Friday, August 5, 2016

A Very Brief History of The Reformed Tradition's Roots: From The Netherlands to America

In my profile, I touched on a few highlights of my background. In the next few blogs, I would like to give more details of my religious upbringing and the history of religion in my family. It will help the reader understand what I have believed and what this Church holds to be true. These next few posts may be boring for those who don't like history, but it is necessary to provide a background to the origins of my religious faith.

My research into my family genealogy is what prompted me to question the validity of the Bible and Christianity. As I researched my ancestors, I explored the history of the Netherlands and how Christianity influenced the Dutch people, which is the primary ethnicity of my family. Most of my ancestors lived in the Province of Groningen in the Northern part of the Netherlands.

The Protestant Reformation

My family has been members of one of the most conservative evangelical branches of Christianity for generations. Theses denominations are the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church. The greatest influence upon these two denominations is John Calvin and his writings. Calvin was an influential French theologian during the Protestant Reformation, which began with Martin Luther's rejection of some of the practices of the Roman Catholic Church in Germany in the 1520s.

Martin Luther - 1529

John Calvin was born in Geneva, Switzerland as Jehan Cauvin in 1509. Calvin left the Roman Catholic Church in the 1530s and published his most prominent work the "Institutes of the Christian Religion" in 1536.

John Calvin - abt. 1550

Calvinism in the Netherlands

Calvin's brand of the Reformation appeared in the Netherlands in the 1540s concentrating in the western and northern areas, where my ancestors lived. The Dutch Reformed Church or the Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk was established in 1571. There was much persecution of religious groups over the next sixty years until independence in the Netherlands was achieved in 1648. The Netherlands was known at that time for its religious tolerance, as there were groups of Catholics, Anabaptists, Anglicans, Jews, and Calvinists. 

On a side note, the year 1806 is crucial, especially for Dutch genealogy. Napolean set up the Kingdom of Holland, and he gave it to his brother Louis I to rule it. As a result, people were required to register with the state using last names. I discovered these facts while researching my genealogy. Before this time, most families did not have last names. Genealogy research in Holland before 1806 is much more challenging, and most records are from Churches.

Louis Napoleon Bonaparte

In 1813, Napoleon's army was defeated at the Battle of Leipzig. Following that defeat, his troops retreated to France from all over Europe. In 1815, Willem Frederik from the house of Orange proclaimed himself the ruler over the Sovereign Principality of the Netherlands after the Napoleonic Kingdom of Holland had dissolved. Willem was the son of Willem V, the last monarch before his exile due to Napoleon's French Revolution and the Bavarian Revolution in Amsterdam. In 1815, Willem proclaimed the country a Kingdom, and from that day on has been known as the Kingdom of the Netherlands. He then changed his name to Willem I. The Kingdom of the Netherlands at that time, consisted of the Northern Netherlands (Holland) who were mostly Protestant and the Southern Netherlands (Belgium) who were Catholics. 

Willem Frederik - William I

In 1816, Willem I reorganized the Dutch Reformed church, which had been the country's official religion up until 1798. He renamed it the Nederlands Gereformeerde Kerk or the Netherlands Reformed Church, and it remained the country's most influential Protestant Church. Willem I was a staunch supporter of the Reformed Church which led to clashes between the liberal Calvinists, Orthodox Calvinists, and Catholics.

In 1834, a group of orthodox Calvinists led by the Reverand Hendrik de Cock seceded from the Netherlands Reformed Church. Other churches joined Rev. de Cock in seceding from the Church and formed the Christian Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. These groups were known as the Secessionists or Seceders.
Hendrik de Cock 1829

Calvinism in the United States

In September of 1846, Albertus Van Raalte who was a secessionist pastor, his family, and a group of about 50 others fled the Netherlands because of famine and religious persecution. They traveled through New York on their way to establish a colony in Wisconsin. On the way going to Wisconsin, they came upon Black Lake in Western Michigan and decided to settle there instead. They began settling in and around this area in February of 1847. It eventually became the city of Holland, Michigan. 

Albertus Van Raalte 

The task of starting a colony there wasn't easy. Many settlers were inexperienced, and the forests on the land needed clearing before they could begin farming. The first years were difficult due to disease and the difficulty of making a living off the undeveloped land. Van Raalte looked to the Dutch Reformed congregations in the New Jersey area for help and eventually joined the American branch of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1850. These New Jersey groups were part of the Reformed churches that formed in New Amsterdam in 1628. 

In July of 1847, Gijsbert Haan and his family left the Netherlands following Van Raalte's lead, and stayed in the New Amsterdam area for a time before heading to Michigan. While living in New York, his thinking was shaped by a group known as the True Protestant Dutch Reformed Church, which had seceded from the American Dutch Reformed Church in 1822. The seceders felt that the American church didn't follow Calvin's teachings and that they were only semi-Calvinists with unsound practices. 

Gijsbert Haan

When Haan and his family finally reached Van Raalte and the colony in Michigan, he began exerting his influence on what he had learned in New York. Most churches in Holland were happy with their union with the Dutch Reformed Church. But he kept pushing for separation due to what he called the unsound practices of the church. Van Raalte had wanted the settlers to become "good Americans" and to assimilate into the American culture. He and most of his followers were open to the adaptation of the church as well to Americanization, including a transition to conducting services in English, cooperating with other denominations in the production of Sunday School materials, and maintaining the connection to the Reformed Churches in the East. Haan and his followers were pushing for isolationism. They felt that by isolating themselves from others, they would be stronger and not lose their ties to the Netherlands. Additionally, there were a few doctrinal issues that they disagreed with, but the primary thrust of seceding was more about conduct and non-theological issues.

Soon, he had enough followers and on March 19, 1857, he and a significant portion of the Second Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, including its pastor, agreed to secede, and they formed the First Christian Reformed Church of Grand Rapids. Six weeks later, members from four churches, consisting of about 130 families joined them and formed the Christian Reformed Church Denomination (CRC) on April 29, 1857. 

According to the CRC website (, the reasons for the 1857 secession were:
  • a perceived lack of piety and too much accommodation to American culture by these same pastors;
  • the use of hymns in worship by the Americans - the seceders insisted on psalm-singing only;
  • the practice by the American churches of "open communion," extending an open invitation to all believers to participate in the Lord's Supper;
  • the perceived lack of solidarity on the part of the Americans with the secessionist cause in the Netherlands. *

The Christian Reformed Church also promotes the importance of Christian Education of their children and even requires it for some. For example, if someone works at one of their schools, it is mandatory that their children attend a CRC Christian school. Because of this vigorous insistence on Christian education, the CRC has established many Christian schools across the country.

The Reformed Church doesn't own as many lower education parochial schools as the CRC, but there are a few Christian colleges in the Midwest, including Hope College in Holland, Central, and Northwestern Colleges in Iowa.

Next up:  Doctrines, Beliefs, and Practices of the Reformed Tradition


1 History | Christian Reformed Church, (accessed August 05, 2016).

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