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

Introduction

Reformers are strange people. They do not seem at first glance to be cut out for the role. As a matter of fact, if one measures their abilities by human standards they are the world’s worst people for the work into which they are thrust.

The reason for this is that the reformation of the church is God’s work. We confess in our Heidelberg Catechism that the Son of God not only gathers His church, but He also defends and preserves it. That is, the work belongs to Christ, not to men. This does not mean that Christ does not use men; He always does. But He uses the most unlikely so that it may be evident that the work is after all His.

When we look at this fact from the viewpoint of those who do the work of reformation, we discover that this great truth translates into a naive unawareness on the part of reformers that they have been thrust into the role which they occupy. They never gave thought to being a reformer; they had no intention of becoming a reformer; indeed, if the idea had been suggested to them, they would have considered it preposterous. In fact, Luther himself spoke of being carried along by a tidal wave of events over which he had no control. And the last thing De Cock was thinking about was himself as a reformer in the church. For Luther, or Calvin, or De Cock, or anyone else to think of himself as a reformer would immediately have disqualified him for the work. Such is the irony of God’s ways.

So these men do not set about the work of reforming. They have been conquered in their hearts by the Holy Spirit, who has sealed the truth indelibly upon their consciousness and who has given them the determination (often courageous) to go quietly about their business of doing what has to be done — which consists mostly of the simple act of preaching good, Bible-centered sermons.

So they never aspired to being reformers. They never considered themselves to be such unlikely people. They were astonished and not a little afraid at the forces that had been unleashed in the church through their work. Nor did they “count noses” to see how many would go along and then postpone moving ahead in the work until they were assured of a following. They simply did what had to be done — in humble reliance on divine grace. God did the rest.

And so Hendrik De Cock preached to growing crowds in the small church in Ulrum.

The Work Of Reformation

A number of events, each somewhat small in itself, brought De Cock’s work to its climax.

The more emphatic De Cock became in his preaching, the larger grew the crowds. And the larger grew the crowds, the stronger was the opposition. The growing throngs forced the Consistory to propose enlarging the auditorium. Even though the people themselves brought up the money, the wardens responsible for all building projects refused permission and overruled the desires of the congregation. It was the first hint of persecution.

In 1833 De Cock published a pamphlet which included the Canons of Dordrecht. In the introduction to the pamphlet De Cock spoke of “a return … to the true service of God … which had been forsaken by a majority of the population as it had turned to the idols of man’s corrupted and darkened reason.” This did not endear those who wanted nothing so much as the Canons forgotten in the churches.

As the crowds grew, many people from other congregations wanted De Cock to baptize their new babies. They could not, in good conscience, have their babies baptized in their own churches, partly because the old Baptism Form had been replaced with other heretical practices and liturgy, and partly because if the old Form was still used they could not answer “Yes” to the question whether they believed that the doctrine taught in their church was the truth of God’s Word. After careful consideration, consultation with others and with his Consistory, and through anxious prayer, De Cock baptized these children. This infuriated the authorities. It was in fact this issue which was brought to Classis by De Cock’s colleagues in protest against him.

A committee of Classis was appointed to investigate, during which investigation De Cock came out with a pamphlet with an imposing title and one not calculated to appease the enemies of the truth: “Defense of the True Reformed Doctrine and of the True Reformed Believers, Attacked and Exposed by Two So-called Reformed Teachers, or the Sheepfold of Christ Attacked by Two Wolves and Defended by H. DeCock, Reformed Teacher at Ulrum. Both men referred to were colleagues who had themselves written against De Cock and the things for which he stood.

The Classis in the meantime met. De Cock pleaded with Classis to permit him to defend his views on the basis of Scripture. But he was refused, and in an illegal meeting he was suspended from office

in order to maintain law and order in the Reformed Church, to protect the name and honor of the ministers of the Gospel, and to prevent more disorders, divisions, and revolutions in several congregations in our Fatherland; … if preachers as DeCock were not halted in their reckless enterprise, this Board fears the worst.

While ecclesiastical machinery was grinding along, De Cock submitted to his suspension and stayed off his pulpit. But as the case wound its way through the assemblies another issue was added, the issue of hymn singing. De Cock had written the preface to a pamphlet in which the author, a layman, had attacked the singing of hymns in the church. The title of the pamphlet is intriguing: The Evangelical Hymns Weighed, Tested and Found to be too Light. It was De Cock’s conviction, and correctly so, that heresy had come singing into the church through hymns which had taken the place of the Psalms in the worship services.

And so tensions continued to rise. They reached a kind of climax when Scholte (later to settle and establish a colony in Pella, Iowa), known to be friendly to De Cock, was forbidden to preach for De Cock, so that a modernist could occupy the pulpit. The congregation did not take kindly to this, and the police were called in to prevent what was a near riot.

Secession

Though De Cock had patiently and humbly submitted for nearly a year to the illegal suspension of the Classis, he remained the object of hatred. His colleagues did everything to make his life miserable. Slanderous talk was everywhere published about him and his wife. The ecclesiastical assemblies forced him to pay the expenses of their case against him. He was never granted a hearing and was told to submit unconditionally to the assemblies or he would never preach again. When he asked for a transcript of the decision, he was mockingly told to copy it himself and the president openly derided him as he proceeded to do so.

But the faithful people of God in the country were appalled that an honest and godly pastor could be treated in such a way for doing nothing but urging faithfulness to the historic Reformed faith. And God in heaven worked His sovereign work to do what had to be done to preserve and defend His church.

Upon returning from the assembly to his home, he found his two year old daughter very ill. She died six days later, and the burden of great grief at the loss of a covenant child was added to his grief at the apostasy of his church.

Scholte came to comfort the grieving family. The Consistory asked him to preach that Friday night, October 10, 1834. The Provincial Board refused him permission to preach on the Lord’s Day; so he preached in an open field from a wagon. And De Cock saw that the only hope for his sheep lay in secession.

And so it came about. It was Monday evening, October 13 that the Consistory came together. The Act of Secession was drawn up after some discussion, signed by the two elders and three deacons, and presented to the congregation where it was signed by 67 members and 63 heads of families who had not made profession of faith — a total of 247 souls.

The document is so important that parts of it ought to be quoted. Using Art. 29 of the Confession of Faith as its guide, it declared that the Church of which the congregation had been a part had lost the marks of the true church and that, therefore, “it has now become more than plain, that the Netherlands Reformed Church is not the True, but the False Church, according to God’s Word and Article 29 of our confessions.” The document binds those who sign it to be obedient to Article 28 of the same confession and “separate themselves from those who are not of the Church, and therefore will have no more fellowship with the Netherlands Reformed Church, until it returns to the true service of the Lord.” The document expresses the “willingness” of those who sign it “to exercise fellowship with all true Reformed members, and to unite themselves with every gathering founded on God’s infallible Word, in whatever place God has also united the same.” It specifically states that the congregation is determined to be faithful to Scripture, to return to the three Forms of Unity which are “founded on that Word,” to “order our public religious services according to the ancient ecclesiastical liturgy,” and to return to the Church Order of Dordrecht.

“Finally, we hereby declare,” so the document concludes, “that we continue to acknowledge our unjustly suspended Pastor.

“Ulrum, the 13th of October, 1834. (signed) J. J. Beukema, Elder; K. J. Barkema, Elder; K. A. van der Laan, Deacon; D. P. Ritsema, Deacon; Geert K. Bos, Deacon.”

Persecution

Neither De Cock nor his congregation escaped the heavy hand of persecution. They thought they would be free to go their own way and worship in peace, for the government had an official policy of religious toleration and every heresy under the face of the heavens was taught in the Netherlands and in the State Reformed Church. But this is not the way it goes for the cause of Christ. Every heresy is indeed tolerated — but the truth is not. There is no room for God’s truth in this world nor in the apostate church.

De Cock was not long alone. He had been joined already by Rev. Scholte, and he was to be joined by three other ministers, one of whom was Albertus VanRaalte, who brought some of the Seceders to Holland, Michigan. And the number of people who followed the leaders grew rapidly so that seceder churches were organized throughout the land.

But it was a bitter and difficult struggle.

De Cock himself was forbidden to preach in his own congregation, was expelled from the parsonage, and was finally forced to settle elsewhere among friends.

Soldiers were sent to Ulrum and to other places where the seceders had established separate congregations and were billeted in the homes of the seceders. These people, usually from the poor, were forced to feed and shelter the soldiers, tend to their needs, live their lives with the soldiers always present, and try to endure their cruelty, godlessness, and depravity.

The seceders were also forbidden to hold any meetings with more than a few people present, so that it was difficult, if not impossible, to gather in worship on the Lord’s Day.

If any regulations imposed on them were broken, they were fined vast sums of money. And if they were unable to pay the fines, true of most of them, their possessions were sold in Sheriff’s sales so that their fines could be paid to the government. If even this did not suffice, they were imprisoned. De Cock himself spent three months in prison separated from wife and family.

These saints paid the price of faithfulness.

It was only after two or three decades and many concessions to the government that persecution eased. But many came to America where they could live in peace and enjoy the freedom to worship God according to the Scriptures. In them lies the beginning of our own churches.

De Cock died at the age of 41 on November 14, 1842 in the province of Groningen. He did not live long, nor did he see his followers gain rest from suffering. But he had served his purpose according to the will of God, and the time came for others to continue the work.

De Cock was a man of humble life, from our point of view unfitted for the greatness of the work. His followers were, for the most part, the poor, the uneducated, the despised, the ignoble of the land. But, for all that, they were the godly, the pious, the upright who genuinely thirsted for that one true heavenly Bread which is Christ Jesus our Lord.

Together God used them to bring genuine reformation to his church.