A History of Klaas Schilder and the Liberation of 1944

Here’s a portion of my paper for History of Christianity II. I wrote on the history of the Liberated Churches which lead to the formation of the Canadian Reformed Churches. Being a native Mississippian, this was somewhat foreign territory, but I was able to get my hands on some pertinent resources, and I have to say that I really enjoyed this project. Here goes:

Klaas Schilder was born on December 19, 1890 in Kampen, Netherlands.He had been baptized as an infant into the established Hervormde Kerk, but later moved with his family into the secession Churches which would eventually become the Gereformeerde[1]. In 1933 the Synod of Middleburg appointed Schilder to professor of dogmatics at the seminary in Kampen, which had been founded by the Reformed churches of the secession of 1834.[2]A few years after the Kuyper-led Doleantie in 1886 and the subsequent union in 1892,[3] Kampen became one of the two theological schools for the Gereformeerde Kerk.The other, of course, was Kuyper’s Free University at Amsterdam.Schilder gained notoriety for his personal and impassioned preaching, but perhaps most of all from his newspaper De Reformatie.In the pages of De Reformatie, Schilder called the Gereformeerde Kerk back to its confessional standards, critiquing both the rising Barthianism on one side and the Dutch Nazi movement on the other.This brought Schilder into both political and ecclesial controversy, as the Boer War in South Africa had served to create a strong sense of opposition to England, and thus a strong support of Nazi Germany.It is reported that in 1936 there were 8000 members of the Gereformeerde Kerk who were also members of the Dutch Nazi movement.[4]At least a mild protection of this movement was coming from Abraham Kuyper’s own son![5]De Reformatie was placed on the blacklist in Germany, and after the German invasion of the Netherlands, Schilder would be imprisoned.During the months of August through December in 1940, Schilder was imprisoned at Arnhem, and after his release he was forbidden from publishing.He would spend the next several years in hiding, thus he was unable to attend the Synod of Utrecht where he was deposed.[6]

The Christian Reformed Church in America shared a similar history with the Gereformeerde in the Netherlands.It was made up of Dutch immigrants to the United States who had come from both the Secession of 1834 and the Doleantie of 1886.The Reformed Church in America was the first Dutch Reformed federation in the United States, but many of the immigrants who later came to the United States, having their loyalties with the Secession of 1834, found the Reformed Church in America to be confessionally lax, suspecting Arminianism and worldliness.In 1857 these immigrants formed the Christian Reformed Church.This Church would be seen as the home for conservatives from both the Secession of 1835 and later those from the Doleantie of 1886.[7]The Christian Reformed Church experienced mild success and growth leading up to the twentieth century, but would eventually gain academic notoriety after the founding of Calvin College in 1876.

Unfortunately it was not long until further controversy caused division among the Dutch Reformed, as a professor at Calvin Seminary, Dr. Janssen, came under scrutiny and condemnation in 1922 for his denial of the infallibility and authority of the Scripture.Two years later, the Synod of Kalamazoo made the doctrine of common grace confessionally binding and deposed Rev. Herman Hoeksema. Rev. Henry Danhof was deposed the following year for his rejection of the doctrine of common grace.Hoeksema and Danhof had been on the committee that condemned Janssen, and both men would always see their own controversy intimately connected with the events of 1922, as it was there opposition to Dr. Janseen that gave occasion for the voicing of their strong opposition to the doctrine of common grace.[8]In 1927 Hoeksema and Danhof worked to form the Protestant Reformed Church, and thus the conservative Dutch Reformed in America were divided between the Christian Reformed Church and the Protestant Reformed Church.[9]Immigrants from the Liberation of 1944 and those sympathetic with Klaas Schilder would have these two churches to choose between in America, though both options would eventually prove impossible.

The Dutch have a long and checkered history with Reformed theology.Going back to the 16th century, we find Zacharias Ursinus, a student of both Philip Melanchton and John Calvin, had been instrumental in bringing Reformed theology, most notably through the Heidelberg Catechism, to the Netherlands.The Belgic Confession in 1566 and the Synod of Dort in 1619 also served to give Reformed theology a solid foundation in the Netherlands, but perhaps most influential of all was William of Orange’s heroic efforts in battling the Catholic power of Spain in the years between 1567-1584.This eventually lead to the independence of the Low Countries in 1608, and many Dutchmen saw their nationalism and their Calvinism intimately tied together, as William had declared himself a Calvinist in 1573.[10]There is much more to be said about the Dutch churches leading up to the 20th century.The two most important events leading up to the Liberation of 1944 were certainly the Secession of 1834 and the Doleantie of 1886.

In 1816 King William I of the Netherlands issued a “General Regulation for the Government of the Reformed Church of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.”[11]This created an hierarchically organized church which would be known as The Netherlands Reformed Church or Hervormde Kerk.Prior to William’s decision, the churches in the Netherlands had existed in a looser confederation, meeting at General Synods to make doctrinal decisions, but still granting a great amount of autonomy to the local congregations.Perhaps due to the confusion in the aftermath of the French Revolution and subsequent Napoleonic Empire, William sought to bring greater unity and stability to the ecclesiastical situation in the Netherlands.There had not been a general synod in the Netherlands since Dort in 1619, and thus William’s act served to form an entire new Church Order.[12]Many in the Dutch Church saw this as an imposition of the State into matters where it had no authority, and thus William’s regulation was resented by many.For other diverse reasons, the confessional documents of the 16th and 17th century had fallen into disuse in the Netherlands, and thus the Hervormde Kerk no longer strictly held to the Three Forms of Unity.This combination of departure from the confessions and change of church government would lead to the events known as the Secession of 1834.

In 1833 a Dutch minister named Hendrik de Cock began baptizing children from other congregations across the Netherlands.De Cock had discovered both the Canons of Dort and Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion while pastoring in Ulrum in 1829.From here his preaching was marked by conservative Calvinism, and he began to engage in polemics with other ministers in the Hervormde Kerk, the majority of whom rejected Calvinism.The marked contrast in de Cock’s style attracted many churchmen from across the country.Indeed many of these were members of other congregations in The Netherlands, but opposed their local ministers.They even refused to have their children baptized by their local ministers, instead asking de Cock to perform the baptisms.This soon brought de Cock into great controversy with the Hervormde Kerk, leading to his eventual suspension in 1833.The official ground for his suspension, however, was not the baptizing of children from other congregations, but rather de Cock’s publication of a pamphlet defending Calvinism against two other ministers in the Hervormde Kerk.In May of 1834, de Cock was fully deposed for his endorsement of booklet which criticized the Evangelical Hymnal.[13]

The grounds for de Cock’s deposition were questioned by his local consistory at Ulrum, and in 1834 several ministers joined de Cock in the “Act of Secession or Return” in which they declared that the Hervormde Kerk lacked the marks of the true church as ascribed in Article 29 of the Belgic Confession.They separated themselves from those who “were not under the church.”[14]Other congregations in the Netherlands quickly joined de Cock in the Secession, and in 1836 these churches sent a delegate to the King to proclaim that they were the true church.King William was quite indignant at the hearing of this news, but upon the succession of his more liberal son William II, the Seceded churches were granted freedom and recognition as a legitimate church.Though existing some decades prior, in 169 these seceded churches took the name “Christian Reformed (Gereformeerde) Church.[15]”It is of the utmost importance to understand the Christian Reformed Church’s understanding of itself.They did not view their act as a schism or a forming of a new church, but rather as a return to the Reformed Church.W. W. J. VanOene writes, “This secession was simply a return to the old foundation and to Reformed church government as it existed before King William I imposed a new structure upon the church.”[16]The importance of the historic structure of church government would resurface in Schilder’s protest and the Liberation of 1944.

The other major event in the history of the Dutch churches leading up to the 20th century is known as The Doleantie.[17]The Doleantie began as an attempt to reform the established church (Hervormde) from within, as many theological leaders and statesman urged the Hervormde to return to the confessional standards and reduce interference in local congregations by the Synod.The most well-known of the Doleantie was Abraham Kuyper, who founded the Free University of Amsterdam to serve as a conservative theological school. Dr. Willem van den Bergh, another leading Doleantie, agreed to a call to a church at Voorthuizen on the condition that should there ever arise a conflict between the Synod and God’s Word, God’s Word would be obeyed.The local classis of Harderwijk approved this call, though when a like-minded minister was called to the neighboring Kootwijk, he was turned down because of his having attended Kuyper’s Free University.In response to this both Kootwijk and Voorthuizen broke with the Synod, and the Doleantie became a separatist movement.A third church at Reitsum severed its bond with the Synod in 1886, and more began to follow.On June 16, 1886 these churches came together and decided that they would form a federation separate from both the Hervormde and Gereformeerde.The Doleantie, like the Secession, saw itself as returning to the Reformed Church prior to 1816, and eventually took the name Netherlands Reformed (Gereformeerde) Churches in 1888.

Though the Christian Reformed Church in the Netherlands (Secession of 1844) and the Netherlands Reformed Church (Doleantie of 1886) remained separated for several years, Abraham Kuyper and others brought about a union between these two groups in 1892.They took the name Reformed (Gereformeerde) Churches in the Netherlands (GKN), and thus there two major churches in The Netherlands: The Hervormde Kerk and the Gereformeerde Kerken.Due to the events leading up to both the Secession and the Doleantie, the authority of the local church was emphasized over the Synod, hence the plural Kerken.It was out of this federation that Klaas Schilder would minister, write, and eventually lead the Liberation.

It was perhaps the sheer magnitude of Abraham Kuyper’s personality that strengthed and encouraged the newly founded GKN.His prior founding of the Free University and regular publishing of The Herald and The Standard served to rally the conservatives, as the GKN was the clear home of all conservative and confessional Dutch Christians.Rudolph Van Reest captures the atmosphere nicely:

[The Dutch people] had been raised on The Herald and The Standard.In these papers they had found a faithful exposition of what they themselves thought but often were not able to express.Problems were formulated in crystal-clear fashion and then the solutions were given.The spirit of the times was sketched and combated on a principial basis.The trumpet had never given forth an uncertain sound.[18]

Van Reest gives us even more of a sense of the love of Kuyper when he calls him “Abraham the Mighty.”[19]

Kuyper’s legacy, as impenetrable as it seemed, did have one major crack, as “two Kuypers” began to emerge in his followers.One group followed strongly his doctrines of common grace, presumptive regeneration, and pluriformity of the church, while the other group stressed the antithesis, confessional fidelity, and local autonomy.This split became more pronounced, and the leadership within the GKN quickly solidified its support with the former group, creating a new Synodical hierarchy in the process.Van Reest again writes, “The Kuyper of common grace was deified, while the Kuyper of the antithesis was rejected.Kuyper’s ideas were unraveled, and the worst of them were canonized, for they were found useful for a Christianity that was externalizing itself and conforming to the world.”[20]

The most controversial aspect of Kuyperianism is, without a doubt, the doctrine of presumptive regeneration.The Synod of Utrecht articulated this doctrine in 1905 in its statement that read, “the seed of the covenant, by virtue of the promise of God, must be held to be regenerated and sanctified in Christ until, upon their growing up, the opposite should become apparent from their conduct or doctrine.”[21]This Kuyperian distinctive is often one of the primary components, along with the antithesis and vision of cultural reformation, of what is known as “Neo-Calvinism.”[22]Kuyper’s emphasis on predestination and the eternal antithesis (eternal justification) led to serious controversy and division among the GKN, as many critics feared that subjectivism had undermined all assurance.J. Kamphius writes “When we apply this to the Covenant and baptism it means that Kuyper did not hesitate to speak about a -deceptive- appearance,” and “if there is no regeneration then there is no baptism either!”[23]The actual existence of baptism, as well as one’s covenant membership depended on their eternal election, which they would only come to know through years of self-reflection, if ever at all.The rejection of this doctrine would lead to Schilder’s deposition and the following Act of Liberation.

Up until 1939 at the Synod of Sneek, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands were unsure as to the binding status of the Synod of Utrecht, and thus presumptive regeneration was not yet enforced as confessionally binding.Several ministers then, Schilder foremost among them, were able to work and publish during this time.Schilder began publishing a weekly periodical called De Reformatie in 1920, and it was through this publication that he achieved notoriety.He was also appointed as a professor at Kampen in 1933 and was thus seen as a leading theological voice in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.Critiquing aspects of Kuyperianism and the newly encroaching Barthianism, Schilder was seen as a defender of conservative and confessional Reformed theology.In the wake of Abraham Kuyper’s death, Schilder became the new champion for many, though he would quickly come into controversy with Kuyper’s own son.

Through the pages of De Reformatie, Schilder would attain a modest fame, but he would also come under the scrutiny of both the Church and the State.Some of the doctrinal disagreements have already been mentioned, but certainly the hottest issue in the Netherlands was Schilder’s condemnation of the Dutch Nazi movement.Van Reest records that Dr. van der Vaart Smit “regularly defended Hitler and tried to win our Christian people over to National Socialism.”[24]Having already spoken against Barthianism, which Schilder saw as an outgrowth of Hegel’s thought, he was quick to criticize the ideology behind the Dutch Nazi movement as coming from the same wellspring and contrary to the word of God.This led to De Reformatie being blacklisted in Germany, and when the Nazis eventually invaded The Netherlands it would lead to Schilder’s imprisonment.The Synod of Amsterdam in 1936 rejected the Dutch Nazi movement due in part to Schilder’s efforts, but support for Nazism remained even in the Reformed churches.

Schilder’s polemicizing in the pages of De Reformatie also earned him many critics, and he was thought by some to be a troubler of the Church.This reminded many of Schilder’s supporters of the charges brought against de Cock in the previous century, and an association between the personalities of de Cock and Schilder has remained in the minds of the Liberated to this day.Schilder also found himself in true doctrinal conflicts with H. Kuyper and V. Hepp, two staunch supporters of Kuyperianism.During this time Schilder made his first trip to the Unites States where he was received warmly by both the Christian Reformed Church and Protestant Reformed Church, despite a publication by H. Kuyper in The Banner warning against Schilder.However, by the time of his second trip to the United States in 1947, after the Liberation, Schilder was not allowed to speak at any of the Christian Reformed Churches.[25]He was welcomed by Hoeksema and the Protestant Reformed, though Hoeksema would later come to see Schilder as holding to views of the covenant similar to William Heyns, a professor at Calvin Seminary who Hoeksema had spent substantial time critiquing.Hoeksema would accuse Heyns, and later Schilder, of “Arminianism injected into the covenant.”[26]

Germany invaded The Netherlands on May 10, 1940.It is important to note that during this time the GKN were also debating the doctrinal matters of common grace and presumptive regeneration, both of which Schilder opposed.The doctrinal and political aspects in the GKN can be distinguished, but must be understood as developing together.During this time, many in the GKN had begun to, if not support Nazism, suggest cooperation with the occupying German forces.Schilder responded “I think someone who talked that way would simply be called a traitor,” and “Well, better to be annihilated for the sake of faithfulness to our confession, Dr. van der Vaart Smith, than to be spared by the grace of Koningrinnegracht 70.”[27]Schilder was arrested and imprisoned in August of 1940, De Reformatie was shut down, and though Schilder was released in December of 1940, he would be forced into hiding from July 1942 to August 1944.

On May 26, 1942, while Schilder was in hiding, a general synod of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands was called to deal with doctrinal disputes.The timing of this synod was protested, as World War II was raging, but nevertheless, by a 27-24 vote, the Synod proceeded onwards.[28]This Synod eventually concluded that all ministers must be bound to the 1905 decision in favor of Kuyper’s doctrine of presumptive regeneration.[29]Schilder had been unable to attend this meeting, as he was still in hiding, and in December of 1943 Schilder wrote a letter to the General Synod in which he expressed his inability to submit to this ruling.[30]Thus on March 23, 1944, Schilder was suspended from office for failure to submit to the new binding and was deposed in August of 1944.[31]Schilder, like de Cock before him, was not deposed for doctrinal matters though, but rather for failing to submit to church order.After regaining his freedom in 1944, Schilder met with a group of 1100 men and women to reflect on his suspension.[32]There they issued “The Act of Liberation or Return,” echoing the Secession of 1834, that the new binding was contrary to the confessions and to the Scriptures.G. Van Rongen describes the Liberation as a protest “against this violation of the adopted Church Order which says in Article 30 that major assemblies can deal with only those matters that regard all the churches.”[33]Schilder’s deposition was seen as a denial of the local church’s authority that both de Cock and Kuyper had so strongly supported.Schilder soon began preaching again, though less than ten percent of the GKN would join the new Liberated Churches.

In North America, the Synod of Kalamazoo in 1924 has seen a similar split among the conservative Dutch Reformed, and so immigrants from the Liberated Churches to America were faced with choosing between the Christian Reformed Church and the Protestant Reformed Church.In 1946 Christian Reformed minister R. J. Danhof wrote in The Banner that Schilder was not to be received by the Christian Reformed Church, and thus the Christian Reformed Church, whether intentionally or not, acknowledged the GKN as the legitimate Church in the Netherlands.[34]In the mind of the Liberated, this allied the Christian Reformed Church with the GKN, and thus for the Liberated to maintain legitimacy in their own minds, they could have no fellowship with the Christian Reformed Church in the United States.Although there had been some initial hope of union with the Protestant Reformed Church, Herman Hoeksema makes clear the Protestant Reformed view when he writes about Schilder’s view of the covenant being a “fundamentally Arminian error.”He continues, “We repudiate the error that in the promise of the covenant God objectively bestows upon every baptized child the right to Christ and to all the blessings of salvation.”This is the view of the Liberated, and so Hoeksema condemned Schilder as an Arminian.S. A. Strauss summarizes Schilder’s view when he writes, “For baptism seals, in a sacramental way, the promise of the gospel.But this promise, in fact, demands from us that we, in faith, appropriate for ourselves what is promised, and so make it our own.”[35]Thus the Liberated and the Protestant Reformed Churches would be strongly at odds.

And so the immigrants from the Liberated Churches in the Netherlands to North America were faced with a challenge.As descendents of the Secession of 1834, the Liberated could not grant legitimacy to hierarchical Synods that would place extra-Scriptural binding on the local churches.As wary children of Kuyper, they likewise would not be able to give in to subjectivism in baptism and the covenant.The Liberated Churches in the Netherlands continued on, with Schilder again writing and speaking, but many of these were beginning to migrate to North America.They would need a Church.Would the heirs of the Liberation in North America remain independent, give up their Liberated heritage, or envision a new federation akin to their counterparts in The Netherlands?

[1] Geoff Thomas “Learning from the Life of Dr. Klaas Schilder” Banner of Truth Trust: http://www.banneroftruth.org/pages/articles/article_detail.php?614

[2] J. Faber “Klaas Schilder’s Life and Work” in Always Obedient pg. 2

[3] W. W. J. VanOene Inheritance Preserved pg. 33

[4] Rudolf van Reest Schilder’s Struggle for the Unity of the Church pg. 175

[5] Van Reest pg. 171

[6] Faber pg. 2

[7] Herman Hanko “The Protestant Reformed Churches and What They Stand For: Their History” in God’s Covenant Faithfulness pg. 10

[8] Hanko pg. 12

[9] Hanko pgs. 16-19

[10] Justo Gonzalez The Story of Christianity pg. 100

[11] VanOene pg. 15

[12] ibid pg. 16

[13] ibid pg. 19-20

[14] ibid pg. 21

[15] ibid pg. 24

[16] ibid pg. 21

[17] doleantie is Latin for “grieving”

[18] Van Reest pg. 19

[19] ibid

[20] ibid pg. 54

[21] Synod of Utrecht 1905 as cited in J. Faber “The Liberation: The Doctrinal Aspect” in The Liberation: Causes and Consequences pg. 4.

[22] For a good discussion of Neo-Calvinism see John Bolt’s A Free Church, A Holy Nation appendix A pgs. 443- 464

[23] J. Kamphius An Everlasting Covenant pg. 24-25

[24] Van Reest pg. 171

[25] ibid pg. 211

[26] Herman Hoeksema Believers and Their Seed pg. 20-33

[27] Van Reest pg. 246

[28] ibid pg. 273

[29] D. DeJong “The Signifiance of the Liberation of 1944” in Secession and Liberation for Today pg. 24

[30] Van Reest pg. 285

[31] ibid pg. 278

[32] ibid pg. 316

[33] Van Rongen The Church pg. 210

[34] Theodore Plantiga Seeking Our Brothers in the Light pg. 41

[35] S. A. Strauss “Schilder on the Covenant” in Always Obedient pg. 28

This entry was posted in church history, dutch by Steven Wedgeworth. Bookmark the permalink.

About Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

2 thoughts on “A History of Klaas Schilder and the Liberation of 1944

  1. Pingback: Which Historical Actors Will Stand In That Great Day? | Old Life Theological Society

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