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• 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.
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.
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.