Evangelicals and the CRC during the Interwar Years
The First Annual Conference of the League of Evangelical Students was held in Grand Rapids at Calvin College and Seminary in late 1925. The event made the cover of December 4 edition of The Banner, the flagship English language magazine of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). Calvin hosted the annual convention twice more before the league folded in the early 1940s.
Why is this interesting? The League and its connections to the college and seminary offer a window into the evolving place of the CRC in American religious life, as Dutch Reformed folk evolved from immigrants to assimilated Americans.
Conventional wisdom has it that Christian Reformed immigrants and their institutions were standoffish from evangelicals well into the twentieth century—a mix of Dutch and Reformed smugness about American culture and its “methodistic” Christianity. Not until the mid-to-late twentieth century and early twenty-first would CRC folk and CRC institutions be drawn into evangelical orbits. This conventional wisdom, like most, is about half right.
Culturally, Dutch continued to be the primary working language of the CRC, for example, into the 1920s. (It was English by the end of the 1930s.) Religiously, the CRC did not really participate in the modernist-fundamental conflicts that shook American Christianity in the 1920s. It did have modest in-house variations—the firing of Calvin seminary professor Ralph Janssen for alleged modernist leanings; debates over common grace and the Protestant Reformed split from the CRC; and the condemnation of worldliness, specifically card playing, dancing, and movies. But those conflicts paralleled more than were part of the larger American story.
And yet, some CRC clergy and laity, including Calvin College and Theological School faculty, participated in trans-denominational evangelical institutions. Some clergy and congregations were drawn to “end times” dispensational readings of prophecies in scripture, common among evangelicals and fundamentalists—most famously Rev. Harry Bultema, who was deposed by the CRC and with some churches in West Michigan and Chicago left to form a small new denomination, the Berean Reformed Church.
The League of Evangelical Students is another example. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the League chapter at Calvin was the college’s “most vigorous” religious club. Moreover, Calvin’s chapter was the largest League chapter in the country in 1931. Support for the League came from CRC, college, and seminary leaders and from various wings of the denomination, both conservative and progressive.
Seminary faculty member Samuel Volbeda spoke at the 1925 meeting and his colleague Clarence Bouma was on the League’s national board. Calvin alumni such as R.B. Kuiper, Ned Stonehouse, and Cornelius Van Til were also involved. All three were former students of J. Gresham Machen, the fundamentalist stalwart at Princeton Seminary who left in 1929 (with Van Til) to help form Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929. Machen too supported the League and was at Calvin in 1925.
Kuiper, a CRC minister, taught at Westminster for a year before serving as president of Calvin College in the early 1930s. He returned to Westminster in 1933, teaching there for two decades. In 1952 Kuiper came back to Grand Rapids as president of Calvin Seminary for four years. More broadly, the League got support from denominational leaders in the CRC, such as The Banner editor H.J. Kuiper. Student leaders in the League chapter at Calvin included future faculty.
Johanna Timmer, Calvin College’s first woman faculty member and dean of women, supported the League. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, she left Calvin and helped found and lead the Reformed Bible Institute (later Reformed Bible College and now Kuyper College). In its mission of promoting evangelism at home and missions abroad by training lay leaders, RBI was a Reformed variation on a typically American evangelical institution.
The League connected Calvin and its students to students from evangelical schools such Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College, and Dallas Theological Seminary and a variety of evangelical Protestant traditions. The League’s mission was “the defense and propagation of the Gospel in the modern student-world.” It did so mostly by attacking modernism in theology and culture, rather than promoting evangelism. By the mid-1930s, the League was in decline at Calvin and Christian colleges around the country. Students were not interested in fighting modernism; they wanted Christian fellowship. The League hung on for a few years before folding in the early 1940s.
Inter-Varsity Fellowship (IVF) crossed the border from Canada into the United States in 1939, starting several chapters at Michigan schools. IVF’s roots lay in Britain, in the 1870s. A Wheaton College alum played a key role in bringing IVF to the U.S. The League was wary of cooperating with IVF, including opposition from Kuiper and Van Til, though Clarence Bouma seems to have been more open to the idea. The IVF did not need the League. It formed officially in the U.S. in 1941 as Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship and spread rapidly in the 1940s and 1950s.
At the same time, in the 1940s, evangelical and fundamentalist leaders in the United States formed the National Association of Evangelicals (1943) and the Evangelical Theological Society (1949). From the start, CRC leaders and Calvin faculty were part of both. Clarence Bouma, the seminary professor who had been part of the League, attended early N.A.E. and E.T.S. meetings, and he and other writers reported on them in The Calvin Forum. Bouma also served as the first president of the ETS. Writers in The Banner also discussed whether the CRC should be a member organization of the NAE. Debate over this question would continue through the 1950s and 1960s.
As the story of the League and similar inter-denominational organizations suggests, in the decades before and after World War II, the CRC and Calvin College and Seminary were becoming part of wider evangelical Protestant circles in the U.S., even if with some ambivalence, rather than simply standing apart from them.
William Katerberg is a professor of history and curator of Heritage Hall at Calvin University.
The cover image for the blogpost is the League of Evangelical Students chapter at Calvin College in the 1931 Prism yearbook.