William VanDoodewaard, "A transplanted church: the Netherlandic roots and development of the Free Reformed Churches of North America" in Canadian Journal of Netherlandic Studies XXVI (Fall 2005) 2:15-34.
(note: footnotes/references are found in the original published version)
A Transplanted Church:
The Netherlandic Roots and Development of
The Free Reformed Churches of North America
The Netherlandic Roots and Development of
The Free Reformed Churches of North America
by William VanDoodewaard
Associate Professor of Church History
Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary
Grand Rapids, MI
The history of Dutch Reformed denominations in North America dates back almost 400 years to the time when The Netherlands was a major sea-power with colonial ambition. In 1609 the explorer Henry Hudson was sent out by the Dutch to examine possibilities for a colony in the New World. Dutch colonization began soon afterwards with the formation of New Netherland under the banner of the Dutch West India Company. With the colony came the establishment of the first Dutch Reformed church in 1628 in the wilderness village of New Amsterdam. This small beginning of a viable Dutch community set in motion centuries of Dutch migration to North America, forming a transatlantic development of the various streams and factions of Dutch Calvinism.
The Canadian experience of Dutch influx would follow at a later time. Aside from a small number of immigrants to the Lunenberg, Nova Scotia area in the 1740’s and 1750’s, the main tide of Dutch immigration and denominational development came two hundred years later -- following World War II in the late 1940’s and 1950’s. These later arrivals reflected the intervening development of the church in the Netherlands, many now having a varied history of secession from the state church and ensuing union with or separation from other secession groups. Most of these immigrants settled into already established Christian Reformed Church congregations, some joined congregations of the Reformed Church in America, some existing Canadian Protestant denominations, while the remainder established new denominations corresponding to other Dutch Reformed denominations in the Netherlands.
One of the new presences in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s was a quickly developing association of independent Dutch Reformed congregations sharing similar theological convictions and seceder roots. In their formation they drew upon both the earlier American Dutch Reformed churches, and the great Dutch Reformed influx to Canada of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Representing an early seceder strain of Dutch Reformed theology and tradition, primarily found in the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken (CGK), they were not at home in either the Christian Reformed Church or the Reformed Church. In time these congregations would become the Free Reformed Churches of North America.
In order to accurately grasp the North American history of the Free Reformed churches as a transatlantic development it is necessary to outline their European origins. The roots are found in the Netherlands, where the denomination began in 1834 as a result of a seceding movement out of the state church - the Netherlands Reformed Church. This was the first movement of exodus from the state church of the Netherlands during the post-Reformation period, though it represented a long line of dissent within the state church.
During the late 17th century, it was increasingly common for small groups of the pious, called ‘conventicles’, to meet for spiritual encouragement and prayer. These meetings were usually held during the week by those who felt the Dutch state church was becoming increasingly nominal and the preaching lifeless and abstract. Central to these groups was a focus on themes of human inability and sin, the centrality of the person and work of Christ in salvation, and the “vital, personal realization of such doctrines through heartfelt experience.” This movement of godly piety, often termed the Dutch Second Reformation, focused not only on heart religion, but also on the crucial importance of orthodox doctrine faithful to Scripture and the heritage of the Reformation.
In some congregations the conventicle movement soon encompassed the entire church, in others it remained “a church within a church.” Coexistence was maintained within the Dutch state church, despite increasing divergence. The general belief was that church members should strive to promote a return to orthodoxy within the established church. The immediate impetus for secession came as the two diverging streams of the state church – liberal vs. pietistic – came to a head in a local situation.
In December of 1833, Hendrik DeCock, a fiery and popular evangelical preacher in Ulrum, Groningen was barred from preaching for challenging the regnant enlightenment ideology of the church. Soon after, the congregation was barred from use of the church building, This led to a coalition of sympathetic ministers and church members signing the Act of Separation or Return on October 14, 1834, outlining the reasons for secession – freedom of conscience in worship and the need to return to the Reformed confessionalism, liturgy, and worship expressed by the Synod of Dordt.
Despite persecution the secession movement spread quickly across the Netherlands. Seceder delegates meeting in early synods soon realized the relative isolation of various churches and regions, due in part to the absence of any national synod in the Netherlands for over 200 years, meant different emphases in doctrine and practice had developed. These differences would lead to divisions forming different seceder denominations from the 1834 secession, the mainstream of which, known as the Separated Churches, became the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken (CGK). However, these differences would also remain within both the CGK and the Free Reformed Churches in North America, at times creating renewed tensions and conflict.
Two main streams of difference during this 19th century period were found between the Drenthe faction and the Gelderland faction. The Drenthe faction was steeped in the tradition of the Dutch Second Reformation, known for stern sobriety with ascetic tendencies, emphasized the function of the law as preparation for the gospel, distinguished between the presentation of the gospel and the offer of grace, and stressed the necessity of the development of conviction of sin prior to conversion. Hand in hand with this came a strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God in election. The preaching of the Drenthe men, of which Hendrik de Cock was a key representative, stressed an elaborate classification of hearers, with separate applications for the various categories.
The Gelderland faction in contrast was more oriented to Calvin’s theology and the heritage of the Reformation rather than primarily the pietism of the Dutch Second Reformation. Prominent representatives included H.P Scholte (prior to his move to America), and A. Brummelkamp, a “moderate Calvinist of cheerful and sunny disposition.” Preachers of this school emphasized the free offer of the gospel, and numbered the Erskines and Marrow men among their favorite authors. The Gelderland faction preachers offered Christ to sinners as sinners, without qualifications. No elaborate classification of hearers was followed, rather it was seen that there were only two categories: believers and unbelievers.
These differences in theology between the Drenthe faction and the Gelderland faction were reflective of differing views of church and covenant. De Cock and the Drenthe faction viewed as legitimate two kinds of church membership: communicant members, and adult baptized but non-communicant members. Baptized but non-communicant members should have their children baptized. The Drenthe faction, in line with their view of the church as a mixed body of believers and unbelievers, strongly stressed the requirements for worthy partaking of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, warning against the dangers of “easy believism.”
In contrast, the Gelderland faction, as represented by H. P. Scholte and Antonie Brummelkamp, argued that while the church visible and invisible are not the same, they ought to be. The church was to be the body of true believers only, and all confessing members should partake of the Lord’s Supper. There is to be only one kind of membership in the church – those who confess Christ, they argued, and only the children of confessing members may be baptized. Adult baptized members must be urged to make confession of faith. Confessing members who abstain from the Lord’s Supper should be brought under the discipline of the church. The Gelderland faction argued that this was the biblically ordained model of the New Testament church. The CGK would continue to be characterized by a roughly equal representation of both factions, while the Gereformeerde Gemeenten (GG) would follow more definitively in the line of the Drenthe faction.
The final major event of church history in the Netherlands influential to the development of the Free Reformed Churches in North America was the 1886 secession movement out of the Dutch state church led by Abraham Kuyper. This exodus, known as the Doleantie, was once again a confessional movement, and a rejection of state hierarchy. However, its key leaders, especially Kuyper, viewed the earlier secession of 1834 as sinful, arguing that it was premature and unjustified, as the state church even now was not false, but rather “sick.” A union movement in 1892 sought to draw the earlier CGK seceders into a unified secession church with the Doleantie, and succeeded in initially attracting the majority of the CGK into what became the Gereformeerde Kerken (GK). However, a minority continued separately citing concern with Kuyper’s theological direction in areas of covenant, common grace, and culture. The chief fear was that the teaching of Kuyper on covenant and election would lead to the view that the visible church was the elect, and as a result preaching would become focused primarily on sanctification leading to a nominal church. During the following two decades a large number of CGK congregations which had joined the union into the GK returned to the CGK ensuring its continued history and influence as one of the main Reformed seceder denominations in the Netherlands.
The Early American Immigrants - The 1900’s to 1940’s
The North American beginnings of the Free Reformed denomination date back to the 1920’s when a congregation of the Netherlands Reformed Congregations deposed its minister in Clifton, New Jersey. Part of the congregation did not accept the deposal and began an independent congregation on November 7, 1921 around this minister which they called the “Free Reformed Church.” The congregation was made up of Dutch immigrants, many of whom had arrived in New Jersey (a historic area of Dutch settlement dating back to the New Netherlands of the early 1600’s) around the turn of the century and had belonged to the GG in the Netherlands. As a result, on arrival in America they formed their own Netherlands Reformed Congregations, rather than joining the RCA or CRC, neither of which were compatible with their ‘Drenthe faction’ theology.
Further to the west, in Michigan, Dutch settlement had begun in the Grand Rapids area under the leadership of Albertus VanRaalte in 1846-47. Here as well around the turn of the century several Netherlands Reformed Congregations were founded by Dutch immigrants. In 1923, the Ottawa Avenue Church of the Netherlands Reformed Congregations was founded, made up of members from the others who favored the use of English in the church services. They called a teaching elder from New Jersey, James Wielhouwer, to pastor them. Very quickly controversy ensued, and Wielhouwer along with twelve families left to establish another congregation which would take the name Free Reformed. Wielhouwer was ordained as pastor of this congregation by another independent Reformed congregation’s pastor, Rev. Locker of Kalamazoo, Michigan.
In late 1943 to early 1944 a second group left the Ottawa Avenue Netherlands Reformed Congregation due to its reticence to call a minister in its vacancy. Rev. Benjamin Densel, at this time pastor of the Free Reformed Church of Clifton, NJ, met with this second group on a visit to Grand Rapids in November, 1943. Soon afterwards the consistory of the Clifton congregation agreed to a request by the group to supervise their institution as a congregation, and an organizational meeting was held on June 28, 1944. This second group took the name Rehoboth Reformed Church. On November 1, 1944 the two groups (Free and Rehoboth) united under the name of the latter congregation.
The newly united congregation began the search for a pastor, leading to contact with Rev. C. Smits, a pastor of the Christlelijke Gereformeerde Kerken (CGK) in the Netherlands. Despite not making a permanent move to America, Smits came for two preaching stays – one in 1946, the other in 1947. Through him the congregation began its correspondence with the CGK, establishing an official corresponding relationship in 1947, and broadening its search for a pastor in this Dutch denomination. In 1948 a call was extended to, and accepted by Rev. G. Zijderveld of the CGK.
Schism, Expansion, and New Connections –The 1950’s
The late 1940’s and the following decade of the 1950’s marked a period of substantial migration from the Netherlands to Canada. The postwar period would see nearly 200,000 Dutch emigrants moving to Canada, the nation from which their chief liberators had come. Canada was seen as a land of economic opportunity, peace, freedom, and greater social conservatism than the Netherlands. For some, the threat of Soviet expansion was a factor in the journey to Canada. Canada was seen as the land of better opportunity and a brighter future.
In the Netherlands the CGK initially encouraged its emigrating members to affiliate with the CRC in Canada. However as the CGK immigrants came to Canada they soon realized that the differences with the GK (CRC) in the Netherlands carried over to their new home, despite a somewhat different history of the CRC in America. This was especially true as many of the GK immigrants to Canada were strongly Kuyperian in their covenant theology.
Among the Dutch immigrants immediately following World War II came the family of Jetse Hamstra arriving in the area of Dundas, Ontario in 1948. Jetse Hamstra had served as an exhorting elder in the CGK in Veenwouden, Friesland , the Netherlands. In the spring of 1950 Hamstra was invited to Grand Rapids to the Rehoboth Reformed Church (which in the meantime had been renamed Rehoboth Old Christian Reformed Church to better identify with the CGK in the Netherlands , while at the same time distinguishing itself from the Christian Reformed Churches of North America). He was interviewed to discuss the possibility of working among the growing numbers of Dutch immigrants in Canada, with the result that he was given official support for the task. A short time later, in April 1950 an Old Christian Reformed Church was instituted at West Flamborough (Dundas), Ontario, meeting in the Presbyterian Church in Canada at Christie’s Corners.
Around the same time, during the summer of 1950, the CGK in the Netherlands sent Rev. Jacob Tamminga, “a prominent minister in the Netherlands – serving a large congregation” on a fact finding and preaching mission to CGK immigrants in Canada and the USA. He found that CGK immigrants were dissatisfied with existing church options, missing the experiential preaching they were accustomed to in the Netherlands. Groups were beginning to organize, at first holding worship services in private homes. In the year following his return to the Netherlands, a church was instituted in Chatham, Ontario, on April 24, 1951. Tamminga, seeing the need for preaching ministry and organizational leadership in Canada, accepted their call to him as pastor and was installed on August 23, 1951.
Church formation now began in earnest. However with the growth came an early clash and division. In 1951 an Old Christian Reformed Church was instituted in Smithville under the lead of Jetse Hamstra and the Dundas consistory. In 1952, under the leadership of Jacob Tamminga and the Chatham consistory a congregation was formed in St.Thomas. The five congregations of Grand Rapids, Dundas, Smithville, Chatham and St. Thomas together formed a classis association of churches in full correspondence with the CGK in the Netherlands. Despite the common ties, there were from inception two distinct theological roots of the churches – Grand Rapids, Dundas, and Smithville with a closer affinity to the Drenthe faction theology, shown in both the Grand Rapids roots in the Netherlands Reformed Congregations, and the leadership G. Zijderveld and of Jetse Hamstra, while Chatham and St.Thomas were more reflective of the Gelderland faction, with close ties to the mainstream of the CGK.
Once instituted, St.Thomas sought to call CGK pastors reflecting their roots and ties in the Netherlands. A call was first extended to J.H. Velema arousing the reaction of Grand Rapids, with the support of Dundas, and Smithville. Grand Rapids argued that as “mother” church in North America it should have deciding authority over the calling of pastors by new congregations. At a meeting on April 22, 1953, the classis deposed the consistory of St.Thomas from office, a move not well received by St.Thomas and Chatham. These events split the fledgling denomination in two: the “Old Christian Reformed Church” (Grand Rapids, Dundas, Smithville) and the “Free Christian Reformed Church” (Chatham and St.Thomas).
During the remainder of the decade, the Old Christian Reformed remained largely static while the Free Christian Reformed denomination continued to organize new congregations at a rapid pace. In 1953, a group of ten people came together to form the Free Christian Reformed Church of Hamilton. A year later, in 1954, two Free Christian Reformed congregations were established, one in Toronto and one in Mitchell, Ontario. The following year, in 1955 a congregation was instituted in Aldegrove, B.C., made up of families who had heard of the Free Christian Reformed Church in Ontario. In 1958 a Free Christian Reformed Church was instituted in London, Ontario, made up of members who had belonged to the St.Thomas congregation.
The 1950’s saw several new pastors coming to the two denominations. The Old Christian Reformed Church of Grand Rapids called Rev. C. Smits, who stayed for a two year period, prior to returning to the Netherlands. In 1954 Smits ordained and installed Jetse Hamstra of Dundas as the pastor of that congregation. After Smits departure the Grand Rapids congregation turned to a number of English preachers during the period 1956-1959 to supply their pulpit. Contact was made with the Free Church of Scotland and Westminster Theological Seminary. Rev. J. MacSween of the Free Church in Toronto, and Rev. M. MacRitchie of the Free Church in Detroit both preached in the congregation, as did Dr. William Young, Dr. David Freeman, Prof. John Murray, and Terence Atkinson -- at the time a student at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Under the latter’s preaching in 1956-57 revival broke out in the Grand Rapids congregation.
The same years marked the arrival of a number of CGK pastors called by the newly formed Free Christian Reformed congregations in Ontario. Rev. J. Overduin left Amelo, the Netherlands for St.Thomas, Ontario in 1955. Rev. W.F. Laman left Rotterdam for Hamilton, Ontario in 1956, and Rev. C. Noordegraaf left s’Gravendeel, the Netherlands for Chatham, Ontario in 1958. The arrival of these pastors further solidified the transatlantic connection between the CGK and the Free Christian Reformed Churches in Canada.
Reunion, Growth and Missions – The 1960’s and 1970’s
In 1960 the division ended between the Old and Free Christian Reformed Churches. The reunification process began with Grand Rapids calling J. Tamminga to pastor them, which he accepted in September 1960. A month later, on October 13, 1960 a combined classis meeting of the Old and Free Christian Reformed Churches (with the exception of the Old Christian Reformed Church of Dundas – which remained apart) was held at which the “deposing of the consistory of the St.Thomas Free Reformed Church by the classis of the Old Christian Reformed Church was acknowledged to be an error.”
Half a year after the reunion, in April 1961, the first Synod of the Free and Old Christian Reformed Churches was held. After watching the developments of the new denomination, the independent Free Reformed Church of Clifton, New Jersey joined in 1965. Synod records of 1968 indicate that the Old Christian Reformed congregation of Artesia, California, “has been closed”, its membership having declined after the period of vacancy following the departure of G. Zijderveld to the Netherlands. Other western congregations such as Aldegrove and Pitt Meadows maintain a steady existence during this period, while two Alberta congregations appear at Red Deer and Edmonton for a time, but are noted in 1967 as no longer being in the denomination. On October 11, 1967, the West Flamborough (Dundas) Old Christian Reformed congregation rejoined the denomination, ending the schism, with “the first presence of Rev. Hamstra” noted in classis minutes.
While some ebb and flow remained, the denomination was at this point firmly established on the Canadian scene. Congregational life, especially the development of men’s and ladies’ societies, catechetical classes, and young peoples societies was in evidence from the earliest days of each congregation, the new denomination transplanting an instant microcosm of church life in the Netherlands. Statistical records indicate that, aside from occasions of theological controversy and schism within congregations, growth during the 1960’s and 1970’s remained steady, though overwhelmingly by natural increase.
These two decades also saw the development for the first time of a pastorate trained in North America. In 1967 A. Stehouwer was accepted as a ministry candidate, while Cornelius Pronk, a graduate of Calvin Theological Seminary, was ordained at Aldegrove, B.C. in 1968. In 1971 L.W. Bilkes was examined and accepted as a candidate for the ministry, while in 1972 a colloquim doctum was held for G. Hamstra, a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary, and pastor of the Presbyterian Reformed Church in Toronto, who had accepted a call to the congregation of Dundas, Ontario. The Synod records of 1974 indicate that Carl Schouls and Pieter VanderMeyden were accepted as students, and sent to the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Four years later, in 1977, they were accepted as candidates for the pastoral ministry in the churches. Theocharis Joannides, a Greek immigrant, with English connections, was accepted as a student for the ministry in 1978. While the men were trained in North America, the denomination would establish a pattern of using selected Reformed seminaries, along with the guidance of a Theological Education committee in their development, rather than establishing a denominational seminary.
The 1970’s also mark other denominational developments: classical and synodical minutes were published fully in English for the first time in 1970. The Messenger an official denominational magazine begun in the 1960’s, became well established as a means of denominational communication and education. Following the The Messenger came the publishing of the denominational Yearbook in 1974, along with the unofficial Youth Messenger published by the Young Peoples League, all of which aided in development of a North American denominational identity.
A 1974 synodical decision decreed the King James Version was the sole version to be used in the life of the church, a decision which would become grounds for heated debate in the following decades. The tradition of exclusive psalmody, a heritage dating to the 1834 secession’s return to the decisions of the Synod of Dordt 1618-19 would continue unchanged. In many ways, the 1970’s proved to be a decade of solidification and tightening of identity – perhaps best identified in the Acts of Synod 1974, which included the new denominational name, Free Reformed Church of North America, which would be changed, with some struggle, to the Free Reformed Churches of North America in 1993.
The 1970’s also marked the beginnings of denominational missionary endeavor. The late 1960’s had seen a mission work in Spain, initiated by Grand Rapids in the 1950’s, come to an end after the remaining missionary, David Estrada came to reject paedo-baptism. However, new opportunity arose in 1975 as the denomination agreed to send Rev. M. Rebel to Kwa Ndebele and Venda in South Africa. This work flourished, despite increasing vagaries and loss of communication with Rev. Rebel. Several native South Africans, Sethi Masango, Solomon Molokombe, and S.M. Mugeri, were trained and took over leadership roles in Venda. Miss Mary Overduin, a medical nurse sent out by the Free Reformed Churches would work in Kwa Ndebele and Venda for some seventeen and a half years, until increasing violence and unrest forced the white mission workers to leave what was by then a well-established work.
Challenge and Change – The 1980’s, 1990’s and beyond
The 1980’s and 1990’s marked a period of challenge and change for the Free Reformed Churches of North America. Growth continued both by natural increase, and by influx from other Dutch Reformed denominations, due to divisions over liberalizing tendencies in the Reformed Church in America, Christian Reformed Churches, and in the Netherlands Reformed Congregations. These factors led to the beginning of new congregations: Brantford, Ontario (1996), Chilliwack, British Columbia (1991), Monarch, Alberta (2000), Wellandport, Ontario (2002), and St.George, Ontario. New urban mission congregations were also begun in Seattle, Washington (1996) and Cowichan Valley, British Columbia (2000). There were also difficult church splits which were allowed to spawn new congregations: Langley, British Columbia (1980) and Bornholm, Ontario (2003).
One example of the continuing historical tensions in the denomination during the 1980’s and 1990’s was that Synod floor saw strong concern and debate over committee voting requirements for the acceptance of theological students. This was noted both in minutes and overtures from congregations, one of which stated “over a period of time 3 men could have significant impact on the kind of men who are allowed to become ministers in our denomination [due to the need for a 75% majority in a committee of ten].” The committee itself took the bold step of making the following comment in its report “since our committee is made up of 10 members, this means that 8 out of 10 votes are needed for acceptance. Three times we have had to reject an applicant who was deemed acceptable by 7 of your deputies. Your committee has struggled with this and is obviously not of one mind.” While the moderate side of the denomination pushed for change in this area, the conservative side pushed for closer ties with the new Heritage Netherlands Reformed denomination, and especially the use of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
Despite the continuing dissensions, the 1990’s also witnessed a new foreign mission which would prove to be a glowing chapter in the missionary history of the Free Reformed Churches. Beginning in the late 1980’s a work was established in Cubulco, Guatemala among Achi Indians. A missionary, Ken Herfst, was sent in 1991, along with a medical and linguistic team. The group was joined in 1992 by Mary Overduin, the veteran missionary worker from South Africa. The tireless trekking and preaching of Herfst through mountains and aldeas, along with relief work and teaching, would lead within a decade to the establishment of a substantial and growing congregation in Cubulco as well as five smaller remote congregations. The work would result in development of lay pastorate, elders, deacons, theology students, and an Achi Bible translation and psalmbook in progress.
The denomination called the Free Reformed Churches of North America has been firmly established during the past century in North America and particularly in Canada, though in many ways, being an ethnic body, it remains isolated from both Canadian society and surrounding denominations. With a rich Reformed heritage, unswerving commitment to its historic confessional orthodoxy, and stability in biblical worship, it has much to offer. In some local regions where Free Reformed Churches are found, former Free Reformed members are filling various other Presbyterian, Reformed and evangelical churches. This results partly from anglicization, but also in part from a history of dissension and compromise traceable in part to the dual Netherlandic streams of origin of this denomination. Yet positive growth is attested to, as this denomination is the nurtuting ground for a growing and prosperous missionary movement, a growing number of congregations with a history of stability, continued natural increase and retention of youth, spiritual growth, increasingly active ministry in Canadian communities, along with the export of able Reformed leaders to other North American denominations, where their service to Christ has been exemplary in life and doctrine.
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The appendixes are available in the original publication.