. Many early leaders looked to one or another individual as their guide and role model, to the united churches’ detriment. Theological understanding differed with regard to baptism, the covenant of grace, and “second holidays” (celebrating for two days Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost). Beets says, “Add to this divergent opinion about fire and life insurance, vaccination, and, last but not least, the difference between ‘passive’ and ‘active’ attitudes as to religious life. Closely related to this last fact was the distinction between experiential or subjective, and more doctrinal and objective preaching. It took time to create at least something of an amalgamation of the aforementioned elements, forbearance in love on these issues, and of the presentation of a united front to move forward.”
What about education? “The older element as a rule, strangers to the struggle for the Christian school in Holland, were quite content with public education here, since it had, as in the Netherlands of yore, at least a Christian veneer. The element coming in later years clamored for a positively Christian school. Time and again this led to alienation of affections and to occasional clashes.” Varying political affiliations and ongoing financial struggles were two more causes of lamentable disunity. Considering all of these factors, Beets comments:
In the face of all these things, it is amazing to find the small group, whose fortunes we describe here, able to keep up its own church establishment, to keep the banner they had raised floating in the breeze, to march ahead in several respects, and try to realize the early ideals.
The survival of the church is amazing, yes—but the work of our Lord is amazing too.
Beets moves on to describe some of the early leaders of the CRC who, at the risk of alienating themselves from their family and fellow churchmen, stood for the truth and upheld the orthodox Reformed faith. Among these was elder Gysbert Haan of Grand Rapids. “Slender, muscular, clean shaven, his hair whitened already early in life, with piercing eyes, with strong convictions and iron will power, an able debater, in calmness possessing his soul. He was well posted on questions of church government and theology and was a born leader.” Haan fought vigilantly against the advances of Arminianism as set forth in Baxter’s Call, a work that was strongly defended by two church leaders who later confessed that they had not even thoroughly read the book. Beets praises him with all his faults as “one of our men of the hour. There would, humanly speaking, have been no Return in 1857 to the standpoint left in 1849, without Gysbert Haan.” Other important leaders included elders H. Dam and Y. Ulberg of Vriesland, J. Spykerman and P. Vanden Bosch of Noordeloos, J. F. Van Anrooy and A. Krabshuis of Graafschap, and A. Nysse of Grand Haven.
The young Christian Reformed Church was troubled both by ridicule and condemnation from the outside (even being termed “the vilest district of modern Babylon” by Rev. Scholte of Pella), and disagreements and quarreling from within.
At one time, 1863, in a moment of crisis, there was talk of discontinuance as a separate group. Merging with Old School Presbyterians was proposed by one leader. Then Johannes Groen of Vriesland was stirred up and delivered a speech that saved the day.
Through it all, however, the CRC survived, and grew, and thrived, as Beets emphasizes, “to the praise of God alone…The banner was not only kept aloft, but carried forward.” By 1880 the denomination comprised four classes (Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, and Hudson), with a total of 12,001 souls. Yes, though with a scornful wonder men saw her sore oppressed, the Christian Reformed Church was richly blessed by God even in those first hard twenty years.
Now, what of this narrative’s application to us today in the United Reformed Churches in North America? The parallels are striking. Both of our federations began as a relatively small group of churches seeking to remain faithful to God’s Word and the Reformed faith. The CRC was 13 years old in 1880, the end of the period Beets describes here; our federation is about 17.
Many of the specific challenges we face have remained the same as well. Although the URCNA has not made multi-ethnicity a hobby horse, as it has recently become in the CRC, one can still occasionally see misunderstandings and disagreements between our churches of Dutch origin and more recent congregations, much as Beets describes. There also seems to be a certain tension between some of the seminaries that supply our ministers. Our pastors, elders, and congregations have slightly different theologies and varying opinions even on the non-essentials, and worship practices (with psalm-singing high on the list) differ from church to church. Taken together, these obstacles can sometimes seem insurmountable. I’ll admit, lately I’ve experienced moments of despair about our weak collection of churches as well.
But there is an extremely important lesson to be learned from the story of the Christian Reformed Church’s founding, and woe to us if we ever forget it: The Lord builds his Church—not men, not consistories, not synods, not seminaries. In fact, the Lord builds his Church using even foolish, quarrelsome, and sinful humans like us, for the glory of his Name. Yes, the CRC has wandered far from its original foundation, and (much as it pains me to say it) perhaps the URCNA will have followed the same path by its 150th birthday. But that eventual possibility must never distract us our immediate mission: to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth, and remain steadfast on God’s Word. And no matter what adversities come our way, we have these unshakable promises from the Lord to his Church:
Zion, on the holy hills,
God, thy Maker loves thee well;
All thy courts His presence fills,
He delights in thee to dwell.
Wondrous shall thy glory be,
City blest of God the Lord;
Nations shall be born in thee,
Unto life from death restored.
When the Lord the names shall write
Of thy sons, a countless throng,
God Most High will thee requite,
He Himself will make thee strong.
Then in song and joyful mirth
Shall thy ransomed sons agree,
Singing forth throughout the earth:
‘All my fountains are in thee.’