Today 133 years ago a child was born into a poor Christian family who was to be used by God for great things. He was to live at a time when several other poor commoners rose to great prominence. However, while this child became a blessing to the church and society, others became a curse, wreaking havoc, death and destruction.
For example, Stalin, the son of a poor shoemaker, used treason, terror, deceit, violence and murder to promote communism and become the head of the Soviet Union. In Austria another son of commoners, Adolf Hitler, used trickery, violence and brutality to elevate himself into a position of complete control of Germany and saturate it with national-socialism. And in Italy Benito Mussolini, son of a village blacksmith, used brutal methods to introduce fascism and become the strongman of Italy. With demonic ruthlessness these dictators instilled fear into the hearts of countless thousands, murdered millions and sought to promote their doctrine of darkness.
In sharp contrast, the child born 133 years ago today became a godsend for the cause of God’s kingdom work. His name was Klaas Schilder. Rev C. Veenhof and others provide the following about his childhood. [i]
Born to very poor parents in Kampen, the Netherlands, 19 December 1890, he was to rise to great prominence – not in the political arena but on the church scene. The Lord would use him to promote the Gospel of light in Jesus Christ. Unlike the ruthless dictators who elbowed their way to prominence, this man was a humble servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. He was thrust into the limelight by faithfully proclaiming God’s Word from pulpit and press, and by testing the spirits on the basis of Bible and the church’s confessions. The Lord would use him to liberate His church from false teachings and the dictatorship of a hierarchical synod.
His family belonged to the simple working class. Klaas’s father worked 90-100 hours per week as a cigar maker. In those days cigars were made by hand, not in a factory but at home, and then brought to the employer on a sort of contract basis. Since the tobacco was hung to dry in the kitchen the constant smell of tobacco permeated every corner of the house. Hygiene in the Schilder home was therefore very poor.
So was the family. Young Klaas’s father died in 1896 at the age of 35 and his mother was forced to move to a small, simple dwelling in a back-alley street. The poverty in the Schilder house was so bad that 4 months after father died the oldest son at 12 had to go to an orphanage. Mum could not afford to feed him. No government handouts in those days: no widow’s pension, no financial assistance. Even deacon help appeared to be negligible. Klaas’s mother worked very hard to care for her family and Schilder later referred to his mother’s efforts with respect, appreciation and love.
Yes, Klaas Schilder’s life during childhood was difficult. It was characterised by hard work, simple lifestyle and considerable poverty. This poverty strongly influenced Schilder’ s youth. Children can be cruel: other students treated him contemptuously because he was from the lower social class. This can be illustrated from an incident that happened at school. At recess the teacher told him to go outside for some fresh air for his fragile health. When he tried to join a group of his classmates, one of them, a minister’s son, said. “You go and join your own sort”. Being a very sensitive child, this pained Schilder and he was to refer back to it in later life.
Schilder’s appreciation of his mother was not only because she struggled so hard to care for him and offered so much to help him study for the ministry. He appreciated even more that through her they had become members of the Reformed Churches. He confessed his thanks to God “who wanted to give me a place in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands, in which I was not baptised but in which I was caught up during the years of conscious participation”.
Later, when he celebrated 25 years in the ministry, he said, “I have thanked the Lord that he brought me out of the Hervormde Kerk [the Dutch state church], in which I was baptised, and brought me into the bond of the Reformed Churches. These are the churches which I love with my whole soul, and which, by God’s grace, still stand as pillar and bulwark of the truth in this country.” He saw it as a tremendously rich blessing to be reformed.
Inspired at an early age with a desire to become a minister, there are reports that when a mere three years old he would stand on a box and ‘preach’. At school, his teachers were struck by his intelligence on the one hand – he was a very able student – and his appearance on the other – he was a pale, skinny little lad dressed in poor clothing. However, all the intelligence in the world could not remove one’s poverty and lower-class status and so, when he finished primary school, he became a messenger boy for a manufacturer and later worked in an office. One of his teachers, however, recognising potential in the lad, thought he should study on. Not without effort this teacher managed to find financial support so that young Klaas could study at a high school for those intending to become ministers. And so, at 12, Klaas Schilder returned to his studies and commenced his first year at high school.
A loner at first, he devoted himself to studying those subjects he considered essential for the ministry. This is reflected in that he did very poorly in maths in his first year, not because he couldn’t, but because he’d made up his mind that it wasn’t important for him. Consequently his terribly low maths mark stood out in sharp contrast to his other marks, which were outstanding. The teachers decided to tell him that if he didn’t pull up his socks in maths then, as far as they were concerned, he’d fail the course. Result: next year he did well in maths. Although he received top marks in Greek and Latin and could write fluently and flawlessly Greek, Latin and German verse, he remained at first a shy, timid but honest and faithful lad. The other kids left him alone. Sometimes he seemed in a dream world.
It wasn’t until in the fourth grade, when he was 16, that he came out of his shell and took a lively interest in student activities. He became renowned for his brilliant compositions – poetic, analytical and creative – published in Dutch, German, Latin and Greek under a variety of pseudonyms in the school’s almanac. His profound knowledge of classical and modern languages allowed him to unlock and wonder in awe at the strange and wonderful insights provided by the ancient, medieval and modern cultures. The literature and philosophies of writers of the past and present fascinated him. His brilliant mind probed and discerned the spirits, and with voice and pen he impressed hearers and readers with his profound observations.
This gifted young man could, like Abraham Kuyper, have risen to great heights in politics. He could, had he been godless like the dictators of his time, have stirred the masses and become a terrible destructive force in society. Alternatively, he could, had he been heretical, have led millions astray in the way Karl Barth did. But God, who gave him such outstanding abilities, gave him also a heart which sought to submit humbly to the authority of God’s Word and will. As Schilder once said:
“God commands. We may not do otherwise.
Our own heart compels us. We will not do otherwise.” [ii]
This attitude of renouncing own and others’ ideologies in order to submit in deep reverence to the revealed will of God most high, which Schilder saw so comfortingly and beautifully confessed in our Three Forms of Unity, is the same spirit that characterised the life of Calvin and, earlier, Luther. “Here I stand; I can do no other.” It is this attitude that God used to propel him, as with the earlier reformers, into the limelight and turmoil of church history for the glory of His name and the preservation of His church. About that, I have written elsewhere on this blogsite. Just as with Luther and Calvin, the church of our Lord Jesus Christ may look back with much thankfulness to what God graciously gave in this man.
For those readers seeking some worthwhile holiday reading, some of his works, such as the trilogy Christ in His Suffering, [iii] have been translated into English. It’s a gem. A worthwhile English translation about Schilder is Rudolf van Reest’s Schilder’s Struggle for the Unity of the Church. [iv] It shows how, in the matters confronting the church, Schilder—with his “insightful analysis, pointed style and exceptional command of language”—continually brought people back to the source: God’s Word and the church’s confessions: The Three Forms of Unity. Whilst many sought church-unity at all costs, this book shows how, for Schilder, true unity could only be achieved on the basis of the truth, as revealed in God’s Word and the true confessions.
[i] Veenhof C. et al, Gedenkt Uw Voorgangeren, Oosterbaan & Le Cointre, Goes 1952.
[ii] Schilder K., Om Woord en Kerk, Deel 111, Oosterbaan & Le Cointre, 1951, p. 22.
[iii] The three volumes of the trilogy are Christ in His Suffering, Christ on Trial, and Christ Crucified.
[iv] Van Reest R., Schilder’s Struggle for the Unity of the Church, Inheritance, Neerlandia, 1990.