The following article was found in a file cabinet for family genealogies in the Zeeland Michigan Public Library. It looks to be an outline of a speech. However, I do not know the author and therefore cannot give the credit due. It provides keen insights into the character of Rev. Koene van den Bosch and his role in the formation of the Christian Reformed Church 150 years ago.
Citizens- Zeeland/Family/Friends Good to be here-look briefly at faith of early settlers-three questions:
- What motivated the VdB family and others like them to come to the US?
- What was early church life like, gain little insight through looking at ministry of Rev. Koene VdB-son of Tamme.
- What happened in April, 1857 changed course of church and community?
1. What motivated the VdB family and others like them to come?
Two reasons-first intensely Religious, second deeply Practical.
RELIGIOUS -roots in the Secession of 1834 in Netherlands. State church had developed in Netherlands, while Reformed in name-had become lax in doctrine and life. 1834 -group of basically common folk broke from the state Herformde Kirk. Two characteristics of succeeders:
PRACTICAL -to burden of persecution was added the difficulty of hard times. Napoleon's wars had devastated Europe. Economy was in shambles. Taxes extremely high, wages low. Typical meal of common folk—cabbage and turnips and no bread. Poor commonly received 4 cents and a quart of horse-beans week for work. And in early '40s potato crop, poor person's staple food, failed repeatedly due to disease. When this was compounded by unusually severe winter of 1844-45, group of secessionists under leadership of Rev. A.C. VanRaalte and others, began to make plans to immigrate to US. In organizing group, announced three purposes for their move: 1. To improve their social condition, (2) to enjoy the privilege of having their children taught in Christian Schools, and (3) "the sincere desire to have an active part in the propagation of God's truth among the heathen." First group left Netherlands-late 1846 arrived in Holland area early 1847.
- Strong commitment to purity of doctrine and life in the church. Wanted to preserve reformed heritage-free from state domination. Strong emphasis on adherence to Reformed creeds-Heidelbert Cat, Belgic Confession and especially Canons of Dordt-historic 5 points of Calvinism. Stern-strong willed commitment.
- Strong strain of revival. Deep desire to have a closer, more personal relationship with God and each other within the church, small groups meeting for worship. Succeedcrs were deeply committed to personal faith and expression of it. More than coldly intellectual or steadfast orthodoxy—was warmly emotional.
- 1834 leaving of church came at great cost to Succeeders. Henry Beets-CRC Historian writes of it as a time of bitter persecution. People called themselves-“The Church Under the Cross.” People endured oppression by the military, heavy fining, frequent imprisonment. Were ejected from their farms, boycotted in their businesses and ostracized socially. Are many stories of their children being stoned on the way to school or church. All this persecution gave birth to a desire for religious freedom-caused them to begin looking for a land where this could be enjoyed.
Tamme VdB and family came just over year later, summer of 1848 settled on spot we are now. As seccessionists, assume their motivations similar to the first group that came. Deep love for Christ and the church, strong desire that it grow and prosper. VdB's did their part—when Tamme came with his family in 1848, group already numbered 17. 40 years later-VdB family reunion of 1889, 250 members of family present. Early VdB's took the settler's vision to grow church as a personal responsibility.
2. What was that early church like?
June 4,1849-congregation at Zeeland numbered 175 families, 225 members. Zealand had a Dutch school at which teachers gave instruction in the Catechism and Psalm singing as well as in reading and writing. Elders of church often assisted in Catechism teaching- Financial income was small —people had been poor, spent what little had in purchasing their land. When Rev. Koenc VdB came to lead Nordeloos congregation in 1856, was promised $400 year salary which he wasn't paid fully-no money. Had to farm also to support his family.
Were dedicated people-among the first building built in community-churches. Church at Zeeland has been called the prettiest of the first churches. Made of squared cedar logs and had a little tower on top with a ball. Ringing of bell was a familiar sound-rang twice a Sunday to call people to worship. Everyone able came-Sundays-quiet days of rest and worship. Rang vigorously when had to call the people together for other meetings or for danger like fire. Rang slowly when someone died—and as funeral processions would leave church, would sadly toll the number of years of person's life.
Early settlers had come over to West Michigan for religious freedom-were a strongly independent group. At first had no real ties to any other churches-not even the other secceeders back in Netherlands. But was a great unity in community. All worshiped in same church, all in same way—faith heart beat as one. In 1850 the churches took an action that was to threaten that unity in the years to come. Joined the Dutch Reformed Church-RCA, Move in response to the great support that had been given—financially, advice, encouragement, prayer. Desire not to be so alone. Unfortunately, for the many independent, strongly traditional orthodox Calvinist seccessionists, a thorough investigation of some of the American practices of the Reformed Church over 200 years old in US-not made. Would cause problems as years went on.
3. Leads to momentous events of 1857-events in which member of VdB family-Rev. Koene VdB was to play a major role. Although his parents Tamme & Grietje a nd brothers and sisters came to WM in 1848, Koene did not immediately come with them. He did not come until 1856. Fascinating man. He was the very personification of the two threads woven deeply into the fiber of those who were a part of the Succession of 1834. He was born in Friesland although he grew up in Drenthe—area of Meppel. Maybe Fries contributed to his character-known as a strong-willed, stubborn man-some even said was hot tempered and stern. In keeping with his Seccession learning’s-was deeply concerned about parity of doctrine and life in the church. Once said rather be woodcutter without a church than to live with a troubled conscience because of impure doctrine in the church. But also warmly and personally committed to Lord. Had a deep, personal conversion experience with Christ. As he tells it, the first 20 years of his life were outwardly respectable and Christian but in his words "I knew neither God nor myself.' But that all changed dramatically. He began to pray earnestly, search the Bible diligently, forsake undesirable companions and to love the fellowship of God's people. As he pu it—"When I was twenty-one, the Lord brought me from death to life, out of darkness into the light." Three years after conversion he began to study for the ministry.
With that strong experiential faith and equally strong commitment to purity in doctrine and life, he came to pastor the Nordeloos Reformed Church in 1856-taking with him his family and 29 members of his church in the Netherlands. In May of 1856 he was installed with great rejoicing. His church was the open air, his pulpit a farmer's wagon and his pulpit chair a tree stump.
Soon after his arrival, however, the Rev. Koene VdB became deeply involved in a growing debate that was shaking the colony. More and more people were disturbed by what they saw as unreformed influences in the Reformed church. Among the issues that were hotly debated were such things as the use of over 800 hymns in the Ref. Church instead of the beloved Psalms, neglect of catechism preaching, allowing non-Reformed Christians to the Lord's Supper, and a lack of family visiting and catechism training for the young. Although these were not common practices in the Reformed Churches of the West Michigan Dutch community, to those who had a separatist mentality and a fervor for purity, even belonging to a denomination that tolerated such things was troubling. And it was especially troubling to the strong-minded Koene VdB. For the first year of his ministry in Nordeloos he tried to get the area churches to deal with what he thought were the issues-but without any conclusion that was satisfactory to him. So April 8, 1857 he wrote the official meeting of Classis Holland, meeting in the Zeeland Church a stern letter-It began "By this...I declare myself no longer to belong to you.” And it ended with the strong exhortation "I hope that your eyes may yet be opened to see your extreme wickedness, to take it to heart, and to be converted therefrom."
With him in parting went 19 members of the Nordeloos church, and about 250 members from Graafschaap, Polkton (Coopersville) and Grand Rapids Churches. Rev. Vanden Bosch was the only pastor to these four churches for seven years. He became a traveling pastor. He was a familiar sight-traveling in a wagon pulled by a team of oxen, with a shovel and ax in the wagon box to dig him out of ruts or clear fallen brush from the road. Often seen reading, praying, planning and singing psalms as he went. He wore himself down terribly in those years, lost a great deal financially and was subjected to a great deal of verbal accusations he was sometime gone for days ministering to this scattered flocks. He had a strong hand in dividing a community and a church, but as he said later, it did not trouble him for his conscience was clear before God.
It is without a doubt that both good and bad came from this separation of 1857. It divided the community into two groups that were sometimes bitter against each other. Yet from it grew a new denomination-CRC and a group that became powerful influence in RCA.
What can we conclude from those early days as we reflect on heritage: given to us by early settlers, including the VdB family? Marian Schoeland said "They were far from perfect; Van Raalte often complained that they were troublesome and difficult But they knew the Bible thoroughly, they believed it implicitly; they had found its promises to be true in daily experiences; they loved the old doctrines and the religious principles of the Reformation, the creeds which made the Bible truths so dear and meaningful to them: they loved God and His Word so much that they were ready to suffer persecution and even die rather than consent to the slightest doubt or denial. They were convinced that very aspect of life must be lived to His glory. And it is far to say that even though they made mistakes and even though God seemed to work through them in what sometimes were mysterious ways, history has shown both sides together and separately earnestly kept the faith of the fathers and God was glorified through them." It would be well if some day the same could be said of each of us.
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