The times when true reformation comes to the church of Jesus Christ are not often. But when those times, according to God's clock, actually come, they come in strange and surprising ways.
Already in the Old Testament God had reminded His people of this. He had emphatically impressed upon the mind of the moody and depressed Elijah that He did not work through stirring events such as took place on Carmel (God was not in the earthquake, nor the fire, nor the wind); rather God worked quietly and unnoticed by His Spirit in the hearts of the 7000 who had not bowed the knee to Baal. And to Zechariah the prophet, who worried about the building of the temple after the return of the captives, God had laid down a fundamental principle: "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts" (Zech. 4:6).
The great reformation of the 16th Century, while eventually it shook Europe to its foundations, began with the quiet nailing of 95 theses on a chapel door by an obscure monk out of the forests of Saxon Germany. The Reformation of 1834 in the Reformed Churches of 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.
It is in that reformation of 1834 that many Reformed Churches throughout the world find their roots.
The man who is called the father of the Secession of 1834 is Hendrik De Cock (pronounced Cok), the pastor of the small church in Ulrum whose elders and deacons protested what the churches had done. Here God began His work.
It would in this way be forever evident, as it always must be evident, that the care of the church is God's work and His alone that He may receive all the glory.
In perfect harmony with this truth it is also an interesting fact that reformers are strange people. They do not seem at first glance to be cut out for the role. As a matter of fact, if one measures their abilities by human standards they are the world's worst people for the work into which they are thrust.
When we look at this fact from the viewpoint of those who do the work of reformation, we discover that this great truth translates into a naive unawareness on the part of reformers that they have been thrust into the role which they occupy. They never gave thought to being a reformer; they had no intention of becoming a reformer; indeed, if the idea had been suggested to them, they would have considered it preposterous. Luther spoke of being carried along by a tidal wave of events over which he had no control. And the last thing De Cock was thinking about was himself as a reformer in the church. For Luther, or Calvin, or De Cock, or anyone else to think of himself as a reformer would immediately have disqualified him for the work. Such is the irony of God's ways.
So these men do not set about the work of reforming. They have been conquered in their hearts by the Holy Spirit Who has sealed the truth indelibly upon their consciousness and who has given them the determination (often courageous) to go quietly about their business of doing what has to be done -- which consists mostly of the simple act of preaching good, Bible-centered sermons.
So they never aspired to being reformers. They never considered themselves to be such unlikely people. They were astonished and not a little afraid at the forces that had been unleashed in the church through their work. Nor did they "count noses" to see how many would go along, and postpone moving ahead in the work until they were assured of a following. They simply did what had to be done -- in humble reliance on divine grace. God did the rest.
Need For Reformation
That the church of that day needed reformation could hardly be debated. Although the church of which we are speaking was the church of the Reformation and of Dordrecht, it had become only a shell of what it formerly was. Even the great truths of Scripture were denied by many in the Universities, Seminaries and pulpits. I refer to the truths of the virgin birth of Christ, the atoning sacrifice of our Lord on the cross, and His bodily resurrection from the dead. In the place of the religion of salvation by grace alone through Jesus Christ had come a religion which was interested in little more than living a good life, walking morally, and contributing to society's good through upright ethical conduct. The confessions were ignored or denied; hymns had been introduced in the place of the Psalms of the church; church government after the principles of the Church Order of Dordrecht was long forgotten and the church was ruled by Boards which had total and decisive power.
All this apostasy did not mean that there were no people of God anywhere to be found. They were there, scattered about, starving spiritually, groaning beneath the tyranny of apostate preachers, desperately casting about to find places to feed their souls. Many of them gathered in small "Conventicles" which were little more than groups of believers who would meet in private homes to read the old Reformed writers, study the Scriptures, discuss the sad state of the church and what could be done about it, and listen to an "exhorter" (if they had one) explain from Scripture the ancient truths of the faith.
Henrik De Cock was a perfect example of the sad situation in the Reformed Churches. Born in Veendam on April 12, 1801, he was brought up in a home where the only religion that was taught was the worldly and quasi-religion of living a decent life. Nor did the churches or schools he attended do any better. His minister in Wildervank (where the family moved shortly after his birth) and his teachers in school had no idea of what the Reformed faith was all about; and if they did know anything at all about it, they failed to teach it.
The University of Groningen where he went to prepare for the ministry of the gospel did no better. He graduated and entered the ministry as a thoroughly modern minister equipped only to preach a modern gospel of Jesus the good example Whose life could serve as a pattern for us. But of sin, salvation, and grace, De Cock knew nothing.
This did not mean that already during these years God was not working in His own mysterious ways to prepare De Cock for greater things. Already as a boy he received some Catechetical instruction from one of his teachers who insisted that a man is saved only by the sovereign grace of God. And while such teaching made no apparent impression on Hendrik, God used it to put ideas of a different sort in his soul even though these ideas would not come to fruition till later.
So at ordination he was little more than a mediocre modernist minister destined to serve in a series of modernist congregations of no use to God or man -- though his denomination still bore the proud name of "Reformed."
Both the church and De Cock were in need of reformation.
Reformation in De Cock's Soul
Little changed in De Cock's first two charges. Three years in Eppenhuizen and two years in Noordlaren did little to alter his views. He was, in fact, so thoroughly under the influence of the modernists in his church that he made no use of the Statenvertaling, the translation of the Bible authorized by the Synod of Dort and filled with important marginal notes which would have helped him understand the Reformed faith. He had never read the creeds. He paid no attention to the old Reformed writers. And he did not even know that such a book as Calvin's Institutes existed.
Perhaps the only influence on his life at this time which was of any value was the influence of a Godly and pious wife whom he married shortly before his ordination to the ministry. Her name was Frouwe Venema, and while we do not know the extent of her knowledge of the Reformed faith, she was a pillar of strength to Hendrik throughout his life when troubles all but overwhelmed him.
It was in the small country church in Ulrum, however, that God changed De Cock into the man God would use to bring reformation to an apostate church.
De Cock had come to Ulrum because of the influence of an old University friend, a modernist like himself, a predecessor to De Cock in Ulrum, an influential man by the name of Hofstede de Groot.
In Ulrum were people who were starving for Biblical and God-centered preaching and who would not be put off with moralistic sermons about doing good. They had not been happy with de Groot; they were not happy with De Cock. In fact, de Groot had viewed these people as odd and in need of special pastoral care. He had urged De Cock to pay special attention to them.
But, though De Cock did this and attempted to show them that the key to living a good life lay in education, they were not persuaded. One common laborer, a faithful visitor at the parsonage to be catechized by his pastor, had not dared make confession of faith under de Groot because of his unease with de Groot's teachings. He kept telling De Cock that his instruction did no good because "Should I be required to contribute a mere sigh to my salvation, I would be forever lost." The man's name was Klaas Pieters Kuipenga, a simple, uneducated saint whose soul thirsted for salvation in Christ, but who had none to give him drink. The sad part was that thousands like him could be found throughout Netherlands.
But De Cock was a serious pastor and longed to help these troubled sheep. How to do it, that was the question.
As De Cock searched for answers, he was in the study of a fellow minister in a neighboring village when the minister turned to Calvin's Institutes to prove a point which had come up in the conversation. So impressed was De Cock that he asked to borrow the copy, and, having done so, proceeded to read it through several times in amazement and growing consternation.
During this period of drinking at the fountain of Calvin's great work, De Cock also became acquainted with the Canons of Dort, writings from earlier Reformed Dutch theologians, and the more devotional writings of a more recent writer, Cornelis Baron van Zuylen van Nijveldt. The latter had written a pamphlet entitled De Eenige Redding (The Only Salvation), a pamphlet which opened De Cock's eyes to the truth that all Godly living is rooted in doctrine.
It is not surprising that De Cock's preaching began to change radically. And the more he came to understand the great historic doctrines of God's sovereign and particular grace, the clearer became his sermons as they set forth salvation by grace through faith in Christ and His atoning sacrifice. And it is not surprising that as the word of this kind of preaching spread like wildfire through the surrounding countryside that people starving for the Bread of Life streamed to Ulrum to hear De Cock preach.
All this does not mean that De Cock now became a conquering hero. He was opposed, sometimes strenuously, by those who cherished the modernistic and liberal preaching so prevalent in the State Church. His colleagues in the area made every effort to dissuade him from the path he had chosen to follow and ridiculed the people who hung on De Cock's preaching as more ignorant than cattle in the cowshed.
His own close friend and predecessor in Ulrum came especially to visit him and try to alter De Cock's thinking. But De Cock had found peace for his own soul and was not about to turn from that which was the heart of Reformation truth and the faith of the fathers. Hofstede de Groot wrote De Cock in chagrin:
De Cock! De Cock! Such a bitter and unchristian writing (The reference is to another brochure by C. Baron van Zuylen van Nijeveldt entitled De Hervormde Leer, Reformed Doctrine, HH) contains your confession of faith? How deep, deep have you fallen, and how dark is to me the counsel of God that such a doctrine is now being taught the congregation that once was mine. I have prayed to God many a time that He would grant me the spirit of moderation in order that I might exercise truth and love and avoid Van Zuylen's abusive tone.
But De Cock would not budge. We sing in our versification of Psalm 8 this line: "Weakest means fulfill Thy will;" so it was that the obscure and [by human standards] mediocre minister of a small country church became a stubborn defender of the truths of sovereign grace and a mighty reformer in the church of Christ.
And so Hendrik De Cock preached to growing crowds in the small church in Ulrum.
The Work Of Reformation
A number of events, each somewhat small in itself, brought De Cock's work to its climax.
The more emphatic De Cock became in his preaching, the larger grew the crowds. And the larger grew the crowds, the stronger was the opposition. The growing throngs forced the Consistory to propose enlarging the auditorium. Even though the people themselves brought up the money, the wardens responsible for all building projects refused permission and overruled the desires of the congregation. It was the first hint of persecution.
Astounded at the discovery that the Canons were a creed of the Churches in which he was minister, De Cock published in 1833 a pamphlet which included the Canons of Dordrecht. In the introduction to the pamphlet De Cock spoke of "a return . . . to the true service of God . . . which had been forsaken by a majority of the population as it had turned to the idols of man's corrupted and darkened reason." This did not endear those who wanted nothing so much as the Canons forgotten in the churches.
As the crowds grew, many people from other congregations wanted De Cock to baptize their new babies. They could not, in good conscience have their babies baptized in their own churches, partly because the old Baptism Form had been replaced with other heretical practices and liturgy, and partly because if the old Form was still used they could not answer "Yes" to the question whether they believed the doctrine taught in their church was the truth of God's Word. After careful consideration, consultation with others and with his Consistory, and through anxious prayer, De Cock baptized these children. This infuriated the authorities. It was in fact this issue which was brought to Classis by De Cock's colleagues in protest against him.
A committee of Classis was appointed to investigate, during which investigation De Cock came out with a pamphlet with an imposing title and one not calculated to appease the enemies of the truth: "Defense of the True Reformed Doctrine and of the True Reformed Believers, Attacked and Exposed by Two So-called Reformed Teachers, or the Sheepfold of Christ Attacked by Two Wolves and Defended by H. DeCock, Reformed Teacher at Ulrum. Both men referred to were colleagues who had themselves written against De Cock and the things for which he stood.
The Classis in the meantime met. De Cock pleaded with Classis to permit him to defend his views on the basis of Scripture. But he was refused and in an illegal meeting he was suspended from office
in order to maintain law and order in the Reformed Church, to protect the name and honor of the ministers of the Gospel, and to prevent more disorders, divisions, and revolutions in several congregations in our Fatherland; . . . if preachers as DeCock were not halted in their reckless enterprise, this Board fears the worst.
While ecclesiastical machinery was grinding along, De Cock submitted to his suspension and stayed off his pulpit. But as the case wound its way through the assemblies another issue was added, the issue of hymn singing. De Cock had written the preface to a pamphlet in which the author, a layman, had attacked the singing of hymns in the church. The title of the pamphlet is intriguing: The Evangelical Hymns Weighed, Tested and Found to be Too Light. It was De Cock's conviction, and correctly so, that heresy had come singing into the church through hymns which had taken the place of the Psalms in the worship services.
And so tensions continued to rise. They reached a kind of climax when Rev. Heinrich Scholte (later to settle and establish a colony in Pella, Iowa), known to be friendly to De Cock, was forbidden to preach for De Cock so that a modernist could occupy the pulpit. The congregation did not take kindly to this and the police were called in to prevent what was a near riot.
Though De Cock had patiently and humbly submitted for nearly a year to the illegal suspension of the Classis, he remained the object of hatred. His colleagues did everything to make his life miserable. Slanderous talk was everywhere published about him and his wife. The ecclesiastical assemblies forced him to pay the expenses of their case against him. He was never granted a hearing and was told to submit unconditionally to the assemblies or he would never preach again. When he asked for a transcript of the decision, he was mockingly told to copy it himself and the president openly derided him as he proceeded to do so.
But the faithful people of God in the country were appalled that an honest and Godly pastor could be treated in such a way for doing nothing but urging faithfulness to the historic Reformed faith. And God in heaven worked His sovereign work to do what had to be done to preserve and defend His church.
Upon returning from the assembly to his home, he found his 2 year old daughter very ill. She died six days later, and the burden of great grief at the loss of a covenant child was added to his grief at the apostasy of his church.
Scholte came to comfort the grieving family. The Consistory asked him to preach that Friday night, October 10, 1834. The Provincial Board refused him permission to preach on the Lord's Day; so he preached in an open field from a wagon. And De Cock saw that the only hope for his sheep lay in Secession.
And so it came about. It was Monday evening, October 13, that the Consistory came together. The Act of Secession was drawn up after some discussion, signed by the two elders and three deacons, and presented to the congregation where it was signed by 67 members and 63 heads of families who had not made profession of faith -- a total of 247 souls.
The document is so important that parts of it ought to be quoted. Using Art. 29 of the Confession of Faith as its guide, it declared that the Church of which the congregation had been a part had lost the marks of the true church and that, therefore, "it has now become more than plain, that the Netherlands Reformed Church is not the True, but the False Church, according to God's Word and Article 29 of our confessions." The document binds those who sign it to be obedient to Article 28 of the same confession and "separate themselves from those who are not of the Church, and therefore will have no more fellowship with the Netherlands Reformed Church, until it returns to the true service of the Lord." The document expresses the "willingness" of those who sign it "to exercise fellowship with all true Reformed members, and to unite themselves with every gathering founded on God's infallible Word, in whatever place God has also united the same." It specifically states that the congregation is determined to be faithful to Scripture, to return to the three Forms of Unity which are "founded on that Word," to "order our public religious services according to the ancient ecclesiastical liturgy," and to return to the Church Order of Dordrecht.
"Finally, we hereby declare," so the document concludes, "that we continue to acknowledge our unjustly suspended Pastor.
"Ulrum, the 13th of October, 1834. (signed) J. J. Beukema, Elder; K. J. Barkema, Elder; K. A. van der Laan, Deacon; D. P. Ritsema, Deacon; Geert K. Bos, Deacon."
Neither De Cock nor his congregation escaped the heavy hand of persecution. They thought they would be free to go their own way and worship in peace, for the government had an official policy of religious toleration and every heresy under the face of the heavens was taught in the Netherlands and in the State Reformed Church. But this is not the way it goes for the cause of Christ. Every heresy is indeed tolerated -- but the truth is not. There is no room for God's truth in this world nor in the apostate church.
De Cock was not long alone. He had been joined already by Rev. Scholte and he was to be joined by four other ministers, one of whom was Albertus Van Raalte who brought some of the Seceders to Holland Michigan. And the number of people who followed the leaders grew rapidly so that Seceder Churches were organized throughout the land.
But it was a bitter and difficult struggle.
De Cock himself was forbidden to preach in his own congregation, was expelled from the parsonage, and was finally forced to settle elsewhere among friends.
Soldiers were sent to Ulrum and to other places where the seceders had established separate congregations and were billeted in the homes of the seceders. These people, usually from the poor, were forced to feed and shelter the soldiers, tend to their needs, live their lives with the soldiers always present, and try to endure their cruelty, godlessness, and depravity.
The Seceders were also forbidden to hold any meetings with more than a few people present so that it was difficult, if not impossible, to gather in worship on the Lord's Day.
If any regulations imposed on them were broken, they were fined vast sums of money. And if they were unable to pay the fines, true of most of them, their possessions were sold in Sheriff's sales so that their fines could be paid to the government. If even this did not suffice, they were imprisoned. De Cock himself spent three months in prison separated from wife and family.
These saints paid the price of faithfulness.
It was only after two or three decades and many concessions to the government that persecution eased. But many came to America where they could live in peace and enjoy the freedom to worship God according to the Scriptures. In them lies the beginning of our own churches.
De Cock died at the age of 41 on November 14, 1842 in the province of Groningen. He did not live long, nor did he see his followers gain rest from suffering. But he had served his purpose according to the will of God, and the time came for others to continue the work.
De Cock was a man of humble life, from our point of view unfitted for the greatness of the work. His followers were, for the most part, the poor, the uneducated, the despised, the ignoble of the land. But, for all that, they were the Godly, the pious, the upright who genuinely thirsted for that one true heavenly Bread which is Christ Jesus our Lord.
Together God used them to bring genuine reformation to his church.