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From Dort to Today (15): The Development of the Reformed Faith – The Secession of 1834

The churches of the secession continued to grow.

By 1836, the new denomination numbered 4000 souls and was ready for its first Synod held March 2-12, 1836.

Notable, at this synod were several decisions of importance for the Reformed faith in the years to come.

First of all, the Synod made it clear beyond doubt that the purpose of the secession was primarily to bring the Church back again to the historic confessions of the Reformed faith and, via these confessions, to restore the truth of the Calvin Reformation. They thus insisted (and correctly so) that they, and not the churches from which they departed, were the true continuation of the churches of the Reformation.

Secondly, the new denomination adopted a name: The Free Reformed Church. This name was later changed to the Christian Reformed Church.

Thirdly, and perhaps most important of all, at least as far as the life of the Church was concerned, the new denomination severed all ties with the State. We must appreciate the importance of this. It was really an entirely new experiment in the history of the Reformation Churches. In practically all places where the Reformation (whether Lutheran or Calvin) had penetrated, the Church was tied in one way or another to the State. As expressed in our own Belgic Confession, (Cf. Article XXXVI) the reformers were of the opinion that the State had definite obligations towards the enforcement of the first table of the law of God; more specifically, that the State had an obligation to aid in the promotion of the Church of Christ and the preaching of the gospel. Naturally, this had led to rather close ties between the Church and the State (although the precise relationship differed considerably under Lutheran or Calvinistic influence).

Without going into a discussion of this question itself, it can be said without contradiction, that such a relationship had only the most disastrous consequences for the Reformed Church in the Netherlands. This was not however, (and this ought to be carefully noted) due to a fault in the principle itself; it was due rather to the fact that the State often overstepped its bounds on the one hand; and that the government lost interest in the truth of God’s Word, interfering in the affairs of the Church to the comfort and encouragement of heretics.

But now the Reformed Churches were freed from the ties of the State. This was not, of course, a matter of choice only. The simple fact was that the seceders could not by any stretch of the imagination claim to be the national Church whether they had wanted to be or not. They could not presume to take the place of the State Church even if this was what they wanted. The State had already put its arms around one denomination—the denomination from which the seceders had come out; and the seceders represented much too small a group to claim this “privilege” for themselves. The secession itself forced them to forsake the protecting and sheltering wing of the state.

But they were not interested in this either. They had had “their stomachs full” of the State. They did not want to abandon the principle of Article XXXVI of the Belgic Confession; but they wanted no part of the State as it existed in the Netherlands in their day. They did not want the support of a State that would give aid and comfort to heretics. They did not want the stifling embrace of a State which interfered in their affairs and was inimical to the Reformed faith. As far as the position of the crown was concerned in the 19th century, they were eager to strike out on their own.

This involved considerable financial sacrifice to them, for the State had supported financially the State Church. The ministers’ salaries, the expenses of ecclesiastical assemblies, the education of the children, etc. were all paid out of the State’s coffers. The seceders were deeply aware of the fact that now all this would have to be paid for by themselves while the Church from which they had come out would continue to enjoy the material support of the government. But all this was a price worth paying if it made possible the preservation of the truth.

Yet the cost of secession was higher still.

The seceders were severely persecuted.

The leaders of the secession had adopted a policy of freedom of religion. In 1816, when the new Constitution of the government was adopted, the king was required to protect all denominations within his realm. On the basis of this, the leaders of the secession expected to enjoy the continued use of the church property which belonged to them and to enjoy unmolested public worship.

But the government had other ideas. It interpreted the ruling of 1816 as applying only to denominations which existed at the time the new Constitution went into effect; and the seceders were thereby excluded. What followed was a long period of harassment, trouble and suppression.

No more than did the secession begin in Ulrum under the leadership of De Cock when the government dispatched a contingent of 150 soldiers to the town with the ostensible purpose of keeping the peace. The seceders were branded as revolutionaries threatening the peace of the kingdom; and, it was argued, soldiers were necessary to maintain the peace. These soldiers were housed among the seceders who were expected to provide for them. The law stipulated that anyone who housed soldiers had to be remunerated for this by the government, but seldom did it happen in the case of the people of the secession. De Cock himself had 12 soldiers in his house for a considerable period of time.

While the soldiers were supposed to be present to keep law and order, the fact of the matter was that the lawlessness did not come from the seceders; it rather came from those who opposed the secession. Wherever the people congregated to worship, crowds of others would riot, disturbing the services, threatening the worshippers with harm, damaging property and creating so much confusion and unrest it sometimes became impossible to worship. But these violations of the peace were not stopped by the soldiers; rather, the soldiers were inclined to foment these riots oftentimes and encourage the rioters.

Further, at the request of the general Synod of the Reformed Churches, an old criminal law was exhumed which limited the number of groups meeting without government consent to twenty. This law had originally been adopted with the intention of limiting the influence of political gatherings; but it was now used against the Churches of the secession. The result was that no more than twenty believers could meet together at once, making worship extremely difficult.

And the seceders had no recourse to the law. Almost without exception, the courts would rule against them and levy fines for every conceivable kind of real and imaginary crime. In many cases, the fines levied against members of certain congregations totaled thousands of guilders. And, because the seceders were, as often as not, the poor and humble folk, these fines could not be paid. In this case, their possessions, as meager as they were and as necessary to earn their daily bread, were seized and sold at sheriff’s sales to make up the amount of the fines. Or the people themselves would be imprisoned. De Cock, the leader of the secession, spent three months in jail soon after the secession began.

The history of this persecution, and the negotiations that finally led to a precarious truce, was long and bitter. There is little point in our tracing it here in all its details. There did come a time when some sort of truce with the government was finally made. The government gave recognition to these Churches at last, but the price was high. The seceders were forced to make important concessions to the government for one thing. They had to change their name also, for the government claimed that their name was stolen from the established church. The whole cause of the secession was rent by internal disagreements as to how far the church could submit to the government’s demands without sacrificing its cherished principles. Many, to escape persecution, immigrated to the United States. But, finally, a truce was reached.

The point that immediately concerns us is the fact that through struggle and persecution, the Reformed faith once again survived in the Netherlands. The Church, called to defend herself against error, had, by the power of Christ within her, withstood the attacks of the enemy. The fruit was the continuation of the Reformed faith both in the Netherlands and in our own country.

Really, it was this heroic defense of the faith during these bitter years of secession that enabled the Church to be established within the United States and led to our own beloved denomination. The price was cruelly high—the price that our fathers paid. But, as throughout the ages, no price has ever been too great—though that price was life itself—to pay for the defense and preservation of the heritage of God’s truth, our fathers sacrificed all that they might cling to that which meant more to them than the world.