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Canadian Reformed Churches - a History

Canadian Reformed Churches: where from and why?.doc


A Bit to Read

Canadian Reformed Churches: where from and why?

In previous Bits to Read we’ve spent some time considering moments in church history that touched dramatically on the Canadian Reformed Churches. These included the Secession of 1834 (October 2008), the Doleantie of 1886 and the Union of 1892 (February 2009), and lastly the Liberation of 1944 (April 2009).  The story should be completed with a brief introduction to the founding of the Canadian Reformed Churches. 

Background 

Back in the 1830s Rev Hendrik deCock rediscovered the gospel of free grace through the redeeming blood of Jesus Christ, and proclaimed it faithfully from his pulpit.  In the process he warned strongly against particular sins officially embraced in the Reformed Church (Hervormde Kerk).  His insistence on speaking faithfully from the Scripture earned him the anger and the judgment of the church authorities, with the result that he was deposed from office.  His congregation refused to accept the deposition of their faithful minister, and so seceded from the unfaithful church.  Others soon followed.  This was the Secession of 1834.  In the course of subsequent years, children of this reformatory movement migrated to the New World and eventually formed the Christian Reformed Church of North America.

Some five decades after the Secession of 1834, Rev Abraham Kuyper led a second reformatory attempt in the Dutch Hervormde Kerk.  He too returned in his preaching and considerable writing to the gospel of free grace in Jesus Christ.  His efforts to speak and write in conformity with the Scriptures and the historical confessions of the church resulted in his suspension and deposition also.  This second exodus from the Hervormde Kerk, known as the Doleantie, occurred in 1886.

The churches of the Secession and of the Doleantie merged in the Union of 1892 to form the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands.  Understandably, this united group maintained sister church relations with the Christian Reformed Church in North America, for they recognized a common heritage and faith.

The merged Reformed Churches of the Netherlands underwent a painful struggle in the course of World War 2, resulting in a Liberation in 1944 of some 10% of the total church membership.  This Liberation came about in reaction to the demands of the major assembly of the churches (the Synod), which insisted that all office bearers in the churches agree to teach Kuyper’s doctrine of Presumptive Regeneration.  As this doctrine was not in agreement with Scripture or the historic reformed Confessions of the church, many objected strongly against both this doctrine and Synod’s insistence that it be embraced.  Dr Klaas Schilder was one of those who objected the loudest and clearest to Synod’s demand, and so Synod suspended and deposed him from his teaching ministry in the church.  This became the trigger to a meeting on 11 August 1944, at which an Act of Separation and Return was read and confirmed.  In the weeks and months that followed, numerous congregations and individuals left the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands to form the Reformed Churches (Liberated).

To Canada

The economic situation in Holland after the war was a mess, with little money and opportunity for work, and less housing.  Nazism had also rattled the convictions of many who were historically Christian, so that the spiritual spine of the Netherlands was distinctly eroded.  Add to this the fear of a perceived Communist threat rising in Eastern Europe….  These factors and so many more brought about a mass migration of Dutch people to the New World, be in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc.  In the decade from 1947 to 1957, some 100,000 Dutch people migrated to Canada alone.  These migrants came from every ecclesiastical background that Holland had at the time – including, then, those who had joined the Liberation of 1944.  

These Liberated people –ancestors for so many of us– took with them into the New World the things they held dear, including especially their faith in God and so their (Dutch) Bibles, confessions and song book.  More, their way of thinking was stamped by the heritage of the Secession, the Doleantie, the Union of the two, and most recently the Liberation of 1944.  With that heritage, these new migrants sought to find their way in a new land, a new language and a new culture.  The pressing question for these migrants was: where could they find a ‘church home’?  That is: which existing North American church could they join?  That, after all, was the mandate of their own confession: the Lord Jesus Christ gathers a church from any race and nation (Article 27, Belgic Confession) and since He’s at work no one is permitted to stay separate from it, but all are instead “obliged to join it and unite with it” (Article 28).  This was a confession many Liberated migrants were determined to take seriously.

At this point in the story I need to mention that Dr Klaas Schilder had travelled to North America in 1939, and received a cordial welcome in the Christian Reformed Church (be it with some hesitation due to his criticism of the CRC’s position on Rev Herman Hoeksema and his Protestant Reformed Churches – but that’s another story).  However, when he travelled to North America for a second visit shortly after the Liberation of 1944, the Christian Reformed Church emphatically rejected him.  He was branded as a schismatic, and the blame for the recent disruption in their Dutch sister churches was laid at his feet.  Though Schilder sought to stimulate Christian Reformed leaders to investigate for themselves what actually happened in the Dutch churches during World War 2, the Christian Reformed leadership was not interested in doing so.  They refused to investigate, and at the same time maintained their insistence that Schilder and the Liberated churches sinned against the Lord in liberating themselves from the hierarchy of the synodical yoke.  This refusal, we note, is contrary to the will of God as confessed in Lord's Day 43 of the Heidelberg Catechism; in the ninth commandment God teaches that one must not “condemn or join in condemning anyone rashly and unheard.”  Understandably, this refusal influenced the advice Schilder gave to those who migrated to North America.  Instead of encouraging Liberated migrants to join the North American version of the Secession churches (ie, the Christian Reformed Church), he directed them to the Protestant Reformed Churches.

The first migrants

Among the first of the Liberated migrants to move to Canada was Mr John deHaas.  He ended up in the beet fields of southern Alberta, and joined the Christian Reformed Church of Nobleford.  He requested his consistory to make work of investigating thoroughly what the Liberation of 1944 was all about, and requested too that he (and other recent migrants who could not understand English) be permitted to read sermons originating from Liberated ministers.  Both requests were denied.  From this, Mr deHaas concluded that his consistory implicitly took a stand against the Liberation and therefore implicitly agreed with the Synod’s insistence on presumptive regeneration and deposition of Schilder (see the Bit to Read of April 2009 for more on that story).  Mr deHaas, therefore, felt that he could not in good conscience remain a member of this church.  Other recent migrants shared this conclusion, and so found themselves ecclesiastically alone in a foreign land.

Schilder’s advice had been to seek contact with the Protestant Reformed Churches.  There were, however, no Protestant Reformed Churches in Alberta (let alone Canada) at the time.  More significant was the fact that Hoeksema criticized Schilder’s willingness to disagree with Hoeksema and insisted that Liberated migrants be instructed in Protestant Reformed distinctives before they could be received into that church.  These distinctives included that God’s covenant was actually made only with the elect.  Developments in Ontario made clear that at the end of the day there was no room in the Protestant Reformed Churches for those who wished to stay with the simple emphases of the Three Forms of Unity (instead of being compelled to read those documents through Protestant Reformed theology).  Mr deHaas and those with him, then, decided they had no option but to institute a new church, one that satisfied the requirements of Article 29 of the Belgic Confession.  This church was instituted in Lethbridge on April 16, 1950, and identified itself as the Free Reformed Church of Lethbridge.

In short order other Liberated migrants instituted churches, namely, in Edmonton (July 9, 1950), Neerlandia (August 6, 1950) and Georgetown, ON (August 13, 1950).  The institution of the Neerlandia church needs special mention, as the members of this congregation were not recent migrants; their parents had migrated decades earlier and belonged to the Christian Reformed Church.  But they stayed abreast of developments in the Netherlands, understood that Schilder’s suspension had been contrary to the adopted Church Order, and so appealed to the Christian Reformed synod to investigate the split that had happened in the Netherlands.  When the CRC Synod of 1950 refused to do so and yet continued sister relations with one group and not the other (and so implicitly condemned the Liberation), a number of members left the Neerlandia Christian Reformed Church and, in consultation with the Edmonton church, instituted a new church in their own community.  Notice that here again the Christian Reformed Church refused to investigate what happened overseas, and yet in reality passed judgement on the one group. 

Federation

 These four churches met together in the first Classis Canada in Lethbridge in November, 1950.  On the agenda of this first meeting of the churches was (among other things) the matter of what it takes to be biblically faithful in this new land – and part of the answer was the decision to call the new churches the Canadian Reformed Churches.  Further, this classis recognized the need to move as soon as possible to the use of the English language in the church services and the singing of English psalms.  Yet the brothers did not wish to adopt liturgical material already existing in North America (including the Christian Reformed Psalter Hymnal), but determined to stay with the heritage they had taken with them.  So began the long development to an Anglo-Genevan Psalter (also known as the Book of Praise), a project completed in 1972 and improved in the years since.  

Growth

Besides the four churches present at that first classis, there was also a delegate from the ‘house congregation’ in New Westminster, just outside Vancouver.  With the increase of its numbers (due to some families moving from Lethbridge to the Fraser Valley), the church could be instituted in that locality on December 17, 1950.  This formed the official beginning of the Canadian Reformed Churches in British Columbia.  A second congregation in British Columbia was instituted in Houston on March 4, 1951.  

Under the blessing of the Lord the church in New Westminster grew.  In March 1954 a second church could be instituted in the Fraser Valley and is now known as Cloverdale.  A third church followed in Abbotsford in February, 1961, then Chilliwack in February, 1970, Langley in June, 1976, Lynden (Washington) in March, 1985, Willoughby Heights in January, 1990, Yarrow in June, 1993, and Aldergrove in January, 1994.  Meanwhile, the large majority of New Westminster’s membership moved to the east bank of the Fraser River, and so the name of that congregation was changed to Surrey.  This makes a current total of nine Canadian Reformed Churches in the Fraser Valley, with a total membership of some 3200 persons (of which some 1300 are children and young people).  Smithers, meanwhile, was instituted in September, 1952 and Vernon in November, 1987.  These twelve churches now form two classes, Classis Pacific West and Classis Pacific East.  

Of course, a parallel growth happened in Ontario, where the single congregation of Georgetown spawned some two dozen more churches in the province over the years.  Spread across Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia there are currently a total of 50 Canadian Reformed Churches (plus four American Reformed Churches south of the border), for a total membership of nearly 17,000 persons.

Why??

Nothing happens by chance.  The triumphant Christ ascended into heaven to direct world history according to the plan ordained by the Father (see Revelation 5).  In His wisdom He led things in such a way that persons from the Netherlands would migrate to Canada.  More, the persons He directed to Canada included those whose spiritual heritage was formed through the Secession of 1834, the Doleantie of 1886, the Union of 1892 and the Liberation of 1944.  This heritage was characterized by a deep awareness that sovereign God was pleased to claim sinners for Himself in a covenant of love, so that undeserving sinners might call God ‘Father’ and know themselves His children for Jesus’ sake.  As this God was Lord of all of life, every step of every day is taken in His presence and directed to His glory.

Hence this question: why would the Lord God want persons with this heritage in Canada??  And why should we be allowed to be carriers of this heritage?

No one, of course, can answer the question in full detail, for no one knows the mind of God.  But this much is clear: all God does has a purpose; He does nothing for nothing.  It follows that He wants this heritage in Canada, has a purpose for this heritage for the benefit of this nation.  And He in wisdom was pleased to make us carriers of this legacy!  That in turn means that we need to treasure this heritage, and live it out in our families and in our community.  

The point is important.  For better or worse, we carry our ‘reformed-ness’ with a measure of embarrassment.  Given that our heritage is scripturally grounded, and given that it has come to us through much struggle and anguish (and even bloodshed), we do well to be proud (in the Scriptural sense) of what the Lord has entrusted to us, and then make a point of demonstrating that pride through the way we wear our birthright.  To be reformed in Canada is a privilege!

C Bouwman
6 November, 2009