Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

The Dutch Church Splits - Two Secession Movements

Written by Rev. C.A. Schouls
This month Rev. Schouls resumes the series on Church History that was interrupted by two articles on the Second Reformation in the Netherlands, We now go into the latest phases of Dutch Reformed history. Again, these are only ÒthumbnailÓ sketches. Various aspects of this history have been dealt with in our ÒTheological JournalÓ and at Elders and Deacons Conferences. For those interested, Rev. VanderMeyden, the editor of the Journal, will be able to give detailed references.
At the end of the period known as ÒThe Second Reformation, the church was not in good health. It soon fell prey to more and more government control. In the Netherlands, after the period of French control under Napoleon, the church was placed under the direct control of the government. There was even a cabinet position dealing with the affairs of the church. The fact that in 1815, following the defeat of Napoleon and in the reshuffling of power structures at the great conference in Vienna, the nation had been made a monarchy, did little to help the church.

However, there were various movements swirling around the Netherlands and they did not bypass the church there. There were evidences of revival in the English speaking world (the Great Awakening in the U.S.A. was one of them) and there was a great interest in piety in Germany. Holland, in many ways between Germany and the English world, and the church in Holland, were not unaffected. Although it had fallen under government control, with all which that implies, a time of renewal did come about for the church.

The Pietist movement had earlier had its effect in the Second Reformation. This, in turn, left a legacy of books, printed sermons and a tradition of small meetings that bore fruit more than a hundred years later. As the church came under state control, it sank deeper into spiritual death and liberalism. According to the laws of the land, anyone could fill the pulpit, even an avowed atheist. Such was tolerance! Reaction set in, fuelled by the remnants of the Second Reformation. At stake was an issue regarding the authority of the Creeds--must they be obeyed because they agree with Scripture or only insofar they agree with Scripture?

The Dutch secession movement was not unique: similar events took place in Scotland where, in 1843, the Kirk of Scotland lost a sizeable number to the newly formed ÒFree Kirk of Scotland.Ó The Dutch secession came in two wavesÑrelated, yet distinctly different from each other.

The Secession of 1834
This movement began rather unexpectedly and spontaneously and was triggered by some apparently minor conflicts. Various young ministers (de Cock, Scholte, van Raalte, Brummelkamp) who had formed spiritual bonds in their students days, suddenly found themselves in several conflicts with the established church (the Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk--the NHK) and the government which controlled it. Because of their biblical preaching, these men drew great crowds of hearers, also from other churches. They publicly opposed various heresies tolerated in the church; one of the areas of conflict involved the singing of Òman-madeÓ hymns rather than the inspired Psalms. Another conflict had to do with baptism: de Cock baptized children of parents who were not of his congregation but who could not agree with the doctrines taught in their own churches. Although from a formal point of view de Cock was wrong in doing this, his standpoint was necessary to call a halt to the ongoing corruption in the church. He was suspended and his friend H.P. Scholte preached for him. The friends stood together and all were either suspended, fined or both.

Although the matters may seem minor now, many people then understood there were deeper issues at stake. They sought a return to the creeds which would give direction to the church and, especially, to the preaching. When on October 13, 1834, the consistory of de CockÕs church in the small northern town of Ulrum signed a declaration entitled ÒAn Act of Secession and ReturnÓ, they did two things: 1) they broke the formal unity of the NHK, up till this time the only Reformed church body in the land, paving the way for many to follow; 2) they vowed to return to that church as soon as it would heal its backsliding and, in the meantime, they led the way in returning to what the church had been earlier.

Three basic principles marked this Secession: 1) they withdrew from what they called the ÒfalseÓ State Church; 2) they professed loyalty to the Three Forms of Unity and the Church Order of Dort; 3) they expressed desire for church fellowship with all who are like-minded.

This Secession continued for more than 20 years. Many groups came and went. In general, this marks the beginning of the various Dutch Reformed churches. The NHK survived. There had always remained a faithful remnant in that body and a reform movement within it that started near the end of the century was partially successful (De Gereformeerde Bond - The Reformed Alliance). Today this large church is formally one but internally sharply divided. In it there are moderates, but also there is much extreme liberalism; the ÒAllianceÓ is very close to us in its theology and outlook. A number of our families have their roots in this Alliance movement.

From 1834 to 1860 the situation was very confused. Various groups finally united under the name Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk (literally: Christian Reformed Church)--still the name of our Òsister churchÓ in Holland. This is the church from which our churches are descended. During these formative years, these people had a hard time: they were oppressed, sometimes imprisoned and/or fined; they were not allowed to meet in groups larger than 20; they were refused permission to own public buildings and church property; in areas were there was strong support for the Secession, soldiers were sent in to Òkeep the peaceÓ and they were often billeted with these people. The practice of the consistory praying before a church service had its origins in this setting. Gradually, they gained freedoms and recognition. Internally, there was much strife over the meaning of the covenant, baptism and justification. All these issues are still under discussion today and are the primary cause for the divisions within the Reformed community.

ÒDoleantieÓ - 1886
After the Secession of 1834, conditions in the NHK worsened. Not all the ÒconcernedÓ members had left in 1834. Especially the leaders of the Reveil movement stayed on. (This ÒRevivalÓ had begun in Switzerland and, much like the Great Awakening in the eighteenth century, it had affected many in Europe and been the cause for a true revival; the leaders of the Secession of 1834 had been directly stimulated by it.) Some of these men had leading positions in government and in education. But the greatest name of this period is that of Abraham Kuyper.

Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920)
This was probably the greatest mind produced by the Dutch Reformed world in the last century. He was, without a doubt, a genius. He was a two-term member of parliament and in 1901 served briefly as prime minister. He had entered the ministry of the Word after formal and routine training. Early in his ministry he was not Reformed (later he claimed he was not even converted). His conversion took place through the influence of a simple but godly woman in his first congregation. Once he saw the truth, he became strongly Reformed. In 1872 he, with others, launched a Christian daily, ÒDe StandaardÓ. In 1878 he founded the Anti-Revolutionary Party, which was a force in Dutch politics for nearly one hundred years. In 1880 he was the prime mover behind the founding of the Free University of Amsterdam, to promote and defend Reformed higher education.

Despite all this, it must be said that his brand of Calvinism was not like CalvinÕs. His views, especially as they have developed to today, are often referred to as neo-Calvinism (ÒnewÓ Calvinism). Among other things, Kuyper claimed that Christians are to participate in every area of life and bring it all under the dominion of Christ. There was a strong emphasis on action but, in his preaching and teaching he did not stress enough the need for conversion. Because of his peculiar covenant views, (he held that all children of believers were presumed to have been born again until they showed otherwise) his followers led the church in the direction of considering all members of the church to be saved unless there was clear evidence to the contrary. These views took some years to develop and were not all readily recognized at first; however, when the break came with the NHK in 1886, a number of the 1834 leaders were wary of his views.

KuyperÕs protests focussed on church political matters and had to do with the authority of the local church. In 1886 the break took place. At first the church said it was ÒdolerendÓ (lamenting, complaining) but soon enough it saw that a formal break was necessary. Now there were two secession movements--that of 1834 and that of 1886. It was charged that Kuyper had no business setting up yet another church federation and, immediately, talks were held to come to a union between the two.

This union did come about merely six years later. The 1834(A) and the 1886(B) groups were welded together. Not all of the ÒAÓ group went along: four congregations refused on the grounds that there were real theological differences (there were!) and that the union was imposed from the top down (it was!) The new church took the name Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (GKN) The lingering differences were to be settled at the Synod of 1905 (held in the city of Utrecht). A compromise statement was made in which KuyperÕs covenant views were upheld (the ÒConclusions of UtrechtÓ). Forty years later, this church ruptured and the ÒLiberatedÓ Reformed Churches were born (1944--we know them as ÒCanadian ReformedÓ). The Synod of 1905 had not brought a lasting union.

The four continuing churches of 1892 were soon joined by others who withdrew from the union imposed in 1886. They kept the name Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk and have, by the grace of God, stayed faithful to the Scriptures. Sad to say, this cannot be said of the GKN, as subsequent developments have shown. In the main, it is a very liberal church.

The Conclusions of Utrecht 1905 were adopted by the Christian Reformed Church of North America at its synod of Kalamazoo, 1908. Thus, this church, which was born out of and kept the name of the 1834 secession church, in fact, became a full sister church of the GKN and remains so until today. In 1962 they removed the 1908 decision in an effort to get closer to the Canadian Reformed and the Free Reformed; however, simply declaring something to be ÒinoperativeÓ rather than a doctrinal error, does not change anything. The doctrine of presumptive regeneration became deeply rooted in Christian Reformed Church thinking. It was not until the recent formation of the United Reformed Churches (the ÒIndependentsÓ) that some criticism of this view was again being heard.

The Netherlands Reformed Congregations
Going back for a moment to the middle of the nineteenth century, we find in the 1834 Secession movement a number of small, independent groups and churches which had a strong emphasis on personal, experiential religion and which could not find their place in the mainstream of this movement. In 1907, after many unions and splits, alignments and re-alignments, these churches were, for the most part, united under the leadership of Rev. G. H. Kersten and took the name ÒReformed Congregations in the Netherlands.Ó We know them as the Netherlands Reformed Congregations.

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