The war years: Mission work flounders (1940-1946) (3)

Previous article in this series: November 15, 2018, p. 91.

We concluded our last article stating that a rift had developed between the eastern and western branches of the Mission Committee. The synod of the PRC had decided that in order to keep the western churches of our denomination actively involved in the life and work of the churches the Mission Committee be divided into two branches, the majority branch from the East and a secondary one from the West. Tension between these two divisions existed from the start but came to a head when the eastern branch decided to approach Synod of 1946 with a proposal to conduct mission work in China. It was not that this idea of foreign mission work was a brain-child of the Mission Committee. Synod 1944 mandated the Mission Committee to look into the feasibility of this matter. The rift between eastern and western branches of the Mission Committee occurred because the eastern branch was recommending mission work in China on its own, without the approval or input of the western branch, so it was contended.

Now, this may seem as if it was an appalling breach of brotherly conduct, until we place it in proper perspective. The eastern branch had sent their recommendations concerning China to the western branch for its consideration some months prior to the decision of the eastern branch to go to synod with those recommen­dations. The western branch had never responded. In fact, it was seven months after the reorganization of the Mission Committee into two branches that the western branch met for the first time in a formal meeting with recorded minutes. This meeting took place on January 20, 1946, only a few months prior to the convening of synod of that year. (These are the only available min­utes of that western branch of the Mission Committee.) The eastern branch was merely pushing on with the work, believing that silence on the part of the western branch was consent.

Suddenly, the onus of the rift between East and West seems to fall on the western branch of the Mission

Committee! But we may not be so quick to blame this branch either. If you recall a couple of articles ago when commenting on the new makeup of the Mission Com­mittee, I said it was a formula for disaster. It was! It was first of all, when dividing the Mission Committee into primary and secondary branches. But the main objection to dividing the committee into two branches can be found in the division itself! It may be hard for us to imagine today, but 70 years ago they did not have the modern technology at their fingertips as we do today. No one had a cell phone, texting, or face-time. They did not even have computers and email. Yes, they had rotary telephones (the older generation will remember these), but one had to pay for long-distance calls—and they were expensive. Transportation itself was not as convenient as it is today. People did not book a flight on the Internet, hop on a plane, and arrive at their destina­tion in a couple of hours. Some of the men serving on the western branch of the Mission Committee lived 300 miles away from the others. These men could not hold meetings over the phone or Internet. They had to set up a meeting, drive or take a train to their meeting place, then return home again in the same way. It would be harsh to judge these men for not meeting often enough to keep up with the men on the eastern branch who lived near each other.

There was a joint meeting of the two branches of the Mission Committee on April 4, 1946, during which a general discussion was held on the eastern branch’s pro­posal to work in China and the western branch’s objection to this. After this discussion, the proposal of recommending to synod a foreign mission work in China was put to a vote and passed by majority vote. The entire western branch “dissented” from this decision and wished to have their negative vote recorded in the minutes.[1] It was decided by the Mission Committee to send to synod the minutes of the January 20 meeting of the western branch in order that synod would be aware of its objections when voting on the matter of starting a work in China.[2]

But there is more. Three overtures regarding mission work were submitted to the Synod of 1946 by various consistories, two of which addressed the matters of fric­tion in the Mission Committee. The consistory of Pella, Iowa overtured synod through Classis West, protesting the ill treatment of the western branch of the Mission Committee by the eastern branch, and protesting begin­ning a work in China.[3] The consistory of Grand Hav­en, Michigan sent an overture “to return to the former situation in which our Mission Committee was chosen from the Eastern branch of our churches.”[4] The matter of disagreement within the Mission Committee, therefore, loomed large at the Synod of 1946.

Three issues needed resolving at this synod.

  1. The issue of whether our churches ought to en­gage in foreign mission work, and, if so, should that work be in China. In our last article we pointed out that this was the intent of the eastern branch of the Mission Committee. We included in that article their grounds for a work in China. The western branch dissented from this decision for three reasons.[5] First, the western branch believed the eastern branch ignored the western branch in coming to its decision. Second, the western branch did not have enough information, since the east­ern branch did not send the reports and findings of their investigation into a work in China. Third, the western branch desired that our Mission Committee study the possibility of aiding the Gereformeerde Kerken of the Netherlands especially in their work in the East Indies. It was also the desire of the western branch to gain in­formation from the Netherlands churches concerning their mission work, especially in the East Indies. This would be a better future foreign mission work for the Protestant Reformed Churches than China. For these reasons the western branch urged synod to reject the recommendation of the eastern branch.

The Synod of 1946 considered additional objections raised in the overture from Pella PRC and the decisions of Classis West regarding that overture. Pella contend­ed first of all that, when the eastern branch of the Mis­sion Committee passed its motion to recommend to synod China as a foreign mission field, it did so, “with­out any consultation with the Western Division of our Mission Committee.” Pella continued, “We believe that our Western Churches should have representation when such weighty matter as Foreign Missions…is discussed and recommended to Synod.” In the second place, Pella Consistory pointed out what it saw as a fallacy regard­ing the recommendation of China as a mission field: “This [the eastern branch’s recommendation] does not mention the possibility of fields, for instance, in South America, or in the Netherlands East Indies, or the Ca­nadian field where thousands of Hollanders are being urged to settle permanently.”[6]

Classis West responded to this overture of Pella with its own instruction to this Consistory, as well as with advice to synod. The instruction to the Consis­tory, though touching a sore spot, was entirely correct. First, “The Western Branch of the Mission Committee does not represent the churches of Classis West, but is a committee of Synod.”7 Pella was wrong to take offence of what had transpired in the Mission Committee as if it were an affront to all the churches in Classis West. Classis West also informed Pella, in the second place, “In connection with what Pella says regarding Canadi­an immigration of Hollanders, we would say that this belongs to Home Mission or Church Extension work.” Again, Classis West was correct. Work in Canada among Dutch people was not a foreign mission work. It did accurately fit what our churches defined as home mission work; it was church extension or church refor­mation work. It must be noted too at this point that work among the Dutch immigrants in Canada would become the focus of Protestant Reformed missions in the late 1940s and early 1950s—something that even­tually would contribute to a split in our denomination.

At the prompting of Pella’s overture, Classis West also brought to the 1946 Synod its own objections concerning work in China. These were different from those of Pella and the western branch of the Mission Commit­tee. First, it was the conviction of Classis West that the eastern branch did not carry out the mandate of Synod 1944 to investigate first support of an existing reputa­ble foreign mission work. Second, it was the conviction of Classis West that the eastern branch did not prove that our denomination was numerically and financially strong enough to support a continued foreign mission project of our own. Further, Classis West contended that the grounds given by the eastern branch of the Mis­sion Committee for a labor in China were weak.

This was the first issue before Synod of 1946.

  1. The second issue that needed resolving at syn­od was the present division of the Mission Committee into the eastern and western branches. It was clear that the present status of the committee was faulty. The complaints of the western branch against the eastern, though not entirely justified, did point out that the pres­ent structure would only lead to more disagreement and strife. This was shown by the overture of Pella too. But it was actually by way of an overture from the Con­sistory of Grand Haven PRC through Classis East that the matter of a change in the make-up of the Mission Committee was forced upon synod. The Consistory of Grand Haven proposed, first of all, “that Synod appoint a Mission Committee of not less than five members from the Western Churches…and that the labors of this com­mittee shall be for church extension work only.” In the second place, “that Synod appoint a calling church within the western Classis for the purpose of calling a missionary to labor in the West, such labor to be in the interest of church extension work only.” Then finally, “that Synod retain the Eastern committee of five mem­bers for other mission activities such as foreign and domestic mission work.”[7] Classis East, after consideration of this overture, sent its own overture to synod: “to appoint the Mission Committee from one Classis and instruct Synod to revise the constitution accordingly.”[8]
  2. The third issue before Synod 1946, in light of the overtures, was to choose a calling church for a missionary. The western churches leaned heavily in favor of appointing a calling church from the West and doing mission work in the West. With this there was a strong pull to establish the Mission Committee in the West. Certainly, there was some tension on the floor of the Synod of 1946 when Rev. G. Vos began the proceedings on June 5th of that year. Would synod be able to set­tle the differences and maintain peace in our churches’ mission work?

We will consider the decisions of synod in our next article.

1 MC minutes, Art. XV, 134.

2 PRC Acts, 1946, 66.

3 PRC Acts, 1946, 70-73.

4  PRC Acts, 1946, 26, 27.

5 Minutes of their January 20, 1946 meeting found on pages 66-68 of the 1946 Acts.

6  PRC Acts, 1946, 70.

7  PRC Acts, 1946, 71.

8  The above quotations are found on page 35 of the 1946 Acts.

9  PRC Acts, 1949, 36.