Church in Canadian Reformed History: The 1950s

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This article, published here with the writer’s kind permission, is from Clarion, May 17 2024. Reading Rev Bouwman’s article we might ask ourselves: Are we today as determined to uphold what we confess about Christ’s church, and as concerned about the danger of church pluriformity thinking, as the CanRC (and FRCA) immigrants of the 1950s? JN

Rev. Clarence Bouwman, Minister Emeritus, Smithville Canadian Reformed Church

The immigrants who ended up establishing the Canadian Reformed Churches landed on our fair shores carrying with them specific ideas in relation to the doctrine concerning the church. I listed five distinctives in their ecclesiology at the end of the previous article [see previous article on this website]. I concluded that article with the statement that decisions made by the first synods of the fledgling Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC) confirmed the fathers’ embrace of these convictions. The challenge now is to demonstrate the accuracy of that statement.

INSTITUTION

The Clarion article I referred to last time [i] drew out how the first immigrants to the Niagara Peninsula made it their business to join the existing Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in St. Catharines and how in short order one of the brothers was ordained to the office of elder. In the course of time, the heads of four families (including this brother) wrote a letter to the consistory asking question about the CRC’s position on the developments of 1944 in the Netherlands. Promptly, with no discussion, the elder was suspended from his office together with a note that the topic was not open for dialogue. Not surprisingly, these Liberated newcomers concluded that there was no place for them in the CRC. According to details provided in the first and second yearbooks of the CanRC, parallel experiences occurred elsewhere across the nation. [ii] As mentioned in the same Clarion article, efforts to find an ecclesiastical home in the Protestant Reformed Church (PRC) also hit a wall. Seeing no faithful church they could join in good conscience, the fathers reluctantly concluded they had no option but to establish a new federation of churches.

In both of these instances, we certainly detect elements of the ecclesiology described earlier.

YEARBOOK 1952

The first Yearbook of the CanRC contains an insightful introduction article signed by D.M. Barendregt, living in Houston, BC at the time. He comments on how small and weak this fledgling federation of churches is and how much work needs to be done to strengthen the churches. Yet he marvels that in this “enormous country” where the individual is easily lost, “now faithful preaching of God’s Word and pure administration of the sacraments” occurs, and adds:

“With joyful amazement we observed the development of the Canadian Reformed Churches in the last two years and we thank our God and Father in Jesus Christ that He in His admirable faithfulness did not give us up to the confusion of the pluriformity concept that is so widely accepted here, which obscures sight upon the one catholic Christian church. We also thank God that we were preserved from and delivered from a system of thought that sought to approach or explain all things from God’s secret will, by which people thought to discover an “own truth” but in fact placed themselves above or beside the full truth and full light of God’s infallible Word.” [iii]

I find striking in Barendregt’s comment that he felt free to provide an analysis of what Canadian churches generally understood on the subject of ecclesiology. He describes the very Canadian (and, to be accurate, American) habit of letting all churches be equally acceptable in the Canadian fabric, irrespective of your specific doctrinal emphases. Yes, he attaches to that very Canadian concept a term he imported from the Netherlands, i.e., “pluriformity”. But it has to be granted: to the new immigrant the term reasonably described what he was seeing around him.

He further alluded to the deliverance God granted from a system of thought that sought to explain all things from God’s secret will. That’s a reference to what happened in Chatham in October 1951 when members of the PRC liberated themselves from extra-confessional binding. In a meeting held on December 1, 1951, this liberated group could be welcomed into the fold of the two existing Canadian Reformed Churches (Hamilton and Georgetown). Writing in the same yearbook, Rev. Loopstra explained that receiving this third church was an act of “true ecumenicity”.  “After all,” he added, “all three churches could expressly declare that they placed themselves on the foundation of the infallible Word of God and on the Three Forms of Unity, viz, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Five Articles against the Remonstrants, without any addition [“aanvulling,” the emphasis is original]. That is why both Canadian Reformed Churches represented at this meeting could receive the liberated Protestant Reformed Church into their federation with such joy and gladness and especially thankfulness to the LORD.” (p.36.)

In further elucidation of Barendregt’s editorial, the 1952 Yearbook also contains a report of the first major assembly of the fledgling federation of CanRCs (at this point consisting of Georgetown in Ontario and Lethbridge, Edmonton, and Neerlandia in Alberta; this meeting occurred April 18, 1951 in Edmonton). This classis (as they called it) expressed its disappointment in the fact that relations with the PRC did not work out and resolved to write a letter to the PRC urging those churches not to adopt the Declaration of Principles on grounds that doing so would render a relationship between the PRC and the CanRC impossible. In that letter they expressed how it was that they had fervently hoped “that between you and us Scriptural unity could be achieved in the way of obediently seeking each other and holding each other to Scripture and Confession”.  As to the details of what the CanRC had against the Declaration of Principles, the letter added: “We agree with what Prof. Dr. K. Schilder wrote in a series of sequential articles in De Reformatie on this material.” The letter concludes with this sentence: “Praying that not theological constructions but only the simple Word of our God and His Spirit give you guidance in your decisions, so that obedience may be found amongst you, so that also through your work Christ may gather his church, we sign off with brotherly greetings”. (p.50.)

Again we notice: the CanRC were not interested in isolation but sought to pursue true ecumenicity on the basis of the Word of God alone as confessed in the Three Forms of Unity.

YEARBOOK 1954

Rev. W. Loopstra provided for this yearbook a “Survey of the History of the Canadian Reformed Churches in Classis East (Ontario) (from April 1952 to about December 1953).” (Predictably, he mentions new institutions, movement of ministers, construction of church buildings, etc. Relevant to our topic there’s also this:

“Concerning efforts to greater church unity, reference may be made to what developed in Hamilton when in that city the CanRC could unite with the First Protestant Reformed Church. The Act of Union which was accepted by both consistories will receive a place in this Yearbook.

With great interest the consequences of the liberation in the Protestant Reformed Church in the United States are followed. There is no official contact. There are personal contacts, which might perhaps become fruitful. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, where the liberation in the PRC has its origin, there is a small Reformed group which comes together each Sunday and which are members of the CanRC of Chatham. A fervent and ardent prayer may go up that the Lord may remove every hindrance to greater ecclesiastical unity of all true Christian believers in this part of the world, by bending every human insight toward one another and overruling them through the Word of the Lord, and by breaking and overcoming every small (and ultimately arrogant) self-defence and shortsightedness.” [iv]

L. Terpstra, “Fieldman Can.Ref. Imm.Society, R.R.6, Edmonton”, provided for this yearbook an article about the growth of the church in Edmonton. He mentioned that at the time of his writing the church in Edmonton had some 400 members, their own minister, five young peoples’ societies, a school society, an immigration society, and a men’s and a women’s society. He added:

“This is enough to silence a person. Silence, a worshipful silence, as one “sees” the great haste of the Lord Christ towards His great day. He is gathering His Church, and through that Church speaking His Word. Through this, in infinite compassion, He “still” directs [His Word] to a land and a people that has traded the true Gospel of the worship of carved images. Carved images as the Movement to Unity and Social programs, trusting in money and wealth.” (p.26.)

And: “The Canadian people really have no dogmas anymore. As a people they understand hardly anything of what God says through His Word. Religion is a matter of one’s own interpretation of the Bible.” (29.)

As we read through the writings of these early Dutch settlers, we might be tempted to scoff at the measure of snobbishness we sense in the fathers’ thinking. I respectfully suggest, though, that instead of judging them from perspectives and values characteristic of the third decade of the twenty-first century, we ought to grant them the right to express freely what they saw happening through and around them. Then we can appreciate that they saw – with eyes admittedly formed by the crucible of the Liberation – the Lord at work using them to bring a scripturally and confessionally faithful gospel to the migrant society known as Canada. That they marveled at the privilege of being instruments of God to bring that heritage to a new country can only be applauded.

SYNOD 1954

This first general synod of the Canadian Reformed Churches provides a window into the thinking of the church leadership at the time. A couple of illustrations from the Acts can assist us.

  1. Synod 1954 adopted a proposal from the churches to recognize the seminary of the Dutch sister churches as their own until such time as the CanRC’s own seminary could be established (see Article 80).
  2. As mentioned above, there was a break within the Protestant Reformed Churches. A decision concerning those who left the PRC reads as follows: “The Synod decides that delegates be appointed with instruction to contact the next synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches which do not subscribe to ‘Declaration of Principles’ any longer, to …probe the possibility of mutual recognition and correspondence as sister-churches” (Art. 99).

The implication of the first decision is that the brethren back in 1954 had no confidence in any of the seminaries they were aware of in North America. That observation is in turn commentary on the fathers’ evaluation of the churches behind those seminaries. The implication of the second decision is that the brethren did not think in terms of God working only in their own midst; on the contrary, they actively kept looking for others who stood on the foundation of Scripture alone as accurately echoed in the Three Forms of Unity.

 SYNOD 1958

The second synod of the young federation of the CanRC provides a further window into the ecclesiological thinking of those churches. Consider these matters:

  1. A significant portion of the Acts of this synod concerned appeals from various parties in Ontario relating to the suspension and deposition of Rev. Loopstra from the church in Hamilton. (For the record, synod found that those objecting to the rightness of this deposition were correct; Rev. Loopstra had been wronged and then rightfully reinstated.) Striking in the decisions of synod is the respect synod expressed for the right of the office bearers of the local church to exercise church discipline.
  2. In the attempt to prepare a psalter, the Three Forms of Unity, and a collection of liturgical forms in the English language, deputies had been appointed by Synod 1954 to examine the English equivalents in the CRC. Synod 1958 made decisions based on their report. What’s striking in the Acts is that there is no trace of the CRC work being rejected on the ground that this was work done in a questionable church federation. On the contrary, the CRC version of the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort were recommended to the churches for trial (art. 190) – evidently on the conviction that the churches should be master of their own possessions and so all be comfortable with what they were adopting.
  3. Despite the fact the discussions with the breakaway PRC (as authorised by Synod 1954) had not gone as smoothly as desired, Synod 1958 mandated new deputies to continue efforts to come to unity with those churches – again on the basis of Scripture alone as confessed in the Three Forms of Unity (Art. 290).
  4. Altogether absent from the 1958 Acts is any trace of contact with any other churches across North America.

From the first point we may conclude that the newly established churches retained a clear love for the church polity lessons learned through the Liberation of 1944 with respect to the authority of the local church. The second serves as illustration that the fathers were not condemning of all things coming from a church that had wronged them (as outlined above). The third point underscores that these young churches shunned isolation; they wished to be unified with all who stood with them on the foundation of Scripture and Confession. The fourth point illustrates that these migrants of Dutch extraction were not yet able to look over their linguistic fence to appreciate what else might be happening in North America. Synod 1962 begins the tale of that discovery – but one I will not at this point pursue.

CONCLUSION & POSTCRIPT

The doctrine concerning the church played an enormous role in the thinking of the early Dutch immigrants to Canada. Efforts to join existing churches as well as the decision to establish their own federation are the direct consequences of the lessons the fathers learned through their experiences in the Liberation of 1944.

It is now more than seventy years ago that br. D.M. Barendregt expressed his profound gratitude that the Lord “in His admirable faithfulness did not give us up to the confusion of the pluriformity concept that is so widely accepted here”. I wonder: would the readers of this magazine say the same about the dominant thinking in the Canadian Reformed Churches today?

 

 

[i] Vol. 69, No. 12, p.333-336.
[ii] For another source, see J deHaas, And Replenish the Earth.
[iii] Jaarboekje ten dienste van de Canadese Gereformeerde Kerken, Eerste Jaargang, p.3. All translations my own. This quotation is reprinted with approval in the 1954 Yearbook, p.60.

[iv] Jaarboekje ten dienste van de Canadese Gereformeerde Kerken, Tweede Jaargang, p. 22.