Previous article in this series: April 1, 2019, p. 306.
The Synod of 1946 was pivotal. Its decisions could change entirely the direction of mission work in the Protestant Reformed Churches. First, should our churches engage in foreign mission work and, if so, should that work be done in China as the eastern branch of the Mission Committee was recommending? Second, should the structure of the Mission Committee be altered? Should synod appoint a mission committee made up of men from Classis West to pursue church extension work in the West while retaining the present Mission Committee with the men from Classis East to carry on domestic and foreign missions? Third, ought the eastern branch of the Mission Committee be dissolved, retaining the western branch as the new Mission Committee? With this, should not synod appoint a church in the West as a new calling church for a missionary?
From both strong disagreement between the two branches of the Mission Committee and overtures from a number of consistories, it is evident that the PRC Synod of 1946 was filled with tension that fell generally along the lines of the two classes. Certainly, this was not a healthy situation for the churches!
What then were the decisions of Synod 1946?
In one broad sweep the Synod nixed the idea of foreign mission work. This was true of the eastern division’s recommendation to labor in China, but also the western division’s recommendation to pursue supporting De Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands in their mission work in the East Indies. In Articles 72-74 of the 1946 Acts of Synod (p. 73), the synod spelled out the following grounds for not engaging in mission work in China:
1) We are not convinced that our churches are ready to support a continued foreign mission project such as the committee suggests. 2) We strongly feel that our home mission work, i.e., church extension work, should for the present still receive all emphasis. 3) We are convinced that our churches could not carry the continued support of both foreign mission project and home mission project—both will suffer.
Synod then reemphasized what it saw as the aim and goal of home mission work in the Protestant Reformed Churches:
We are convinced that our Mission Committee should continue to emphasize the work of church extension, and press this to the utmost of its ability. Church extension work ought to be pushed even more than before, and give to the committee authority so to do by any ways and means it is authorized to employ under its constitution (Art. 75, p. 73).
This placed a severe handicap on the Mission Committee, which at that time was running out of places in the United States with interested saints asking for help to establish a church. Even Holland PRC’s overture that synod consider the possibilities of mission work in the Netherlands was defeated (Art. 32, p. 36). In years to come the Mission Committee would find itself stretching its search more broadly into North America.
As mentioned, the western branch of the Mission Committee recommended that our churches lend support to the foreign mission work of the Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands. Though there was some support for this at Synod, nevertheless Synod decided that “the Mission Committee take this matter under advisement and report to the next Synod.” The matter died in committee.
Regarding the restructuring of the Mission Committee, Synod decided that the present arrangement of two divisions or branches was not efficient. Classis East’s decision regarding the overture from Grand Haven PRC was taken into advisement: “To appoint the Mission Committee from one Classis and instruct Synod to revise the constitution accordingly” (Art. 26 of Classis East, p.36 in the 1946 Acts of Synod). This changed the direction of Grand Haven’s overture that in reality wanted the Mission Committee (redefined by Grand Haven as Church Extension Committee) to be moved to the West. Though Grand Haven’s proposal was a bit odd, the consistory’s reasons for choosing the constituency of the Mission Committee from the West were sound. That is where the mission work of our churches was taking place! If the Mission Committee was at the present time made up of men from the East and the West, and if the present make-up was not working, then drop the eastern branch and reformulate the western branch into the new Mission Committee. No doubt, this was debated long and hard on the floor of synod. In the end synod decided that the western branch would be eliminated and the Mission Committee would be limited to the men of Classis East. What follows is the decision of synod:
To return to the former situation in which our Mission Committee was chosen from the eastern branch of our churches.
a. Constant unity of action by this important committee is preferable over the present situation.
b. Before the Mission Committee was divided it was situated in the East and even now the largest part of the committee is from the Eastern branch of our churches.
c. It would certainly seem advisable that the largest congregation in our denomination should remain the calling church.
d. It is easier to elect a committee of 8 members from the Eastern branch of our churches that can have ready contact with one another than the West.
e. It would eliminate much unnecessary expense and travel.
I am sure the various pros and cons were weighed out carefully by synod. But the grounds of the above decision do not seem to answer some of the valid points that the overture of Grand Haven made. Why not move the Mission Committee to the West? It is true that the churches in the East, for the most part, were concentrated in the Grand Rapids area, but there were a number of churches established in Northwest Iowa from which to choose a Mission Committee, too.
These churches were in close proximity to one another. Besides, much of the mission work of our churches seemed to be in the West not far from the location of our churches. Now, this does not mean that I would not be in favor with what synod decided, but I am trying to put myself in the place of the elders and ministers that were serving congregations in the West. The men that were serving on the Mission Committee in the West already felt slighted by the eastern branch of the Mission Committee. Now synod simply eliminates the western branch of the Mission Committee (even though basically Grand Haven recommended that this branch be retained), and gives the mission work exclusively into the hands of the eastern branch!
I bring this up because tensions were beginning to build up in the Protestant Reformed Churches. Remember, this was only seven years before 1953, a split that came to a head through our mission work among people who emigrated from the Liberated Churches in the Netherlands. We only mention this situation now, but will, the Lord willing, be able to write more on it later. There can be no doubt that Rev. Herman Hoeksema was influential in our churches due to the fact that he was a founding father of our churches and a man of powerful character. There were those who were beginning to resent that. All the work of our churches, they felt, centered in Hoeksema as if no one else were capable of carrying on that work effectively and faithfully. To them here was another case in point: the Mission Committee had to stay close to Hoeksema.
On top of that, it was stated in passing in the decision of synod to keep the Mission Committee in the East because, “it would certainly be advisable that the largest congregation in our denomination should remain the calling church.” This was stated as a ground rather than a separate motion to be considered. Why was it advisable that First PRC of Grand Rapids remain the calling church? Just because it was the largest? No other size congregation was able to perform mission work? In the mind of many it was only because Hoeksema was pastor of that congregation! He was pastor of a “mega-church” in our denomination, he was intimately involved in the instruction given in the seminary, radio pastor of the Reformed Witness Hour (as we will find in another article), and, now, the one around whom all our mission work centered. Unrest was growing. Some felt that Hoeksema was running all the affairs of the denomination.
It did not help that Hoeksema was the chairman of the committee of pre-advice that formulated this advice for synod of that year.
Again, I mention this because this was the attitude of a number of ministers and elders in our churches already prior to 1953. They failed to recognize that Hoeksema was a man of extraordinary capability. He did not always look for the work that was placed on him by our churches, but when it was given him he did not back away from it either. He did it, and he did it well. Besides, he was now a senior member of the clergy highly respected and honored as such in the Protestant Reformed churches. The Lord gave him that place in the denomination and it was wrong to act as rivals to him rather than trusted colleagues together with him.
One other important decision made at the 1946 Synod having to do with mission work was to send out two missionaries to labor together in home missions. The Mission Committee in a supplemental report to synod grounded their “suggestion” to synod on the following:
This is a sound scriptural principle with respect to mission labor. Cf. Luke 10:1, Acts 10:23, Acts 13:2 etc.
The testimony of our own men who have experienced this manner of labor expresses its desirability. [Two testimonies are here recorded— WGB.]
This arrangement would promote greater efficiency, dispatch, and thoroughness of our mission work.
This arrangement would promote continuity and succession during vacations, attendance of meetings, investigation of new fields, acceptance of calls, etc.
It would not increase the expenses so as to make it prohibitive from a financial point of view.2
This recommendation of the Mission Committee was approved by synod in Article 82 (Acts, p. 82): “We recommend to do as the Mission Committee suggests, especially in view of the fact that this Synod has gone on record as favoring stressing of Home Mission work.” First PRC of Grand Rapids was then authorized to call and send this second missionary too. This decision of Synod 1946 was reconfirmed at Synod 1947 and in that year two missionaries were called (W. Hofman and E. Knott) to labor in Byron Center, MI and Lynden, WA. For practical reasons, as we will find when we consider the next phase of our mission work, this practice of sending out two missionaries to labor together ceased in 1948.
Calling and sending out two missionaries to the same field of labor has been the subject of at least one conference hosted by the Domestic Mission Committee. It is always a matter of concern and even was proposed to a future synod as well. In some instances it is a good thing to do in domestic missions. Having served as a missionary in a foreign country, I believe it is the only right thing to do when involved in foreign missions. When missionaries are far removed from the confines of a denomination and the supervision of their consistories and the advice of a Mission Committee, more than one missionary is needed for the reasons mentioned in the decision of the 1946 Synod. Two other reasons would be: 1) they need the companionship and counsel of one another; 2) two or more missionaries will hold one another accountable in life and labor. Certainly, this has proven itself to be most valuable in our present labors in the Philippines.
One last article needs yet be written on our mission work during the war years. In that article we intend to treat the rise in radio broadcasting and of Reformed periodicals published in our churches during that time.
1 1946 Acts of Synod. The advice is found on page 26, E.,1. The decision is found on page 34, Article 31.
2 1946 Acts of Synod, page 69, Supplement IV.