True Brothers: The Netherlandic Origins of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, 1857-1880
Robert P. Swierenga, Research Professor, A.C. Van Raalte Institute, Hope College
The Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) had its official beginning in the United States in 1857, but all the founding members were Dutch-born and their beliefs were rooted in the Reformed community of the fatherland, especially the religious revival of the 1820s and 1830s, known as the Afscheiding. The founding pastors of the Holland colony--Albertus Van Raalte, Cornelius Van der Meulen, Maarten Ypma, Seine Bolks, and Hendrik G. Klijn, were Seceders from the Hervormde Kerk. Seceders dominated in the first immigrant wave; some 13,000 emigrated between 1845 and 1880 and they comprised 65 percent of all emigrants in the peak years 1846-1849. In 1847, the founding year of the major colonies in Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin, 79 percent of all emigrants were Seceders. This was at a time when barely one percent of the Dutch populace were Seceders. Such an intense and focused migration of a religious minority gave them a strong presence far out of proportion to their numbers. Clearly, if there had been no Afscheiding, life among the Dutch in North America would have been markedly different.
The immigrants brought their religion in their baggage, so to speak, and church life in America continued the controversies and ways of behavior that had been part of life in the Old Country. Seceders were wary of synods and educated elites, quick to gather for worship in conventicles (gezelschappen) under lay preachers (oefenaars), and devotedly attached to trusted teachers of a pietist bent (the "old writers"). Seceders revered historic Dutch Calvinism as formulated in the Dort Church Order and Canons, but they could not agree on its contemporary relevance or utility, nor could they surmount the theological controversies regarding election and human responsibility that stirred the churches since the great Synod.
The three major factions were the southern "center" party of A. Brummelkamp and A.C. Van Raalte, the H.P. Scholte "left" party in the west, and the northern "right" party of H. De Cock, H. Jöffers, and S. Van Velzen in the north. The northern party defended the doctrine, liturgy, and polity of Dort as Biblically grounded and stressed the need for catechetical instruction and Christian schools, given the "Godless influence" in the public schools. The southern party was more broad-minded, inclusivistic, and even tempered; they stressed experiential piety and evangelism to the point that some charged them with Arminian leanings. They did not glory in the Secession but rather longed to return to the national church, provided that its leaders were willing to seek a Bible-based reformation. The northern faction had steel in their bones, while the southern party had rubber.
The parties in the Seceder churches presage the future divisions in America, which carried on the old battles but with a new issue thrown in, that of Americanization. As Herbert Brinks explained cogently: "Though the general lines of descent display astounding complexities, it is clear that the Christian Reformed Church . . . originated from De Cock's adherents while the Reformed Church in America attracted Van Raalte and his disciples."
This was the case particularly among the clergy. Of the 114 clerics ordained in the CRCNA from 1857 to 1900, every one had been affiliated with the Afscheiding and three-quarters (88) originated in the northern provinces. Of the 116 Dutch-born clerics ordained in the midwestern classes of the Reformed Church in America (RCA) in the years 1846-1900, only one-quarter (30) were of the Afscheiding and only 42 percent (49) were from the northern provinces. This was less than half as many as among the CRCNA ministers. The honored status of the dominies in the immigrant community gave them a special role in molding opinion.
Union or independence
The central issue the Dutch immigrants faced was that of Americanization. Would they remain faithful disciples of the Afscheiding in a strange land and keep their ties to the mother church, with its mentality of separatism and suspicion of autocratic synods, or would they cut themselves loose and quickly integrate into America Dutch Reformed Christianity? Van Raalte pushed them in the direction of assimilation, but a substantial minority refused to go along. They feared that a merger with the RCA would cut them off from their roots and lead to apostasy. It is useful to know who made up that minority and what their complaints were. That may tell us something about the origins of the CRCNA.
The immigrants from the outset were of two minds, one separatist and oriented to the Afscheiding church in the homeland, and the other ecumenical and desirous of reaching out to fellow Reformed believers in the new homeland. Initially in 1848, the Dutch congregations in western Michigan led by the Van Raalte created an independent church organization, Classis Holland, which considered itself an extension of the Afscheiding church in the Netherlands. Within two years, however, Classis with its 1,000 members agreed to join the English-speaking RCA, centered in New York and New Jersey.
The initiative clearly came from the RCA, which was heavily committed to expanding into the Midwest but was finding the task extremely difficult. The Dutch immigrants, who would soon number in the tens of thousands, could be the nucleus for that church planting work. Rev. Isaac N. Wyckoff of Albany came to Holland in June 1849 as a representative of the RCA Board of Domestic Missions to encourage a merger. The ministers of the colony and many elders and interested members received Wyckoff "literally with a shout of joy," as he reported to Synod.
Several weeks after Wyckoff's visit and after discussions presumably had taken place in the congregations, the clerical leaders and twenty elders convened a second meeting at Van Raalte's home. Here they signed a statement, dated July 10, 1849 and written by Van Raalte, that expressed the desire to "live in communion" with the RCA. This statement is the only poll on the question and the signatories are worth considering. By congregation, thirteen of the twenty-four signatories were from Zeeland, seven represented Friesland, three were from Overisel, and one--Van Raalte himself--was from Holland. No church leader signed for the Graafschap, South Holland, Drenthe, and Grand Rapids congregations, including reverends Hendrik G. Klijn (Klyn) of Graafschap and K.S. Vander Schuur (Ver Schuur) of South Holland. Nor did any elder from Van Raalte's congregation in Holland sign it, which is most surprising. As such, this crucial document does not appear to speak for the colony as a whole.
This fact concerned Van Raalte greatly, according to an eyewitness. "Brethren, this is wrong," Van Raalte declared. "I warn you. If it later proves to be a mistake, then it is our fault. If we refer this to the congregations, and it is a mistake, then it is also the fault of the congregations." It appears that Classis heeded this warning and did consult with the individual consistories, but no minutes survive of any congregational meetings except in the Vriesland church. Most likely approved of union, but a later report states that a majority of the Graafschap consistory opposed it.
Nine months later, in April 1850, Classis commissioned Van Raalte to attend the Particular Synod at Albany with instructions "to give and to ask for all necessary information which may facilitate the desired union." This somewhat ambiguous statement about facilitating a "desired union" is as close to a formal decision as Classis ever took on the merger. After Van Raalte's most cordial welcome at the May Synodical meeting, that body and subsequently the General Synod agreed "that the Classis of Holland be received under the care of General Synod." This consummated the union, without further debate or action by the churches of Classis Holland. Classis never voted on a specific motion to join the RCA, either before or after the Synodical meetings, but it did state officially in April 1851 that the union was "a source of joy and gratitude."
Viewed pragmatically, the decision was a natural outgrowth of strengthening ties that had developed even prior to emigration between the Afscheiding leaders and their American cousins. The old Dutch Reformed met the young Dutch Reformed at customs; provided temporary lodging; gave food, clothing, and money to the destitute; and loaned several thousand dollars to purchase land. Monies and goods continued to flow to the Colony and helped it survive the difficult first years. Needless to say, these acts of kindness engendered much goodwill among the first contingents of Dutch dissenters during their "time of troubles."
Precursors to another secession
Even before the union of 1850, secession movements within Classis Holland had begun in two of the seven congregations, Graafschap and Drenthe, which provided a dress rehearsal for 1857. Both were Cocksian centers. In the Graafschap church, a faction from the provinces of Drenthe and Overijssel living in the hamlet of South Holland, led by wealthy landowner and elder Harm Jan Smit of Hoogeveen, Drenthe, in 1848 called as its pastor Rev. K.S. Vander Schuur, a student of De Cock who had pastored the Hoogeveen Seceder church for five years and was a protege of Smit.
When Rev. Klijn, a student of Scholte, arrived from the Netherlands in 1849 in answer to Graafschap's call to be its first pastor, he was surprised to find Vander Schuur already serving the congregation's South Holland splinter group. To head off conflict, Classis induced Vander Schuur to leave for the Grand Haven church. This frustrated the South Holland band and they made life miserable for Rev. Klijn, who soon left for the Milwaukee church. Klijn's centrist theological orientation not make him a good fit anyway in the Cocksian stronghold of Graafschap.
In 1851 Harm Jan Smit and the South Holland church induced Jacob R. Schepers, an 1848 immigrant who was studying for the ministry under Rev. C. Van der Meulen at Zeeland and had been licensed to "exhort" by Classis Holland, to come as unordained minister. Schepers, a native of Hijken (near Beilen) in the Province of Drenthe, had begun his ministerial apprenticeship in 1840 in the parsonage of De Cock's disciple, Walter A. Kok at Hoogeveen. Fellow students were Roelof Smit, Koene Vanden Bosch, and Willem H. Frieling. All later became leaders in the CRCNA. Thus, Walter Kok should be seen as the spiritual father of the American denomination, even though he never emigrated.
Neither Schepers nor the South Holland elders officially informed his pastor, Van der Meulen, or Classis Holland of this "call." Van Raalte attributed the oversight to Schepers' over- eagerness for a position. "Temptation overcame him." When the church asked Classis to install Schepers, it refused without first ordaining him, which regular church polity required. Schepers harbored objections against the RCA and did not want ordination in that body. Having become a friend of the Associate Reformed Church pastor in Gun Plains, Michigan, which was a conservative, psalm-singing, Scottish Calvinist body, Schepers in 1852 obtained ordination as an evangelist in that Presbytery, and the South Holland church effectively seceded from the RCA.
A second precursor of 1857 was the trial and deposition by Classis Holland in 1853 of the Reverend Roelof Smit of Rouveen, Province of Overijssel, who emigrated in 1851 to pastor the Michigan congregation of Drenthe. This church had a history of factiousness and strife, which was caused by a spirit of clannishness already rife in the old country that pitted people from the western Staphorst region against those from the eastern area of Emmen and Sleen. Indeed, already in 1849 Classis had to deal with the Drenthe consistory's expulsion and later excommunication of elder Jan Hulst of Staphorst.
Smit came into this troubled place and aligned himself with his compatriot Hulst and the like-minded Schepers. Within two weeks he reportedly had "already slandered Van Raalte." Smit and Hulst insisted on keeping the "feast days" that were mandated by the Dort church order, but which Classis Holland made optional on the flimsy grounds that it was impractical to force busy farmers to assemble for mid-week services. Smit even celebrated the Lord's Supper on such days, which did not sit well with the members who opposed special services and thus missed out on the sacrament.
In early 1853 five men from the Drenthe church complained to Classis that their pastor intended to "make the church secede," in the belief that Classis Holland was "sold to the Old Dutch Church by Van Raalte for a good purse of money." Smit condemned Classis's "papist lust for lordship" and refused to yield an inch. He did not want to hear his congregation say, "See, he is already swallowing another of Van Raalte's pills." Classis "rebuked" Smit for his "arbitrary and carnal conduct in oppressing the church" and urged both he and his critics to forgive and be reconciled. Within days Smit invited elders from every church in Classis to a raucous public meeting where he urged like-minded folks to consider seceding. In May Smit and two thirds of the Drenthe church seceded, and like Scheper's South Holland congregation, they too joined the Associate Reformed Church, known popularly as the "Schotse Kerk." Smit and Schepers together also organized a "Secession" church in Grand Haven in 1855. Roelof Smit may have been "an impossibly arbitrary and self-centered character," in the words of John Kromminga, yet he pastored a very faithful congregation which joined the CRCNA on his recommendation after his death in 1886.
A third secession movement took place in North Holland in 1855, led by Jacob Duim, a young man born near Noordeloos in the Province of Zuid Holland. Families from this region founded the colonies of Noordeloos and North Holland, Michigan. Duim brought a tradition of conventicle worship and distrust of Reformed churches. Though lacking formal training, he "claimed to be a minister or teacher and in sole possession of the truth." In 1855 he began conducting worship services, and drew members from the local congregation that Van Raalte had organized four years earlier. Duim accused Van Raalte of preaching the false doctrines of Jacob Arminius and condemned the ministers of Classis as "Baal-leaders and not leaders, but deceivers." They teach that Christians have "accepted" Christ but not that they have "received" Him. "The fault is with the learned, not with the unlearned," agreed his correspondent Paulus Den Bleyker, a fellow religious independent living in Kalamazoo. Duim promised to continue the reform of the church begun in 1834. "I still see a beam of light in Switzerland," he claimed, in reference to the Swiss Réveil that had sparked the Afscheiding. Schepers, Smit, and Duim were precursors of the secession of 1857 but had no direct role in it. This fell to Gysbert Haan, Koene Vanden Bosch, Abraham Krabshuis, and others.
Secession a second time
Gysbert Haan, a zealous elder in the Grand Rapids church who followed Simon van Velzen, is considered the father of the 1857 secession. After worshiping for a time in RCA churches in Albany and Rochester, Haan had in 1850 settled in western Michigan, where he brought reports of purported "irregularities" in the RCA. Many ministers and elders held membership in "secret societies" (masonic lodges) and churches practiced "open" (e.g. unregulated) communion, used choirs in worship services to the detriment of congregational singing, sang "man-made" hymns rather than the Davidic psalms, neglected catechism preaching, and harbored doctrinally unsound leaders. Haan's name appears regularly in the minutes of Classis Holland and his polemics, in the words of John Kromminga, "fed the fires of discontent."
Classis Holland judged Haan's charges of heterodoxy in the RCA to be groundless; Van der Meulen and Van Raalte both tried to dissuade him but without success. Haan was a troublemaker, they concluded, who manifested a "wrongness in his attitude of heart." In 1856, as Classis prepared to discipline him, Haan withdrew from the RCA, along with other lay leaders in the Grand Rapids, Holland, and Vriesland congregations. Despite his troublesome personality, Haan had posed the critical question: Why not abandon the tie to the RCA and remain true to the Seceder church in the Netherlands?
The subsequent arrival of new colonists brought reinforcements for the dissenters. Many such as the Noordeloos congregation of Dominie Koene Vanden Bosch (1818-1897) could not appreciate the crucial early help from the East. Vanden Bosch, a classmate of Schepers and Smit in Kok's parsonage, decried the union of 1850 from the moment of arrival in 1856. He had heard from dissatisfied brothers in Graafschap and Holland even before leaving the Netherlands and was particularly taken with Haan's complaints against the RCA. When Vanden Bosch voiced his concerns to Classis, however, he was told: "We will not act on these matters, and in no way will you be able to get us to bring these matters to Synod."
The end result of the years of protests against the 1850 union decision was the creation of the True Dutch Reformed (later Christian Reformed) Church. In March and April, 1857, two clerics--Vanden Bosch of Noordeloos and Klijn of Grand Rapids, together with members of four congregations--Noordeloos, Polkton, Grand Rapids, and Graafschap--decided by majority vote to withdraw from the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and "return" to an independent status. A fifth church, Vriesland, joined them shortly. The use of the term "return" referred to a claim, based on a technicality, that the Union of 1850 was consummated illegally. The protesters sent their letters of secession to Classis Holland, which met in Zeeland on April 8, 1857. This date is considered the birthday of the Christian Reformed Church in North America.
Bills of indictment
The rationale for secession followed the lines set by Schepers, Smit, and Haan. Vanden Bosch declared to Classis that the RCA was not a "true church of Jesus Christ" because of the "abominable and church-destroying heresy and sins which are rampant" in it. To belong to a church infected with such "extreme wickedness" was unconscionable: "I renounce all fellowship with you and declare myself no longer to belong to you." Vanden Bosch complained that the formula of subscription "was not binding, that people could not lodge protests, that many Freemasons were in the church, . . . that Dr. Van Raalte was a member of the Freemasons, and that Dr. Klijn had been right to say: 'We have given the hand to the Assyrians, and begged bread from the Egyptians!'" The charge about Van Raalte belonging to the Freemasons was certainly false, and the matter of the form of subscription not being binding was an open question, but the other items had some basis in fact.
Dominie Klijn's more irenic letter of withdrawal asked "that no spirit of bitterness may reign in us and among us, for we are brethren." We were "together ministers of the secession" of 1834 who had acted in the conviction that "the Church, the Bride of Christ, is a garden enclosed, a well shut up, and a fountain sealed." The words "enclosed," "shut up," and "sealed" capture the essence of the Seceder fortress mentality that gave rise to the later motto of the CRCNA: "In isolation is our strength." Klijn's concern, which he told Van Raalte privately, was that the RCA had become "liberal."
Klijn himself was suspect in the eyes of the pietists. Wouter Jongste, a Seceder laborer from Goedereede, Province of Zeeland, reported after hearing several of Klijn's sermons in Grand Rapids: "Klijn preaches rather well, but he fails to emphasize the work of the Holy Spirit sufficiently." Duim, who had heard Klijn preach earlier in Illinois, also doubted his sincerity, declaring that Klijn was "not steadfast in doctrine or practice." When Klijn recanted his withdrawal after six months and returned to the RCA, Duim felt vindicated. Holland elder Krabshuis, too, condemned Klijn for returning "like a dog to his vomit." He is "now more liberal than any of the others, and everyone has lost confidence in him. He is in a bad state of mind and has no peace."
The lengthy letter of the Graafschap consistory was the only communique to Classis that brought specific charges. Rev. Vanden Bosch of Noordeloos had chaired many Graafschap consistory meetings since March 1856, while the body considered secession, and the letter reflects his influence. The bill of indictment read as follows: the RCA introduced 800 hymns in worship "contrary to the church order;" it practiced open communion; it failed to teach the catechism and ignored family visiting; and "what grieves our hearts the most in all this is that there are members among you who regard our secession in the Netherlands as not strictly necessary, or (think that) it was untimely." The Graafschappers had suffered more from the civil authorities in Bentheim than did their Dutch brethren, and they had a strong emotional attachment to the Seceder Church. The Graafschap letter did not mention freemasonry, but the consistory two months earlier had expressed among themselves a deep concern about freemasons in the RCA. The Graafschap consistory also cited the Reverend Wyckoff's promise in 1849 that, should any congregations become dissatisfied with the union, they were "at liberty" to walk away.
Polkton was an isolated settlement of Groninger Seceders who in 1849 settled half way between Grand Rapids and Grand Haven. The few families met informally for worship for several years under the leadership of elder Lukas Elbers, until Classis Holland founded the church in 1854 with 21 souls. The declaration of secession by the consistory of this church simply stated that "we have betaken ourselves to the standpoint we had when we left the Netherlands, in order thus again to be in connection with the church of the Netherlands." Polkton clearly considered their action a return to the 1834 church. "The reason is your denomination fraternizes with those who are in opposition to the doctrine of our fathers.... Since there are others who have told you the points item by item, it is not necessary for us (to do so)," they concluded.
Van Raalte's condemnation of secession
The letters of secession "grieved" Van Raalte deeply and he responded on the floor of Classis to these "serious (and) unsubstantiated accusations, . . . which are the fruit of a lust for schism already for a long time manifested by a few leaders." Joining the RCA in 1850 in no way abandoned the 1834 Secession, Van Raalte insisted, because the RCA, contrary to the Hervormde Kerk directorate of 1816, upheld the traditional principles of Dort and the standard form of subscription for ministers.
Van Raalte charged that "the whole affair (excepting a few leaders who fan the fire of distrust and suspicion), is a mixture of ignorance, sectarianism, and a trampling under foot of the brethren, of which the ministers of the Classis of Holland have been constantly for years the prey." Such "gross ignorance, and palpable slanders," Van Raalte concluded, are impossible to refute by reasonable arguments. In a voice dripping with sarcasm, he challenged those "who fancy that they can create a holier and purer church than the Dutch Reformed Church of this country . . . to put us to shame and to be a blessing to us by spiritual prosperity and an active fruit-bearing Christianity."
One can sympathize with Van Raalte's frustration with the critics. But the people in the pew understood from their experience in the Netherlands that the spirit and life of a church might be heterodox while the formal doctrines yet appeared orthodox. They had seen and heard enough since arriving in the United States to be uneasy about various practices in the RCA, which had become increasingly Americanized after cutting itself lose from the Classis of Amsterdam early in the American War for Independence. Three of the four documents of secession pleaded with Classis to remain tied to the mother church in the Netherlands. John Kromminga may well be correct to say that the seceders of 1857 did not have a "schismatic intent;" they were "expressing the true character of the church in the colony."
Krabshuis, Van Raalte's ex-elder, voiced the 1834 mentality among the 1857 seceders. "By the Lord's grace," he wrote, "we were led out of the Reformed Church hierarchy in the Netherlands when it became known that after 1816 the church was no longer of God.... Still a remnant has remained in the Netherlands to witness publicly for the truth, and that same spirit was evident here in 1857. It was a sin for us to unite with a people we did not know."
Early struggles in the CRCNA
Most people in the Colony did not leave Classis Holland. Only 10 percent seceded in 1857, totaling 150 families, 250 communicant members, 750 souls. The Grand Rapids church had about 100 members (50 families); Graafschap, 113 members (almost its entire congregation); Vriesland 15 or 16 members (9 families); and Noordeloos and Polkton each about 20 members. The first classis of the new denomination met in Holland in May of 1857, chaired by H.G. Klijn.
The fledgling church was a weak reed for many years; only the Graafschap congregation was a firm rock. Koene Vanden Bosch was the lone minister among the five charter congregations. Chief elder Haan shifted loyalties between the CRCNA, RCA, and being independent. The church in Grand Rapids was plagued with instability. Its second pastor, W.H. Van Leeuwen, left after four hard years, and his successor, Roelof Duiker, transferred to the RCA four years later. Vanden Bosch at Noordeloos was embroiled in a long conflict with Jan Rabbers, who wished to organize a Zeeland "branch" congregation. Polkton disintegrated within a year, while Vriesland and Grand Haven were weak sisters. Consistory squabbles in the Grand Rapids (1861), Zeeland (1864), Noordeloos (1870), and Niekerk (1876) churches became so intense that classical assemblies had to unseat them. Yet, primarily through lay leadership, flawed as it was, the struggling seceders survived the rocky years.
Vanden Bosch was stretched to the limit by itinerating between six congregations; he could only bring the Word and sacraments sporadically. The pressures of the work and also his strong temper and domineering personality caused many difficulties. Every church Vanden Bosch served had unrest. As Rev. Beets noted: "The secession ship was almost foundered on the rock of brother-quarreling. It went badly sometimes in those days, almost as badly as in the earliest years of the secession in the Netherlands. It is a wonder that the Lord held the cause together!"
In 1864 Rev. Douwe Vander Werp came to Graafschap as its first pastor, and he quickly became the dominant minister in the CRCNA. As Herbert Brinks has written: Vander Werp "offered the 1857 seceders in America their closest link to the 1834 secession in Holland.... He became, in effect, the Van Raalte of the Christian Reformed Church." Vander Werp, an intimate protege of De Cock and an associate of his son Helenius, was steeped in Dortian orthodoxy. The denomination tapped his strengths, appointing him to train students in his parsonage, which work after twelve years evolved into the Theological School (1876), and naming him as editor of the new denominational weekly, The Wachter (1868). Vander Werp was also delegated to organize new congregations at South Holland and Ridott (IL), Sheboygan, and Pella; and to bring the Cincinnati congregation from the Scotch Presbyterians into the CRCNA. Closer to home he smoothed the way for Graafschap to mother the Holland (1865), Niekerk (1866), and East Saugatuck (1869) churches. Like Van Leeuwen, Vander Werp was a strong advocate of Christian day schools and he opened a "Dutch school" in the summer months to teach children the mother tongue.
The CRCNA always appealed to immigrants who wished to preserve their Dutchness. It captured the bulk of the big immigrant wave of the 1880s, which mainly came from the northern provinces where De Cock and Van Velzen had reigned supreme. These newcomers also brought with them the strong recommendation (after 1882) of the Gereformeerde Kerk Nederland (GKN) to join the CRCNA because the RCA synod condoned lodge membership. That the two western classes of the RCA did not accept lodge members had little ameliorating effect in the GKN. Thus, in the thirty years from 1873 to 1900, the CRCNA grew 800-fold, compared to a 100-fold increase in the immigrant congregations of the RCA (Table 1). By 1880 the younger denomination had 12,300 baptized and communicant members, compared to 112,000 in the senior denomination, of whom about 26,000 were immigrants.
Who seceded in 1857 and why?
An important research question is to determine who joined the infant CRCNA. The pastors were Afgescheidenen but what about the people in the pews? Scholars have suggested several common socioeconomic characteristics. The Netherlands historian, Jacob van Hinte, contended that many had not been part of the initial 1846-1847 contingent who had endured hardship together and learned to appreciate help from the East. Van Hinte is undoubtedly correct. Only one-quarter (52 or 22 percent) of the 242 known charter members of the CRCNA can be found among the 1846-1847 group of colonists. Another quarter (64 or 26 percent) emigrated in 1848 and 1849. However, the fact that the colony’s population increased from 1,700 in 1847 to 6,000 in 1857 indicates that many settlers in 1857, not just the dissenters, lacked the experience of the early struggles.
According to Henry Beets, the first historian of the CRCNA, "it was said in the Netherlands at the time that Groningers went to the seceders [Christian Reformed Church] while the Frisians, Zeelanders, Overiselers, and Hollanders [Noord- and Zuid-Holland] went to the Reformed Church." Van Hinte added a variation to this provincial scheme by insisting that the Seceders of 1857 were, in the main, members of the conservative Northern party in Groningen, Drenthe, and Friesland, whereas the more broad-minded Southern party of Van Raalte, centered in Gelderland and Overijssel, remained with the Reformed Church. This was the same essential fault line that ran through the Afscheiding. The leaders of all five seceding Michigan churches in 1857 held to a stricter interpretation of the Dort Church Order than did Van Raalte and associates. Smit, Haan, Krabshuis, and Vanden Bosch were Cocksians; they took their stand on Dort. Van Raalte and associates were willing to adapt Dort to changing circumstances.
Van Hinte also raised the class issue--the Christian Reformed founders were poorer and lived mainly in the city of Grand Rapids. To this latter point there was disagreement from sociologist Henry Ryskamp, who contended that over half of the seceding families in the Grand Rapids area lived outside the city, and that the "urban-rural distribution of the Reformed Church, if not at that time, after 1857 was about the same as that of the Seceding Church."
The ideas of Beets and Van Hinte can be clarified by comparing American church membership lists with the Dutch emigration lists, which tell for each family the place of last residence, occupation, social class, denominational affiliation, and year of departure. By comparing available church records against emigration lists, I have assembled a background profile of 2,329 Dutch immigrant family heads and single adults (8,716 persons) in the years through 1880. Of these, 1,177 family heads and singles belonged to immigrant congregations of the RCA and 1,152 were affiliated with the CRCNA. This is a sufficient sample for a comparative analysis of the membership of the two denominations, although it is not without some deficiencies, because Dutch emigration lists are incomplete before 1848. Since the 1857 secession is the key event in the history of the Reformed churches in America, I will focus especially on that seminal period. The pre-1857 group in the sample totals 1,048 heads of households and single adults, 723 (69 percent) in the RCA and 325 (31 percent) in the CRCNA.
The major questions are: Who seceded in 1857 and who did not? Were seceders any different than non-seceders? Did they vary in religious, social, and economic backgrounds in the old country? If so, which characteristics are significant and which are not?
The results are as follows. First, 31 percent (176) of 565 Seceders of 1834 in Michigan seceded again in 1857 (Table 2). Another 34 (6 percent) joined the CRCNA in the years following. If "the word secession rang like a 'magic word' in their ears and minds," as Van Hinte believed, it is remarkable that only one-third were twice seceders. More than two-thirds (69 percent) of the Afgescheidenen remained with Van Raalte and accepted union with the RCA. Thus, Classis Holland was more of an Afscheiding stronghold than was the upstart church. Nevertheless, the defection of this large minority testifies to the independent spirit and anti-synodical feelings that characterized the 1834 Seceders.
Secondly, the 483 Hervormde immigrants divided in exactly the same proportion as did the Afgescheidenen--31 percent joined the CRC and 69 percent remained with the RCA (Table 2). Thus, the rival American churches had the same proportional membership composition in terms of Netherlands denominational background. Of 723 members of Classis Holland, 46 percent were Hervormden and 54 percent were Afgescheidenen. Of 325 members of the infant CRC in 1857, the proportions were also 46 percent Hervormden and 54 percent Afgescheidenen. There is no statistical correlation between religious affiliation before and after migration, and the Afgescheidenen of 1834 were no more inclined to secede again in 1857 than were the Hervormden. Religious affiliation in the Netherlands, per se, has no predictive value whatever in these early years in indicating which Dutch Reformed denomination the immigrants would join.
Thirdly, 46 percent of the pre-1857 immigrants in both Michigan Dutch Reformed classes belonged to the Hervormde Kerk. That nearly one-half of the members of Classis Holland were Hervormden is a fact always overlooked and never acknowledged. It is assumed that because the dominies were all Afgescheidenen, and they came with large contingents of their congregations, that therefore the churches were comprised almost entirely of the same people. This was the case the first year or two, but quickly changed with continuing immigration.
Even more remarkable is the fact that nearly one-half of the charter members of the CRCNA in 1857 were Hervormden. "Everyone knows," to use a cliche, that the infant CRCNA was the church of the "true brothers," the twice-seceders. So how is it that 149 (46 percent) of the founding families and singles were Hervormden? Who were these Hervormden seceders? Their places of origin were widely scattered. No municipality contributed more than five families except Staphorst with 19, but two-thirds came from the provinces of Overijssel, Zeeland, and Zuid Holland. Nearly three quarters emigrated between 1850 and 1856 and were not part of the initial Afscheiding migration. Economic reasons prompted their leaving; none stated religious reasons, as did many Afgescheidenen. The Grand Rapids congregation had the highest number (42), followed by Graafschap (26) and Drenthe (23).
A possible explanation for the large number of Hervormde Kerk immigrants joining the 1857 secession in America is that they were secret sympathizers of the Afscheiding who lacked the courage or opportunity to defect in the home villages. To be a Seceder meant opening oneself to rejection by family, ostracism by the community, and economic boycotts and blacklists. In America, there was much less social stigma in identifying with the CRCNA. Other Hervormden may have chosen the CRCNA because it was less Americanized and therefore more comfortably Dutch. Some had little choice. In the homeland they may have lived in villages with no Afscheiding church. Or as immigrants they settled in places such as Grand Rapids, Graafschap, and Drenthe, which had no viable RCA alternative once the majority decided to secede. Perhaps some Hervormd members simply "went along to get along."
The members of the rival American churches also had similar socioeconomic backgrounds, but the RCA had more of "de fijnen" (Table 3). Local government officials in the Netherlands classified each departing family economically into three categories: well-to-do, middling, and needy. Before 1857 about two-thirds of members of both churches were of middling status; after 1857 the percentages increased to three-quarters, with the CRCNA exceeding the RCA by about 5 points. The RCA had more well-to-do members, 16 percent compared to 12 percent before 1857. The gap widened thereafter and the RCA had twice as many wealthy as did the CRC (13 to 7 percent). The proportion of poor was the same in both churches, between 17 and 20 percent. Occupationally, the CRCNA included a slightly higher proportion of farmers and day laborers and fewer professional and business people than did the RCA, but the differences were less than 10 percentage points (Table 4). In age and family characteristics, the immigrant households in both denominations were virtually identical.
Differing CRCNA-RCA Netherlandic roots
Place of origin, which is a proxy for historic cultural and religious differences, reveals some contrasts. As Table 5 and figure 1 show, CRCNA members before 1857 came mainly from the provinces of (in descending order): Zeeland (25 percent), Overijssel (15 percent), Zuid-Holland (14 percent), Drenthe (12 percent), and Groningen (11 percent). RCA families came largely (in descending order) from: Zeeland (23 percent), Gelderland (18 percent), Zuid-Holland (15 percent), Groningen (12 percent), and Overijssel (10 percent). The CRCNA had proportionally three times as many members from Drenthe as it did to the RCA, and 50 percent more from Overijssel. In contrast, the RCA had proportionally two times as many from Gelderland. Immigrants from Zeeland, Zuid- and Noord-Holland, Groningen, Friesland, Utrecht, and Noord-Brabant divided equally between both American denominations.
Municipality data gives a finer-grained picture, but the geographical source areas of the immigrants are wide and thinly distributed. In hopes of showing that Seceders were more rural and localistic, I correlated at the municipal level the ratio of CRC to RCA emigrants with various socioeconomic factors, such as population density and growth, urban or rural, mobility rates, total and net migration, overseas emigration rates, taxes per capita, number of factories, value of farmlands and total value of landed property, percentages of crop lands and pasture, percent Hervormde and Christelijk Gereformeerde, etc. The only statistically significant two-way correlations (<.01 level) were a weak positive relationship between CRC and average annual population growth rates per municipality (Pearson R value .146), and a strong positive relationship between CRCNA and percent Christelijke Gereformeerde (Pearson R value .228). The latter simply confirms the obvious--the more Gereformeerde the place of origin, the more likely that its emigrants would join the CRCNA.
Municipalities providing 1.5 percent (five) or more CRCNA members in the years before 1857 are Coevorden, Emmen, and Smilde (DR); Winterswijk (GE); Leens and Ulrum (GR); Staphorst (OV); Baarland, Borssele, Zaamslag, and Zierikzee (ZE); and Zuid-Beijerland, Hardinxveld, and Strijen (ZH). Municipalities that contributed 1.5 percent (11) or more families to the RCA before 1857 are Beilen (DR); Herwijnen, Vuren, and Winterswijk (GE); Leens and Ulrum (GR); Hellendoorn (OV); and Oudorp (ZH). Leens, Ulrum, Oudorp, and Winterswijk were bases for both American denominations. Staphorst and Leens were the CRC hotbeds; and Winterswijk, Hellendoorn, and Ulrum were the prime RCA source areas.
Differences by subregion are also evident. In Zeeland, for example, which is composed of three groups of island "fingers" in the Rhine delta, immigrants from the islands closest to Rotterdam (Schouwen-Duiveland-Tholen) were more likely by two to one to join the Christian Reformed Church. Among those from the middle island group of Walcheren-Zuid Beveland, the ratio was nearly one for one. But among immigrants from Zeeuws-Vlaanderen along the Belgian border, the RCA attracted six families for every four who joined the CRCNA. Gelderland, which similarly comprises three distinct regions--the Achterhoek, Veluwe, and Betuwe-—the conservative Veluwe area near the Zuiderzee and the very similar neighboring province of Overijssel provided more members for the CRC than did the more liberal Achterhoek area on the German border and the more urban Betuwe region that lay astride the Rhine. CRC immigrants from Groningen were concentrated in the northernmost region, particularly Ulrum and Leens. RCA immigrants originated in twenty-nine municipalities throughout the province; CRC members came from sixteen municipalities.
Growth of the infant CRCNA to 1880
In the post-schism period, the pattern changed dramatically and Van Hinte's image of bell-ringing seceders in the CRC is more to the point. The proportion of 1834 Seceders in both American denominations declined from 54 percent before 1857; the RCA had only 20 percent Seceders and the CRCNA had 39 percent. More than three-quarters (77 percent) of Seceder immigrants in the years 1857-1880 joined the CRCNA, either immediately upon arrival or after affiliating for a time with the RCA (Table 2). Thus, the proportion of 1834 Seceder immigrants in the CRCNA was twice as high as in the RCA. But Hervormden comprised the majority in both churches--80 percent in the RCA and 61 percent in the CRCNA. More than one-half (56 percent) of Hervormde immigrants joined the CRCNA after 1857. The infant church had positioned itself as the ostensible preserver of the Dutch Reformed heritage.
The Seceder influx in the CRCNA in the twenty-five years after 1857 brought a marked shift northward in its regional roots; nearly one-half of the CRCNA members originated in the three northern provinces, whereas before 1857 less than one-third did so (Table 5). If Overijssel and the Gelderse Veluwe are added, the northern Netherlands contingent in the CRCNA rises to two-thirds.
Among immigrant families in the RCA, there is also a northward shift after 1857, but the southern and western areas of the Netherlands furnished 40 percent of the members. Thus, the post-1857 migration from the northern Netherlands fixed the unique and enduring character of the Christian Reformed Church that had been presaged by the early immigration.
In conclusion, the CRCNA became an Afscheiding outpost in America, as Beets, Van Hinte, and Brinks recognized, but it did not begin as one. In 1857 the CRCNA was no more or less Afscheiding in membership than was the RCA. And over time, the number of Hervormden increased in both churches until they became the majority. Despite the similarities in religious background, the rival bodies did have differing social and geographical bases. The CRCNA increasingly reflected the orthodox mentality of the northern Netherlands and the piety of northern Zeeland, while the RCA bore the more congenial marks of the eastern and central heartland.
These differences may explain why members of the midwestern RCA were more willing to accommodate themselves theologically, ecclesiastically, and culturally to their new environment, whereas the CRCNA continued to value cultural isolation and to look to the mother country for leadership and direction. The RCA members acted as immigrants and CRCNA members acted as colonists. The CRCNA desired a transplanted community, a little Holland, where they could continue life as they had known and valued it, but with a higher living standard. The CRCNA remained an immigrant church until after the First World War, and became, in the words of Yale history professor Sidney Ahlstrom, "the country’s most solid and dignified bastion of conservative Reformed doctrine and church discipline."
Table 1: Reformed and Christian Reformed Church Growth Rates, 1873-1899 (in percent)
1873- 1875- 1881- 1884- 1887- 1890- 1893- 1896-
Denomination 1875 1881 1884 1887 1890 1893 1896 1899
Periodic rate 3 4 3 6 2 10 7 4
Cumulative rate 3 7 10 17 19 31 40 45
Reformed (Immigrant Classes only)#
Periodic rate 18 3 3 20 14 14 6 2
Cumulative rate 18 22 25 50 70 94 106 111
Periodic rate 41 52 66 31 28 28 11 9
Cumulative rate 41 116 257 367 496 664 748 831
* Based on number of families, communicant and non-communicant.
# Includes Wisconsin, Grand River, Holland, Illinois, Iowa, and Dakota Classes.
+ Based on number of souls, communicants and baptized members,
Source: Reformed Church of America Yearbooks, 1873-1899; Christian Reformed Church Jaarboeken, 1875, 1881-1899; De Wachter, 19 September 1973.
Table 2: Netherlands and U.S. Denominational Affiliation Compared, Pre- and Post-1857 Immigrants, Household Heads and Single Persons ______1835-1856_________________1857-1880_______
U.S. Denomination U.S. Denomination
Netherlands Reformed Reformed* Reformed Reformed
Affiliation N % N % N % N %
Hervormde Kerk 334 69 149 31 348 44 436 56
46% #9; #9; 46% 80% 9; 9; 61%
1834 Seceder 389 69 176 31 86 23 281 77
54% #9; #9; 54% 20% 9; 9; 39%
*Excludes 58 Hervormden and 34 Seceders who affiliated after 1856.
Source: Robert P. Swierenga, comp., Dutch Emigrants to the United States, South Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia, 1835-1880: An Alphabetical Listing by Household Heads and Independent Persons ((Wilmington DE: Scholarly Resources, 1983); augmented for the years 1831-1847 with data from the Department of Binnenlandsche Zaken report in "Staat van landverhuizers 1831-1847," Nederlandsche Staatscourant, No. 210, 5 September 1848, 2. Church membership lists were compiled from archival records and anniversary booklets in the Calvin College Archives; The Joint Archives, Hope College; Herrick Public Library, Holland; Western Theological Seminary, Holland; and New Brunswick Theological Seminary, New Jersey. Church membership lists are extant for fewer than a dozen congregations prior to 1870.
Table 3: Netherlands Socioeconomic Class by U.S. Denominational Affiliation, Pre- and Post-1857 Immigrants, Household Heads and Single Persons
U.S. Denomination* U.S. Denomination
Socioeconomic Reformed Reformed Reformed Reformed
Class N % N % N % N %
Well-to-do 101 16 50 12 56 13 54 7
Middling 409 64 277 69 311 70 540 74
Poor 129 20 74 19 74 17 132 18
* Totals include those affiliating after 1857.
Source: Same as Table 2.
Table 4: Netherlands Occupational Classification by U.S. Denominational Affiliation, Pre- and Post-1857 Immigrants, Household Heads and Single Persons
Occupational Christian Christian
Classification Reformed Reformed Reformed Reformed
N % N % N % N %
Professional 18 3 5 1 6 1 12 2 #9;
Manager/broker 37 6 17 4 18 4 29 4
Farmer 9; 9; 148 22 103 26 9; 74 9; 17 89 13
Skilled Worker 181 27 88 22 87 20 121 17
Farm Laborer 280 42 185 46 247 57 456 64
Totals 9; 9; 664 99 398 99 #9; 432 99 707 100
Source: Same as Table 2.
Table 5: Netherlands Province of Last Residence by U.S. Denominational Affiliation, Pre- and Post-1857 Immigrants, Household Heads and Single Persons, 1835-1880
Christian Christian Province Reformed Reformed* Reformed Reformed
N % N % N % N %
Drenthe 33 4 41 12 6 1 56 8
Friesland 68 9 22 7 30 7 65 9
Gelderland 130 18 25 8 104 23 88 12
Groningen 87 12 36 11 107 24 269 37
Noord-Brabant 10 1 9 3 7 2 7 1
Noord-Holland 34 5 14 4 31 7 30 4
Overijssel 77 10 49 15 20 4 39 5
Utrecht 18 2 4 1 3 1 2 0
Zeeland 170 23 82 25 67 15 94 13
Zuid-Holland 109 15 45 14 69 15 78 11
Totals 736 99% 327 100% 444 99% 728 100%
* Totals exclude 94 affiliating after 1857.
Source: Same as Table 2.
Figure 1: Primary Netherlands source areas of immigrant members of the Christian Reformed and Reformed churches in North America
Source: Same as Table 2.