The Afscheiders – Too Young?

So far we have seen God’s work of grace in the lives of five young church fathers: Timothy, Athanasius, John Calvin, Zacharias Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus. Now, there is one more tale that must be told. And this tale might very well be the most outstanding of all. This is the story of the Afscheiding, the Reformation that took place in the Netherlands beginning in the year 1834. This is especially the story of the wonder of God’s grace through six young men who led this Reformation.

The situation in the Reformed Church in the Netherlands in 1834 was bad. Real bad. In name this was the church of the great Protestant Reformation and that “most holy synod,” the Synod of Dordt (1618-19), but in actuality there was not even the slightest resemblance. In the two hundred years between the Synod of Dordt and 1834, the church had become lazy in doctrine and in discipline, and she had become thoroughly liberal and apostate. This was all solidified in 1816 by the king of the Netherlands, William I. William replaced the Church Order of Dordt with a new order that gave him power in the church. He put the church under the control of the Dutch government and made all appointments to the church’s broader gatherings. He also had the Formula of Subscription rewritten so that the Reformed Confessions, especially the Canons of Dordt, would only have to be adhered to if the ministers judged them to be faithful to the Bible.[1] For example, if a man cooked up the nonsensical notion that the doctrine of election and reprobation taught in the Canons was not found in the Bible, he could preach against that doctrine and still be considered a faithful Reformed minister.

Things were bad indeed!

The time was ripe for reformation.

It was then that God began to raise up the man that would spark this Reformation: Hendrik de Cock. De Cock attended the Reformed seminary in Groningen and was ordained into the ministry in the Reformed Church in 1523. It is indicative of how bad things were in the Church that De Cock became a Reformed minister without ever reading the Three Forms of Unity or John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. But he did. After his ordination, De Cock served two different congregations before accepting the call to serve the congregation in the city of Ulrum in 1829.

It was here in Ulrum that God worked a powerful change in the life of this liberal minister. In God’s providence, de Cock came across the Institutes in a fellow pastor’s study and read it vociferously, and he also read the Canons of Dordt. He was also influenced by one of his simple yet faithful parishioners, a man by the name of Klaas Kuipenga. Kuipenga told de Cock these memorable words: “If I must add even one sigh to my salvation, then I would be eternally lost.”[2] God used all these things to work a mighty change in de Cock, and soon his congregation noticed a change in his preaching. He preached the sovereignty of God’s grace in salvation and all the other grand truths set forth in the Reformed Confessions. Soon hundreds of spiritually-starved saints were flocking across the Dutch countryside to Ulrum to hear the pure gospel of grace preached.

De Cock’s preaching did not go unnoticed by the authorities for very long. The local government officials were very nervous about so many people gathering in the church Sunday after Sunday. The church officials were upset too, especially because de Cock was preaching against the heresies that had overtaken the church. What finally touched them off was de Cock’s practice of baptizing infants of those who were not members of his church and his outright refusal to sing hymns because of his firm conviction that they brought Arminianism into the church. De Cock was eventually suspended from office, and the broader church assemblies began the process of deposing him from the ministry altogether.

De Cock humbly submitted to his suspension for over a year. During this time he was not allowed to preach to his congregation but had to sit quietly and watch while liberal ministers occupied his pulpit and filled the people with their lies. When Hendrik P. Scholte, a minister who was sympathetic to de Cock, came to supply Ulrum’s pulpit on Sunday, October 12, 1834, he was not allowed to preach in the church. A service was held in a nearby field instead, but this was the breaking point. De Cock could keep silent no longer. On Monday, October 13, 1834, de Cock and his consistory signed an “Act of Secession or Return,” separating themselves from the apostate state church and forming again a true, instituted church of Christ.[3] Prof. Hanko captured the humble beginnings of this reformation well:

The reformation of 1834 in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands began in a dark and smoke-filled consistory room of a country church of no importance where five men gathered to sign a single sheet of paper to protest what had happened to their minister.[4]

The next day the majority of the congregation in Ulrum signed the document. The Reformation was now officially underway.

At first, de Cock and the congregation at Ulrum were alone, but it did not stay that way very long. Scholte was the next to follow, only two weeks later. Scholte had been educated at the bastion of liberalism, the university at Leiden. He was well aware of the heresies taught by his professors and often skipped their lectures. While at Leiden, he gathered around him a group of spiritually-minded students which became known as the “Scholte Club.” Together they learned the Reformed faith and encouraged each other to remain faithful to it. In the Club were all the future leaders of the Afscheding: Antony Brummelkamp, Simon van Velzen, Albertus C. Van Raalte, and Georg Frans Gezelle Meerburg. All of these men except Van Raalte were ordained as ministers in the state church. By 1835, they had all left and joined de Cock.

Each of the members of the Scholte Club was different. Scholte was the unquestioned leader of the group and was the first to join with de Cock. But he was very independent and taught erroneous views on certain points which led to his deposition from the Afscheiding churches in 1840. Scholte eventually immigrated to America and set up a colony in Pella, Iowa. The group remained fiercely independent and died out with their leader.

Brummelkamp was a more moderate man who was always trying to keep the peace between the reformers. He was also one of the ones who worked with the state church to gain acceptance for the Afscheiders. He was one of the first professors appointed to the Afscheiders’ new seminary in Kampen, but it was largely due to him that the error of the well-meant offer of the gospel entered these churches.

Meerburg was another peace-loving man, so much so that he has been called “the Melanchthon of the Secession,” after the peace-at-all-costs friend of Luther, Philip Melanchthon.[5] Meerburg’s influence was limited because he died already in 1855.

Van Raalte was never ordained in the state church, but he was examined and approved by the first synod of the Afscheiders held in 1836. Van Raalte eventually left the Netherlands with a large group of followers and set up a colony in Holland, Michigan. He played an important role in the history of the Protestant Reformed Churches and is worthy of special note.

Van Velzen was by far the most orthodox of the group. When de Cock died in 1842, van Velzen became the unquestioned leader of the Seceders. He was the greatest theologian of the reformation and maintained an unconditional covenant and the sovereignty of God’s grace in salvation. Two interesting facts about van Velzen: first, he and Brummelkamp and Van Raalte were all married to sisters from the de Moen family and therefore were brothers-in-law; second, at eighty-three years of age he presided at the synod of 1892 when the Afscheiders and Abraham Kuyper’s Doleantie merged into one denomination.

Together, these men brought God’s spiritually-starved people out of the corrupt state church and filled their souls with the bread and water of life. They preached the gospel. They rejected hymns. They refused to allow the government to interfere in the church. They restored the precious heritage that is the Reformed confessions. In so doing they were kicked out of the church where they were born and raised. They were mocked and ridiculed by their former colleagues. They were heavily fined, beaten, and even imprisoned, all for the sake of the truth. Yet they refused to give in. They knew the people needed to hear the comforting gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. It was truly an amazing work of God in these men!

This work of God is even more magnified when we consider how old these men were. As one historian wrote,

Viewed from a historical distance, they tend to be pictured as men with long white beards. The assumption that they were venerable fathers is enhanced by the fact that their movement was a conscious return to long-cherished confessions and traditions. It may well come as a surprise, then, to learn that the average age of these six leaders at the time of the secession was twenty-seven years.[6]

None of these reformers was an old man. De Cock was the oldest of the group, and in 1834 he had just reached the ripe old age of 33. Scholte was the next oldest at 29. Meerburg was 28; van Velzen was 25. And Brummelkamp and Van Raalte were only 23. These men could hardly grow a beard much less sport a “long white beard”!

These men were young. Very young. Too young, if judged without faith. Today, they would just be entering seminary, not leading a reformation. But God was pleased to use these weak means. By using these young men, God’s Name was the more magnified and glorified. He used the weakest of means to fulfill his purpose. What a wonder he performed in The Netherlands in 1834!