Scholars tell us that manyChristians no longer identify closely with denominations. Some even say denominations may disappear in coming decades. In this kind of
environment, it may strike some as odd to celebrate the birthday of a particular denomination.
Still, most people find it difficult to be a generic Christian. Instead we identify ourselves as Catholics and Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists, Reformed and Orthodox. Each group has its own history and its own unique way of contributing to the wider body of Christ—what’s more, across all that variety there is cause to celebrate God’s varied grace.
As the Christian Reformed Church in North America celebrates its 150th birthday, we do so modestly. When I talk with Orthodox priests whose denomination has a 2,000-year history or when I am part of a panel discussion with a Baptist pastor whose denomination numbers in the millions, I am reminded how relatively youthful and small the CRC is. Nevertheless, our part of the worldwide church is having a birthday, and this provides an opportunity to note the history that has brought us to this moment.
Our story begins in the Netherlands of the 19th century, where the Reformed church traced its origins back to the Protestant Reformation and, more specifically, to the theology of John Calvin. Reformed Christians celebrate the sovereign grace of God in creation and redemption even as each believer revels in the comfort that comes, as the Heidelberg Catechism summarizes it, by knowing that “I belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”
By the early 1800s the Reformed church in the Netherlands had essentially become the official state church. But as the government exercised more influence over the church and its worship practices, some Dutch Christians became uneasy. Receiving top-down decrees from the government seemed un-Reformed to many. Worse, some of those decrees (like the 1816 mandate that all congregations had to sing not just psalms but also hymns) ran counter to dearly held liturgical traditions. Some began to believe it was time to leave the state church and strike out on their own.
In 1834 the secession known as the Afscheiding took place when Rev. Hendrik de Cock and his Ulrum congregation formally approved exiting the state church. Others soon followed. Among those who eventually affiliated with the Afscheiding group was the man who founded the Dutch colony in Pella, Iowa, Hendrik Pieter Scholte, and also the founder of Holland, Michigan, Albertus C. Van Raalte.
However, tracing the precise origin of the CRC does not end with the 1834 secession. The next part of the story takes place in the United States. By the time of the Afscheiding, there were already many people of Dutch descent living in North America. These immigrants had forged an American version of the church known then as the Dutch Reformed Church (later called the Reformed Church in America). By the mid- to late-1840s, the immigrant pastors Van Raalte and Scholte had founded Dutch colonies in Holland, Michigan, and Pella, Iowa. The Holland settlement was large enough to catch the eye of the Reformed Church’s leadership, which invited these Dutch brothers and sisters into a formal ecclesiastical partnership.
But despite a brief alliance with this American Reformed group, the relationship did not last for everyone. At least some of the descendants of those who had broken away from the Dutch state church did not want to become part of yet another larger church body that would dictate doctrines and practices. Their relationship with the Reformed Church in America struck some as being just like the pre-1834 situation.
Over time some in West Michigan lodged formal complaints about the denomination’s encouragement of singing hymns instead of psalms only, the practice of private baptisms and open communion, the toleration of Free Masons lodge members within Reformed congregations, and other departures from the traditional Church Order.
So by the April 8, 1857, meeting of Classis Holland, four congregations sent in notices of withdrawal. Although many remained with the Reformed Church in America, others withdrew and on April 29, 1857, a formal organizational meeting was held and attended by five West Michigan congregations that together formed a new classis. Ultimately, this new entity would one day be known as the Christian Reformed Church in North America.
A New Century
The earliest history of this fledgling denomination was tenuous at best. In the middle years of the 19th century, despite steadily adding new congregations in places like Iowa, Illinois, and New Jersey, the new denomination was at times barely hanging on. There were sporadic doctrinal arguments that erupted at meetings of classis or on the floor of the annual gathering of synod. There were fiscal constraints and organizational growing pains. Over time, however, the CRC became better established.
By the time the 20th century arrived, the church had managed to establish its own in-house journal, De Wachter, and had even established, in 1876, a theological school in Grand Rapids, Mich., to train future ministers of the Word. In its first academic year, the new school had a student body of seven and a faculty consisting of one person, Gerrit E. Boer. But the school continued to grow and eventually added a junior college that soon turned into a four-year, degree-granting institution known as Calvin College. What’s more, in 1896 the denomination formally launched its first missions program aimed initially at evangelizing the Navajo and Zuni Native Americans who lived in New Mexico and Arizona.
The membership of the CRC also continued to grow, helped in the late 19th century by an influx of Dutch immigrants who had just come through yet another church split in the Netherlands. This more recent divide was led by the remarkable figure of Abraham Kuyper and was known as the Doleantie, which meant “the grieving church.”
By the late 19th century, Kuyper had gained a reputation as a powerful preacher whose ideas resonated with many others who, like Kuyper, began to suspect more and more that the state church (the Hervormde Kerk) was drifting in doctrine and practice. Kuyper wanted to reform the church from within.
However, when, in 1886, the state church formally rejected the requirement for officebearers to conform with the confessions of the Reformed faith, it became clear to Kuyper and his followers that they could no longer remain. Just in case the Doleantie folks were unsure about the need to secede, the Hervormde Kerk settled the matter for them by deposing many pastors, including Kuyper.
When some of Kuyper’s followers later arrived in the United States, they gravitated toward the CRC thanks in part to their shared history of unhappiness with the old Dutch state church as well as having common views on matters such as lodge membership.
By 1900 the Christian Reformed Church encompassed a total of nearly 54,000 members who belonged to a total of 144 congregations. Although still concentrated largely in the Midwest, the Christian Reformed presence extended from coast to coast and to many places in between as well.
The 20th century was, of course, a period of stupendous change. When the century began, automobiles and airplanes were all but unheard of, even as electricity and telephones were largely restricted to wealthier people who lived in urban centers. A scant 100 years later, orbiting satellites made cell phones and e-mail commonplace, even as air travel became a routine part of life.
Changes and Challenges
In the midst of such rapid changes, the CRC struggled to strike a proper posture over against the wider world. In its earliest history, the church tended to be insular, content to worship in the Dutch language only and to shun contact with a good bit of the outside world. In the late 1920s, just before the world was plunged into an economic Depression and then yet another terrible world war, the Christian Reformed synod declared that theater attendance, card playing, and dancing were off limits to its members. That declaration was just an obvious example of a larger effort to build what historian James Bratt calls “a fortress” to keep out the wider world.
But after two world wars and with the advent of new technologies like radio and television, it became increasingly difficult for Christian Reformed people to avoid contact with society. By mid-century voices within the CRC began to call for greater engagement with culture, claiming that as agents of Christ and his kingdom, Christian Reformed people had an obligation to witness to Christ in every segment of the world and across a vast array of disciplines and vocations.
Such calls for greater cultural involvement, however, were not universally embraced. Across much of the latter half of the 20th century, conflict and uncertainty were common, culminating annually on the floor of synod as delegates from across the United States and Canada came together to hash out a bevy of genuinely important, but often very knotty, issues. Included in this important work were serious studies on the extent of God’s love, on the nature of Scripture and its authority, on the Neo-Pentecostal movement, on questions related to homosexuality, and most notably on the entire matter of the role of women in the church.
The latter debate consumed nearly 30 years of synodical history and resulted in a small mountain of study committee reports that looked at every conceivable angle on the question of whether women could serve as deacons, elders, and ministers. From 1970 through 1995 the annual meetings of synod resembled what author James Schaap once described as a kind of “ecclesiastical badminton match.” One year the synod would take a big step in the direction of allowing women into all the ordained offices of the church, but the next year the newly configured synod would reverse that move.
Finally in 1995 the synod reached a decision to allow for a local option on the question. Classes could decide to allow their churches to ordain women, and those who believed Scripture forbids it were allowed to maintain the rule that restricted those offices to men only. This compromise unsettled many, but it did afford the denomination a time of rest from debating the issue.
However, recent years have shown that passions still run high on this matter, even as there has been a push to remove the final restrictions on women in the church once and for all.
To the Ends of the Earth
But beyond those public debates, the CRC continued to grow. Thanks to a huge influx of immigrants from the Netherlands at mid-century, the Canadian wing of the church grew dramatically through the diligent work of home missionaries, immigrant pastors, and field workers who planted dozens of new congregations all across the Canadian provinces.
In 1954 not less than 23 new congregations were established, making that year the zenith of church planting in Canada. Such work continued unabated for a strong and remarkable 20 years, with the result that the CRC in Canada grew from just 14 established congregations in 1946 to 170 congregations by 1966.
The CRC also put itself on the map by establishing and supporting outstanding schools of higher education. Even as Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary continued to grow in enrollment and prestige, a number of other colleges and universities were also founded with close ties to the CRC, including Reformed Bible College (now Kuyper College), The King’s University College, Redeemer University College, Trinity Christian College, Dordt College, and the Institute for Christian Studies.
Begun in 1939, “The Back to God Hour” radio ministry eventually expanded into television and the Internet, beaming the message of God’s grace to people all around the world in several different languages. Meanwhile the missions program that began domestically in 1896 moved out into the wider world, establishing significant missions in places such as Nigeria, Argentina, the Philippines, and other nations.
Additionally, the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee was founded in 1962 as a mission agency of not only word but deed, teaching people how to plant sustainable crops, helping villagers dig wells for safe drinking water, and providing disaster relief following earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes.
Our Growing Family
When the Nov. 3, 1980, edition of The Banner came out, few were prepared for what they saw on the cover: a full-color photo of Dutch wooden shoes engulfed in flames and accompanied by the words, “It’s Time to Burn the Wooden Shoes.” In his editorial for that issue, Rev. Andrew Kuyvenhoven noted that it was time to leave behind the trappings of the CRC’s Dutch origins so as to celebrate the growing ethnic diversity in the denomination.
And that diversity was by then palpable as the second half of the 20th century witnessed a huge surge in immigration from places like Asia, Central and South America, and Mexico. To address this changed situation, Christian Reformed Home Missions led the way in diversifying the CRC in ways that now help the denomination reflect more fully the broad spectrum of God’s people.
Under the banner slogan of “Gathering God’s Growing Family,” Home Missions planted churches and raised up new leaders in ways that significantly changed the makeup of the Christian Reformed Church. By 2007 the CRC contained two classes (regional groups of churches) comprising specific ethnic groups: Classis Red Mesa (Native American) and Classis Pacific Hanmi (Korean).
As the CRC became more ethnically diverse, the denomination had to wrestle with the sensitive subject of racism. In 1971 the synod formally authorized the formation of a new denominational agency that became known as SCORR, or the “Synodical Committee on Race Relations” (now Race Relations). The new agency was mandated to “design, organize, and implement programs through which the denomination, individual churches, and members can effectively use all available resources to eradicate racism, both causes and effects, within the body of believers and throughout the world.”
Those efforts bore much fruit, but by the early 1990s the CRC perceived the need to articulate a biblical and theological vision to guide ongoing efforts to build a truly multiracial church. So Synod 1992, at the behest of ideas that emerged from the Multiethnic Conference held that year, mandated a study committee to articulate “the biblical basis for the development and use of multiethnic leadership” and at the same time to assess how the CRC was doing in fostering “a racially and ethnically diverse family of God.”
In 1996 this committee reported back to synod with a comprehensive report that later became known as “God’s Diverse and Unified Family.” In addition to sketching out a biblical and theological portrait of race and ethnicity, the report challenged the synod and the wider denomination to recognize that despite the progress that had been made, there were still “many miles to go” when it came to being a fully unified and inclusive Christian body. To help chart a course forward, Synod 1996 adopted the study committee’s thorough report along with all its implications for the member congregations of the CRC.
By the time of this sesquicentennial celebration, we can thank God that the people celebrating this particular birthday come closer to reflecting the diversity of God’s people on earth than at any past point in Christian Reformed history. Out of a total of 1,057 congregations, the 269,856-member Christian Reformed Church in North America today includes 61 multiethnic congregations, 86 Korean congregations, 28 Hispanic congregations, 15 Native American congregations, 11 African American congregations, 8 Chinese and 8 Laotian congregations, and many other congregations representing other people groups, including Cambodian, Filipino, French, Haitian, Hmong, Indonesian, Native Canadian, and Vietnamese. The entire denomination now includes and is enriched by members from cultures around the world.
Obviously a short article like this can only scratch the surface of the wonderful work and witness carried out by countless thousands of Christian Reformed people this past century-and-a-half. If people like Van Raalte, Scholte, and Kuyper could see the CRC today, they would find much that would surprise them. But upon closer examination these founders would still see that underlying our now hugely varied ministries is the joy we have in knowing that our only comfort in life and in death is that we belong to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. It is to this Lord of the church that we direct our sesquicentennial praise and gratitude. It is to this wonderful Savior that we look for guidance as we continue to see God’s “grace through every generation” as we move forward into this new century.
The Case for a New Birth Date
While we know the correct month and year of the founding of our denomination, April 1857, the actual date remains a mystery because the minutes of the first formal gathering of the seceded churches are lost.
Lacking such proof, the church accepted the date on which Classis Holland of the Reformed Church in America accepted the four letters of secession: one each from the Revs. Koene Vanden Bosch of Noordeloos and Hendrik Klijn of Grand Rapids, and one each from the consistories of Graafschap and Polkton. The acceptance of these letters by Classis Holland thus became our “birthday.” But that seems a rather passive date; a more correct date would be when these four churches met for the first time as a unit.
We know that Klijn signing as president, and Vanden Bosch as clerk, sent a letter to the Christelijke Afgescheiden synod in the Netherlands, requesting union with it. That synod dealt with this letter on June 15, 1857; unfortunately, the letter’s date was not recorded in their minutes. Still, it proved that the seceded group had met and formally elected moderators. Jan Gelock, an elder in Grand Rapids, wrote in 1864 that the group had met in Holland, Mich., but did not mention the date. Hoping that Klijn’s letter might be in an archive in the Netherlands, I contacted several. The Utrechts Archief located it and sent me a copy. It was headed 24 April, 1857, Grand Rapids, Mich. That day was a Friday. Since classis meetings were usually held on Wednesdays, they probably met on Wednesday, April 22 in Holland, Mich., and elected officers, who then on Friday, April 24 drafted the letter.
Because the letter mentions Vriesland as also having seceded and joined, and because Vriesland was organized on Friday, April 17, classis met after the 17th. Thus, this newly created denomination was most likely formed on April 22, 1857, in Holland, Mich.
—Janet Sjaarda Sheeres is author of Son of Secession:
Douwe J. Vander Werp, published by Eerdmans, and for the
past three-and-a-half years served as chair of the Historical Committee of the CRC.
Did You Know?
The CRC symbol, affectionately referred to by many as the “trailer hitch,” was first introduced to the church in 1968. It was designed by David Vanderveen.
The triangle represents the Trinity. Superimposed in a dominant central position—in the design as in our lives—is the cross of Christ. According to the official seal committee, “What is most beautiful about the emblem is a quality that freely permits each of us to see in it what we find meaningful about our faith and our church” (Banner, July 12, 1968).