OVERISEL REFORMED CHURCH, 1848-1906
LIST OF PASTORS
Seine Bolks……………………….. 1848-1853
Gerrit J. Nykerk………………… .. 1858-1877
Peter Lepeltak…………………….. 1877-1891
Albert VandenBerg……………….. 1892-1906
Gerrit J. Hekhuis………………….. 1906-1917
John Sternenberg………………….. 1918-1919
Mannes A. Stegeman……………… 1919-1925
Henry William Pyle……………….. 1927-1944
Marion E. Klaaren………………… 1945-1951
August Tellinghuizen……………… 1951-1955
Clarence Greving………………….. 1956-1959
Neal J. Mol…………………………. 1961-1967
John Ver Hoog………………………1968-
FRESH START AT A NEW LIFE
The first step that had to be taken in forming a new settlement for themselves was to buy land. Rev. Bolks was commission by the congregation to buy two thousand acres of land for them with the gold which they had taken with them from the Netherlands. 16 Going to the land office in Ionia, Michigan, he bought the land at an average price of $2.06 per acre. This was then allotted to the different families, giving regard to the size of the families in determining the amount each was to have.17 It was decided that for each purchaser of forty acres of land one acre of dorpsgrond (village ground) would be given him, for there were plans to make a village. These plans failed, however, because the farmers wanted to live on their own land. Those who by lot had received sandy ground had the option to exchange it for clay. 18 In gratitude for their pastor’s efforts at securing land for them, they gave him sixty-three acres.
The land was far from being ready for widespread settlement, however. First of all, the land had to be cleared and some buildings erected. Versteeg describes the early settlers’ activities as follows:
Armed with axes and sacks of food, the men entered the surrounding forest to
cut a path to the new location and to clear a place to build their homes. The
women and children remained in Holland while the men were preparing the
new homes. As soon as the first log cabin was completed, the family of Widow
Slotman moved in. The family lived on the first floor while the workman slept
on the second floor. She prepared warm food for the men, thus making it much easier for them.19
This first house has been described as "a structure of the rudest description" and the men are said to have slept on hemlock boughs, spending as little time as possible on things which weren’t absolutely necessary.20 After this more houses were built and more families moved in. Ox teams hauled lumber used in some of the earliest buildings from Dumont’s mill in Allegan (Overisel had no saw mill) and the pioneers’ baggage from Holland. The settlement was first called Hellendorn, since this was the village from which most of the group had come. However, as more people came in, the name seemed inappropriate. Following the example of other neighboring Dutch settlements, the group decided to change the name of their settlement to Overisel (the province from which they came).21 In 1848, Cornelius J. Voorhorst, who lived in Holland, Michigan, came to Overisel and was persuaded by Rev. Bolks to open a small store with him containing a supply of groceries and other articles adapted to a country trade. 22 At this same time the new settlers started building a log church on the township line between the Overisel and Fillmore township, but couldn’t finish it because winter set in. That winter meetings were held in the homes of Gerrit J. Immink and G.J. Fynemever. The congregation finished the church the next year, but after just a couple of years it was too small and another had to be built.
INTER-CHURCH TIES DEVELOPING
Most of the churches founded in Western Michigan at this time already had close ties with each other in the Netherlands. Attempt were now made to strengthen these ties; to bring the churches into a closer unity. In April of 1848 (prior to the arrival of Rev. Bolks and his group), all pastors and consist (except Drenthe) met for consultation and organized themselves into the "Reformed Dutch Church." In July of 1849, Rev. Isaac Wyckoff (a representative of the Board of Domestic Missions of Dutch Reformed Church) inquired into the views, conditions, and needs of the pioneers and asked the new settlers to unite with them. In 1850, the Classis of the Holland churches requested the same and in 1850 united with the Dutch reformed Church. The "separatistic blood" hadn’t been completely drained out of the pioneers, however. Drenthe withdrew from the classis in 1852, Graafschap, Noordeloos, and Polkton seceded in 1857. Although Overisel wasn’t troubled by this at this time, its turn was coming up.
CHARACTER SKETCH OF REV. BOLKS
Rev. Bolks was a man of great strength and was a stronghold of the community. In the Netherlands, he led his congregation with great ability, having done lay preaching at the age of twenty already. Having read his Bible often while working as a shepherd, he was thoroughly versed according to its principles. His emotional strength and dedication to his task are evidenced in the way he handled himself when his infant fell sick and died immediately before he had a speaking engagement. Because there was no opportunity for a change in arrangements on such short notice, he fulfilled his commitment. Later, death again met him forceably when three of his six children drowned in a freak accident.23
Rev. Bolks also knew the power of sin. When he was sixteen he devoted himself to God and resolved to break with sin. Although his life was not completely freed from sin, he was a man who was truly, deeply sorrowful for his sin. Rev. John Hoffman, writing concerning him, states that:
Rev. Bolks, of imposing physique and thunderous, husky voice, laid the
foundation of this form of Christianity. His evangelical and evangelistic preaching, with all its peculiarities and eccentricities took hold of the
popular heart, mind, and conscious. 24
For the Overisel congregation to make the transaction from the old life-style to the new, and for this congregation to firmly take hold in this country and mature, only a man with Rev, Bolks’ character and personality could have filled the roles of pastor, doctor, surveyor, architect, economic, and education director, which he was called on to fill.
THE SECOND CHURCH OBTAINING A NEW MINISTER
As was stated, the first log church had become too small to accommodate those coming to church. A second church building was begun in 1851 near where the present Overisel Reformed Church stands. While the men of the congregation were building this church, Rev. Bolks left. He had trained his congregation well, and they continued on building. The old log church was then used for lodging for newly arrived immigrants while they built a place of their own. 25 Finding a replacement for Rev. Bolks wasn’t as easy as building a new church edifice, the congregation found out. After a number of unsuccessful attempts at securing a pastor, the Overisel Church presented a plan to classis whereby the church would support Elder Gerrit J. Nykerk in his study for the ministry. 26
This plan was approved by classis and for three years Nykerk attended Hope Academy and at the same time received his theological training from Rev. Van Raalte much like Rev. Bolks had done some twenty years earlier. Between the pastorate of Rev. Bolks and Rev. Nykerk, the elders (Mannes Kok, Gerrit J. Wolterink, and G.J. Nykerk) ministered to the needs of the church and filled the role of a pastor well.27
OVERISEL UNDER REV. NYKERK
For nineteen years Rev. Nykerk served the congregation alone, the longest time for any minister at Overisel. Rev. Nykerk’s accomplishments far exceed that of having the longest tenure of ministry at Overisel. Since Rev. Bolks had led the colony through the critical, early infancy years, it was now ready to experience growth, both physically and spiritually. During this time the church extended its parish to cover from eighty to ninety square miles. The number of church members also jumped extremely much during this time. By comparing the number of members when Rev. Nykerk began his pastorate with that when he ended his single pastorate, one can see that the membership practically tripled. (One hundred twenty-five in 1856 to 443 in 1877.) 28 Numerous revivals occurred in Overisel even as they were happening in other parts of the country. (Once forty and another time fifty new members were received in to the church.) 29 Increasing population helped to pour more and more people into the church and soon the church building was again too small. "Sunday after Sunday there was standing room only, and among the men it was the custom for those who had been seated for some time to stand up and give their places to others who had been standing, either in the aisles or in the rear of the church. 30
God had truly been blessing these people, so much so that now they had to once again engage in building a new church. Plans were drawn and the work was started in 1865, but was hampered by the death of Hendrick Kleinheksel, the architect. The church building (which forms the basic structure of the present building) was completed in the fall of 1866 at a total cost of $6,473. (Later a steeple and bell were added).
Numerous evangelistic programs were started during Rev. Nykerk’s pastorate. A Sunday School was started (having 320 members by 1877), work was begun at Rabbit River by Rev. Gerrit Dungeon (The name was later changed to Zahriskie Memorial Church and then to Hamilton), and a church was also organized at East Overisel (later changed to Bentheim). At East Overisel, Elder Lammert Hoffman (this writer’s great-great grandfather) had a large part in preaching and in catechizing the youth. 32 The church also became enthusiastically involved in building a ship which transport missionaries to their fields. Although the move itself failed due to financial reasons, it was well worth the effort, for it sparked a zeal for mission work which hasn’t been quenched since. The pastorate of Rev. Nykerk was marked by rapid growth and many new programs (all of which can be traced to the present day). Still further growth was to be experienced during the joint pastorate of Rev. Nykerk and Rev. Lapeltak.
REV. NYKERK AND REV. LAPELTAK
Rev. Lapeltak came to Overisel after a second call in 1877. Since the church was so large, there was easily enough work for two pastors. (Rev. Lapeltak, like Rev. Bolks and Rev Nykerk, served the congregation from which they had originally come. Like the others, he too had been urged by the congregation to prepare himself for ministry). Rev. Lapeltek life had been filled with many hardships. Much like Rev. Bolk’s life. He hardly had enough to eat while he was young and his mother died when he was seven. At his first church as a pastor, the elders didn’t support the prayer meeting. (after all, they paid the dominie to pray!), and at his second church there was no church building, no parsonage, and no Protestant church within a fifty mile radius. Also while there, his wife died. All these events helped to prepare Rev. Lapeltak for his trying ministry at Overisel.33 It was during the joint pastorate of Rev. Nykerk and Rev. Lapeltak that more intensive work in the church began. Since the ministers had to serve so many people, they took turns officiating at the church and also held services at five different places. Work in Sunday School was furthered, (it was expanded to two Sunday Schools with a total enrollment of 350), and catechetical teaching was expanded to reach the same number. Under the joint pastorate in 1880, the church reached its highest level of membership (490 members). Rev. Lapeltak sought for a deeper involvement of the young people. In catechism he and his pupils planted beans when they were ripe the students got them. 34
Later, a Christian Endeavor Society was organized. Their zeal for mission work is seen in the fact that mission boxes were introduced in the Sunday School and in 1886 the Ladies Missionary Society was organized. Overisel’s first missionary, Mrs. Albert Oltmans, was also sent out at this time. The ministry at Hamilton was also progressing nicely. In the February 14, 1887, minutes, 35 it is recorded that there was a meeting to organize the Hamilton Church. Thirty-five persons were willing to support that work, and it was then referred to classis. Later classis requested the membership papers of these people. There remains, however, one aspect of the joint pastorate to be examined. This is the disturbance which arose in the 1880’s in regards to oath-societies.
TROUBLE FOR THE CHURCH
In 1880 trouble arose over the right of a church member to belong to a secret society (such as Freemason). General Synod had stated that it was up to each congregation to decide its stance on the issue. A number of people in the Overisel congregation decided that General Synod should take a definite stand against it. This caused bitter disputes in the church and sides were taken against each other. In numerous consistory, under the direction of Rev. Lapeltak, formulated the stand the church was taking on a number of different topics. They felt that to belong to an oath-bound society was a sin, (breaking the third commandment). Yet, they felt that through brotherly love one must seek to get them back. However, if they continue in this sin, they must be put out of the church. 36 They also sent a resolution to classis to be sent to General Synod which can be summarized as follows:
1. We will not allow members of oath-bound societies to be church members.
2. They will ask General Synod to take their point of view and work to
Eliminate this sin. Amendment: General Synod will not go along with this,
then we’ll ask them to instigate a committee to check into the nature of these
Societies and the things which go on in them.
3. If General Synod can’t decide in this issue, then we as a classis tell General
Synod that by so doing they bring us into great difficulty and we ask if it is not better for us as a church to be separate, until they are of the same feeling as we are.37
The antagonistic spirit which prevailed became so acute that in 1882 a number of families left the church and formed the Christian Reformed Church in the village. General Synod statistics on the Overisel Reformed Church also reveal an unusually large number of dismissals at this time (1881-20, 1882-10, 1883-17). 38 This split was the single most harmful thing which the community had to face. This created much disunity where before there had been a relatively strong sense of unity. Neighbors turned from neighbors, Independence Day Celebration (once a time for great get-togethers) became a one-sided affair, and parents forbade their children to date young people from the "other side". 39
Even after thirty years separation from the Netherlands, the "separatist spirit" had not fully left the settlers. This was, however, the first and last major disturbance which the colony experienced. After this (according to the Consistory Minutes) life in the church progressed smoothly and quietly.
The village of Overisel experienced rapid growth and expansion, just as the church had. In 1880 there were two stores keeping a general stock, one hardware store, two shoe-shops, one blacksmith shop, (this was later called the K-W Garage, and is still used today, having changed in appearance hardly at all), and a paint shop. In Section 11 of the township there also was a general store. The first physician who practiced in Overisel and in the township was Dr. Boerth. He lived in Zeeland and made occasional trips to Overisel when needed. Dr. R. B. Best became a resident practitioner in 1874.40 Educational interests of the township were first directed by Rev. Bolks in a log schoolhouse. This was soon expanded to several substantial frame structures. By 1880 the area was divided into six school districts with five male and four female teachers. 41
Rev. Lapeltak announced at the August 11, 1890, consistory meeting that the doctors had told him to go to a different climate (for health reasons). It was decided to pay him his salary and let him go. In May, 1891, Rev Lapeltak announced he was leaving. In the same year Rev. Nykerk asked Classis to grant him his emeritus. Again the church was without a pastor and experienced difficulty securing one. During this vacancy a second missionary, Mrs. Albertus Pieters, went to the foreign mission field. In May, 1892, Rev. Van den Berg accepted the call extended to him to become pastor at Overisel. In the early years of his ministry, large groups of young people came to make confession of faith. Rev. Van den Berg emphasized missions in his work and it was during his pastorate that the third missionary from the congregation, 42 Mrs. Harry P. Book, went to a foreign mission field. It was at this time that the church started supporting Rev. James Cantine.
Americanization was having its effects on the congregation, too, for in June, 1901, it was decided to have one English service per month. This came as a request from the young people.43 Also, a large pipe organ, costing $1800 was installed at this time. (Prior to this the song leader used a tuning fork to start the singing.)Rev. Van den Berg left for Grand Rapids in 1906 but his influence continued. His leadership, especially in missions, was an important part in the development of the church into the mission-oriented church which it is today. XII THE PASTORATE OF REV. G.J. HEKHUIS Under Rev. Hekhuis the mission movement was carried forth and two more missionaries (Rev. and Mrs. Lambertus Hekhuis) went to the foreign field. (The Sunday School had pledged support for Mrs. Hekhuis.) Mrs. G.J. Hekhuis organized a second
Missionary group composed of younger women at this time. Also, in catechism an offering was taken for missions. The mission spirit of the church truly was growing.
According to one who was a member of Rev. Hekhuis’ congregation another topic which Rev. Hekhuis made frequent reference to was smoking. 44 His preaching against it seems to have been effective, at least if the statement supposedly spoken by Harry Lampen (a storeowner) to cigar salesmen that "Overisel is the poorest place to sell stuff" (meaning cigars) is accurate. In those days the janitor rang the church bell three times a day to give people the time. Another duty of the janitor was to warm up the church on cold winter days in preparation for Sunday worship. He came early Sunday morning, or probably Saturday night on especially cold days, and started the stove. Although this would warm up the sanctuary somewhat, many women took foot warmers to church.
STEUNENBERG - STEGEMAN - PYLE
During the pastorate of these men one can see the deterioration of the strong Dutch customs and a more thorough Americanization of the congregation. During Rev. Steunenberg’s ministry at Overisel having an English service in the afternoon was introduced. Then it wasn’t until 1942 (during Rev. Pyle’s ministry) that the English preaching service and the Sunday School were changed to the morning. Not until 1945 was preaching in Dutch fully discontinued. The progressiveness of the congregation is also seen in that in 1920 they began using individual communion cups instead of the common cup, after previous attempts to change had failed.
Mission zeal was also maintained during this period. Mrs. Clarence Holleman and Dr. Harold Storm were supported by the Sunday School; and church respectively. 45 In 1928 Mrs. Pyle organized a third missionary group called the "Girls’ League for Service." 46 Rev. Pyle was a strong supporter of Hope College, and while at Overisel he was given permission to work for the college for a year.
Transcriber: Barb Jones
Created: 25 December 2009