Flashback
Choosing the first president
By Richard H. Harms, College Archivist, Heritage Hall

Since the college is currently searching for its ninth president, the process for selecting the first president might serve as an interesting juxtaposition. The process in 1919 took a few weeks, and most of the work occurred over the course of two days in May at the trustees’ (then called the curatorium) annual meeting.

Prior to the May trustees meeting, a subcommittee had met with the faculty to ask for their recommendations for presidential candidates. The faculty proposed Revs. William Stuart, Rienk B. Kuiper and Edward J. Tuuk. Both Stuart and Kuiper were ministers of Grand Rapids churches and would later become teachers, Stuart at Grand Rapids Christian High and Kuiper at Westminster Theological Seminary. Tuuk, a minister in Holland, Mich., was the author of books and catechisms.

On Wednesday, May 28, the trustees agreed on a job description for the new
position of president, including that he teach Reformed doctrine and Bible history but for no more than a total of five hours per week. Next they accepted the three names suggested by the faculty and added the names of Rev. John J. Hiemenga and faculty members Louis Berkhof, Peter Hoekstra and Bernard K. Kuiper (brother of R.B. Kuiper) to form a list of seven candidates for the position. The next morning the trustees voted for three finalists in the order of preference: Berkhof, Hiemenga and R.B. Kuiper.

The June 6, 1919, Grand Rapids Press (p. 24) reported that Berkhof had been offered the position. Berkhof, a Calvin and Princeton Seminary graduate, had studied philosophy at University of Chicago Divinity School and served on the Calvin faculty since 1906, teaching Hebrew, New
Testament Greek, biblical geography, dogmatics and New Testament. At the time he was the author of seven books and pamphlets and many periodicals, written in both Dutch and English. Ultimately he would write 25 books and pamphlets, including his two-volume Reformed Dogmatics in 1932 (titled Systematic Theology in later editions), which became the standard text on the subject in the Reformed tradition. The minutes shed no light on the reasons for, or even mention of, Berkhof declining the offer of the position. He continued on the faculty, and in 1929, when the Theological School
became Calvin Theological Seminary, he served as its first president.

Eight weeks after the position had been offered to Berkhof, the position
was offered to the next finalist, John J. Hiemenga. Hiemenga accepted and served with distinction as the first president of Calvin College. The entire process—from writing the job description to Hiemenga accepting the appointment—took less than three months.

—Richard Harms, Archives