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Need, Faith, Action: the Birth of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary

By Richard Harms ’73, Curator of the Calvin College Archives

Richard Harms
Richard Harms ’73, Curator of the Calvin College Archives
Within months of leaving the Reformed Church in America in early 1857, the Dutch immigrant congregations that would become the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) faced a shortage of ordained ministers. By the fall of 1857 one minister had returned leaving the (CRC) with only one minister to serve an estimated to be 140 families in four congregations spread across West Michigan. Elders and lay readers read sermons on Sundays, but the one minister had to visit each congregation regularly to administer the sacraments, among other tasks.

Efforts to call ministers from the Netherlands failed, so in 1861 the denomination decided that it had to train its own ministers and teachers, even though there was no one to provide such instruction, there were no potential candidates to take such instruction, and there were no funds to support such instruction. They could do little about the first two matters, but as to the third, they began by regularly gathering small amounts of money and setting it aside for when both a student and teacher appeared.

Two years later Wilhemus Van Leeuwen, a teacher before serving as a minister in the Netherlands, came to lead the Grand Rapids congregation and offered to teach students in addition to his parish work. Van Leeuwen began the next year when Jan Schepers, a 27-year-old recently widower, offered to take instruction. Schepers sold his farm for $400 to pay most of his own expenses while studying and his parents agreed to raise his infant son. According to Schepers, he received instruction twice per week, in addition to helping Van Leeuwen with pastoral duties in the congregation. The library consisted of Van Leeuwen’s personal collection. When Van Leeuwen accepted a call to Paterson, N.J, in 1864, Schepers continue his education with Douwe J. Vander Werp, who had come to pastor the Graafschap, Mich., congregation in the meanwhile. Instruction was in Positive Refutation, Practical Theology, Biblical History and Geography, Church History, Dutch, Biblical Exegesis. Within the first few years, the curriculum was expanded to include Practical Theology, Homiletics and the basics of Latin, Greek and Hebrew. All instruction was in Dutch, but Schepers was expected to learn enough English so that they could serve as an intermediary between his congregation and the surrounding English-speaking community.

Schepers completed his studies in 1868 but the students continued to come. By 1869 Vander Werp had eight students, and the workload led him to recommend that a theological school be established, similar to what the churches in the Netherlands had begun in Kampen in 1854. The proposal was well received but failed for lack of funds for a full-time non-preaching pastor, particularly since a number of congregations lacked the financial wherewithal to pay for a full-time parish pastor. Instead Vander Werp received a box of his English-language books to augment his own which served as the students’ library.

From 1870 onward, the idea of a denominational theological school regularly was discussed by the denomination’s synod (then called the General Assembly). Generally the lack of money was cited as the obstacle. In fact the failed efforts in 1874 and 1875 to call such a teacher from the Netherlands did not include sound provision for paying the salary and moving expenses should one of these candidates accept. By October 1875 a cancerous growth in Vander Werp’s throat did what the lack of money had prevented. Within months, when Vander Werp could no longer teach, a new instructor had to be found. Temporarily, Gerrit E. Boer, the pastor in Grand Rapids, agreed to teach the students.

Due to the urgency of finding a permanent replacement, the 1876 General Assembly met four months ahead of schedule. The delegates called Boer to teach full time and he accepted. The problem of sufficient funding for this was overcome when the Grand Rapids congregation offered to provide Boer’s housing and use of the upper floor of its one-year-old brick Christian primary school building. On 15 March 1876, Boer was installed as the first instructor of the Theological School of the Christian Reformed Church. The curriculum consisted of a four-year literary sequence to prepare students for the two-year theological sequence. The four-year literary sequence included Dutch Language and Composition, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, an overview of General History and Geography, Logic and Metaphysics, and "as much Mythology as was necessary to understand History." The Latin, Greek and Hebrew requirement could be waived for older students probably due to the problem the older immigrants were having learning English. The theological sequence was devoted to Biblical History, including relevant Biblical Geography and Jewish History, Church History, Exegesis, Natural Theology, Revealed (Positive, Refutative, and Practical) Theology, Pastoral (preaching, catechism, and the history and content of the Forms of Unity), Liturgical Writings, and Church Order. All instruction continued in Dutch and for the first six years, Boer taught all 21 classes.

In looking at these inauspicious beginnings of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, I am struck by the faithfulness of those who began this now 125-long effort to educate. Having little, they haltingly took action and accomplished far more than they anticipated. I wonder if I can be as faithful? I am sure I would have been among those who said we don’t have enough money to do this.

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