Flashback: John Calvin Junior College
By Richard Harms, College Archivist, Heritage Hall

John Calvin college

This booklet explained the need and purpose
of a Calvinistic college.

During the 1890s the curriculum of the Theological School of the Christian Reformed Church consisted of a literary department (later Calvin College) and a theological department (later Calvin Theological Seminary), each three years long. In 1894, depending on the grades they wanted to teach, prospective teachers were allowed to take either one or two years of training in addition to the three-year literary sequence, which was renamed the preparatory program. 

At the same time discussions were held among those involved with the Theological School about the need for a Christian college based on Calvinistic principles. In 1898 a committee was formed to report on the basis and feasibility of such a college linked to the Theological School. The committee reported that the need for a Calvinistic college was evident given the secularization of previous Christian colleges, but because state laws required that colleges have a minimum endowment of $100,000, the financial means for beginning seemed remote.

Instead, the curatorium (board of trustees) approved the committee’s other recommendation that the three-year literary course be expanded into a four-year academy. This was part of a national movement of such preparatory programs becoming academies, later called high schools. Students at the Theological School could follow a classical, pre-seminary or scientific track, with a fifth year for those who wanted to be teachers. The new format began in 1900, which also saw the enrollment of the first female students.

Talk of a Calvinistic college continued and in 1902 received a boost when word was received that a Mr. Pierson in Chicago was willing to support “small colleges with a sound Christian character.” The governing body of the Christian Reformed Church decided, however, that instead of seeking funds from a stranger, the denomination would raise the money itself.

John Calvin college
The masthead of the subscription lists used to collect for the proposed college

During the next year, various efforts raised about $1,500 of the needed $100,000. As a result, in 1903 another committee was appointed to raise the money, with Sipke S. Postma—a 68-year-old baker and treasurer of most of the denomination’s accounts for the previous 15 years—leading the effort. It was also decided that since the $100,000 seemed out of reach that the goal would be lowered to $25,000, the amount needed to incorporate a junior college, and that this school would be called John Calvin Junior College.

Several years of diligent work by Postma, aided by John B. Hulst, Albertus J. Rooks and Reverend Johannes Groen, resulted in the $25,000 being raised, and in 1908 the junior college began with classes patterned after those offered during the first two years at the University of Michigan, so that students could finish their training in Ann Arbor.

The junior college was added to the seminary program and academy. In 1914 a third year was added to the junior college sequence and in 1920 a fourth year was added, and John Calvin Junior College became Calvin College, graduating its first bachelor’s degree students in 1921. Also in 1920, Grand Rapids Christian High School was begun so that the academy was phased out with its last class in 1924. The Theological School continued with its named changed to Calvin Seminary in 1930.   

— Richard H. Harms, Heritage Hall