One way in which every member of the Protestant Reformed Churches can profitably remember the schism of 1953 is by listening to a newly available set of CD’s. The CD’s consist of sermons and lectures on the history and issues of the schism, delivered at the time of the schism. The preachers and lecturers are two of the chief protagonists, the Rev. Herman Hoeksema and the Rev. Hubert DeWolf.
The sermons and lectures were of crucial importance to the struggle at the time. They were part of the history. They helped to make the history.
The recorded messages shed light on the schism, especially the doctrinal issue at the heart of the schism. They also radiate, across the span of fifty years, the white-hot heat of the controversy as it was raging.
This set of CD’s is simply invaluable. The content is often gripping.
Rev. Herman Hoeksema is the main preacher and lecturer, as is to be expected. Although at the beginning of the controversy in his own congregation he deliberately stayed in the background, when the storm broke, it broke over his head. Then that indomitable fighter for the gospel of sovereign grace fought his last battle. He fought with zeal. He fought by means of his editorials in the Standard Bearer. He fought by means of informative and hortatory lectures. He fought by means of sermons.
Two of Hoeksema’s sermons are included. Both are significant in the history of the schism of 1953. Both are vintage Hoeksema—expository, doctrinal, antithetical, Christ-centered, God-glorifying, clear, powerful, moving. The first is the sermon he preached on Sunday morning, June 28, 1953. This was the first Sunday after the schism in First Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan had become reality. The faction that caused the schism had seized the church building. For the second time in his ministry, as Hoeksema noted in the introduction, he had been put out of his church building.
He chose as his text John 6:67-69, “Christ as the Sure Choice of Faith.” He had preached the same text in 1925, when the Christian Reformed Church, having deposed him, stripped him and the congregation of the church building.
The question Christ put to His disciples on the occasion of the abandonment of Him by the multitudes, Hoeksema put to the remnant of his congregation: “Will ye also go away?” The issue during Christ’s ministry, Hoeksema declared, was the same as that in the present controversy in the Protestant Reformed Churches. The multitudes were offended at Christ’s teaching of God’s sovereignty and man’s total inability. Hoeksema had reference to John 6:44, 65: “No man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father.”
The second sermon is on Acts 16:30, 31, “The Calling of the Philippian Jailor.” Hoeksema preached this sermon in July 1953 in Doon, Iowa. Earlier that week, at an informational meeting that Hoeksema conducted in Hull, Iowa, someone in the audience had appealed to this text in defense of one of the statements Classis East of the Protestant Reformed Churches had condemned as heretical. The statement was that God promises salvation to all on condition of faith. In his response to the appeal of his argumentative questioner to Acts 16, Hoeksema promised to preach the text the following Sunday.
The sermon explained that the promise, “You shall be saved,” is given to the believer. It is particular. Noteworthy in the sermon is Hoeksema’s insistence that the call to believe is effective unto one’s salvation only when Christ Himself utters the call. Hoeksema described the work of grace in the Philippian jailor as a divine earthquake in his soul.
A Doctrinal Issue
Several CD’s contain three, separate, public presentations by Hoeksema of the doctrinal issue, as well as of some of the history, of the schism of 1953. Hoeksema gave these speeches at the height of the controversy.
The first of these presentations was a public lecture in Hull, Iowa in July 1953. The split of First Church, Grand Rapids had just occurred, in late June. Hoeksema insisted that the controversy was doctrinal. He demonstrated that the two statements that caused the schism were, in fact, heretical, as the consistory of First Church and Classis East had judged. These were the statement that God promises salvation to all on the condition of faith and the statement that our act of conversion is a prerequisite to entering the kingdom of God.
In the course of this lecture, Hoeksema said there had been harbingers in First Church of disaffection with the Protestant Reformed Churches for some time prior to the schism. He referred to an eagerness of some societies to have outside speakers, rather than Protestant Reformed men, and to the hostility of many to Protestant Reformed Christian schools. This lecture was followed by a hard-hitting question and answer session. The audience was hostile. It must have been evident to Hoeksema that night that much of the West would be lost to the Protestant Reformed Churches. There were many questions. The questions were pointed. Some were loaded. Hoeksema responded calmly, even graciously, but firmly. At one point, when a question plainly expressed its author’s sympathy with the conditional theology condemned by the Protestant Reformed Churches, Hoeksema urged those who did not want Protestant Reformed doctrine to leave the churches. “We are not interested to be big. The church is not measured by the pound. It is not a fish hatchery. I am not here to gain converts and followers. I am convinced that many followed me out of the Christian Reformed Church in 1924 who never should have done so. We want to maintain the gospel of sovereign grace. We want to maintain the truth. If this is your desire, you belong with us. If not, you ought to leave.”
A number of the questions concerned the history of the events leading to the schism in First Church. Other questions had to do with the church polity that resulted in the suspension of Hubert De Wolf and the deposition of some elders. Hoeksema’s account of the history and explanation of the church polity are of interest and importance to the contemporary student of the schism.
Standing on the Truth of Predestination
The next two presentations included on the CD’s were given in Fourth Protestant Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan in April 1954 and in Doon, Iowa sometime in 1954. Although they were not exactly the same lecture, they were similar. Both were on “Our Present Controversy in the Light of the History of the Church.”
Hoeksema traced the confession of the doctrine of predestination in the history of the church from Augustine to the present time. Contending that sovereign predestination is not only a fundamental truth but also fundamental to all truth, he pointed out that churches do not long maintain the truth of predestination. Enemies of sovereign grace within the church always oppose predestination. Their arguments are always the same. They have the same few texts, for example, Ezekiel 33:11, Matthew 23:37, and I Timothy 2:4. Their philosophical arguments are also always the same, whether Pelagius opposing Augustine, or the Remonstrants contending with the fathers at Dordt, or the Christian Reformed Church attacking the Protestant Reformed Churches: those who preach predestination are fatalists, deny man’s responsibility, and make man a stock and a block.
In a penetrating observation, Hoeksema noted that another way ministers who are foes of predestination work at destroying the church’s confession of the doctrine is by remaining silent about it. They never mention it. This, said Hoeksema, may be the worst opposition of all.
Standing as they do on the doctrine of sovereign predestination according to Scripture and the confessions, the Protestant Reformed Churches reveal themselves to all as true churches of Jesus Christ and as the faithful continuation of the Reformed church in history. No one, said Hoeksema, can deny it, and no one dares to deny it. Remembering at this point the common grace synod of Kalamazoo in 1924, Hoeksema remarked, “They never called us heretics. They never did. In fact, they said that it could not be denied that we were Reformed according to the confessions. It is true they went on to say that we had a tendency toward one-sidedness.” Pausing, Hoeksema then growled, “but this was in the right direction.” He meant, of course, that his alleged one-sidedness was in the direction of God and His glory.
The “Other Side”
Included on the CD’s are two sermons and a lengthy presentation of the schism by Rev. Hubert De Wolf. De Wolf was Hoeksema’s younger colleague in First Church. It was De Wolf’s heretical teaching and refusal to submit to the authority both of his consistory and of Classis East that caused the schism in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
The first sermon of De Wolf is on Romans 1:16, “The Gospel: The Power of God unto Salvation.” He preached it on Sunday, June 21, 1953. This was the Sunday before the split of the First Protestant Reformed Church. It was the last Sunday of the union of the denomination.
The importance of this sermon is that in it De Wolf claimed to comply with the instruction of both his consistory and Classis East that he apologize for two heretical statements. Now the world can hear that De Wolf did not apologize. Rather, toward the end of the sermon, he assured the congregation (one can imagine the silence and tension of the congregation of some fifteen hundred members as he launched his purported apology) that if he was not clear in those statements or if there were those who misunderstood the statements he was sorry.
The second sermon, on Psalm 37:5, De Wolf preached in March 1956 on the occasion of the civil court’s awarding the property of First Church to the congregation whose pastors were Rev. Herman Hoeksema and Rev. Cornelius Hanko.
De Wolf gave his full analysis of the schism at a public meeting in Hull, Iowa in August 1953. This meeting followed hard on the heels of Hoeksema’s similar meeting in Hull in July 1953. De Wolf intended to counter Hoeksema’s presentation of the schism. This meeting too concluded with a question and answer session. A member of the Protestant Reformed Churches “planted” a list of questions intended to put De Wolf on the spot. Although he knew this, De Wolf dutifully answered all the questions. The CDs containing this address and question and answer session give the “other side” of the controversy from the mouth of a leading spokesman.
De Wolf was an able preacher and speaker. What strikes the listener in De Wolf’s presentation of the schism is his denial that the issue was doctrinal. In addition, De Wolf made personal attacks on Hoeksema. In none of his speeches, on the other hand, does Hoeksema ever make any personal attack on De Wolf or on any other of his pupils now turned adversaries. He stuck doggedly to the doctrinal and church political issues.
What strikes the Protestant Reformed listener in De Wolf’s speeches, in the light of subsequent history, is De Wolf’s insistence that his faction is the legitimate continuation of the Protestant Reformed Churches. Within fewer than ten years, that faction went back into the Christian Reformed Church. Within a few months of De Wolf’s speech in Hull in August 1953, ministers allied with him were engaging in secret meetings with leading Christian Reformed ministers, discussing the three points of common grace. Already in those meetings very early in 1954, the faction represented by Hubert De Wolf was negotiating, be it unofficially, their return to the Christian Reformed Church.
Hoeksema’s judgment in his speeches on the schism that the conditional theology of those who had recently left the Protestant Reformed Churches was essentially the same as the theology of the well-meant offer of the Christian Reformed Church was proved right. And it was proved right in a very short time.
“Al, Come in! Al, Come in!”
In his speeches on the schism, Hoeksema drops some delightful, revealing anecdotes from his own experience. I mention two. In his first charge as a Christian Reformed minister, Fourteenth Street, Holland, Michigan, Hoeksema encountered strong opposition to his preaching of sovereign grace. Family visitation the first year of his pastorate was misery for the young pastor as family after family expressed their dislike for his preaching. One evening, Hoeksema tells us on one of the CDs, he came to the home of a man whom he knew to be strongly opposed to his preaching. “I knew what his answer would be,” Hoeksema says, “but I had to ask him. ‘Al, do you like my preaching? Are you edified by it?’ ‘No,’ said Al, ‘I don’t like your preaching at all.’ ‘You don’t like my preaching?’ ‘Why not?’ Al replied, ‘I like the good, old invitation.’ ‘You like the good, old invitation?’ responded Hoeksema. ‘Al, suppose that next Sunday evening after church I had you over to visit. After you sat down in my living room and I gave you a cup of coffee and a cigar, I would say to you, ‘Al, come in! Al, come in! Al, come in!’ ‘What would you think?’ ‘I would think you were crazy,’ said Al. ‘I would think so too,’ said Hoeksema. ‘But this is what you want me to do when you insist that I give the good, old invitation. You are in the kingdom, by your own confession, and you want me to keep saying to you, ‘Al, come in.'”
Later in Eastern Avenue, Hoeksema ran into the same opposition. One of the members of the congregation, a minister, had an unbelieving son. The member asked Hoeksema to visit the son and exhort him to pray. “Tell him to pray?” responded Hoeksema. “If he is an unbeliever, he cannot pray. If he can pray, he is a Christian.” “Oh,” exclaimed the member, “You are different from Dr. Beets [a prominent minister in the Christian Reformed Church in the 1920s]. Dr. Beets visited my son last week and told him that if my son would pray every day for a week he would give him a box of Dutch Master cigars.”
Now Available to All
All of this and much more can be heard on this extraordinary set of CD’s. Every Protestant Reformed officebearer ought to listen to them. I intend to find a way to require all the seminarians to hear them, although they will need little prompting. All members of the Protestant Reformed Churches can learn a vitally important part of our history from them.
There will be those outside the Protestant Reformed Churches who will want to listen to the CD’s. From the sermons and speeches on these CDs, they will be able to know the real Herman Hoeksema. He was radically different from the caricature painted by his enemies. Even though he was past his prime—in 1953 he was sixty-seven years old, and had suffered a severe stroke—he was still a great and gifted preacher of the Word and a powerful orator. He was also committed, heart and soul, indeed was very really a slave, to the God of sovereign grace. He was the worthy successor in modern times of Augustine, Gottschalk, Calvin, the Synod of Dordt, De Cock, and the early Kuyper as defenders of the sovereignty of God in predestination. The controversy that culminated in the schism of 1953 roused the old lion once more. He roared. And we can hear the echo of that roar on these CD’s.
More importantly, anyone outside the Protestant Reformed Churches who cares to know what these Churches really stand for, and what they are about, could do worse than listen to these CD’s.
There are fourteen CD’s in the set. The cost, which merely covers expenses, is $70 for the set. The CD’s are available from Heritage Recordings, c/o Earl Kamps, 17231 Kimbark Ave., South Holland, IL 60473. Telephone: (708) 596-8629. E-mail: email@example.com.*
To Mr. Kamps and Heritage Recordings, a hearty thanks for an invaluable, often gripping account of the history of the Protestant Reformed Churches as it was being made, by those who, in the providence of God, were making it.
*NOTE: These sermons are now available for free on the RFPA website, https://rfpa.org/pages/remembering-the-schism-of-1953.