Protestant Reformed Missions, The Depression Years: Mission Methods Developed (1932-1939)

Previous article in this series: December 1, 2015, p. 114.

The decade of the 1930s ushered in the era known as the Great Depression. The Depression actually started already in 1929, when in October of that year the stock market crashed, causing millions of investors to lose all their money. Business and construction began to slow down, resulting in a large-scale firing of laborers. By 1932 twelve million, about 25% of the work force, were without work. The farmers had already been battling severe drought and falling food prices through the 1920s. This continued through the 1930s. Neither were God’s people spared the hardships of that time. My father recounted living daily on bread and spaghetti, the only staples handed out in the food lines. Once, a neighbor gave his mother Christmas cookies. For a week he and his siblings ate for their school lunch two slices of dry bread with a Christmas cookie between them.

The Great Depression also left its mark on our churches and, therefore, on their mission work during this period of time. There are two characteristics worthy of note. The first is the inability to support the work of missions. The saints were poor. They possessed little in the way of this world’s riches. When the work of home missions was delineated in June of 1932, the task of caring for needy churches (subsidy) became a matter of the Classical Mission Committee.

…there is the task of instituting and organizing churches, of caring for them, as long as they are not able to help themselves, and thus to give support both morally and financially as may prove necessary. From this follows quite naturally, that funds must be created, from which can be drawn to support all these undertakings. The classis is responsible for these funds, also over the possessions, buildings, tents or tabernacles, that may be needed to carry out this work…. This implies…that our needy churches shall apply to the Home Mission Committee for financial aid, and from now on the classis will be advised by the committee in regard to the necessary financial support.1

At the same meeting of classis it was decided that every family be assessed $2.50 a year for the work of missions. By the next year $1.00 was added to assist needy churches. By 1939 the Needy Church Fund had risen to $7.00 per family per year—a sizeable amount of money in that day. The financial reports submitted to classis by the Mission Committee during these years indicate that the churches were unable financially to meet the demands of the work. We were blessed with twenty-one congregations, but by the mid-1930s twelve of these churches were drawing from the needy church fund and seventeen were in arrears in paying their assessments to the mission fund. In January of 1937 the Mission Committee reported, “The requests (for subsidy) were considerably higher than in former years which was due largely to the widespread crop failure in our western states.”2 Yet, despite the terrible financial hardships of our denomination during these years, the first missionary was called and local churches remained active in their own work of evangelism. The Lord prospered our denomination by adding seven congregations to our fellowship during this decade.

The second characteristic of this period in our churches’ growth is that of spiritual zeal. Gertrude Hoeksema makes the observation,

Besides being a struggle, life was simple in the decade of the thirties. Because they did not have and could not get the luxuries of life and because life was a severe struggle against poverty, the priorities, particularly of God’s people, were changed. It has always been true in history, and it was true in this period of history, too, that when God’s people live in abject poverty, the result is that they have a vital interest in spiritual realities. The luxuries of this earth do not seem very important. In the Protestant Reformed congregations during this period of the depression, the members showed a hearty dedication to the truths of God’s Word, particularly of His sovereign grace, during their trials; and they were diligent to teach these truths to their children.3

Because there was little or no work, men who had no more than an eighth grade education took to reading theological works that many college graduates today would not care to pick up and read. They had the time, but more, they had the desire to study the theological issues of the day. And they discussed these issues in their homes, in the church, and even in the cities. It may be a bit of an exaggeration but the saying goes that “theological discussions took place on almost every street corner of the city!” It is a fact that church affairs oftentimes made the headlines even in the secular newspapers. How nice it would be to unclutter our lives and return to those “simple” times!

This same zeal showed itself toward mission work. During this decade the task of the classical Home Mission Committee was clearly defined. Though there was, as we mentioned, a sore lack of funds to support this work, in 1936 our first missionary was also called and sent out. Pamphlets were published and distributed as a means to stimulate interest in the beautiful truths of grace that were taught in the PRC. A letter addressed to the Classis of February, 1933 by the South Holland PRC exemplifies the fervor several of our churches had toward mission work:

The consistory of the Protestant Reformed Church of South Holland decided at our meeting of November 9, 1932 to become actively engaged in the mission work that requires our devotion. First of all, our consistory feels compelled to take this action in the full consciousness of the responsibility and calling which we always as church of Jesus Christ must recognize over against the expansion of His kingdom….

Moreover, the consistory feels itself spurred on to this work because we, although always acknowledging God’s sovereign election in all His work, still bow ourselves in deep humility, since it pleased Him to separate us, unworthy ones, to bear His eternal, and unchangeable truth, and the further extension thereof and deem it a direction of God to proclaim it among our Reformed brethren of former days….4

We will learn the results of this request later, but this is a prime example of our churches’ enthusiasm to spread the gospel to others.

There is one other matter that can be mentioned about this decade as a whole. The leaders in the Christian Reformed Church were silent on the issue of common grace. In the very early years after our expulsion from this denomination, several leaders in the CRC still made it a point to defend in her periodicals the doctrine of common grace. During the decade of the Depression, however, they ignored the Protestant Reformed Churches. This too, Gertrude Hoeksema, who lived during this era, noted in her book on the history of the Protestant Reformed Churches, A Watered Garden:

During the years of the Great Depression, which were also the years of the development of the Protestant Reformed denomination, the Christian Reformed Church gave them the silent treatment. For the most part they ignored the new denomination and refused to recognize its existence. In their church magazines they paid little or no attention to the Protestant Reformed denomination and flatly refused to discuss any doctrinal issues.5

It was not as if the clergy of the Christian Reformed Church were not interested in developing and expounding her doctrine of common grace. In 1939 Prof. Louis Berkhof of Calvin Theological Seminary and an avid defender of common grace during the controversy of 1924, published his Systematic Theology. In this work Berkhof develops his view of common grace, devoting an entire lengthy chapter to it. The doctrine of common grace was, therefore, before the hearts and minds of Christian Reformed theologians. But they did not want to engage the Protestant Reformed denomination in any sort of debate on this issue anymore. To do so would lend too much credence to the separate existence of our churches. Besides, perhaps it was felt that to continue to debate the issue would only serve to send more of their members into the fold of the Protestant Reformed Churches.

This too had its effect on our mission work. Rev. Bernard Kok reported to the Classis meeting of June, 2, 1937 concerning his mission labors in Highland, Indiana:

The leaders of the Christian Reformed Church show much more opposition to the Reformed principles which we seek to propagate than over against the superficial Arminian and humanistic propaganda of our day…. The people are admonished not to attend our meetings. Even modernism is more welcome than the proclamation of the sovereign grace of God.6

Although the Lord increased our denomination with more congregations during this decade, by its end it was becoming more difficult to attract attention to the cause of the Lord as the PRC represented it. God in His sovereign control was forcing our churches to seek other ways of promoting the truth in order to solicit requests from interested groups. But it was also in God’s wise and good design that our denomination by the end of this decade would never again see the swift growth that characterized her during the first fifteen years of her existence. This lack of quick growth began to bother some—even among our clergy, as we will find when we consider our mission work during the late 40s and early 50s.

The meeting of Classis (remember, the PRC had no synod yet) on June 1, 1932 was an important one regarding the future mission work of the Protestant Reformed Churches. It revealed that the Mission Committee, now made up of Reverends William Verhil and Bernard Kok, and elders Tom Elkhart and Abe Poortinga, was active in missions. These men already exhibited an understanding of the labors given them. They not only were busy in their work but also formulated recommendations with grounds for future work. We will consider these recommendations in the next several articles.

But we put these recommendations on hold to examine first another important decision taken by the Classis of June, 1932. The special committee (this committee was not the Mission Committee) appointed by Classis in 1931 to study the scope and the labors of the Mission Committee also submitted a lengthy report. It was entitled, “The Report of the Committee in Regard to the Defining of the Task of the Classical Home Mission Committee.” This report included such matters as the goal of home missions, the objects of missions, who must carry out this work, and in what manner these labors must be done. This documented for our churches the whole of our domestic mission work. It was used to guide the Protestant Reformed Churches in their mission labors until a new constitution was adopted for the Mission Committee in 1942. For that reason it is important that this report be published in full. Since it is a lengthy report it will take the space of an entire article to publish it. Next time, D.V.

1 Minutes of the Classis of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America, June 1, 1932 (Supplement 6).

2 Minutes of the Classis of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America, January 13, 14, 1937 (Supplement 15).

3 Gertrude Hoeksema, A Watered Garden: A Brief History of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America. (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1993), 103.

4 Minutes of the Classis of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America, February 1, 1933 (Supplement 7b, Appendix to Mission Committee Report).

5 A Watered Garden, 103, 104. 6 Minutes of the Classis of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America, June 2, 3, 1937 (Supplement 13).