Rev. Lanning is pastor of Faith Protestant Reformed Church in Jenison, Michigan. Previous article in this series: January 1, 2008, p. 160.
No one observing Henry Danhof’s early years in the Netherlands as they unfolded would have concluded that young Henry would someday be a leading figure in the Reformed scene in America. Instead, the conclusion would have been that Danhof was likely to be swallowed up by the hard circumstances of his life: he was an orphan at a young age, he became a lowly shepherd tending a flock of sheep, and he had very little formal education. In the words of I Corinthians 1, Henry was a weak thing, a base thing, a despised thing in the eyes of the world. And weak, base, despised things are dismissed as unimportant and useless by the reasoning of men.
But God’s reasoning is different. He is pleased to use what men dismiss to accomplish His own good pleasure. So it was with Henry Danhof. God used this man, whom everyone would have overlooked, as one of the ministers who would give shape to the Protestant Reformed Churches. Although Danhof would leave the PRC and become independent soon after being expelled from the CRC, God was pleased to use him to give early direction and a lasting doctrinal foundation to the PRC.
So how did Henry Danhof’s life unfold? He was born on May 1, 1879, in Uithuizermeeden, a town in the province of Groningen, the Netherlands.¹ Henry was the fourth child of six born to Klaas and Trijntje Danhof. His birth was a special source of joy to the family, since a number of children before him had died at birth. The family was never wealthy, although Henry’s father worked hard hiring himself out as a day laborer in Uithuizermeeden.
Like several other families of the day, the Danhof family faced questions of church membership. For Reformed families in 1879, there were two main options. On the one hand, there was the statecontrolled Dutch Reformed Church (Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk). It was in this church that Klaas Danhof, Henry’s father, was raised. On the other hand, there were the churches of the Afscheiding. These were churches that had separated from theHervormde Kerk in 1834 under the leadership of Hendrik De Cock, H. P. Scholte, Simon Van Velzen, A. Van Raalte, and others. Because of the apostasy of the Hervormde Kerk in everything from a hierarchical church government, to the rejection of the Church Order of Dordt, to heretical, liberal doctrines, the leaders of the Afscheiding reformed the church by seceding from the state church and returning to the Bible, the Reformed creeds, and the Church Order. It was in these churches that Trijntje Ploegman, Henry’s mother, was raised. When Klaas and Trijntje met and married, the question of church membership had to be faced. In God’s providence, Klaas left the corrupt state church and joined his wife in the local Afscheiding church in Uithuizermeeden. Thus Henry was raised in a faithful Reformed church by his parents.
But God did not give Klaas and Trijntje many years to raise their son, for He soon would call them to glory. By the time he was only nine years old, Henry was an orphan. He had already been without his father since he was six, and his mother died a few years later. There were no family members who were able to take the Danhof children in, which meant that the siblings would have to be split up among other families willing to give them a home. Some of the older children were able to live on their own, but the younger children, including Henry, were sent away. In those days, the care of orphans was arranged by the deacons of the local church. The deacons would provide for the orphans until they could find suitable families with whom each of the children could live, and would then turn them over to be raised in their new homes. Often, the families who took the orphans in were wealthy farmers who took the girls in as maids and the boys in as farmhands. Henry’s two younger sisters were placed together with one family, while Henry was eventually placed with a different farmer in Uithuizermeeden.
Henry was busy in his new home. He was given the responsibility of caring for the sheep that belonged to his new family. Uithuizermeeden is located in the far north of the Netherlands, near the shore of the North Sea. A dike built along the shore of the sea keeps the water from flooding the land during high tide. But when the tide is out, the seabed and the seaweed that grows there are exposed. It was to the North Sea that Henry would lead his little flock of sheep from their home in Uithuizermeeden. When the tide was out, Henry would take his flock across the dike to the beach and watch over the sheep as they ate up the seaweed they found there.
His work as a shepherd in the north of the Netherlands occupied Henry’s days from the age of nine until nineteen. Many of the other boys his age were attending school and receiving a formal education. But as an orphan, Henry was expected to work, and his work with his little flock did not leave any time for schooling. It was not that his new family was cruel; this was simply the way orphans were cared for in that day. While this was a tremendous disadvantage, Henry was by no means ignorant, and he did the best he could to educate himself.
Henry’s later writings show him to be a man of broad interests and keen understanding. He was fascinated by many aspects of God’s creation, especially the night skies as they shimmered with stars. He also took an interest in the political and social happenings of the day, and was capable of understanding them and explaining them to others. Essays that he wrote in his bulletins in Kalamazoo cover the topics of dogmatics, church history, secular history, physics, the public education system, mythology, and of course astronomy, to name only a few.
This interest in every facet of earthly life must have been present in Henry even as a boy on the beach of the North Sea with his sheep. Did he wish he could have been in school instead? Some have speculated that Henry already felt the call to the ministry while in the Netherlands. But for such a poor, orphaned shepherd without a formal education there was simply no opportunity to pursue such a calling. There was nothing for Henry to do but wait upon the Lord. As a church news article would later reminisce, “Early in life he began to seek the Father who is in heaven, and He mercifully provided for the orphan boy.”²
As he grew older, Henry began to turn his eyes toward America. His brother John had emigrated to Chicago already in 1893, when Henry was about fourteen years old. Henry’s work as a shepherd apparently brought in a little money, which he saved for his own voyage to the United States in 1898. His brother John helped make arrangements for him, and at the age of nineteen Henry boarded the ship “Obdam” sailing from Rotterdam and left his childhood home for Chicago, where he stayed for a while with his brother John. This was not the last time the lives of John and Henry would intersect. John had two sons, Ralph and Ben Danhof, who both later became ministers in the CRC. Henry was always close to them, and they apparently looked up to their uncle.
A young Dutchman in Chicago in the late 1800s could make a living as a garbage hauler. The Dutch were apparently more interested in the hauling business than in factory jobs, and Henry was no exception. 3 He signed on with one of the many garbage haulers in the city and made his living collecting the trash of the city. During this time, Henry was thinking about two of his sisters who were still in the Netherlands, Alice and Annie, and he made arrangements for them to come to the States as well.
By the turn of the century, Henry had moved out of John’s house and was living in the town of Summit in Lyons Township on the outskirts of Chicago.4 Midway Airport now stands on the land on which Danhof once lived. Henry quit the garbage business and hired himself out as a farm laborer to Martin and Maggie Stob, who also gave him a place to live.
When Henry was 23 years old, God finally opened the way to the ministry for him. Classis Illinois of the CRC declared that they would support a candidate for the ministry to attend Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Henry secured this appointment and moved to Grand Rapids around 1903 to begin his studies in Calvin College and Seminary. He enrolled in the college’s Literary Department and graduated in 1907, following which he enrolled in the seminary and graduated in 1910. Henry Danhof—orphan, shepherd, and garbage man—was now a candidate for the ministry of the Word and sacraments in the Christian Reformed Church.
1910 must have been a joyful year for Henry. Not only had he graduated from the seminary, but he also married his sweetheart of six years, Annie Brouwer. Like Henry, Annie hailed from Groningen. She and her parents and siblings had emigrated to Chicago in 1900, where her father opened up a retail business. Like Henry, Annie was blessed with abundant intellectual gifts. She studied to become a teacher, and was hired to teach in the Englewood Christian School in the Chicago area. The testimony of those who knew her is unanimous in witnessing to her sweet personality and her wealth of energy. She would also later show herself to be an excellent hostess, even opening her home for weddings during the turbulent war years. Once Henry had graduated from the seminary, he returned to Chicago and was married to Annie on July 27, 1910, at the age of 31. All that was left was to wait to see where God would call them.
Henry had much reason to rejoice, but he had no reason to glory in himself. His only boast could be in God, who had led him to this peak in his life. In fact, one of God’s purposes in choosing the base and despised things of the world is “that no flesh should glory in his presence” (I Cor. 1:29).
The Protestant Reformed Churches do well on this point to remember our humble beginnings, and the humble beginnings of the men that God raised up as leaders. We have nothing of which to boast as far as our own power is concerned, but all our boasting is in the Lord. The humble beginnings of Henry Danhof are a reminder to us, “He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.”
¹ Most of the information in this article comes from several phone and e-mail interviews with Sharon Danhof Carpenter, the granddaugther of Henry; a few e-mail interviews with Jan Danhof, a relative of Henry; an article from the August 6, 1914 issue of the Banner; an article in the 1993 centennial booklet of Dennis Avenue/ Mayfair CRC; and a 1980 church history paper written for Calvin College by Thomas R. Wolthuis entitled The Protesting First Christian Reformed Church, Kalamazoo, Michigan.
² The Banner, August 6, 1914.
³ Robert P. Swierenga, Dutch Chicago: A History of the Hollanders in the Windy City. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002). p. 576ff.
4. Swierenga, Dutch Chicago, p. 559.