Rev. Hanko is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Lynden, Washington. Previous article in this series: November 1, 2007, p. 65.
The Character of the Movement
The Secession of 1834 was for the most part a movement among the lowest and poorest of the Dutch people. Even the ministers of the Secession were not from the higher classes, but for the most part from the middle class. Kromminga says:
The National Synod of the established Church is said to have comforted itself with the numerical smallness of the secession. The seceders came then and for years continued to come from the humbler walks of life. But, though numerically and economically weak and lacking in social prestige, the group developed a spiritual power that in course of time astounded its adversaries. The spring of that power was their common love for the Reformed doctrine and their loyalty to the Reformed formularies (creeds) as founded on the love of God.¹
There are several reasons for this. First, from a human point of view, these were the people who had nothing to lose by leaving the state church, and it was for this same reason that many later left for America. This is in harmony with the words of Jesus, “And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:24). Second, and from the viewpoint of God’s purpose, it is always the case that He gathers His church for the most part from among such people as the seceders, the lowest and poorest, “that no flesh should glory in his presence” (I Cor. 1:29).
This was beautifully illustrated in another way at the time of the Secession. Prior to the Secession there had been men, many of them from the nobility and all of them influential in the Netherlands, who had protested the apostasy of the state church. They were part of a movement know as the Reveil (Revival). Among them were men such as the poet Isaac da Costa, who wrote “Grievances against the Spirit of the Age” and was Scholte’s mentor; William Bilderdijk, a prominent lawyer, whose teachings de Cock was later accused of promoting; William de Clercq, poet and financier; and Groen van Prinsterer, secretary to the King and founder of the Anti-revolutionary political party in the Netherlands.
These men, some of whom showed sympathy for the Secession or protested the persecution visited on the seceders, all remained in the state church. Just after the Secession had become a reality, Scholte wrote:
That evening, I called on my old friend and brother Da Costa, with whom I had always agreed as had many others, although now on the thing that had happened (Secession) he differed completely from me. My actions and intentions had been completely misunderstood by him.²
Da Costa’s pamphlet had stirred the Netherlands with a call for return to God’s Word, but he himself would not follow when the way was that of suffering, reproach, struggle, and ignominy.
In the providence of God, it had to be that way. As the same writer says:
What would have happened had the men of the Reveil, or all who looked for the Kingdom of God, joined the Afscheiding? No doubt the organization would have been looser, the doctrines less sharply defined.³
It was the deep spirituality, the strong piety, the thirst for the truth among the common folk that God used to preserve His church during the dark years before the Secession and to kindle anew the flame in the hearts of men like de Cock and even to bring about their conversion. It was these poor folk who were willing to lose everything for the kingdom’s sake, who suffered cruelly for their faith, but who carried the lamp of truth in their own land and on to the new world, even to places like South Africa.
The Secession of 1834 also illustrates the teaching of Scripture regarding the preaching of the gospel, that it is “the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth” (Rom. 1:16), for the Secession was about the preaching of the gospel more than anything else. It was a desire for gospel preaching that brought crowds to Ulrum to hear de Cock, that made the people of the Secession endure patiently the suffering that was their lot, and that led these common folk to support their leaders in leaving the state church, in emigrating to the United States and in struggling to establish and maintain a new denomination.
There is no evidence that de Cock was an especially gifted preacher or skilled orator. That is only to say, however, that the power of the gospel is not in excellency of speech or wisdom (I Cor. 2:1), but in God, who sends the gospel, and in Christ, who speaks to His people through it. It was not the man the people followed, but the truth as it is in Jesus.
It was this desire for the gospel that led to extraordinary efforts to preach and hear the truth.
In several cases “when soldiers and the rabble made it impossible for Seceders to meet on land” they held their services on the water:
This happened at Oud-Loosdrecht on June 9, 1837, where H.P. Scholte planned to preach and baptize. The military prevented any service from being held, and therefore it was decided to gather on the lake in the ship of brother N. Pos, who made it available. At 8 A.M. the church ship sailed with the parents on board, as well as their children who were to be baptized. They were gaped after by the soldiers who had been called to arms! From all sides the members of the congregation converged on the ship in small boats. Scholte also went on board and preached twice that Sunday, entirely without interference. A week later he preached and served Communion on board a ship on the Zuider Zee . . . . [But] finally, even these gatherings on water were prevented.4
Because the gospel is the spiritual food and drink, the life and health of His people, God preserves it in every age, and when it seems that the voice of the gospel has been silenced, God raises up out of obscurity men to feed His sheep and to lead them in the green pastures of His Word. The gospel is, after all, the gospel of His grace and glory!
The Secession, then, was a work of God, and its beginnings and survival were a miracle of grace. The Secession had its roots in the work of God’s grace in the hearts of those who remained faithful and remembered the truth during the long, dark years before the Secession. It sprang to life by a work of grace in the heart of de Cock and the members of the Scholte Club. It survived persecution, internal strife, emigration, and other difficulties by grace alone, for both leaders and members showed themselves to be sinners. There was, as one writer puts it, “considerable strange fire on the altar,”5 but God uses weak means to accomplish His purpose and work His will, as was abundantly proved in those difficult years:
Had the Secession been a work of man, surely there would have been nothing left of the delivered church but bits and pieces. But God is faithful; He kept His work alive, although He allowed Satan and man to do many things, so that it would be apparent that the liberation and preservation of the Church is His work, and so that whoever boasts might boast not of de Cock or Scholte, Van Velzen or Brummelkamp, but boast only in the Lord.6
The seceders themselves saw this and must have sung with special fervor the words of Psalm 118 from their Dutch Psalters:
Jehovah is my strength and tower,
He is my happiness and song;
He saved me in the trying hour, . . . .
Hence shall my mouth His praise prolong.
The voice of gladness and salvation
Is in the tents of righteousness;
There do they sing with adoration,
The Lord’s right hand is strong to bless.7
What are the lessons to be learned from the history of the Secession of 1834? There are many lessons to be learned, including the importance of the lay members of the church and their love for the truth; the importance and necessity of the preaching of the gospel; the high cost of following Christ and the Word of God; the importance of creeds in the church, for it was through them that the doctrines of Scripture lived in the hearts of the faithful in the years prior to the Secession; the truth that the church is reformed and always reforming; that the false church always hates and persecutes the faithful;8 that government control of the church of Jesus Christ is never to be tolerated; and the fact that God uses weakest means to do His will. Of some of these lessons we have already spoken.
That faithfulness to God and His Word has a price was proved first in persecution and then also in the unimaginable difficulties faced by those who emigrated. Van Raalte is said to have broken down and cried during one worship service the first winter after coming to the United States, and asked, “Lord, shall we all perish?” The question may well be asked, therefore, “How many descendants of the Secession today would endure the persecution that their ancestors endured for the sake of their confession?” 9
The principal lessons of the Secession, though, are two. The first lesson is that, having been graciously preserved by God and blessed by Him beyond what anyone would ever ask and think, those who have been so blessed must remember what God has done for them, must cherish what He has given them, lest they lose everything. That is what has happened in many of the denominations and churches that have their roots in the Secession of 1834. Among too many of them the creeds are again neglected and forgotten, the doctrines of the creeds and Scripture despised, the gospel changed again into powerless moralizing. In the Netherlands the churches of the Secession now tolerate evils that would not have been dreamed of in the state church before the Secession, and the country is a moral ruin. That is a lesson for us as Protestant Reformed Churches: “Let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall” (I Cor. 10:12).
The other lesson is that God, who chose His church in eternity, redeemed her in Christ, and gave her His own Spirit, will never forsake her, but gathers, defends, and preserves her by His Spirit and Word from the beginning to the end of the world (Heidelberg Catechism, 54). He preserved His church then; He will do so in these dark days. And when those darkest of all days come, as they must, then too He will not forsake His own, but will cause the light of His truth to shine in their hearts and through them in the world until that grand day when the darkness is dispelled forever and the rising Sun of righteousness comes with eternal healing in His wings.
¹ D.H. Kromminga, The Christian Reformed Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1943), 87, 88.
² Lubbertus Oostendorp, H. P. Scholte (Franeker: T. Weaver, 1964), 73.
³ Oostendorp, H. P. Scholte, 73.
4. Jacob Van Hinte, Netherlanders in America (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 92.
5. Homer C. Hoeksema, “The Sesquicentennial of the Afscheiding,” in the Standard Bearer (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing, 1984), 60, 197.
6. Quoted in Nelson D. Kloosterman, “The Doctrinal Significance of the Secession of 1834,” in The Reformation of 1834 (Orange City: Pluim Publishing, 1984), 37.
7. The Psalter, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 380, 381 (#427, 2).
8. The Belgic Confession of Faith states in Article 29, “As for the false church, she ascribes more power and authority to herself and her ordinances than to the Word of God, and will not submit herself to the yoke of Christ. Neither does she administer the sacraments as appointed by Christ in His Word, but adds to and takes from them as she thinks proper; she relieth more upon men than upon Christ; and persecutes those who live holily according to the Word of God, and rebuke her for her errors, covetousness, and idolatry.”
9. Homer C. Hoeksema, “Act of Secession or Return,” in the Standard Bearer, 60, 222.