Burning the Wooden Shoes—Again!

FEBRUARY 2012: ESSAY

by David Zwart

A pair of burning wooden shoes! It is probably the most famous— or infamous—cover of the Christian Reformed Church’s magazine, The Banner. It appeared November 3, 1980, the work of a new editor, Andrew Kuyvenhoven, himself a native of the Netherlands who had migrated to Canada and then the United States. If anyone should have wanted to keep Dutch traditions, it should have been this member of Generation 1.5. Yet the magazine’s cover and content made clear it was time for the CRC to move beyond its Dutch heritage.

Over thirty years later, James K. A. Smith calls for a similar move in “A Peculiar People” (Perspectives, November 2011) with his suggestion that “those of us who are in historically ‘ethnic’ Reformed denominations need to do some work ‘sifting’ our ethnic habits from our theological inheritance.” Smith wants congregations and denominations to untangle Dutch ethnicity from Reformed theology in order to keep the one and discard the other. While I agree with Smith’s call, my own study of Dutch-American identity in the twentieth century reveals that this process is never simple.

Dutch Reformed congregations and people have been working on these issues since at least 1628 and the founding of the first Dutch Reformed congregation in the New World. Crossing borders always requires migrants to define themselves in their new context. Those who came from the Netherlands needed to do the hard work of “sifting” their old religion, adjusting to an altered landscape. As Mark Noll pointed out in The Old Religion in a New World, “the movement of Christianity from Europe to North America was an immensely complex migration.”

For many of the Dutch Reformed in North America, ethnic and religious identities have been closely intertwined, particularly for those who arrived after 1847. Led by ministers, these migrants had a shared experience of migration and settlement. They worshipped together in Dutch, called ministers from the Netherlands, and fought church polity battles in familiar ways. And even if some of them wanted to stay isolated and keep North America at arm’s length, it proved impossible.

The question of how to live in North America while maintaining a distinct identity was, one could argue, a key issue in the 1857 secession of the Christian Reformed Church from the Reformed Church in America. The leaders of the nascent CRC did not like what they perceived to be the loss of a distinct Dutch identity among the RCA congregations in the East. Even those nineteenth century Midwest migrants who chose to align with the RCA at the behest of denominational leaders from the east coast, still found their identity far more in the migration experience than in the RCA’s “New Amsterdam heritage.” To this day, the identity of the RCA as a whole has had to struggle with this bifurcated reality.

In the twentieth century as new generations settled into the North American context, they worked hard to maintain the congregations and schools started by their ancestors. This required telling the history of these institutions to the next generations. These stories—often told at anniversary celebrations—typically emphasized the faith of the founders and God’s blessings on the immigrants. “Ebenezer,” taken from 1 Samuel 7:12 (“hitherto has the Lord blessed us”) was a popular slogan. The Christian Reformed Church’s 1957 “centennial thrust” was “God’s favor is our challenge.” Typical anniversary stories, however, tended to downplay any awareness of being part of a broader Christian story and identity.

Stories and symbols were effective in building a shared identity that kept people loyal to Dutch Reformed institutions. Anniversary stories usually emphasized leaving a decrepit Netherlands for the freedom and possibilities of the United States, though of course not all migrants left for these reasons. The 1947 commemorative anniversary book of Ninth Street (Pillar) Christian Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan, framed the Netherlands as a “land of intolerance and persecution of God’s faithful servants and its own noblest citizens.” The immigrant stories of Domines Van Raalte and Scholte, founders of the Dutch colonies in Holland, Michigan, and in Pella, Iowa, became the shared story of the larger community. Communal activities like the Tulip Time festivals that began in the late 1920s and early 1930s in Holland, Michigan, and Pella and Orange City, Iowa highlighted a perceived loss of ties to the Netherlands and emphasized the significance of “Dutchness” in each of these communities. This emphasis on loyalty to particular institutions also resulted in downplaying any shared awareness of being part of a broader Christian story or identity.

Changing language, changing songbooks, changing practices—during World War II, the Cold War, and other significant times of national crisis, Dutch Reformed institutions faced pressures to conform to American ways. But in the face of each of these changes, they found a way to tell the stories that held the loyalty of the next generation. There was something comforting about a story of God blessing those who had been faithful, those who had immigrated for religious freedom. In spite of worry that the distinctiveness would melt away, the institutions remained.

Although congregations, schools, and denominations all used Dutch immigrant imagery in their stories, precisely what it meant to be Dutch Reformed changed over time. Prior to 1920, “Dutch Reformed” primarily meant speaking Dutch in church. As language use shifted, being Dutch Reformed meant being loyal to and staying within the institutions that were started prior to 1920. This shifting matrix of meaning ref lects both the internal and external dynamics that compelled these institutions to continually create a shared identity by sifting through the past. While in the 1930s their stories emphasized the decaying condition of the Netherlands that the immigrants had left, by the 1950s the immigrants’ desire for the freedom of the United States was highlighted. These shared stories knit together an “imagined community.” Even those who could not trace their ancestry to the Netherlands shared in the imagined community by joining the Dutch Reformed institutions.

James K. A. Smith notes that “immigration has repercussions,” and the history of Dutch Reformed community clearly shows that truism. The institutional footprint started by migrants has remained strong due at least in part to using the immigration story to construct its peculiar identity. However, Smith worries that by emphasizing the immigrant experience excessively, too close a tie is made between distinctive Reformed theology and ethnic Dutch practices. When we reduce “ecclesial habits to ethnic memory” or dismiss traditional Reformed practices as a “covert attempt to cling to the old country,” we risk throwing the baby (Reformed theology) out with the bathwater (Dutch identity).

Smith says, “We need a different paradigm. We need to refuse the tendency to reduce Reformed identity to mere Dutch heritage.” But he is working against a very long and deep tradition of equating the two. For at least the last 150 years, Dutch heritage and Reformed identity have been tied together through these shared institutional stories.

Perhaps the place to start working through these issues, even possibly disentangling “Dutch” and “Reformed,” is by telling new stories about the past. What we need are new ways of telling our history. We need to find and tell stories about the past—stories that ref lect our Reformed theology rather than our immigrant experience, stories about answering the question of “how now shall we live” in a new land.

Clearly, among those who can lead the way in telling the narrative differently are historians, but it may be that Smith’s proposal gives too much agency to them. It is the people in the pews who need to tell stories about their congregations that emphasize what unites beyond ethnicity and what things have formed the mission of their congregations through time. To tell a different story, we need a narrative structure that emphasizes more than the coming and going of pastors or the various building projects that a congregation has undertaken. We need a narrative structure that ref lects on how “being Reformed” has shaped and helped the congregation to face its challenges and do the good work of being the church of Jesus Christ. Such stories are much harder to write than a straightforward chronology and will require some creative reexamination through a theological lens, a Reformed lens. But different, non-ethnic narrative structures could better tell the story of the work of the people of God.

As we struggle with our Dutch Reformed identity in a pluralistic world, it sometimes seems, as Smith puts it, that we are “embarrassed” by our peculiarity. Instead, we need stories that help us define what it means to be peculiar in good, Christ-following ways. This means relishing the aspects of our past that show how Reformed theology has shaped the patterns of our community in the new world and how it has informed our common purpose of building thriving institutions, particularly in the realms of higher education and seminary training. It means, in short, finding new ways of narrating our history.

To reframe our stories in a theological rather than ethnic framework is not an invitation to become haughty or triumphalistic, but simply to realize the rich legacy of those who, deeply shaped by Reformed theology, blazed a trail trying to live out the gospel call to be faithful disciples.

David Zwart teaches history at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa.