The Van Raalte Legacy: Remembering Albertus C. Van Raalte (1811- 1876)
Copyright © 2002, CRC Publications. All rights reserved.


by Michael De Vries

On the east side of Centennial Park in the city of Holland, Mich., stands a 9-foot-tall statue of Rev. Albertus Christiaan Van Raalte. In real life he was a little man—5-foot, 3 inches, to be exact. Peter H. Huizenga and family donated this sculpture to Hope College in conjunction with Holland’s sesquicentennial celebrations of 1997. This impressive statue stands on city property and faces Pillar Church and Hope College. How fitting! Van Raalte is the founder of the city of Holland, the driving force behind the college, and the first pastor of Pillar Church.

Though this pioneer preacher died Nov. 7, 1876, a little more than 125 years ago, we would do well to take note of Van Raalte and his legacy. A prophecy was made in the 19th century that has been fulfilled: “A hundred years hence his name will stand out in bolder relief than it does today.”

While I was pastor of Pillar Church, I often looked at Van Raalte’s portrait on the wall of the consistory room, and I grew curious to learn all I could about this preacher. While I have only just begun to delve into the early records, it is already becoming quite clear to me that this man truly deserves what the memorial plaque on the front wall of the sanctuary says about him. It reads (in translation): “In memory of Dr. A.C. Van Raalte, D.D., first minister of this congregation and the father of our settlement. A servant of the Lord, mighty in words and deeds.”

The same description that Stephen gave concerning Moses (see Acts 7:22) fits Van Raalte too: he was “mighty in words and deeds” as he courageously led his people of the Afscheiding from the Netherlands to this land of liberty in the fall of 1846.

Man of Courage
It took courage to become a pastor of the Afgescheidenen, or Separatists. The Separatists were of the conviction that the national church of the Netherlands—De Hervormde Kerk (the Reformed Church)—was influenced by the Enlightenment and becoming far too liberal, that it was, in fact, turning away from the true faith of the Reformation.

Harassed and ostracized, the Separatists were called by many pejorative terms, such as onruststokers (fomenters of unrest). Despite fines and the threat of imprisonment, Van Raalte kept on preaching in the province of Overijsel. He was jailed in Zwolle between Feb. 27 and March 7, 1837.

On one occasion when Van Raalte was preaching, the local mayor and his constable arrived in the middle of the worship service. Pressing close to the preacher, the mayor raised his voice and shouted, “Van Raalte, in the name of the king I order you to dismiss this assembly!”

Van Raalte, barely 26 years old and only one year into the ministry, replied: “Mr. Mayor, I stand here in the name of the King of kings to preach the gospel, and I may not stop.”

Preaching the gospel was Van Raalte’s driving passion ever since he was “grasped by God” during the cholera epidemic of 1832. Nothing could possibly deter him from proclaiming the good news wherever he went, be it in the open air, barns, or crowded living rooms.

Momentous Decisions
During the summer of 1846, Van Raalte became seriously ill. He suffered from a severe case of typhus, and the prognosis was bad. He did recover, however, and it was during his time of recovery that Van Raalte made a momentous decision.

Two major questions had plagued him, and he answered them himself: Who will accompany the Separatists to America? And who will provide the spiritual leadership for them in a strange land? After much prayer, he decided to become their Moses.

Quite characteristic of Van Raalte, his word and his deed were one and the same. By Sept. 24, 1846, he was ready to board a three-masted ship, the Southerner, in the Rotterdam harbor, accompanied by his wife, Christina, his five young children, a servant, plus 53 Separatists. It took a lot of courage to leave the land he loved and to face an unknown future in America, which was at that time considered by almost everyone he knew as an uninhabited and savage land good for and desired by only the riffraff of the nation.

Arriving in New York on Nov. 17 after a long and harrowing voyage across the Atlantic, Van Raalte planned to settle in Alto Township, Wis., where some of the Dutch emigrants he knew had gone. But encouraged by Michigan political leaders and Judge John Kellogg of Allegan County, in particular, he scouted out Ottawa County near Black Lake instead.

On Feb. 9, 1847, Van Raalte and six people of his party arrived at the Old Wing Mission, located in northern Allegan County’s Fillmore Township, to begin the Herculean task of transforming the wilderness into a thriving “city set on a hill” (see Matt. 5:14).

How much easier it would have been if Van Raalte and his followers had settled in a city such as Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, or Muskegon, Mich. Instead, Van Raalte chose the uninhabited forests where the unskilled Dutch emigrants had to start from scratch while lacking even the basic know-how for clearing the land.

Moreover, the people had come with meager financial resources, and none of them had learned the language of their newly adopted country. Was it reckless and foolish, or a manifestation of great faith? The dark and dismal days that soon followed would require all the leadership skills and courage that the dominie, as he was then called, could muster.

Man of Conviction
Generally speaking, the three defining characteristics of leadership often mentioned are courage, character, and conviction. Van Raalte embodied all three. He certainly showed his convictions during the sometimes-stormy days of transforming a diverse group of stubborn people into a colony of cooperative Christian citizens. It wasn’t easy. The familiar aphorism came true: “One Dutchman a Christian, two Dutchmen a church, three Dutchmen a secession.”

In 1850 Van Raalte was most responsible for getting Classis Holland to join the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church, which became the Reformed Church in America in 1867. It was his deep-felt conviction that the Separatists should unite with the RCA and become one with a denomination that upheld the same confessional and doctrinal positions of the Afscheiding and that had been in the United States since 1628.

Within seven years, however, four congregations broke away from the denomination to form the True Reformed Church—what we know today as the Christian Reformed Church—on April 8, 1857. This secession caused Van Raalte much grief, and he lamented this church split for the rest of his life.

In 1871 two events nearly led Van Raalte to despair. On June 30, 1871, his wife, Christina, passed away at 56 years of age. Soon after this, a second catastrophe visited the Holland community and its aging pastor.

On Oct. 9, 1871, a devastating fire wiped out much of the flourishing city in a matter of hours. De Hope, a college newspaper, printed as its headline, “God wilde het” (God willed it). Van Raalte expressed a similar attitude, interpreting the disaster as “God’s judgment.” He said, “What a lesson, what a text for a preacher. No earthly good is safe. Sword, hunger, plague, and flood are terrible in God’s hands. Now we perceive what we are up against: God’s fire.”

Yet the pious community also believed that God works together for good to those who love God (see Rom. 8:28). Van Raalte spoke with conviction to the distraught people and encouraged them by saying, “Let us remember, God lives.”

Privately, however, Van Raalte wondered what to do in the midst of such tragedy. He confided in his friend Philip Phelps, who was the president of Hope College, that he didn’t know how he could possibly go on. But then he added, “I must go ahead or give up. The people would be too disheartened if I sit still.”

Well, Van Raalte did not sit still, and with determination and willpower the aging leader of the colony rallied the people by saying on the day after the big fire, “With our Dutch tenacity and our American experience, Holland will be rebuilt.”

One year later Van Raalte spoke at the 25th anniversary of the colony and exclaimed with pride, “Our colonization efforts were based upon religious principles; they drew their strength from God. . . . Because God has built, we live in the happy conviction that he has done well with us and granted our hearts’ desire.”

Dying Christian Warrior
The autumn years of Van Raalte’s life were difficult. His influence in the colony waned as the people became more and more independent and no longer needed the dominie’s leadership and advice. Some even started to resent Van Raalte, especially because of his business dealings.

Van Raalte could be dictatorial and overbearing, and a nasty disagreement arose between him and Holland’s mayor, Isaac Cappon, over taxes and the boundaries of his homestead.

Meantime, Van Raalte’s health had begun to fail, and his venture in starting a new colony in Amelia County, Virginia, had been a total failure. He returned to live out the final years of his life in the city that he founded, without the clout he once had and without the loving support of his dear wife.

Rev. Roelof Pieters, pastor of Pillar Church and Van Raalte’s worthy successor, called on his friend and colleague regularly during the last days of Van Raalte’s life. Van Raalte refused to spend his days in bed and preferred to sit at the table, fully dressed, still wearing his riding boots. His pious conduct and serenity impressed Pieters: “How shall I convey the impression of that visit? The questions he posed to me and the words of wisdom that he spoke are branded in my memory. . . . At that time I regarded him as a model of a dying Christian warrior.”

On Tuesday morning Nov. 7, 1876, only a few words emerged from Van Raalte’s lips. One clearly understood sentence was, “My little boat is tossed about on the foaming waves; soon it will be in the harbor.” And when he saw his children wiping away their tears, Van Raalte said, “Oh, do not cry, children. When I close my eyes, be assured that I will join in with the hallelujahs before the throne.” By 7:30 that morning he breathed his last.

R.H. Joldersma, a student at the Preparatory School of Hope College, wrote a six-page account on the death of Albertus C. Van Raalte in the student publication Excelsiora. He was moved by the sight of the very long funeral cortege of 76 carriages in addition to the formal lineup of city council members and the vice president of the United States, Thomas W. Ferry. When the carved-oak casket was lowered into the grave at Pilgrim Home Cemetery, the youngest student of the college laid a wreath of evergreen on it in the name of the school. “After Dr. Crispell had closed with prayer,” Joldersma wrote, “we left the cemetery fully convinced that a great man had fallen.”

One More Split
After Van Raalte’s death the Pillar congregation became embroiled in a controversy over Freemasonry. The church Van Raalte founded decided to separate from the RCA over the matter, and on Dec. 3, 1884, the congregation officially joined the CRC.

The move shocked the Holland community, especially because the church’s historic church building became CRC property. It took the Michigan Supreme Court to make the transfer of the building legal. For many years this beautiful white church building with its six pillars became a symbol of division in the city of Holland.

I would like to make a not-so-modest proposal regarding Pillar Church as the CRC looks ahead to our sesquicentennial celebrations of 2007. What if Pillar would work toward becoming a “Union Church” and make both the CRC and the RCA of Classis Holland co-owners of this church building? Now that the relationship between our two Reformed denominations has become congenial, wouldn’t this be a wonderful testimony to our unity in Christ?

Van Raalte’s statue in Centennial Park depicts the leader with his left hand on the Bible and his right arm extended forward. His gesture suggests that we move ahead and keep on spreading the good news of the gospel. His challenge is as relevant as ever.