We depart from the usual format of this rubric and make this article to appear in the form of a report to our readers of some of the activities and experiences of the undersigned in the land of the Dakotas. While we write these notes we are a little more than a thousand miles from the privacy and the materials of our own study-room in the manse of the Southwest Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Usually there we are surrounded with church periodicals and other material from which we choose the things we ordinarily comment on. But here we have none of this equipment to help us in the preparation of an article. We thought therefore that our readers would not mind this little departure, and perhaps relish a bit of news concerning the land and the churches of the Dakotas in which we have been working for the last three weeks in April.
Rev. George Lubbers, our missionary, has labored faithfully in this area for the space of about two years and in earlier issues of The Standard Bearer he has given brief reports of his labors. To him, therefore, what we write will not be news. Nor will this article prove to be news to our Mission Committee which has been rather thoroughly informed concerning the possibilities this area has to offer. Nor will what we write be news to those ministers who have served the Dakota churches by appointment of the Mission Committee since the Synod of 1959. All of them must have had the same experiences, performed the same labors, and gained the same impressions the undersigned has had. Our prime purpose in this article is to inform those of our ministers and people who have not had the privilege to observe first hand what one experiences when he meets and visits with those who at present are outside of our churches, but who to all intents and purposes belong with us.
Most of our readers know, of course, that at the next synod it must be decided whether or not the Protestant Reformed Churches will take into their bosom the Churches of Isabel and Forbes who have asked to be accepted. The Synod of 1959 decided to postpone any action for one year in order that the Mission Committee might make a more thorough survey of this area and the Synod of 1960 could thus be in a better position to judge of the matter. Our advice to the synod of 1960 we will reserve for the conclusion of this article. First, allow us to say a few things about the churches and people of this area, and then a little about our work here.
The Church of Forbes is composed of six families and one individual and is located about 41 miles to the north and west of Aberdeen, South Dakota. This is about 941 miles from Grand Rapids, about 600 miles from the Church of Loveland, and about 300 miles from the nearest of our churches which is the church in Edgerton, Minnesota. Two of the families live in Aberdeen, one family lives in Leola about 20 miles from the church, and three of the families and one individual live in rather close proximity to the church. This church carries the hope of internal growth since most of the families are young married people with small children. Undersigned is of the belief that if a minister were stationed here permanently extension work could be carried out in the Leola and Aberdeen area with people of the same background as the members of this church.
The Church of Isabel is composed of seven families and one individual and is located about 160 miles from Aberdeen to the south and west. The two churches are approximately 180 miles apart. All of the members of this church live in close proximity to the church.
The country in these parts is typical western prairie, with rolling landscape and is quite suitable for ranching. Most of the people here are farmers who graze sheep and cattle. They raise enough grain to feed their stock which seems to be their main industry. The people are all of German heritage. Most of them are of Reformed background, but a few of them have come into the church through marriage from different religious backgrounds, some from the Lutherans and others from the Baptists. That they are of German stock is no hindrance to our being conversant with them since most of them understand the American language better than the German. Especially is this true of the younger generation.
What immediately intrigues one who comes to these parts to preach to and instruct these people in the doctrines of the Reformed faith is the keen interest they show and the response they give. It is refreshing, indeed, to witness how these people lean on every word you say and how easily they grasp the truths you expound to them. There was a time in the history of this people when this was not so. Earlier in their experience they resided in churches where doctrinal distinctions were not so pronounced, and where instruction was rather superficial, and church services were a mere formality. About the only confession they knew was the Heidelberg Catechism, and this they learned in a rather superficial and formal manner. When Mr. Herman Mensch, a graduate of our Protestant Reformed seminary, became their pastor, for the first time their eyes began to open not only to the truths of God’s Word, but also to the errors in their churches. And when Rev. G. Lubbers came to labor in their midst the love of the truth began to grow in them. These people, no matter into which home you go, are full of thanksgiving to God that these men were providentially directed to them. And now they tell me that no matter who of our ministers comes to preach to them, they all speak the same truths though with each his own presentation.
To give our readers a little idea of the work we are doing here in our three-week assignment, allow us to present a brief schedule of operation. We arrived in Aberdeen on Saturday, April 9th, and stayed over night and enjoyed the warm hospitality of the family of Enock Hauck. Sunday morning we traveled the 41 miles to the Church of Forbes. After conducting the Sunday School which all the members attend and in the discussion of which all participate, we conducted the morning worship service. For two and a half solid hours we were busy handling the Word of God. After this we enjoyed a German meal in the home of one of the members and then began our trek to Isabel. On the way of this more than three-hour drive, we tuned in the broadcast of the Reformed Witness Hour which is sent out from the Jamestown, North Dakota station. Coincidentally on this program Mr. Edward Ophoff sang the anthem “Beside the Still Waters.” As he was singing and telling us in song about the Still Waters by which the Shepherd was feeding His sheep, we were driving past a small lake by which a rather large herd of sheep were grazing. We beheld the physical picture of the spiritual truths of which he sang. Then followed the passion sermon of Rev. H. Hoeksema. This spiritual refreshment helped to pass the time it took to reach our destination.
Arriving at Isabel and the home of Mr. Jacob Reichert, whose hospitality is typical of all the people in this area, we found a few moments to rest and enjoy an evening meal. Soon it was time for the evening service, and we preached to the little congregation of spiritually hungry people. After the service all of the members, except one family, retired to the home of another of the members where we visited, talking about the sermon and other doctrinal truths until the late hours of the night. During the next two days we were busy visiting, observing the annual sheep-shearing, and preparing ourselves for the Catechism Class. On Monday evening the entire congregation came up for Catechism which is conducted in the church. Only those who have been here can understand me when I say this was the most refreshing experience. Even the children of 12 years and older participate in the discussion in which one of the Lord’s Days of the Heidelberg Catechism was treated. On Wednesday we also had the privilege of calling on a man who is not a member of the church. This man had recently lost a son and found comfort in the Word of consolation we presented to him from the Scriptures.
On Thursday, we traveled back to Leola, where we had supper in the home of Mr. R. De Wald. After enjoying another delicious German meal and visiting for a few hours, we proceeded to the Church of Forbes where we led the Catechism Class. Again the entire congregation made its appearance. Even the young mothers attend, holding their babies on their laps. What a rewarding experience it was to hear the questions they asked and the answers they gave to our questions. On Friday evening almost the entire congregation came up for the Good Friday services.
On Saturday we returned to Isabel, and on Sunday conducted the Sunday School and the two worship services. This being Resurrection Day, both sermons were devoted to the truth concerning the resurrection. After the evening service we all retired to the home of another member of the congregation for an evening of Christian fellowship. Incidentally, the man of whom we spoke earlier whom we had visited but who was not a member of this church, was in attendance at both the Sunday School and the morning service.
It is now Monday morning as I write these lines. Tonight we will conduct Catechism for the final time in Isabel and on Tuesday night deliver a lecture. On Wednesday we will take our leave to return once more to Forbes. There on Thursday night we plan to conduct the Catechism Class and on Friday and Saturday visit in the homes of our people there. On Sunday, we plan to lead the Sunday School once more and preach twice. On Monday we again leave for home. To me these three weeks were a pleasant vacation and change from the rather strenuous routine we follow at home. We enjoyed every minute of it. And anyone coming to these environs who loves to speak the truth will have the same treatment.
Now what shall we say about the matter of receiving these people into our churches? Let me say, first of all, that at the last synod undersigned served on the committee of pre-advice which proposed that our synod should not accept these churches. On the basis of this advice the synod was reluctant to accept them also, but decided to give the whole matter more thorough examination.
Some of the objections presented by the committee of pre-advice are still valid in our opinion. The objection that the distance between these two groups is too great for one man to serve both churches efficiently still obtains. And the very serious objection that there is no Christian school in this area and no hope for one for a long time to come is still a very serious objection.
On the other hand, we have talked with most of the people here about the possibility of consolidating into one church. This is easier said than done, yet the people in Isabel do not conceive of this as an impossibility. If this could be done, the situation in the Dakotas would be very hopeful. Moreover, I am now convinced that our churches may not neglect to take these people into our bosom. They are Protestant Reformed people who are eager to become more thoroughly indoctrinated. In this we may not fail them. Again, I believe there is room for expansion and growth, not only from within, but also from without, especially in the neighborhood of Forbes and Aberdeen. A minister coming into this area and remaining here for some time has a large field in which to labor.
We therefore recommend that the synod of 1960 follow the advice of the Mission Committee in their annual report, and accept these churches immediately.