Three Footnotes to the Calvin Jubilee Pageant

With a week-long jubilee we celebrated some sixteen months ago the seventy-five year existence of our beloved Calvin Seminary and College. Highlight of that Jubilee was a Pageant, which pictured in a series of scenes the growth of these two institutions.

The Pageant was an artistic triumph for everyone who had anything to do with it, but chief credit goes to Prof. Dr. Henry Zylstra. He it was who conceived the Pageant, and produced the script. Without that all else would have been impossible.

It was no easy matter to build up the Pageant out of the material at hand. Zylstra had to engage in time consuming historical research in order to dig out of dusty newspaper files and musty volumes the substance for the Pageant. Then his fertile brain supplied him with an idea which unified the countless number of seemingly disparate historical data into a thing of coherent beauty. All great ideas are simple. Zylstra’s unifying idea, as simple as it is brilliant, was to make the Pageant show how the present Calvin Seminary and College grew out of very small beginnings.

Zylstra succeeded admirably in showing that for the Seminary. However, in the embryonic development of the College he overlooked three events, to each of which a proper historical evaluation would have accorded a scene in the Pageant. But in view of his large and eminent success with the Pageant as a whole it is not too hard to condone his partial failure. What accounts for that failure is probably lack of time to push his historical research till he had uncovered all of the information concealed in the original sources.

As a supplement to the Pageant I offer three footnotes. I do this however with the greatest diffidence. For I can do that only by speaking of my father and myself. I have waited this long to do this in the hope that someone else would do it. But the time that has now elapsed makes it fairly certain that no one else is going to undertake to provide this supplement to the Pageant, so really necessary in the interest of historical completeness and justice.

The First Footnote

The Synod of 1894 passed a resolution to open what was then called the Literary Department of the Theological School to others than those studying for the ministry. When my father came to this country in 1891 there were only a very few Christian grade schools. It is well known that it was my father who, more than anyone else, gave the impetus to the marvelous expansion of the Christian school movement in which we rejoice today. It is perhaps less well known that it was also my father who, shortly after his arrival in this country, began to agitate for a Christian college. The 1894 Synodical resolution was the result of his agitation.

Years passed however without anything being done to implement aforesaid resolution. But as the Roman senator Cato ended everyone of his speeches saying “But Carthage must be destroyed,” so my father kept on saying in season and out of season: “A College must be built,“ or in Dutch: “Een College moet er komen.”

The Rev. Vanden Bosch had a large share in the establishment of our Christian Reformed Church. He was the first and for a time the only minister of the tiny, new-born denomination. He it was also whose urgings led to the establishment of our Seminary. The Pageant in one of its scenes gave him the recognition and credit he so fully deserved. Since the Literary Department was implicit in the Seminary, and since it was out of that Literary Department that Calvin College developed, the Rev. Vanden Bosch was the Urvater not only of our Seminary but also of our College. The Rev. Koene Vanden Bosch was the father of our Seminary and the grandfather of our College. But the man to whom the paternity of our College must be traced directly was the Rev. Klaas Kuiper.

The silence in which the Pageant passed over my father’s name constitutes a really serious lacuna, which will permanently mar its largely excellent historical presentation. It was also a wonderful opportunity which the Pageant missed. ‘What a dramatic scene that would have made; the Rev. Kuiper pleading for the establishment of an institution for Christian higher education among us, and ending his plea with his now historical slogan: “Een college moet er komen!”

The Second Footnote

My father must have been a very happy man when in 1900, after many discouraging delays of several years, he saw one of his most cherished dreams begin to take tangible shape at last. In that year the resolution of the 1894 Synod finally went into effect, and for the first time students who did not have the ministry in view were enrolled in our Theological School.

Up to that time only those who intended to become ministers could receive an education beyond the eighth grade in a Christian institution of our own, namely, the Literary Department of our TheologicaI School. All others who desired that more advanced education had to go to a public high school or a private academy to obtain it. The opening of the Literary Department of our Theological School to others than those studying for the ministry now for the first time made a Christian high school education available to all our boys, and not only to all our boys but to all our girls as well. That event was therefore a tremendous step forward in the history of the Christian education movement among us, and marks the year 1900 as a milestone in that history. Moreover, in that event lay hidden the germ of Calvin College.

That this event was not portrayed by the Pageant was therefore another serious oversight. As a result of that event conditions in our Theological School were rendered very different in 1900 from what they had been before that date, and therein lay material for what might have been a very effective scene.

The increase in the number of students and in the number of subjects taught made an increase in the number of teachers necessary. Up to this time there were two men who taught exclusively in the Literary Department of our Theological School: the professors A. J Rooks and K. Schoolland. This number was now doubled by the appointment of J G. Vanden Bosch and B. K. Kuiper. The first was a grand-nephew of the Rev. Koene Vanden Bosch, the father of our Seminary; the second a son of the Rev. Klaas Kuiper, the father of our College.

Up to 1900 only men attended our Theological School. Most of them were mature men. Some wore beards and were fathers of families. Now in the fall of 1900 there appeared in the halls and classrooms of the old building on Madison avenue for the first time boys in knee pants and also a girl.

The Literary Department of our Theological School had become co-educational.

As deeply gratifying as it has been to me to write these first two footnotes, inspired as they were by a sense of filial piety, so embarrassing it is to me to write the third footnote, for now I have to speak of myself. What has prompted me to overcome what would be false modesty is the demand of historical objectivity. The very structure of the Pageant, aiming as it did at depicting how our College grew out of very small beginnings, called for a scene representing the event which is the subject of the third footnote.

That the Pageant did not include such a scene is entirely excusable. The event took place in the seclusion of a classroom in the building on Madison avenue and Franklin street, then called Fifth avenue, before Zylstra was born. Its meaning at the time must have seemed so insignificant that probably no record of it exists.

The Third Footnote

I am sure no one today thinks of me as a scientist. Fact is however, that aside from Prof. Rooks who before my time gave a course in Physiology, I was Calvin’s first science teacher. True, from the beginning history was my main line. But owing to the primitive conditions of the early days every teacher had to teach besides his main subject several other branches. In addition to history I taught among other things Physiography, Physiology, Physics, and Botany.

There was no laboratory. There was no apparatus of any kind. At my initiative the first pieces of apparatus were bought: a compound microscope and two or three small boxes with slides. This apparatus was used in the class in Botany.

The way this apparatus was used was something to see. The microscope, a really good one and quite expensive, when not in use was housed in a beautiful box of highly polished wood. The box on one side had a door, and a brass handle on top. The box was stored in a closet. When a demonstration was to be given I would go to the closet, open it, take firm hold of the handle, open it, take firm hold of the handle, carry the box out, and set it beside me on the platform. Then with great solemnity I would open the door of the box, take out the microscope, and place it upon the desk. Next I would with infinite care insert a slide. None of the pupils knew anything about microscopes or slides. They had followed the procedure so far with bated breath. Now the great moment had come. The members of the class were invited to come up to the desk one by one. Then they looked into the microscope, adjusted it, and peered at the wonders revealed by the magnifying lens.

There was rich material here out of which could have been fashioned one of the most striking scenes in the whole Pageant. It would not have been an unamusing scene. And how vividly such a scene would have impressed upon everybody’s mind how, through the loyal support and amazing liberality of our people, our school, under the blessing of God, within the short span of half a century had made incredible progress from the teaching of a few very elementary science courses, not in a laboratory, but in an ordinary classroom, by one man, who had no training in science to speak of, and who had to do the best he could with only the most meagre equipment, to our present million dollar science building, with its many laboratories filled with an abundance of excellent and costly apparatus, and staffed by a large number of highly trained and very able science teachers.

The reader will readily realize that these footnotes do not in any way detract from Prof. Zylstra’s craftsmanship. I freely admit that I would not have known how to set about the making of a Pageant. After Zylstra had shown how, it was easy to add these supplementary footnotes. For unlike Zylstra I did not need to do a great deal of laborious historical research. I could draw upon my memory. For together with the professors Rooks and Vanden Bosch I am among the rapidly dwindling number of survivors, who were participants in the events of those far away days.