Saturday, March 15, 2008

Lecture #5 Education, Social Concerns, and Domestic Missions

Session 5: Education, Social Concerns, and Domestic Missions

Read Bruggink and Baker, By Grace Alone, chapters 14-15.

Read P&P, 111-62, W&W, 119-39

Read Meeter, Meeting Each Other, chapter II.


There were not always Sunday Schools! They are a relatively recent innovation in Christian practice. You should have some knowledge of the history of the Sunday School movement, and this is not the course in which to learn it, but let me remind you that the first Sunday Schools were begun in England because the traditional patterns of education failed to reach the displaced children of the industrial revolution. Often, the Sunday School was the only school these children went to, and they had to learn reading and writing no less than praying and singing.

Originally Christian education was simply education. In post-Reformation Europe there was no distinction between Christian schools and public schools. The same was true of colonial North America. We were part of Christendom, and all of life was Christian, so common (public) schools in early America were Christian schools. The colonial Dutch churches sponsored parish schools which were common schools. The Church Order of Dort required each consistory to employ schoolmasters, who taught reading and writing as well as the catechism and the Psalms. A literate population was the key to Protestant success.

After the Revolution, with the separation of church and state, the parish schools became public schools, supported by public funds. The public schools continued to teach Bible and prayer in a general Protestant way. It was because of how Protestant the public schools were that when Roman Catholics began arriving in America they set up their own parochial schools (which were regarded as anti-American). Eventually, however, with the development, first, of religious pluralism, and then of secularism, necessitating the widening separation of church and state, we developed a second sort of Christian education: the catechism class.

Catechism was removed from the common curriculum and moved from the school house to the sanctuary. Catechism was regarded in the RCA as the primary educational program of the church, even with the later rise of the Sunday School. This continued until quite recently. In my own childhood, it was typical for the children of RCA members to go to catechism class on a weekday afternoon, to be taught by the pastor (or occasionally by an elder). The pastor used a catechism book that was pub­lished by the denom­ination. The publication of such materials was considered the duty of the denomination. (We didn’t learn from the Heidelberg itself; the RCA knew that the Heidelberg was written for adults.) The children attended catechism until such time as they made their confession of faith (in Dutch-background congregations) or their confirmation (in German- background churches).

Besides catechism there was Sunday School, and that was a later development, and it had a different purpose. Sunday School was more evangelistic, and less “covenantal.” It was taught by volunteers, not by the pastor. Sunday School was for everyone, regardless of your parents’ lack of membership. Even though there were likely more children enrolled in the Sunday School than in catechism, I think it’s safe to say that is was regarded as less essential to the church.

Sunday School was originally for the poor. The first Sunday School in the USA was started in 1799 by Ms. Sarah Van Doren at the First Reformed of New Brunswick, NJ, for the poorer children of the city.

This is the symbol of an important development in the expression of Reformed doctrine, with regard to the church’s responsibility to the Kingdom of God. Consider that under the Dutch gov­ernment of New Netherland, the Dutch Reformed Church had the responsibility for the Christ­ian character of public life at large. But with the British conquest in 1664, the Church of England took over this responsibility. We were now responsible only for the public morals of our own membership. While “Public Morals” was a lemma on the agenda of General Synod for many years, this came to be interpreted individualistically, in terms of such things as drinking and gambling and sex and such. We held to a remnant of our public responsibility as long as we ran some of the common schools, but this too passed from us with the evolution to public education.

The innovation of the Sunday School provided a new way for us to contribute to the public life of America. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons we stepped into the vanguard of Sunday School education—we could apply that same passions for mission, service, charity, and Ameri­can­i­zation that we poured into foreign missions. The fact that we conceived Sunday School in very broad public terms finds evidence in our leadership of citywide Sunday School unions that sprang up in all our urban centers.

The Brooklyn Sunday School Union was still a force in the borough even into my childhood. They sponsored the annual borough-wide Sunday School parade, and I can remember marching in it with our Sunday School. It was the occasion for a public holiday, Anniversary Day, and the pub­lic schools had off. All the Sunday Schools came out of the churches onto the streets with our floats and banners and the teachers with their ribbons and bouquets and the pastors in their col­lars and we collected in the avenues and marched downtown to Borough Hall. It was a memory of Christian America.

A second purpose for the Sunday School soon evolved, and that was church extension. In our Eastern cities, especially, the strategy was to start a Sunday School in a new and growing neigh­­borhood or in an older neighborhood among a new population. If the Sunday School took off, a congregation would be developed out of it. I don’t know exactly how this process worked, and how the various consistories and classes took part, and cooperated with the Sunday School unions of the day, but I know it did work.

Let me summarize. The RCA was originally a sponsor of parochial Christian schools, which combined reading and writing with catechism. These schools evolved into American public schools, and catechism was taken over by the church itself. Sunday Schools were started to compensate for what these systems missed, and they originally expressed the Kingdom or mission vision of the church.

In the last fifty years we’ve seen the virtual disappearance of catechism in the RCA. When I was at seminary, our Christian education professor didn’t mention the word. The denomination stopped publishing catechetical materials. The Sunday School curricula were adjusted to include some catechetical elements (the joint CRC-RCA “Bible Way” curriculum was the case in point). Doubtless some congregations continue to have catechism classes, but they are certainly no longer characteristic of the RCA as a whole.

I want to move on now to higher education. It is a curious fact that while the RCA came to reject private Christian schools in general, it has valued its Christian colleges. Again, this reflects the history of American education. The early public school system in America was short on high schools and colleges. The various denominations kept founding them. Our first such was Queens College, the last of the colonial colleges, founded in 1766. Queens was always short on money, and so to boost its revenue we moved the seminary there from New York (including John Henry Livingston) and we renamed the school after a major donor, Col. Hentry Rutgers. Rutgers College became the State University of New Jersey through a gradual process of transferring ownership from the RCA to the state.

One of the conflicts between the RCA and CRC has been over Christian schools, which they support, and we don’t. And yet, we supported two Christian schools (but not for ourselves!) in Annville, Kentucky, and Brewton, Alabama. Our Midwest Dutch and German immigrants founded a number of high schools and colleges, which evolved into our three: Hope, Central, and Northwestern. And these three, especially Hope, served the whole denomination, even students from the East. Until a few years ago, the great majority of RCA pastors were graduates of one or other of these colleges, not to mention our two seminaries.

My father was the pastor of an African-American congregation in the ghetto of Bedford-Stuyvesant. I remember in the early ’60’s that he was able to help Sherry Jenkins, from our church, side-step the usual racial discrimination and get into Northwestern College. The Hope College Chapel Choir used to make a regular tour of the Eastern churches, to encourage both financial support and recruitment. While the RCA still supports the three colleges, it is a fact that they no longer play the role they once did in serving the denomination with a common mind. We would have to say that education is not at all the denominational priority it once was.

In the paragraphs above I have mentioned “Public Morals” as a regular lemma in the agenda of General Synod. This was changed to “Social Welfare” in 1932 and then to “Christian Action” in 1955. These changes reflect a broadening of interest and witness out again from simple individual behavior. For a long time we believed that the public good would best be achieved by the sum total of the good behavior of Christian individuals, we began to move toward addressing social structures, practices, institutions, and public policies. Our most radical period as a denom­ination was during the 1960’s. I can remember the debate and controversy in the RCA over the reports and recom­menda­tions of the Christian Action Commission on such matters as race relations, the Viet Nam War, and nuclear weapons.

Please notice the subtle change in the RCA’s witness to the government. For most of our history we were generally supportive of US policies. This was true of our leaders as much as of our rank and file. I think the high point of this was the celebration of our 300th Anniversary Dinner of our denomination, in New York, when the honored guest was the U.S. Secretary of State Frank Kellogg, who announced that we had just signed a treaty (the Kellogg-Briand Pact) repudiating war as an instrument of national policy—and Kellogg was a Republican!

But since the 1960’s our public voice has often been a protest voice, even when we did not express the mind of the generally more conservative rank and file. This is one of the unintended outcomes of our increasing diversity. Since we have to spend so much more energy having to learn to listen to each other, it’s that much harder for us to speak out together. Some folks have bemoaned how the RCA has been avoiding controversial public issues lately in order not to threaten the unity required to accomplish the Ten Year Goal.

You will be reading about civil religion in the RCA. Many RCA churches today have American flags in their sanctuaries. This was never allowed until the time of World War I, and then it became expected. Does that tell us that Americans see the American flag as something sacred? (Compare that to the Old Testament prophets preaching against the “sacred poles” that the kings erected in the Temple.) Bruggink argues that the only proper place for an American flag is at the back of the church, behind the congregation, so it can be preached to! What also happened during World War I is that a couple of our Dutch immigrant church buildings in the Midwest were destroyed by arson, because the people still worshipped in Dutch. It was the War that forced the great switch to (more patriotic) English in the Midwest RCA.

The Chapters You Are Reading

Meeting Each Other, chapter II

I am asking you to read this not so much for the polity but for the history. You need to know the story of how the offices were opened to women, and you need to understand the difference in how it happened for ministers compared to elders and deacons. This chapter will augment chapter 14 of By Grace Alone.

(Note bene: we who write for the RCA Historical Series get no royalties! All we get is a free trip to General Synod, the year the book gets published. Ain’t that an incentive!)

By Grace Alone, chapters 14-15.

Chapter 14, on women, presents a story not well-enough known. You realize how much leader­ship and support for the RCA’s work in missions and education came from women, sometimes against the discouragement of male officers. The names of women are often lacking in our standard RCA histories, and that’s because our histories mostly mention office-bearers, and women were for so long prevented from ordination. We don’t often see the names of women in our standard RCA histories, and that’s because they we

Chapter 15 opens with a key first paragraph. You need to know the historic Calvinist doctrine of the relationship of Church and State, as given in the Belgic Confession., but which is difficult, if not impossible, to carry out in a pluralistic nation. Please take the rest of this chapter seriously.

Piety and Patriotism, pp. 111-129, “Social Concerns”

I don’t know John DeJong, or anything about him, but this essay is a treasure. It is calm, concise, reasoned, and articulate. He really gets at the issue of how a Calvinist church tries to witness to the “sovereignty of God” in word and deed. Every paragraph is a gem, really.

Piety and Patriotism, pp. 130-148, “Education”

Here is another excellent essay. Here are the rudiments of a Reformed theology of education, based on the Heidelberg Catechism. May I remind you that this is not optional for you—not if you sign the Declaration for Ministers. Kansfield gives the only good short review of the evolu­tion of the educational mission of the RCA. How much has changed since this was written, how­ever. I would say that education is no longer one of our denominational priorities. The best proof of this is that the Ten Year Goal has absolutely no realistic component of education in it.

Piety and Patriotism, pp. 149-162, “The Role of Women in the India Mission

Here is yet one more great article, with lots of original research and scholarship. What a fascinating picture of the accelerating evolution of women’s roles. It wasn’t some awful secular feminism; it was responding to the necessities of the gospel.

Word and World, pp. 119-139, “Piety and Patriotism: Reformed Theology and Civil Religion”

This is the fourth of four great essays. Dr. Voskuil is the outgoing President of Western Sem­inary. His controversial analysis of the Civil War as a Holy War has been buttressed recently by some highly regarded publications by major American scholars. As a pastor in North America, you will need seriously to wrestle with the issues he raises, and to take your part in helping the RCA wrestle with them as well. When you promise, in your Declaration, to “pledge your life to preach and teach the good news,” doesn’t that raise the question of whether you can pledge your allegiance to the flag?

Study Guide for Session 5:

1. What did Sarah Van Doren do in 1799?

2. Know the story of Dr. Ida Scudder.

3. Know the BCO amendment that opened the offices of elder and deacon to women.

4. Know the classical action that opened the office of minister to women.

5. Be able to identify the Domestic Mission sites.

6. Know about Annville.

7. Know about Brewton.

8. Know the Calvinist / Belgic Confession doctrine on the relation of Church and State.

9. Know about A.J. Muste.

10. Know about Heideman’s connection of “justification” to “justice.”

11. Know about the Four Chaplains.

12. Notice DeJong’s opening quotation about making America a “Christian country.”

13. Keep track of the RCA’s connections with “revivalism.”

14. What is a “voluntary society”?

15. What is “Culture-Protestantism”?

16. Note DeJong’s two reasons why the RCA was conservative on social and political issues.

17. Does social change come from individual conversion or from addressing institutions?

18. How did the Depression change the typical stance on the Social Gospel movement?

19. Why has the RCA not fully supported peace movements?

20. Note the quoted judgement of Elton Bruins on the RCA and race relations.

21. DeJong’s paragraph on the bottom of p. 127 is excellent.

22. What two levels of education does Kansfield say the Dutch church was interested in?

23. Who is Adam Roelantsen and why is he important?

24. Note how the RCA gradually gave up its interest in parochial schools run by consistories.

25. How did the decline of our parochial schools accompany our interest in Americanization?

26. What happened in 1771 to move from university to seminary?

27. Why did our first evangelistic efforts in India reach only men?

28. Know the story of the night when three men came asking for help.

29. When was the great decade of change for women in the Arcot Mission?

30. What is a “Bible Woman”?

31. What did Rufus Clark write in 1876?

32. William Linn was a preacher at the Collegiate Church in New York. What did he do?

33. What is the “cult of the American Revolution”?

34. How did the RCA respond to slavery?

35. How did the Civil War become a Holy War?

36. What was the role of The Leader?

37. How did Blekkink and Kleinheksel apply scriptural images to America?

38. What did Winfield Burggraaf write?

Discussion Group Issues

1. Discuss how the RCA responded to the Social Gospel movement.

2. Discuss how we should interpret “Americanization” to one of our new ethnic Chinese, Korean, Latino, or other Asian congregations.


Reflect on following issues: Show me you know the stuff. Give implications.

1. Civil religion in the RCA: how has it varied? Consider variations among conservatives, liberals, minorities, the East, the Midwest, the West, and Canada. Consider this as one of the defining issues for the denomination, requring management rather than solution.

2. Describe the significant events and changes in the RCA between 1868 and 1968.

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