Robert P. Swierenga, "Freedom of the Press or Prior Censorship: Albertus C. Van Raalte and Hermanus Doesburg of The Hollander"
to the Sixteenth Biennial Conference of the Association for the Advancement of
Dutch American Studies,
[Published in revised form as "Press Censorship: Rev. Albertus C. Van Raalte and Hermanus Doesburg of De Hollander," pp. 171-82, in Dutch American Arts and Letters in Historical Perspective eds., Jack Nyenhuis, Robert P. Swierenga, and Nella Kennedy (Holland, MI: Van Raalte Press, 2008)]
In 1852 the
Reverend Albertus C. Van Raalte, leader of the
Right of Prior Censorship
The Allegan partners agreed to
allow Van Raalte the "privilege" of filling the Dutch-language half
of the paper and, more important, they gave him total editorial control. The
cleric, in turn, promised to line up subscribers among the colonists and to
enlist his fellow church leaders in the effort. At the October 30, 1850 meeting
of the Classis of Holland, Van Raalte informed the brethren of the new
"Holland Weekly" and "urged the father of every family to take
it and preserve it for the benefit of his children." He urged his friends
to stand with him. "In unity there is strength," he declared, in the
words of the motto of the House of Orange. The Reverends Cornelius Vander
Van Raalte laid out his rationale
for the paper in a lengthy editorial, entitled "To the Hollanders."
He lamented the fact that while he found much in the American press to nourish
the "mind and heart," his followers were entirely cut off from
"these treasures" by the language barrier, a lack of the money, and
the daily cares of life. The Hollander would guide and nurture the Dutch
to become useful citizens in the
Van Raalte failed to deliver the
promised financial support, and Hawks and Bassett began to carp at him. This
prompted him to complain to his consistory about Hawks' "many capricious
actions," which "have greatly frustrated the actual purpose of the
paper." Starting a newspaper on the frontier was always risky, and the
poverty of the Dutch immigrants made it all the more problematic. Within a
year, Hawks was ready to cut his losses. He offered to sell the paper "cheaply"
to Van de Wall and Hermanus Doesburg, a schoolteacher in
In his dealing with Van de Wall and Doesburg, Van Raalte laid down two conditions. First, he must have full and exclusive control over the contents of the paper. Second, every article and letter to the editor must be submitted to him for approval prior to publication! The pair agreed; the cleric would have the right of censorship of the most direct kind.
That he demanded such tight control
should not be surprising. Van Raalte grew up in an
American political leaders, notably
Thomas Jefferson, had demanded as much under the common law of seditious libel.
They insisted that newspaper editors censor items deemed too negative or
hostile to their persons and policies. Jefferson and other top government
officials often filed lawsuits for slander against critics who hit too hard.
This was an improvement, at least, over using the code of the duel to defend
the honor of one's name, as Aaron Burr did against Alexander Hamilton. Editors
were free, by
Politics and the Press
Van Raalte's demand for prior censorship went far beyond the common law of prior restraint, and his arrangement with Doesburg and Van de Wall was a recipe for disaster. It depended on continued cooperation between the two managing partners, the weekly submission of the contents to Van Raalte before setting type, and on his raising the necessary working capital in the East.
Nothing went as planned. Doesburg and Van de Wall were at loggerheads over editorial policy; their relationship "left something to be desired," Van Raalte noted. Very likely, politics was the sore point. The upcoming 1852 presidential campaign was the first in which the Dutch were eligible to vote. The Hollander was a Democratic sheet, but Van de Wall held strong Whig views.
For his part, the dominie was caught up in his busy life and family illnesses, and his eastern friends failed to contribute as expected. The business of the paper suffered. Recognizing his part in the difficulties, Van Raalte gave up his share of the profits to his partners, provided that they put 10 percent of the profits back into the business. Worst of all, from Van Raalte's perspective, his partners increasingly were negligent in sending him copy before the paper went to press.
By early 1852 Van de Wall felt his
position was no longer tenable. Since he and Doesburg "could not
agree," Van de Wall sold his interest to him and moved to
Van Raalte decided to use the lever he controlled, namely, consistorial authority. He arranged to meet Doesburg at the home of deacon Aldert Plugger, along with Jacob Labots, elder and clerk of consistory, and deacon Teunis Keppel. All were city merchants and "solid citizens." Here Van Raalte admonished the editor and reasserted his right to monitor the contents before publication, as was originally agreed.
Doesburg, in his defense, "pointed out the slovenliness and the neglect of Rev. van Raalte" and his failure to raise the monies. Were it not for the editor's hard labors and that of his sons, the paper would have already been discontinued. Moreover, the dominie had in a "hateful way" made his sons, who worked in the printery, "to be like servants," treating them with disrespect. That the sons were only fourteen and twelve years old doubtless gave Van Raalte reason to brush them off. Editors had to live by deadlines; censors did not. And editors had to pay the bills, even when benefactors failed to do so.
The consistorial brethren cut Doesburg little slack, although he was a highly respected schoolmaster ("de Meester") even in the Old Country. Despite the dominie's "shortcomings," the publisher had no "right to destroy the agreement." Doesburg reluctantly accepted the rebuke. Van Raalte also admitted his faults, and promised to pay "reparations" and assume all debts, in exchange for having exclusive authority once again.
The latest agreement was no better than previous ones. Van Raalte did not raise the operating capital and Doesburg again went on the offensive against the dominie, opening the pages to "any malcontent who wishes to set ablaze a fire of controversy." So Van Raalte claimed. The blaze came from an unsigned article with the inflammatory title, "The Pope and His Cardinals" (meaning Van Raalte and his consistory). The missive, supposedly submitted by a Zeelander, castigated the churchmen for extending their ecclesiastical authority into secular affairs. The article stung deeply and reverberated widely, since it undercut God-ordained leaders and revealed sharp divisions between the two villages.
Van Raalte complained bitterly
about Doesburg's "misuse" of the paper and demanded an end to
scurrilous personal attacks. "The most recent articles make it clear that
everything that is precious and good is at stake here," he declared.
"Our good name in civic and ecclesiastical circles is scandalized…. This
contributes to the devastation of pastoral and ecclesiastical rule, and the
entire reason for our being here as a Christian people who proclaim the truth
will be destroyed." Unless Doesburg yielded, the dominie predicted
"disastrous consequences," even to the point that he might be forced
"to leave this place." To make his point, Van Raalte actually went to
Church and Press
By threatening to leave the colony in the lurch, Van Raalte raised the ante and alarmed his consistory greatly. They declared: "The brothers are all in agreement that this weighty situation requires that the paper be returned to the influence of Rev. Van Raalte." And they agreed to go en masse to Doesburg to persuade him to yield. In return, the elders asked the dominie to allow Doesburg and his sons to continue to "earn their daily bread" with the paper. The church minutes, in Labots' hand, state: "Van Raalte reluctantly agrees."
So severe was the crisis that Van Raalte and the consistory called a second special meeting. On April 6, 1852 four elders and three deacons gathered with their pastor to address the question, May a member of the congregation "slander others," particularly his own pastor? "This is happening," Van Raalte cried, "because Mr. Doesburg is permitting filthy slander to appear in his newspaper."
The brothers stood solidly with their leader, but they wanted to tread softly. They raised a number of caution flags. First, before anyone can be admonished, the anonymous writers must be identified. Second, "we must be extremely careful, particularly in times of confusion, since many ordinary members are being led astray." Third, the brethren explained, "we do not wish to give the appearance of seeking to hinder the freedom of the press, nor do we wish to be accused of a party spirit. Nor do we wish to be accused of robbing a poor man of the opportunity to make a living. The latter must be particularly avoided, so that the situation is not made worse."
The consistory then reached a conclusion that must have upset Van Raalte greatly. They decided "for the time being, to take a wait and see attitude concerning the development of this wickedness." Furthermore, they would not use ecclesiastical discipline, but "admonish" Doesburg "on an ongoing basis…in the capacity of friends who give him advice." A situation that the Pope viewed as the ultimate threat to the colony and to his continuing ministry, the cardinals took as lightly as a passing storm.
The lukewarm approach of his
consistory prompted Van Raalte to turn to a higher ecclesiastical body, the
Classis of Holland. At the next consistory meeting, he asked that the
"misuse of the weekly" be brought to a special meeting of the
Classis. The brethren gave only lukewarm approval. We "have no objection
to this," they noted, but it might be "wise to wait for the proper
time and opportunity." Further, they "advise caution, so that no
offense is given to the
Van Raalte plunged ahead anyway,
and a contingent of the Classis assembled on May 8th in the
Following proper church order
procedure, Bolks asked first whether the
Having disposed of the Doesburg
case, the assembly turned to the prominent businessman Jan Binnekant, another
occasional writer for the newspaper who had also penned a letter deemed to be
insulting of Van Raalte. Binnekant owned
a hotel on the central corner of
Doeburg's public acts of contrition did not end the matter. Rumors circulated almost immediately that Ypma had coerced him, and that the editor's words in church were "not genuine." Apparently, his statement in the paper did not jib with his words in church. This rumor riled Van Raalte all the more. It "makes a mockery of the public confession of sin," he cried, and "places the labors of God's sincere office bearers in a bad light." The pastor at the next meeting of his consistory, on May 21, demanded that Doesburg again stand before the congregation and speak in such a clear way as to set all rumors aside. Until then he was to remain cut off from the sacrament.
Van Raalte also prepared a written statement, adopted by the consistory, to be read publicly in church the next Sunday that warned the flock against "anarchy, mischief, and accumulation of sin." The members had objected to Doesburg's slander, and then slandered him in return. The pastor warned his congregants "not to speak against a brother who has made a tearful confession of sin." Such "superficial judgments…not only accuse the brother of hypocrisy but also stain the good name of Rev. Ypma and that of the office bearers of the church…. As a result, confession of sin in God's congregation becomes a farce and a game." The "congregational misery" had to end and the dominie hoped that his strong actions would accomplish that purpose and prevent the body from becoming a "victim of anarchy."
The trouble that Van Raalte feared broke out when Doesburg came to church the next Sunday, expecting to participate again in Holy Communion, which quarterly celebration happened to fall on that day. The custom was for communicants to sit around the long communion table in front and pass the "common cup." To guard the table from being desecrated by "unworthy" participants, two elders stationed themselves, one at each end of the table. According to Engbertus Van der Veen, a local hardware merchant and eyewitness,
one of the elders who did not know that a reconciliation had been effected with the consistory saw Doesburg take his seat among those who intended to receive Holy Communion. Taking Doesburg by the shoulders, with much patience, he requested him to leave the table, which caused a great commotion. Doesburg became very excited, stood up, and declared that he understood that on the day before all had been forgiven. Thereupon, the members of the consistory corroborated his statements; and peace was restored, whereupon Doesburg was permitted to sit down.
"Needless to say," said the historian Jacob Van Hinte wryly, for an incensed elder to manhandle a parishioner in front of the entire congregation "caused quite a tumult" and greatly embarrassed the dominie.
The misery did not end here. Within
days, Rev. Vander Meulen of
Van Raalte was inclined to overlook Vander Meulen's "attack" in the Hollander, but three of his parishioners, Johannes Hellenthal, Abraham Krabshuis, and B.W. Kooyers, appeared before the consistory on June 10, 1852 and demanded that the body do more to defend their pastor and "restore and maintain the good honor of his name." The men testified that they heard Van Raalte complain that the continuing slander in the newspaper "made his work in the congregation impossible." Further, they "fear that there is a barrier in our midst, making it impossible for the Lord to dwell in our fellowship with his blessing." Van Raalte had said much the same thing earlier, but the visitors seemed to reinforce his concerns. When asked what should be done, the trio replied: "Rev. Vander Meulen should be admonished and required publicly to confess in the above-mentioned paper of the error of his way." Failing this, the consistory should ask the Classis to "deal with the matter,…so that the wounds that the congregation has incurred may be healed."
Van Raalte counseled "great patience." He need not defend himself against his colleague; better "to bear patiently and in warm love to respond." Moreover, the issue was moot, since Vander Meulen had recently announced that he was laying down his pen and ending his involvement with the newspaper. The "bitterness will be of a temporary and passing nature," Van Raalte assured his consistory, and the brothers concurred. They would not confront Vander Meulen or appeal to the Classis. Instead, they prayed for a "loving heart filled with a willingness to forgive, so that we may dwell in love…. We may not run ahead of the matter, but are to wait upon the Lord, who will ultimately confirm the right and punish or convert sinners."
Dutch Gossip Grapevine
The efficient immigrant gossip
grapevine broadcast Van Raalte's troubles nationwide within a matter of weeks.
Editors themselves contributed to the gossip by exchanging newspapers free of
charge for "clipping;" in this case between Doesburg's Hollander and
Jacob Quintus's De Sheboygan Nieuwsbode, the first (1849) and widest
circulating Dutch-language newspaper in
One of Quintus's "sources" in
Things are sad, very sad,
here! You should know that Van Raalte, not two weeks ago, has informed his
people that in these circumstances he can't preach anymore. He has absented
himself and has gone off to
This confession is being contested by us, on the grounds of its being an untruth. Doesburg does not deny this, but he seeks to protect himself by stating that he did not make such a confession, although he really did (What, now, can one expect of such a man.)…. In the meantime, this is the fact; Doesburg has made the confession on promise that the Consistory would bring the whole thing to an end.
A general meeting would be called and they, the authors, would openly defend their writing, and whoever was discovered to be the guilty party, would not escape the rod. But what do I find now. Since Doesburg has made his confession; he pretends to be innocent in any further publication, and they [the Consistory] do not desire a public meeting. They just want the names of the writers in order to scourge them. Now I ask you, what can one expect from such a procedure? The Consistory, says Ypma, is not merely innocent, but they felt themselves too weak to maintain discipline. Otherwise, they would have proceeded long ago to take measures, as have now been taken.…
What do you think
of our liberty? Isn't it worse than in the
Vermeulen [Cornelius Vander Meulen] has made public confession at the Classis meeting that he is the author of the articles in the Hollander. They taunt him indirectly; they do not dare to go after him, for they do not challenge him. But if they do approach him, he intends to tear himself away from our Church's fellowship and possibly join the Scottish congregation.
I dare not make a statement what the result will be. They should leave in peace. Our friend Binnekant, however, is the dupe by signing "JB" under his article; he has been put under discipline. Nevertheless, we will assist him, and he will present the matter at Classis, and if that does not help, then at Synod [the highest church assembly]…. Many often think to move, among whom I also belong, at least, if the system now adopted will be maintained, that the Church is going to govern in civil matters.
Vander Sluis's letter overstates
the case against Van Raalte and damages Vander Meulen's reputation with an
assertion that he threatened schism, which seems out of character for the
mild-mannered pastor. Nor do the minutes of the Classis of Holland make mention
of any confession or threat to secede by the
Raalte's test of wills with Doesburg came at a critical juncture in the life of
the colony and its founder. The desperate early years of hunger, privation, and
cholera deaths had passed away and the colonists were prospering. No longer was
Van Raalte essential to their survival in the primal forests. Now they had time
and energy to fight over religion and politics. The 1851 caucus was the opening
salvo in the political rivalry between
Van Raalte's troubles with The
Hollander proved that his Old World outlook did not fare well in democratic
 Jacob Van Hinte, Netherlanders in America: A Study of Emigration and Settlement in the Nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the United States of America, 2 vols., Robert P. Swierenga, general editor, Adriaan de Witt, translator, (Dutch edition, 1928, English edition, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 241.
 From 28 Dec. 1850 (first issue) to 2 May 1855, the masthead read The Hollander. From 16 May 1855 to 15 July 1857, the paper carried two mastheads, The Hollander for the English-language edition and De Hollander for the Dutch-language edition. From 15 July 1857 until the paper ceased publication on 24 Dec. 1894, the paper published only in Dutch under the title De Hollander. It remained a Democratic sheet.
 30 Oct. 1850, Art. 5, Classis Holland Minutes, 1848-1858 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950), 40-41; Rev. A.C. Van Raalte, "To the Hollanders," De Hollander, 30 Nov. 1850, HMA; Henry S. Lucas, Netherlanders in America: Dutch Immigration to the United States and Canada, 1789-1950 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1955; reprinted, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 132; Grand Rapids Enquirer, 18 Dec. 1850, as cited in Lucas, Netherlanders in America, 531-32.
 Van Raalte, "Address," De Hollander, 30 Nov. 1850; Consistory Minutes, First Reformed Church of Holland, 5 Feb. 1852 (hereafter Consistory Minutes)
Consistory Minutes, 5 Feb. 1852, Art. 2. Doesburg (1809-93), a schoolteacher at
Den Hitsert (gemeente Zuid-Beijerland,
 Leonard W. Levy, Emergence of a Free Press (New York: Oxford, 1985), 343-49, and passim; Levy, Legacy of Suppression: Freedom and Speech and Press in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), 297-308
 Lucas, Netherlanders in
 Consistory Minutes, 5 Feb. 1852, Art. 2 for this and the following six paragraphs.
 Van Raalte's going to Kalamazoo is noted by Oswald D. Vander Sluis in a letter to "Dear Friend Hein," that was published in De Sheboygan Nieuwsbode, 9 Mar. [actually ca. 20 April] 1852, English translation by Peter T. Moerdyke in P. T. Moerdyke Papers, HMA. That Van Raalte believed in authority was derived from the Bible is shown clearly in the sermon he preached at the opening of the Holland Classis in Grand Rapids in 1859 on the text form Hebrews 13:17a, "Obey your leaders and submit to their authority," translated by Henry ten Hoor, in Elton Bruins' A. C. Van Raalte Collection, A. C. Van Raalte Institute, Hope College (hereafter VRI).
 Ibid, 6 Apr. 1852, Art. 2, for this and the next paragraph.
 Ibid, 22 Apr. 1852, Art. 4-5. The meeting was apparently not an official assembly, since the minutes of Classis contain no record of it.
Throughout the entire controversy, the minutes of the
 Ibid, 8
May 1852, Art. 3-5 for this and the next paragraphs. Classis delegated Rev.
 Ibid, 21 May 1852, Art. 4 for this and the next paragraph. Unfortunately, all the relevant issues of The Hollander surrounding this controversy are no longer extant. They were either destroyed in the 1871 fire, or someone set them apart and they were subsequently lost.
 Engbertus Van der Veen, "Life Reminiscences," in Henry S. Lucas, Dutch Immigrant Memoirs and Related Writings, 2 vols. (Assen: Van Gorkum, 1955, revised edition, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997) 1:504; Jacob Van Hinte, Netherlanders in America, 447, 1060.
 Van der Veen, "Reminiscences," in Lucas, Memoirs, 1:512.
 Consistory Minutes, 10 June 1852, Art. 4.
 Editorial, Sheboygan Nieuwsbode, 9 Mar. 1852, translated by Peter T. Moerdyke, HMA; Letter, J. Quintus, Sheboygan, Wis., to A. C. Van Raalte, 6 Mar. 1854, Henry ten Hoor (VRI).
O.D. Vander Sluis to "Dear Friend Hein," undated, but ca. 9 May 1852. H. Vander Ploeg gave a copy of
the original to Gerrit Van Schelven on 16 May 1912, and Peter T. Moerdyke
subsequently translated it into English. Only the English translation
typescript survives in the P.T. Moerdyke Papers, Holland Museum Archives.
Vander Sluis immigrated in July 1848 and reported his occupation as lumberman
in the 1850 census. By 1860 he was a bookkeeper at the Michigan State Prison in
 Robert P. Swierenga and Elton J. Bruins, Family Quarrels in the Dutch Reformed Churches in the Nineteenth Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 69-75; Consistory Minutes, 26 Aug. 1856, Art. 4; 12 Nov. 1856, Art. 5; 18 Nov. 1856, Art. 5.