Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Introduction

Apart from my parents, two men had the most influence on my life: my two professors in seminary. The one was Rev. Herman Hoeksema; the other was Prof. George M. Ophoff. From Rev. Hoeksema I learned Reformed Dogmatics and how to exegete the New Testament; from Prof. Ophoff I learned the history of the church of Christ and how to exegete the Old Testament. They determined the nature of my ministry in the church of Christ.

The seminary was meeting for most of the time I was studying for the ministry in the basement of First Protestant Reformed Church. The one room set aside for seminary had nothing to commend it as a classroom conducive to study. The student body was small. The library was all by non-existent. The seminary boasted no support staff: no secretary, no administrator, no registrar, no department heads, no records. Just two professors and a handful of students.

I am bold to say that we received some of the best theological education available in this country if not abroad. Yet this seemingly bold statement is only true if one weighs the value of theological education in the scales of the one thing theological education is all about: learning to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ according to the Scriptures and the Reformed confessions. I never wanted to study elsewhere, did not in fact even give it a thought. I have never had one moment’s regret that the place where I studied was the dingy “seminary room” in the basement of First Church.

The only possible explanation of all this is the fact that the two professors who taught us everything we know about theology and preaching were two men, themselves gifted preachers, who were wholly committed to the Reformed faith and the cause of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In all the world no two men could be found working together who were so different from each other. It was itself a miracle of divine grace that those two men not only worked together from the beginning of the history of the Protestant Reformed Churches in 1924 to the late 50s—a period of over 35 years—but did so in unity, harmony, singleness of purpose, and equal devotion to the cause of Christ.

I have written of Rev. Herman Hoeksema. The delightful task of writing of Rev. George Ophoff now awaits me. It is the story of a man whom I respected greatly and whom I learned to love deeply. That his name may not be forgotten by those who love the Reformed faith, I write these lines with thankfulness to God for my seminary professors.

Early Life and Training

George Ophoff was born in the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan on January 25, 189l. He was the oldest of eight children born to Frederick H. Ophoff and Yeta Hemkes Ophoff. Frederick Ophoff worked in a furniture factory in downtown Grand Rapids, to and from which place he walked to save the nickel-cost of streetcar fare. The hours were long: from 6:00 in the morning to 5:00 in the afternoon, six days a week. And the rather meager wages could barely support the family and provide Christian school tuition for the children.

The household lived a rather normal life for a second generation immigrant family. The Dutch communities in Grand Rapids were close-knit, and life centered in the church. The churches were composed of immigrants from the Netherlands and their children and grandchildren; and they were scattered throughout the city. Almost all of them had roots in The Separation, the reforming movement in the Netherlands which had been launched by Henrick DeCock and which had come to Michigan under the leadership of VanRaalte.

In keeping with the traditions of those who belonged to this particular group of Dutch immigrants, the family was a godly and pious family willing to sacrifice for the cause of Christian instruction. Ophoff received his instruction in the home, in Oakdale Christian School, and in Franklin St. and Oakdale Park Christian Reformed Churches. It was truly a covenantal instruction which Ophoff himself, in all his life, considered a great blessing. In his later years in seminary Ophoff was wont to speak of what he called Gereformeerde gevoelhoren, which is translated, “Reformed antennae.” By this expression he referred to one who had a deep sense of what was included in the Reformed faith and an ability to detect unerringly that which was opposed to it. Ophoff firmly believed that such a sense for what is truly Reformed could only be gained through covenantal instruction given to the children of God’s covenant in church, home, and school.

While Ophoff was not himself a brawler, but rather something of a loner, he nevertheless did not run from a good fight, and he was quick to come to the defense of one who was being unjustly or cruelly taunted on the playground, even if this involved a battle with his peers. His mother despaired of the many ruined clothes in which he came home—in days when one pair of trousers and one shirt was worn all week long, to be washed on Saturday and put on again on Monday. He had on his right hand a crooked index finger, with which he often gestured on the pulpit and in class, the legacy of one such brawl in which his finger was broken.

At the time Ophoff graduated from grade school, there was as yet no Christian high school. Calvin College, organized exclusively for the training of teachers and ministers, incorporated various high school subjects into its curriculum. To this school Ophoff went with his mind set upon being a minister of the gospel. He graduated from the high school part of it in 1909 at the age of 18.

Preparation for the Ministry

From that point on, Ophoff’s education was repeatedly interrupted. Apparently the reason was in part a lack of finances in the Ophoff household, which forced him to drop out of school and seek employment with a local ice company.

Another event was to alter his life significantly. Between Ophoff’s college studies and seminary work, while he was laboring at the ice company, his maternal grandfather fell and broke his hip.

Ophoff’s grandfather, Gerrit Hemkes, had been born and raised in the Netherlands, had entered the ministry of the churches of The Separation led by DeCock, and had come to this country when he took a call extended to him from the Christian Reformed congregation in Vriesland, Michigan. Because of his many abilities, he was called to be assistant professor in the seminary in Grand Rapids, where he served with distinction.

When as a relatively old man Prof. Hemkes broke his hip, Ophoff was sent by his parents to the home of his grandfather, to live with him and care for him. Ophoff never returned again to his home.

God has his purpose in all our sufferings, sorrows, and disappointments. So it was in this instance. Because of the care of his grandson, Prof. Hemkes was able to remain at his home until he died. But Ophoff also benefited. It was Hemkes who encouraged him to return to school, who helped him with his studies, and who provided a quiet place to pursue his studies. Furthermore, Hemkes, a very gifted man, was able to give Ophoff a great deal of instruction in and a deep and abiding love for the Reformed faith.

In 1918, at 27 years of age, George entered Calvin Seminary. Two events of these years must be recorded.

The first was tragedy in the Ophoff family. George’s father was fatally injured in a fire which broke out in his place of work. Although he escaped from the building when it began to burn, he rushed back into the building to rescue a very precious watch which he had left on the shelf in his department. An explosion tore to pieces that part of the building, and Frederick Ophoff was badly burned. He died the same day at the age of 52, leaving a widow and eight children.

The second incident was also somewhat revealing with regard to Ophoff’s character. As one of his course requirements, he was assigned a paper on “common grace,” an issue under discussion in the churches. He had a great deal of difficulty with the paper, chiefly because of the fact that he could not fit the current teachings on common grace into the organic body of Reformed thought. It seemed to conflict with everything he knew of the Reformed heritage of the truth.

Finally, in sheer desperation, he decided to approach the subject from the viewpoint of its being a doctrine contrary to Scripture. Unaware of questions concerning its biblical character which had already appeared in some places in the church, and using a denial of common grace only as a “working hypothesis,” he discovered that this approach solved all his problems. To use his own words, “Suddenly the light went on,” and all the pieces began to fall into place. The paper became easy to write.

Whatever may have been the reaction of his professor to this paper, Ophoff himself became subjectively convinced that common grace was contrary to Scripture and the Reformed confessions long before the controversy became public in the churches. And that conviction was to remain unalterable throughout his life.

During his seminary years, George met and married Jane Boom, with whom he had four sons. God gave him a wife who was truly a help meet for him. She was a beautiful woman of amazing character, herself born in a Reformed home and brought up in the Reformed faith; but a woman who completely devoted herself to her husband. She was to be his support and encouragement in unbelievably difficult years that lay ahead. Because Prof. Hemkes was still living, the newly, married couple moved in with him. George and Jane were married in August, of 1920, and in December of 1920 Prof. Hemkes died.

In May of 1921 George graduated from the seminary, and in January of 1922 he assumed the responsibilities of his first pastorate in a Christian Reformed Church in Riverbend, Michigan. The congregation is now the Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker and has its sanctuary within a long block of where the old church once stood.

(to be continued)