In spite of the fact that anyone can do it (all you have to do is hang around long enough), if you get old and survive you might be asked to say something about the 50th anniversary of, say, the Reformed Fellowship and its principal publication, The Outlook (once upon a time Torch and Trumpet).
Before we say anything else, we must express our gratitude to God for the privilege of producing a magazine “devoted to the exposition and defense of the Reformed faith.” If I had perfect memory—which would erase the possibility of forgetting to mention somebody—I would list all the people over the years who have helped us by contributing articles, doing (usually unpaid) all kinds of work, donating money, providing good printing service, serving on the board of directors, and more. Hearty thanks!
Yes, Reformed Fellowship, Inc. was born in autumn of 1950, and the first issue of Torch and Trumpet came out in early 1951. The publication of an independent monthly created quite a stir. Torch and Trumpet was soon dubbed by the smart people at Calvin College as “glow and blow.” A rival publication, Reformed Journal, suddenly appeared. Anxiety arose about the possibility of controversy in the Christian Reformed Church (pretty much suppressed since the deposition of Herman Hoeksema in 1924). I remember well being summoned (together with a few other RF culprits) to the office of a very prominent CRC businessman who in no uncertain terms warned us to cut it out” or else…Frankly, I was intimidated.
Which brings me to the general outline of this piece. It seems to me that CRC history divides itself roughly into three parts. They are somewhat equal in length. The first runs from the mid-19th century to World War I. The second from World War I through World War II. And the third from about 1950 to 2000. You might say that we have moved from a Reformed pietism to Kuyperianism to something of a combination of both plus some other things. A good term might be accommodationism, and that on more than one side externally (to the world) and internally (to different ideas and practices within the church).
The first decades of CRC history were marked by poverty (new immigrants, predominantly Dutch, struggling to get established in a new country), paucity (the CRC was very small in numbers and prestige), and piety (a stern, resolute godliness which translated itself into a diSciplined, well-ordered lifestyle). In this lifestyle church was all-important. Church services, usually in the Dutch language (a very important point—language is not a superficial matter), were well attended. CRC congregations were well-known for this. The sermons varied in interest and quality according to the ability of the preacher; but they were never flippant, casual, or easygoing. You could see that from the dominie’s Chesterfield coat, which he wore as a badge of office, sometimes most every day. Life was serious. The church could hardly be less.
I labeled this a kind of Reformed pietism. The early CRC preachers were not unacquainted with the “oude schrijvers” (the venerable, old writers). We know them today as the English Puritans. They were, as many of us know, expert in the ways of the Lord in the hearts of His people. They are best represented, I think, in our time by my friend, Dr. Joel Beeke, an able scholar and prolific writer as well as an outstanding preacher. (On my own I’m suggesting that you contact him for a sample copy of his monthly, The Banner of Sovereign Truth, 2919 Leonard St. N.E., Grand Rapids, MI 49525.)
I remember going to the home of an about-to-retire CRC minister because he was interested in selling us his library because we were Calvin Seminary students and he wanted us to have it. For a pittance we wiped his study shelves clean, and then distributed the volumes among us as classmates. Most of the books were in the Dutch language. Among them was a beautiful set of red-bound volumes written by an eminent Dutch ethicist on the Decalogue. When I came to my first congregation, a precious church in Oostburg, Wisconsin, I soon met an elderly gentleman who came to our door with a rather large package under his arm, which he promptly handed over to me. It was the same set which I had acquired earlier (I never told him). He told me he had purchased them from a seminary student who was out selling books one summer, and that he had loaned them to every minister in his church ever since. Obviously he assumed every CRC minister could read Dutch.
The second period in CRC history began with the major wave of Dutch immigration which happened in the late 19th and early 20th century. The difference between this group and the earlier one was often as wide as the difference between H. P. Scholte, leader of the Pella colony, and the extraordinarily influential Abraham Kuyper. Scholte, no mean figure in his own right (his versatility as preacher, writer, politician, banker, editor is very impressive), was ecclesiastically an independentist; and doctrinally, he drifted ever closer to Darbyism (when he died his wife joined the Darbyist congregation, a small group still operative today). Kuyper was the man of the Calvinistic world-and-life-view. He was more “objective”; Scholte was more “subjective.” The newer immigrants came out of the Dutch world in which Kuyper was dominant, and they didn’t change color with their civil allegiance.
They were people of the antithesis, of the “tweerlei wetenschap” (two kinds of science, one Christian, one antichristian, and between them there was not one inch of basic, principial agreement). This life was not a playground but a battleground. It was populated by either followers of the Christ or of His enemy. In this period the CRC is marked by steady growth, remarkable faithfulness (in worship attendance, for example), and increasing prosperity. CRC people became “middle class”; not a few moved financially, socially and professionally into the higher class. Some observers feel that this is the root cause for a declining spirituality. No doubt about it: CRC people became a different kind of people. From uncomfortable immigrants to self-confident, successful, upwardbound Americans. It was certain to make a difference. It’s a long way from the De Vos Grocery Store at the corner of Baxter and Diamond in Grand Rapids to the main office of a co-owner of Amway Corporation.
But the CRC in that period enjoyed what I regard as remarkably strong leadership. The Banner (official CRC paper, read very widely in the church) was edited by an unabashed conservative, H. J. Kuiper. His conservatism did not stop at the church door. In a time when Rooseveltian ideas looked extremely attractive to many of his readers, he was an uncompromising defender of free-enterprise Republicanism. And then there was the pulpit.
It was a time when there were giants in the earth, and they appeared behind the sacred desk. There was the courtly, articulate Samuel Volbeda, from 1914 to 1952, teacher of preaching and church government at Calvin Seminary. The story goes that when he was in Amsterdam for graduate study his preaching earned him the title “the wonder from America.” How well I recall his preaching on a beautiful Sunday evening during World War II on Psalm 79:1, a sermon relevant to the times and a tonic for the soul. Louis Berkhof was the quiet, reserved, gentlemanly theologian and churchman, whose counsel often steered synodical decisions. To this list many deserve to be added.
Not only did CRC preachers appear on the Grand Rapids scene. I heard Klass Schilder in 1939 preach his first sermon in that city (Eastern Avenue CRC) on Exodus 4:24 (packed church; Schilder went head on into the controversy surrounding the doctrine of the Covenant of Grace). I heard the leader of the Netherlands Reformed brethren, G. H. Kersten, preaching on John 8:32. R. B. Kuiper came home summers as well as on special occasions. I remember well his sermon for a League of Evangelical Students convention on Matthew 10:34 (“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth; I came not to send peace, but a sword.”). And there were others: J. Gresham Machen, Cornelius Van Til (fully as good a preacher as a teacher), John Murray, and others.
This listing is woefully inadequate, I know. I’m only trying to give an impression of the quality of the life of the church in the mid-section of its existence. There was still “a market” for the exceptionally good preacher (I don’t think it was due to the fact that TV had not yet made its way into every home).
In that context Reformed Fellowship and The Outlook (originally Torch and Trumpet) came into existence. The brothers who met in our living room had no partisan intentions. Nor did we have some strong sense of dissatisfaction with the church and its leadership. We had one desire: to provide further stimulation for the development of the Reformed faith and life. We thought an independent journal, giving opportunity to the many who might be able to write, was a good medium for that purpose a purpose we pursued for fifty years.
This third period was, in my judgment, qUite definitive for the CRC in particular, and the Reformed faith in general. In it most every distinctive feature of the doctrine and life of the people professing this Reformed faith was challenged. In the CRC the following issues and possibly more were debated: the nature of biblical authOrity (Is Scripture divinely inspired and therefore inerrant?), divorce and remarriage, the sovereignty of divine grace (Harold Dekker, Harry Boer), the admissibility of women to the offices of the church, the relaxation of the stand of the church toward worldly amusements. In addition such practices as Sabbath observance, two worship services each Lord’s Day (it would be interesting to know how many CRC congregations have not already eliminated this custom, or how many CRC people are not already regularly and stubbornly no matter how admonished-negligent on this score), consistent, regular preaching according to the Heidelberg Catechism, the insistence upon careful, doctrinal catechetical instruction of the covenant youth in the church, the insistence upon the right of each local congregation to do “its own thing” liturgically, and others.
It is perhaps not too much to read into all this the conclusion that the rather uniform, easy-to-recognize CRC still operative when we began fifty years ago, has disappeared, especially in many nonrural areas. Thousands have left for more emotional churches or more evangelical churches or more traditional churches. Meanwhile, it seems that we as Reformed people seem unable to come to a conclusion as to who we are or what we ought to be doing. Committees by the dozen flock to Willow Creek to learn from a brilliant preacher, former CRC, Bill Hybels (totally disaffected), on how to be successful churches, not to mention those enjoying the largess of a wealthy businessman on a junket to California (in winter) to hear the advocate of “possibility thinking” tell them how to do it.
All the excitement these past fifty years hasn’t been in the CRC. Presbyterians in “the South” split, and we now have the Presbyterian Church in America. It is growing in spite of the pains which go with new organization and reformation. The Protestant Reformed Churches went through a major defection around 1961, from which they have recovered well. If my information is accurate, the Orthodox Presbyterian denomination lost some people to the PCA, but continues valiantly to stand for the faith. There are more Reformed churches, small in numbers but determined to keep the faith. I know something about the doctrinal and historical, as well as cultural differences that separate them, but I rejoice in whatever measure of blessing they enjoy.
What about the next fifty years? This is another major topic, obviously. It isn’t difficult to suggest that if the Reformed faith is to survive, intense study, fervent prayer, unqualified dedication is sorely needed. Surely we need the “Three L’s” (learning, love, life). We need to know what it means to be standing on the solid foundation of Reformed truth (learning). We need to be willing to witness thereto by a life of separation from all that is error, and consecration to all that a life dedicated to God’s glory demands (life). And above all, we need constantly to be reminded that without love for this Faith nothing will avail.
A final note: I write this aware of the retirement after eleven years of yeoman service by our editors, Tom and Laurie Vanden Heuvel. I think they did a great job, and I want to wish them well in their new assignment. They deserve our sincere thanks!
Rev. Piersma was one of the founders of Reformed Fellowship and Torch and Trumpet. He now lives in Pella, Iowa. He and the congregation of which he is a part, have left the CRC, but have not yet affiliated with another denomination.