Back in the Day with the CRC

James Bratt describes worship and preaching at Eastern Avenue CRC (Grand Rapids, for the uninitiated in Dutch-American Calvinism) during the 1940s:

Worship services themselves made modest accommodations to the American world. English services were introduced alongside the Dutch only at the end of World War I, and against the will of even the progressive Johannes Groen. The singing of hymns, as opposed to exclusive psalmody, had been a major grievance of the 1834 Secession in the Netherlands, but the practice tended to come along with English services. The CRC’s 1914 Psalter Hymnal limited hymns to an obscure, heavily didactic Presbyterian collection calibrated to the fifty-two Lord’s Days of the Heidelberg Catechism. In 1934 the denomination published a more extensive Psalter, including 141 hymns next to 327 Psalm settings, the former selected according to “doctrinal soundness, New Testament character, dignity, and depth of devotional spirit, and clearness and beauty of expression.” None had the slightest odor of Arminianism. At the same time, leaders tried to impose a uniform order of worship across the denomination, a movement that Eastern Avenue resisted because of the “formalism” of some of the new order’s prescriptions: recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, reading of the Decalogue, and a service of confession and absolution. The same reform allowed choirs to take part in worship, another “American” gesture that Eastern had long suspected. They did encourage vocal and instrumental ensembles but had these perform after services. The church year was not organized by liturgical seasons but by preaching through the Catechism. Baptisms (once a month) far outnumbered celebrations of the Lord’s Supper (once a quarter), but profession of faith — normatively in one’s late teens — overshadowed them both. Groen’s pastorate averaged two a week.

As for theology, a glimpse at Pastor Christian Huissen’s deliverances during World War II reveals the most resolute Calvinism in force, at great odds with the more liberal confidences in play at Park Church (the Congregationalist cross-town rival). The calls that Vandenberg heard for immediate planning to institute a postwar regime of peace Huissen decried as arrogant folly: unless everyone started to “reckon with the risen Christ . . . the coming peace treaty will be the beginning of the next war.” Upon news that one of the eighty-eight youth that Eastern had sent into the armed forces had died in action, Huissen responded: “The world would say you have given your life so that the world may be a better place to live in. We do not believe that. The world will not be a better place to live in.” Rather, the young man had done his duty before earthly powers, enjoining those left behind to exceed mere duty and perform joyful service unto the power that really counted, the eternal Lord. That God exercised as specific and absolute a control over events as any Calvinist could imagine: “Every bullet and every bomb goes exactly where he has predestined that it should go,” Huissen declared, so that of Eastern’s fallen son it could be said, “The Time, manner of death, and all the circumstances are exactly as he deemed best.” In so anxious a world, Christian Reformed people whether at war or at home were simply to keep their minds daily on God and keep themselves weekly at worship. (James Bratt, “Rites of the Tribes: Two Protestant Congregations in a Twentieth-Century City,” 149-150)

Do Supreme Court justices, homosexuality, or Planned Parenthood videos generate more anxiety than world war?


6 thoughts on “Back in the Day with the CRC

  1. But the new calvinism is not so fatalistic as to say that God has a purpose, and our “political engagement” is not also necessary to get history moving back in the right direction.

    Bratt—“Put in Dutch Calvinist terms: if forced to choose, Machen would let the Christian cultural task give way to the confessional church; Kuyper would force the confessional church to take up the cultural task. Put in American Presbyterian terms, Kuyper had some strong New School traits where Machen had none. To be sure Kuyper’s predestinarianism was at odds with the New Schools Arminian tints and his movement had a low impetus for “soul-saving,” but his organizational zeal was like Lyman Beecher’s in purpose and scale, his educational purposes at the Free University recalled Timothy Dwight’s at Yale, and his invocation of the “city on a hill” to describe the church’s place in a world recalled the charter image of Puritan New England which was ever the New Schools’ aspiration. Kuyper honored New England as the “core of the American nation” and shared its definition of Christian liberty as a communal opportunity to do the right thing. At that Machen would only shudder. He indicted the “angry passions of 1861″ by which New England trampled on the south, and defined Christian liberty as the individual’s protection from the wrong thing. When put to the test, Machen endorsed the political model of Thomas Jefferson. At that Kuyper would only shudder back. (“Abraham Kuyper, J. Gresham Machen, and the Dynamics of Reformed Anti-Modernism,” Journal of Presbyterian History Winter 1997 75.4, 254)


  2. But won’t being in the National Association of Evangelicals help men newly ordained by the CRC or the OPV to become military chaplains?

    Peter Eldersveld, of The Back to God hour, in 1948 —“The National Association of Evangelicals is Arminian. A formal united front before the world becomes exceedingly questionable for Calvinists when those with whom we are joined deny the real fundamentals of the faith, such as Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and the Perseverance of the Saints. It is ironical, to say the least, that those who deny these Fundamentals
    should be called Fundamentalists!. What happens to our Reformed witness to the world when, by a formal and official representation, we are silent on those salient points….?


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