Rev. Hanko is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Lynden, Washington.
The Afscheiding, or “Secession,” that took place in Holland in 1834, when a large group of dissenters separated from the state church, is a movement that had a profound impact on the history of Reformed churches, including that of the Protestant Reformed Churches. The historical roots of the Christian Reformed Church and of the Protestant Reformed Churches are in that Secession. The Dutch immigrants who first formed the Christian Reformed Church and then the Protestant Reformed Churches were almost all from the Secession.¹ Herman Hoeksema and George Ophoff, the founders of the Protestant Reformed Churches, were both from a Secession background. The history of the Secession, therefore, is a part of the history of the PRC to which the words ofPsalm 78 apply:
Let children thus learn from history’s light
To hope in our God and walk in His sight,
The God of their fathers to fear and obey,
And ne’er, like their fathers, to turn from His way.²
There were numerous causes for the Secession, but they all had to do with apostasy in the Dutch Reformed Church (Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk). This apostasy was protected by the reorganization of the Dutch Reformed Church into a full-fledged state church in 1816 by King William I. The church, as a result of reorganization, was ruled from the top down by a national synod, and protest and reformation from within became impossible. Thus, the apostasy continued and grew until it became intolerable to those who loved God and His Word.
The protests against this continuing apostasy focused on five matters: 1) the replacement of Christ’s headship and the Word of God by synodical authority in the churches; 2) the rejection of the old Church Order of Dordt, which was replaced by William I’s new rules for the church; 3) the rejection of the creeds and their binding authority, especially of the Canons of Dordt; 4) the teaching of heretical doctrines by liberal, unbelieving ministers in the state church who no longer considered themselves bound by the creeds; and 5) the introduction of a new hymnbook and rules making the use of these hymns obligatory.
In their “Appeal to the Faithful in America,” A. Brummelkamp and A.C. VanRaalte, two leaders of the Secession, said of the state church: “we found ourselves standing in opposition to our national, or world-church, which in many instances is nothing but a mere State machine, dependent upon worldly government, and supported by the State fund, with a minister of public worship at its head.”³ In their different “Acts of Secession” the dissident ministers and their congregations called the state church the false church.
The old Church Order of Dordt was superceded by the rules William I and his government established for the church in 1816. Among other things, these rules gave the king the power to appoint the members of each synod, as well as its president and clerk, made the rulings of the synods subject to the approval of the king, and gave nearly unlimited power over the church to a political Minister of Public Worship appointed by the king.4 The attitude of the seceders towards these changes is beautifully illustrated by a story of Rev. Cornelius Vander Meulen, ordained shortly after the Secession. When Vander Meulen was preaching near Axel, the service was interrupted by two armed officers who said:
In the name of the king we come to tell you that you may not preach before this group; we order you all to leave this place.
Vander Meulen told them:
You have indeed brought the message in the name of the king. But now I must say to you in the name of the King of kings that I am charged to proclaim the Gospel to the people gathered here…. You have sinned, but those who sent you have sinned more grievously.5
The binding authority of the creeds was opened to question, and subscription became meaningless when in 1816 a new formula of subscription was adopted that no longer required candidates for the ministry and officebearers to subscribe to the creedsbecause they agreed with the Word of God, but only insofar as the creeds agreed with Scripture. The attitude of the national church toward the creeds was seen when the national synod of the Reformed Church in the Netherlands, having commemorated, in 1817, the 300th anniversary of the Reformation, refused to commemorate the bicentennial of the Synod of Dordt in 1819.6
It was no wonder, then, that the spirit of unbelief already present flourished and grew in the churches. One writer says:
. . . . that Christ was simply an ethical teacher and that religion was essentially a matter of inculcating good morals. The ancient Reformed teaching of man’s inability to do any good that would merit salvation in God’s sight was misunderstood and ignored. Sermons often were simple moral discourses. Discipline was lax and doctrinal standards were neglected. Catechetical instruction was abandoned, at least in some places.7
Those who insisted on a return to the creeds and to the doctrines of Scripture were regarded as sectarian troublemakers. One modern writer calls them “believing, theologizing, psalm singing, quarreling, snarling, mutually slandering pilgrims” and calls the Secession a “schism,” though he adds: “they were men and women who had the courage of their convictions, no matter how narrow-minded they may appear to us.”8
The new hymnbook was disliked by the people and many of the ministers, not only because of a long tradition of Psalm-singing in the Dutch churches, but because the hymns introduced unbiblical teachings into the church, as hymns so often do. The opposition to the hymns was so great that many members would hurry out of the services when one of these hymns was announced or cover their heads during the singing of them. Opposition to the hymns was a factor in the discipline of some leaders of the Secession: deCock, Brummelkamp, Gezelle Meerburg, and VanVelzen.
The Secession was a true reformation of the church, of her doctrine, worship, government, and practice, and it came about through the power of the Word of God as it worked first in individual hearts and then, through the preaching of the gospel of grace, in congregations. It was a return to the creeds and church order and through them to the Word of God itself.
The Leading Figures
Some of the leading figures of the Secession have already been named, but the history of the Secession cannot adequately be told without mentioning some details from the lives of several of them. The principal figures were:
Hendrik C. deCock (1801-42). deCock was the first light of the Secession, the oldest of its leaders, the first to suffer for his opposition to the practices and doctrines of the state church, and one whose biography is a summary of the history of the Secession. We will look at his history separately and in more detail.
Hendrik Pieter Scholte (1805-68). Scholte was, next to deCock, the leading figure in the Secession. It was at University, in a club named after himself, the Scholte Club, that many of the other leaders of the Secession were prepared for their places in the Secession and in the churches born out of the Secession. From a Lutheran background, he was ordained a minister in North Brabant in the state church in 1833, only a year before the Secession. Suspended from the ministry for preaching in deCock’s church, he and his congregation seceded in October, 1834. A proud and outspoken man, he was deposed in 1840 by the churches of the Secession, and in 1847 sailed with a large part of his congregation to the United States, settling in Pella, Iowa, where he and his congregation remained independent for a number of years. In 1854 most of his congregation left him to join with the newly formed denomination that became the Christian Reformed Church.
Antonie Brummelkamp (1811-88). Brummelkamp was ordained the year of the Secession, 1834, in Hattem, Gelderland. He was deposed from office in the state church in 1835, without having first been suspended from office, for refusing to baptize the children of non-members, and for refusing to use the new hymns. He had been a member of the Scholte Club, but later fell out with Scholte and was accused by him of Pelagianism and Arminianism.9 Though he encou encouraged emigration to America, he himself remained in Holland. He was later appointed professor of theology at the University of Kampen when that was established in 1854.
Simon VanVelzen (1809-96). VanVelzen was also a member of the Scholte Club at University and was ordained at about the same time as Brummelkamp, though his installation was delayed. He was very quickly thereafter suspended for allowing Brummelkamp and VanRaalte to preach for him (though they were still in good standing at the time), and for refusing to pledge unconditional submission to the church regulations of 1816. He and his congregation seceded in 1835. He, like Brummelkamp, remained in the Netherlands. He was the strongest of all the Secession leaders doctrinally, holding an unconditional covenant and a particular gospel promise.
Albertus Christiaan VanRaalte (1811-76). VanRaalte, along with Scholte, is among the best known of the leaders of the Secession. He too had been a member of the Scholte Club and was never ordained in the state church, because he would not promise unconditional obedience to the synodical laws. He was ordained in 1836 as pastor of the Secession congregations in Genemuiden and Mastenbroek, and thereafter served congregations in Ommen and Arnhem. With a large group he emigrated to the United States in 1846, settling in the area of Holland, Michigan, thereafter joining the Reformed Church in America (RCA). VanRaalte was in many ways more liberal than some of the other Secession leaders and for that reason did not leave the RCA when many of the other Seceders left to form the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). He was much vilified for his domineering ways, but it is doubtful that the new colony in Michigan would have succeeded without his strong leadership. It is to be regretted, however, that he remained in the RCA, a denomination that already then was losing its Reformed character.10
Others, such as Gisbertus Haan, the elder who led the seceders out of the RCA in the United States and founded the CRC; G.F. Gezelle Meerburg and Louis Baehler, the other members of the Scholte Club; N. Schotsman of Leyden, who waged an unending battle for the creeds in the years before the Secession; and Cornelius Vander Meulen, an important Secession preacher, could also have their histories given, but it must be acknowledged that all were but men, with their own faults and weaknesses, and were therefore but instruments in the hands of the Almighty for the preservation and rebuilding of His church. To Him alone must be the glory for the reformation of the church in 1834 and the years following.
. . . to be continued.
¹ Seceders dominated in the first immigrant wave; some 13,000 emigrated between 1845 and 1880, and they comprised 65 percent of all emigrants in the peak years 1846-1849. In 1847, the founding year of the major colonies in Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin, 79 percent of all emigrants were Seceders. This was at a time when barely one percent of the Dutch populace were Seceders . . . . Of the 114 clerics ordained in the CRCNA from 1857 to 1900, every one had been affiliated with the Afscheiding. (Robert P. Swierenga, “True Brothers: The Netherlandic Origins of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, 1857-1880,” http://www.swierenga. com/Kampen_pap.html.)
² The Psalter, rev. ed. (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1995), 180 (#213:3).
³ Henry S. Lucas, ed., Dutch Immigrant Memoirs and Related Writings (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 15.
4 Maurice G. Hansen, The Reformed Church in the Netherlands (New York: Board of Publications of the Reformed Church in America, 1884), 290.
5 Lucas, ed., Dutch Immigrant Memoirs, 368.
6 D.H. Kromminga, The Christian Reformed Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1943), 80.
7 Henry S. Lucas, Netherlanders in America (University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, 1955), 43.
8 Jacob VanHinte, Netherlanders in America, ed. Robert Swierenga, trans. Adriaan deWit (Baker: Grand Rapids, 1985), I, 362.
9 Scholte’s charges were probably correct, since Brummelkamp was the one who introduced the theology of the well-meant offer into the Secession churches.
10 Disinterest in Christian education, the use of hymns and choirs in worship, doctrinal laxity and Arminianism in the RCA, lodge membership, ecumenism, open communion, a lack of catechetical instruction and neglect of catechism preaching were all issues in the dispute that led to the formation of the CRCNA.