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"'Bless the Lord, O my Soul:' The Bible's Influence on the Dutch"


Robert P. Swierenga, Research Professor, A.C. Van Raalte Institute, Hope College


Lecture for Holland Museum exhibit, "Promised Land, Chosen People: The Bible's Influence in Holland, 1550-1900," April 10, 2003


     In 1875, one year before his death, Rev. Albertus Van Raalte addressed a reunion of the 25th Michigan Infantry, in which Holland's sons, including two of his own, had served during the Civil War. "Welcome, welcome then, beloved and honored 25th!" Van Raalte began. "Your presence thrills our hearts with the deepest emotions.... You are all monuments of God's sparing mercy and love.... Surely your presence is a solem[n] voice within us: "Bless the Lord, O my Soul.... Yea, we say, Bless the Lord, O my Soul." The aged dominie closed his brief oration with a prayer that the veterans "may earn that never fading crown in the higher battles under our Captain of Salvation, Jesus Christ."[1]   

     Biblical idioms came naturally to Van Raalte's lips. His public addresses, speeches, and writings are full of scriptural references. This was the coin of the realm in Dutch Reformed circles. In a July 4th speech during the Civil War, Van Raalte preached on a passage from the prophet Jeremiah (18: 5-10), which portrays people as clay and God as a potter at the wheel. "Can I not deal with you, O Israel, like this potter? Behold, as clay in the hand of the potter so are you in My hand." God has the "incontestable authority," said Van Raalte, the "irresistible power... to form nations unto His end."

     In a service of commemoration two years after the Holland fire (Oct. 19, 1873), Van Raalte preached on the parable of the talents in Luke 19:13: "Trade with these till I come." "Seeing that your homes and goods have been restored, Congregation at Holland, I remind you of what Jesus says concerning all our possessions. They are a trust [and] must be placed in the Master's service. He is watching us."

     A year earlier, at the 25th anniversary of Holland's founding, Van Raalte declared that the purpose for establishing the colony was "to secure a center of unifying religious life and labor for the advancement of God's kingdom.... In truth, God has wrought great things for us!" (paraphrasing Numbers 23:23).[2]

     Van Raalte preached every Sunday for decades and some 300 sermon notes have survived, many scribbled on scraps of paper. His first student sermon at Leiden University was on Rom. 6:1 (about the call by Jesus Christ to Paul to be an apostle, set apart to preach the Gospel of God). Van Raalte had to preach the sermon without the notes he had so carefully crafted, because his professor had slipped the sermon manuscript from Van Raalte's coat pocket shortly before the service without him realizing it. Van Raalte didn't know that he had no text to read until a few minutes beforehand. After he recovered from his panic, he preached a magnificent sermon that impressed his professor and all his fellow seminary students. Van Raalte knew the Scriptures and quoted passages liberally in his sermons.[3] 

     The late Prof. Gordon Spykman, who read all of Van Raalte's sermon notes and wrote a book entitled "The Pioneer Preacher," discovered a surprising fact. In his sermons Van Raalte seldom chose Bible texts that applied to any specific needs of the colonists, such as times of poverty, disease, and death in the early years. He didn't use the Bible to give his people strength to face their problems. Rather, his sermons were evangelistic, calling them to repentance and a life of obedience.[4]

     Perhaps Van Raalte's parishioners needed no specific Biblical applications. It was their guide for faith and life, as befitted disciples of the Secession of 1834. "What God wills" not what I will, was their credo. Thy would make no major decisions without first ascertaining the will of God.[5] This was especially true of emigration.

     The Dutch believed that God called them to leave the fatherland and they explained (some would say they "rationalized") their decision by an appeal to the Scriptures.  Although the immigrants were poor and sought economic betterment, deciding to go to America was fundamentally a religious, not an economic, question. 

     Even the lack of work for the laboring class in the Netherlands Van Raalte turned into a spiritual sign that God in His providence had prepared America for them. After all, God said to Adam, "By the sweat of your brow you shall eat your bread." This was difficult, if not impossible, in the homeland.

     So, Van Raalte wrote in a widely-circulated pamphlet, "with our eyes upon God, and not until after a long and agonizing struggle, we are taking the step" to emigrate to North America where out people, "living in quiet obedience to God,... can eat their bread, earned by diligent labor and sweat." Moreover, who "can doubt that the future of the Netherlands looks dark,' given the national sins of religious apostasy and economic oppression practiced by the government.[6]

     Van Raalte's friend and fellow Seceder cleric, Henry Scholte, founder of the colony of Pella, preached even more strongly that the Netherlands and indeed all of western Europe was a decadent, doomed civilization ripe for God's judgement. Believers must escape the wrath to come. "Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins and share in her plagues," Scholte proclaimed, quoting Revelation 18:4.

     A Scholte follower, Mrs. Christina Budde, of Burlington, Iowa, echoed the Dominie's teaching in a letter to a female friend in Amsterdam in 1849: "In Amsterdam we saw a dark dense cloud spreading over all of Europe,  and considered the difficulties of farm life [in America] easier to get used to than the unanimous report of the dark future for the old Fatherland, and even more so for those who fear the Lord.... We praise the Lord for having led us here.[7]

     Scholte called his colony Pella, "city of refuge," after a town in the district of Decapolis (east of the Sea of Galilee in the mountains of Gilead), where Christian fled in 70 AD following the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. In Iowa's Pella, the faithful remnant would be saved. The revolutions throughout Europe in 1848 gave credence to Scholte's prophecy. Erupting first in France and spreading quickly to Germany, Austria, The Netherlands, and elsewhere, mob violence and street fighting behind barricades seemed to presage the breakup of European civilization.

     Europe stood under judgement, Scholte taught, because it was inextricably linked, historically and geographically, with the Roman Empire, an empire marked for destruction for having crucified Jesus of Nazareth. The intentions of the Almighty had been clearly indicted centuries earlier in the Jewish prophet Daniel's vision of the great "Image" crushed by a huge stone "hewn out of the mountains without hands." Since America had never been part of the Roman world, Scholte believed it was a safe haven, a place of escape from divine retribution.[8]

     Scholte's vision was that his Pella colony be directed by the Bible. In 1846, several months before embarking, he wrote in his religious periodical, De Reformatie: "As far as the ecclesiastical fellowship and organization of the colony are concerned, the Word of God shall be the only rule, foundation, and touchstone."[9]

     Cornelius Vander Meulen, Van Raalte's colleague at Zeeland, wrote in a widely-circulated letter to the Netherlands in 1847 that prospective immigrants must see God's leading in their decision, and realize that the fatherland "is going under" because "God is just and chastises sin with sin." Gerrit Baay, pastor of the Alto, Wisconsin, colony, declared in a letter to his followers in Gelderland: "In leaving for North America, one should also be mindful of the Lord's admonition, Luke 17:32: "Remember Lot's wife.'"[10] Europe was Sodom and Gomorrah, and the emigrants should not look back.

     They didn't, but they feared the sea. When a young man in 1862 bade farewell to his fellow congregants at Uithuizen (Groningen) and set out on the ocean for America, his pastor's wife insisted on reading aloud Psalm 107 (vs. 23-32), which speaks of deliverance from the sea.


Some went down to the sea in ships,...

  they saw the deeds of the Lord,

  his wondrous works in the deep.

For he commanded, and raised the stormy wind,

  which lifted up the waves of the sea.

They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths;

  their courage melted away in their evil plight;...

they reeled and staggered like drunken men,

  and were at their wit's end.

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,

  and he delivered them from their distress;

he made the storm be still,

  and the waves of the sea were hushed.

Then they were glad because they had quiet,

  and he brought them to their desired haven.


     Natelborg noted in his Memoirs, written years later, that God answered this prayer. When the storm was at its height and the passengers at their "wits' end," they cried to the Lord and he "made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because ... he brought them to their desired haven."[11]

     The Seceders were steeped in the Bible and turned to it at every passage point or crisis in life. It was said of many of them that "a Bible always lay close at hand." And when facing death they turned to it. In a last letter to her children, a widow wrote: "Dear Children, oh, pray to God daily and do not let a day pass without reading his Word. Let nothing keep you from doing that, it alone remains when all else fails."[12]

     Geesje Vander Haar-Visscher, a close associate of Van Raalte and member of this congregation, recalled as a young child losing her grandfather during the dying time in the Holland colony in 1847. She wrote in her diary:

     I felt very sad. My father and mother were also ill with typhoid fever and many people died at that time.... I was with grandmother a great deal and during the day I went to school. In the evening grandmother would kneel to pray with and for me. Many pious people came to call on grandmother and on those occasions I had to read chapters from the Bible.[13]

     After World War Two, some of the orthodox Calvinists in the Netherlands developed quite elaborate rationales for immigration. For example, the Central Committee of the Anti-Revolutionary Party (founded by Groen van Prinsterer and led by Abraham Kuyper), cited the cultural mandate, to "be fruitful and multiply," and the great commission--"go ye into all the world," first voiced by Van Raalte a century earlier. Over-populated Holland had no room for large families, especially of small dissenting subcultures. By emigrating, Calvinists could expand the kingdom of God and his church, find room, and become a majority culture.[14]

     In 1952, the editor of the Friesch Dagblad, reporting on the character of the numerous Frisian families departing for North America, wrote: "Although they wished to improve their lot, yet that can never be the one and only thing. The first question must remain: Can I with my family there in that far land, in the new fatherland, be helped in the building of spiritual life; can I also be a pioneer of Jesus Christ?"[15] This is the same mentality that instigated Van Raalte's trek in the 1840s.

     If I had time, I could talk about the centrality of the Bible in church education--catechism and Sunday school, in men's and women's societies, in psalm singing and choral societies, in evangelism, around the table at home--the so-called "family altar," in Christian day schools, and much more. But you know this as well as I do.

     My purpose had been to show that the Bible was the focal point of life among the Dutch Reformed in America. It sustained them as they faced privation, illness, and death. It fed their souls and enabled them to persevere. With such a trustworthy guide, they could hardly fail.





[1]. "Solders Reunion of the 25th Michigan Infantry," 22 Sept. 1875, in Gordon J. Spykman, Pioneer Preacher: Albertus Christiaan Van Raalte (Grand Rapids: Calvin College, 1976), 141-42.

[2]. A.C. Van Raalte, "Commemoration Address, 1872," in Henry S. Lucas, Dutch Immigrant Memoirs and Related Writings, revised edition (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997), 487.

[3]. Gordon Spykman, "The Van Raalte Sermons," Albertus Christiaan Van Raalte, 1811-1876-1976: Centennial Studies in Reformed Review 30 (Winter 1977): 95-96; Leonard Sweetman, From Heart to Heart: Letters from the Rev. Albertus Christiaan Van Raalte to his Wife, Christina Johanna Van Raalte-De Moen, 1836-1847 (Grand Rapids, 1997), 10-11.

[4]. Gordon Spykman, Pioneer Preacher, Albertus Christiaan Van Raalte; A Study of His Sermon Notes (Grand Rapids, 1976), 38.

[5]. Robert P. Swierenga, '"Pioneers for Jesus Christ:' Dutch Protestant Colonization in North America as an Act of Faith," in Sharing the Reformed Tradition: The Dutch North-American Exchange, 1846-1996, eds. George Harinck and Hans Krabbendam (Amsterdam: Free University Press, 1996), 35-55.

[6]. A. Brummelkamp and A.C. Van Raalte, Landverhuizing of waarom bevorden wij de volksverhuizing en wel naar Noord-Amerika en niet naar Java? (Amsterdam, 1846). Quoted from John Verbrugge's English translation in typescript, pp. 3, 7, 8, The Archives, Calvin College.

[7]. C.M. Budde-Stomp, (Burlington, Iowa) to J. Wormser-Van der Ven (Amsterdam), 1849, "Wormser 33," in Johan Stellingwerff, Robert P. Swierenga editor, Walter Lagerwey translator, Iowa Letters: Dutch Immigrants on the American Frontier [published in 1976 as Amsterdamse emigranten: onbekende brieven uit de prairies van Iowa, 1846-1873 (forthcoming, Grand Rapids; Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003).

[8]. Hendrik P. Scholte, Tweede stem uit Pella (1848), published in English translation by Robert P. Swierenga, ed., "A Place of refuge," Annals of Iowa, Third Series 39 (Summer 1968): 321-57.

[9]. Johan Stellingwerff, ed., Iowa Letters, 34.

[10]. Letter of C. Vander Meulen, Holland, Michigan 8 Oct. 1847, to the church community in Goes, Netherlands. Published in a pamphlet by Widow C.W. de Jonge, Aan al mijne geliefde vrienden in Nederland (Goes, Jan. 1848); Gerrit Baay, 4 Jan. 1849, to "Dear Friends in Holland." The letter was published in pamphlet form in Amsterdam in 1849. An English translation, "Dear Friends Back Home," is published in Delta (Sept. 1959): 26-35 (quote 34).

[11]. Derk Natelborg, "Memoirs," Chicago, Dec. 23, 1890, provided by great-great grandson Robert Zwiers.

[12]. Stellingwerff, Iowa Letters, xxii; Mrs. H.S. van Hall-Schermbeek, ibid., 31.

[13]. "Geesje Vander Haar-Visscher Dairy, 1820-1901,"

Genemuiden, Netherlands & Holland, Mich. Translated from the Dutch by Clarence J. Jalving, Feb. 1954, Joint Archives of Holland, Hope College.

[14]. Ibid., 22-23.

[15]. J.D. Wildeboer, Friesland verliest zijn kinderen (Assen: Van Gorkum, 1954), 39.