MHH: It is March 21, 2008, and I am at the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Jonker in Walker, Michigan. I am about to interview Mr. Cornelius Jonker at his residence. In the interview there is considerable participation by his wife Truda, so this is in many respects a dual interview. It should also be noted that Mr. Jonker is my uncle.
MHH: Mr. Jonker, where and when were you born?
CJ: I was born in Rusk, Michigan. That is near Allendale, Michigan, in a little town where my father was pastor of Rusk Christian Reformed Church. I was born on September 25, 1924.
MHH: Where, Mr. Jonker, did you grow up?
CJ: My father [This and following references to CJ’s father are to Rev. Dirk Jonker] was deposed from the ministry because he would not subscribe to the three points of common grace, so we moved to Baxter Street, near Eastern in Grand Rapids, and attended First Protestant Reformed Church. I don’t remember much of Baxter Street. From there we moved to Cooper Avenue, where my younger sister [Thelma Westra] was born in 1927. Shortly thereafter my folks purchased a home at 1107 Dunham, and that’s where most of my boyhood memories occur.
MHH: Before we go into those boyhood memories, could you back up for a moment, please, and tell me more about your father—his education, his deposition. Where was he educated and when and under what circumstances was he deposed?
CJ: I don’t know if I can answer all the details. However, he graduated from Calvin College Theological Seminary. His first call was to Sibley, Iowa, where my older sister [Gertrude Hoeksema] was born in 1921, just when they moved to Rusk. My father was deposed by his consistory, I believe, either in 1924 or 1925, because he would not subscribe to the three points of common grace, which also led to the formation of the Protestant Reformed Churches.
MHH: After he was deposed, what happened next?
CJ: My father never received another call. My father worked as a visitor of the shut-ins and sick of First [Protestant Reformed] Church. It was a large congregation. Rev. H. Hoeksema was the only pastor. With four sermons on a Sunday, plus Standard Bearer and Theological School, you can imagine he did not have time to call on the sick. That fell to my father.
TJ [Truda Jonker]: He called on me when I was sick—around 4½–5 years old. I remember that.
CJ: So my father did a lot of sick calling. He made the bulletin announcements—it was quite a paragraph every Sunday in First Church. And somehow he served continuously in the consistory. He never had a year off, as was the custom. He always served. I never sat with my father in church.
MHH: He served as elder, then?
CJ: He served as elder. He was also stated clerk of synod for many years.
TJ: And he preached.
CJ: And he would preach. I would go with him to Portland and to Byron Center. So his income really was from First Church, supplemented by some preaching. He also did proof-reading for Doorn Printing, who printed a lot of the publications of the Protestant Reformed Churches.
MHH: Why do you think it is, Mr. Jonker, that he never received a call, given his talents and abilities and his obvious usefulness to the church?
CJ: I’ve often wondered that myself—just why the Lord didn’t see fit to direct a call to him. I heard him preach on occasion. He was no dynamic speaker, but I thought he was a pretty good preacher. But why he never received a call, I don’t know.
MHH: There’s not a lot known about him. How would you characterize his personality and temperament?
CJ: I would say he was not a fiery man. He was generally mild-tempered. But he was also tenacious when he thought a cause was right and proper according to the word of God. I recall that he was the author of (seemingly to me) many protests, the last being in 1952–53 at the time when Rev. DeWolf made those famous statements. He would help people too in formulating protests. Sometimes he even took advantage of some of my typing skills and I had to type them for him. So he was rather mild-mannered, but if he thought a cause was right, he would pursue it, you might say, to the end, unless they proved him wrong.
MHH: Subsequent to 1925, what did he do for a living?
CJ: As I stated before, he was full-time visiting the sick for First Church. That was his vocation until First Church started calling more pastors. And then my father worked for Kelvinator (nothing related, of course, to his education), and later at Imperial Metal Products as not a skilled worker.
MHH: But all during that time he continued to serve as elder? And he made a definite contribution to the church.
TJ: And he always was working with proof-reading Standard Bearer,, and wasn’t he clerk to the synod for years and years and years?
CJ: He was stated clerk of synod for many years, as the volumes of the Standard Bearer will testify, and he was always in consistory. So, he kept active in church life,even to the day of his death. Even though he had other jobs, he still was very active. And he was always an elder. I don’t know what kind of an exception they made for that, but he never sat with his family—just like Rev. Ophoff was always in consistory in First Church when he was around.
TJ: Did you go to the Dutch service with him when he was an elder, because you went as a child, didn’t you?
MHH: That’s a good question. Did you attend the Dutch services? What do you remember of the early ecclesiastical history of the PR Churches?
CJ: I remember very well Sundays. My father would be up before the family was. He would drive to the West Side, where his parents (my grandfather and grandmother Jonker) resided. He would pick them up. Then he would go to Henry Street in Grand Rapids and pick up an aged aunt with her Down syndrome son. He would take them to the early Dutch service and attend himself. After that service, he would bring the four of them to our home on Dunham Street, and then he would go again to the second service (which was the first English). We would all have dinner together at our home (my mother having prepared most of the victuals the day before). Then he would take those four people to the Dutch service in the afternoon. Following that service, he would drop them off at their homes on Henry Street and the West Side, come back, and go to the evening service. So he for the most part attended four services—two Dutch and two English (laughter). I remember many years of that routine. My grandfather and grandmother helped him buy a car for that purpose.
MHH: And the time-frame of these events would have been roughly what?
TJ: You don’t think they were already going when they built First Church because, if I understood my parents, I was baptized in the basement of First Church, so it must have been in the process of being finished at that time already.
CJ: I don’t remember anything but the big edifice of First Church at Fuller and Franklin. We would always walk four blocks from Dunham Street to the church. But exactly the years, I don’t know.
MHH: Would it be fair to say that the ecclesiastical life of First Church in those days, given the fact that they held four services a Sunday, that that life was thriving?
CJ: Oh, yes. First Church was a big congregation. Rev. H. Hoeksema was a tremendous spokesman, a tremendous theological figure, and the church was full. I don’t know about the Dutch services. I did not go to the Dutch services. But the English services were full.
MHH: Now you mentioned, Mr. Jonker, that your family lived on Dunham Street, which is in Southeast Grand Rapids. Other than those that you have already expressed, what are any other memories that you would have of the Protestant Reformed Churches? For example, besides the four services a day, what is your recollection of catechism instruction, of the general life of the church, of the membership, the attitude of the church? What can you tell me about all of this?
CJ: Well, as a child, you just sort of took what came. You attended catechism faithfully. That was for the most part on Saturday mornings. The catechism classes were divided according to boys and girls. Sunday School was different. Sunday School was by ages. Little groups would meet in various sections of the main auditorium. That was our Sunday School, but catechism was in the basement. It was in the big classroom where they held the Theological School, and students taught us. I had candidate or seminarian VanWeelden (James VanWeelden, who later became a minister in the Protestant Reformed Churches). And there was Lambert Doezema, who also became a minister. I remember that the boys tried to get away with things if they could. They learned how to surreptitiously hide their books when questions were asked. The instructor soon caught on. Instead of asking from the front, he would wander to the side so they could look down the rows, which was rather effective.
I remember as a kid (and I almost hate to tell you this one), but one day I took along a little pet white mouse in my pocket to catechism (laughter). In retrospect I guess it was rather foolish, but it sounded like fun at the time. Fortunately, he stayed in my pocket (laughter). But I always had to know the answers to my questions—both my parents would see to that. But I always knew my questions and knew my answers.
MHH: Was any of this instruction carried out by Herman Hoeksema?
CJ: No. I never had classes by him. The only class that I know that he taught, other than seminary, was that famous Wednesday night catechism class for adults. That was a very popular class. But I was quite young. I think about the only time that I attended a class (and that was just before I was married and my older sister, Gertrude, prevailed upon myself and my girl friend Trudy—now my wife—to sing a duet at the last meeting of the season, which was sort of a little social). That was probably our debut as far as duets is concerned. But I never had Rev. Hoeksema as a teacher other than minister and pastor.
MHH: But you did remain as a duet for many, many years and decades after that point, is that correct?
CJ: Music has been a big part of our lives, and a lot of it in the Protestant Reformed Churches. We would sing on the live broadcast of the Reformed Witness Hour on Sunday afternoons. We would sing at programs. I remember that First Church had a big platform in the front that would pull out on rollers almost to the front row. That was done when they had special programs or performances. One was the Choral Society. It was an adult choir of the church. They would perform, believe it or not, different oratorios—not really dramatize them, but they would have different singers as, for example, in the oratorio “Esther.” There was a Mr. Herman Karel who sang the tenor role of Mordecai. I was entranced with the choir, but especially with him. I thought to myself, “Oh, if I could only do that, why that would just be …” And, as the Lord led, eventually I was singing the part of Mordecai myself, and my wife was Zeresh, Haman’s wife. It was sort of a high point in my young life. We did a lot of singing. I love to sing. I still do.
MHH: But it is fantastic to think that oratorios were formally presented on the platform of First Church.
CJ: And we even had, I believe, Seymour Swets, who directed the Calvin Oratorical Society. He directed for years. Then there was Al Smith. There were different ones, outside directors, and they produced some oratorios that maybe now would lift eyebrows off the forehead. But they had some good stuff too. They really did. And I think Esther was acceptable. But whether that would be done today, I doubt it.
MHH: I’m curious as to your thoughts on that. Was the general attitude of the people in those days more liberal than it is today? As you say, this is unheard of today. Yet it was commonplace and well attended at the time that you mention. Do you have any thoughts as to why this could be?
CJ: Not really. I don’t know whether all the music at that time had to be approved by a certain committee. I think they had a few sad experiences. Maybe that changed a little later—that they had to have all program material approved by the consistorial committee. I recall that on a couple occasions, they frowned at some submitted numbers—wanted them either deleted or changed. As a result, the group refused to perform,so I think they tightened up on it, for what reason, I don’t know. Maybe it got a little bit out of hand or maybe there were some protests. But I think that for a while they tolerated some things that probably wouldn’t go over so well today.
MHH: Is it fair to say that these events that you are describing took place in the 1930s?
CJ: Let’s see. I was probably—maybe I was 12, 13 years old, which would make it in the mid-to-late 30s.
TJ: And early 40s. That was before I went to high school.
CJ: I would say that was before the war before I went into the army. I really didn’t do any singing then. I didn’t know that much about it. I appreciated it, and I loved it, and I could sing, but I didn’t really understand music. Then I was away from the church for three years in the Army. When I came back, we would do a lot of singing at night around the piano with groups, singles, and some couples. One day in the service, I happened to sit behind Doris VanDellen, who was radio choir director. She had a good soprano voice. And I sat behind her and didn’t think that much of it, but right after the service she collared me. She said, “You come to radio choir tomorrow.” Oh, I didn’t really know notes, but I learned, and that was the beginning of my singing career, you might say. I learned fast. I don’t know all the aspects of music, but I can read music. The rest is history. Trudy took voice lessons. We sang in radio choir. We were picked for soloists and the choral society. We sang duets all over the place. I sang for hundreds of weddings. There were a lot of weddings that took place after the veterans came home. I wish I had kept track of all of them, but it was well in the hundreds. So it’s been a big part of our life, and very rewarding.
TJ: We had the radio choir (a big part of the church at that time). They had a Men’s Chorus which was very good. And the radio choir would at that time sing right on the air. They didn’t record right away.
MHH: It was live?
TJ: It was live.
CJ: The technician from WFUR at the time would set up right after the Dutch service. The speaker would be in the consistory room. The technicians would be up in the north balcony. We would have a live broadcast, signaling from the consistory room to the balcony to the announcer and to the choir. I remember when Prof. Schilder, from the Netherlands, conducted the afternoon Dutch service. It was a long service. We were outside of the church biting our nails because it was about quarter to four (the broadcast was scheduled for 4 PM), and they weren’t out yet. And so at about ten or five to four, the people streamed out. While they were streaming out, the radio choir and technicians streamed in. We had to tell the people to be quiet so we could have this live broadcast. I remember that was a hectic afternoon (laughter).
MHH: What a memory!
CJ: I remember one day (this must have been in November or December of 1961), Trudy and I came to church to sing on the broadcast. It was live. We sang the broadcast, and my brother James played for us. [James Jonker, 21 years of age at the time, was an excellent musician (organist) and composer, who at this time had decided to enter the seminary. To put this into perspective, the organ was located in the south balcony of first church, while the singers were on the main floor of the church]. He was up in the balcony at the organ. He said, “I just wrote some lines of a song, and he threw down the paper. He said, “Let me just play it.” So he played it while we read it. Then he said, “Now try to sing it.” So we did. He said, “Do it again.” We did it, a little bit better. About that time Clare Prince [of the Reformed Witness Hour] perked up his ears and he says, “Do it once more and I’m going to record it.” So we did. It was the song entitled “Perfect Peace.” So we sang it, and it was recorded. We didn’t think anything more of it until a few weeks later my brother suffered fatal injuries in an accident in Pennsylvania (right after Christmas that same year). Then, of course, the recording became very valuable and meaningful. It was reproduced in many 45 RPM records and distributed. Later on my older sister (Trude Hoeksema) had it published as sheet music. And it’s been a big part of our lives.
TJ: But don’t forget that it was played on the radio the Sunday after he was killed.
MHH: Can you explain that to me, please? It was recorded prior to his death?
TJ: Prior to his death, but they played it on that next Sunday.
MHH: After he passed away in this accident?
MHH: Which was a Christmas time of 1962, correct?
CJ: 1961. My brother Jim played for the [Sunday School] Christmas program on Christmas Day. There was a morning service on Christmas Day, and the Sunday School program followed immediately after the service. Then he picked up a friend of his and they headed to Pennsylvania [to see female friends] and they drove all night. His friend was driving, and they ran into the back of a steel truck. My brother was killed, the driver was badly injured.
TJ: Fallen asleep.
CJ: Yes, he had fallen asleep. The song was “Perfect Peace.” And it was very fitting and very touching. It was played, as my wife said, the Sunday after Jim was killed, with the notation that he had composed that song and it was recorded just prior to his death. [To be continued…]