Today, Monday, May 14, marks the 146th anniversary of the incorporation of Hope College. Read this interesting account by Professor Emeritus Elton J. Bruins.
by Dr. Elton J. Bruins
Philip Phelps Jr. Research Professor
The Van Raalte Institute
The date of the incorporation of Hope College, 14 May 1866, was preceded by more than two decades of vision and effort. The Reformed Church in America that was headquartered in New York City said in 1843 that “a college at the West was indispensable to church extension.” Many Dutch Reformed families in New York and New Jersey were moving to places in the Midwest such as Michigan, Illinois and Indiana. The First Reformed Church in Grand Rapids was founded in 1840. The church knew that need of an institution of higher education was vital for the life of the church and especially needed for the training of future clergy.
The arrival of Dutch immigrants in Michigan in 1847, led by Rev. Albertus C. Van Raalte, spurred on the need for an educational institution. A denominational committee came to Holland in 1851 to consult with Van Raalte as to how a school could get underway with the funding and support of the Reformed Church. The result of this consultation led to the establishment of a high school named the Pioneer School under the leadership of Walter Taylor. His successor, John Van Vleck organized this school into the Holland Academy in 1857. Van Raalte himself went to the eastern Dutch Reformed churches three times to raise $12,000 for the building and furnishing of what became known as Van Vleck Hall, in 1858.
Philip Phelps Jr. and his family arrived in the Holland Colony in 1859 as the successor of Van Vleck and to serve as a missionary pastor. Phelps reorganized the curriculum and moved as soon as possible to begin collegiate education. The first freshman class of ten recent graduates of the Holland Academy began in October, 1862. Another freshman class began in the fall of 1863 with Phelps still teaching the entire student body of freshmen and sophomores until January, 1864, assisted by some student tutors.
By 1864, Phelps as assisted by two new instructors, Pieter J. Oggel and T. Romeyn Beck because Phelps had several new duties added to his work as teacher and pastor of the new English speaking congregation, the Second Reformed Church now known as Hope Church. He was elected president of the General Synod of the Reformed Church that year and was given the charge of raising $85,000 for the establishment of the college by the time the first senior class was ready to graduate in 1866. He also organized a Board of Superintendents for the nascent college June 27, 1864, with Van Raalte named president of the board.
Actions were also taken by the State of Michigan that led to the incorporation of the college. In 1855, the state had approved denominational ownership of church schools. By 1863, when Van Raalte by this time had given sixteen acres for the campus, the denomination was allowed to hold title to the campus. The college would not only be affiliated with the church but owned by the church. Phelps went to the state to ask for incorporation of the college in 1865. On October 27 of that year, the name of the board was to be the Council of Hope College. Phelps was successful in obtaining the permission to incorporate because he now raised $30,000 towards the $85,000 that was necessary for the permission to incorporate. The first class of eight students out of the twenty-one members of the student body were now seniors and would be ready to graduate the following year.
The Articles of Incorporation were filed by Phelps and the Council received approval on 24 April 1866 to be officially recognized by the State of Michigan. The secretary of state signed the document with incorporation becoming effective on 14 May 1866. The General Synod in its 1866 minutes noted that the incorporation of the college was due to “the untiring labors of its devoted and accomplished President” Philip Phelps. The new college first known as the Western College was given the name of Hope College and the first class of eight young men graduated on 12 July. The Council of Hope College appointed Philip Phelps Jr. as the first president. He was inaugurated with great fanfare on 12 July 1866. The Van Raaltes could not be present because they were spending the summer in the Netherlands for the purpose and with the hope of improving the poor health of Mrs. Van Raalte.
It is important to note that within seven years of his arrival in the Holland Colony, Phelps began collegiate education, got the college incorporated and graduated the first class. He and Van Raalte had the goal of establishing a college and Phelps was effective in bringing the vision of these two gentlemen to a reality.