Posts Tagged 'RCA'

Works of Power and Grace: The Reformation of 1857

The Christian Reformed ChurchThe 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

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.”


Works of Power and Grace: The Story of New Netherland

The Christian Reformed ChurchA few weeks ago I happened to drive past a church that identified itself as a “Historic Dutch Reformed Church.”  It was located about 40 miles west of my hometown, on the side of Long Island closest to Manhattan.  Surprised that I hadn’t heard of it before, and curious to know more, I later looked it up on the internet.

“Historic” is almost an understatement, on American soil at least.  This church, I discovered, was established in 1732—that’s the year George Washington was born—and has been in existence ever since that time.  Its website says, “We earnestly seek to know the mind of Christ and strive to be faithful to God and to each other in a changing, complex, and often troubled world.”  Yet as I explored this site further, doubts began to arise in my mind that their worship and congregational life remain Reformed in the orthodox Scriptural sense.  With regard to churches like this one, I had begun to notice a tendency to view the Dutch Reformed title as a historic label more than a continuing commitment.

Just last night I was carrying on some historical research for my church, West Sayville URC, and discovered a booklet describing “A History of the First Reformed Church of West Sayville, N.Y., 1866-1966.”  This was the church founded by the first immigrants from Holland to West Sayville in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and it was the church from which our congregation would split ten years later.  Since then it has changed locations and names a few times, but it remains an active congregation in our community and will soon be able to celebrate its 150th anniversary.

What both of these churches have in common is that they are members in the denomination today known as the RCA or Reformed Church in America.  At first glance, we might automatically line up the Reformed Church in America with some of the other Reformed denominations familiar to us today: the United Reformed Churches, the Christian Reformed Church, the Reformed Church in the United States, and so on.  Truthfully, the RCA has a much longer and more complex history, but it is intimately tied to the origin of our own churches as well.

Dr. Henry Beets

Dr. Henry Beets

That’s why, in the third chapter of The Christian Reformed Church, Dr. Henry Beets pauses in his historical account of the founding of the CRC to explain how the first Dutch immigrants came to North America, and how their first churches worshipped.  This post is loosely paraphrased from the key points in his chapter.

The first wave of Dutch Reformed immigrants came to North America early in the seventeenth century.  The English captain Henry Hudson had discovered the river named after him with the Dutch ship De Halve Maan (The Half Moon), and Holland immediately claimed possession of the New York-New Jersey area, calling it “New Netherland.”  At first the only settlements along the Hudson River and at its mouth were forts; then came trading posts, farms, villages, and soon a city: New Amsterdam.  A conglomeration of Dutchmen settled here in the New World, and practically all of them professed the Reformed religion.  But Beets suggests that not all of these settlers were men and women of high spiritual standards.  Their primary objective was not religious liberty, but material prosperity.

Nevertheless, churches were soon established in New Amsterdam, the first as early as 1628.  (That congregation, now known as the Middle Collegiate Church, is still in existence and is the oldest continuously active church in America.)  Many more churches would be founded both in Manhattan and on “Lange Eylandt,” which explains the origin of the Dutch Reformed Church I stumbled across a few weeks ago.  Another Dutch hub was the town of Albany up the river, which would play a key part in the story of the settlers in Michigan a few centuries later.

The Dutch presence in the New World was seriously impacted when New Netherland was surrendered to the English in 1664, and New Amsterdam became New York City.  Beets says, “Many of the younger element were drawn away by what is called the ‘social pull,’ and joined the Church of England.  Dutch stubbornness, insisting on continued use of the ancestral tongue in church services, increasingly alienated some of the most progressive element.”  Friction also began to arise between the group of churches in America and the parent denomination in the Netherlands.  In 1792 the Dutch Reformed Churches here split from the churches in Holland—hence the denominational title “Reformed Church in America.

Sadly, as Beets points out, the four cycles of church history mentioned in Chapter 2 (construction, systematization, corruption, and restoration) were already at work in this denomination as well.  The principal obstacle to the spiritual health of the churches was the specter of Unitarianism, which became immensely popular as the eighteenth century drew to a close.  This system of belief has been described as “a bold reactionary protest against the leading doctrines of the prevailing Calvinism of New England,” and, says Beets, “it would have been miraculous if the Dutch Church had escaped the ravages of the times unhurt.  Fact is that the Ecclesiastical Records of New York State evidence time and again that religious conditions in that body were far from satisfactory—to put it mildly.”

With corruption, however, comes the opportunity for restoration, and in October 1822 a small group of churches in New Jersey under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Solomon Froeligh vowed to restore the Reformed church to its original purity by declaring themselves the “True Reformed Dutch Church.”  As Beets will mention in a later chapter, these congregations formed the Classis of Hackensack, which would remain independent until it united with the forthcoming Christian Reformed Church in 1890.  This bit of historical information accounts for the strange geographical overlap of the CRC’s Classes Hudson and Hackensack, which can still be noted on a map today, as well as the occasional shuffling of individual congregations between the two bodies.

Whatever may have been the spiritual condition of the Reformed Church in America, this denomination undoubtedly grew in numbers and power.  By 1845 it consisted of 32,883 communicant members comprising 274 congregations.  A Board of Domestic Missions was established in 1831, and a Board of Foreign Missions the following year.  In particular, the Domestic Board would have much to do with the immigration and settlements of the CRC’s founders, as later chapters will show.

Beets’s closing paragraph is worth duplicating in its entirety, since it shows his historical insight, objective approach, and lack of unnecessary animosity towards the RCA.

Dr. J. Van Hinte in his monumental work Nederlanders in Amerika brings out with great clearness that the ‘why’ of the coming of the Hollanders to New Netherland was primarily commercial.  There was no need for any of the Dutch colonists to escape their homeland because of persecution.  While some of those who came across, and many of their descendants, were people of refinement, and nearly all were nominally of ‘the Reformed persuasion,’ not all adorned their profession with a godly life.  For one reason, their spreading out into the wilderness northward, southward and westward, to form new settlements, with not enough preachers and teachers to guide them, seriously affected their religious welfare.  In fact, it is in various respects a wonder that so many of these Dutch pioneers remained so loyal to the doctrines and ways of the fathers, even though their religion may have been largely formal.  Calvinistic principle had more to do with this than some are willing to confess.  And God’s covenant mercy.

Amen to this—for it is only by God’s covenant mercy that the Church continues to exist at all.  May that realization always humble and inspire us as we continue serving Him in spirit and in truth.


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