Protestant Reformed missions Missions threatened (1947-1953)—1: Years of trial

The minutes of the Mission Committee (MC) from 1947 through 1949 do not reveal the unrest that was developing in the Protestant Reformed Churches at that time. But there it was. There were various reasons for this unrest, but in the late 1940s much of it centered in a Dutch theologian by the name of Dr. Klaas Schilder. We took note in a previous article that Dr. Schilder made a visit to the United States in 1939. Already then he had become well known to the pastors and members of the PRC and the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). He gave lectures, preached, and even was instrumental in organizing a meeting of Protestant Reformed and Christian Reformed pastors in an attempt to discuss a possible reunion of these two denominations.

Klaas Schilder was born in 1890 and, with his par­ents, belonged to the national church of the Nether­lands. While he was yet a child, his parents left the Hervormde Kerk and joined themselves to the Reformed Churches (Gereformeerde Kerken) of the Netherlands (GKN). In 1934 he was elected to the chair of Professor of Systematic Theology in the Theological University of the GKN in Kampen. Earlier, in 1920 Schilder was ap­pointed co-editor of the periodical De Reformatie (The Reformation). Later, in 1935, he was to become the sole editor of this publication. This may not seem all that important to PRC missions at this point, but we must understand the close ties that the members of the PRC had with many in the Netherlands then. Gertrude Hoeksema comments on this in her history of the PRC:

During the decade of the thirties, the members of the Protestant Reformed Churches were still Netherlands- orientated. Many of these were first-generation immigrants, who were also leaders in the denomination. Because almost all of the members of the Protestant Reformed Churches at that time were of Dutch ancestry and had carried their ecclesiastical backgrounds with them across the ocean, they still had an interest and concern for the Reformed churches in their homeland across the sea.1

Because this was true, people both in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands and in North America were “in the know” with what was transpiring in each other’s denominations. Information was constantly exchanged in the Reformed periodicals of that day. In fact, after 1939 Schilder used De Reformatie to voice his views re­garding the error of common grace as developed in the CRC. By condemning this error Schilder immediately endeared himself to many in the PRC—including Rev. Herman Hoeksema.

Schilder also strongly opposed Abraham Kuyper’s view of presupposed regeneration, a view commonly ac­cepted by a large share of the members and theologians in the GKN. This view taught that since the sacrament of baptism is a means of grace, God uses it to strength­en the faith of those to whom it is administered. This means that when children of the covenant are baptized, the church must presuppose faith in them if this sacra­ment is to be of any value as a means of grace. The re­generation of children born to believing parents, there­fore, is to be assumed until which time our children may prove differently. The sacrament of baptism actually confers on that child baptized a certain baptismal grace. Schilder could not agree with this position of Kuyper. He used his influence as a professor in Kampen and his editorials in De Reformatie to argue against this highly favored position of Kuyper in the GKN.

Schilder maintained that, at the time of baptism, the children of believers received the promise of God objec­tively. If later in life they choose to believe, they receive those promises subjectively. In other words, each child of the church when baptized is objectively made a par­taker of God’s covenant blessings, and it becomes his/hers subjectively on the condition that he/she believes. God’s relationship of fellowship that each baptized child is given by God to enjoy is realized later only when he or she accepts the promise and agrees to the covenant God offers to them.

The conditional covenant taught by Schilder was the threat that now confronted the PRC in their mission work. This transpired through a number of different events.

First of all, the threat to PRC missions became a real­ity by means of the formation of the Liberated Church­es in the Netherlands. Schilder had been a bold voice against the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during World War II. For that reason, early on in the war he was imprisoned for a short time. Though released from prison for a few months, the threat of another impris­onment forced him into a long period of hiding. While he was in hiding, the synod of the GKN met in 1943 and officially adopted Kuyper’s view of presupposed re­generation. Though hidden, Schilder made it publicly known to his large following that he was in sharp dis­agreement with this decision of synod. For that reason, without his presence, the synod of the GKN in March of 1944 suspended him from the office of professor at Kampen Theological School and as minister emeritus of the church in Delftshaven on the grounds of public schism. He was given several months before the GKN deposed him from office on August 5, 1944.

Schilder’s deposition from the GKN resulted in the immediate formation of another denomination, which now called themselves the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands Liberated (LC). By the close of 1946 there were 216 Liberated churches in the Netherlands served by 152 ministers. The total members stood at 77,303—a sizeable denomination, at that!2 This is the first event that would affect the mission work of the PRC.

The second event was the mass emigration of people from the Netherlands to Canada and the United States during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Gertrude Hoeksema comments:

The problems and results of this schism in The Netherlands were transported into the various Reformed Churches in America through the great post­war influx. Netherlanders by the thousands emigrated in the late ‘40s and during the ‘50s. These immigrants came in great numbers both to Canada and the United States; and it was through this massive immigration that the Protestant Reformed Churches began to have close contact especially with members of the Liberated Churches of The Netherlands.3

The Dutch people of Reformed conviction had to find church homes in the U.S. and Canada once they had moved. The denomination of churches in which they would settle would depend in large part on the ad­vice given them from their church leaders in the Nether­lands. Reformed churches in the North America could stand to grow by hundreds if not thousands of members by this influx of Reformed (conditional covenant) be­lievers. Where would they find their church home?

The third event that threatened PRC missions was the visit of Schilder to the U.S. in the Fall of 1947. The PRC synod of 1947 gave Schilder the right to preach in our churches during his visit to our country.4 Schilder took full advantage of doing this. He preached in many of our churches both in the East as well as the West, lec­tured to large crowds, and spoke at several conferences. He also stayed in the homes of many of our ministers and, because of his pleasant personality, became friends with many of them. In his visits with the ministers he had opportunity to defend his position of a conditional covenant over against Hoeksema’s position of an un­conditional covenant that God establishes only with His elect people in Christ, including only the elect children of believers. As a result of this visit, many of our church leaders together with members of their churches were persuaded to follow Schilder in his error.

Though the differences between Schilder’s and Hoekse- ma’s views of God’s covenant became sharply defined with this visit of Schilder to America, for some reason a sharp break between the PRC and the LC did not take place at that time. They did not part ways immediately, as should have been done. Perhaps this was true because Hoeksema and Schilder had developed a friendship with each other despite their differences. Perhaps it was because Schilder was so well liked among the ministers and members of our churches. Perhaps it was because, as one of our ministers who stood diametrically opposed to Schilder’s view of the covenant nevertheless expressed in the Standard Bearer af­ter the conferences held with Schilder,

However, we agree with Prof. Schilder, and also our Editor of the Standard Bearer has stressed this conviction, that we ought to become sister-churches, we ought to have ecclesiastical correspondence. Strictly speaking, there is no Reformed Covenant view. That is, there is not one Covenant view, be it Kuyperian, Heynsian, Schilderian or Hoeksemanian which is confessedly [confessionally—WGB] Reformed. There is for that reason room for friendly debate and exchange of ideas.5

Probably it was for all the above reasons. I believe there was truly a desire in 1947 on the part of all, with but a few exceptions, that there could be some kind of relationship with each other as denominations.

As was mentioned, the minutes of the MC make no mention of all this in the years between 1946 and early 1949. In fact, very little of the controversy that was hotly waged in the PRC is reflected in the minutes of the MC, though there were several men on the committee who agreed with Schilder’s error of the conditional cov­enant. Even though this was true, the controversy was brought to its head by the suggestion or request of the MC to the Synod of 1950. This request, however, will wait for a future article.

There was a precursor to this controversy that also originated with the MC. The Synod of 1947 decided in favor of calling two missionaries “to labor together in the work of home missions.”6 By the end of the year two missionaries, Revs. Ed Knott and Wally Hofman were in place and laboring. Their first place of labor was Byron Center, Michigan. By March of 1948 these men conclud­ed their work, for the most part, in Byron Center.

Now a new place of labor had to be determined by the MC and First PRC of Grand Rapids, the calling church. There were a few interested families in Lynden, Washington that had requested help, but the MC and First PRC for some reason balked at sending their mis­sionaries to labor in this area. Perhaps the reason was that of the increased interest being shown in the PRC by the immigrants living in Ontario, Canada. It is diffi­cult to determine, of course, but the minutes of the MC do indicate a certain excitement over a possible mission work in Canada. Investigation of a possible work in Lynden was scant in comparison to the number of del­egations sent to Canada. Since Schilder’s visit in 1947, possible mission work among the Liberated people in Canada was certainly on the fore.

It was decided by Synod 1948 to send the two mis­sionaries to Lynden to work. Soon after, however, the MC with the concurrence of First PRC decided to split the labors of the two missionaries, one in Lynden and the other in Ontario, Canada. This decision elicited a pro­test to First PRC, first of all from Missionary Ed Knott and, at the next meeting, from Prof. George Ophoff. Both of these men argued against splitting the labors of the missionaries between two different fields of labor. They believed synod had decided that the missionaries should “labor together” in their work. A major point in Ophoff’s protest to First PRC was the doctrinal dif­ferences between the Liberated and the PRC. Although not explicitly stated, it is clear from Ophoff’s protest that he was one of those wary of any kind of denominational unity with the Liberated Churches.

His protest finally prevailed, as we will find, but to no avail. Mission work among the Liberated people in Canada would soon become the focus of the MC and First PRC.


1 Gertrude Hoeksema, A Watered Garden: A Brief History of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America, (Grand Rapids, MI: Re­formed Free Publishing Association, 1992), 102.

2 Rudolph Van Reest, Schilder’s Struggle for the Unity of the Church, Theodore Plantinga, tr. (Inheritance Publications, Al­berta, Canada, 1990), 344.

3 Hoeksema, A Watered Garden, 139, 140.

4 Acts of Synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches 1947, Arts. 75, 54.

5 Gerrit Vos, Standard Bearer, vol. 24, “The Schilder Conference,” 101.

PRC Acts of Synod 1947, Art. 83.