2003 is the fiftieth anniversary of the great schism in the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC).
Meeting in April and May 1953, Classis East of the PRC condemned particular teachings of one of the ministers of First Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan as heretical. The matter had come to the classis by appeal from members of First Church’s consistory. At the same time, Classis East advised the consistory of First Church to require a public apology from the minister for his teachings. Classis added that the consistory should deal with a refusal to apologize by suspending the minister from his office.
When the minister refused to apologize for his teachings, judged heretical by the major assembly, the consistory of First Church suspended him at a meeting in June 1953. At the same meeting, the consistory deposed a number of elders who resisted both the classis and the consistory by supporting the minister in his refusal to apologize.
Rather than submit to the decisions of classis and to their discipline by the consistory, while protesting to classis or appealing to synod, the suspended minister and deposed elders continued to function in their offices. They called and held worship services apart from the consistory of First Church and in opposition to the decisions of Classis East. In fact, they seized and occupied the building of First Church.
Schism in First Church, mother of the denomination, was a reality on Sunday, June 28, 1953. More than half of the five hundred-family congregation worshiped under the leadership of the suspended minister, Rev. Hubert De Wolf, in the building at the corner of Fuller and Franklin in Grand Rapids. The rest worshiped that Sunday in a rented building with the other ministers of First Church, Rev. Herman Hoeksema and Rev. Cornelius Hanko.
Inevitably, and quickly, the schism widened throughout the entire denomination.
Classis East met again in July 1953. Delegations both from the consistory of First Church and from the church of the suspended pastor and deposed elders presented themselves to be seated. Classis recognized as rightful representatives of First PRC the delegates from the consistory that had carried out Classis’ advice. At this decision, all the office bearers and people in Classis East who sided with the suspended minister of First Church broke with Classis East and thus with the denomination. They expressed their support of the suspended minister, rejected the authority of Classis East, and set themselves up as a rival Protestant Reformed denomination.
Schism in the churches of the other classis, Classis West, followed in September 1953. Classis West took decisions condemning the action of First Church in suspending its minister. Thus Classis West deliberately opposed and repudiated Classis East, which alone had jurisdiction in the case. The result was that several congregations in the West separated themselves from the PRC, while other congregations split, one group remaining faithful to the PRC and another group allying themselves with the rival denomination.
Fifty years have passed since that fateful event in the history of the PRC.
Worthy of Our Remembrance
Recently, the PRC celebrated the seventy-fifth anniversary of their birth as a Reformed denomination. No such denominational celebration is scheduled to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the schism in the PRC. But the schism is worthy of our remembrance.
We certainly cannot ignore an event of such magnitude in our history. When the dust and fury of the ecclesiastical storm had settled, more than half, indeed nearly two thirds of the members and ministers of the PRC had left the denomination, most of them never to return. In 1952, on the eve of the schism, the PRC were twenty-four churches, almost fourteen hundred families, and a little more than six thousand members. Twenty-eight ministers served the churches. After the schism, the denomination was reduced to sixteen churches, about five hundred and sixty families, and slightly fewer than twenty four hundred members. Only fourteen ministers remained.
The schism shook the churches to their foundation. Those looking on from the outside must have wondered whether the denomination would survive.
The question, “Why? Why the schism?” points us to the reasons for remembering the schism, devastating and painful as it was, with thankfulness to God, who was sovereign over it. By the schism of 1953, God preserved in the PRC the unadulterated gospel of salvation by grace alone. Thus He preserved the PRC as a denomination of true churches of Jesus Christ according to the authoritative declaration of Article 29 of the Belgic Confession. God preserved the gospel of grace in the PRC by maintaining the truth of the unconditional covenant in the face of opposition to it by those determined to introduce into the churches the doctrine of a conditional covenant.
Although personalities entered in and although men and women on both sides marred the work by their sins, the issue in the controversy was doctrinal. The doctrine at issue was the covenant of God. The issue was the unconditionality of the covenant. This, the PRC had confessed from the beginning of their separate existence as churches. This, a powerful faction in the churches was determined to repudiate in favor of the doctrine of a conditional covenant. This, the churches contended for, however imperfectly, in all the bitter struggle of 1953—valiantly and gloriously. This, by the grace of God the churches maintained in that fight, not counting the cost. And this, the PRC confess fifty years later.
In light of the development of the doctrine of a conditional covenant now ongoing in Reformed churches, it becomes evident how important the struggle for the unconditional covenant by the PRC in the late 1940s and early 1950s really was. As the recent series of editorials in the Standard Bearer, “The Unconditional Covenant in Contemporary Debate,” showed, prominent Reformed and Presbyterian theologians are teaching the gross heresy of justification by faith and works on the basis of a conditional covenant. Reputedly conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches and seminaries are tolerating these false teachers and their assault on the gospel of sovereign grace because the churches and seminaries are themselves committed to a conditional covenant.
In this and subsequent, occasional editorials, I intend to reflect on the schism of 1953 in the PRC.
It is not my intention to relate the history. For the history, the interested reader has a number of good resources. A brief history of 1953 is included in Prof. Herman Hanko’s treatment of the history of the PRC in the fiftieth anniversary book, God’s Covenant Faithfulness (RFPA, 1975). Gertrude Hoeksema gives a more detailed account in her history of the PRC, A Watered Garden: A Brief History of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America (RFPA, 1992). Mrs. Hoeksema recounts something of the history of 1953 also in the last chapters of her biography of Herman Hoeksema, Therefore Have I Spoken (RFPA, 1969). More recently, three chapters of Prof. Herman Hanko’s doctrinal history of the PRC are devoted to the controversy that culminated in the schism of 1953 (For Thy Truth’s Sake, RFPA, 2000).
The issues of the Standard Bearer in the late 1940s and early 1950s, readily available on CDs and in bound volumes, are a unique history of the controversy. They give the history as it was unfolding. The account breathes the passion and agony of the church struggle. One who immerses himself in those issues of the magazine relives the schism.
My purpose with the editorials on the schism that will appear from time to time is to comment on various aspects of the schism that instruct, edify, and warn the churches today.
A Possible Denominational Remembrance
Even though synod has not arranged for a denominational celebration of this anniversary, there are ways by which the churches can fruitfully remember the schism. Consistories can schedule special classes; ministers can preach special sermons; evangelism committees can plan appropriate lectures.
Without preempting activities conducted by the local congregations, I suggest a denominational remembrance of the schism of 1953 that is still possible at this late date. Let the Theological School Committee ask the faculty of the seminary to prepare lectures on the most important aspects of the controversy. With the cooperation of the churches in the area, these lectures would be given in western Michigan this fall, either during successive weeks or at a conference-type meeting on a Friday evening and a Saturday morning.
The lecture-series would be made available to all the churches, although outside of western Michigan the program would have to take the form of a weekend conference. If the churches are interested, a weekend conference would accommodate the four churches in Illinois and Indiana. Another such conference would serve the churches in northwest Iowa and southwest Minnesota. The two churches in Canada could combine to have the lectures given for the benefit of their members. Each of the rest of the churches, over time, would schedule the conference of lectures for itself.
Two or three subjects commend themselves at once as topics for the lectures: the fascinating history of the events, the vital doctrinal issue, and the intriguing church political aspects of the schism. Every lecture, or conference, should conclude with sufficient time for questions from the audience.
Not only would the members of the PRC benefit, but the lectures could also be advertised as witness to people outside the PRC. And it is healthy that seminary professors occasionally have this kind of contact with all the churches.
In the providence of God and by the ingenuity of certain members of the Protestant Reformed Church in South Holland, Illinois, a very valuable resource of rare and important materials pertaining to the controversy of 1953 has just become available. Some of these materials I had never before heard or read.
About this in the next editorial remembering the schism of 1953.