Burning Shoes and Banana Peels: 125 Years of Banner

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In 1915, The Banner joined the Christian Reformed Church's Dutch-language periodical, De Wachter, as an official denominational publication. At the time, De Wachter was the more prestigious.

The Banner had begun almost 50 years earlier, in 1866, as the periodical of the True Reformed Protestant Dutch Church, centered in Hackensack, New Jersey. Its original name was The Banner of Truth. But by 1903, its subscribers had diminished to less than 300. At that point, 13 shareholders of the newly organized Banner of Truth Publishing Company acquired it, publishing the magazine until 1914, when the Christian Reformed Church purchased it for $5,000.

With Rev. Henry Beets as its editor, the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based magazine declared that its editorial policy was to "explain, advocate, defend, and try to spread the principles of Calvinism, not alone in the narrow religious sense, but as a comprehensive life-and-world view, a world system."

The Poles of Calvinism

On these two poles The Banner has draped ideological flags that Christian Reformed people have saluted with varying degrees of enthusiasm to this day. Shortly after the denomination purchased The Banner, a "worldview" proponent urged Henry Beets to print, "more, much more of the strictly Calvinistic type of articles—about education, politics, unions and all other current questions. It seems to me," the writer continued, "the strictly Reformed Calvinistic spirit is lacking altogether too much in our paper."

Several years later, though, an apparent advocate of the more "narrow religious" perspective argued that a Calvinism that could espouse Christian education at all levels and a Christian psychiatric hospital was misguided. "Just where do we get the theory," this writer asked, "that we as a church are duty bound to train our youth for the higher secular callings? If the CRC maintains a theological school to equip men who, with the great apostle, aspire to know 'only Christ and Him crucified,' what can be higher?"

Throughout its many decades, The Banner has published views kindred to those of these two writers. In that respect, the magazine has certainly achieved its initial objectives.

In 1917, The Banner's 3,200 subscribers numbered less than half the 8,600 who subscribed to De Wachter. The older magazine's circulation had already peaked, however, in 1915, at 9,000 subscribers. By 1930, The Banner had taken the lead. It became the overwhelmingly dominant Christian Reformed periodical in the 1950s, when its subscribers outnumbered De Wachter's by 8 to 1.

In the process, The Banner was becoming an increasingly rigid institution. From 1928 until 1957, its columns were parceled out to a small cluster of authors, such as E.J. Tanis, H.J. Kuiper, H. Verduin, H. Schultze, J. Ghysels, and "Uncle Dick." By the 1960s, The Banner was largely predictable and nearly papal in its pronouncements.

In this state, it loomed like an overripe bunch of bananas for those who were inclined to satire. And in the 1960s there were more than enough satirists, particularly among college students who were touched by the spirit of anti-institutionalism sweeping across Western Europe and North America.

In 1970, a group of Calvin College students hoisted satire's standard over the church, publishing a magazine they dubbed The Bananer. They duplicated The Banner's design while lampooning each of its regular columns. The spoof outraged a host of readers who considered the parody an attack on venerability of every sort. Others laughed—and laughed again. The Bananer was and remains the most successful satire the CRC has ever generated.

We Learned

For all its unpleasant embarrassments, The Bananer taught the lesson it intended. Since 1970, The Banner has become more flexible, enlisting a far greater variety of contributors. The last three editors—Lester De Koster, Andrew Kuyvenhoven, and Galen Meyer—have opened the editorial windows to admit a wide spectrum of opinions and topics.

Consequently, the recent Banter, which earlier this year offered a humorous and technically excellent replay of the Bananer, did not generate either the light or heat of its predecessor.

The object of the satire no longer provided the vulnerable target that inspired the prickly parodies of 1970.

From 1903 to the present, The Banner has effectively mirrored the cultural life of the CRC. No student of the denomination's history can ignore this periodical without failing to understand the church. Each of The Banner's editors both influenced and reflected the changes and continuities that have shaped the church.

Henry Beets, the founding editor (1903-1928), was especially concerned until about 1920 to educate the CRC by reviewing its Reformed and Calvinist tradition. Beets attempted to find parallels in the United States for persons and events from Calvinism's history—persons such as G. Voetius, W. A. Brakel, and Abraham Kuyper, as well as events like the Synod of Dordrecht and the doctrinal renewal of the 1834 secession. In doing so, Beets hoped to create a Dutch/American cultural fusion.

Thus he found parallels between the New England Puritans and the Dutch settlers of Iowa and Michigan while George Washington he saw as similar to William of Orange. With such analogies, Beets offered a strategy for legitimate Americanization.

In the 20s, when the CRC became embroiled in controversy, Beets sought to turn the denomination's attention outward toward foreign missions. That more positive endeavor, he hoped, would direct the community away from fratricidal rage.

Fitting In

Unlike Beets, editor Henry J. Kuiper (1929-1956) was not an immigrant. Kuiper wrote as a more confident cultural insider, steering a course between fundamentalists and modernists. His efforts fostered the growth of independent cultural judgments and the expansion of separate Christian institutions like schools, hospitals, labor unions, and homes for the aged.

Throughout the 30s and World War II, Kuiper condemned both communism and fascism. He perceptively noted that a fascist threat in the United States endangered Christianity and democracy on the home front. And he opposed the use of atomic weapons. By the 50s, however, both Kuiper and the denomination gave full support to the anticommunist ethos that peaked during the McCarthy hearings of 1957.

The prominence of anticommunism and the generally conservative mood that dominated the 50s and early 60s continued to shape The Banner's perspective during John Vander Ploeg's editorship. But that era also incorporated the CRC's centennial, which provided natural occasions to re-explore the church's origins and traditions. In a sense, then, Vander Ploeg’s tenure rounded out the first century of the CRC's history by repeating perspectives and themes from the first decades of the Beets era.

Refocusing

From the 70s to the present. The Banner has focused on issues that have risen from the wider culture rather than from internal doctrinal and ecclesiastical matters. Racism, pacifism, nationalism, and feminism, and the impact of mass culture on the family, liturgy, and consumerism have replaced such typical theological concerns as Arminianism, God's secret counsel, and the implications or justifications of infant baptism. But some themes persist, for example, ethnicity and cultural assimilation.

In December 1980, Andrew Kuyvenhoven's blazing wooden shoes on The Banner's cover refocused the CRC's attention on its changing identity. The image raised as well the complex imperative to embrace the whole community of Christ's people without denigrating the particular story of God's ways with a denomination that has Netherlandic characteristics and roots.

The universal redemption story must of course prevail, but its effect can only be observed in the lives of people and institutions that are clothed with layers of history. If we deny this, we have no earthly story to tell, and we also erase the incarnation's effects on the days and deeds of our church.

English professor Henry Zylstra once wrote that history, like the sights on a gun barrel, allows us to aim along a line from the past into the future. To ignore that perspective only results in wild shooting. A thoughtful examination of The Banner's 125-year history should be part of any effort to establish realistically designed denominational programs and goals.

About the Author

Herbert J. Brinks

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