A sesquicentennial marks 150 years, and for Hope the milestone harkens back to the college’s formal chartering by the State of Michigan on May 14, 1866, but the origin story is not quite so simple.
In its fullness it’s actually a great deal more meaningful than the functionality of the founding occasion might suggest. The events leading to the charter — and they track back very directly another 15 years — have everything to do with why Hope is Hope, not just committed to but passionate about helping students grow into their fullest potential not only in career but life.
That story begins with the October 1851 creation of the Holland colony’s Pioneer School. The Pioneer School eventually evolved into the Holland Academy and then the college as the community’s educational needs progressed from elementary to secondary to higher.
The events leading to Hope's charter in 1866 have everything to do with why Hope is Hope.
Like so many immigrants before and since, the Dutch who arrived together in West Michigan and established Holland in the latter 1840s were seeking a better life, driven in particular by poor conditions in Europe (including a devastating potato blight) that left them little hope for themselves or their children. The Pioneer School was established, with support from the Reformed Church in America, because community founder the Rev. Albertus C. Van Raalte knew that education was critically important, and he wanted Holland’s children to receive education with a Christian character — an option not guaranteed through state-supported schooling — with a priority on preparation for college. It began just four years after Holland was settled, on land donated by Van Raalte (who also later contributed additional acreage for the college).
Visit the sesquicentennial home page In his history A Century of Hope, published to commemorate the 1966 centennial of the college’s chartering, former Hope president Dr. Wynand Wichers (Class of 1909) noted, “Not only did Van Raalte feel the need for elementary education for all children, but he also was much in earnest about the need of a church-controlled secondary school.”
“He was mindful of the need for educated ministers and teachers,” Wichers wrote. “It was his conviction that higher education was a prime essential in the process of Americanization and for the preservation and extension of the Dutch church in the West.”
Hope’s name and seal both originate from an observation Van Raalte made regarding the Pioneer School: “This is my anchor of hope for this people in the future.” The symbolism follows the Epistle to the Hebrews 6:19, “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul...”
Hope’s motto, taken from Psalm 42:5, echoes the sentiment: Spera in Deo (“Hope in God”).
The first principal of the Pioneer School was Walter T. Taylor, who served from 1851 to 1854. He was succeeded briefly by Rev. F.B. Beidler, who was then followed by the Rev. John Van Vleck, principal from 1855 to 1859. It was during Van Vleck’s tenure that the Pioneer School grew into the Academy in 1857 and that Van Vleck Hall, today the college’s oldest structure, was constructed.
The academy succeeded in preparing area students for college, but their destination was Rutgers College (now University), which was then an RCA institution, in New Brunswick, New Jersey — quite a trek in the mid-19th century. The denomination was interested in establishing a college in what was then considered “the West,” a goal that matched Van Raalte’s aspirations for the young school. And so when the Rev. Philip Phelps Jr. succeeded Van Vleck in 1859, he began work with that outcome in mind.
(Today there are two other RCA-affiliated colleges farther west than Hope, but both either became associated with the denomination later or were established later. Central College in Pella, Iowa, was founded in 1853, but was a Baptist institution until transferred to the RCA in 1916. Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, began as an academy in 1882, became a junior college in 1928 and became a four-year college in 1960.)
The first freshman class enrolled in the fall of 1862, nearly four years before Hope received the charter from which it tracks its anniversaries. The first commencement, however, followed the charter, with eight seniors graduating on July 17, 1866.
Phelps served as the college’s founding president until 1878, with Van Raalte serving as president of the college Council (equivalent to today’s Board of Trustees) until his death in 1876. Phelps was a very hands-on president, not only teaching multiple courses but even supervising the students in cutting the lumber for and building the college’s first gymnasium and chapel in 1862.
Hope didn’t develop its guiding mission statement until more than a century later, but every phrase echoes the Phelps years, from the breadth of the curriculum, to national reach and international engagement that included enrolling students from Japan in the 1870s — and of course from across the country and around the world since. And it owes everything to a commitment to shaping young lives that was so strong that it took root before the community itself might have been considered fully planted:
“The mission of Hope College is to educate students for lives of leadership and service in a global society through academic and co-curricular programs of recognized excellence in the liberal arts and in the context of the historic Christian faith.”