Rev. Lanning is pastor of Faith Protestant Reformed Church in Jenison, Michigan.
The name Henry Danhof is familiar to the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC). Whenever the history of the PRC is told, Danhof’s name has a prominent place at the beginning of that history. Danhof, along with Revs. Herman Hoeksema and George Ophoff, was a minister in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in the early 1900s. Along with Hoeksema and Ophoff, Danhof held that the Three Points of Common Grace, adopted by the Synod of 1924, were false doctrine. Danhof, along with Hoeksema and Ophoff, was deposed by a classis of the CRC. Danhof, Hoeksema, and Ophoff banded together in what would become known as the Protestant Reformed Churches. All the way through the beginning history of the PRC, Danhof’s name is intertwined with those of Hoeksema and Ophoff. The Protestant Reformed Churches recognize the name Henry Danhof.
But the history of Henry Danhof is another thing. With it, the PRC are not so familiar. There are good reasons for this. The main reason is that Danhof himself was never Protestant Reformed. Although he banded together with Hoeksema and Ophoff immediately after being deposed from the CRC, he left what would become the PRC before they were ever officially organized as a denomination. Rev. Danhof and his congregation in Kalamazoo, Michigan, struck out on their own as an independent congregation and remained such for many years. Their history became a different history from that of the PRC. Therefore, although Danhof’s name is prominent at the beginning of PRC history, it does not appear in their subsequent history.
For another thing, the split between Danhof and the PRC was painful. Danhof was one in doctrine with the PRC; he was one with the PRC in their opposition to the theory of common grace; he was one with the PRC in their conception of God’s covenant of grace. From every point of view, he should have remained with the PRC. His energy and abilities would have been a great help to the fledgling denomination. When he left to be on his own, he caused much grief among his own people and in the PRC. Because of that pain, Danhof and the PRC seldom crossed paths again.
But the Protestant Reformed Churches would do well to know something about Henry Danhof’s history. And there are good reasons for this.
Most importantly, Danhof’s history is instructive. All history is instructive, because it is directed by God. History is not merely a collection of events that happen by chance, but it is the unfolding of God’s eternal plan and is directed by His sovereign hand. This view of history is the Reformed churches’ confession in Article 13 of the Belgic Confession, Divine Providence:
We believe that the same God, after He had created all things, did not forsake them, or give them up to fortune or chance, but that He rules and governs them according to His holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without His appointment….
If this is true of history in general, how much more is it true of church history? Church history is the study of God’s work among His people through Jesus Christ. It is the history of His mercy to them in their sins; His chastening of them for their correction; His faithfulness to them in spite of their unfaithfulness. It is the history of the church’s response of love and obedience, and sometimes of the church’s wicked apostasy that ends in her candlestick being removed in her generations (Rev. 1:20, 2:5).
These themes and more can be found in the history of Henry Danhof and the churches of which he was pastor. The history of Henry Danhof is instructive.
Another reason the PRC would do well to know Danhof’s history is that the doctrine he taught was profound. Danhof lived at a time when the CRC was facing tremendous battles over key doctrines. Harry Bultema, another CRC minister of the day, was teaching dispensational premillennialism. Danhof took up his pen to oppose that false doctrine, and he became one of Bultema’s chief critics. Danhof was also instrumental in defending Scripture against the higher-critical views of Ralph Janssen, professor at the Calvin Theological School. Danhof was part of the synodical committee that investigated Janssen’s views and recommended his removal from the seminary. Danhof also played a major role in the well-known common grace controversy. Here is where the PRC know the most about Danhof. With Herman Hoeksema and George Ophoff, he defended the truth of God’s sovereign, particular grace.
Henry Danhof was interested in applying the doctrine he taught. The church in the world must always apply the doctrine of Scripture to her daily life. This is true also of the doctrine of the antithesis. The antithesis is the spiritual separation between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan, between light and darkness, between Christ and Belial. The battle to live the antithesis was pressing in Danhof’s day. The battle took the form of questions about the American culture. Many of the people in the CRC were either themselves immigrants from the Netherlands, or direct descendants of immigrants. The struggle for these Dutch saints was to know how much of the American culture was good, and how much of it was evil. The word used in that day to describe this struggle was “Americanization.” The real issue in the struggle was the application of the antithesis. What did it mean for Dutch immigrants to walk as children of the light amidst the darkness of the world in the American setting? Rev. Danhof did his part to defend the antithesis in his congregations as he took a stand on which elements of the culture were useful—Daylight Savings Time and the automobile—and which were evil—the labor union and the theory of evolution.
One especially intriguing doctrine that Danhof taught was that of the covenant. Along with Herman Hoeksema, Danhof disagreed with the popular idea of the day that the covenant was essentially a contract between God and man. In a powerful speech delivered in 1919, Danhof laid out the idea that the covenant is not essentially a contract, but a relationship of friendship and fellowship between God and His people. Furthermore, Danhof grounded the idea of the covenant as friendship in the life of the triune God Himself. God’s life is covenant life, and it is into that life that God takes His people. Danhof went on to apply this covenant doctrine to the antithesis. Because God’s people live as His friends, while the ungodly live outside of His friendship, there can be no spiritual cooperation between the church and the world.
The Protestant Reformed church member will find himself at home in Danhof’s theology. For the most part, Danhof’s doctrine was the doctrine the PRC believe and teach today. This makes knowledge of Danhof’s history valuable.
A bonus of knowing Danhof’s history is that it is fascinating, and even entertaining. It is true that we do not study church history to be entertained. Because it is the record of God’s sovereign dealings with His blood-bought church, the study of church history demands a certain carefulness and soberness in our approach to it. A frivolous, superficial approach to the history of Christ’s church fails to recognize God’s hand in that history and fails to honor God with the reverence that is due Him.
But this is not to say that church history must be lifeless and uninteresting. Church history is the record of God’s dealings with His church, which is made up of His people. Present in those people were all of the weaknesses that belong to sinners, as well as the strengths that belong to God’s saints. We recognize our struggles in theirs. We smile as we see ourselves reflected in them—or we wince. This makes for fascinating reading.
But especially is church history fascinating when we see it in the light of God’s Word. Then it is not merely the history of people who were like us, but the history of God’s work among His people. Events that would be captivating in themselves become even more so when we see them to be the unfolding of God’s eternal counsel. Conflicts that would be gripping on their own become even more so when we see them to be the battle of the ages between the Seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. In fact, it is only when we see church history in the light of God’s Word and counsel that it becomes significant. Stories that may be gripping or captivating on their own finally have meaning when interpreted in the light of God’s revelation.
So it is with the history of Henry Danhof. It is a fascinating history, and a significant history, when God’s Word illuminates it.
So, what is the history of Henry Danhof? He was an orphan; he was a shepherd; he was a garbage man; he was a Christian Reformed minister. He was expelled from the CRC, not once, but twice in his life—once while an active minister, once after he had retired. His denominational affiliations through his life included the Christian Reformed Church, the Protesting Christian Reformed Churches, an independent church, back to the Christian Reformed Church, and then back again to an independent church. His boldness in the pulpit knew no bounds. On one occasion, the elders of his church told him that his sermons needed a stronger emphasis on repentance. Danhof responded by proclaiming at the beginning of his next sermon, “REPENT, Repent, REPENT! Will that be enough, brothers?” His capacity for work knew no bounds, either. Even as an old man with a tumor behind his eye, he continued preaching to the small group that remained with him. Finally, one Sunday morning he collapsed in the pulpit and had to be carried out by men from the congregation. He died a few weeks later. A fascinating history, indeed. And instructive, when viewed in the light of God’s Word. It is this history that will be unfolded and explained in following issues, D.V.