Enemy Aliens? World War I and Dutch Americans

Enemy Aliens?  World War I and Dutch Americans

World War I transformed life for Dutch Americans. Many Americans became hyper-patriotic when the U.S. declared war on Germany and its allies in 1917. Ordinary liberties came under assault. The government jailed some pacifists and socialists who criticized the war. Ordinary citizens sometimes became vigilantes, intimidating and attacking people from immigrant groups associated with enemy nations like Germany.

German Americans got the worst of it, of course. But what about their close ethnic kin, the Dutch. Were the Dutch “disloyal”? Enemy aliens, not American patriots? Some native-born Americans were not sure. And Dutch Americans scrambled to figure out how to be Dutch, Reformed, and American.

The circumstances of Dutch Americans were complex, and war leaves little space for ambiguity. The Netherlands remained neutral during World War I. Dutch names were indistinguishable from German ones for many Americans. The Dutch and many Dutch Americans had little love for Britain, one of America’s chief allies against Germany. The British recently had fought a war against Dutch settlers in South Africa—the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. Many recent Dutch immigrants to the U.S. were not yet citizens and were not drafted and forced to join the U.S. armed forces. Dutch farmers profited from good harvests and a wartime economy. And, in their homes, schools, churches, and magazines the Dutch used a language that sounded suspiciously German.

Some native-born Americans thus wondered. Were they Germans? German sympathizers? Or just not good Americans?

The state of Iowa issued proclamations against the use of any language but English in public, including churches and schools. Vigilantes burned crosses on the front lawns of a few Dutch ministers and beat up the occasional immigrant. In what became known as “Hollander Fires,” arsonists burned Dutch schools and churches and the barns of Dutch farmers.

This propaganda poster illustrates how Americans came to see Germans as monsters threatening America during the war. For a brief description of the difficulties German Americans faced, see this document and this one.

The Dutch American at issue here were Christian Reformed. The Reformed Church of America (RCA) viewed itself and was perceived as more of an “American” church. It had been around since colonial times. The Christian Reformed Church (CRC) was an immigrant church, almost as wary of Americanization as it was of unorthodox theology. Even students at Hope College, an RCA school whose team nickname was “The Dutchman,” worried that recent Dutch settlements and Calvin College were “hotbeds” of “pro-German ideas” and “sympathizers.”

Theology was a factor too, not just ethnicity. The hyper-patriotism, political pressure, and threats led some Christian Reformed leaders to promote Americanization:  Shift to English in churches and schools. Fly American flags at home and even in church sanctuaries. RCA leaders and Dutch American Roman Catholic clergy proclaimed that patriotism and faithfulness to God were compatible. A few of the most strict Calvinists in the CRC, however, resisted on theological grounds. The most famous, or infamous, was the Reverend Herman Hoeksema of Fourteenth Street CRC in Holland, MI.

In May 1918, Hoeksema refused to fly an American flag in Fourteenth Street’s sanctuary. Ever principled, he insisted that a national flag in a church sanctuary “was conceding too much to Caesar’s realm.” It might be good civic religion, he conceded. But it was not true Christianity. Hoeksema’s congregants did not all agree. Three took a reporter from the Holland Daily Sentinel with them to his home to “discuss” the matter. The local paper, and local politicians and church leaders associated with the RCA, criticized Hoeksema.

In a letter to the Holland City News, Hoeksema appealed to the Reformation and religious liberty. He made clear that he was not opposed to the flag or to loyal citizenship. He simply opposed flying the flag in a house of worship. He agreed that the war as just, he insisted, but church and state had to be kept separate for the good of both American liberty and true Christian piety. His critics responded with their own arguments. These critics included some CRC leaders, notably Henry Beets, a pastor from Grand Rapids and editor of The Banner.

One Sunday in July 1918, Hoeksema found a flag in his church and a threatening note on his pulpit. The note was from the American Protective League. Hoeksema took to carrying a pistol to protect himself. He remained a popular enough preacher that he received several calls to other CRC churches during this time. He turned them down, however, not wanting to look like he was running from a fight. Only after the war, in 1920, did he accept a call to Eastern Avenue CRC in Grand Rapids.

Hoeksema’s story highlights a simple thing. The CRC was more dominated by recent immigrants in 1918 than was the RCA. The CRC was stricter theologically than the RCA, more wary of worldliness and Americanization. Both factors left leaders and parishioners in the CRC scrambling to figure out how to be Dutch, Reformed, and American. The war sped up the pace of Americanization in Dutch Reformed immigrant communities.

By World War II, certainly by the late 20th century, most Dutch Americans in the CRC were much more Americanized. I remember arriving at Calvin College as a student in 1987, coming from Canada and the child of recent Dutch immigrants. Calvin did not seem particularly Dutch to me. It seemed profoundly American. The mixing of piety and patriotism at a Pat Robertson rally at Calvin College, as he ran for the Republican nomination for president in 1988, stunned me and my Dutch Canadian friends at Calvin.

The questions raised by Hoeksema have not disappeared for Americans. And he may have gotten some vindication. Recent immigrants in Fourteenth Street CRC in the 1950s challenged the display of flags in the sanctuary. In 1984, the congregation’s worship committee removed them. It’s hard to know whether Hoeksema would have felt vindicated. He left the CRC over theological matters in 1924 and helped found the Protestant Reformed Church, after all. But that’s another story.

William Katerberg is professor of history and interim curator of Heritage Hall at Calvin University.


This post is a summary of “Disloyal Dutch? Herman Hoeksema and the Flag in Church Controversy during World War I” by Robert P. Swierenga. You can read the whole story in Issue 25:2 of Origins: Historical Magazine of the Archives (Fall 2007).

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