Both Rev. Scott Hoezee’s article “Happy 150th, CRC!” (July Banner) and his recent book Grace Through Every Generation, from which his article was drawn, are silent on a crucial part of our denomination’s history. But then, regarding the German presence in very early Christian Reformed Church history, the CRC’s centennial celebration back in 1957 was silent too.
Already in 1875 in his Muskegon, Mich., parsonage, Rev. Douwe Vander Werp was training Cornelius Bode, a German Ostfriesian immigrant, for the ministry. With the appointment of Rev. Geert Boer as the theological school’s first professor in 1876, Bode joined Boer’s first class of seminarians. Both Cornelius Bode and his brother, Henry Bode, were to become prolific church planters. Accounts of their work were still legendary for me as a child of the 1940s in Bunde, Minn., an Ostfriesian congregation.
By 1929, 16 German congregations assembled their own classis (regional body) because of the language barrier in the Christian Reformed Church.
The historical reality is that our denomination from early on was essentially tri-lingual. German pastors conducted all denominational business in Dutch, spoke a Low German dialect with their parishioners, and preached in High German as well as in Dutch and English. When Synod 1914 approved a revision of the Church Order of Dort, it was of course written in Dutch. But synod immediately ordered needed copies in German and English too.
To train their own Christian Reformed pastors and teachers, German speakers in 1916 established a college with plans for a seminary in Grundy Center, Iowa. Mainly for lack of denominational cooperation, it folded by 1934, to the bitter disappointment of Christian Reformed German-Americans. Their disappointment, however, bore fruit 20 years later for Rev. B.J. Haan and his volunteers who sought to establish a regional school (now Dordt College). When they canvassed German farms and homes in Iowa and Minnesota, they found robust memories of Grundy—and open wallets for Dordt.
The Ostfriesians I know best had an inclusive outlook on interchurch relations, decorated their sanctuary with garlands and tinsel for Christmas, retained their hymnody in spite of Dutch insistence on only psalm-singing in worship, resisted singing psalms in plain meter, and, above all, built an enthusiasm for missions. The Bultema, Jansen, and Hoeksema-Danhof controversies of the 1920s did not ruffle them much, though they complained about excessive Banner coverage of those disagreements. “Too much fightin’,” my grandfather told his family and ended his subscription. He and fellow church members preferred Banner Editor Henry Beets’s upbeat reports of German congregations, especially their summer mission fests.
Those events were annual, midweek, daylong celebrations climaxed by generous offerings for missions, a tradition that continued for years. The Bunde Ladies’ Aid Society provided special Mission Fest offering baskets, bigger than the wooden collection plates used for Sunday worship services. I recall especially the children’s amusement when money sometimes fell to the floor as members and their guests piled bills into offering baskets, passing them hand to hand along crowded pews.
For some time Mission Fest worship services were necessarily tri-lingual. After all, how else could Bunde’s Dutch neighbors from Prinsburg Christian Reformed Church and Roseland Reformed Church (as well as the sprinkling of Dutch speakers in the German congregations of Emden Christian Reformed and Bethany Reformed churches) have enjoyed the messages?
Wednesday, June 16, 1920, was typical. The Bunde Mission Fest included morning, afternoon, and evening services with six mission addresses: two in German, three in Dutch, and one in English for the young people.
For years our Dutch denominational compatriots called us “the German element within the Christian Reformed Church.” The years passed, we grew accustomed to our name, and continued to love our denomination. But when historic celebrations of denominational origin come around we still hanker for honorable mention.
Editor Beets must have read our thoughts in 1918 when he wrote about us, “Why alienate those needlessly who are sons of the same home, and many of them with older papers than those who are Hollandish? Why not frankly and willingly acknowledge the fact that we are not a church of one language but a tri-lingual body?”
Ostfriesians appreciated Rev. Beets’s question—and still do. So, please, let’s frankly and willingly acknowledge the fact that we began not as a church of one language and nationality but a bi-national, tri-lingual body.
For interesting narratives of German participation in the early history of the Christian Reformed Church, see
“The German Element in the CRC,” a six-part series by Rev. Wayne Brouwer, The Banner, April 11-May 23, 1980. Brouwer is a son of the Bunde, Minn., congregation.
“Johannes Jager: The Prophet Visits Iowa, 1914” by H.J. Brinks, Origins, Volume XIII, Number 1, 1995, Calvin Archives, 18-22. Jager was a prominent figure in the German Reformed secessionist church.
For the poignant story of Grundy College see:
“Grundy College: Undying Legacy or Broken Promises?” by Alan Waddilove, Origins, Volume XIX, Number 1, 2001, Calvin Archives, 54-60.
“Grundy College: 1916-1934” by Henry Zwaanstra, Perspectives on the Christian Reformed Church: Studies in Its History, Theology and Ecumenicity, DeKlerk and DeRidder, Editors, Baker Books, 1983, 109-150.
Did You Know?
- Back in 1900, about 30 percent of the pastors of the Christian Reformed Church in North America came from the Old Reformed Churches of Germany. (The ORC formed after an 1828 secession from the State Reformed Church in Germany.) A thumbnail sketch of the extent of the German presence in the early history of the CRC appears in “New Role for German Congregations in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands,” News Exchange, Reformed Ecumenical Council, December 2002.
- Not all German, Reformed immigrants to North America joined the Christian Reformed Church or remained with it. See “The Other Reformed” by archivist Richard H. Harms, Calvin Theological Journal, April 2007. It must be added that some Lutheran and Baptist German immigrants joined the CRC when they found a congregation conveniently close to their farms.
- In “Christian Reformed History in German Mirrors,” historian James Bratt takes a novel historical look at the reflection of both Missouri Synod German Lutheranism and “German-rooted” Reformed Churches in the United States upon the history and development of our own denomination. See Calvin Theological Journal, April 2007.
- Immigrants from the Old Reformed Church of Germany arrived in the U.S. from County Bentheim as well as Ostfriesland. From 1847 to 1956, 4,000 people came from Bentheim, and most joined the Christian Reformed Church.
- After World War II, 76 of these folks, fleeing Germany’s shattered economy, came to both Canada and the U.S. from their home churches: Bentheim, Emlichheim, Hoogstede, Laar, Nordhorn, Uelsen, Veldhausen, and Wilsum. All in this post-war group, many of them young people, joined the CRC. Their departures must have deeply affected their congregations back in Germany. (Sources: Joanne Voogd, John Voogd, and historian Zwenna Harger)
- From 1876 to 1894, two of the first four professors at what is now Calvin Theological Seminary were sons of German families: Gerhardus Vos and Henricus Beuker. A third professor, G.K. Hemkes, had been a pastor of the Bunde Old Reformed Church in Germany.
- Rev. Beuker’s daughter, Jacoba Beuker Robberts, was one of the founders of the Christian Psychopathic Hospital, now Pine Rest Christian Services, in Grand Rapids, Mich. (Source: Zwenna Harger)