Hendrick De Cock: Reformed Reformer (1)

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

Introduction

The times when true reformation comes to the church of Jesus Christ are not often. But when those times, according to God’s clock, actually come, they come in strange and surprising ways.

Already in the Old Testament God had reminded His people of this. He had emphatically impressed upon the mind of the moody and depressed Elijah that He did not work through stirring events such as took place on Carmel (God was not in the earthquake, nor the fire, nor the wind); rather God worked quietly and unnoticed by His Spirit in the hearts of the 7000 who had not bowed the knee to Baal. And to Zechariah the prophet, who worried about the building of the temple after the return of the captives, God had laid down a fundamental principle: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts” (Zech. 4:6).

The great reformation of the 16th Century, while eventually it shook Europe to its foundations, began with the quiet nailing of 95 theses on a chapel door by an obscure monk out of the forests of Saxon Germany. The Reformation of 1834 in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands began in a dark and smoke-filled Consistory room of a country church of no importance where five men gathered to sign a single sheet of paper to protest what had happened to their minister.

It is in that reformation of 1834 that many Reformed churches throughout the world find their roots.

The man who is called the father of the Secession of 1834 is Hendrik De Cock (pronounced Cok), the pastor of the small church in Ulrum whose elders and deacons protested what the churches had done. Here God began His work.

It would be forever evident, as it always must be evident, that the care of the church is God’s work and His alone that He may receive all the glory.

Need For Reformation

That the church of that day needed reformation could hardly be debated. Although the church of which we are speaking was the church of the Reformation and of Dordrecht, it had become only a shell of what it formerly was. Even the great truths of Scripture were denied by many in the universities, seminaries, and pulpits. I refer to the truths of the virgin birth of Christ, the atoning sacrifice of our Lord on the cross, and His bodily resurrection from the dead. In the place of the religion of salvation by grace alone through Jesus Christ had come a religion which was interested in little more than living a good life, walking morally, and contributing to society’s good through upright ethical conduct. The confessions were ignored or denied; hymns had been introduced in the place of the Psalms of the church; church government after the principles of the Church Order of Dordrecht was long forgotten and the church was ruled by boards which had total and decisive power.

All this apostasy did not mean that there were no people of God anywhere to be found. They were there, scattered about, starving spiritually, groaning beneath the tyranny of apostate preachers, desperately casting about to find places to feed their souls. Many of them gathered in small “conventicles” which were little more than groups of believers who would meet in private homes to read the old Reformed writers, study the Scriptures, discuss the sad state of the church and what could be done about it, and listen to an “exhorter” (if they had one) explain from Scripture the ancient truths of the faith.

Hendrik De Cock was a perfect example of the sad situation in the Reformed Churches. Born in Veendam on April 12, 1801, he was brought up in a home where the only religion that was taught was the worldly and quasi-religion of living a decent life. Nor did the churches or schools he attended do any better. His minister in Wildervank (where the family moved shortly after his birth) and his teachers in school had no idea of what the Reformed faith was all about; and if they did know anything at all about it, they failed to teach it.

The University of Groningen where he went to prepare for the ministry of the gospel did no better. He graduated and entered the ministry as a thoroughly modern minister equipped only to preach a modern gospel of Jesus the good example whose life could serve as a pattern for us. But of sin, salvation, and grace, De Cock knew nothing.

This did not mean that already during these years God was not working in His own mysterious ways to prepare De Cock for greater things. Already as a boy he received some catechetical instruction from one of his teachers who insisted that a man is saved only by the sovereign grace of God. And while such teaching made no apparent impression on Hendrik, God used it to put ideas of a different sort in his soul even though these ideas would not come to fruition till later.

So at ordination he was little more than a mediocre modernist minister destined to serve in a series of modernist congregations of no use to God or man — though his denomination still bore the proud name of “Reformed.”

Both the church and De Cock were in need of reformation.

Reformation in De Cock’s Soul

Little changed in De Cock’s first two charges. About three years in Eppenhuizen and two years in Noordlaren did little to alter his views. He was, in fact, so thoroughly under the influence of the modernists in his church that he made no use of the Statenvertaling, the translation of the Bible authorized by the Synod of Dort and filled with important marginal notes which would have helped him understand the Reformed faith. He had never read the creeds. He paid no attention to the old Reformed writers. And he did not even know that such a book as Calvin’s Institutes existed.

Perhaps the only influence on his life at this time which was of any value was the influence of a godly and pious wife whom he married shortly before his ordination to the ministry. Her name was Frouwe Venema, and while we do not know the extent of her knowledge of the Reformed faith, she was a pillar of strength to Hendrik throughout his life when troubles all but overwhelmed him.

It was in the small country church in Ulrum, however, that God changed De Cock into the man whom God would use to bring reformation to an apostate church.

De Cock had come to Ulrum because of the influence of an old university friend, a modernist like himself, a predecessor to De Cock in Ulrum, an influential man by the name of Hofstede de Groot.

In Ulrum were people who were starving for biblical and God-centered preaching and who would not be put off with moralistic sermons about doing good. They had not been happy with de Groot; they were not happy with De Cock. In fact, de Groot had viewed these people as odd and in need of special pastoral care. He had urged De Cock to pay special attention to them.

But, though De Cock did this and attempted to show them that the key to living a good life lay in education, they were not persuaded. One common laborer, a faithful visitor at the parsonage to be catechized by his pastor, had not dared make confession of faith under de Groot because of his unease with de Groot’s teachings. He kept telling De Cock that his instruction did no good because, “Should I be required to contribute a mere whisper to my salvation, I would be forever lost.” The man’s name was Klaas Pieters Kuipenga, a simple, uneducated saint whose soul thirsted for salvation in Christ, but who had none to give him drink. The sad part was that thousands like him could be found throughout the Netherlands.

But De Cock was a serious pastor and longed to help these troubled sheep. How to do it, that was the question.

As De Cock searched for answers, he was in the study of a fellow minister in a neighboring village when the minister turned to Calvin’s Institutes to prove a point which had come up in the conversation. So impressed was De Cock that he asked to borrow the copy, and, having done so, proceeded to read it through several times in amazement and growing consternation.

During this period of drinking at the fountain of Calvin’s great work, De Cock also became acquainted with the Canons of Dort, writings from earlier Reformed Dutch theologians, and the more devotional writings of a more recent writer, Cornelis Baron van Zuylen van Nijveldt. The latter had written a pamphlet entitled De Eenige Redding (The Only Salvation), a pamphlet which opened De Cock’s eyes to the truth that all godly living is rooted in doctrine.

It is not surprising that De Cock’s preaching began to change radically. And the more he came to understand the great historic doctrines of God’s sovereign and particular grace, the clearer became his sermons as they set forth salvation by grace through faith in Christ and His atoning sacrifice. It is not surprising that as the word of this kind of preaching spread like wildfire through the surrounding countryside, people starving for the Bread of Life streamed to Ulrum to hear De Cock preach.

All this does not mean that De Cock now became a conquering hero. He was opposed, sometimes strenuously, by those who cherished the modernistic and liberal preaching so prevalent in the state church. His colleagues in the area made every effort to dissuade him from the path he had chosen to follow and ridiculed the people who hung on De Cock’s preaching as more ignorant than cattle in the cowshed.

His own close friend and predecessor in Ulrum came especially to visit him and try to alter De Cock’s thinking. But De Cock had found peace for his own soul and was not about to turn from that which was the heart of Reformation truth and the faith of the fathers. Hofstede de Groot wrote De Cock in chagrin:

De Cock! De Cock! Such a bitter and unchristian writing (The reference is to another brochure by C. Baron van Zuylen van Nijeveldt entitled De Hervormde Leer, Reformed Doctrine, HH) contains your confession of faith? How deep, deep have you fallen, and how dark is to me the counsel of God that such a doctrine is now being taught the congregation that once was mine. I have prayed to God many a time that He would grant me the spirit of moderation in order that I might exercise truth and love and avoid Van Zuylen’s abusive tone.

But De Cock would not budge. We sing in our versification of Psalm 8 this line: “Weakest means fulfill Thy will.” So it was that the obscure and [by human standards] mediocre minister of a small country church became a stubborn defender of the truths of sovereign grace and a mighty reformer in the church of Christ.

The story of the reformation God wrought through him will have to wait till next time.