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Clannish, insular immigrants who refuse to assimilate … large families and achieving kids who quickly overshadow other residents … loyalty given to foreign, even adversarial, governments … houses of worship where foreign languages are spoken … dominating clergy who browbeat their people … houses of worship set afire by arsonists.

It is time for us to awaken to the reality that our American institutions are in danger from these foreigners who persist in bringing their un-American ideas with them, and we must insist that they either become Americans or return to their homelands.

– The Pella (Iowa) Chronicle, early 1900s

This isn’t today’s news. These are accusations against the Dutch Reformed almost a century ago, during World War I, just about 10 to 15 miles from my place – Pella, Iowa.

In 1847, the mercurial founder of this place gave it the name “Pella,” after the city of refuge where first-century Christians fled after the destruction of Jerusalem. The first settlers here saw Pella that way: a refuge from the harsh and corrupt ways of their native Netherlands. But “city of refuge” is a heavy burden to bear, especially if you’re not entirely convinced you want to continue to give refuge to those who come after you, to those who aren’t like you. Sometimes I think it would be better to revise history to say that we’re named after the “other” Pella, the Macedonian hometown of Alexander the Great. We are a town that seeks to produce world-conquerors!

For those who disliked the Dutch and were not much given to nuance, “Dutch” and the “Deutsch” of the Kaiser were difficult to distinguish.

It didn’t take long for the Dutch, with their large families and entrepreneurial ways, to seep out of Pella. To the east, however, they ran into a river that hemmed in their expansion. When a bridge was built, the Dutch crossed the river and soon bumped into the “Americans” already living there. For decades, resentments and rivalries smoldered. But when the United States entered World War I, they literally flared up.


By World War I, the Dutch had been in these parts for almost 70 years. Yet the Dutch language was still pervasive in stores, Christian schools and churches. For those who disliked the Dutch and were not much given to nuance, “Dutch” and the “Deutsch” of the Kaiser were difficult to distinguish. Strangers and spies were sent to worship in Dutch Reformed churches and visit shops run by the Dutch to enforce a proclamation by Iowa’s governor prohibiting the use of any language except English in public.

Even as American patriotic fervor spiked because of the war, a Dutch Reformed school flew the Dutch flag. (The Netherlands was neutral during World War I.) I shudder to think what might happen to a school or community center flying the Mexican, Syrian or Pakistani flag in the U.S. today.

The Black Hand, a secretive anti-Dutch group (vigilantes? domestic terrorists? inept young men?) was behind several arson fires at Dutch farms and a school and one fire that burned the Reformed Church in New Sharon, Iowa, to the ground. There was even a bungled attempt to bomb a Reformed parsonage.

I get this information from Peoria, Iowa: The Story of Two Cultures, by J.P. Dahm and D.J. Van Kooten, a sesquicentennial booklet by local historians. I’ve also heard tales of the time from an elderly member of my congregation, a 98 year-old woman. She is the daughter of the minister whose church was burned down. After the fire, her father sent the family away to safety. It was during this time that an attempt was made on his life, but the dynamite placed under the parsonage didn’t detonate. She was too young to remember these events but passed on what her father later shared with her.

One of her comments is especially pertinent: Her father struggled mightily to get out the word that he and his congregation were patriotic, “good Americans.” That congregation worshipped in English. He was frustrated, maybe even hurt, that to the non-Dutch such distinctions were too subtle to be appreciated. One Dutch Reformed church was the same as the other. All Hollanders were interchangeable.

Her father’s efforts to convey patriotism and American solidarity were not at all helped by a minister at a Christian Reformed congregation in nearby Peoria. He was said to have discouraged his flock from purchasing war bonds and counseled families on how to make their young men ineligible for the military draft. This particular minister was later arrested under the Espionage Act and narrowly evaded a lynch mob on his front lawn when he was released.

As my elderly congregant spoke of her father’s failed attempts to distinguish his congregation from the more parochial Dutch, I thought of the demands heard so often today: “Where are the moderate Muslims? Why don’t the pro-American, anti-terrorists denounce what is going on?” My guess is that they are just like that old woman’s pastor-father a century ago – trying to be heard, struggling to distance themselves from the disruptive and dangerous. But in the passion of the times, they simply are not listened to.

It is an old truism that the persecuted so quickly become the persecutors. I don’t want to be hard on my neighbors in Iowa. I suppose anti-immigrant sentiment here isn’t any worse than elsewhere in the U.S. Forty years ago, Iowa was exemplary in welcoming Southeast Asian refugees. There is a still a smattering of people who resettled here after Hurricane Katrina. But that I live in a city called a city of refuge and that nearly every accusation leveled against today’s immigrants was once said of our Dutch Reformed ancestors – it feels too pointed even to be considered irony.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is co-pastor of Second Reformed Church, Pella, Iowa, and a former editor of Perspectives. This essay first appeared on the Reformed Journal’s blog, The Twelve.

Photo by Dan Rademacher, Oakland, California;  CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is one of the pastors  of Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa.  He writes regularly here on the Reformed Journal's daily blog.