Tag Archives: Liberation of 1944

A Herald of Freedom in Christ

Man of the First Hour: A Son’s Story: Jules Taco Van Popta, George van Popta.  Carman: Reformed Perspective Press, 2021.  Paperback, 226 pages. 

At a certain point in this biography, the author describes going to the Netherlands with his mother Helen.  His father, Rev. J.T. Van Popta, had died two years earlier.  While visiting his old church in Mussel, they heard congregation members still speak reverentially of “onze dominee” (our minister).  My grandparents on both sides had Rev. J.T. Van Popta as their pastor in Edmonton.  Long after he was gone, they continued to speak highly of him.  My Opa Bredenhof described him as a “good, peaceful man.”  When he became my paternal grandparents’ pastor again some years later when he accepted the call to Cloverdale, they were extremely thankful.  Rev. J.T. Van Popta became a legendary figure, even for us grandchildren who’d never met him.

So, when I heard about this biography written by his son George, I was all over it like white on bread.  The book certainly doesn’t disappoint.  It’s a well-told story of one of the pioneer Canadian Reformed pastors – in fact, the very first Canadian Reformed pastor.  We hear of his family background in the Netherlands, the trials of immigrating to Canada, and the enormous challenges in being a “man of the first hour.”  There’s joy and laughter, but the tears aren’t left out either.  In particular, the author relates his father’s struggle with depression and burnout, as well as the toll his sudden passing took on Helen and her children.

Let me share a few details I found particularly interesting.  Though he wasn’t yet a pastor, Jules Van Popta experienced the Liberation of 1944.  This was an ecclesiastical event which tore apart the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  It happened because of autocratic (and unlawful) synod decisions.  During and afterwards, Van Popta showed a keen understanding of the main issue resulting in the Liberation:

A theological opinion had developed that the children of believers are to be baptized on the basis of the presumption that they have been born again. The issue was not whether or not someone could hold that opinion; rather, it was that the opinion was made binding upon all. The ministers were required to teach this upon the threat of deposition from office. That, said my father and many others, was not allowed. The synod erred in binding a theological opinion on the pulpits of all the churches. (p.130) 

Ultimately this was about the freedom which Christ has won for us – a synod had illegitimately seized that freedom.

Living in the freedom won for us by Christ was a theme throughout the life of Jules Van Popta.  It comes out also in how he approached the issue of labour unions.  This became controversial in the early years of the Canadian Reformed Churches.  To find out Van Popta’s view, you’ll have to buy the book – I won’t spoil it.  Appendix 3 contains a lengthy article he wrote on the subject.  Looking back at Van Popta’s legacy, the author points out that his father’s “position on union membership left a stamp on the Canadian Reformed Churches” (p.131).

For those interested in apologetics, it’s noteworthy that Jules Van Popta corresponded with Cornelius Van Til, and even met with him on one occasion.  Van Popta loved to study philosophy – and so it’s no wonder he would take an interest in Van Til.  There seem to be echoes of Van Til in what Jules Van Popta writes in Appendix 7, “Either Faith or Science?”, especially when he says that in the Bible “Divine authority demands that every thought must surrender in obedience to Christ” (p.187). 

If you’re like me and appreciate church history biographies, Man of the First Hour is a must-read.  If you’re interested in the Dutch immigration experience in the post-Second World War period, you’ll enjoy it too.  But more than enjoyment, you’ll be edified by both the life and the writings (in the appendices) of Jules Taco Van Popta.  He lived for Christ and his witness calls us to do the same.    

Man of the First Hour can be ordered from the Publisher at this link.                 


A Powerful World War 2 Resistance Story

Faith and Victory in Dachau, Jack Overduin.  St. Catharines: Paideia Press, 1978. 

Back in 2018 and early 2019, dark times seemed to threaten Christian education in the Canadian province of Alberta.  The radically left-leaning NDP government of Rachel Notley was pressuring Christian schools to abandon biblical teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity.  There were threats of not only defunding, but also removing the accreditation of Christian schools.  All of this was thankfully averted by the sound defeat of the NDP in the April 2019 provincial election.

Today other threats are looming in both Canada and Australia.  In both countries, there’s impending legislation in relation to so-called “conversion therapy.”  Canada’s legislation is being discussed in federal parliament (Bill C-6); in Australia the legislation is being put forward in the state of Victoria, but with potential impact across Australia.  Such legislation would make it illegal even to pray with someone who struggles with their sexual orientation or gender identity.  Offences under this legislation could result in prison sentences.  This is another thinly veiled attack against Bible-believing Christians, churches, families and education.

In times like this, the temptation is strong to lie down and play dead.  We might hope that we can just quietly go on with our lives and the powers that be will just ignore us in our little corner of society.  However, their agenda is clear.  They won’t stop until they bring us to heel.  That means bringing us to celebrate and affirm their ideology in every corner of life.  It’s a totalitarian agenda.

We need stories from our past to inspire us to resist the temptation to give up and give in.  Jack Overduin’s Faith and Victory in Dachau is one such story.  Overduin was a pastor in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland) during the Nazi occupation.  While he was serving the church at Arnhem, the Nazi occupiers tried to seize control of the local Christian school.  One of the teachers was a Nazi sympathizer.  He made accusations against the principal.  That led to the attempted Nazi take-over.  When the school board resisted, two of its members were arrested and control of the school was turned over to the Nazi education department in the Netherlands.  When this happened, the parents refused to send their children to the school and the teachers refused to teach. 

Rev. Overduin was convinced that he had to provide leadership to his congregation at that moment.  He prepared a sermon on a relevant Bible passage.  As he climbed the pulpit, he spotted two Gestapo agents sitting in the pews.  He had a choice.  He could boldly preach what he prepared and face the consequences, or he could back down and remain relatively free.  He chose the former.  After the sermon the congregation sang, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” the famous hymn by Martin Luther.

Some days later Overduin was arrested by the Gestapo.  The rest of the book describes his initial imprisonment in Arnhem, his transfer to a camp in Amersfoort, a brief time in Nuremburg, and then finally a lengthy stay in the hellish concentration camp of Dachau.  This part of the book vividly describes the brutality of many of the Nazis, but also the surprising humanity of a few others.  Eventually, in late 1943, Overduin was released from Dachau and allowed to return home to Arnhem.

If you have a Dutch Reformed heritage like I do, this book will resonate with you.  It’ll give you a profound insight into how our forefathers resisted Nazi totalitarianism and the price some were willing to pay.  It’ll embolden you to do the same in our day against the totalitarian forces we’re facing.  However, even if you don’t have such a heritage, seeing Christians of deep conviction standing up to resist anti-Christian persecution should be inspirational.

Throughout Overduin made it clear that we shouldn’t look at him as a hero.  His story is really a story about the power of Christ in the lives of his people.  In his grace, Christ gives the power to resist evil forces which seek to destroy the gospel.  He concludes, “My prayer is that this story has made a God-glorifying impression on you, and that you will say with me, ‘How great and good Christ is, how faithful and merciful!’” (p.252).

I need to make a couple of remarks to finish off.  First, in a number of places, Overduin spoke quite favourably about some Roman Catholics he encounters in Nazi custody.  Two of these Roman Catholics die and he speaks about them going to heaven.  In a spirit of Christian charity, I’ll assume Overduin said this because he personally heard these men profess faith in Christ alone as the only Saviour.

My other remark has to do with another struggle against oppression taking place around the same time, this one in the church.  During the Nazi occupation, there was a doctrinal and church political struggle going on in the Reformed Churches.  Synods made heavy-handed doctrinal declarations that were imposed upon the churches.  When ministers like Klaas Schilder refused to fall in line, a synod suspended and then deposed him, even though this was contrary to the agreed-upon Church Order.  This resulted in the Liberation of 1944.  Jack Overduin didn’t agree with the Liberation.  After the Second World War, he continued to be a minister in the so-called synodical churches.  It’s regrettable that Overduin didn’t take the same bold stand against synodical oppression that he took against the Nazis.  Nevertheless, I don’t think that takes away from the value of Faith and Victory in Dachau.  In fact, in my lifetime it’s never been more relevant than it is today. 

Faith and Victory in Dachau is available from goDutch.com.


Klaas van der Land’s Liberation Story (2)

Klaas van der Land at his home in Edmonton.

I hated church history in school.  There were reasons for that — one of them was the textbook, another was the teaching style.  One day I came home from school and Opa and Oma were visiting.  Opa asked me about my day.  I told him straight up that it was terrible.  He asked why.  I said, “We had church history.  And I hate church history!”  That was one of the few times I’ve seen Opa blow his top.  There was fire in his eyes as the words shot out, “Vat do you mean you hate church history?  Dat is zo important!”  He reamed me out, but to little effect.  I continued hating church history through my school years.  I didn’t understand until later why Opa got so passionate about this subject.

As mentioned yesterday, my Opa van der Land experienced a momentous event in church history, the Liberation of 1944.  In his small corner of the Netherlands, he was a leader in this event.  Sadly, I didn’t realize that until after having a meaningful conversation with Opa became impossible.  His last few years saw him struggling with worsening dementia and by the time I cared about church history, he couldn’t talk about that, or much else of anything for that matter.

Eventually, some of his personal effects relating to this period came into my possession.  With these items, I can piece together a little bit of the story.  For example, how did Opa come to his Liberated convictions?  There are a couple of clues.  One is a booklet by Dr. Seakle Greijdanus.  It was published on cheap wartime paper in 1944.

From the postmark, we learn that it was sent to him in 1944, probably from the city of Groningen.  Someone peeled off the stamp, so we don’t have the full name of the place of origin, nor the full date.  It was sent to Klaas van der Land the store keeper in Nuis via the post office in Niebert (a village next to Nuis).  But who sent it and the background behind its sending is a mystery.

The pamphlet itself was written by Greijdanus, a close colleague of Klaas Schilder at the seminary in Kampen.  The title comes from Acts 7:1,2 “Are then these things so?  And he said….listen now.”  However, it’s not an exposition of Acts 7:1,2 but an explanation of the events surrounding the suspension of Klaas Schilder and what happened with the autocratic synods.  I would imagine that this pamphlet was influential in my Opa’s thinking about these things.

There were also two local ministers who appear in the documents I have.  As I mentioned yesterday, Marum’s pastor was underground hiding from the Nazis and so out of the picture.  He wasn’t supportive of the Liberation anyway.  However, to the north of Marum was the village of Kornhorn.  Rev. E.H. Woldring had been serving there since 1922.  It was his first congregation.  By 1945, he was 61 years old — a veteran pastor who followed the Liberation.  Some 20 km to the northeast of Marum was Rev. H. Bouma in Niezijl.  Niezijl was his first congregation and he was just 28 years old in 1945.  He too became Liberated.  He would later author a book translated into English as Secession, Doleantie and Union: 1834-1892.  The veteran pastor Woldring and the greenhorn pastor Bouma supported my Opa and the other Liberated believers in Marum.  After the Liberation happened, Woldring and Bouma took turns leading the worship services for them.  I’m inclined to think that these pastors probably had something to do with shaping my Opa’s convictions as well.  Especially with the absence of Marum’s pastor, it’s quite conceivable that Woldring and Bouma occasionally led the services in the church there before the Liberation — and that’s likely where the connection was forged.

More tomorrow…


Klaas van der Land’s Liberation Story (1)

In my last post, I concluded with a brief reference to my maternal grandfather’s involvement in the Liberation of 1944 (75 years ago).  I’m going to follow up and explore that a little further in a couple of blog posts.  I have a few primary source items in my possession that shed some light on what happened with the Liberation in a sleepy corner of the province of Groningen.

Marum is where my mother was born.  It’s right on the border with Friesland — in fact, my Opa was fluent in Frisian.  I visited there in 2004.  My grandparents owned and operated a small shop in the neighbouring village of Nuis.  However, they attended the Reformed Church in Marum.

I have a 1977 Yearbook from the Liberated Reformed Church in Marum.  It came into my possession after my grandfather died.  I believe he received it in the course of some correspondence with Rev. W. Scherff.  He was apparently doing some research about the Liberation in Marum (the church he was serving at the time) and wrote to my grandfather in Canada.  This Yearbook contains an outline of the history of that church.  Please note the entry for October 21, 1945:

Translation:  “Deacon Klaas van der Land liberates himself.  Different people do that after him.  They find ecclesiastical shelter in Kornhorn [another village to the north of Marum].  Church services are started (in the community hall) under the oversight of the consistory in Kornhorn.  The church here was re-instituted on January 12, 1947.”

You might be wondering how a deacon ended up leading the Liberation in this small church.  For example, where did the pastor stand?  The pastor was Rev. S. van Wouwe.  Because of the Second World War, he was out of the picture.  He was what they called an “onderduiker.”  The Nazis had a keen interest in arresting pastors critical of the Third Reich.  Van Wouwe must have been one of those.  He was forced “underground.”  However, even after the war, he didn’t go with the Liberation.  In fact, none of the other office bearers in Marum did either.  Klaas van der Land was completely on his own in terms of leadership.  I don’t know what the size of the congregation was at that time, but we do know that it was a mere 15 communicant members who went with the Liberation in Marum.  According to the 1977 Yearbook, the Marum congregation had grown to 153 members total.

More next time…


The Liberation of 1944

This year we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of 1944.  If you have no idea what that is, you’re in good company.  I remember hearing about it for the first time in my Christian school and my thoughts went right away to the Canadian soldiers liberating the Netherlands during the Second World War.  It’s at the same time, but this is a totally different event, something from church history.

The story begins in the early 1800s.  The Reformed Church in the Netherlands was in a bad way.  Scripture-denying theological liberalism was in the ascendancy.  God brought about a Reformation known as the Secession of 1834.  Later, in 1886, under the leadership of Abraham Kuyper and others, another Reformation happened.  This was called the Doleantie, literally, “the Grieving.”  In 1892, the Secession and Doleantie churches were united together in one federation.  This happened through the herculean efforts of influential figures like Herman Bavinck (from the Secession churches) and Abraham Kuyper (from the Doleantie churches).

United, but…   

By 1921 both Herman Bavinck and Abraham Kuyper were gone.  The Union of 1892 was something that lay almost 30 years in the past.  In those thirty years, there had been tensions.  It took time for Secession and Doleantie churches to learn to live with one another.  That took place on a local level.  Many Dutch towns and villages had both a Secession church and a Doleantie church.  Now they were both in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  The old Secession church was known as the ‘A’ church, and the Doleantie church would be known as the ‘B’ church.  In some places eventually they merged into one congregation, but in other places they continued their separate existence.

Yet deeper problems existed.  The question of Abraham Kuyper’s theology continued.  He had some peculiar beliefs, especially about baptism.  He believed in presumptive regeneration.  Kuyper argued that we baptize on the presumption that the child being baptized is born again or regenerate.  If it turns out later that the child is not regenerate, then it wasn’t a real baptism.  There were other doctrinal concerns as well, but it’s especially the doctrine of baptism and the covenant that becomes a matter of controversy later on.

In 1905, a Synod was held in Utrecht.  This synod was asked to deal with the theology of Kuyper.  It did this by means of what has come to be known as the Conclusions of Utrecht.  It’s also sometimes called “the Pacification Formula” because it was meant to pacify the churches.  It was meant to lay all the concerns to rest about what could and could not be taught in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  On the point of baptism, they came up with a compromise statement.  It mildly rejected some of Kuyper’s formulations, while allowing for others.  So Utrecht said that children “must be held to be regenerated and sanctified in Christ, until upon growing up they should manifest the contrary in their way of life or doctrine.”[1]  However, Utrecht also said that it is “less correct to say that baptism is administered to the children of believers on the ground of their presumed regeneration, since the ground of baptism is found in the command and promise of God.”[2]

Three Streams in the RCN

So Kuyper and his followers were gently chastened by this synod.  Nevertheless, this chastening had little lasting effect.  Kuyper’s followers became increasingly insistent about his formulations as time went on.  They formed one stream in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands as we get into the 1920s and 1930s.

There was another stream, however.  This stream originated with an organization known as the Dutch Christian Student Union.  This was a broad organization that involved people from all kinds of different backgrounds.  It started off with the Apostles’ Creed as its doctrinal basis, but this was soon abandoned.  A statement of purpose was developed which mentioned the Trinity and this also was deemed too restrictive.  Soon this organization settled on this purpose:  “to introduce and build up the Christian life and worldview, which is grounded in the Bible and which, linking up with the historical development of Christianity, takes account of the needs and demands of the present time.”[3]  Seminary students from both the Free University and the seminary in Kampen were involved with this organization; some were even leaders.  Even ministers and seminary professors were involved.  This was an organization that included the same kind of liberal thinking that had earlier led to the Secession and the Doleantie.  It seemed that some people had forgotten their church history or just didn’t care.  In 1920 in Leeuwarden, at the synod of the Reformed Churches, a warning was issued against membership in the Dutch Christian Student Union.  However, it was just a warning.  It didn’t really have any teeth.  It didn’t stop further developments.

One of the developments out of this stream was the Geelkerken case.  In a catechism sermon Rev. J. G. Geelkerken stated that it’s possible that there was no literal snake speaking in the Garden of Eden.  The case ended up at the Synod of Assen in 1926.  The Synod decided against Geelkerken; his views could not be tolerated in the Reformed Churches.  However, they went further:  they suspended and deposed him.  His views were wrong and unbiblical.  But this synod did something that contravened the agreed-upon church order.  Only a local church can suspend and depose ministers and other office bearers.  Still, Synod Assen went ahead and usurped the rights of the local church.  This set a bad precedent for years to come.

As we come into the 1930s, a third stream was developing in the Reformed churches.  These were mostly younger ministers who rejected the Dutch Christian Student Union, but also found that some of Kuyper’s views didn’t stand up to biblical and confessional scrutiny.  Among these ministers was Klaas Schilder.  Schilder began critiquing some of Kuyper’s views and this caused controversy.  Kuyper’s devotees accused this Reformational stream of deviating from the Reformed faith.

The Unravelling

That brings us to a series of key Synods at which weighty decisions were made.

The first one is Synod Amsterdam 1936.  This synod received a communication from a classis about the doctrinal disputes regarding Kuyper’s views.  It wasn’t clear what the classis was asking or proposing.  The synod decided to appoint a study committee made up of people from both sides.  However, after the synod was over and the committee got to work, it quickly became evident that there were deep problems.  One of the people in the committee (Prof. Valentine Hepp) started throwing around accusations with no proof.  This behaviour drove out three of the eight other committee members, the three who were on the side of those concerned about Kuyper’s theology.  The result, of course, would be an imbalanced report to the next synod.  However, those concerned members also wrote their own report.

The next synod was Sneek 1939.  It is usually referred to as Sneek/Utrecht and this synod actually ended up lasting until 1942.  This was the synod that would deal with the doctrinal differences.  The political situation comes into play here.  It was tense.  When the synod opened, it was the eve of the Second World War.  In 1940, the synod was still on and the Germans invaded the Netherlands.  It was a time of national crisis.  Proposals were made to the synod to postpone dealing with the doctrinal disputes until there was more stability in national life in the Netherlands.  Despite such pleas, the synod plowed forward.  The majority report from the study committee was received – it made accusations that some ministers and professors, including Klaas Schilder, were deviating from Scripture and the Confessions.  The synod continued through 1940 and 1941, periodically meeting.  At the end of 1941, a decision was made to move the synod to Utrecht and reconvene there in May of 1942.  The following month a decision was made regarding the doctrinal differences.  The Kuyperian stream had scored a victory.  The views of Schilder and others were declared out of bounds.

The next synod was the following year.  Notice how synods here follow one upon the other.  The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands had become top heavy with synodical hierarchy.  Synod Utrecht 1943 received proposals and submissions requesting a reconsideration of the decision of the previous year.  However, these were all rejected.  This synod also maintained the position of the previous one:  Schilder and others would have to fall in line or face the consequences.  Synod Utrecht 1943 continued into 1944.  When it became evident that Schilder would not surrender and fall in line, the Synod first suspended him and then later deposed him.  They did the same with many other office bearers.  According to the Reformed Church Order, this was an illegal action.  Only local consistories could suspend and depose office bearers.  A synod again usurped this authority.  It was another classic example of ecclesiastical hierarchy.

On August 11, 1944 a meeting was held at the Lutheran Church in The Hague.  It was supposed to be a meeting for all those concerned about the developments with regard to Schilder and others.  Hundreds of people showed up, despite the ongoing war (the Allies had only liberated the southern part of the Netherlands) and the challenges with regard to transportation.  At the meeting, after some speeches, Schilder read an “Act of Liberation or Return.”  This document was modelled partly on the Act of Secession from 1834.  With this Act in hand, people returned to their local churches and the Liberation (Vrijmaking) was underway.  Many people freed themselves from the synodical hierarchy.  Those who were liberated claimed to be the true continuation of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  They called themselves Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Liberated) or Reformed Churches maintaining article 31.  Article 31 refers to an article of our Church Order which states that decisions made by synods and classes shall be considered settled and binding unless they are proven to be in conflict with Scripture or the Church Order.  The Liberated believed that the doctrinal decisions of 1942 were in conflict with Scripture and the suspensions and depositions in 1944 were in conflict with the Church Order.

Reflections

The Liberation is a fairly recent part of our church history.  Shortly after the Liberation, post-War emigration brought many Liberated church members to both Canada and Australia.  They were the ones who started the Canadian Reformed Churches and Free Reformed Churches of Australia.  It’s a significant part of our heritage.

It’s sometimes said that the “past is the parent of the present.”  For example, if you want to know why our churches are so particular about our Church Order and its principles, you have to understand the Liberation of 1944.  If you want to know why the first Dutch immigrants to Canada and Australia didn’t join with other Reformed believers, it’s related to the Liberation.  If you want to know why there’s often antipathy towards Abraham Kuyper in the CanRC and FRCA, again it’s 1944.  Whether we’re aware of it or not, this event has profoundly shaped the character and culture of our churches.

My Opa Vanderland was a local leader in the Liberation in his church in Marum.  For him, as for many others, this event was deeply personal and any discussion of it would be emotionally charged.  He was scarred by the Liberation, as well as by the Nazi occupation happening at exactly the same time.  Then he immigrated to Canada.  That too was a life-changing experience with hardships we can hardly comprehend.  It’s easy to take a triumphalistic view of the Liberation.  It’s easy to view it simplistically as an act of God to liberate his people from ecclesiastical wickedness.  Yet, as time goes on, we need to also see the extensive personal pain and trouble involved.  We can start to see how an intense ecclesiastical conflict like this, however necessary, can shape individuals and churches, and not always in good ways.  We always have to remember our constant need for God’s grace, for the gospel, for our Saviour Jesus.  After all, a “Liberated” church is still far from a perfect church, both in the past and the present.

[1] Van Oene, Patrimony Profile, 230.

[2] Van Oene, Patrimony Profile, 230.

[3] Van Reest, Schilder’s Struggle, 33.