A Bit to Read
The Secession of 1834 – Choice against Rationalism
I had opportunity in Catechism Class the other day to discuss the Secession of 1834 with the Catechism students. I know that teachers have covered some of this material with the students in the school classroom, but it was still disconcerting to discover how little the young people knew of what Jesus Christ had done in this period of His church’s history. Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat their father’s mistakes, some wag once said, and history shows he’s right. The events surrounding the Secession of 1834 involved many of our ancestors, and so we do well to have a reasonably accurate understanding of what that Secession was all about. With Reformation Day around the corner (and so a brief emphasis on Church History) it may be good to share some information about the Secession in this column. There’s more than a bit to read here; it might even make two bits.
The church in the Netherlands at the beginning of the nineteenth century was officially bound to the Word of God as confessed in the three Forms of Unity, just as we are today. Even so, the church at that time permitted and condoned preaching that denied the depraved nature of man, and that contradicted the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ. Man, proclaimed the average preacher, was not totally corrupt, but knew by nature what was good and evil. Sin was not disobedience against God, but was rather a moral defect. Christ had not come into the world to save sinners through His substitutionary suffering and death, but came instead to be the example people were to follow; by leading a virtuous life as Christ did, one was on an open road to heaven. That’s the sort of sound our fathers heard as they sat in the pew Sunday by Sunday. And many of them were quite content with that….
This sound was not new. It had, in essence, been propagated some two centuries earlier by Jacob Arminius. The Dutch churches had emphatically rejected the teachings of this man in the Canons adopted by the Synod of Dort in 1618-19, and had bound themselves officially and firmly to the Scriptural teaching of man’s total depravity and God’s gift of salvation through grace alone in Jesus Christ. But in the days preceding the Secession, the Canons of Dort lay buried under layers of dust.
In fact, in 1807 a selection of 192 ‘evangelical hymns’ was introduced into the churches, to be sung alongside the existing 150 psalms. Characteristic of these hymns was the emphasis on the religious man, with his spiritual feelings and experiences. These hymns sang not primarily of Christ’s redemptive work, or man’s sinfulness and hence need for redemption, but instead encouraged the religious man to follow the example of Christ and so to lead the virtuous life – and so achieve salvation. The churches on the whole calmly accepted these hymns.
A further indication that things were not well became evident in 1816. The Church Order formulated by the Synod of Dort had been built on the premise that Jesus Christ was Head of the Church. Now a new Church Order was imposed on the churches, one in which the secular authorities received ultimate control of church affairs. In agreement with the desire of the king, the synod now became an instrument of the state. No longer was the Word of God the final court of appeal in the church; the secular government instead received that role.
Also in 1816 a new Form of Subscription was imposed upon the church. The previous Form of Subscription, dating from the time of the Synod of Dort, required that every office bearer declare his firm belief that all the articles and doctrines of the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort agreed in everything with the Word of God. The new Form of Subscription now had office bearers declare that they would believe and would teach the doctrines mentioned in the three Forms of Unity in so far as these teachings agreed with the Word of God. In other words, the contents of the confessions did not necessarily summarise accurately what God had revealed in Scripture; rather, each office bearer could now disagree with a particular Lord’s Day, and freely teach its opposite on grounds that you had promised in the Subscription Form to teach according to the Forms of Unity only in so far as their teachings agreed with Scripture. So a wedge was driven between Scripture and the Confessions, and the personal insights of the office bearer became the judge between the two. The Confessions, then, no longer had any binding authority, and the pulpits were legally open to any wind of doctrine. So the Canons of Dort, with its teaching about the depravity of man and the atoning work of Jesus Christ, could be officially denied as not agreeing with the Bible. Changing the Form of Subscription officially loosened the ship of God’s church from her anchor in God’s Word, and set her adrift in the uncertain seas of human rationalism.
Hendrik deCock (1801-1942) received a training for the ministry in agreement with the spirit of the times, and that’s to say that he learned to preach liberalism and modernism according to the itching ears of the majority in the pews. As a young preacher, then, he zealously proclaimed the gospel of man’s goodness, of his ability to win salvation from God through following the worthy example of Jesus Christ. Such was the man who became minister of the Word of God in the church of Ulrum in 1829, his third congregation. The congregation received him with a measure of dissatisfaction because of his known liberal slant.
But under the guidance of the Head of the Church, Rev deCock developed a warm relationship with his flock. Upon the advice of elder Beukema, the young minister began to study reformed literature which he had never read before. This included –surprise!– an abridged edition of Calvin’s Institutes as well as the Canons of Dort – neither of which he had read during his time in the seminary. His prayerful reading of this material, together with further talks with the simple of faith in his congregation, was used by the Lord to work an upright faith in this preacher. The word of the simple farmhand Kuipenga made a deep impression on him: “If I am to add even one sigh to make my salvation possible, I would be lost forever.” The content of his sermons changed; he no longer preached the goodness of man, but preached instead the gospel of free grace in Jesus Christ for lost sinners. From far and wide the hungry came to Ulrum to be fed by the bread of life as proclaimed by Rev deCock. Though labourers worked long days, it was not uncommon for many to walk 15 kilometres on Sunday morning to hear Rev deCock, and walk another 15 kilometres home in the afternoon. They came in droves so that for many there was no room in the church itself; they stood outside to listen, to learn, to still their gnawing hunger….
“Looking to the Command; Blind to the Future”
Rev deCock was not a pretentious man. He did not systematically attack the wrongs in the Church by writing or sending appeals. He simply preached, in a positive manner, the full doctrine of salvation each Sunday anew, and he prayed publicly that God would graciously raise up a person capable of spearheading the attack against liberalism in the church.
Meanwhile, Rev deCock did what he could to teach the people. Those ancient publications which had been so instrumental in opening his own eyes to the riches of the gospel –the Canons of Dort and the abridged edition of Calvin’s Institutes– he republished and made available to his countrymen.
While the simple of faith greeted this effort with gladness, the broader circle of deCock’s colleagues responded with apprehension. For the theology of these old reformed heirlooms did not at all agree with the free spirit of the day. To state that man was lost, was deserving of eternal punishment, and was totally at the mercy of a just God, did not fit with the enlightened views of the nineteenth century. At a result, other ministers published counter brochures in favour of the modern consensus and the church membership was encouraged to reject Rev deCock’s primitive narrow-mindedness.
Particularly two of these publications were sharp in their attacks on the Canons of Dort. These two brochures, authored respectively by Revs Brouwer (Necessary Warnings and Salutary Advice to my Congregation) and Reddingius (Letters concerning the Current Divisions and Movements in the Reformed Church), offered attacks at times sharp and sarcastic on the Reformed doctrine and its defenders. They claimed that the doctrine as contained in the Canons of Dort was “unbiblical, passive and unfruitful.” And the pastor of Ulrum was made out to be a schismatic, a deceiver of the flock and in league with the Jesuites.
It was when deCock learned that all his colleagues in his classical area agreed with Brouwer and Reddingius that he felt compelled to begin writing. He published a brochure, “Defence of the True Reformed Doctrine and the True Reformed People". The subtitle made a reference to Brouwer and Reddingius: "The Sheepfold of Christ Attacked by Two Wolves and Defended by H deCock". In this brochure he did as was his custom on the pulpit; he defended from Scripture the doctrine of salvation through faith alone in Jesus Christ for the lost sinner. Large numbers of people were delighted with this publication.
But the church officials were not amused. In response to this brochure, the power brokers of the church summoned Rev deCock to appear before a classical board (December, 1833). Because he refused to retract what he had written about the Scriptural faith, these power brokers from elsewhere in the land suspended him from his office in the church of Ulrum for a period of two years. The official ground for this suspension was: he “overthrows the good order in the Church.” Peace and quiet was of greater importance than humble acceptance of the holy Word of the living God.
Rev deCock’s suspension did not lead to his silence. In April 1834, Rev deCock wrote a preface to a pamphlet written by a certain Jacobus Klok, entitled “The Evangelical Hymns Tested and Found Wanting”. In his preface, deCock charged that these hymns of 1807 deprived the Reformed people of the true faith, for they applauded the goodness of man. Clearly, the issue was not the use of hymns as such; the issue was rather the attacks which these hymns made on the Scripture and therefore on the confessions drawn from Scripture.
In May 1834 the provincial church board deposed deCock as minister of the church in Ulrum, on the ground that he had again broken the good order in the church. Once again, it was not doctrinal honesty, nor respect and love for God and His revelation, that prompted this decision. The church leaders desired but one thing, and that was peace and quiet. To achieve that goal, Rev deCock had to go.
Although the deposition was temporarily retracted, appeals by deCock to the higher church courts, even to the king, were vain. It became abundantly clear that the ecclesiastical leaders were not willing to bow before the Word of God as confessed in the three Forms of Unity. So there remained no alternative for deCock but to separate himself from the Reformed Church in the Netherlands.
Further appeal to higher courts had proven futile. Upon the urgings of his consistory and congregation, deCock agreed, in October 1834, to break his bonds with the church that refused to bow before the Word of God. Over the weeks and months it had become apparent that hatred had developed within the Reformed Church, a hatred directed against those who defended Scripture and confession, a hatred that was ultimately directed against the God of the Scripture. So, on Tuesday, October 14, 1834, the congregation of Ulrum met together to sign an “Act of Separation or Return”. By signing this act, the faithful of Ulrum gave testimony to their desire to uphold the reformed Confessions. Not only did they embrace wholeheartedly the Canons of Dort with its articles on the corruption of man and his need for God’s grace, they clung also to the Belgic Confession with its marks of the true and false church. This “Act of Separation or Return” notes the fact that the state church had lost the marks of the true church; in fact, it displayed the marks of the false church as listed in Article 29. As a result of this observation, the subscribers to this act concluded that they had a duty to “separate themselves from those who are not of the church” (see Article 28, Belgic Confession) and “declare at the same time their willingness to practice communion with all true Reformed members and unite with every assembly based upon God’s infallible Word.” Again, that’s in strict harmony with the Word of God as echoed in Article 28, Belgic Confession.
It was this love for God and respect for His holy Word that characterized those who seceded from the apostate state church. That was evident also by their decision, as recorded in the “Act of Separation or Return”, to “abide in all things by God’s holy Word and by our time-honoured Forms of Unity, based in all things upon that Word, namely, the Confession of Faith, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of the Synod of Dort.” Theirs was a desire to manage all things according to the pure Word of God, to acknowledge Jesus Christ as the only Head of the Church. So they acted in faith, following the command of Christ, knowing that the future would not be easy, but aware that those who follow the Shepherd wherever He may lead will not be disappointed.
Struggle and Triumph
For those who separated themselves from the state church, life was indeed not easy. Internally, the Seceeders were a motley group, with different emphases and few leaders. Six young ministers served in the Secession churches, the oldest a mere 33 years (Rev deCock himself), the youngest 23. All six had received their theological training from liberal professors, all had to orientate themselves properly in the works of bygone reformed writers. Yet on these six preachers the Lord laid the mantles of leadership. Together they struggled to comprehend the riches of Scripture as the church had known and proclaimed it 200 years ago at the time of the Synod of Dort. Together they struggled to feed the sheep in the growing number of Seceeded congregations (by 1836, the six ministers served some 128 congregations!). Together they struggled against the hostility of the government and of the state church, and encouraged the faithful in the face of persecution and oppression.
It was a time of struggle for the rejuvenated churches. But by the grace of God, they persevered. Through these young men, God worked a miracle, to gather a church in nineteenth century Holland that could be an enormous blessing in the land as a whole and the world beyond. God could use them because they desired to be faithful, because they bowed reverently before the Word of God and therefore held the Confessions in high esteem.
Coming Friday is Reformation Day. May the remembrance of God’s mighty and gracious works in history prompt us to stay informed, and so to be alert against current attacks on the sheepfold of Jesus Christ.
October 24, 2008