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[Note: longish post. The story takes a while to tell…]
Last week I was leafing through some back pages in the history of my own congregation, Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
This being the centennial year of women in Michigan getting the right to vote, I wanted to revisit the controversy that the church’s pastor at the time, Johannes Groen, triggered in publicly supporting the measure. Groen was one of the few Christian Reformed Church ministers to do so, making his a progressive moment in CRC history that warrants celebration.
But the episode also reveals how much labels and associations can change over the years. To justify women’s suffrage, Groen appealed to some notions that can seem quite “conservative” today, just as the opposition back then sounded themes that “progressives” might claim today. These ironies should make us reflect about the connections we draw between religion and politics.
Groen spoke up in the context of a special referendum that advocates of women’s suffrage put before Michigan voters in April 1913. This was their third try. The first, in 1874, had been overwhelmingly defeated. The second, in the great Progressive political year of 1912, looked at first to be successful, only to have the outcome reversed by just 800 votes after a likely corrupt recount. The 1913 referendum hoped to reverse that reversal while enthusiasm for the cause was still high. Dutch-American voters in West Michigan generally opposed the measure, and it was that attitude that Groen hoped to sway when he addressed a full house at his church the week before the vote.
Subordination and Democracy
Groen’s argument had several layers. First and foremost, he offered words that would be heard in these same pews sixty years later when Eastern Avenue helped lead the charge for opening church offices in the CRC to women: “The present subordinate position of woman is not due to any inferiority inherent from creation but is one of the results of the curse pronounced upon mankind as a result of sin.”
Far from being an “ideal” or a fixed point of social principle, women’s subordination was a malady that Christians should work to correct, just like slavery. The latter had been vanquished in America; now it was time to undo the former.
Groen next sidled from the Bible toward American political principles. Granted that women were under male authority in the home and church, everywhere else they were free and equal individuals deserving of full rights. Does anybody in the audience disapprove of democracy, he asked? Yet democracy gives the governed “the right to a voice in the government,” and women were most clearly among the governed. As for Abraham Kuyper’s principle of a “household franchise,” typically exercised by its male head, plenty of women had households of their own, Groen observed. In any case they were not civilly subordinate to any man. Best to grant the vote to every capable adult.
Finally, Groen invoked matters of personal and social well-being. Especially in the American context, the right to vote was a necessary token of women’s full humanity: “Woman must either have the suffrage or she will become a doll, a plaything.” Likewise, political concerns lay well within their special competence: “Schools, child labor, playgrounds, amusements, manufacture of clothing, preparation of food, the saloon, morals, wages, all belong to woman’s sphere and she has a right to assist in regulating them.”
Pushback and Gun Play
The response to Groen was immediate and fierce. Twelve Christian Reformed ministers signed an open letter in a local newspaper formally dissociating themselves from his remarks. A neighboring pastor called a special meeting of his own at which he waxed “very bitter in his opposition.” Another colleague told a local Calvinistic political club that Groen’s ideas amounted to “a subversion of the Creation ordinances of God.” Louis Berkhof, the CRC’s foremost theologian, held an hour-long lecture at Calvin Seminary that condemned Groen’s position as “unbiblical” and “fraught with dire consequences for the future.”
All told, his opponents took women’s subordination in Scripture to be normative, not descriptive of humanity’s fallen state; likewise, social order by nature was hierarchical, not egalitarian. Berkhof added some familiar condescension by claiming that women, who already ruled the world as mothers, could not seriously wish to sacrifice real power for the merely political sort, tainting their purity in the bargain. The more Calvinistically inclined made direct appeal to the social and political theory of Abraham Kuyper, whose influence was rising in CRC circles at the time. Kuyper indeed made much of “creation ordinances,” the first of which postulated the home as the bedrock of society and state. Thus, the “household” franchise.
The suffragist cause fell again in the referendum of 1913, yet it would steadily gained favor thereafter. In 1916 the CRC Synod rejected overtures to condemn it as unbiblical, declaring it a purely civil matter; in 1918 Michigan voters finally approved the measure, by a 55-45 margin.
The years were less kind to Groen, however. On May 15, 1916, the husband and father of two Eastern Avenue members, Willem Hoekstra, confronted him on the street and shot at him twice with a pistol. Hoekstra was angry that his application for church membership had been rejected because of his “religious fanaticism,” but also for Groen’s “interference” in his domestic circle. Two years before Groen had chided him for refusing to go to work, leaving the entire household burden to his wife and daughter. Hoekstra had thrown him out of the house.
Fortunately Hoekstra missed with both his shots, but he arguably came out better in the long run. He was remanded to a state psychiatric hospital, eventually released, and died at home of old age, in 1963. Groen was so shocked by the event that he took his first vacation ever. Upon his return he became increasingly caught up in the pressures of World War I, which swept more than 100 of Eastern Avenue’s young men into the armed forces and put intense pressure on the church to “Americanize”—that is, to use English. Patriotic and American-born as he was, Groen was comfortable preaching only in Dutch. Somewhere in this process he also developed heart disease. He had to give up his post in 1919 and died just five years later, at age 59.
Ironies and Reversals
And now to the ironies. The attentive reader will have noticed that Groen mentioned “woman’s sphere” in warranting her right to vote. Whether cunning or craven, this appeal to what we would today label complementarian gender ideology was par for the course in large sectors of suffragist—and some feminist—advocacy at the time. Likewise, the same 1916 CRC Synod that refused to condemn women’s suffrage did give its moral support to another favorite Progressive cause, Prohibition. Perhaps that helped Michigan vote “dry” that year; in any case, support for Prohibition tended to lie just below the surface of mainstream suffragist appeal. Immigrant masses in the cities were a target of both; rank and file Dutch were not the only ethnics to push back.
Things get really interesting on the matter of “individualism.” Prohibition spelled a denial of individual rights that progressives today would decry, but Groen warranted women’s suffrage with an appeal to individualism that conservatives today welcome in their political theory and economic program, while progressives demur at both. Moreover, Groen gave the concept a religious gloss and in the process landed in some of the dearest territory of today’s Christian Right: “The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States are Christian documents which support a form of government that is not inconsistent with Christianity, and these documents are strongly individualistic.”
Groen, an avowed Kuyperian himself, was here breaking with dominant Kuyperian opinion—and sacrificing some of the master’s best insights. With many other critics, Kuyper was worried about classic liberalism’s atomizing consequences in politics, social order, and (capitalist) economics. Tocqueville prescribed voluntary association as a cure; Marx, class solidarity; Kuyper would build up from the family unit. Yet Groen saluted communal values on the next issue that got him in trouble, namely, espousing the cause of labor unions, and not just the Christian sort. He did so expressly in the name of “organic” social solidarity.
Having warranted the Christian character of the founding documents of the United States, it was probably no surprise that Groen came out in support of American participation in World War I. Among other things, he gave a Fourth of July oration in 1918 on behalf of the Committee on Public Information, the federal government’s official propaganda arm, to build support for the war among the lukewarm Dutch-Americans. His was not the full-fledged sanctification of the nation that the Christian Right proclaims today, but his sentiments were clear. “The United States has been to us an overflowing fountain of rich blessings,” he reminded his community. The blessings he enumerated were mostly social and civil, not religious. Near the top of the list was his old favorite of women’s rights: “More than any other country has the USA brought womanhood near to the sublime ideal held before us by the Creator.” God’s new Eden, if not God’s new Israel.
Not coincidentally, Michigan adopted women’s suffrage in 1918 under wartime exuberance and pressures for national unity. Yet that war fatally shattered the Progressive coalition. Some—Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, John Dewey—thought the conflict would inaugurate a progressive democratic order for the whole world. Others—Jane Addams, Walter Rauschenbusch—heard the death knell of all the movement’s hopes and ideals. Groen himself would be replaced at Eastern Avenue Church by the champion of reaction, Herman Hoeksema.
The moral of the story? We can and should celebrate bold witnesses for justice. We should also need to pay attention to their premises and paradoxes, and to our own.