Following the Lamb In Commemoration of the Secession of 1834
The year 1984 is an important date on the American church calendar. It marks the 200th anniversary of the formal organization of Methodism in North America. Methodism has been a very influential movement. Reformed piety has also undergone some of its influence.
Another bicentennial celebrated this year marks the death of Ann Lee Stanley (1736-84), also known as "Mother Ann." She was the founding spirit of the group that came to be known as the Shakers, a communal sect, based in part on heretical teachings, which nevertheless was of great consequence for the so-called communitarian movement in the 19th century.
The event in the history of God's church which we wish to celebrate in this article took place not in North America but in the Netherlands. It was the 1834 Secession from the Reformed (state) church in that country by a group of orthodox believers who came to be organized as the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk. Though not an American movement, this secession nevertheless had a profound influence on what is now the Christian Reformed Church in North America, a church of which the Yale church historian Sydney Ahlstrom has the following to say:
With a well supported church-school system and a strong intellectual and theological tradition nourished by Calvin College and Seminary ... the denomination has become perhaps the country's most solid and dignified bastion of conservative Reformed doctrine and church discipline.
These words were published in 1972. The internal development of the church so highly praised has continued in the intervening years. The present article is written in hope that it may contribute to the continuing orthodoxy of the Christian Reformed Church.
An Event Worth Celebrating
In recent years the Christian Reformed Church has welcomed into its membership many non-Dutch people. One of the most recent of such additions was that of a group of Reformed believers of Hispanic-American background in the Chicago area. Some may think that a commemoration of the Dutch church Secession of 1834 is a complete anachronism at the present juncture. The present writer likes to think that this is not the case. The struggle for the unity and the purity of the church must be continued by us today. While we must not be separatists, we should never abandon the right and the duty to separate from those who are not of the Church and to join ourselves to the true church (Belgic Confession, art. 28 and 29). It was that conviction that motivated the Secession whose Sesquicentennial we celebrate this year.
Even if we were minded to ignore this event, or, what is even worse, show embarrassment with it, the event just will not ignore us. The early founders of the Christian Reformed Church were to a man (and a woman) drawn from the church of the Secession. All of the early professors (or "docents" as they were then called) of Calvin Seminary were shaped by Secession thought. Simone de Beauvoir, a well-known French author, in a book in which she describes her visit to the United States shortly after World War II, tells us how she visited one of the graveyards in New England in which some of the early Puritans lie buried. Having observed American life at close range and having crossed this vast continent from ocean to ocean, De Beauvoir reflects on the "long shadow" that is cast by these Puritan tombstones over all of American life even in its modern manifestation. The same could be said of the tombstones of the early settlers in Western Michigan and elsewhere. Even if we wanted to, we could not escape their "shadow." Far from doing so, let us instead thank God for the faithfulness to the confession and to Biblical truth which, despite many human shortcomings, motivated the little band of 1834 and following years.
The Issue in 1834
The issue at that time was rather clear-cut. As Kenneth Scott Latourette informs us, the Dutch Reformed state church had fallen victim to the principles of the French Enlightenment.
Many in the upper classes and most of the pastors and teachers of theology had departed far from the orthodoxy of the Synod of Dordtrecht (sic) and regarded Christianity mainly as a matter of morals.
But there were also the "humble folk." They read the old authorities on the Reformed theology. They taught the Heidelberg Catechism to their children, sang the Psalms and prized the Bible.
Many of these orthodox believers had their own circles in which they met for Bible study and mutual edification. Hendrik Algra tells us how the Rev. L.J. Hulst, later minister in North America, was a member of such a group of believers. These groups had been influenced among other things by certain English movements dating back to the time of Cromwell. They were first found in the Dutch province of Zeeland, where English influence was notable. But there were also currents derived from German Pietism and from a Swiss Awakening called the Reveil. Not all of this was wholesome when judged by Biblical standards. The importance of the church with its ordained ministry and sacraments was not always clearly seen. Yet God used these groups to plant anew the truth of the Reformation, when the Secession had become a fact.
Liberal Discipline of De Cock
As will be well-known to most readers, the Secession came to a head when the Rev. Hendrik De Cock, a minister in the state church in the town of Ulrum, was suspended and deposed from the ministry. De Cock was trained in Liberal theology but had gradually discovered the beauty of the orthodox Reformed truth. Already in 1833 De Cock had seen to it that the Canons of Dort were reprinted and distributed and he had personally sent a copy to King William I, with the prayer that His Majesty would not despise this statement but that he would be united in his sentiments with that of his God-fearing forefathers. De Cock had in mind William of Orange, who died in 1584, and also Prince Maurice, who had sided with the orthodox group in the Arminian controversy.
De Cock was suspended because he had been baptizing children not of his own church but of neighboring Reformed congregations. These children were offered for baptism by believing parents dissatisfied by the liberalism of their pastor. Although one might frown on the "irregularity" of this custom, the prevailing rules of the state church did not forbid it. Yet De Cock was suspended because of the practice. Moreover, he had written a booklet against two of his colleagues whom he, because of their liberalism, accused of being "wolves" in the sheepfold of Christ (Cf. John 10). This publication was the true cause for De Cock's suspension, although there had not been a formal charge with respect to it.
De Cock was not a separatist. He appealed his suspension, but the church authorities confirmed it and extended it to the time of two years. In the meantime De Cock published a number of pamphlets, and also a preface to a book which attacked the use of the hymns then current in the church. This was the straw that broke the camel's back, as far as church authorities were concerned. What began as a procedure regarding baptism and continued with a prohibition to publish attacks upon other ministers, ended with a condemnation of De Cock's endorsement of the anti-hymn booklet. The deposition took place on May 29, 1834. Even then De Cock took his appeal to the highest church body in the hierarchical church structure, the so-called General Synod, a creation of King William I, and in no way representative of the principle of sound church polity. This appeal was denied.
A Church Decision to Secede
On October 14, 1834, the congregation and consistory of the church where De Cock was pastor decided to secede. The document is called "Act of Secession." In it the emphasis lies on separation from the false church according to art. 28 and 29 of the Belgic Confession and a return to the ancient truth, with full maintenance of the confessions and of the Church Order adopted at the famous Synod of Dordt. It is clear that this action was not sectarian, nor was it schismatic. The present writer regrets the fact that in an issue of the Banner last year such strong exception was taken to movements such as those of 1834, the later movement of 1886 and also the beginning of the Christian Reformed Church in 1857. The church which we hold dear was not born out of schism.
The Secession spread quickly, due in part to the many "circles" we described above. In the early phases it was led by only six ministers, all of them young men, and three of them related through marriage.
Here is the honor roll:
- H. De Cock, aged 34;
- H.P Scholte (later in Pella), aged 30;
- G.F Meerburg, aged 29;
- S. Van Velzen, aged 25;
- Brummelkamp, aged 24; and
- A.C Van Raalte (later in Holland, Michigan), aged 24.
Among themselves these men differed considerably in character and temperament and also in their approach to the church and its needed reformation. God used them at the proper time to reform His church in the Netherlands and indirectly to plant here in North America the Christian Reformed Church. Even those who admire their courage and loyalty to Biblical and confessional truth are quick to point out their human shortcomings. If space permitted these could be mentioned. There is no need to conceal them.
But our present purpose is to celebrate the "return" to the old truth that took place in the Netherlands in 1834, a movement which we deem to have been of God and not of men.
Once the Secession was a fact there was persecution on the part of the state with full support of the church authorities. De Cock himself was imprisoned, just three days after the Secession, for his unwillingness to yield the pulpit to another non-deposed minister. There were fines, harassments, molestations, disruptions of "unlawful" assemblies of more than 20 worshipers, and there were the dragoons, rude and misbehaving soldiers which those who did not want to obey were forced to take into their homes. This was a method which Louis the Fourteenth had used in the 17th century to bring in line the Huguenots, often with frightening "success."
"Following the Lamb"
De Cock bore his imprisonment cheerfully and in a Christian spirit. In his last letter from the prison before his release he writes to his wife that when he is home again he and his followers will be "following the Lamb." This reference to Revelation 14:4 which speaks of the 144,000 who have the Lamb's name and the name of His Father written on their forehead, shows the spirit of the Secession more than many words could. Those who were of this movement — and they are also our spiritual forebears — wished to follow the Lamb wherever He would go. For this they bore reproach and imprisonment. For this they also risked conflict with the authorities of a church which had compromised the gospel.
In our legitimate desire to bring about a greater unity of Christian believers than is presently the case let us never become unfaithful to the loyalty to God's truth which marked the men and women of 1834. Let it not just be the shadow of their tombstones that falls upon our church life and upon our personal piety. May it be the light that emanates from the Lamb which they wanted to follow wherever it led them. Of that Lamb and His sacrifice for sin the Bible speaks, and so do the Reformed confessions, which the Seceders loved and wished to uphold. In our celebration of God's goodness in the Secession, may we not be like those who build the tombs of the prophets and decorate their graves while inwardly alien to the spirit of the departed forefathers. On the contrary, in this ecumenical age, may we have the desire to separate, even today, from all false teaching and desire to be united with all who steadfastly adhere to the truth of God's eternal Word. Only this will make us followers of the Lamb.