George M. Ophoff (5)

In the last decade of the 1800’s, Grand Rapids was quite a different city from what it is now. It was of course, not nearly as large. It had none of the fruits of modern advances in technology which we take so much for granted today. Many of the roads were dirt covered, rutted and rough when wet or frozen, dusty and hot in the summer months. The economy of the city centered in furniture manufac­turing which made Grand Rapids famous throughout the country as the furniture capitol of the world. Private transportation was by means of horse and carriage, for Henry Ford had not yet made his Model T the possession of thousands. Public transportation was chiefly by streetcars which ran on tracks in the middle of brick-paved main thoroughfares. Elec­tricity was, in most houses, a luxury for the future. Water was still pumped out of wells or collected in cisterns in many places.

But Grand Rapids was then also the center of Dutch Reformed church life. Although the population was mixed, and although many nationalities were repre­sented in the polyglot citizenry, the Dutch and particularly the Dutch Reformed, (for there were few Dutchmen of any other kind) occupied an important place in the affairs of the city. At that time already the Dutch had pretty much taken over the Southeast and Southwest half of the city. These were people who had followed the First immigrants from the Netherlands, pioneers who had settled the marshy wastelands which later were to become Holland, Overysel, Drenthe, Zeeland and other places which still bear the names given to them by their Dutch forebears. The Reformed church of America had a large representation in the city: but also the Christian Reformed Church had become in the 34 years of her existence, a large denomination with Grand Rapids as its center. Many congregations had been established throughout the areas where the Dutch had settled, and here also was Calvin College and Seminary, located at that time on the corner of Franklin and Madison where Central Christian High School was located until a few years ago. Grand Rapids was known throughout the United States as “Jerusalem.”

In these large and growing Dutch communities there was a constant influx of Dutch immigrants. These were men and women of the Afsheiding. In 1834 their forebears had left the State church in Netherlands under the leadership of VanRaalte, Brummelkamp, Scholte and others. They had left their mother church because of the apostasy and corruption of the State Church and had fought valiantly to preserve the truth which was the heritage of the Reformation. They had left a State Church which had the protection of the State: and in doing so, they had incurred the hatred and the wrath of the civil authorities. Their early church struggles were filled with trouble and harassment, with oven persecutions and untold hardship. The people who had been a part of the Afsheiding were, for the most part, common folk of the lower classes. Their life in the Netherlands was hard and bitter Not only were they harassed for their faith, but their economic lot was difficult. It was almost impossible to feed their families and to gain the bare necessities of life.

These things, among others, had prompted many of them to leave their fatherland and seek refuge in the new-world. The reports had come back from America that in this country they would be able to serve their God without inter­ference and without having to brave the hostilities of a government which hated their cause. They had heard too, that it was easier in the new world to earn one’s living, for America was the land of promise, and the new country beckoned many to come to the “Canaan” flowing with milk and honey.

They were a stalwart lot. They were Calvinists, and Calvinism had steeled their souls and put iron in their spines. They loved the truth of the Scriptures more than anything else. And no sacrifice was too great to live a life in which they could serve the God of their fathers. But they were also children of the Afsheiding. And this meant a number of things. This meant that they were a simple folk. They were not, for the most part, educated. They were not profound theologians. They were not deeply learned in the subtilities of theological distinction. But they knew what they believed, and this truth they loved. That they were part of the Afsheiding meant also that they were a deeply pious folk. Their faith, though simple, was profoundly spiritual. Their religion was not a Sunday and church religion, but a way of life. They did not know how to separate their life from their faith, and in fact, they had never even given any thought to the possibility of doing this. It was natural to them. Religion was a part of living in the home, of growing potatoes in the fields, of talking with the neighbors, of buying groceries in the store, of milking their cows. Religion was their way of life. This piety however, could even on occasion be the more mystical piety which always remained a thread running through church life in the Netherlands. And this deep seated mysticism which characterized many of them was not always of the healthiest kind. Nevertheless, they knew whom they had believed…

But they did not leave their father­land because they had lost their love for the Netherlands – for its lowlands torn from the cruel and clutching fingers of the seas; for its fog and damp, its rain and penetrating cold; for its language, and customs, its manner of dress and way of life; for its tulips and cows, its dikes and windmills, its close-knit society and gossipy marketplaces. And all these things they attempted to preserve carefully in the new land they had chosen for their home. Southeastern Grand Rapids was, in so far as that was possible, a bit of transplanted Netherlands.

But it was of sufficient importance in the city so that events in these areas were still events which made the daily news­papers, and affairs in these Dutch settlements within the city were of interest to the city as a whole.

Into this kind of an environment George M. Ophoff was born on January 25, 1891.

It is necessary to have a knowledge of this background in order for us to understand the kind of environment in which George Ophoff was born and raised, for the effects of this environment were to remain with him throughout his life.