The project started in 2000 as a relatively modest effort to publish an annotated translation of the early Dutch-language minutes of the Classis of Holland. It has resulted in a 2,150-page, three-volume collection with full commentary that not only shares what was chronicled — often by the hand of Holland’s founder, the Rev. Albertus C. Van Raalte — but includes historical context and background on the issues and people involved.
“A Commentary on the Minutes of the Classis of Holland, 1848-1876” by Dr. Earl William Kennedy has been published recently by the Van Raalte Press of Hope College’s A.C. Van Raalte Institute. The 28 years that are covered run from Holland’s founding through the last time that the minutes were written in Dutch instead of English.
It’s the first time that the minutes for the entire period have been published in English, following a 1943 effort that covered 1848 through 1858. Crucially, the work, which is subtitled “A Detailed Record of Persons and Issues, Civil and Religious, in the Dutch Colony of Holland Michigan,” includes thorough subject and person indices to help lead researchers directly to topics of interest.
“With meticulous attention to detail, this archival work adds immeasurably to the scholarship of the mid-19th-century Dutch immigration to West Michigan,” said Dr. Richard H. Harms, who is curator of archives emeritus at Calvin College and former editor of Origins, the periodical dedicated to the history of the Dutch in North America since the 1840s. “This thoroughgoing review of the immigrants’ church, social and political dynamics must be read by all serious students of the topic, and its wealth of biographical data in narrative form is easily accessible to the lay historian.”
The Holland Classis is the governing body for the churches in the area that are in the Reformed Church in America (RCA). Major issues of the day that are reflected in the minutes include the settlement’s early struggles, the controversial decision to join the RCA (at the time known as the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church), financial challenges, home and foreign missions, the disagreements and departures that led to the development of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), and the creation of the Holland Academy and Hope College. The minutes also reflect the classis’ involvement with more common situations like disciplinary matters forwarded by the congregations, as well as theological discussions among the members.
The Holland Classis began with four churches in the newly settled region: in Holland, Zeeland, Graafschap and Vriesland. Its membership and geographical range ebbed and flowed as new churches were established in areas that didn’t yet have a nearer classis to which they could belong. At times its purview included churches farther afield in West Michigan as well as in Chicago; Cleveland; Milwaukee and other portions of Wisconsin; Pella, Iowa; Rotterdam, Kansas; and Amelia County, Virginia. As reported on its website, the classis today has 18 established churches plus five new congregations emerging and maturing.
The 1943 translation ran through 1858 to encompass the year that the CRC separation occurred (1857) and its immediate aftermath. To carry the work forward, the Van Raalte Institute in the 1990s commissioned an initial translation of the next 18 years that was available to researchers but unpublished.
Kennedy was commissioned by the Dutch-American Historical Commission to develop an annotated translation that would cover the entire period. A senior research fellow with the Van Raalte Institute, he is a professor emeritus of religion at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, and previously had ministerial credential in the Presbyterian Church (USA) before transferring to the RCA in 1970. He is also fluent in Dutch, and his Dutch-born wife, Nella, is a historian and assisted with the project.
The scope quickly broadened from annotation to commentary as Kennedy, who is specialized in church history and doctrine, not only refined the two previous translations but collected additional information from sources including other scholarly work, the minutes of individual churches and the RCA’s General Synod, and even online genealogical databases — and kept finding more.
“It’s all fun in a way, but it is time consuming,” he said. “I had no idea that it was going to take me 18 years.”
With the minutes sometimes concerned with contentious issues, Kennedy endeavored to provide commentary that was informative but not biased. “I tried to see it from various perspectives and tried to get into the skins of the people in the 1850s and 1860s and not get particularly judgmental about what they said or did,” he said.
Van Raalte was the classis’ clerk for most of a decade, and Kennedy found that his was a primary voice through much of the discussion. Although — as is customary — the minutes were voted on before becoming official, he could sometimes detect Van Raalte’s perspective.
“You could tell by the way that he wrote the minutes that he in a sense controlled the history,” he said. “It’s not that he misrepresented things — they were approved by the others — but it was still a ‘bully pulpit.’”
Kennedy also came to admire pastor Cornelius Vander Meulen of Zeeland, who he feels is an unsung hero of the area’s formative years. “Cornelius Vander Meulen did a great deal of the legwork,” Kennedy said. “He was a workhorse and he deserves more recognition than he receives.” Accordingly, both Vander Meulen and Van Raalte are pictured on the book’s cover.
The three-volume set “A Commentary on the Minutes of the Classis of Holland, 1848-1876” costs $150 and is available through the Hope College Bookstore.
Established in 1994, the A.C. Van Raalte Institute is located in the Theil Research Center at 9 E. 10th St. and specializes in scholarly research and writing on immigration and the contributions of the Dutch and their descendants in the United States. The institute is also dedicated to the study of the history of all the people who have comprised the community of Holland throughout its history. Since its founding, the institute and its affiliated scholars have published nearly 40 books.