Robert P. Swierenga, "Disloyal Dutch? Herman Hoeksema and the ‘Flag in Church’ Controversy during World War I"
Published in Origins, 25 (No. 2, 2007): 28-35
The First World War sparked a wave
of hyper-patriotism in the
Twenty-seven states enacted
sedition laws far more severe than the national model, most targeting Germans.
Iowa Governor William Harding in May 1918 unilaterally issued a "Language
Proclamation" that prohibited the use of any tongue but English on the
streets, in stores, in telephone conversations (all phones were then open party
lines), and in all worship services. The latter proviso presented the greatest
hardship for the recent Dutch immigrants and their clerics could only preach in
Dutch. Under the governor's edict, they had to struggle to use English or stand
down. Most chose the former course and fumbled for words. The
Such conciliatory gestures did not
assuage hyper-patriots bent on rooting out disloyalty. War hysteria gave the
nativists the opportunity to even the score. In some locales, anti-Dutch
sentiment boiled over into mob action. Ministers found burning crosses on the
parsonage lawn and farmers lost barns to the torch. In the vicinity of
Dutch leaders saw the troubles rooted in "old and deep-rooted jealousy caused by the prosperity of the Holland-Americans." Dutch farmers around New Sharon received threatening letters in the mail to "leave or be burned out." American farmers, it was reported, hired thugs to set fires for $50 or $100 per "job." The big barns of two farmers, G. Vos and an unidentified church elder, who had two sons serving in the army, were burned down one night. Another Hollander lost a new house he was about to occupy. At the deepest level, it was a cultural clash between Dutch Reformed immigrants and Yankee Protestants, who lived in close physical proximity but in entirely separate social worlds.
Hollanders elsewhere also found
themselves at risk during the wartime hysteria. In
Among Dutch Reformed immigrants,
members of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) were more vulnerable than those
of the RCA. The CRC had long prided itself for being the “Dutch church,”
whereas the historic RCA boasted of being an “American church.” It had dropped
the word “Dutch” from its official name in 1867 and was well assimilated into
American Protestant culture. The CRC did not delete the name "
The “Dutchness” of the CRC caused
major problems during the First World War. In January 1918, The Anchor, the
In nearby Holland, Michigan Reverend Herman Hoeksema of the Fourteenth Street CRC "stirred up a hornet's nest" in 1918 when he barred the American flag from his church sanctuary. The congregation was the first English-speaking body of that denomination in town and proud of its Americanizing ways. But, according to Hoeksema's logical mind, unfurling the nation’s banner in church was conceding too much to Caesar’s realm.
During World War I it was customary
to display both the American and the Christian flags in front of the sanctuary.
The Holland City News frequently
reported the raising of the American flag in local congregations. The
influential Third Reformed Church, the congregation of many professors at
At St. Francis Church, the Right
Reverend M. J. Gallagher of Grand Rapids, bishop of the diocese of Western
Michigan, came to preach “an appropriate sermon, bless the flag, and give a
solemn benediction” at a special Sunday evening service. The local press gave
his hour-long “address” extensive coverage. Gallagher stressed the
hyper-patriotism of Catholics, who “sent to the colors double their
proportionate share." Catholics totaled only one-sixth of the American
population, but made up 35 percent of the Army, 40 percent of the Marines, and
over 50 percent of the Navy. “If necessary,” Gallagher concluded in a spirit of
frenzied emotion, “the church would give its all, and would even sell its
churches and its plate[s] to give to the government the means to be used ‘that
this nation of the people, for the people, and by the people would not perish
from the earth.’” What better way to close than to quote Abraham Lincoln’s
The growing practice of linking God and country and blessing the American flag in worship services was too much for a strict Calvinist like Rev. Hoeksema. To honor the nation more than God smacked of a civil religion, not Christianity. The issue was joined for Hoeksema on Sunday morning, 10 February 1918, when he entered his pulpit and saw a flag on a staff in the front corner of the sanctuary. He said nothing until after the service, when he asked the consistory to have it removed before the evening service. They complied and that evening in the course of his sermon Hoeksema explained to the congregation that the flag “had no place in a church and that the national anthem should not be sung there.” Some congregants did not agree with their dominie and they broadcast his views far and wide. Understandably, in the charged atmosphere of the war, this brought an immediate public outcry.
Three local men, Frank Ledeboer, a physician, Jacob Geerlings, a mail carrier, and Bert Slagh, a storekeeper, appointed themselves a committee of three, and within two days they called on Hoeksema to “discuss” his beliefs and let him know that “some indignation had been aroused” around town by his rumored remarks. The trio took along a reporter for the Holland Daily Sentinel, so that Hoeksema's words could be fodder for a front-page story, under the headline, "Pastor Asked to Explain by Committee." According to the newspaper, “a spirited discussion ensued” and the dominie would not yield an inch. Hoeksema insisted that the Christian church, “as the manifestation of Christ’s body on earth, is universal in character; hence the church as an institution could not raise the American flag nor sing the national hymns.” The flag could be flown in the church edifice during choir concerts, Christian school graduation exercises, and similar events, but not during worship services. Members should also raise the flag at home, on the streets, and on all public and Christian school buildings. Hoeksema insisted that his congregants, as Christian citizens, “are duty bound to be loyal to their country” and to answer the call when needed for military service. Finally, he declared, “anyone who is pro-German in our time has no right to the name of Calvinist and is a rebel and traitor to his government.”
Reverend Peter P. Cheff, minister of Hope Reformed Church, jumped into the fray immediately by penning a piece for the newspaper that challenged his colleague’s contention that the universal nature of the church precluded honoring the American flag. Hoeksema’s “proposition is illogical and wrong,” Cheff declared. “Does this universality exclude nationalism? Cannot a man love humanity and be a patriot just the same? Isn’t it perfectly proper to show one’s colors and not at all clash with the universal character of the church? If theology makes a man ‘neutral’ while in the house of prayer on the Sabbath, God deliver us from such theology.” Cheff continued: “The life of the church is interwoven with the life of the world so that you cannot separate the universal aspect of Christianity from the local colors.” Having dismissed Hoeksema’s argument, Cheff would not lay down his pen before levying one more broadside; he charged the Dutch dominie with poisoning the “minds of men” by raising the “adder of disloyalty.” Cheff concluded: “I believe I voice the sentiment correctly when I claim that the best element feel aggrieved and somewhat humiliated by the acute situation which has developed in our midst.”
Within the week, Gerrit J. Diekema,
former Fifth District U.S. Congressman and
The attacks on his patriotism forced Hoeksema to respond with a long letter, which the paper published in its entirety alongside Cheff’s letter. “Every citizen has a right to absolutely fair treatment,” declared the Holland City News editor sanctimoniously. But he gave Diekema equal space for a refutation that immediately followed Hoeksema’s defense. Doubtless, the editor saw the newspaper war of words as a boon to sales.
Hoeksema responded with three main points, modeling the structure of his sermonizing, and he insisted he was speaking in defense both of himself and his entire denomination. He began on a questionable point, however, by asserting that the Protestant Reformation turned on the issue of religious liberty and the principle of the separation of church and state, which was embodied in the “laws of our own dear country.” This placed the emphasis on political theory, rather than Luther’s cardinal theological points of salvation by grace alone and sola scriptura. 
In his first point, Hoeksema took
the typical debater's tactic of insisting that his critics misunderstood the
distinction he made between posting the flag during divine worship and at other
times. He only opposed the former, not the latter. “You may be surprised to
[find] Old Glory even in my own church building sometimes.” Not only did he
honor the flag, he was willing to die for his country. “I am fully prepared to
give my life for the country," said the dominie, but “I am no less
prepared to do the same for the truth of the word of God.” The war was just,
Hoeksema noted, and he fully supported the president. He had never condoned the
German tactics of sinking merchant ships and mercilessly marching through
Having stated his personal views on
the patriotism and war, and hopefully disarming his critics, Hoeksema developed
his second point on the Biblical and doctrinal necessity of citizens to support
and pray for their government. He referred to historic Calvinism and the
Heidelberg Catechism, which Diekema and Cheff, as Reformed adherents, were also
duty bound to uphold. In the third and final part of his statement, Hoeksema
asserted his beliefs about the spiritual nature of the church. “In the
Diekema enjoyed a fight as much as Hoeksema. In Diekema's mind, the “self-delusional” cleric had displayed an “utter hopeless lack of good sense.” During war is no time for community leaders to waffle on patriotism. Everyone must together fight the Kaiser and his master, the devil. The German “beast, armed with the greatest and cruelest military machine the world has ever seen,” is bent on “world domination through terrorizing humanity with murder and rape.” This beast had already devoured millions, Diekema continued as he warmed to his work, and "the very earth is trembling under our feet” and the “fate of humanity hangs in the balance.” At a time when “our sons and daughters are sinking to the bottom of the sea, are dropping from airships, crushed to earth, and are baring their breasts to German bombs and shrapnel, anyone [who] wastes his time in theological hair-splitting, rather than sincere patriotic effort, … is guilty of conduct which is next to treason…. If the shoe fits,” Hoeksema must “wear it.”
Diekema then “hit below the belt”
by quoting reactions of Hoeksema’s own congregation to their pastor’s sermon.
“My blood ran cold,” said one. “I wanted to leave the church but seemed frozen
to my pew.” Another averred that his pastor was “such a good preacher but seems
to be such a poor American.” A third was more nuanced in his reaction. “I do
not believe he is so wrong at heart but he is unfortunate in his expressions.”
That Hoeksema caused his parishioners pain and distress was bad enough, said
Diekema, but that he gave comfort to the enemy was totally unacceptable.
Further, Hoeksema wrongly asserted that he spoke for his entire denomination,
when his fellow CRC pastors, Marinus Van Vessum of First Zeeland, John H.
Geerlings of North Street Zeeland, and U.S. Chaplain Leonard Trap at
Diekema concluded with a ringing
endorsement of unbridled patriotism. “This is a Christian nation. Our flag
represents God and Country. It is the emblem of Purity, Truth, Loyalty,
In addition to giving Cheff and Diekema space to refute Hoeksema, the Holland City News ran two more stories on the “flag in church” controversy. One noted that the Saturday evening edition of the Holland Sentinel had sold out as soon as it hit the streets and that at least two congregations—Hope Reformed and the Methodist Episcopal Church, had burst into spontaneous applause during Sunday morning worship services when their pastors mentioned the rightness of flying the flag in church.
The other story favorably reported
an “out-spoken” oration on the “flag in church” controversy by editor Booth of
the Grand Rapids Press in a
well-attended Sunday evening service at the Methodist Episcopal Church in
Holland, in which the American and congregational service flags were unfurled.
Booth had earlier driven Van Lonkhuyzen out of
Within a month of Hoeksema’s “flag
in church” sermon, he declined letters of call from three congregations, two in
That leading voices in the Grand
Rapids CRC would not back the young cleric in
The newspaper report failed to note that atop the pulpit Bible that morning, Hoeksema had found a note, signed by the American Protective League, that read: "This flag must and shall remain in this place." It is reported that the "ensuing uproar, especially among the better folk in town, prompted [Rev. Hoeksema] to carry a pistol, which he threatened to use one night on some vigilantes near his home."
Hoeksema’s principled position against civil religion was further undermined the same week when a sister church, Maple Avenue CRC, at a congregational meeting voted “with a great deal of enthusiasm” to place the American flag in their sanctuary, along with a congregational service flag. The decision clearly had the approbation of the consistory and the pastor, Rev. John P. Battema.
Following the July 1918 flag
That Herman Hoeksema was right, biblically and theologically, to challenge unbridled patriotism within the walls of the Christian Church, is beyond question. But Hoeksema's analysis was surprisingly simplistic. He drew on the patristic tradition to argue for the universality of the Christian church, but made no attempt to develop a doctrine of the church in relation to the state, such as, for example, his contemporary Rienhold Niebuhr did. In Niebuhr’s typology, Calvinists believed in transforming culture, not being made captive by it. But the dominie lost the propaganda war. In a time of national crisis, most Americans equated God and country, and saw Christianity and patriotism to be one and the same holy crusade against German totalitarianism and militarism.
One of the remarkable aspects of the controversy was the contrasting views of Reformed and Christian Reformed believers. The two churches shared a common ethnic and religious heritage, yet the differing rate of Americanization kept them apart. The “Dutch” Christian Reformed Church, which had gathered in most of the immigrants since the 1880s and sought to hold American cultural influences at bay, was better able to hold the line against the worship of national icons.
The Reformed Church, on the other
hand, was thoroughly acculturated by 1917 and saw no conflict between American
As CRC citizens have Americanized, many now also display flags in church sanctuaries during worship services and have adopted other patriotic gestures, with little thought to the theological implications. But some members, especially immigrants of the 1950s, recognized the myopia and challenged this mixing of God and country. They reminded fellow believers that they belong to a heavenly kingdom that is not of this world. Indeed, in 1984, the Worship Committee of the Fourteenth Street CRC decided to remove all flags from the sanctuary, and when a member objected, the elders stood behind their committee. On this point, at least, Hoeksema's was finally vindicated.
 Holland City News, 11 July 1918; letter of Rev. Sytze De Bruine, De Hollandsche Amerikaan (Kalamazoo), 3 June 1918 (translation by Nella Kennedy); James P. Dahm and Dorothy Van Kooten in Peoria, Iowa: A Story of Two Cultures, With an In Depth Look at the Hollander Fires (rev. ed., Pella, Iowa: 1993), 80-81.
 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 ed., Adriaan de Wit, translator (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1985), 760-63.
The Anchor (Hope College), January 1918; Michigan Tradesman, 16 January 1918, both cited in Henry Beets's editorial, "Our Peoples Loyalty Under a Cloud," Banner, 14 March 1918, 180-82.
 Van Lonkhuyzen, "Speelen met Vuur" [Playing with Fire], De Wachter, 16 June 1915, translated by William Buursma; Grand Rapids News, 3 July, 29 July 1915; Grand Rapids Press, 3 July, 4 November 1915; Holland City News, 4 November 1915.
 Jacob E. Nyenhuis, Centennial History of the Fourteenth Street Christian Reformed Church, Holland, Michigan 1902-2002 (Holland, MI: 2002), 13-14; Holland City News, 14 February 1918; Holland Daily Sentinel, 13 February 1918; Michigan Tradesman, 6 March 1918.
 Ibid, 28 June 1917; 7 March, 14 March, 21 March, 30 May 1918.
 Ibid, 14 March 1918.
 Gertrude Hoeksema, Therefore Have I Spoken: A Biography of Herman Hoeksema (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1969), 81-82, which extensively quotes the Holland Daily Sentinel articles of 13-18 February 1918.
 Ibid, 21 February 1918.
 Ibid, 28 Feb., 14 March, 11 April 1918; Beets,
"Our People's Loyalty Under a Cloud," 180-81. Beets also published a
lecture of Rev. R.B. Kuiper of the Sherman Street CRC of Grand Rapids, entitled
"Christian Patriotism," which he had delivered at
 James D. Bratt and Christopher H. Meehan, Gathered at the River:
 Ibid, 22 January 1920.
 Brian Brooks,
 Fourteenth Street CRC, Consistory Minutes, 28 March 1984, as quoted in Nyenhuis, Centennial History, 133.