Rev. Lanning is pastor of Faith Protestant Reformed Church in Jenison, Michigan. Previous article in this series: April 1, 2008, p. 295.
After nearly four years of labor in Sully, Iowa, Henry Danhof accepted a call to Dennis Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.¹ At the time, the Dennis Avenue congregation was in mourning. Early in the year of 1914, God had taken Dennis Avenue’s pastor, Rev. J. A. Kett, by death. The consistory decided not to call a new minister right away, in order to give the congregation a proper interval to grieve. The congregation waited nearly half a year to begin calling a new pastor, and Rev. Danhof accepted their call in the summer of 1914. He was installed by Rev. J. Groen, and on August 9 he preached his inaugural sermon from I Corinthians 2:12-15.
While in Grand Rapids, the Danhofs were blessed with the birth of their third and fourth children, Ralph and Theresa.
Like the Danhofs, the members of Dennis Avenue were immigrants from the Netherlands. Their native language was Dutch, and they had maintained the use of their mother tongue in their worship. The consistory had taken the stand that the Dutch language ought to be used for the three worship services each Sunday, as well as for all of the catechism classes and the Sunday School classes. At one point, the consistory even made a note in their minutes that it “regrets to observe that the Sunday School is using the English language almost exclusively without previously conferring with the consistory.”²
Not everyone was pleased with this insistence on the use of Dutch, however. A committee from Dennis Avenue met in order to investigate the possibility of forming an English-speaking congregation in the city. Sherman Street CRC was investigating the same possibility, and sent a letter to Dennis Avenue’s consistory asking whether such a congregation would be desirable. This work bore the fruit of a request from Dennis Avenue’s committee that English services be held in a rented facility under the supervision of Dennis Avenue’s consistory. The consistory refused to approve this request, and the services would remain in the Dutch language for the time being.
Which language to use in the worship service was not the only issue that Danhof and the consistory would have to face during his four years at Dennis Avenue. Some of the other issues they faced were rather minor, although they give an interesting peek into the life of a Christian Reformed congregation of the day. For instance, an elder at Dennis Avenue was one of the first members to purchase an automobile. When the time for family visitation came around, Danhof had the pleasurable experience of riding through the countryside to visit the members of the congregation who lived outside the limits of the city. So much did Henry appreciate this means of transportation that he reported to the consistory that the elder who owned the automobile was “entitled to remuneration for the use of his car involved in family visiting in the country.”³ Another change in the American culture of the day was the United States government’s decision to institute Daylight Savings Time. The congregation of Dennis Avenue complied with this measure and adjusted her church services accordingly. Another issue Dennis Avenue faced had to do with smoking. In a day when smoking was common, the consistory found it necessary to admonish the congregation to keep the church property clean, especially the rear of the church, where the men would smoke. An entry in the minutes laments that “cigarettes caused the church to become filthy!”4
But there were far more serious issues that Danhof and the consistory had to face during this time. For one thing, the congregation of Dennis Avenue had to be warned against the evils of the labor union. One of the members of the congregation was a member of the Cigar Makers Union. He was nominated for deacon by the consistory, and then elected as deacon at the congregational meeting. However, the consistory refused to install him into office until he resigned from the union. Danhof preached against union membership as well. In a sermon on Revelation 13:11-17, he “referred to the ‘worldly unions’ as a ‘sign of the times.'” A different union member in the congregation was offended at this remark, but the consistory “advised the brother to break with the union.”5
Another serious issue of the day was the false doctrine of premillennialism. Not only Dennis Avenue, but the entire Christian Reformed denomination was threatened by the premillennial teachings of one of its ministers, Rev. Harry Bultema. His book,Maranatha! Eene Studie over de Onvervulde Profetie (Maranatha! A Study of Unfulfilled Prophecy), advanced his own brand of dispensationalism, that is, that Israel and the New Testament church were two separate peoples, and that Christ was the king only of Israel, not of the church. Other ministers in the denomination voiced their opposition, but Danhof was one of the leaders in criticizing Bultema, using the pages of the Dutch periodical De Wachter to expose Bultema’s error. In fact, so great was Danhof’s opposition to Bultema’s premillennialism that it could be said, “Danhof had been one of Bultema’s chief critics in 1917.”6 It was this incident, among others, that caused the congregation to remember Danhof as “a fearsome debater and a formidable defender of the truth.”7 The result of this conflict was that Harry Bultema was admonished by the CRC Synod of 1918 that his views were in error, and a later Classis deposed him.
Henry Danhof was also busy with pastoral work during his four years in Dennis Avenue. One of the families had a young child who was sick. The sickness was severe enough that a nurse was required to live in the home and care for the child, but the family could not afford it. Rev. Danhof kindly suggested to the deacons that they help the family in procuring a nurse for the child. Danhof also cared for the young men of the congregation who were fighting in the war. These were the days of America’s entrance into World War I. Forty-five men and one Red Cross nurse in the congregation left to fight in the war while Danhof was at Dennis Avenue. Danhof and the consistory made a formal visit to these members and presented them with a small Bible. Danhof’s concern for the servicemen of the congregation would show up later during World War II as well, after Danhof had moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan. Danhof took it upon himself to write letters to all of the troops from the congregation who were abroad.
By this time, Henry Danhof and Herman Hoeksema knew each other. There is no record of their first meeting, but Hoeksema sat under Danhof’s preaching for a time in Dennis Avenue while Hoeksema was a student in the seminary. Apparently, Danhof had some influence on Hoeksema already at this early date. A man from Danhof’s church in Kalamazoo would later recall that Hoeksema once called Danhof “his spiritual father.” Another man recalled that Rev. Danhof “started Rev. Hoeksema thinking about the matters that became the issue of the controversy” in 1924.8 The acquaintance that Hoeksema and Danhof enjoyed at Dennis Avenue would soon become a closer relationship as they stood shoulder to shoulder in 1924 to oppose the false doctrine of common grace. This good beginning to their relationship would make the split between the two men and their congregations all the more grievous in 1926.
What stood out above all during Henry Danhof’s time in Dennis Avenue was his preaching. Christian Reformed people from all over the city of Grand Rapids would travel to Dennis Avenue to hear Danhof preach. Some came because Danhof could be flamboyant and would often generate considerable excitement during the worship service. For instance, Rev. Danhof would not tolerate anyone sleeping in church. One Sunday, there was a man who appeared to be fast asleep, his head bowed down toward the ground. In reality, the man had a problem with his neck that resulted in that particular posture. Danhof called to the man to wake up. There was no response, whereupon Danhof called to the man’s neighbor, “You over there, with the red hair, wake that man up. Give that man a poke.”9 Another time, the elders approached Danhof with the criticism that he was not emphasizing repentance strongly enough in the preaching. He promptly proclaimed at the beginning of his next sermon, “Repent, repent, REPENT! Will that be enough, brothers?”
But it was especially Danhof’s emphasis on the sovereignty of God’s grace that drew the people of God to hear his preaching. The congregation of Dennis Avenue knew him as an able defender of truly Reformed doctrine. In fact, although Danhof left Dennis Avenue already in 1918, his preaching bore much fruit in that congregation as late as 1924. The fruit was that, during the common grace controversy of 1924, many members left Dennis Avenue for what would become the Protestant Reformed Churches. They remembered the preaching of their former pastor, Henry Danhof. They were well versed in the truth of God’s sovereign grace. Their familiarity with the Reformed faith, as taught by Danhof, meant that they could not go along with the common grace taught by the Christian Reformed Church.
In 1918, Danhof received a call to a CRC in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which he accepted. His work in Dennis Avenue had come to an end, and the stage in Kalamazoo was being set for the greatest battles of his ministry.
1 The Dennis Avenue CRC moved away from Dennis Avenue in the 1950s and is now called Mayfair CRC. Most of the information for this article comes from various anniversary booklets of Dennis Avenue/Mayfair CRC.
2 Dennis Avenue Minister Biography: Rev. Henry Danhof, p. 2. This biography can be found in Henry Danhof’s file at Heritage Hall, the archives of Calvin College’s Hekman Library.
3 Dennis Avenue/Mayfair Centennial: 1893-1993, p. 24.
4 Dennis Avenue Minister Biography: Rev. Henry Danhof, p. 2.
5 Dennis Avenue Minister Biography: Rev. Henry Danhof, p. 3.
6 James D. Bratt, Dutch Calvinism in Modern America: A History of a Conservative Subculture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), p. 260.
7 Dennis Avenue Minister Biography: Rev. Henry Danhof, p. 5.
8 Historical Perspectives of the Protestant Reformed Churches: Interviews with Men Who Have Lived the History, Rev. Steven R. Key (unpublished set of interviews, 1985), pp. 83, 91. The first quote is from Rev. Key’s interview with Mr. Adrian Alphenaar. The second, from the interview with Mr. Homer Kuiper
9 Ibid., p. 60. From the interview with Mr. Charles Pastoor.