Previous article in this series: March 1, 2010, p. 254.
It has been some time now since our last article on this subject. We asked the question in the last article whether or not it is proper for families or confessing individuals in existing churches to move to a place of an established mission field? Our answer to this question is: yes. We recognize, however, that there are objections to this position. There are legitimate questions that arise in this connection.
It is for that reason we are trying to examine the issue a little more closely. Before extolling the advantages of families moving to a mission field, we need to take a look at precedent as well as the objections that are raised. In the last article we spent time examining the scriptural precedent of families moving from the established church to areas where the church had not yet been established or was in its beginning stages of development. In fact, we discovered that it was by means of this that the gospel spread as quickly and extensively as it did.
In this article we are going to examine if there is any historical precedent. I admit that much more study is needed in this whole area of historical precedent. To examine the methods of Christian missions in every era of the new dispensation is an extensive work, which would take hours of devoted study. I intend to limit myself to the establishment of the Dutch Reformed churches in America. Then I will take a look at the limited precedent found in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
In 1609 Henry Hudson, an Englishman, sailed to the New World on behalf of the Dutch East India Company. After Hudson returned to the Netherlands, the Dutch claimed all the land from the Delaware to the Connecticut rivers. A few trading posts were established there, but it was not until 1621 that the Dutch became serious about colonizing this area with their own people. In that year the Dutch West India Company was formed, and by the year 1623 the first Dutch settlers had left their homeland and their established churches to settle in New Amsterdam (now New York). Dr. Henry Beets describes this endeavor in his book, The Christian Reformed Church:
It took considerable effort to entice this class of people away from their ancestral abode. Foreigners [who had] settled in Holland as religious refugees, and the inmates of crowded Dutch orphanages, were sent, perhaps willy-nilly, some of them. But some adult native Netherlanders also came from different parts of the Republic. Practically all of them professed the Reformed religion.
Since many of these settlers were members of the National Church in Amsterdam, the consistory there saw a need to send ministers to the colony. Marvin D. Hoff, in his book Structures for Missions, comments,
Two years after the formation of the company [Dutch West India Company—W.B.] the Consistory of Amsterdam noticed that the charter failed to provide for the spiritual needs of the new colony. They called this to the attention of the company’s directors, who then committed themselves to support ‘religious services both on shipboard and on land.’ It was agreed that the church would select the ministers and teachers for the colony, and the company would provide for their financial support.
The first men to arrive to give spiritual help to this colony were Bastian Krol and Jan Huygens, who were “comforters of the sick.” The first ordained minister, Rev. Jonas Michaelius, arrived in April of 1628.
It is obvious from this historical account that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands did not hesitate to allow members of their churches to emigrate to the New World. On the contrary, they not only encouraged them but sought out ministers of the gospel to send to America to established Reformed churches in the colonies. The Reformed faith was established in America by means of families who were willing to leave home and established churches, to brave the perils of the sea, and to reestablish themselves in our country. To be sure, there were plenty of individuals and families that came to the Americas simply out of carnal reasons. But there were also “people of refinement among those who settled on our shore, and clergymen with high spiritual purposes” (Beets, The Christian Reformed Church).
There was a second “wave” of Dutch immigrants to the United States in the mid-1800s. These were men and women of the Secession, an ecclesiastical withdrawal from the National Church that took place in the Netherlands in 1834. Large settlements of these Dutch immigrants were established in Iowa under the efforts of Rev. Henrik Scholte, and in Michigan under Rev. Albertus Van Raalte.
The churches of the Secession in the Netherlands, rather than frowning on these families moving to the United States with no religious affiliation there, actually encouraged it. James D. Bratt makes this observation in his book Dutch Calvinism in Modern America:
In the early years Seceder ecclesiastical networks became the chief means of recruitment, communication, and financing emigration. Seceder propaganda began to break down customary inhibitions against the move, and organized bodies of Seceders (at times large segments of the existing congregations) that migrated under the lead of Secessionist clergy. Thus, an ‘immigrant tradition’ became established in Seceder circles, with momentous consequences. The Dutch, like others, did not emigrate randomly but in chains of kin, neighbors, and associates.
When Van Raalte settled in Holland, Michigan with his large colony of Dutch saints, these families did not belong to any kind of an established church. Later the Christian Reformed Church was founded out of the efforts of many of these people. But Van Raalte by that time had led many other settlers to join themselves with the Reformed Church of America. This contributed in large part to the growth of the RCA in Michigan and Illinois.
Prior to the Dutch immigration of the mid-nineteenth century the Reformed Church had begun a work in the Midwest, but it did not flourish. By 1849 there were ten congregations in Wisconsin and seven in Michigan. They were organized into the classis of Michigan and Illinois. The second immigration provided major growth for the Reformed Church…. The vast majority of these people came into the Reformed Church because of their immigration from the Netherlands, and not through the evangelistic efforts of the church—either in the East or Michigan (Marvin D. Hoff, Structures for Mission, p. 10).
In this second wave of immigrants from the Netherlands we are faced again with the fact that families moved away from their established churches to the United States to begin a new work of the church. These Reformed believers were neither disciplined for nor discouraged from doing this. The churches of the Netherlands even promoted this move. It is in this bold move of these Dutch settlers that our churches find their origin. God used hard economic times and the pinch of persecution to force families to move elsewhere. But look at the tremendous blessing that accompanied this move! God spread the Reformed faith from one continent to the next. Just as in the early New Testament church, so also the Reformed heritage was spread abroad into new lands!
I am sure this type of precedent can be found in other branches of the Reformation too, especially in the spread of Presbyterianism to our country. But again, to find these instances would require a more thorough investigation into the matter.
One last precedent of families moving away from established churches in order to establish a mission work and ultimately a church elsewhere is found in the history of Protestant Reformed missions. In January of 1948 Rev. Walter Hofman was sent for a period of six weeks to Lynden, Washington to conduct a preliminary investigation of a possible mission work in the area. With a little hesitation Rev. Hofman did finally conclude, “Nevertheless, we believe that with the blessing of God the possibility does exist of a congregation here after much diligent and extensive labor. The addition of a few Protestant Reformed families moving in from other communities would greatly aid our work here” (1948 Acts of Synod of the PRC, p. 27). It was noted in this same report of the Mission Committee “that the G. Buma family, former members of Doon and Bellflower, have also arrived into this area.”
Missionaries W. Hofman and E. Knott took up labors in Lynden in September of 1948. In the 1949 Acts of Synod (p. 80) it was reported, “Besides those mentioned in the previous report is the Gus Buma family from Iowa who is now settled in Lynden. Mr. Buma is a staunch supporter and will be a valuable aid to the work in Lynden. Altogether he has been extremely busy yet he has found opportunity to contact several people and distribute some literature…. Although he has purchased a farm near Lynden, he will again remove to the vicinity of one of our churches unless a Protestant Reformed church is established here.”
In the next two months of 1948 other Protestant Reformed families moved to Lynden as well. Rev. Hofman reported to the Mission Committee in a letter dated November of 1948, “Our gatherings have been made up almost entirely of the four families who have moved here from our other churches” (’49 Acts, p. 81). By May of 1949 the status of the mission group in Lynden was reported, “There are at present 5 families and 3 individuals, numbering about 40 souls, which is a sizable and faithful nucleus…. The families in the vicinity claim that others from our churches in the Middle West and California are interested in establishing in Washington if a church were organized. They point out that it is practically impossible to obtain a farm in the Middle West and the trend is westward.”
Lynden Protestant Reformed Church was organized in December of 1951. In a report by the Mission Committee in the 1952 Acts of Synod, page 35, a further development was noted:
As a result of our labors in Lynden, Washington during the past years, and more directly as a result of the more recent labors of our missionary, Rev. A. Cammenga, a new congregation was organized in Lynden during the month of December, 1951. Although this group consisted of only six families and two individuals at the time of organization, their number has almost doubled since then. This remarkable growth is due mainly to the fact that other families from our churches in northwest Iowa have moved into the community after the congregation was organized. We are grateful to God Who has given us this congregation in the far West. May He continue to bestow His abundant blessings upon them in the future that they may grow in the riches of the truth of His sovereign grace.
Three observations regarding this precedent in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
First, in the earlier history of our churches, families moving to other places to establish a work or church was encouraged. I have heard from a reliable source (though I cannot prove it from the Acts of Synod since it happened prior to 1940, when our Synod first started meeting) that at least one other of our churches started in a similar way as that of Lynden.
Second, the families that did move to a place where mission work was being done were, simply by their presence, of valuable use to the spread of the gospel, forming a solid core of people that accelerated the establishment of the church.
One last observation gleaned from all the precedents examined in this article. When life is going well, God’s people seem to root themselves in a certain area. But when God sends persecution or economic hard times, He forces families of the church to move elsewhere—and that for the good of the church and the spread of the gospel. I cannot help but wonder what God has in store for His church today, given the economic crisis in our country.