God and Michigan’s Dutch Reformed

I’ve argued before that we, meaning Reformed Christians, should use the 500 year anniversary of the Reformation to recover what makes us Reformed. Reading R. Scott Clark’s book,  Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice, is a great start. Closer to home, we could also learn a lot from our Dutch Reformed forebears in West Michigan.

Aleida J. Pieters dedicated a chapter of her book, A Dutch Settlement in Michigan, to the religious life of the Van Raalte settlement in Holland, Michigan. Pieters’s descriptions of the various aspects of the settlers’ religious life are fascinating and add context to modern piety, which is entirely embarrassing in comparison. Early settler doctrine, piety, and practice should certainly humble our hearts and minds.


The Dutch settlers knew that they “stood squarely upon the Confession of faith and the Canons of the National Synod of Dortrecht of 1618-1619, and further that they considered the Bible as the inspired Word of God and the infallible rule of conduct.” Aleida J. Pieters, A Dutch Settlement in Michigan 112 (1923).

Pieters recounts that during the Civil War a Dutch mother was distressed that her son wanted to join the Federal army. She opposed his enlistment. “Her mind was at ease and her conscience was quieted when she remembered the words of the Lord to Moses commanding him to number the children of Israel ‘from twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel.'” The woman’s son was eighteen at the time, so her consent was thus properly withheld. Pieters at 113.


Family Worship

“Every meal was begun with a petition for God’s blessing, offered by the head of the house. At the close of the repast even if it was but corn bread,  there followed a reading from the Scripture, the singing of a psalm, and a prayer of thanksgiving.”  Pieters at 113.

Sabbath Observance

Sermons in these days were no twenty minute exhortations. The service began in the morning at nine-thirty and lasted from two to three hours. Those who came from a distance brought a lunch and ate it at noon so as to be on hand for the afternoon service beginning at two.  . . . Sunday was a day of rest from all worldly occupations, none save necessary work was done. The housewife spent her Saturday in baking and cooking so that none of that work need occupy her time on Sunday. To the children it was often a long day, for no games were allowed, but to the elders it was a day of spiritual and intellectual uplift.  Pieters at 114-15.

Lord’s Supper

After the sermon, during the singing of a psalm, the minister came down and took his place at the middle of the table facing the congregation, and the people one by one took their places around him. In the earliest days, elders watched to see that no one who had not the right to partake of the sacrament took a seat. After the usual service of the blessing and prayer, the bread and wine were passed around the table, and then with the singing of another psalm, these people returned to their seats and others took their places. Pieters at 116.


The Church Council

The Dutch Reformed followed the presbyterian form of governance. The local church was led by the church council composed of elders and deacons. Because almost everyone belonged to the church, the council was essentially a form of local government, handling spiritual and worldly affairs.

Pieters provides some interesting anecdotes on this score. In one matter, a young man went into the forest and chopped down a tree from the woodlot of another man. The father of the young man was brought before the council and “directed to go home and read the story of Eli and his sons so as to prevent any further occurrences of the kind.” Pieters at 118.

In another matter, a man complained about his mother-in-law. The council appointed a special committee to interview the woman. Pieters at 119.

Office of Elder

“With religion playing so important part in their lives, it is not surprising that when a layman was elected to the office of elder he was considered to have reached the goal of his earthly ambition.” Pieters at 116-17.

A story is told of an elder in the church who arose one Sunday morning and with tears in his voice announced that he would have to resign his position as elder because the Bible said that an elder should rule his own household, and he had failed, for his son had the evening before gone to a dance. To them [the Dutch settlers] life and religion were not only serious matters, but all important ones, before which every other interest paled into insignificance. Pieters at 121.


These anecdotes and descriptions pricked my conscience. As sinners, we tend to be quick to pat ourselves on the back and slow to seek instruction. We should ask ourselves some basic questions.

  1. Does the average lay person have a basic understanding of the Canons of Dort and the Remonstrant controversy?
  2. Can the average lay person recount specific scriptures like the concerned Dutch mother?
  3. Are we encouraging and promoting family worship and the singing of Psalms?
  4. What has happened to our Sabbath observance?
  5. Are we taking care to honor the Lord’s instructions as to the administration of the sacraments?
  6. What is happening in our church councils? Are we resolving disputes among believers and leading our flocks?
  7. Is the position of elder the pinnacle of earthly ambition for godly men in our churches?
  8. Are elders held to the standards that Paul gave to Timothy and Titus?

We have plenty of work to do to. Thankfully, God has provided all that is necessary for us to reform our doctrine, piety, and practice.

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