Previous article in this series: April 15, 2021, p. 329.
After the synod of 1948, Protestant Reformed mission work among the Dutch immigrants in Canada who had been members of the Liberated Churches (LC) in the Netherlands became an obsession. The Mission Committee, First PRC (the calling church of our missionaries), and most of the membership of the PRC viewed this labor as most advantageous for church extension. There were a few who eyed this work with suspicion. Rev. George Ophoff was wary of the sharp doctrinal differences between the LC and the PRC on the covenant (conditional vs. unconditional). We devoted our last article to uncovering Ophoff’s objections to work among the Liberated as well as to the great divide that was developing among the clergy of the PRC.
In this article we will relate the events that rapidly took place between the years 1949 and 1950 and that led to the infamous split of 1953. Keep in mind that it is not my intention to give a complete history surrounding this event. Books have been written on that subject by those who have a greater knowledge of all the intricacies that led to this division. It is merely my intent to examine these events from the viewpoint of the mission work taking place at that time in the PRC.
The direction of missions since the Synod of 1948 had been set. Despite the warnings of Ophoff and despite the fact that his protest that the two missionaries must labor together in the same field (namely, Lynden, WA, as Synod 1948 decided) was sustained by Synod 1949, the sights of the Mission Committee and First PRC were set on the immigrants in Canada. In November of 1948 the Mission Committee asked First PRC to consider sending a missionary to labor in Canada on the basis of a glowing report submitted by Revs. John De- Jong and Hubert DeWolf. The Mission Committee was convicted that “work be continued there indefinitely to propagate the truth of God’s sovereign grace as entrusted to us” (Mission Committee Minutes, Nov. 13, 1948). First PRC did not accede to this request immediately. Instead, several Dutch-speaking ministers in the PRC were asked to preach for a group of families in Hamilton, Ontario. This labor continued until in February of 1949 five families in Hamilton requested organization as a PR church. This request was granted at the March 1949 meeting of the Mission Committee.
Requests of immigrants from the Liberated Churches (LC) were now coming in a steady stream to the Mission Committee. In January 1949 the Mission Committee was contacted by a family in Ridgetown, Ontario (about 120 miles from Hamilton) requesting that the PRC begin church services in his city. This was put on hold because of a lack of men and resources to do the work. By May 1949 the various ministers sent to labor in Canada had made inroads into the area around Sarnia/Chatham, Ontario. A concentrated labor began there. In September 1949 the congregation in Redlands, CA sent a letter to the Mission Committee concerning mission work among the immigrants in Bellflower, CA. This was referred to the Bellflower consistory for further information. During the October 1949 meeting a letter was received from the consistory of Manhattan, Montana PRC and several families from Leithbridge, Alberta asking for information about our churches and a visit with a view to starting a church there. The Mission Committee asked the Manhattan consistory to make this visit and continue the work there. At the same meeting correspondence from an immigrant in St. Eugene, Ontario was read and received for information. By the time the Synod of 1950 met, our missionary had investigated interested groups in Edmonton and Barrhead/Neerlandia in Alberta and London, Ontario. Mission work in the PRC was at an all-time high! Never before had there been so many requests for the establishment of PR churches!
But there was a dark cloud overshadowing all this work among the Dutch immigrants: they were from the LC where Schilder’s view of the conditional covenant was deeply entrenched. What began as a matter of discussion in our churches with Schilder’s visit in 1947, by 1949-50 had become a matter of true versus false doctrine. Some among the minsters and members of the PR churches believed that the doctrines of the unconditional covenant and the conditional covenant could exist side by side with each other since the confessions said nothing about this issue. Others were persuaded that Schilder’s view of the conditional covenant was correct. Still others strongly maintained the unconditional covenant to be the truth of Scripture and the confessions. A deep doctrinal division was quickly developing in the PR denomination.
But who could stop the flow? Our churches were now swiftly carried along in the rapids of excitement for growth—from small and despised to large and respected. The doctrinal division did not reveal itself in the minutes of the Mission Committee or of First PRC. It was there, but it did not seem to hinder our mission program from reaching out and establishing churches among those who were convicted of the error of the conditional covenant. Upon a glowing report of Rev. H. Hoeksema, a congregation was organized, as was mentioned, in Hamilton, Ontario the third week in April 1949. Rev. H. Veldman accepted the call as pastor to this congregation in the winter of 1949. By March 1950 Chatham, Ontario was also organized into a PRC in Canada.
So much emphasis was placed on our work among the Dutch-speaking immigrants in Canada that our English- speaking missionaries were becoming obsolete. It was not as if they had no more labors to perform. As per the mandate of Synod 1948, they continued to labor in the Lynden/Sumas, WA area for a time. But Rev. E. Knott complained to the Mission Committee that “further labor in this field is useless” (MC Minutes of February 1949, Art. 6). After that he was used by the Mission Committee to fill the pulpits of those Dutch-speaking minsters released from their congregations to preach in Canada. Knott was also sent to various places in the U.S. to investigate possible fields of labor. The minutes reveal that he visited New Sharon, IA, South Dakota, and Engelwood near Chicago. However, nothing materialized in these areas. Knott was called back to Grand Rapids to pursue correspondence with various contacts. Finally, the missionaries reported to the Mission Committee, “as to the present positions of Revs. Hofman and Knott, they feel that they should be morally free to receive and consider a call at any time” (MC Minutes of December 1949, Art. 14). As we mentioned at the close of our last installment, within the next few months both of them received calls into our churches.
During this time, the need for a Dutch-speaking missionary was strongly felt. In July 1949, as per the instruction of synod of that year, a call was extended to Rev. John DeJong, a frequent laborer in Canada, to become our missionary to the Dutch immigrants there. First PRC reported to the Mission Committee at its August meeting that DeJong received an extension to his call until his return from the Netherlands where he was vacationing along with Rev. B. Kok at the time. On the surface of things this seemed perfectly innocent. Ministers have asked for extensions on calls for that reason. But, again, do not forget the dark shadow of doctrinal controversy lay heavy over the churches. Kok and De- Jong were not an official delegation sent to the Netherlands by the PRC. They were there for personal reasons. It seems that Kok and DeJong, without the knowledge of our churches, decided to have a meeting with representatives from the Liberated Churches (LC) while in the Netherlands. This became public knowledge in our churches in a round-about way. While preaching in Chatham one weekend Ophoff (of all people!) read a letter that was sent to one of the immigrants in that congregation from Prof. Holwerda, a professor in the LC. We quote the first paragraph:
I received your letter yesterday, and a direct reply per airmail is in order. Day before yesterday we held a meeting with Rev. Kok and Rev. DeJong, the purpose being mutual discourse. We had a wholly openhearted exchange of thoughts. They said this: Indeed, we have much to be grateful for to Rev. Hoeksema. But his conception regarding election, etc., is not church doctrine. No one is bound by it. Some are emitting a totally different sound by it. Their opinion was that most (of the Protestant Reformed) do not think as Rev. Hoeksema and Rev. Ophoff. And sympathy for the Liberated was great also in the matter of their doctrine of the covenant. They do accentuate differently in America, considering their history, but for the conception of the Liberated there is ample room….1
Mind you, all of this was taking place while DeJong had the call as missionary to Canada! Ophoff was livid! He published the matter in an article of the Standard Bearer for which he later apologized. But it did not matter: the divide in our churches was quickly coming to a head. Yet, when reading the minutes of the Mission Committee it was business as usual. DeJong declined the call as missionary. A call was then extended to Rev. A. Cammenga and he accepted that call in October of 1949.
Now, however, the PRC’s position on the unconditional covenant was solidifying. Those in the PRC who opposed the doctrine of the unconditional covenant were becoming vocal. Rev. A. Petter began a series of articles in the Concordia that strongly agreed with the Liberated view of the covenant. This, in turn, fired up an exchange of articles between the Standard Bearer (Ophoff and others) and the Concordia over the issue of the covenant. The same debate was carried on between Hoeksema and Schilder in the Standard Bearer and De Reformatie, the periodical of the LC in the Netherlands. The doctrinal positions were now clearly defined. But, because there was such strong disagreement in the PRC over the doctrine of the covenant, the immigrants in Canada were confused and increasingly wary of joining the PRC. They were convinced the covenant was conditional and if the PRC maintained that it was unconditional they would seek affiliation elsewhere.
The Mission Committee was receiving letters from these immigrants asking us what our official position on the covenant was. They needed an answer. The Mission Committee decided at its August 8, 1949 meeting “to request Rev. H. Hoeksema to prepare a brief and concise testimonial concerning our position as Protestant Reformed on the covenant, to be published in pamphlet form” (Mission Committee Minutes, Art. 15). Search as I did, I never found anything that indicates this request to Hoeksema was made, much less, carried out. The reason for this remains a mystery. But at the Mission Committee meeting in April 1950 the following was decided:
A motion was made that in our report to synod we recommend that synod give expression as to what is binding for membership in our churches. Grounds: 1) The execution of our work as a Mission Committee and of our missionaries requires this since we have received numerous requests from immigrants about this matter. 2) We as a Mission Committee have no right to make such a declaration for our churches. After some discussion this is tabled until the next meeting.2
This decision was made upon the recommendation of our missionary A. Cammenga. “It was Cammenga who asked the mission committee for a statement of the scriptural doctrine of God’s covenant of grace which he could take with him in his mission work with the immigrants who came mostly from the Liberated Churches in the Netherlands.”3
The tabled motion of the April meeting was not taken from the table at the next meeting but must have been approved (with different wording) when the Mission Committee approved the report that the secretary, Rev. C. Hanko prepared for the Synod of 1950. We will treat the request of the Mission Committee to that synod in our next article together with the Declaration of Principles the 1950 Synod adopted provisionally as the official view of the PRC regarding the unconditional covenant.
1 Gertrude Hoeksema, A Watered Garden (Grand Rapids, MI: RFPA, 1992), 149. 2 Minutes of the Mission Committee, April 11, 1950, Article 11. 3 G. Hoeksema, A Watered Garden, 161.