The biography of Douwe VanderWerp by Janet Sheeres is a gem. It is difficult, having begun to read it, to lay it down unfinished. It is one of those books that keeps a man up at night.
The book is No. 52 in “The Historical Series of the Reformed Church in America, in cooperation with Origins Studies in Dutch-American History.” Some excellent books have been published in this series, this one not an exception.
The book is a biography of Douwe VanderWerp, who was born in the city of Groningen, the Netherlands in 1811, and died in Muskegon, Michigan in 1875 from the ravages of cancer of the mouth. The years during which he lived were eventful years for the church of Christ both in the Netherlands and in America. VanderWerp was born 23 years before the Afscheiding (Secession) from the State Church, led by Hendrik DeCock. He participated actively in the Secession in 1857 from the Reformed Church in America that marked the beginning of the Christian Reformed Church in the area of Holland, Michigan. There VanRaalte had settled with a band of Dutch immigrants, and there VanRaalte had led the immigrants into the RCA.
VanderWerp lived an eventful and busy life during very trying times. Soon after his birth the rule of Napoleon was brought to an end, resulting in changes in the life of the Reformed Church (Hervormde Kerek, the State Church). Life was extremely difficult for the people of the Netherlands. Disastrous floods destroyed much land, especially in the northern provinces, where the dikes broke. Heavy rains flooded large areas and made farming (on which most people were dependent) difficult. Epidemics of flu and small pox brought thousands to an early grave. A potato (the staple of the poor) famine brought starvation to all parts of the country and goaded emigration. People died young, especially mothers, and almost all families with children lost some of them at an early age. Douwe himself was married four times; only his last wife outlived him.
Douwe started his career as a teacher, but, because he was a follower and personal friend of DeCock, he was dismissed from his position in the public and state supported schools. He became an oefenaar(exhorter or lay preacher) in the churches of the Secession. For many years he was very busy in his work of lay preaching and was even instrumental in organizing Secession Churches. His efforts to obtain ordination were, for some time, refused, partly due to opposition from Rev. Scholte. As a lay preacher he was effective and well received among the people. Finally he obtained ordination and became a leader among the Secession Churches. After three calls from the same church, all made within a year, he took the third call to the new congregation in Graafschap, Michigan. He labored for many years for the Christian Reformed Church and organized many Christian Reformed Churches.
But the life and work of Douwe VanderWerp is but a story around which is woven many other stories of the Afscheidingand the early years of the Christian Reformed Church. The author’s ability to do this in an interesting way makes the book the delightful book that it is. We get a look at the Afscheidingfrom the inside, which very few English books give us. From a personal point of view one sees the difficulties and long discussions that preceded the actual Act of Secession signed by DeCock and his officebearers; the many troubles the Seceders had, including severe persecution; the internal problems and divisions among the Seceders; and the great dedication to the truth of Scripture that many possessed. The same is true of the early history of the CRC in which VanderWerp played such a significant role. Problems in abundance, troubles of every sort, hardship and sacrifice, but always deep commitment to the cause of Christ.
One very interesting story in the book is the story of the division among the Seceders over serious doctrinal questions. The Seceders were soon divided between a so-called Groningen Faction (richting) and a Gelderse Faction (richting). The Groningen faction was strongly orthodox and was intent on maintaining the confessions. It was found chiefly in the northern provinces of Groningen and Friesland. The Gelderse faction was primarily in the south, and had strong leanings towards Arminian teachings. The leaders in the north were DeCock, VanVelzen, and VanderWerp. The leaders in the south were Brummelkamp, Helenius DeCock (Hendrik DeCock’s son), and, to a lesser extent, VanRaalte. When the Seceders’ seminary was established in Kampen, both factions were represented, the one by VanVelzen and the other by Brummelkamp and Helenius DeCock. The ministers trained in Kampen reflected this division and, both in the Netherlands and America, the orthodox were not always pleased with some of the graduates. From other sources we learn that one of the issues was the well-meant gospel offer.
Many interesting sidelights are told that give spice to the book. For our present Christian school teachers, the story of the first Christian school is interesting. The school met in a barn with twenty students, with a classroom in one corner, cows, sheep, and chickens in another corner, and feed and hay in yet another corner. VanderWerp was the teacher. It lasted only a few days because the authorities closed it down almost immediately. The reason given by the government was that the children did not have small pox vaccinations, which the government required of all school children. (Many seceders were opposed to vaccinations of any kind.)
While VanderWerp was preaching as a lay preacher oroefenaar, he was not permitted to use the pulpit, for the pulpit was higher than the auditorium floor. A podium on the auditorium floor was set up for him—as well as for other lay preachers and oefenaars. The reason was that, while a minister was indeed above the people, a lay preacher was on the same level as the people.
But read the book yourself. You will enjoy it and learn from it.