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If my sense of the past is anywhere close to accurate, I’d guess John A. Vogel was a silent type who, on the rare occasion he held forth on faith-related issues, did so with the saintly rhetoric practiced and expected in his world. Don’t misunderstand. Elder Vogel was not cagey or political. He probably had a limited sense of irony and was known not to smile too much, especially when it came to matters of faith. He was a good man, I’m sure, no skeletons, no weeds in his beans. He meant what he said and how he said what he did.
It was a terrible job, but someone had to tell the story. Elder John Vogel was chosen. My guess is he balked for a Moses-like reason: he didn’t consider himself up to the task.
The committee told him, not so. They knew his uprightness. Where two or three were gathered, someone always asked John Vogel to pray because his memorable phrasing fused scripture and petition as if each thought were pre-ordained, like eavesdropping on angels. “You’re the man to do it,” someone must have insisted, using God-language. If they called the job a “calling,” John A. would not refuse. He could not.
This description is all made up because I never knew the real John A. Vogel, who died before I was born. The handwritten congregational history he wrote identifies him as an elder in the fall of 1940, when the delicate work of drafting and telling the story fell to him. In 1940, the CRC in Sioux Center had been a part of community life for 50 years; it was time to remember, even if the most important task of remembering may have been forgetting.
The congregation’s first preacher–after fourteen calls!–was Rev. Henry Beets, Vogel says. One Sunday, their very first church burned down, but that tragedy was nothing compared to the raw spiritual warfare that split the righteous in two. For an entire decade, bloody war went forward and backward. A ripped package of enmity, stubbornness, and impatience was sent along to the classis a dizzying number of times, then bullied on to three or four denominational Synods before ending up in the courts–that’s right, the brethren attacking each other in a court of law, in what some called “The Sioux Center Affair.”
How could that have happened? A century later, the causes seem slight.
First, language. In the congregation’s short history, no change was more significant than the cleavage opened by World War I in all ethnic churches: when the war ended, some members believed themselves to be Americans; others refused, fearing “worldliness,” but meaning pretty much the same thing. Holding fast, to some, required vigilance and fortification. But no matter the blood, Elder Vogel’s congregation was here in Sioux County, Iowa, and had been since 1890. The birthday deserved a celebration. A good man was chosen to speak–Vogel, who hadn’t been there for the fighting; he’d moved his family from Dakota to Sioux Center just five or six years earlier. Perhaps people looked to him because he didn’t know.
Sunday School was a second cause for the firestorm of the Twenties. Difficult to imagine, but Sunday School was a uniquely American innovation. Those two torches lit the fires: 1) the use of the English language and 2) the place of the Sunday School in the life of the church. That’s much we know.
I can’t help thinking that John A. Vogel, chosen to be chronicler of what had become two congregations, figured out early on that his story would avoid mentioning those issues; instead, he’d generalize and spiritualize, begging forgiveness for the fighting that had gone on only a couple of decades before. “Something terrible happened,” he told the people, who already knew (two town histories quote only that line). Then he shifted to metaphor to avoid particulars.
Our beautiful tree was struck by discord and misunderstanding till, alas, the crown and topmost branches were pulled apart and rent in twain, even so far down it seemed doomed to die. . . .And then, there was a shout of joy and Triumph, by the Evil One and by the Enemies of God’s Kingdom.
A decade of brutal hostility was thus noted.
Still, I can’t help but feel sorry for Elder Vogel. His was a terrible Job. It was incumbent upon him to touch the scar but not draw blood from people who couldn’t forget. Tough job for a man who, mid-Depression, had squeaked out a living selling fire extinguishers.
The anger and stubbornness ended finally when half the church walked away from those who didn’t. Today, only one document tells the church’s embattled saga.
In 1992, seventy years after the battles, a friend of mine, Dr. Lou Van Dyke, professor of history at Dordt, researched and wrote that story from what sources he could locate. He told me, back then, that he was amazed at all the stubborn silence. Lips had been sealed.
A couple weeks ago, I remembered that line and decided to look for the history he wrote, then got a copy from the church both Elder Vogel and Elder Van Dyke served, a half century apart. Seems that Elder Van Dyke must have felt the same protective impulses Elder Vogel did, writing purposely, as Vogel had, for the congregation. All the Acts of Synod are there in Lou’s story; every classis meetings’ directives explained. But there are no personalities, just facts–no characters and therefore little color, only “this happened then that happened.”
Both Vogel and Van Dyke faced a formidable challenge. I enjoyed reading it too. I’m old enough to recognize the music of the pieties Elder Vogel drew on when he ended his story, imparting comfort to a crowd he knew well in a flourish of language and rhetoric that has now mostly departed, unflinchingly devout piety, the kind of baroque Calvinism I heard as a child from both grandpas.
As he finishes, he runs through the congregation’s attributes: catechism instruction, healthy societies functioning (“two young men and two young ladies”), a succession of fine undershepherds fulfilling “the welfare of God’s kingdom. . . labors blessed in many ways.”
Then right there at the end, he reaches for the rapturous tones people knew he would supply when he offers, as well he should, the comfort of our chosen-ness.
Bless thou Jehovah for the Mercies he has shown. We are Happy. We would like to remain here. But the battle is not yet won. We hear the command of our great captain, Jesus to us, “Onward Christian Soldiers.” You must go into Battle against the forces of Darkness, sin, and unbelief. But we fear and cannot go alone. We hear the thunder of Battle in the distance. The future before us looks dark as a stormed-tossed night.
It’s 1940, and Vogel has a prescient sense of another war not far off. But there’s more to fight than guns.
While in this darkness Satan goes about as a roaring Lion, made to devour. May our prayer be as that of Moses, “Lord, let thy lovely countenance go before us and shine upon us,” and fill our hearts with that faith of our fathers, that we may go forward, courageously, taking hold all God’s promises. . .: “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”
Grand stuff from Elder Vogel, in a language largely gone.
For the record, no animosity exists between the two healthy churches today, two congregations who, a century ago, parted in flames. Not a dime’s worth of enmity. There’s comfort in that assessment.
No one I know–only Lou–tells the story. He’s been gone now for four years, but I’ll give him the last word, his first in the piece he wrote. You can find this couple of sentences in his short preface:
The role of history, then, is not to dredge up old quarrels or to gossip about people who are long gone, but to learn from the past in order not to repeat its errors. The question for us is not whether certain things had to happen, but whether they have to happen again.
Can’t help but think that’s reason enough to bring it up again, the whole sad story.