Rev. Hanko, an emeritus minister, served as pastor of various congregations in the PRC from 1929-1977.
Now Israel may say, and that in truth,
If that the Lord had not our right maintained,
If that the Lord had not with us remained,
When cruel men against us rose to strive,
We surely had been swallowed up alive.
The church of Jesus Christ is a militant church. I can testify to that from my own experiences, from my earliest memories. During my teens there was in fact great unrest and upheaval in the church.
That was true also in the world at large. The world was at war. A few Civil War veterans were still marching or riding in the Memorial Day parades when World War I broke out. In 1916 our country became directly involved in the war through the sinking of the Lusitania. Every able-bodied young man was called “to serve his country.” This became clearly evident in the church, but also in the fact that in the windows of many homes appeared a small rectangular flag with stars signifying that one or more, even to the extent of four members of that family, served in active duty.
Somehow even the churches became deeply involved in the war. The national flag appeared on pulpits; political speeches were held in churches; and various church societies were engaged in activities connected with the war. On a national election day, one minister spoke on the radio on “Adam, where art thou?” Patriotism was stressed from the pulpits. The people were made very war-minded.
In 1917 the churches and the schools were closed in mid-winter because of what was called a “fuel shortage,” since so much fuel was being sent across the Atlantic. The following year, at about the same time, the churches and the schools were closed and all public meetings were called off because of the severe influenza epidemic. Since there were sick in almost every home, and no cure was known, business had come virtually to a halt. We had our Sunday services in our homes with a few neighbors. Very few pedestrians were on the streets. Grocery stores had but a few customers, who bought only the daily necessities. Ministers were kept busily engaged in visiting the sick, usually through windows, sometimes even on the second story, which was reached only by ladder. Funerals became a common occurrence. I recall that when a neighbor child died, the casket was placed by the front window and funeral services were held for the family on the front lawn.
Also in the churches there was growing unrest. In 1918 Rev. H. Bultema, a minister in the Christian Reformed church of Muskegon, Michigan, was deposed from office for his denial of the kingship of Christ in the church of the new dispensation. He was a pre-millennialist.
In 1920 a protest was brought against Prof. Ralph Janssen, an instructor in Calvin Seminary. He was charged with denying the inspiration of the holy Scriptures and the miracles. He denied, for example, the ten plagues and the falling of the walls of Jericho, and he claimed that the story of Samson developed out of folklore.
This same year, 1920, Rev. Herman Hoeksema became the minister of our Eastern Ave. Christian Reformed congregation. For eighteen years Rev. Johannes Groen had been our pastor. He, along with Prof. Janssen, who with his family was a member of our congregation, and many others had fallen under the influence of Dr. Abraham Kuyper’s erroneous common grace theory. The congregation of approximately 500 families had been lulled to sleep under Groen’s preaching. Even then there were “those who feared the Lord and spake often one to another” (Mal. 3:16) about the “liberal” and “modern” tendencies that were creeping into the church. But for the most part the members had become quite complacent.
It was like a great awakening when Rev. Herman Hoeksema, who had served a congregation in Holland, Michigan, accepted our call and became our minister. The trumpet gave a new and refreshing sound when already in his inaugural sermon our new pastor proclaimed the gospel message: “The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is as grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: the grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand forever” (Is. 40:6-8).
Certainly there were those who opposed and were even offended by his preaching, but almost the entire congregation experienced an amazing revival and began to show a new and growing interest in the preaching of the Word. The change did not happen over night, but gradually more and more individuals saw the truth of God’s sovereignty in a new light. I recall the numerous discussions that took place in our own home, especially when visitors came to spend an evening of fellowship with us. It was a good time to be alive!
Especially I remember the discussions concerning this truth among the various members of our family of ten. My father was of the Hervormde Kerk (the State Church) of the Netherlands, which even then was at best very superficial. Recognizing the liberalism and other evils in the church of the Netherlands and finding those same evils here, he had become very concerned. He experienced a remarkable change in his own spiritual life. At first a bit reluctantly, but with increasing interest, he became an enthusiastic supporter of our new minister. My mother was of the Secession. She had experienced the trials and persecutions of those who had broken with the State Church, and she was a bit hesitant to give up the infra-lapsarian views which had been drilled into her from her earliest youth. There were often differences of opinion, but always an eager striving for the truth of God’s Word.
What we experienced at our home was similar to the experience in most other homes of the congregation. Even as there were differences of opinion in the families, there were also differences among the members of the congregation. Across the street from the Eastern Avenue parsonage were two stores: a tin shop and a shoe store. In the tin shop various members of the church, now retired, met to discuss their agreement with the new pastor. Next door, in the shoe store, various individuals met to discuss what should be done in regard to the “erring preacher,” who denied the cherished theory of common grace that was making inroads into the churches.
Especially as pamphlets appeared in favor of and opposed to the teachings of Prof. Janssen and, later, in favor of and opposed to the theory of common grace, these discussions became more widespread throughout the many churches in Grand Rapids and environs. I was attending Grand Rapids Christian High School on the corner of Madison and Franklin, which had opened its doors for the first time in 1920. As might be expected, the teachers used their influence to defend the theory of common grace and inculcate this error into the minds of the students. This resulted in a rather warm debate, usually at the supper table, between me and members of my family who were still at home. It reached a point where my father told me that I should consider leaving the Eastern Avenue congregation and joining Sherman Street Church, if I wanted to maintain a defense of this error. That confronted me with a new problem. This was no longer merely an interesting subject for debate, but a question of personal conscience. Therefore I decided to ask Rev. Hoeksema to explain certain matters in regard to the entire issue. He readily did so after the catechism class I was attending. The more I spoke with him the more convinced I became that the whole common grace theory was a serious error. That settled matters as far as our home was concerned.
But it was evident by this time that many people in the broader community were waking up and becoming involved. Even before the synod of 1924 met, many strangers began attending the services, especially the evening services, in our Eastern Avenue Church. After the synod adopted the theory of common grace and the general, well-meant offer of salvation as the official doctrine of the church, many more came to hear this “heretic who spoke so vehemently against the churches.” They could not help but be impressed by his powerful oratory, his thorough interpretation of the Scriptures, and his profound defense of the truth. The aisles were filled to capacity, the platform held as many of the overflow as possible, and some even stood in the halls. The fire chief made periodic visits to clear particularly the halls. Even the professors of Calvin College paid us a visit. Among them was the Greek professor, who complained the next day in his class that once more “our beloved Socrates” was dragged through the mud. He also said that if Rev. Hoeksema were not so stubborn, he could serve the churches well.
Classis East, which met from time to time during at least a four-month period, held its first meeting after the synod in the Eastern Avenue Church. The classis soon became aware of the ire of the members. At mealtime one of the ladies complained, “We should not feed you men who are determined to kill our minister!” Whether for that reason or another, the classis moved to Sherman Street Church. There, as before, large audiences were gathered to await the outcome.
It was at the meetings in the Sherman Street Church that Rev. Hoeksema made the remark that “the truth was to be sought with a lantern” in that classis. When a motion that he be required to apologize for that statement was being discussed, he offered an amendment, “unless he can prove it.” Thereupon the matter was dropped.
On a Friday in early December, Rev. Hoeksema was suspended from office. On that Friday morning I had an early class in Calvin College. Upon my arrival I was told by those who were in the know that “today your minister will be put out of the church.” I was asked, “What are you going to do?” I replied, “When they put him out, they will be putting me out also.” There was a solemn parting of the ways right there and then! But no regrets, as far as I was concerned.
When the split did come, many families were divided on the issue, many friendships were broken up. Many individuals said with the inspired Poet of old: “Friend and lover are departed, dark and lonely is my way.” However, though there were some individuals missing when the Eastern Avenue congregation met for worship on the Sunday after their minister was suspended from office, the congregation was almost completely intact, and we sang with greater enthusiasm than ever before, until the rafters rang:
Thou art, O God, our boast, the glory of our power;
Thy sovereign grace is e’er our fortress and our tower.
We lift our heads aloft, for God, our shield, is o’er us;
Through Him, through Him alone, whose presence goes before us,
We’ll wear the victor’s crown, no more by foes assaulted,
We’ll triumph through our King, by Israel’s God exalted. Psalm 68
Through the church periodicals, including the Standard Bearer, and especially through the brochures that were being written, the entire denomination became acquainted, at least in as far as they were interested, with the controversy that raged throughout the denomination. This was no longer a local affair. It involved the entire church.
There was some wavering among the ministers of the denomination. At first it appeared as if Rev. Hoeksema had the support of many others, but when the separation actually took place many drew back. One minister, who preached for us on the Sunday evening before Rev. Hoeksema was suspended from office, strongly emphasized that our minister stood for the truth and that we should take a stand with him. But he himself did not. Another minister preached for us even after the suspension, but he soon after apologized to his classis for having done so. There were others who said that they “had changed their mind.” Whether they did so because the movement was not as earth-moving as they had anticipated, or for some other motive, it can only be that the Lord did not consider them proper material with which to carry on His reformation in the church.
The first eleven months after the deposition we still met in the church edifice on Eastern Avenue. By court decision in December of the same year we were forced out. For a short time we met under crowded conditions in the community building at the old Franklin Park (now Martin Luther King Park), but as soon as possible we moved to the St. Cecilia building in downtown Grand Rapids, where we met for over a year. That involved a three-mile walk to the services and another three-mile walk back home. But the congregation, with the exception of the infirm and feeble, eagerly walked these miles for two services on the Lord’s Day to be fed with the pure milk of the Word and to enjoy the renewed communion of saints.
I cannot recall a single word of complaint about the distance that we had to walk every Lord’s Day, not even in the winter when the sidewalks were slippery; but I do remember joining a group of young people who were happily engaged in discussions concerning the struggles of the church, a group that gradually dwindled as each one turned to go to his own home. It was an exciting, blessed experience.
In those trying times, when Rev. Herman Hoeksema was deposed by Classis East and Rev. Henry Danhof by Classis West, one minister took a valiant stand with them. That was the Rev. George Martin Ophoff, who had a congregation at River Bend, just outside of Grand Rapids. He remained faithful to the truth and a respected colleague of Rev. Hoeksema until his dying day.
These men were burdened with far more work than the average person could bear, yet they struggled on for years, giving their all for the cause of the truth. Besides the responsibility of a large congregation, Rev. Hoeksema, along with Rev. Ophoff and a few others, had to write for the Standard Bearer, in order to instruct, but also to keep others informed of what was happening in the churches. There were also requests for lectures in our area and in various parts of the country—lectures which God used to inform others of the awakening that had taken place in Grand Rapids. Whenever possible Hoeksema made trips to Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and California, lecturing and organizing new congregations. Within two years three congregations were organized in the Grand Rapids area, two in Illinois, one in Wisconsin, four in northwest Iowa, and one in Redlands, California.
Only a few months after they were deposed, Rev. Hoeksema and Rev. Ophoff, along with Rev. Henry Danhof of Kalamazoo, started a seminary for the training of students, in order to satisfy the demand for preachers in the new churches. Ten students enrolled that first year. Rev. Hoeksema taught four classes on Monday, Rev. Ophoff taught four classes on Wednesday, and Rev. Danhof took eight classes on Friday. Men had to be prepared as soon as possible to preach the Word in the churches. Therefore, after two years of training, two of the older men, Wm. Verhil and Gerrit Vos, were ordained to serve in Hull and Sioux Center, Iowa. After serving for two years in those congregations they returned to school to finish their education. Some of those who enrolled in the beginning dropped out, and three new ones were added in 1926, so that in 1929 the first class of six graduated. After that, many others followed as the churches grew numerically and, above all, spiritually.
With gratitude we look back and confess: “What marvelous things the Lord hath wrought in protecting His church on earth.”