I Remember Herman Hoeksema – Personal Remembrances of a Great Man (4)

Pictures from Therefore Have I Spoken: A Biography of Herman Hoeksema by Gertrude Hoeksema, Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1969.

First PRC

My earliest memory of the man, Herman Hoeksema, hardly counts. It goes back to the middle 1940s when I was six or seven years old. A member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church, I would spend a couple of weeks in the summer with Grandpa Jasper Koole, his two daughters, Winifred and Thelma, and his two sons, Peter and John. They were members of First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids.

We walked some two miles to church from the narrow alley, Batavia Place, off Fulton Street on the northeast side of the city (Grandpa Koole was far too poor ever to have a car). As we neared the church building, coming from the north on Fuller Avenue, an astounding scene unfolded before the child, accustomed as he was to gathering for worship in the sparsely populated farm country of the Riverbend area. Fuller Avenue and the streets in all directions were filled with people, thousands of people, old men and old women, families, young people, boys and girls. All were obviously dressed for worship. All were walking to church. All seemed to the boy to be pouring into the massive building at the corner of Fuller and Franklin that was the place of worship of First Protestant Reformed Church.

Astonishment became amazement inside the great brick building. The vast space and beautiful interior were impressive to one used to worshipping in the small, plain, white, frame building on Wilson Avenue.

But the size of the congregation! Looking down from the heights of the back balcony, where Grandpa Koole tucked his family out of the way and out of sight as much as possible, I marveled at the size of the congregation, a veritable throng of worshippers. Five hundred families and nearly two thousand members made up the congregation in those halcyon days. Hope had fewer than twenty-five families.

Inside First PRC

Suddenly, a door in the front of the auditorium opened, and a seemingly endless stream of men flowed out—the consistory. When a man—a small figure from high up in the back balcony—took his place behind the pulpit, Grandpa leaned over to inform me in a whisper laced with utmost respect, “That’s Rev. Hoeksema.”

This must be the greatest church in the world, I thought.

And Rev. Hoeksema must be the greatest minister.

Hoeksema for President

A few years later, as an eighth grader at Hope Protestant Reformed Christian School, in 1952, I put Hoeksema’s name in nomination for president of the United States. Well, not exactly. It was Alice Reitsma’s doing—the outstanding teacher of the upper grades at Hope and ardent admirer of her pastor, the Rev. Herman Hoeksema. She proposed, in that election year, that I give a speech to the regular meeting of the Hope PTA. The main thesis of my speech would be the necessity of a Reformed, Christian man’s running for the presidency. The only slightly secondary thesis would be that that man should be Herman Hoeksema. When Miss Reitsma proposed, we students disposed, partly out of love and partly out of a godly but very real fear. I gave the speech, largely drafted by my speechwriter and full of praise for the abilities of her minister.

First PRC Parsonage

For one night, there was a boomlet of at least two for “Hoeksema for president”—Alice Reitsma and me. The responsibility for not forming a Reformed political party and running Herman Hoeksema for president will forever reside with the Hope parents. Dwight David Eisenhower won the presidency.

Years later, sitting in class at seminary as Hoeksema criticized Abraham Kuyper for abandoning the ministry to run for political office in the Netherlands, I briefly entertained the temptation to inform him that he himself was once put up for the highest political office in the land. I thought better of it.

Hoeksema at Hope

Not long after the abortive effort to thrust Hoeksema into the political realm, I had my first real contact with the man, and took his measure as best a thirteen-year old boy could. It was the late spring of 1953, a date indelibly stamped on the history of the Protestant Reformed Churches and burned into the soul of every one who lived through that fateful year. Rev. Herman Hoeksema came to preach the Sunday evening service at the Hope Protestant Reformed Church, in the country southwest of Grand Rapids.

This was a rare and notable occurrence. It was rare because Hoeksema never preached at Hope, at least not in the memory of this thirteen-year old church member. It was notable because Hoeksema was a household name throughout the Protestant Reformed Churches, and highly regarded in the boy’s family. It was as though, twenty-five years after the Reformation, Luther were to visit for the first time a little burg in the German countryside that loved the Reformer’s gospel.

Even a young teenager, whose spiritual and theological interests competed with sports (and by no means always victoriously), sensed why the famous preacher was coming to Hope. The times were fraught with doctrinal and ecclesiastical controversy—of all warfare the most passionate. Rumor had wings throughout the Protestant Reformed denomination: First Church was divided; a split in the denomination was impending. Family gatherings, formerly peaceful and happy, broke up in angry shouts and crying women, to the consternation and fear of the children. Friends and families in the closely knit congregation of Hope that had worked together, for example, in establishing the school a few years earlier, visited regularly, and vacationed together no longer had anything to do with each other, apart from the requisite worship on the Lord’s Day.

The worship services were tense. Not many Sundays before Hoeksema came to preach, a fierce and noisy conflict had broken out on the Hope churchyard immediately after the morning service. Prof. G. M. Ophoff had preached for the Rev. John A. Heys, Hope’s pastor, as a guest minister. His sermon, like every other sermon preached at Hope in those days, condemned “conditions,” “a conditional promise,” “a conditional covenant,” and “conditional salvation.” Hardly had Ophoff exited the building than a prominent member of Hope challenged the professor’s sermon, at least, its application to the conditional theology of those promoting conditions in the Protestant Reformed Churches. At once, Elder Richard Newhouse, who was accompanying Ophoff like a one-man bodyguard, sprang to Ophoff’s defense.

A founding father of the Hope congregation at the time of the common grace controversy in the Christian Reformed Church in 1924, Newhouse was the embodiment of the Dutch description of a certain military hero (perhaps, Piet Hein), “klein maar dapper” (small but brave). Newhouse could not have reached five feet five or six inches in height in his wooden shoes. But he was an intrepid and indomitable defender of a great and sovereign God, and of Prof. G. M. Ophoff. Hoeksema, Newhouse respected; Ophoff, the first pastor of Hope and the man with whom Newhouse went through the common grace wars, he loved.

Stories about the “little Dutchman” of Hope are legion in the bend of the Grand River to the west and Lake Michigan. They are all true, and they are all good. Newhouse was one of Hope’s great men, exemplifying the way of God with his church in calling the foolish, weak, and base, in order to confound the things that are mighty (I Cor. 1:25-31). We remember him with honor and affection.

Shortly before the founding of Hope Protestant Reformed Church, when the controversy over common grace was raging in the Christian Reformed Church, Prof. Samuel Volbeda preached for the Hope Christian Reformed Church in Riverbend, where Newhouse was member. Volbeda’s sermon was a ringing defense of salvation by sovereign, particular grace. This was the kind of sermon that stirred Newhouse to the depths of his soul. “God moet alles zijn; de mens niets” (“God must be everything; man, nothing”). Nevertheless, after the service, the doughty Dutchman, whose occupation was that of a lowly “string-butcher” and whose education never went beyond the third grade, accosted the learned, aristocratic professor: “Why do you always come to Hope with a sermon on the sovereignty of God, when you will not defend Hoeksema and Danhof, who stand for God’s sovereignty, in the papers and assemblies of the churches?”

For a few years after its organization as a congregation in 1916, the Hope Christian Reformed Church (out of which the Hope Protestant Reformed Church would be born in 1924) held its worship services in Newhouse’s home. During the hot summer months, the congregation would hold the afternoon service outdoors, in Newhouse’s yard, beneath the spreading branches of a large tree. On one occasion, in the midst of the afternoon service, a thunderstorm developed quickly in the southwestern sky. As the billowing clouds approached the worshipping congregation, a loud clap of thunder rumbled across Kenowa Avenue over the worshippers. The preacher that afternoon was a nervous seminarian. He paused, mid-way through his sermon, and asked, “What shall I do?” Came back at once the reply from Newhouse, “Keep on preaching!”

Once, and once only, in later years, did the perennial elder teach catechism. By every standard of proper catechetics, the class was a disaster. The opening prayer was half-English, half-Dutch. After asking the questions of the lesson on Reformed doctrine from the book, Newhouse began an explanation of the lesson in English. Within five minutes, he had lapsed into the Dutch language, his native tongue and the language in which he thought. After a few minutes of Dutch, the realization hit him that the class could not understand a word he was saying. Abruptly, he said (in English), “Let us pray,” and prayed a closing prayer (in Dutch).

Class dismissed.

A failure, by men’s standards.

But not, in reality.

For God, who delights in making straight lines with crooked sticks, blessed that strange, fifteen-minute class in Reformed doctrine to a class of sixteen-year old catechism students, who knew very well that the class was a botch. The opening Psalter number was Newhouse’s favorite, Psalter number 367 (all the stanzas), “Gracious Lord, remember David.” He sang it with obvious devotion to his great God, oblivious to the twelve or fifteen catechumens. His prayer was fervent—sheer worship of the God who was there—both the English and the Dutch components. And even the Dutch had its familiar word, “Heere.”

The five or ten minute “exposition,” which may or may not have been on the precise topic of the lesson, was praise of the mighty and gracious father of Jesus Christ.

There was no mockery by the students. There was no laughter during the class, or after. Not one of the students said one demeaning word as we trooped up the steps from the basement of the church building. No doubt, one reason was that we respected and loved the old man as our elder. The chief reason, I now realize, was that we had been, in an odd way, in the presence of God, and we felt it.

But he never taught again, and this was right. Standards of catechetics are necessary. And God usually makes straight lines with straight sticks.

Now, on this Sabbath morning, the little fighter took up the cudgels for Prof. Ophoff and for the sovereignty of covenant grace against his own fellow church member, who, truth to tell, may only have been seeking clarification. Ophoff never said a word. The battle was pitched. With all the rest of the congregation, we teenagers and children watched and listened with mounting trepidation and growing awareness that our church-world—vital to us already at that age—was being shaken.

A short time later, Richard Newhouse would be one of the two elders who gave a report to Classis East of the Protestant Reformed Churches condemning the doctrine of a conditional covenant, to the saving of the Protestant Reformed Churches.

Rev. Hoeksema

In that highly charged atmosphere, the Rev. Herman Hoeksema climbed the platform in the small, frame church building on Wilson Avenue. that Sunday evening in early 1953. Two physical features of the man registered with me: his powerful build and his iron-gray hair. One spiritual characteristic struck me: his authority.

Two physical features of the man registered with me: his powerful build and his iron-gray hair.

In those days, the order of worship was the reading of Scripture before the congregational prayer. The chapter was Ephesians 4. Verse 14 of the chapter reads: “That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive.” Although there was no announcement of the text in the bulletin (Hoeksema was a visiting preacher) and although Hoeksema did not reveal his text before reading the chapter, I knew without any doubt, as did everyone else in the audience, the text he intended to preach—verse 14, a warning against being carried about with every wind of doctrine, that is, the doctrine of a conditional covenant.

After the congregational prayer, the collection, and the singing of another psalm, the remarkable, memorable thing happened. Hoeksema came to the pulpit, looked us over, and said this: “I had intended when I came here tonight to preach on verse 14 of Ephesians 4, because of the present serious troubles in our churches. But I have changed my mind. There are so many children and young people in the Hope congregation that I have decided that my sermon on Ephesians 4:14 would not be fitting. Therefore, I am going to preach a different sermon.”

Whereupon he read a brief passage from John 10 and preached a sermon on Jesus as the good shepherd. There was not a word in the sermon about conditions, or a conditional covenant.

He was not the hard and unloving man they made him out to be in their campaign of whispering behind his back.

Hoeksema’s behavior that night long ago left two powerful impressions. The first was that this must be an extraordinary preacher, who could come up with another sermon than he intended to give, on the spot. The second was that the evil reports being spread by his enemies in the churches were false. He was not the hard and unloving man they made him out to be in their campaign of whispering behind his back. In the midst of struggle over everything he believed, worked for, suffered for, and built, he showed a shepherd’s concern for the children and young people of the Hope congregation.

(to be continued)