This family history was submitted by Josh Feenstra and Marlin Feenstra, both members of Hope PRC in Redlands, CA. Their contribution to this series of PRC family histories is greatly appreciated.

The Feenstra family, as it originated from, and still primarily finds its membership in Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Redlands, California, traces its beginnings to Thys Feenstra. Thys was a founding member of the church in 1932, and was present for much of the PRCA’s early denominational history.

Like many families in the PRCA, the Feenstra family traces its roots back to the Netherlands. Thys’ father, also named Thijs1 was born in the northern province of Friesland in 1875. His mother Sara Jacoba Greep was born in the southernmost province of Zeeland in 1869. They would marry in 1895 after just two months of courtship. Thijs was “an architect in a long line of family architects.”2 Shortly after their marriage the newlyweds would move to the district of Scheveningen in The Hague, and attend the Reformed Church, which The Queen of Holland and the Royal Family (The House of Orange) also attended. Dutch society was characterized by strong class distinctions at this time, with seats in the churches being auctioned off to the highest bidder. The closer the seats were to the Royal Family, the higher the price.3

back: Louisa, Adriana, Reink, Thijs, Johanna
front: Kryn, Marinus, Thys,. Circa 1908

On February 11, 1902 Thijs and Sara would have identical twin boys, Kryn and Thys, who joined other children born to the family so that, by 1904, there were six children. Two years later, Sara would pass away in childbirth. This was a tragedy for the family personally and financially, because the money that Sara’s family contributed to Thijs’ business when they were married had to be returned to them upon her death. The Feenstra’s had hired a nursemaid named Adriana Pieternella Phernambucq to help with the children and household. Adriana stayed on after Sara’s death, and on January 23, 1907, roughly seven months after the death of Sara, Thijs and Adriana would marry. Since Adriana was a commoner from the poor class, Thijs’ financial situation, reputation, and social standing suffered. Thys remembers that after his mother’s death “we lived in a large house and had to uphold our name and place in society. We did not want people to know that we were poor.” They would keep a wooden ham in the window and go to the bakery to get an empty cake box so that others would think they could still afford a bakery cake.4 Eventually the family decided to start over in the New World.

The Thijs Feenstra family immigrated to Canada from Holland in 1911. Thys was nine years old at this time and he remembers the band playing “Farewell, my dear Fatherland; dear Fatherland, farewell” as the boat left the harbor. They would settle in the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, where they took up farming.

Times remained difficult, especially financially, for the family. Thys would receive education only through the fourth grade before he would be sent off to work in a factory. At nine years old he was working nine hours a day, six days a week. He writes, “The days seemed to be never ending, standing behind a wood-cutting machine all day long doing the same thing every day. On Saturdays I got off early and could go home at 3 o’clock.” The family would reside near Winnipeg for roughly five years before moving to the United States. Adriana had family in the Los Angeles area, and they would find a home in Montebello, roughly ten miles from Los Angeles.

Shortly after arriving in Montebello the family would lose two children (Louisa and Rienke) to the Spanish flu epidemic (1918-20). Thys writes, “Our sister died when she was twenty years old. That was a terrible epidemic; all the churches and schools were closed.”5 A short time later, the Feenstras would move about 200 miles north to Paso Robles, where they would buy a house on a 40-acre tract of land.6 In the providence of God the house would burn to the ground; they would lose everything in the house except for an old family Bible that was rescued out of the flames by Kryn.7 They soon purchased another house, but would lose this one too, during the depression that affected much of the country after WWI. They would spend three years in Paso Robles before returning to Los Angeles.

When Thys was in his early twenties, he developed asthma and doctors advised him to move to a drier climate. He moved about 70 miles east to Redlands because the climate suited him, and because there was a community of Dutch people and a Christian Reformed Church there. He boarded with a Mrs. Jacoba Zoetewey, who had a daughter named Jeanette.

The Zoeteweys were also recent immigrants, originally settling in Holland, Michigan. However, Jacoba’s husband John suffered from severe asthma, so they soon moved to Orange City, Iowa, then Denver, Colorado, before ending up in Redlands in 1919. John passed away from asthma-related illness in 1920.

John had been a very talented musician. His daughter Jeanette later wrote, “He directed choirs and taught Sunday School when we lived in the Netherlands. When he would take the Sunday School children for an outing he would have them singing all the way to their destination and all the way back. Our whole family has music in their blood.”8 He played the organ for services in the “Old church” in Rotterdam, and it was said he could play any piece by ear.

At that time Jeanette worked at the Redlands Sanitary Laundry for $16 a week. A year after moving to Redlands, Thys married her in the Christian Reformed Church on Clay Street. After their marriage, the young couple would move back to Los Angeles for two years to help care for Thys’ father. They would live with Thys’ parents and help with the farm, peddling vegetables and fruit. Jeanette writes that Thys and his twin brother Kryn “would go around with a horse and wagon and sell the produce they raised. They had a lot of fun fooling people because they were identical twins.”9

But again, due to the damp air of Los Angeles, Thys would fight sickness, and the young family would soon find themselves back in Redlands. There they once again joined the Christian Reformed Church. However, trouble was brewing in the church. Thys writes, “It was early spring of 1932, when Rev. Schans made the announcement from the pulpit that a decision had been made by the consistory that the next Sunday would be the last time the Dutch language would be used in the preaching. At this time we had Dutch service in the morning and English in the evening. The majority of the members were not happy with this decision, and protested the action. The grounds given were that it was too early to make this change, as many of the people did not fully understand the English language.”10 Roughly forty families (approximately half the church) would sign a protest of the consistory’s decision. The consistory would respond harshly, accusing the families of organized resistance. Without officially visiting any of the families, they placed them all under the first step of censure. Thys and Jeanette were among those who signed the protest. For them, the issue was not primarily language but hierarchy. Thys writes, “Our trouble was not a doctrinal issue, but we fought against the evils of hierarchy.” “[The minister] himself brought the split in the church to a head when he preached a sermon about the rebels Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. We were those rebels.”11

The case would go to Classis for adjudication. Classis would meet at the Christian Reformed Church in Los Angeles. Thys was among the three men appointed by this protesting group to represent their case to Classis. For hours certain delegates spoke in favor of the consistory and would not let the protestants speak. Finally, about one o’clock in the morning, the protestants were given the opportunity, and many gave vent to their grievances. Finally, Classis decided not to approve of the consistory’s censure of the protestants and appointed a committee to study the issue. However, a few days later, there was a turn of events. Thys writes,

On Monday morning, we received a committee of two members from Classis West, who were visiting each family separately. It seemed we were the first ones to be visited, because it was very early in the morning. Their visit was short and to the point. They reported that they had a special Classis meeting Saturday morning, and that they had changed the mandate of the committee from one of investigating to one of seeking our repentance. We told them that we would abide by the decision that Classis had made on Friday evening.12

That week the entire group met to figure out what to do next. They decided that they would stay together as a group and rent a building for their Sunday worship. It was also debated whether they were going to ask a minister from the Reformed Church in America to come preach for them, or to ask Rev. H. Hoeksema of the Protestant Reformed Churches in Grand Rapids to come speak to them. Thys writes, “It was Mr. Vanderwal13 who urged us to ask Rev. Hoeksema to come. That same evening, a letter was drawn up to ask him to come over and help us, namely to enlighten us on the doctrinal stands of the Protestant Reformed Churches.”

Rev. Hoeksema would arrive in Redlands in June of 1932, and would be of much help to the group of families there. Thys writes,

The first Sunday, he preached for us from Isaiah 50:4, “The Lord God has given me a tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary.” The opening words and the text that he preached were like the balm of Gilead to us. How could it be that God could have comforting words for us, who were weeks ago called rebels like Korah, Dathan, and Abiram?

Rev. Hoeksema would spend several weeks in Redlands getting to know the families there and letting them get to know him and the doctrinal positions of the PRC. It was a joyous time for all. Thys writes,

The Protestant Reformed cause became our cause, and before Rev. Hoeksema returned to Grand Rapids, we were organized as the First Protestant Reformed Church of Redlands. From then on as we gathered together, we were the instituted church of our Lord Jesus Christ. Never had I heard such singing as on that first Sunday morning in the Contemporary Club, where we first met.

Thys Feenstra and the rest of the families in Redlands were very sad to see Rev. Hoeksema go, but he left the group there “with a church history that is worthwhile for me to record. He left us with a gospel wherein God is sovereign, and wherein God is God, and where God saves us through sovereign elective grace.”14

In time, with the help of Rev. Hoeksema, Thys and many of the other protestants would come to see that doctrinal differences, not language issues, were of primary importance. Roughly 55 years later Thys would write, in an explanation and encouragement to his own future generations that,

The question probably arises in your minds as to how our forefathers could just leave one church and join another. We were not just floaters. Most of us were born and raised in the Reformed Churches, and all this happened in about a month’s time. The reason why we could join the PR Church is because our worship and confessions remained the same, except for a few exceptions, namely, that we did not accept the “Three Points” which the CR church had adopted through the Synod of 1924.15

Yet the language issue undoubtedly played a very significant part in the group deciding to join the PRC as well. The Sunday services were given again in the Dutch in the morning and English at night. In Rev. Hoeksema’s first sermon to the group there Thys remembers specifically the Dutch Psalm that Rev. Hoeksema read before he began to preach and the singing of Psalm 65 in the Dutch language. The newly formed Protestant Reformed Church in Redlands would not transition to having all English services until Rev. L. Vermeer’s pastorate in Redlands in the late 1940s.

Rev. Gerrit Vos would be Redlands’ first minister, laboring there from 1932 to 1943. The congregation flourished under Rev. Vos, with Thys going so far as to say that the eleven years under Rev. Vos “were the most precious years of my life.”16 During this time he would serve as a deacon and elder, and would begin his long career as the Redlands Sunday School teacher.17 He was also instrumental in many ongoing building projects. In 1933 the congregation would build their own church on the corner of Clay St. and Lugonia, and in 1934 they would start their own school in the basement of the church.18 Yet, for Thys, “greatest of all, the gospel was being preached, and I was privileged to hear it.”19

In time, however, controversy and trouble would, as it always does, make its way into the church. Thys, as a perennial elder and leader in the PRC in Redlands during these years, would have been witness to all of it. In 1943 a school dispute would turn into a church dispute and 16 families would leave the church and return to the CRC. There would be problems with Rev. Vermeer during his pastorate, and the denomination-wide split in 1953 would initially leave Redlands with only 11 families. Thys Feenstra was present at the PRC Synod of 1953, and would defend the PRC not only against those seeking conditional theology, but also against those who did not want the preaching that we must do good works (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 86). He writes of this time that there “were men in our churches who were trying to lead the church as a denomination in the direction of the antinomians, and if this were to happen, it would be the end of the PR churches.” He continues,

They said that Christ fulfilled this for us when God raised Him for our justification. Now, I too, agree with this, but they did not say enough. Christ fulfills that “must” for us, in us and through us, so that we fulfill that “must” in Him. We read in Scripture, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, forit is God that worketh in you both to will and to do according to His good pleasure.” That is Reformed!20

These issues were especially prominent in Redlands. Rev. Hoeksema would come back to reconstitute the church after the split of 1953, and he would stay with Thys and Jeanette. Within a few weeks of reconstituting, the church would grow again to include 27 families. Then Thys would remark that, “This certainly was a sad history, because some of the brethren refused to come with us because of these men who did not want to hear the preaching of the must and the activity of faith.”21 In some capacity though, some of these men would stay with the PRC after the split, and would continue to plague the church. During Rev. H. Kuiper’s pastorship, Thys writes that, “It seems that some of the people went to church to see if our ministers would make a slip of the tongue with regard to ‘conditions’ and ‘prerequisites.’ These were not happy days in the history of the church.” Rev. Kuiper was often sick during this time and Thys would often have to read sermons. He writes, “I often read, and was often criticized for reading ‘borderline’ sermons.”22 It would all come to a head in the early 1960’s during Rev. H. Veldman’s pastorship. Thys writes,

The Lord had given the Redlands congregation, after the split, ministers who held high the banner of truth. Rev. Veldman was certainly a preacher of the gospel and was a profound teacher. During this time synod appointed a committee to come to Redlands because the consistory needed help with some difficulties they were having. It was the old problem that some of the brethren did not want the preaching of the must, or the activity of faith. These brethren caused a lot of trouble in our church. The synodical committee upheld the consistory and from then on we had peace in our church. We will never, never forget these times.23

Thys was a defender of the truth, and a defender of the church, as were many of his generation. The majority of the men in the church of that time had grown up in poverty. They were in many cases uneducated, at least by the standards of our day. Thys had only a 4th grade education, and at nine years old was working 50+ hours a week in a factory. Yet, many of them read as much as they could, especially the Bible; and they fought for what they thought was right, not arbitrarily, but based on the Word of God. Thys writes,

Principles cannot be changed because of our own carnal benefits. They must be in harmony with the Word of God…the only stand of the church is to adhere to principles and never depart from them, because they are eternal and not determined by man, society, the State, by convictions and circumstances, but by the most High God Himself. This cannot be changed.24

 Adherence to biblical principles would make life hard at times. Thys would battle against radicalism and liberalism, both within the church and sadly in his own family. He would write a short account of his life entitled, “A Brief Journey” shortly before he died. In writing that book he would detail some of those sorrows, being “overwhelmed sometimes with grief because of them.”25 In an interview with C. Terpstra, he would say of these troubles in the church, “It would take a book to fill its pages, if I were to write all the details of what happened in Redlands. But I don’t think that would be necessary, do you? For, who gathereth those things gathereth sorrow.”26

By God’s grace five of his seven children would remain faithful to the church and many of his descendants remain in Reformed churches, particularly Hope PRC of Redlands, California. Thys Feenstra passed away on July 21, 1989 at the age of 87 years.

1 Thys was named after his father and had his father’s spelling (pronounced the same—rhymes with nice) on his birth certificate. At some point he started using “Thys,” which I will use to denote the younger, using “Thijs” for his father.
2 Mark H. Hoeksema. “Interview with William Feenstra,” Beacon Lights, vol. 75, no. 6, (June 2016), 6.
3 Thys Feenstra. “A Brief Journey: An Account of One Man’s Pilgrimage, (1988), 4.
4 Thys would write of this later: “When I look back on those days, it seems that this was so foolish. We certainly did not have to be ashamed of being poor because we confess that God makes both rich and poor, and by His mercies saves both rich and poor.”
5 Charles Terpstra Interview, PRC archives, 1985.
6 This house was located on Feenstra Road, which still exists in Paso Robles, California.
7 This Bible, in which family marriages and prayers had been recorded, was a first edition of the Statenvertaling Bible, the first translation into Dutch from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek languages. It was commissioned by the great Synod of Dordrecht in 1618, financed by the government of the Protestant Dutch Republic, and first published in 1637. It was previously rescued from fire on at least one other occasion. It now resides in the rare book cabinet of the library at the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary.
8 William Gabrielse, “Going Dutch” in Redlands, CA (1991), 62.
9 “Going Dutch,” 63.
10 “A Brief Journey,” 41.
11 First Protestant Reformed Church 25th anniversary program [1932-1957], 5. This was the original name of the PRC in Redlands. When it was reconstituted after 1953, the congregation took on the name “Hope PRC.”
12 “A Brief Journey,” 42, 43.
13 Mr. James Vanderwal, who was Prof. B. Gritters’ great-grandfather.
14 “A Brief Journey,” 44, 45, 46.
15 “A Brief Journey,” 47.
16 “A Brief Journey,” 50.
17 Thys would serve as a Sunday School teacher for 35 years.
18 The school in Redlands would be the first Protestant Reformed school in the denomination. It was called “First Reformed Christian School” and operated until the split of 1953.
19 “A Brief Journey,” 51.
20 “A Brief Journey,” 55.
21 “A Brief Journey,” 60.
22 “A Brief Journey,” 61.
23 “A Brief Journey,” 61.