Editor’s note: Rev. Hanko here relates to us the months-long process that ended in the deposition of Rev. Hoeksema. It is an eye witness account, and a moving one, though not without its humor.
The 1924 Synod’s decisions did not settle the problems in Eastern Avenue church. Now that synod had spoken, the consistory demanded of Rev. Vander Mey that he confess his sin of distributing copies of his protest throughout the churches, and of the three protestants that they retract their accusation of public sin. Since all parties involved not only refused, but showed a hostile attitude, this matter was brought by the consistory to Classis Grand Rapids East on August 20, 1924. The consistory requested that the classis rescind its former decisions according to which the consistory had been advised to lift the censure of the protestants.
Classis East did not advise lifting the censure from Rev. Vander Mey, but they did advise that the censure of the protestants should be lifted as soon as possible, on the ground that synod had sustained the accusation of these protestants against their pastor.
Classis did exactly what the synod refused to do. By their decision they actually accused Rev. Hoeksema of public sin by his denial of common grace. This was the first step toward his deposition and the expulsion of the congregation from the denomination!
The consistory felt compelled to call a congregational meeting on September 2, in which the decision of the classis was explained and opportunity was given to all confessing members to sign a protest against this action of the classis. Ninety-two members formulated a protest against this congregational meeting, accusing the consistory of mutiny and rebellion, as well as allowing women to vote at a congregational meeting (though in reality there was no vote taken).
The classis met, recessed, and met again repeatedly. (It should be understood that Rev. Hoeksema and his consistory resided in Classis Grand Rapids East while Rev. Danhof and Rev. George Ophoff, who joined them in their stand, resided in Classis Grand Rapids West.) Their meetings might be compared to a sort of correspondence course between the Eastern Avenue consistory and the classis. Classis met, heard the answer of the consistory, placed it in the hands of a committee from the theological school, recessed only to meet again when this committee was ready to report.
One cannot help but ask why these ecclesiastical assemblies dealt with Rev. Hoeksema and his consistory in such a strange, improper and illegal manner. Why? It is obvious that they wanted to avoid with all their power a direct confrontation with Rev. Hoeksema. The reason is evident. Rev. Hoeksema stood intellectually head and shoulders above all the leaders of that day. They all knew that if he were given the opportunity of a public discussion or debate, his strong oratorical ability, but still more his intellectual acumen would convince many listeners. It would even expose these leaders in their foolishness and their error. This they avoided with might and main, and therefore consistently refused to allow him to speak in his own defense.
Although this was not demanded of the other ministers and consistories, Classis Grand Rapids East demanded of Rev. Hoeksema and his consistory that they sign the Three Points of Common Grace adopted by synod.
These were crucial times. Many visitors attended every session of classis. Women took their crocheting, sewing or knitting along and stayed all day. At five o’clock they went home to make supper, so that their husbands could attend the evening sessions.
In the meantime, in an attempt to prevent Rev. Hoeksema and Rev. Danhof from defending their position, Rev. Hoeksema was forced to resign as editor of the rubric “Our Doctrine” in The Banner. And thus, a Free Reformed Publishing Association was organized, so that these men could freely write their views and opinions in the Standard Bearer, which became the voice of our denomination.
Every Sunday, especially in the evening, the Eastern Avenue Church was filled beyond capacity. Visitors came from various churches to hear our pastor. Not only were seats placed in the aisles and in front of the platform, but some sat on the platform and on the steps leading up to the platform. Those who could not be seated stood in the hallways so that repeatedly the fire chief came to clear the hallways.
One professor at Calvin came to hear Hoeksema preach. In his sermon, Hoeksema took a dig at Socrates and other philosophers. The next day this professor came to class and said, “Our beloved Socrates was dragged through the mud again last night.” By that time, in the eyes of the professor, Socrates, by God’s common grace, without a speck of special grace, had come right up to the portals of heaven.
Even the children marching to Franklin Park for a Sunday School picnic, walked along Eastern Avenue and Franklin Street shouting, “1, 2, 3, 4, who are we for? Hoeksema!”
The controversy created a stir far beyond the local congregation. For one thing, common grace was discussed in the homes at mealtime even when visitors were present, on the street corners and in the grocery store. Whenever you saw a group of people together in earnest discussion you could be sure that they were discussing the topic of the day. Those in favor of common grace would ask, “If an unbeliever pulls another man out of the ditch is he doing good?” We’d say, “No.” They’d say, “Is he doing any good if he leaves him in the ditch?” And we’d answer, “No, he isn’t doing any good then either.”
Even in Calvin College and Seminary, which I was attending at the time, there was a lot of tension. The professors did not fail to make cutting remarks about the Revs. Hoeksema and Ophoff. Among the students there was constant debate. Prof. Volbeda’s son was always ready to agree with me, while Prof. Berkhof’s son took up the defense of the classis. When the ministers were deposed, we who continued with them were virtually ignored.
So when the time neared that Hoeksema was going to be suspended, Prof. Clarence Bouma, a cousin of my mother’s, came over when my mother was alone and told her that I should not be allowed to stay with Hoeksema. He said that I was needed in the CRC and Hoeksema would never amount to anything anyway. When I came home she was crying because she felt bad about that. I told her that I had decided to go with Hoeksema. Earlier this had been in some doubt. But after I met privately with Rev. Hoeksema, my mind was made up.
The Grand Rapids Press carried information regarding Classes Grand Rapids East and West on the front page of the evening paper whenever possible. One evening a headline on the front page read: “Rev. Ophoff Chooses Death.” He had said at a meeting of Classis West that he would prefer to face a cannon rather than sign the Three Points.
It so happened that I made confession of faith on a Thursday evening in December, the day before Rev. Hoeksema was suspended from office and his consistory deposed. The next morning I was at school for an early class. Immediately I was informed by one of the students who was in the know, that “Today your minister will be suspended from his office,” followed by the question, “What are you going to do?” I answered that when he was put out I was put out also. I was told by him and a few others, “Then we shake hands now for the last time.”
As was expected, on December 12, 1924 Rev. Herman Hoeksema was suspended from the office of the ministry of the Word and sacraments and his consistory was deposed. Needless to say, in January he was deposed, and shortly after Rev. Danhof and Rev. Ophoff were suspended and along with them their consistories were deposed.
Even that action was contrary to the Church Order. It has always been maintained that according to the Scriptures and sound reformed principles, Christ rules his church. Christ opens and closes the gates of the kingdom of heaven. He calls the minister of the Word, the elders and the deacons to their respective offices. Christ does so through the consistory, which is the ruling body in the church, representing Christ. A classis or a synod is not a higher authority. They are not governing, but advisory bodies. No classis or synod has the right to exercise discipline over members of the congregations, nor the right to discipline office bearers. They can only advise, and if that advice is not adopted they can declare that congregation outside of the denomination. That is the extent of their right. Classis Grand Rapids East and West went far beyond that.
The next Sunday the congregation of Eastern Avenue met with mixed feelings. There were tears, but there was also joy. Tears? Yes, ninety-two members with their families were no longer with us. Some had refrained from coming for some time, but now these recalcitrants went their sinful way, meeting separately in the Sherman Street Church. But there was more, for we were illegally, even cruelly cast out of the denomination in which many of us had been baptized and reared. There was no doubt in our minds but that when they cast out our pastor and consistory, we also were cast out.
Our pastor, consistory and we have often been accused of having withdrawn from the CRC. That is not true. Our minister and our consistory were deposed because of their convictions. As a result, we also were placed outside of the denomination because of our convictions.
More than that, in some instances husband and wife stood diametrically opposed to each other, families were permanently broken up, friendships were ended. A split in the church is a very painful experience. My three half sisters and my full sister Sena with their families all remained in the CRC and became bitterly opposed to us. On birthdays we still came together but as soon as any reference was made to church or doctrine the older ones became angry and threatened to go home.
Many of us could not refrain from singing:
Friend and lover are departed,
Dark and lonely is my way;
Lord, be Thou my friend and helper,
Still to Thee, O Lord, I pray (Psalter 240:5).
Yet there was joy. And the joy far outweighed the grief. It was indeed a relief that peace was once more restored in the congregation. The offense of the presence of the protestants was removed. We could worship once more in complete harmony and unity. The struggle that had been foremost in our prayers and had caused many sleepless nights was over. We realized that the Lord had done great things for us.
For our God had brought about a reformation! Well might be added, a very necessary reformation. On that first Sunday our pastor chose as text for his sermon, John 6:67, “Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?” We were forcefully reminded that we should not come along because of sympathy or sentiment or for any ulterior reason. We should not remain with the congregation because of the cruel injustice that had been performed. Before the face of God we should take our stand out of conviction, deep conviction of the truth, and love for the sovereignty of our God.
At the close of the service the rafters fairly rang with the joyful praise to God in the strain of the psalmist,
Thou art, O God, our boast, the glory of our power:
Thy sovereign grace is e’er our fortress and our tower.
We lift our head aloft, for God, our shield is o’er us,
Through him, through him alone, whose presence goes before us.
We’ll wear the victor’s crown, no more by foes assaulted,
We’ll triumph through our King, by Israel’s God exalted (Psalter 422:6).