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The Hollander Fires

• Clannish, insular immigrants who refuse to assimilate
• Large families and achieving kids that quickly overshadow other residents
• Loyalty given to foreign, even adversarial, governments
• Houses of worship where foreign languages are spoken
• Dominating clergy who browbeat their people
• Houses of worship set afire by arsonists

It is time for us to awaken to the fact that our American institutions are in danger from these foreigners who persist in bringing their un-American ideas with them, and we must insist that they either become Americans or return to their homelands.*

This isn’t today’s news. Actually these are snippets and accusations against the Dutch Reformed almost a century ago, during World War I, just about ten to fifteen miles from my place—Pella, Iowa.

In 1847, the mercurial founder of this place gave it the name “Pella,” after the city of refuge where first-century Christians fled following the destruction of Jerusalem. The first settlers here saw Pella that way, a refuge from the harsh and corrupt ways of their native Netherlands. But “city of refuge” is a heavy burden to bear, especially if you’re not entirely convinced you want to continue to give refuge to those who come after you, to those who aren’t like you. Sometimes I think it would be better to revise history to say that we’re named after the “other” Pella, the Macedonian hometown of Alexander the Great. We are a town that seeks to produce world-conquerors!

It didn’t take long for the Dutch, with their large families and entrepreneurial ways, to seep out of Pella. To the east, however, they ran into a river which hemmed in their expansion. When a bridge was built, the Dutch crossed the river and soon bumped into the “Americans” already living there. For decades, resentments and rivalries smoldered. But when the United States entered World War I, they literally flared up.

By World War I, the Dutch had been in these parts for almost 70 years. Yet the Dutch language was still pervasive in stores, parochial schools, and churches. For those who disliked the Dutch and were not much given to nuance, “Dutch” and the “Deutsch” of the Kaiser were difficult to distinguish. Strangers and “spies” were sent to worship in Dutch Reformed churches and visit shops run by the Dutch to enforce a proclamation by Iowa’s governor, prohibiting the use of any language except English in public.

A Christian school was still flying the Dutch flag, even as American patriotic fervor spiked due to war. (The Netherlands was neutral during World War I.) I shudder to think what might happen to a school or community center flying the Mexican, Syrian, or Pakistani flag in the US today.

The Black Hand, a secretive anti-Dutch group (vigilantes? domestic terrorists? inept young men?) was behind several arson fires at Dutch farms, a school, and one fire that burned the Reformed Church in New Sharon, Iowa to the ground. There was even a bungling attempt to bomb a Reformed parsonage.Burning-Church

I get my information from a sesquicentennial booklet by local historians,** as well as my visits with an elderly member of my congregation, a 98 year-old woman. She is the daughter of the minister whose church was burned down. Her father then sent the family away to safety. It was during this time that an attempt was made on his life, but the dynamite placed under the parsonage didn’t detonate. Of course, she was too young to remember these events, but passes on what her father later shared with her.

One of her comments is especially pertinent. Her father struggled mightily to get out the word that he and his congregation were patriotic, “good Americans.” That congregation worshipped in English. He was frustrated, maybe even hurt, that to the non-Dutch such distinctions were too subtle to be appreciated. One Dutch Reformed church was the same as the other. All Hollanders were interchangeable.

Her father’s efforts to convey patriotism and American solidarity were not at all helped by a minister at a Christian Reformed congregation in nearby Peoria. He was said to have discouraged his flock from purchasing war bonds and counseled families on how to make their young men ineligible for the military draft. This particular minister was later arrested under the “Espionage Act” and narrowly evaded a lynch mob on his front lawn when he was released.

Peoria Iowa

Peoria, Iowa, today.

As my elderly congregant shared of her father’s failed attempts to distinguish his congregation from the more parochial Dutch, I thought of the demands heard so often today. “Where are the moderate Muslims? Why don’t the pro-American, anti-terrorists denounce what is going on?” My guess is that they are just like that old woman’s pastor-father a century ago—trying to be heard, struggling to distance themselves from the disruptive and dangerous. But in the passion of the times, they simply are not listened to.

It is an old truism that the persecuted so quickly become the persecutors. I don’t want to be hard on my neighbors in Iowa. I suppose anti-immigrant sentiment here isn’t any worse than elsewhere in the US. Forty years ago, Iowa was exemplary in welcoming Southeast Asian refugees. There is a still a smattering of people who resettled here after Hurricane Katrina. But that I live in a city called a city of refuge, and that nearly every accusation leveled against today’s immigrants was once said of our Dutch Reformed ancestors—it feels too pointed even to be considered irony.


*”It is time for us to awaken to the fact that our American institutions are in danger from these foreigners who persist in bringing their un-American ideas with them, and we must insist that they either become Americans or return to their homelands.”  This is a quote from the Pella Chronicle during these events. Interestingly, Pella, where the Dutch were predominant, was not seen as “unpatriotic” or insular. It was the communities to the east of Pella, where the Dutch were a minority, that the troubles arose.

**The book is Peoria, Iowa: The Story of Two Cultures, by J.P. Dahm and D.J. Van Kooten.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Great stuff. And didn’t this lead to the importing of the American flag into many sanctuaries, in order to prove patriotism to the public? In New Jersey, it led to the quick decline of Dutch preaching and worship, and the demise of the newspaper Het Oosten. At least that’s what I’d always heard. Assimilate! And believe that this Great War is a righteous war. I remember that my immigrant grandfather had never believed it.

  • Wow, this is a piece of history that I never knew. Thank you for sharing it.

  • Spot on connecting of the past to present. I will forwarded this to a colleague who is from the CRC area of which you speak. He is quite familiar with the WWI incidents.

  • James Schaap says:

    Thanks, Steve. It’s a bit of history I knew at least something of, but it needs retelling and retelling and retelling.

  • Ann Minnick says:

    My grandmother was a five-year-old in Peoria and living next to the CRC church when that building was set on fire. She woke her mother up during the night requesting a glass of water and while trying to rouse her mother she commented on the “pretty light coming from the church.” It was flames moving through the building. Her mother got on the telephone and alerted members of the congregation while her father went out to try and fight the fire. According to my grandma, they found gas cans outside the building. Later, these incidents were tried in the Iowa court system as discrimination against the Dutch immigrants; eventually being heard in the Iowa Supreme Court.

  • Philip L says:

    Interesting article, what we can learn from history.
    I have three questions–Were the people in those Dutch churches living by the rules of the land and living peaceful lives? Were any of these church leaders preaching hate of the country they had found refuge in or harm to others outside of their community? And, what was at the root, of why people in that area did not want Dutch people around?

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Thanks, Philip. Good questions. As is often the case, apparently it depends on who you ask. Some of the Dutch were violating the proclamation of the Iowa governor that only English could be spoken in public places. But then you wonder is such a proclamation constitutional? The minister at Peoria Christian Reformed Church was arrested and charged with violating the “Espionage Act,” but as I understand it he was released with a stern warning and a “get out of these parts” order. He is the one who apparently called buying war bonds “blood money.” Like you suggest, most of tension was not over “breaking the law” but about things like not speaking English, flying the Dutch rather than American flag, appearing separatist and elitist, supporting private schools, jealously over property, what stores you shopped at, etc. Not illegal, but maybe not wise, not a good way to make friends and be neighborly.

    • Josie says:

      Good questions. Wanted to ask but you said them first..

  • Valerie Van Kooten says:

    My grandmother, who passed away 2 years ago at the age of 100, remembered her father and older brothers guarding the Sully Christian School. (Sully is just up the road from Peoria.) It did later burn, in 1917. There was a lot of barn burning as well of Dutch farms. A lot of paranoia, jealousy, misunderstanding, and a big dose of “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much” mentality predominated.

  • Philip L says:

    Are these Dutch people anti ALL immigration of all nationalities?

  • J.E. Vos says:

    I love the history, but hate the equivocation.
    The Dutch immigrants had no track record of committing terrorist acts. Suspicion about them was largely overblown and stemmed from disagreement over a political issue – namely the support for world war 1. That suspicion was inflamed by the use of Dutch language and the lack of relationship with their new neighbors. It’s more like battling political factions or the racial intimidation that was common in the neighborhoods of New York than it is today’s immigration issues.
    Today, we have stagnant wages and low labor force participation, but the government makes new ways to ignore immigration law and flood the market with labor or benefit seekers. Which neighbor do we love as ourselves? The one looking for the job next door, or the one looking for a job from Mexico? Both, if they obey the law.
    As far as “refugees” go, we have no legal obligation to bring them in. Do we have a moral obligation? We do have moral obligations to treat them as the bible calls us to treat them. But we can do that BEST by working to bring the violence in their homeland to an end. OR even funding refugee camps to keep them safe in the meantime. Everyone’s forgetting that we’ve done the latter, but the refugees don’t want to stay there if there’s rumors of a better life elsewhere. Our leaders have litter interest in doing the former, which would benefit the refugees the most.

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      J.E., thanks for entering the conversation. Of course, nothing from history is ever directly equivalent, but I think there are plenty of equivalencies here and plenty of wisdom to be gained from the comparison.
      What if the “American” Iowans back then had suggested, “Why don’t the Dutch stay in their place, on their side of the river? Why are they driving up prices for farm land and driving down wages? Why don’t we build confinement camps until they can return home? Why don’t our leaders work to see that the situation improves in the Netherlands for them so they can stay there?” Perhaps some Americans did.
      I’m just trying to help us see the log in our own eyes before we try removing the splinter from eyes of the immigrants.

  • Jake Hoogeveen says:

    Very interesting! !

  • Philip L says:

    Would there be equivalences between the Spanish conquest of the 15 hundreds and our current immigration situation?
    Would this be offensive, to some people, I would think so.
    The Bible was quoted in one of the replies, but I wonder if this article was critical of their neighbor or used to win them over to the Lord?

  • dwolthuis says:

    Wonderful blog post! Maybe someone could pass this along to a man who comes from the Drumpf family from East Friesland, Germany who says he is “Presbyterian,” as a member of a Reformed Church. That is the same denomination as the New Sharon church that was burned to the ground, although those folks knew more about Friesland to the west, in the Netherlands. He might be interested in these stories from other immigrants who were contemporaries of his immigrant family, arriving from similar locations in Europe. I suspect Donald Trump would at least find your post sadly amusing. I would hope he would also find it relevant. I don’t tweet much, but maybe someone who does will tweet him the link.

  • Kathy S says:

    I believe it was the Peoria CRC that was burned to the ground. Also, when my grandma came from the Netherlands, they followed the laws to get here legally.

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

    Kathy, the New Sharon Reformed Church was burned to the ground–and, I believe, was never rebuilt. As I read the history, the Peoria Christian School was burned down and the sparks set the church afire. Both were total a loss, while the parsonage and horse stables were saved. Sully Christian School was also damaged by fire. In addition, several buildings on farms of Dutch Reformed people were also burned.

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