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Michigan Moses

By January 1, 2013 No Comments

by Dennis N. Voskuil

In 1997, during the sesquicentennial of the city of Holland, Michigan, a statue of Albertus C. Van Raalte, the settlement’s founder, was erected in a corner of Centennial Park. It is telling that it took one hundred and fifty years for Van Raalte to be so recognized, and then under the auspices of Chicago-area benefactor Peter Huizenga. Click to purchase from Amazon Van Raalte’s contributions—as a forceful and visionary leader of the Dutch Calvinist migration to West Michigan in the nineteenth century—have too often been overlooked and underappreciated.

This elegant volume, coedited by Elton J. Bruins and Karen G. Schakel (who died before it came to print), clearly underscores the central role that Van Raalte played in civic and ecclesiastical affairs. It features ninetyfour letters that he wrote to Philip Phelps Jr., a man chosen by Van Raalte to be a principal of the Holland Academy and the inaugural president of Hope College. Although the correspondence with his “dear brother” tended to center upon educational issues, the title of the book is somewhat misleading. These letters—usually written when Van Raalte was traveling or when Phelps was spending summers with his family near Albany, New York—reveal a wide range of additional concerns: the Reformed Church, economic issues, national politics, the Civil War, developments in the Netherlands, the Great Fire of 1872, and the health of Van Raalte’s wife, Christina. Out of all these matters, three general themes emerge: the importance of religious education, the necessity of Americanization, and the personal cost of leadership.

Van Raalte was a passionate proponent of Christian parochial education at every level of schooling—elementary, secondary, and collegiate. In this respect he was embracing the church-centered models of education he had learned in the Netherlands, especially as a member of the Afscheiding, those who had seceded from the state church. Due to financial constraints, Van Raalte initially established a public school district to meet the needs of the growing number of children in the colony. Before long, however, he also organized the Pioneer School (later Holland Academy), a Christian secondary school supported in part by the Board of Education of the Reformed Dutch Church, the denomination that the immigrant churches joined in 1850.

While the Reformed Dutch Churches in the East did not widely embrace the parochial school movement, Van Raalte developed a close relationship with Samuel B. Schieffelin, a New York pharmaceutical wholesaler and a strong proponent of Reformed parochial education who got behind Van Raalte’s educational plans. Apparently many of the colonists were not as supportive. Late in his life Van Raalte lamented the fact that members of his community were relying upon the public school and neglected the support of Christian schools: “my hopes and wishes have been air castles,” he wrote (May 7, 1883).

Upon his arrival in Michigan, Van Raalte had envisioned the establishment of a Christian college through which the immigrants would be prepared for positions of leadership, especially as pastors and teachers. In fact, it can be argued that the need for theological education for immigrant churches was the primary motivation for organizing Hope College. It is clear from these letters that, although Van Raalte envisioned the college, Phelps was the structural architect of the institution. While he served as the head of the governing council of the college, Van Raalte entrusted Phelps to be its administrator.

Once Phelps was in place, Van Raalte became a dedicated fundraiser. Anyone who has sought to raise funds for an institution will admire Van Raalte’s efforts to secure the future of the college. Many of the letters were penned while he was in New York or New Jersey “begging” for funds from congregations and wealthy individuals. The road trips took their toll as Van Raalte often admitted to exhaustion, poor health, homesickness, and discouragement. Still, he persisted and was remarkably successful at developing close relationships with wealthy denominational business leaders such as Schieffelin and James Suydam, both of whom invested thousands of dollars in the academy and the college.

Van Raalte’s willingness to bring the immigrant churches into a union with the Reformed Dutch Church, just three years after settling in the United States, underscores his commitment to Americanization. While many of the immigrants sought to create tight Dutch Calvinist enclaves, Van Raalte urged them to learn English, become citizens, and embrace American ideals. Certain that Americanization was advantageous and inevitable, especially for the younger immigrants, he insisted that resistance to American culture would be “suicide” for the colonists (January 19, 1861). Devoted to his adopted nation and opposed to the institution of slavery, Van Raalte supported involvement in the Civil War. In fact, two of his sons, along with other young men in the colony, enlisted in Michigan regiments. Dirk Van Raalte would lose an arm in battle.

Grateful for the assistance that members of the Reformed Church provided the immigrants as they made their way to Michigan and the financial aid from the denomination that was so vital during the early years of the colony, Van Raalte became a loyal supporter of the American church. While he recognized that there were significant cultural differences between his adopted denomination and the Afscheiding churches in the Netherlands, he believed that the American church had retained its Reformed identity in its theology and polity. However, Van Raalte’s abiding vision for theological education in the West and his commitment to Americanization were challenged by deep-seated tensions between the Eastern and Western sections of the Reformed Church. These letters trace the dissent among the ranks that eventually led to the founding of the Christian Reformed Church, as well as the tensions within the Reformed Church over the nature of Hope College and the necessity of a seminary in the West when there was already one in the East (at New Brunswick, New Jersey).

Van Raalte’s correspondence with Phelps also reveals a great deal about his remarkable gifts of leadership. In many respects Van Raalte served as the Moses of the Dutch Reformed colonies, not only in West Michigan, but also across Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Especially during times of crisis, Van Raalte cajoled, encouraged, and guided his people. He was a very strong and determined leader. Like Moses, he faced opposition, especially from people within his colony. At one point Van Raalte became so discouraged by his detractors that he wrote to Phelps that he had become an obstacle to the realization of their vision of religious training. His decision to move to the colony that he had established at Amelia Court House, Virginia, was motivated in part by his weariness of the slings and arrows he had endured in Michigan.

A portrait of Van Raalte’s personality is revealed in his letters. Van Raalte could be judgmental, sharp, and biting in his observations about his opponents. Overall, however, he emerges as a person of sensitivity and sound judgment, who was fully committed to the religious colony that he established. Also evident is a winsome piety, an abiding confidence in God’s grace and providential love. Several letters conclude with expressions of hope, such as the one written on December 26, 1859: “Our lot is guided by an almighty wise good and kind god; who loves the mysterious obstacles for our own good and his glory.”

There is much to learn from this fine collection. The letters themselves provide a lens onto Van Raalte and his times, but the remarkable footnotes that assist our understanding of each letter, along with the summary paragraphs that provide contextual frameworks, turn this volume into a must-read for those who seek to learn about the city of Holland, Hope College, Western Theological Seminary, the Reformed Church in America, nineteenth-century Dutch immigration, and Van Raalte’s life.

Dennis N. Voskuil teaches church history at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.