The purpose of this interview is to establish the connection between the German Reformed Churches and the PRCA. Numerous references are made to three churches in the Dakotas: Isabel, Leola, and Forbes. Forbes is located just north of the North Dakota/South Dakota state line; Leola, SD is located approximately 25 miles southwest of Forbes; Isabel, SD is located about 180 miles to the west of Forbes and Leola. Also mentioned is Loveland, CO Protestant Reformed Church, a thriving congregation today. Alvin Rau lived many of the events detailed in this interview, and is clearly familiar with the history involved. Here follows his interview in two parts.
MHH: Mr. Rau, let’s start by finding out a little bit about you. When and where were you born?
AR: I was born in Long Lake, South Dakota, August 6, 1930.
MHH: That would make you how old today?
AR: Seventy-seven, going on 78.
MHH: Where did you grow up?
AR: Right in the Long Lake area, Leola area and Forbes area. It’s farm out there.
MHH: And that was in South Dakota?
AR: That was in South Dakota, correct.
MHH: Where did you go to school?
AR: Country school Walker #3—eight grades in one school, all one room. That was my education.
MHH: OK.. What was your church background?
AR: I was brought up in the American Lutheran church, a country church out there.
MHH: And was that the background and the heritage of your parents or your ancestors?
AR: No, my grandfather belonged to the Reformed church and, as I understand, even helped establish that Reformed church—country church right in that neighborhood. But when my father got married, why, he went to the Lutheran church.
MHH: Why did he do that? Was his wife Lutheran?
AR: Yes, his wife was Lutheran, and I don’t know what other reason.
MHH: And your whole family went to the Lutheran church, then?
AR: That is right, the whole family.
MHH: How many brothers and sisters do you have?
AR: One sister and 6 brothers. That’s half brothers. It was a brought-together family. My father was married and was widowed when he had four boys. My mother was married and was widowed when she had one son. And then, when my parents got married, of that marriage there was one younger brother, and my sister.
MHH: OK.. And did you grow up living and working on a farm there?
MHH: What are some of your earliest memories, both personal and as far as the church are concerned?
AR: We were brought up—even in the Lutheran church—we grew up knowing that there is a God and that he is to be served. But we did not receive the teaching of what we got later on in life in the Reformed church in Leola under Rev. [Herman] Mensch.
MHH: That brings up another subject. How did it happen that you came into contact with the Reformed church and specifically, with the Protestant Reformed Church?
AR: Well, it was primarily through Rev. Mensch. They were building a parsonage in Leola when he accepted the call to Leola and they were living on a farm about a mile south of where we were living, which was about 8 miles east of Leola and 2½ north. This was where we were residing. Mensches were living in a vacant farmhouse there while that parsonage was built. They got their milk and eggs from us. After we were married we moved in there.
MHH: Ok, let’s back up a little bit to get some clarity on how this happened. You mentioned that you were married. Now, how old were you at this time?
AR: Twenty-six or 27 when we got in contact with the Reformed churches.
MHH: After you got married, did you remain in the Lutheran church for a time?
AR: Correct. We remained there.
MHH: OK. Now tell me about this Mensch that you mentioned. Who was he and what was his background and his religion?
AR: He grew up in the southern part of South Dakota. He came to Michigan somehow (I don’t know how he got in contact with the Protestant Reformed Churches), but he came to Grand Rapids, Michigan and he graduated from the seminary of the Protestant Reformed Churches, and then he accepted the call to go back to serve in the German Reformed churches in South Dakota. I don’t know for sure, but in Isabel, South Dakota, is where he was ordained as a minister when the Leola German Reformed Church called him. And he came to Leola. When he started to preach concerning the sovereignty of God and particular grace—that we were saved by grace and grace alone, not by works of man—why, that preaching did not go over very good in the German Reformed church. Consequently, problems developed, and from the German Reformed church, there was a member who came to the Lutheran church where we were members at that time.
MHH: Because this person was dissatisfied?
AR: Was dissatisfied with that preaching there. Anyway, we accepted him in the Lutheran church. He did not have papers because the consistory was working with him. And when Mensch came to get milk and eggs, we got started talking about that. He said that it was not right that we accepted him. “Well, why not?” I said. “After all, he wants to be a member in our church, so we accept him.” That was my knowledge and understanding of scripture at that time.
But through that conversation, we started to attend catechism classes on Wednesday nights at the German Reformed church, asking many questions concerning: “Well, OK, If God directs all things, our biggest problem is: Doesn’t that make God the author of sin?” He had to clarify various questions for us to understand this. In fact, he taught me what I should be believing, growing up in the Lutheran church—justified by faith alone. And he said if the Lutheran church would be Lutheran as Luther was Lutheran, his hat would be off to them. So it sort of softened the offense that perhaps could have occurred with me when I heard those things.
MHH: What motivated you to go and start to attend classes in the German Reformed if there was little disagreement to begin with about this man coming from the German Reformed to the Lutheran? Why did you go and sit under Mensch’s teaching?
AR: Well, I struggled with that a long time because, in the first place, I had problems (my mother had a couple of nervous break-downs as I was growing up) and it seemed as though if you didn’t touch on religion at all, you were better off that you didn’t upset her—I’ll put it that way. And I had problems reading. And reading would have been one thing—leaving the Lutheran church and going to the German Reformed church and saying “I’m going either for the sake of my wife,” or simply out of convenience. That would have been one thing. But then to say to my brothers, “What I was taught here [in the Lutheran church] is not correct. And what I am being taught there [in the German Reformed church] agrees with the word of God.”
MHH: So you would say that Rev. Mensch played a significant part in your education, your religious education?
AR: He sure did. He played a very important part in my education, at least as far understanding what scripture means.
MHH: Did that lead to a change of membership for you and your wife?
AR: Yes, it did. We became members there in the German Reformed church, although the handwriting was on the wall that we may well be put out of the church there in Leola when we joined there. But at that point we thought we had to. I did meet with the Lutheran minister. We had lodge members in the Lutheran church, and as far as he was concerned, there was nothing wrong with that. And we talked concerning the free will of man. He said, “Yes, that’s another thing that Mensch had given me: The Bondage of the Will that was written by Luther.” This is what the Lutheran church should be teaching and believing. When I mentioned that to the Lutheran minister, he said, “Well, we probably believed that at one time,” but he couldn’t conceive of it that we would still maintain that now.
MHH: So the Lutheran church had obviously slipped.
AR: It had departed. And that gave me a lot of problems for awhile too. If this is what I should have been believing as a Lutheran, how did this come about that that departure came in numerous generations? Mensch said, “Well, that’s it. Those departures, they usually work out slowly so that your people are lulled to sleep, and they don’t know what the truth of the word of God is anymore.” He was honest in his teaching with us.
MHH: And why do you think it was that Mensch was in danger of being put out of the German Reformed church?
AR: Primarily because his preaching was not accepted by the congregation as a whole; not all of them, but the majority of them were against that kind of preaching—of a sovereign God, particular grace, limited atonement—you name it.
MHH: Was that not being taught in the German Reformed churches at that time?
AR: I guess you would have to ask my wife and Madeline [Bertsch (Alvin Rau’s sister-in-law, also German Reformed and also present during the interview)] because I did not grow up in it. But the understanding that my wife had and I had, even when we were dating and before we got married was, usually the woman went with the man. When my father got married, he went with his wife. But usually the woman went wherever the man belonged and, yes, we serve one God with the same understanding.
MHH: Did not the German Reformed churches have their own seminary?
AR: Well, they were trying to start a seminary, but I guess that’s why he ended up in the Protestant Reformed Churches because there really wasn’t a whole lot there. I know that they didn’t have a seminary.
MHH: Do you have any idea where their men were educated?
AR: No, I don’t. [Here Phyllis Rau (PR), Alvin Rau’s wife, enters the discussion]
PR: There was a school in Wisconsin.
AR: Yeah, but I don’t think he went there. He never went there to a school in Wisconsin. There may have been a seminary in Wisconsin, I’m not sure. But I really don’t know concerning that.
MHH: So, what happened? You are now in Leola. You’re attending the German Reformed church under the preaching of Rev. Mensch. What happened?
AR: When he was suspended from the Leola congregation without any grounds, or the only grounds were that three-fourths of the consistory didn’t want him at least…
PR: He was locked out.
AR: And even right during the service, one of the officebearers (the deacon, I believe), said, “Well, that’s your interpretation.”
MHH: He talked back to the minister during the service?
AR: During the service: “That’s your interpretation of it.” Mensch had no support from the consistory.
MHH: So he was suspended.
MHH: And not allowed to preach in the congregation.
MHH: And how did you view that?
AR: Well, when you had been instructed under Mensch that these are some of the things that we can expect for the truth’s sake, why, we have to continue. But when he was put out of office, we didn’t even know how to go about really protesting, but anyway, I guess he protested that action of the consistory to the classis when they were going to be meeting, which was once a year, and that was coming up. Immediately before that time, that’s when it looked like this is too small. There was no hope for a church life for us. And we decided to move at that point. We had church in the basement for a couple of times, but we didn’t have any officebearers. In fact we had been talking, and some in Isabel too had been talking about moving.
MHH: So the sum of the matter is that the group that remained faithful to Mensch’s preaching and teaching was too small to be viable.
AR: It was just two families. This is what it came down to—the Houcks and the DeWalds.
MHH: Now, you mentioned moving. Explain that to me. You moved. Where did you move and what happened next?
AR: Well, we moved to Michigan before Forbes was ever organized as a Protestant Reformed church. At that point, when Mensch was suspended from office and that was still pending, our oldest child was ready to begin kindergarten. And we wanted to get to where there was a Christian school. In fact, the year before, in the fall of ’56 already, it looked like we were going to be moving somewhere or another. We had gone down to Loveland, Colorado to look things over there, and the possibility of moving down there; we had even thought of that. But at that point Loveland didn’t have a school yet. Since we thought we are uprooting, we’re going to where there is a school and full church life, which led us to Grand Rapids.
PR: Where did Rev.[George] Lubbers fit in? Because he was in that too.]
MHH: That was going to be my next question. Work was being done in the Forbes area? Was there a congregation before you left?
AR: Before we left there was no congregation. But after we left, Mensch moved to Michigan at the same time when we did. I don’t know how many times, but he went back and forth from Michigan to the Dakotas and he would minister to the groups in Leola and in Isabel.
MHH: Was Isabel an organized congregation at that time?
AR: Isabel was an organized congregation. By the way, when the handwriting was on the wall, that Leola is going to put him out of the ministry, Isabel called him and he accepted that call, too. So he was minister in two churches. He was serving both churches at the same time.
MHH: Who worked in the Forbes area?
AR: Nobody was working there. Mensch would still go back and forth and meet with for awhile. But he resigned from Isabel and he didn’t go back there any more, and then they got in contact with Rev. Lubbers—both Isabel and Leola groups.
MHH: So the work of Rev. Lubbers followed this history that you’ve just described.
MHH: But by that time, you were in the process of moving to Michigan?
AR: We were in Michigan already before then. I think we had met Rev. Lubbers about two times before we moved to Michigan, because I know he had been here in Grand Rapids for classis and he was laboring in Loveland. As he went to Loveland, he stopped in Leola. We did meet him there at the parsonage at least two times, because we got to know Gus Huber [from Loveland, CO.] at that time too. But anyway, we did get to know Rev. Lubbers and knew that he was missionary for the Protestant Reformed Churches. About that time the work started to wind down in Loveland too. The Loveland congregation started too with the work of Mensch.
MHH: Loveland did?
AR: Yes, that was the beginning of the work. In fact, we were in Loveland for an anniversary of some kind, and even Loveland in their history mentioned that they had a student from the seminary who did some work down there, and he pointed them to the Protestant Reformed Churches. So, he played an important part in Loveland and Leola and Isabel.
MHH: Now, what happened to the church in Leola, the small group that was left?
AR: Under Rev. Lubbers, they were organized as a congregation and petitioned synod to affiliate with them and to send a missionary out. Then they were organized under Rev. Lubbers, I imagine with permission of the mission committee.
MHH: How and when did Forbes, North Dakota come into existence?
AR: That was a couple of years after we moved over here, when Forbes became organized as a congregation and came into existence. I think that is in the 1959 Acts of Synod In 1959, I believe, they were organized.