Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
I shall have to write this sketch of someone whom I knew. I did not and could not know him as his family knew him. I did not and could not know him as his colleagues knew him. But he was my pastor for nearly twenty years and he was my professor in the seminary for at least six years. We knew him in the classroom, in the coffee room at break time, during the informalities of Student Club, and in the banter and give-and-take of seminary life.
Yes, it was six years, not the normal three of a full seminary course. While I was still in college but making plans to go to seminary, Herman Hoeksema suffered a stroke. The Lord gave him a remarkable, though not complete, recovery. We were concerned that by the time we were ready to enter seminary Hoeksema would no longer be capable of teaching, and we wanted to study dogmatics under him. I and several others asked permission from the Theological School Committee to take dogmatics with him even if it meant only auditing the courses. This permission was granted and we studied dogmatics with him during three years of college studies. The Lord spared him for additional years, and we were given the privilege of studying dogmatics (as well as other subjects) with him for an additional three years. So we went through the six loci of dogmatics with him twice. Not a day of study was wasted.
It is not, I am sure, possible to balance praise with blame and to be just and right in both. God uses sinful means to accomplish His will. We hold our treasure, Paul tells the Corinthians, in clay pots. But these things are not my primary concern. What is of interest to me and ought to be of interest to all of us is the fact that God used him in remarkable ways in the church. That God uses sinners is a given. That God used Herman Hoeksema is reason for gratitude on the part of all who love the Reformed faith.
Gertrude Hoeksema, a daughter-in-law, has written the one biography of Hoeksema, and the readers of this sketch are urged to read that book. Its title is, Therefore Have I Spoken. On it I must rely for much information not available in other sources.
So, on with the story.
Hoeksema’s Early Life
Herman Hoeksema was born on March 12, 1886 from Johanna Bakema and Tiele Hoeksema in Hoogezand, in the province of Groningen, the Netherlands. The date of his birth, 1886, will attract the attention of anyone who has knowledge of and appreciation for the history of the church in the Netherlands. It was the year Dr. Abraham Kuyper led the faithful in the apostate state church out to form a new denomination, and thus reform the church in that country.
Dr. Kuyper’s work, however, was not the first reformation brought about in the state church; Hendrik DeCock, as we discussed in an earlier article, had also led faithful people of God out of the state church, but fifty years earlier in 1834. Hoeksema was born from parents who belonged to the churches which DeCock had formed, known as De Afscheiding, or The Separation.
The people of these churches were the common folk, the poor day-laborers, the people without influence. But they possessed something more important: a godliness and piety which had deep roots in Scripture and in a prayer-filled life.
In the tradition of these folk, Hoeksema was given a very godly mother. Her godliness and spirituality were all the stronger because of the husband to whom she was united. He was a drunkard who forsook his family to enlist in foreign service, and who spent what little he earned in sin. He returned home only occasionally, and when Herman was nine years old, forcibly took Herman from his home. Mrs. Hoeksema had to get a court order, or legal separation, to prevent this from recurring.
His mother was required to take in sewing and to work long hours to support her family. Even with hard work, money was always in short supply. It was not easy to feed three growing boys and one girl and provide a Christian education for them besides. The result was that the family often went hungry and Herman took to running around with the town ruffians who sometimes engaged in stealing food to ease their hunger pangs.
It was possible for Herman to continue his education only because he was given support from the town. This education was in a trade school, which qualified him to serve as apprentice for a blacksmith. He obtained work away from home where, at 15 years old, he worked from 4:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. for $30.00 a year plus room and board. The work was hard and the food he received meager and insufficient to sustain his growing body. For a year he worked here, but at the end of the year found a better job in his hometown making wrought-iron fences.
The poverty and hard work of his youth gave to Herman a sympathy for the poor and a distaste for the selfish employer who refused to pay his help a living wage but demanded long hours and hard work. His preaching during his years in the ministry often reflected these childhood experiences.
Although he received his religious training in a church of the Afscheiding, Hoeksema had a friend who belonged to the churches of the Kuyper movement. Through this friend he came to hear Dr. Kuyper preach and speak, and was influenced by Kuyper’s strong and uncompromising emphasis on salvation by sovereign and particular grace. It was an influence that was to be the standard of his life.
At 18 years of age, Hoeksema left the Netherlands and the poverty he knew there to find a home in America. He stayed in Chicago with his sister who had preceded him. After holding a variety of jobs and saving what he could, he was able to get his mother and brothers to this country, while he himself departed for Grand Rapids and Calvin College to study for the ministry of the Word.
Hoeksema had received gifts from God which had to be used in different ways than working with his hands. He was a man of towering intellect, penetrating insight, and originality of thought. His studies came easy to him and he was able to absorb vast amounts of material. His interest was in Dutch Reformed theology, and, because he knew the Dutch thoroughly, he was able to read with ease that ocean of Reformed Dutch thought, so rich and fertile, but so inaccessible to us today.
He was a man of many and varied gifts. In addition to the gifts of intellect, he was an artist of some ability. Later in life, when he took up painting for relaxation, he became skillful in oils. But his artistic skills extended also into literary achievements. He wrote a dramatic production in poetry while in school; he composed a sonnet at the time of his 25th anniversary; and all his writing (and there was much of it) was characterized by a clarity and literary grace to which few attain. The clarity of his writing (and his preaching and speaking) was of such a kind that, although there were many who disagreed with his theology, no one ever complained that they could not understand what he meant. He could express profound ideas in simple language.
He was a man of iron will and steely determination. This was characteristic of his own life, which was highly disciplined; but it was especially evident in his commitment to the truth. Having once set himself upon the course of service to the church of Christ and the truth of God, nothing could swerve him from it. No one, friend or foe, would dispute the fact that Hoeksema stood firmly for what he believed. This was so true that the word that came most often from the mouths of his detractors was “stubborn.”
The evidences of his commitment to the church appeared already during his student days. When he was scheduled as a student to bring a word of edification to the congregation of Maple Ave. Christian Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan, he knew that the congregation was opposed in large measure to Christian education. Aware of the implications of what he was doing, he prayed in his congregational prayers that God’s covenant people might not in the education of their children deliver them over to the gates of hell — his forceful characterization of the public school system. So infuriated did the congregation become that his hosts did not reappear in their own home until he had departed, and the consistory made an effort to keep him from their pulpit—an effort that failed only because the student body in seminary decided that no student would go to Maple Ave. if Hoeksema could not go.
It was, however, the beginning of a long life of controversy.
… to be continued.