Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hull, Iowa.
The history of Christian education in the Netherlands is a long history.
Prior to the Afscheiding
The Reformation, beginning already with Martin Luther, called for and established schools where the foundation would be the teachings of Holy Scripture. The Dutch Reformed gave the same emphasis to Christian education as early as 1574, when a Reformed synod called on preachers to see to it that there were good Christian schoolmasters.¹
But while the schools in the Netherlands—government schools—once had significant Christian content in their instruction, this was no longer the case by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The spirit of toleration that characterized the Enlightenment had gained the upper hand in the churches, at the expense of sound doctrine and antithetical, godly living. Secular and humanistic ideas and critical views of Scripture, which were already prevalent in the universities of the Netherlands, had worked their way through the schools as well.
While there remained in many areas a certain Christian influence, including Bible reading and prayer, the foundational principles of Christian education established in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were largely lost. The truth of the Reformed faith no longer permeated the instruction.
By the time Napoleon’s revolutionary army made its way into the Netherlands in 1795 and uprooted the remnants of Reformed theology and practice from public life, there were few who cared.² All religions were given equal footing under the law, and under the banner of toleration or non-sectarianism the teaching of any distinctively Reformed perspective in the public schools was ousted, to be replaced with deistic religion.
There were, however, schools owned and operated by Reformed churches.³ The Education Law of 1806 allowed for private schools alongside the public schools. Private schools were supported by tuition payments for the students, as well as by the foundation or society that founded them. They could also be church-operated, and subsidized if necessary by the deacons of a congregation. Private schools were not subject to the government restrictions of religious perspective or content.
But the Education Law of 1806 did forbid even private Reformed schools the right to use any doctrinal standards in the hiring of teachers. The hiring of teachers was subject to the approval of the state.4 This contributed to a further weakening of Reformed principles in Christian education. Teachers, after all, are the heart of a sound biblical and Reformed education. With the government preventing “sectarian” (read, solidly Reformed) teachers from being hired by Reformed schools, the generic instruction of the state schools continued to advance also in the private schools.
The Development of the Afscheiding
The leadership of the Afscheiding of 1834 came from men who had come through those schools marked by toleration and higher critical views of Scripture. They had rejected those erroneous views and presuppositions, seeking to maintain the authority of Holy Scripture as maintained in the Reformed confessions.
Prior to 1834 these young men had been members of the so-called “Scholte Club” at the University of Leiden, a group begun by Hendrik Scholte and some fellow students.5 That group proved to be an incubator of ideas that would later influence the direction of theAfscheiding. One matter of importance to these men was a sound education, beginning at the elementary level and continuing all the way through university studies.6
With the Reformation of 1834 and in the years immediately following, there was tremendous upheaval even among the new congregations of the Afscheiding. The unsettled nature of the movement and the persecution that ensued prevented any development of an educational system for the children.
Already on November 10, 1834, a Christian school was opened in a very humble setting at Smilde, with Douwe J. VanderWerp the first teacher. Almost immediately, however, the civil authorities closed it and fined VanderWerp a significant sum of money.7
Therefore, the chief focus initially, besides the care of the congregations, was upon developing a program of theological instruction for training young men for the ministry.
Within a few years, however, there arose hopes among Christian parents that emigrating to America would enable them to provide a Christian education for their children.
The Movement to America
Our interest turns to the members of theAfscheiding as they soon began to emigrate to the United States of America.
It isn’t within the scope of this article to develop the reasons for the emigration movement. The suffering of extreme poverty, burdensome taxes, and the desire for a more free exercise of religion were the main contributing factors. But among some there was also the hope that emigrating to America would enable them to provide a Christian education for their children. 8
In late 1846 a sizable group boarded a ship bound for America, accompanied by their pastor, the Reverend A.C. VanRaalte. By early 1847 they were clearing the forests of West Michigan to establish a new colony. Other companies followed, and by the spring of the following year several churches had been established and a new classis was organized, Classis Holland.
Already at the second classical meeting, held September 27, 1848, the following decision was taken:
Art. 6. Rev. Ypma proposes that the interests of the schools shall be discussed. The discussion takes place, and the judgment is: the schools must be promoted and cared for by the churches, as being an important part of the Christian calling of God’s church on earth. All lukewarmness and coldness toward that cause must be condemned and rebuked.9
At the meeting of Classis Holland on April 30, 1851, Rev. VanRaalte reported that there was a plan under consideration in the Board of Domestic Missions of the Dutch Reformed Church10 to send a man who could serve as a teacher in West Michigan. The Minutes then record the following:
This purpose, or plan, aroused rejoicing, and several of the brethren endowed with insight into the importance of some such step, expressed themselves as heartily glad of what they had heard; and expressed their own feelings with regard to the supreme importance of the education of the youth, upon which depend the character, the destiny, and the prosperity of a people; (saying) that for their own posterity they sought above all else God-fearing instruction in all the branches of knowledge.11
As classes began in the various communities, even equipment was lacking. There were no desks, slates, blackboards, or textbooks. “Here, classes were held in a kitchen, there in a loft, somewhere else in a church.”12 Conditions were less than ideal. Students were few, partly because many parents saw little value in formal education.
But those who understood the importance of that education recognized that the important thing was the contentof the instruction and the doctrinal perspective and understanding of those who taught. And by the promotion of sound education by faithful consistories and preachers, that importance began to be more clearly understood and the support grew — among some.
VanRaalte very soon turned his attention to higher education. Understanding that the colonists could not bear the costs of establishing a school for higher education, he turned to the established churches on the east coast for help. The result was the establishment of the Academy, initially set up as “a high school to prepare sons of the colonists from Holland for Rutgers College, and also to educate daughters of said colonists.”13
Ministers such as VanRaalte and Vander Meulen faithfully and constantly reminded the colonists of the value of Christian education and of supporting also the school for higher education.
We must not let the years fly by without training our children to take over the positions and responsibilities in church, school, and society. As supervisors, fathers, and leaders of the people, we can not die with a clear conscience if we do not, while it is still day, work to leave behind us successors and shepherds and if we do not see to it in time that the people grow and mature to assume, in the right way, the responsibilities God has entrusted us with in this place.14
These were men with vision!
Belonging to that vision was the idea, found in that last quotation, that education was critically important in taking up “the responsibilities God has entrusted us with in this place.” Christian education was to be permeated with biblical truth, the truth which is applicable to all of life, and more particularly a life to be lived in the particular location and position to which God calls us.
But by 1862 the Christian grade school in the Dutch colony had died out. With the establishment of a district public school, “the poverty stricken pioneers found it much easier to let the government bear the burden.”
They were not sufficiently convinced of the need of Christian schools to make the necessary sacrifices. In a letter to a certain Rev. and Mrs. VanDerWall, VanRaalte laments, “Parochial instruction lies buried here . . . . I am following the advice you gave me. I am doing nothing at all . . . .”15
So only higher Christian education continued at the time. If not seen by many as unnecessary, it was generally thought that the establishment of Christian grade schools would hinder the transition of the children into American culture. It was this attitude that took root among the people of the Reformed Church in America.
Ironically, the principled stand of VanRaalte was carried on by those who separated from him and began what would later become the Christian Reformed Church. And when numerous educated Netherlanders settled in America during the 1890s, they also brought with them the influence of Dr. Abraham Kuyper’s educational ideals.16
But it was the contribution of theAfscheiding to restore the significance of Reformed Christian education to the church, the education of the children according to the truth of Holy Scripture and the Reformed confessions.
What a worthy labor for us to carry on today!
¹ H. Bouwman, Gereformeerd Kerkrecht, vol. 1 (Kampen, Netherlands: J.H. Kok, 1928), pp. 517ff.
² Elton J. Bruins, and Robert P. Swierenga, Family Quarrels in the Dutch Reformed Churches of the 19th Century (Grand Rapids, MI, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), p. 10.
³ Cf. Gerrit J. tenZythoff, Sources of Secession, The Netherlands Hervormde Kerk on the Eve of the Dutch Immigration to the Midwest (Grand Rapids, MI, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), pp. 25-26.
4 Ibid., pp. 27-28.
5 “To this group belonged such men as Simon VanVelzen, George Frans Gezelle Meerburg, Albertus C. VanRaalte, and Louis Bahler. All except the last became with deCock the first pastors of Secession congregations.” Peter Y. DeJong, and Nelson Kloosterman, editors, The Reformation of 1834, Essays in Commemoration of the Act of Secession and Return (Orange City, IA, Pluim Publishing, Inc., 1984), p. 20.
6 Ibid., p. 62
7 Janet Shaarda Sheeres, Son of Secession: Douwe J. VanderWerp (Grand Rapids, MI, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006), pp. 40-41.
8 D.H. Kromminga, The Christian Reformed Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1943), p. 98.
9 Classis Holland: Minutes 1848- 1858 (Grand Rapids, MI, Grand Rapids Printing Company, 1943), p. 26.
10 The reference here is to the Dutch Reformed Church in America, which would become known in 1867 as “The Reformed Church of America.”
11 Classis Holland: Minutes 1848- 1858, p. 52.
12 Jacob VanHinte, Netherlanders in America (Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Book House, 1985), p. 256. 13. Ibid., p. 257.
14 Ibid., p. 258.
15 Marian B. Schoolland, The Story of VanRaalte (Grand Rapids, MI, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1951), p. 89.
16 Jacob VanHinte, Netherlanders in America, p. 870.