The Banner: In the Church but Not Just of It

FROM THE START, The Banner has courted controversy. The official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church was founded in 1866 by a minister in a Dutch Reformed splinter group in New Jersey. Rev. John Y. De Baun launched his magazine to fight, in his words, the "floods of Socinian, Arminian, Hopkinsian, Antinomian, and such like errors, for their name is Legion." He proposed to erect a standard of truth undefiled in "its Purity Savor, and Unction." Thus was born The Banner of Truth

De Baun moved to Grand Rapids, Mich., in 1887 to pastor LaGrave Avenue CRC. His magazine fluttered around back East at the hands of various editors until 1903, when a group of Christian Reformed leaders acquired it. Their cause continued to be the defense of Reformed orthodoxy. But they were also deliberately progressive, using the English language rather than the Dutch to attract young people and taking a fresh look at the broad American scene that the young were entering.

Through the succession of nine editors it has had since that time, The Banner has managed to generate as well as attract controversy. It has challenged its readers to rethink their attitudes while at the same time sparking repeated questions about its place in the church.

These days The Banner and the church are facing a period of change—the former considering a move to biweekly production and the latter moving toward a more centralized concentration of power. At such times, questions about the magazine’s role in the church surface with new urgency: How challenging should it be? What is the role of the editor as an employee of the denomination? If its history means anything, The Banner’s best bet is to keep exploring the meaning of being Reformed for a diverse audience and to highlight, yet affectionately criticize, the work of the CRC.

A History of Strong Editors

The Banner walks a tightrope: it has always had to satisfy a readership that wants it to mind the truth closely yet not squelch the protests of those who spy error on its pages. In other words, the paper has been expected to speak consistently, yet with plural voices. This expectation has made controversy the paper’s middle name and has required of the editor a thick skin, a sensitive ear, and a jealous regard for the prerogatives of his post.

In the face of such demands, The Banner’s editors have not usually been of the shy, retiring sort. Most of them have felt themselves possessed of the Reformed truth, and they’ve had the pen and personality to back it up. Those assets always sufficed. Even though the Banner editorship was up for vote at every synod well into the 1930s, no incumbent was ever turned out of office.

The tradition of editorial strength began with the first Christian Reformed Banner editor, Rev. Henry Beets. Beets, appointed to the job after the magazine moved to Michigan, made Banner readers attend to the world as a way of honoring the central impulse of their own faith.

Beets could be bold because he was indisputably orthodox, winsomely pious, and in control of a private enterprise. The Christian Reformed Church did not acquire The Banner until 1914. Still, Beets had his uncomfortable moments, particularly when the immigrant CRC was exposed to the fires of rival patriotisms during World War I. To write "with any degree of personal character and independent views and not at times clash with the opinions of some readers . . . is simply an impossibility in our present-day world," he declared in 1915. "We request those who at times disagree with editorial opinions to exercise a certain measure of Christian tolerance."

Guardian of Orthodoxy

By the 1920s, such latitude was hard to come by. The CRC felt compelled to consolidate against the heresies and worldliness of the 20s’ moral revolution. Beets resigned his editorship in 1928 to devote his attention to world missions. The young, American-born Rev. Henry J. Kuiper replaced him.

Kuiper made The Banner a guardian of the strictest Reformed orthodoxy. During his tenure the CRC resembled a string of forts deployed across the North American continent, and The Banner supplied the communication between them. Its word seemed so important that people in Iowa and New Jersey from time to time petitioned synod to have the magazine mailed earlier in the week so that it would get to them in time for their Sunday reading.

Running a periodical with that much appeal, Kuiper became as close to a paper pope as the CRC would ever see. He analyzed issues in close detail, drawing fine distinctions and broad connections in editorials that ran to 3,000 words. (By comparison, the piece you are reading is half that long.) His purpose was clear: "to expose and to denounce any and every movement that he sincerely believed to be a menace" to the historic Christian faith.

Kuiper spied such threats in the theology taught at Chicago Christian High School in the 1930s and in political currents at Calvin College in the early 1950s. At the same time, one veteran of that era recalled, it would be "the understatement of the century to say that not everyone agreed with him." Against protests of Kuiper’s hard right-wing criticism of U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, synod had to explicitly uphold the editor’s right to speak out on political and social issues.

Dealing with Diversity

When Kuiper left his post in 1956, The Banner had been joined by alternative voices in the church. To its right was the Torch and Trumpet (now The Outlook), and to its left was the Reformed Journal (now Perspectives). The denomination was diversifying and could not be held to a single standard of opinion.

Yet uniform opinion was the goal of the new editor, Rev. John Vander Ploeg. Vander Ploeg’s inaugural prayer turned out to be well-advised: "Grant, Lord, that if some who take issue with us become censorious, we may not be unnerved and unequal to the task; and that if others seek to ingratiate themselves by flattery, we may not believe them." Vander Ploeg battled hard but ineffectively for his cause.

It was with great expectations, then, that Lester De Koster succeeded to the editorship in 1971. Here was a layman, one of the progressives Kuiper had hunted in the 1950s. Synod again protected The Banner’s independence by rejecting demands that its editor be an ordained minister—only to see De Koster do his best to turn his post into a pulpit. De Koster was often startling, sometimes outrageous—a rhetorical Fourth of July fireworks show that boomed and popped and tried endlessly to dazzle. The Banner won the denomination’s attention.

In 1980, De Koster’s term was up and Rev. Andrew Kuyvenhoven’s began. Like all his predecessors, Kuyvenhoven did not discard but reshuffled the deck of Reformed heritage. He took the authority to say which game would be played, and he had the support of the denominational bureaucracy to trump the challenges that inevitably arose.

But some of Kuyvenhoven’s best service came in questioning the expansion of that very bureaucracy and in giving full play to the global scope of the gospel. An immigrant like Beets, Kuyvenhoven showed the same impatience with set ways and dreamed always of new places the denomination might reach.

Keeping a Strong Voice

It is the historian’s privilege not to review the more recent past; in any case, we have enough examples to make some assessments. The Banner has been a worthy enterprise because of the strong editors who have run it, the strong voices who have contributed to it, and the strong opinions both these groups have held. The magazine has been a reliable voice for its readers because it has worked within well-defined boundaries of Reformed conviction and institutional loyalty. The same boundaries have been its harbor amid the storms it has inevitably bred by addressing important issues.
Happily, The Banner has more often been a voice for the institution than merely of or within it. It has usually managed to avoid being written by committee or according to official prescription. It has consistently cast the CRC on the screen of the larger world, sometimes in fear and sometimes in innocence. The CRC’s more recent turn toward bureaucratic authority has given the editor more protection, perhaps at the cost of some independence.

The Banner’s best service has come in calling the denomination beyond itself, in showing how its works fit into a context of wider ventures. At the same time, the magazine has helped the CRC prosper by raising the church’s self-consciousness, by insisting that the denomination has a distinctive mission worthy of sacrificial loyalty. Keeping these two themes balanced is a delicate task. It requires an agile editor who commands independence and has a mandate to fly high across the church and into the outside world.

As the population of the CRC becomes more diffuse, the temptation will arise to turn The Banner into an institutional house organ, less a magazine than a corporate report putting the best gloss on a tough market. As the church’s members diversify, the temptation will arise to make the paper say a little something to everyone.

Those are both losing games. The Banner should rather try anew—in whatever forms are required—to do what it has always done best: to reflect on the meaning of Reformed Christianity for its church and its times, to publicize and criticize the efforts the church makes to achieve its mission, to honor the treasure contained in its small corner of God's kingdom, and to show how that treasure might be spread abroad.

About the Author

 

Dr James D. Bratt teaches history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich. He is a member of Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church.

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