Previous article in this series: June 2020, p. 403.
In our last article we gave a broad overview of the troubles brewing in the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) during the years we are now treating. The trial God sent our churches found its focus in the person of the Dutch theologian, Dr. Klaas Schilder, and his theology of a conditional covenant. This false doctrine seeped into the hearts of many Protestant Reformed pastors, and by them into the hearts of the sheep God had entrusted into their care. Between the years 1947 and 1953 a deep division formed in the PRC between those who agreed with Schilder’s view of a conditional covenant as opposed to Herman Hoeksema’s view of an unconditional covenant.1 This division came to a head by means of the mission work of our churches.
The order of events that led to a split in the PRC over the doctrine of God’s unconditional covenant can be confusing. The focus of our writing on this history is, of course, on missions in the PRC. There were many other events that led to the split of 1953 too. For all the details of the history surrounding this split the reader will find several excellent books available that contain this history. Because the events that threatened the mission work of the PRC can be confusing, we intend to treat them in chronological order.
The Year 1947
Synod convened in regular session on Wednesday, June 4, 1947. Rev. J. D. DeJong was elected as president. Rev. H. Hoeksema was there as a delegate from Classis East, as was usually the case. The Mission Committee report was not treated until Monday afternoon, June 9. A momentous decision was finally reached in Article 83: “The Synod further decides in regard to Mission work that the calling church call two missionaries to labor together in the work of home missions.”2 This decision was grounded in what had been discussed at the 1946 Synod. First, to send two men together to do mission work is a sound scriptural principle. Second, the men who have labored on the mission field express its desirability. Third, this arrangement would promote greater efficiency and, fourth, greater continuity in the mission work.
A second decision made by the synod that is worthy of note was her approval of the Committee for Correspondence with Other Churches’ recommendation to “advise our consistories to grant Prof. K. Schilder the right to preach the Word of God in our churches during his contemplated visit to our country.” Of interest is the constituency of the Committee of Correspondence: Revs. H. Hoeksema, G. M. Ophoff, and J. D. DeJong.3
Synod finished its work on Tuesday, June 10, 1947.
Seven days later, June 17, Rev. H. Hoeksema lay in a hospital bed in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He had suffered a stroke that left his right side paralyzed and robbed him of his ability to speak. It would take months of intense therapy to restore what this man of God lost that day. He never would fully recover. He would always walk with a limp and, though he would preach again, the fire of foregone years would not return. That Hoeksema suffered a stroke at this particular time was under the sovereign control of an all-wise God, but from a human point of view it could not have come at a worse time. It gave those who would oppose the truth of the unconditional covenant of God an opportunity to contradict Hoeksema and his view of the covenant.
If you recall, there was already opposition on the part of some of the ministers in the PRC against what was perceived as Hoeksema’s unquestioned control over the denomination. These same ministers now believed that Hoeksema was finished. This gave them the boldness to assert themselves and their views upon the churches.
In September of 1947 Schilder arrived in the United States as he had planned. The purpose of his visit was to preach, lecture, and meet in conference with various Reformed churches including the PRC. He met with pastors and officebearers of the PRC on October 16, 1947, and then a little later, on November 4-6. At these conferences the differences of a conditional versus an unconditional covenant were discussed. No formal decisions were made, of course, but a discussion did follow of a closer church relationship with the PRC and the Liberated Churches (LC) of the Netherlands. Due to his stroke several months earlier, Hoeksema’s participation in these conferences was limited. At the October conference he was able to read several propositions concerning the unconditional character of God’s covenant established with His elect people in Christ, but he was too tired to stay and hear the response of Schilder to them. In November he was a bit stronger and forced himself to be a bit more involved. The conclusion of these conferences was an amicable impasse.
During the weeks surrounding the conference Schilder preached in several of our churches in the West and became fast friends of a number of our minsters there. It is safe to conclude from the controversy that followed that these ministers were either convinced of the views of Schilder at this time or they saw no reason to condemn them. Though the two positions regarding the covenant were obviously opposed to each other (conditional versus unconconditional), quite a number of our Protestant Reformed pastors were convinced that these two views could exist side by side in our denomination. This certainly was not true of other of our pastors! There were those who had become suspicious and wary of what was developing in the PRC. They were opposed to the error of a conditional covenant and did not like to see such overwhelming favor shown toward Schilder and the Liberated.
During the fall of 1947 and the spring of 1948 two pastors were called to labor in home missions: Rev. Walter Hofman and Rev. Edward Knott.
The Year 1948
The Mission Committee at its March 15 meeting decided that the Byron Center mission field was ready for organization. This took several months to accomplish, but the two missionaries concluded their labors together in organizing Byron Center, and that, with a view toward working together in Lynden, Washington. During this time, however, Dutch immigrants from the Liberated Churches who had moved to Ontario, Canada were sending requests to the Mission Committee asking for labors among them. Also, because of our contact with Schilder, some of our ministers and consistories (mainly in the West) were convinced that it would not be difficult to persuade other immigrants of the LC who had already settled in the Christian Reformed Church to join with us. These consistories were pressing the Mission Committee to investigate a possible mission work in Canada. For these reasons, the majority of the Mission Committee was under the conviction that a work in Ontario, Canada must begin.
There were three problems, however. First, what to do with the work in Lynden, WA where the two missionaries were called to labor. Second, both of our missionaries were not proficient in the Dutch language. The Dutch immigrants in Canada could not speak English, so a Dutch-speaking missionary was necessary to carry on this work. Third, if the PRC were to take up labors among the Dutch immigrants in Canada, would the PRC allow those who believed in the conditional character of the covenant to be members in our churches? This was a serious concern that would later become a matter of hot debate.
The Mission Committee at its March 29 meeting approved the motion to investigate Ontario, Canada for possible mission work among the Dutch immigrants. This motion reads: “After lengthy discussion of various matters regarding our mission endeavors a motion is made that we further investigate the field of Ontario, Canada among the Holland immigrants by asking a Holland speaking minister to accompany one of our missionaries for a period of time of two or more weeks in this field.”4 It was then decided to send Rev. J. De- Jong, a man proficient in the Dutch language, with Rev. W. Hofman ( missionary) to perform this investigation while Rev. E. Knott (second missionary) would fill the pulpit in Creston PRC in Rev. DeJong’s absence.
One can only imagine what was debated in this “lengthy discussion” that took place at this meeting. Lynden, WA, though a worthy place to work, was small in comparison to the vast labor that could possibly be accomplished among the Dutch immigrants in Ontario, Canada. Why, then, the hesitancy on the part of some on the Mission Committee to labor there? No doubt, the doctrinal differences between the PRC and the LC were discussed. These differences were on the foreground since the visit of Schilder in late 1947. This was obvious from articles written in the Standard Bearer.
Disagreement between members of the Mission Committee revealed itself at the meeting of May 24, 1948. Though the men who investigated the work in Ontario presented an optimistic report, a series of motions indicate that the Mission Committee had reached an impasse as to where to continue its mission labors:
Article 3: After some discussion a motion was made that the meeting consider Lynden as a field of labor. Further discussion of the motion followed.
Article 4: A substitute motion was made that our present missionaries labor in Canada for 1 year to the best of their ability and that they bring their findings and recommendations to the body early in 1949 that we may approach Synod of 1949 with positive advice and recommendations. This motion was supported and discussion followed.
Article 5: A motion was made to table the matter until the problem with serious points of discussion here presented be brought to Synod of 1948 by way of the report of the Mission Committee. This motion was supported and passed.5
The “problem with serious points of discussion” was recorded in the minutes in this delicate but vague way by the secretary, Rev. Hofman. To be specific, the serious point was the danger of laboring with people who were convicted of their view of a conditional covenant. Ought we to make them the object of our mission work when they were thoroughly convinced that the view of Hoeksema and others in the PRC on the covenant was wrong? Some on the Mission Committee were of a mind that we work in Lynden with those who were not opposed to our covenant views. Others on the committee were convinced that the differences were not so great with the immigrants from the LC that they could not be worked out. So the whole matter was now brought to the Synod of 1948 to be adjudicated.
We will consider in our next articles the decisions of the 1948 Synod, the subsequent decision of the Mission Committee, and the protests that ultimately led to the momentous decisions regarding missions at the synods of 1949 and 1950.
1 Rev. Herman Hoeksema defended his position on the unconditional covenant in a book entitled Believers and Their Seed. This book first appeared in the Dutch, De Geloovigen en Hun Zaad in February of 1946, published by the Mission Committee and First PRC. Yet HH was not alone. In volumes 24 and 25 (1947 and 1948) of the Standard Bearer especially Rev. Herman Veldman but also Rev. Gerrit Vos carefully defended and explained the truth of God’s unconditional covenant.
2 PRC Acts of Synod, 1947, Article 83 (p. 64).
3 Acts, 1947, Article 75 (pp. 53, 54).
4 Mission Committee minutes of March 29, 1948, Article 10.
5 Mission Committee minutes, May 24, 1948, Articles 3-5.