Kootwijk: Doleantie and Education
On January 8, 1886, now 125 years ago, Candidate J.H. Houtzagers (1857-1940) accepted a call to Kootwijk, an impoverished hamlet in the Veluwe region of The Netherlands. In 1884, he had been the first theology student to graduate from the Reformed – but as yet unapproved – Free University in Amsterdam. His ordination took place on February 7, 1886, a few days after the consistory of Kootwijk was provisionally suspended from office by Classis Harderwijk. This series of events made Kootwijk the "mother-church" of the Doleantie of 1886. What was ultimately at stake was a desire to bow under the yoke of Christ, rather than that of the state. This desire also translated into a renewed effort for Christian education.
I became aware of the link between the Doleantie and the Kootwijk "School with the Bible" right after attending the ICRE-III conference in Lunteren. I stopped in nearby Voorthuizen and Kootwijk to get some pictures for church history lessons about the Doleantie, but in Kootwijk I got more than expected. The custodian was quite prepared to engage in a conversation about the events of 1886. She even agreed to open the medieval church building and made me aware of "The Little Church on the Hill." This was the Doleantie church, built when Rev. Houtzagers left Kootwijk in 1919, and the congregation could no longer rent the old building. When I stopped at the Little Church, I discovered the former School with the Bible next door. Its current owners gladly shared more about their home and their village.1
Kootwijk derives its name from cote-vick, a sheep shelter. In the 1880s, sheep farming on the heather was still the industry of choice, as the area's fine glacial sand was but marginally suitable for agriculture. People supplemented their meager incomes as broom makers, poachers, and bee keepers, with some cash cropping. Because of the poverty, government subsidies covered nearly eighty-five percent of the church budget. The hamlet was spiritually impoverished as well. It had no minister since 1868 – other than a failed theological student who acted as a farmer/lay-preacher. The parsonage served as a barn. A classically appointed minister would customarily administer the sacraments, but might be the only one at the Lord's Table. Influenced by a pietist lady, Engeltje vanHussel, the sheep hardly dared attend. It also appears that baptism was administered out of custom, rather than as an ordinance of God regarding the promises and obligations of the covenant, and devoid of key elements of the form.
Christian Renewal recently published an excellent series about the Dutch school struggle, and here is but a brief summary of nineteenth century highlights. The country's 1806 constitution required public schools to teach in all "Christian and social virtues," but Enlightenment thinking led schools to a moralistic and secular promotion of being considerate, kind, friendly, and patient. The Bible was considered not written for children and offensive to Jews and Muslims. Consequently, by the 1830s, Bibles were not allowed in classrooms – and certainly not open ones. Foreign dignitaries, studying excellent aspects of Dutch education, expressed surprise that these were "Christian" schools without the Bible. People who joined the Secession in 1834 were convinced that the Bible ought to be central in school – and soon discovered that this was not an option, even if they paid for it themselves from their often meager resources.
The constitution allowed for independent schools, but permission was only granted if local officials saw a benefit. They rarely did. Several parental or parochial Schools with the Bible were started, but quickly shut down. Those involved were prosecuted and fined. Freedom of education became a key reason for emigration to Michigan and Iowa in the 1840s. The permission requirement was removed in 1848, but by 1850 there were only thirteen Christian schools in The Netherlands; it was just too costly. In 1878, new building codes and qualification regulations made it still harder to establish a School with the Bible and a nationwide action with prayer services and both Reformed and Roman Catholic petitions, representing more than ten percent of the population, did not sway the king from signing the new law. An ongoing national drive was started around this time to financially support Christian schools. In 1889, the government approved a partial subsidy, and full funding became a reality in 1920.
Houtzagers and vandenBergh
Rev. Houtzagers (Kootwijk's pastor from 1886-1918) helped establish Christian schools, in line with the thinking of Dr. Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper taught that raising children must be done to the honour of God and schools were to play an important and refining role in this effort. The aim was for the child to increasingly reflect the image of God and eventually to embrace and fulfill his calling in church, state, and society. The ultimate school goal was to expand God's kingdom by living and working to God's honour; Christian schools were necessary, since it was unthinkable that such goals could be accomplished in secular schools. A Christian school must therefore be one in which Christ would be the Head and in which parents understood that bringing up children was their task in the first place. Scriptures, the form for baptism, and Lord's Day 38 of the Heidelberg Catechism all were considered to demand Christian schools.2
Rev. Houtzagers also worked closely with his friend, Rev. Willem vandenBergh of nearby Voorthuizen, a recognized leader for Christian education. Rev. VandenBergh opposed state subsidies for Christian education, deeply concerned that it would make people bow under the yoke of the state again, rather than the yoke of Christ. He stressed cooperation and mutual support between home, church, and school, as well as between schools and school boards. His regional Association of Schools produced a report in 1888, which worked this out for members of congregations, school boards, parents, teachers, deacons, consistories, and the government.3 By 1890, after nationwide dissemination of the report, 222 schools were associated in the national Council for Schools with the Bible. Rev. Houtzagers served on this council and played a leading role in establishing the schools of Kootwijkerbroek, Kootwijk, and Harskamp.
In Amsterdam, in January, 1887, a prayer service for Christian education led by Rev. vandenBergh about Micah 2:9b, led directly to material support for schools in the Kootwijk area, through what became known as the "Amsterdam Committee." Simultaneously, Rev. Houtzagers led a similar service in Kootwijkerbroek (some ten kilometres west of Kootwijk), with reference to the same text. Both included a call to offer up earthly wealth of gold and silver, so we may have a place where God's spiritual blessings can be proclaimed to the children, because, in the public schools, the Lord's blessing has been taken away from them. On Ascension Day, 1888, the Amsterdam Committee had collected enough to invite tenders for a school building in Kootwijkerbroek. Architectural drawings were donated. Initially, available funds were some thirty percent short of the need, but with some re-design the school could be built and was opened on November 20, 1888, with forty-two students and one teacher.
Kootwijk took longer to get ready, but local and outside collections (especially from the Amsterdam Committee), allowed for a start in December, 1890, when the public school teacher-principal's retirement provided opportunity. A replacement teacher had been hired from the village of Stroe, six kilometres away, but when he made the daily trek to Kootwijk, he found that there were no students. Where were they?
On December 16, 1890, Rev. Houtzagers, as chairman of the school society,4 led the opening ceremony for twenty-eight students and their parents in the Kootwijk church. The public school was not available to them, but a church member, Mrs. Bakkenes, had offered a room in her farmhouse. The school inspector was duly notified of the facts. A teacher-principal was hired, but could not come immediately; temporary staffing included the minister and his wife, their maid, an elder, and the Kootwijkerbroek teacher. Furniture included little beyond six benches, a smoky pot-belly stove, and an easel holding a blackboard. The facilities had barely seven square feet of space per person (we consider twenty square feet per student crowded), the ceiling was just over nine feet high, window seats were either too hot or too cold, there was no washroom, and it included a bedstee (a cupboard-enclosed bed). When the inspector came to investigate on January 29, 1891, together with the mayor and a health official, they condemned the room as unhealthy and unfit, and ordered the school closed. A new room in the home of deacon vanOort was similarly condemned. In March, the mayor permitted the use of the public school's teacher home as an adequate temporary facility, and in January, 1892, they received permission to rent the empty public school. It now became known as the Rev. Houtzagers School with the Bible.
The school gradually grew. By 1900, it had two teachers. Their salaries were frequently paid from gifts or borrowed from the Amsterdam Committee. In 1903, the society obtained title to the building with a fifteen year mortgage. In 1919, the school burned down, and a mortgage was required for rebuilding. In 1935, when the school was struck by lightning, the teacher closed the lessons with prayer before leaving the burning building. The church was used as a temporary facility. By 1950, there were seventy students, but enrolment steadily declined after that. From the mid-1980s to1993, there were only about ten students, and, along with many other small-town schools, it was forced to close. As a result, "Kootwijk, which was a model for the good cause of Christian education ... no longer had a school where young people could be led to the church of the Lord and His Kingdom" (vanEeden, p. 53).
Rev. Houtzagers retired in 1918, but remained as treasurer of the school society until 1938. He died in 1940 and was buried in Kootwijk. His gravestone refers to 1 Corinthians 15:58,
Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
The school building remains known today as the J. H. Houtzagers School with the Bible.
It has been 125 years since the Doleantie started in Kootwijk and 120 years since their school had a Bible again. It is one of those years when we remember specific great deeds of the Lord. Here we saw him provide an immense willingness to sacrifice for a good cause. The building is no longer a school, but we can still learn from its example: We are not alone in our efforts to support Christian education and we follow in a worthy tradition, based on a good standard. Rev. Houtzagers' gravestone sets a standard we do well to remember. May we hold on to that standard; it is a matter of bowing under the yoke of Christ in our schools.