posted July 20, 2011

Letters Share the Life and Mind of Holland’s Founder

Dr. Elton Bruins

With the bicentennial of the birth of the Rev. Albertus C. Van Raalte only a few months away, a new book provides insights into the life and mind of Holland's founder from a new source: the man himself.

Published earlier this month, "Envisioning Hope College: Letters written by Albertus C. Van Raalte to Philip Phelps Jr., 1857 to 1875" features correspondence as the two men worked together on behalf of education in the Holland Colony, efforts that led to the founding of both Hope and Western Theological Seminary in the 1860s.  While the volume isn't a biography per se, its editor, Dr. Elton Bruins (pictured), feels that the collection of 94 letters provides perspective on Van Raalte unavailable in previous works about the respected religious leader.

"This is the first book dealing with Van Raalte in which he himself is doing most of the speaking," Bruins said.  "You hear Van Raalte speaking for himself and opening his heart, and that for me makes the book."

"You get a real look into his life," he said.  "You see him at his best and you see him when he is struggling."

A 519-page hardcover, the book has been co-published by Van Raalte Press of Hope College and Eerdmans Publishing of Grand Rapids through the Historical Series of the Reformed Church in America.  It was prepared through the sponsorship of the A.C. Van Raalte Institute.  Bruins shares editing credit with the late Karen G. Schakel, who was officer manager and editorial assistant with the institute until her death in December 2009.

Van Raalte led the Dutch colonists who established Holland in 1847, and among his other efforts worked tirelessly on behalf of education.  Phelps became principal of the HollandAcademy, the school which Van Raalte had established, in 1859, and became the founding president of Hope when the college grew out of the academy in 1862.  Hope received its charter from Michigan in 1866, the same year that the first class graduated.  Western Theological Seminary was established as an extension of the college in 1866, to enable graduates of Hope interested in ministry to continue their studies locally.

Multiple events are planned in both the U.S. and in the Netherlands in October in commemoration of Van Raalte's birth 200 years ago, on Oct. 17, 1811 in the village of Wanneperveen in Overijssel, the Netherlands.  The book's publication on the eve of the anniversary celebration is a happy conjunction, culminating work that Bruins started in 1997.

Bruins is retired from the Hope religion faculty and the past director of Hope's A.C. Van Raalte Institute, which studies Dutch-American and Holland-area history, and has been researching local and Hope history for more than 40 years.  His publications include, as co-author, the books "Albertus C. Van Raalte:  Dutch Leader and American Patriot" (1996) and "Albertus and Christina: The Van Raalte Family, Home and Roots" (2004).

The letters in "Envisioning Hope College: Letters written by Albertus C. Van Raalte to Philip Phelps Jr., 1857 to 1875," which Van Raalte wrote in English, are extensively annotated, with explanations about the people and events referenced by Van Raalte and behind the scenes.  The result, Bruins noted, is a broader history of the community in addition to a view of Van Raalte and the creation of Hope and Western Theological Seminary.

"Readers will also learn about Holland, Michigan, and about what's going on in the denomination at the time," he said.

Holland's settlers had come to the United States seeking economic opportunity, and religious and educational freedom.  Van Raalte knew that his people would need additional pastors to lead them in the future, and so in 1851 he established a PioneerSchool to prepare young people for college and, he hoped, seminary and the ministry.

As a frontier community, Holland lacked the resources to sustain the school, and Van Raalte traveled to the East regularly, for months at a time, seeking donations from wealthy patrons in the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church, today's Reformed Church in America, which the colonists' congregations ultimately joined.  It was during one of those trips that he met Phelps, who was pastoring two small churches in New York.

"They were a study in contrasts in many ways," Bruins said.  "Van Raalte was born and raised in the Netherlands, Phelps in Albany, New York.  Van Raalte, as his letters indicate, had an uneven temperament that depended on the state of his health; Phelps, however, seemed always to be on an even keel.  Van Raalte was forceful in personality; Phelps was quite reserved."

The differences didn't stop them from becoming friends right up until Van Raalte's death in 1876.  In fact, Bruins said, Phelps was one of Van Raalte's few close friends.  Not infrequently, Van Raalte's letters to Phelps are signed "Your humble Brother and Friend."

"He does not say that lightly," Bruins said.  "He means that."

One result, Bruins said, is that Van Raalte is particularly candid in the letters.  "He unloads his feelings in a way that you rarely see anyplace else," he said.

It helped, Bruins noted, that the two men were of a like mind where Hope and later the seminary were concerned.  "Each was gifted in his own way, and each was devoted equally to the cause of Christian higher education," he said.

Bruins started the book project as a devoted fan of Van Raalte - and he continues to admire the leader for all that he did for Holland and the college.  In addition to having led the community's settlers to West Michigan, Bruins said, Van Raalte never stopped working for the well-being of both.  He donated large swaths of land to the community, including CentennialPark and the college's original 16 acres; he spent months away from his large family, who Bruins noted he loved dearly, to gain crucial financial support; he worked to connect the Midwest immigrant congregations to the RCA.

"He was interested in all facets of the community life, which made him incredibly busy and probably stretched too thin," Bruins said.  "You can say he lived and died for Holland, Michigan."

"He wanted things his own way - that's why you see so much bickering in the Holland community," he said.  "But without him, we wouldn't have the Holland of today."

As he worked with Van Raalte's letters, though, Bruins found himself growing in admiration of Phelps.  Although Phelps's letters in response to Van Raalte don't survive, other work by Phelps does - and he found a sense of Phelps in what Van Raalte said and how.

"Phelps doesn't gripe," Bruins said.  "He in that way was a very peaceful, irenic person.  Just a fine Christian man."

Bruins has even formed a new view of Phelps's role in the history of Hope, leading the way for expanded recognition for Hope's first president, who served until 1878.

Long-time tradition has called Van Raalte the college's founder.  In addition to Van Raalte's well-documented efforts both before and after Hope was established, his family stayed active in the life of the college, contributing, Bruins said, to his legend as founder.  For example, the college's president and vice president were sons-in-law, and the dean of women a daughter, when Hope dedicated Van Raalte Hall in 1903.

Phelps, conversely, had returned to New York in the 1880s.  But it was Phelps, Bruins realized, who had been on site day-to-day, making a go of the vision in the early years.  Phelps initially taught every class; hired the first faculty; and, Bruins feels, established the institutional character that continues to the present.

Obituaries after Phelps's death in 1896 had even called him the "organizer" of Hope.  Recognizing that the college would not have existed with either, Bruins and his fellow historians at the Van Raalte Institute now celebrate both as "co-organizers."

"It may have been Van Raalte's idea, but Phelps did the work," Bruins said.

Copies of "Envisioning Hope College: Letters written by Albertus C. Van Raalte to Philip Phelps Jr., 1857 to 1875" will be available at the college's Hope-Geneva Bookstore for $49.  Located on the ground level of the DeWitt Center, 141 E. 12th St., the Hope-Geneva Bookstore can be called at 800-946-4673 or (616) 395-7833.