How Dutch Americans Stayed Dutch by Michael J. Douma

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How I came to own and read this book is an interesting story–at least to me.  Just a few years back, I read the book The Presbyterian Philosopher: The Authorized Biography of Gordon Clark by Douglas J. Douma (pronounced ‘dow-ma’).  Soon after that, Doug and I became friends on Facebook, and soon after that I discovered that his twin brother Michael had published the book How Dutch Americans Stayed Dutch: An Historical Perspective on Ethnic Identities.

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The book on the Dutch Americans was published by Amsterdam University Press in 2014.  On a whim, I went to the web-site and requested a review copy.  A few minutes later, in an irretrivable eternity in cyber space, I had second thoughts.  The book was a pricey and scholarly publication.  It was on a highly specialized subject with only minimal connections to my needs.  But what difference would it make?  University presses are not quick to send out 3 or 4 year old pricey books to bloggers.  So, I forgot all about it.

At a later point, I became friends with Michael, again on Facebook.  I enjoyed the wit and occasional glimspes of wisdom in knowing these two scholar/mountainmen–the Douma twins.  Then a package arrived in the mail.  “A book!” I thought, and I wondered what it was.  Forgotten by me and with no input from Michael, the Chicago Distributing Center sent me the book.

I scanned bits and pieces of it several times, but it continued to get lost on the stacks of “must reads” and “need to reads” and “just want to reads.”

I did, however, have a reason for wanting at least to scan the book.  About ten years ago, I began a project called “Calvinist Worldview Thinkers in the Wilderness Age.”  What had aroused my curiousity was the roles played by a number of Calvinist intellectuals from about the 1930s to the 1970s or 80s.  These men had written widely on a number of theological, historical, philosophical, and social themes to what must have been a small audience.  For the sake of brevity, just note that before Francis Schaeffer, there was little in the way of popular, widely-read Christian worldview thinking.

The project resulted in several articles being published in Faith for All of Life magazine and in my speaking at a few conferences in places such as eastern Virginia and Alaska.  As with most studies, what started small kept on leading to more and more sources, books, people, and ideas.  A common denominator in much of the study was the impact of Dutch Calvinists in both the Netherlands and in North America.

The big name in terms of impact is Abraham Kuyper.  But he was preceded by Groen van Prinsterer, was a peer with Herman Bavinck, and was an influence on Herman Dooyeweerd.  From those four names, the blossoming of thought, ideas, conflicts, and books is a tidal wave (using a mixed metaphor).

The enclaves of Dutch Calvinism in American history loomed larger and larger.  As Dr. Douma notes,

“Dutch American identities were and are primarily a Protestant phenomena.  A core group of Dutch Americans formed a unique, conservative and Calvinistic subculture that existed across communities located principally in the American Midwest. These were non-radical immigrants who almost invariably joined churches instead of trade unions….They believed strongly in God’s providence and in a religious calling by which God uses His people in the world.”  (page 10)

For my studies (which never have ended although the talks and articles are in the past), this was grist for my mill.

Sure enough, this book has provided me confirmation, challenge, and more in-depth understanding of what we might call the Kuyperian elements of Dutch Calvinism.  The first chapter of the book begins with this:

“In 1849 Gerrit Baay wrote that his Dutch colony of Alto, Wisconsin, required only three things: More Bibles, more song books for the church, and more Dutch women.”

Beyond the delightful humor of that statement, it reveals quite a bit about the Dutch experience in America.  Religion was a long-term, although not total, binding experience for Dutch Americans.  So were marriage and family.

Growing up in east Texas, I never knew anyone who claimed Dutch heritage in my youth.  (I do recall a person or two with the last name Vandenberg.)  We did not think of ourselves as English, Scots, Scots-Irish, German, or anything else, as far as I knew.  Everyone spoke English (except for a few Hispanic families), and people were usually divided into two broad categories–white and black.  In my youth, I only knew of one or two people who were Catholic.  Dutch Reformed folk did not exist in my mind.

Over the years–okay, decades–I have become acquainted with a small number of Dutch Americans or Dutch Canadians.  I have found their ethnic worlds full of fascination, but extremely foreign to my experiences.  Studying history and theology has awakened me to much broader worlds than rural north-east Texas.

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In terms of history, however, ethnic studies have not been on my radar.  One cannot avoid the topic in the broader sense, but my history thinking has been a recipe cooked in the “American Melting Pot” way of thinking.  I am increasingly convinced that history as a subject is as hard or harder than calculus or physics.  Most of what we teach in our high school history classes and much of what we learn at the college level is still pretty basic. Hence, I knew little or nothing about Dutch Americans.

Michael Douma’s book deals with a number of topics regarding Dutch American folks.  One of the ever confusing aspects of the story relates to the theological conflicts among the Dutch Calvinist people.  I still cannot sort out all of the differences between various Presbyterian groups.  Baptist divisions are a fog.  I don’t even try to figure out the theological fissures that set Dutchman against Dutchman both in the Old and New Worlds.  As usual, there were a few glimpses of brotherhood with differences relegated to the side, but other cases where the lines were drawn in the sand.

An ongoing concern was the maintenance of the Dutch language.  Quite obviously, it is hard to hold on to a culture if the language is lost or neglected.  Churches battled or struggled with this.  The inclusion of English language services was an issue to be talked and thought out–or rejected.  Then since Dutch Americans are by the very name, Americans, the assimilation into the broader American culture was a concern.  The first generations usually do quite well in holding on to the old ways, but add a generation or two, and the community looks different.  Also, add a World War or two and military experience, plus the ever-present American tendency to move away weakened the Dutchness of Dutch American culture.

In an effort to preserve their heritage, some communities, such as Holland, Michigan, began frequent celebrations and festivities recalling, exaggerating, and even creating a sense of Dutchness among the people in the area.  In more recent times, much work has gone on in the field of geneaology to connect Dutch folk on both sides of the Atlantic with kin and ancestors.

My two favorite chapters in this book are chapters 3 and 6.  Chapter 3 is titled “A Black Dutchman and the Racial Discourse of Dutch America, 1865-1920” and chapter 6 is “Arnold Mulder’s Alienated Second Generation.”  Chapter 3 concerns an African-American named Ray Nies who was taken from his slave background and who became a part of the Dutch community.  This minority within a minority is an interesting glimpse into how the Dutch Americans viewed race issues.  Few Dutch migrated to the south, although a fair number did serve in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Arnold Mulder was a novelist and historian who wrote about Dutch communities.  Some readers and reviewers of Dutch descent were insulted by his portrayals, but overall, he gets high marks for his writings.  I was told that Mulder was theology and apologetics professor Cornelius Van Til’s favorite novelist.  I am certainly interested in getting copies of his books, particulary The Dominie of Harlem and Bram of Five Corners.

I suspect the intent of this book, which grew out of Dr. Douma’s dissertation work, is to find lodging in university libraries and be reviewed in scholarly journals.  My hope would be for Michael (note the more personal naming in this sentence) to incorporate the two chapters I loved most along with some other parts of this book with other writings he has done.  The end result would be to see a less academic, but more popular-aimed book about this fascinating group of people.

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By the way, I recently read and reviewed Adriaen van der Donck:  A Dutch Rebel in Seventeenth-Century America by J. Van Den Hout.  The Dutch colonizers of the New York/New Netherlands portion of the east coast is an earlier and much different study than that of Michael Douma’s book.  But both are focused on Dutch folk who came to America.  I think I can rest now from my Dutch American historical studies for this summer.

Michael Douma most recently contributed to and helped edit the book What Is Classical Liberal History?  Very soon his book Creative Historical Thinking will be out.

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How Dutch Americans Stayed Dutch by Michael Douma

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Here is how the book begins: “In 1849 Gerrit Baay wrote that his Dutch colony of Alto, Wisconsin, required only three things: more Bibles, more song books for the church, and more Dutch women.” It is hard to resist such a delightful introduction like that to a book.
I am slowly getting into this book as a total outsider. I am not Dutch and have only had a few connections with Dutch folk in the Americas. The part of the south (northeast Texas and southwest Arkansas) where I live doesn’t have connections with the Dutch-immigrant communities of the midwest. My initial interest in “all things Dutch” came from Reformed theology. Alongside the Scots Presbyterians and the New England Puritans, the strongest impetus for Calvinism in America came from the Dutch. There were some leading Dutch Calvinists who bridged the gap–in terms of language, community, and particular ecclesiastical matters–between the British Calvinists and the Continental Calvinists.
Geerhardus Vos, Louis Berkof, and Cornelius Van Til were three key Dutchmen whose influence reached way beyond their native communities. Perhaps the biggest influence in spreading Dutch Calvinist thought was from the old Presbyterian theologian Benjamin B. Warfield. It was his influence that not only kept Princeton Theological Seminary firmly Reformed but that also worked to bring Abraham Kuyper to the United States to speak. (Look up the book Lectures on Calvinism for more on Kuyper.)
Back to this book: The Dutch settled in communities and sought to maintain their Dutchness. Church was central to much of this, but language and tradition played its part as well. As the Dutch Consul in Milwakee, named G. van Steenwijk, said in 1854, “Every now and then one meets a countryman who does not belong to a Dutch settlement….”
Ethnic studies has not usually been my forte or interest, but this case study is fascinating. It is easy and unavoidable to get lost in the WASP culture of America or to note more influential groups like Irish Catholics, African-Americans, or Hispanics. As well as being a melting pot, in the traditional explanation of American ethnicity, we as a people have maintained lots of cultural and ethnic identities.
I hope to write more as I continue on in the book.
Two additional notes:
First, I received my copy of this book as a review copy from the publisher and am not required to write gushy, glowing things about it.
Second, Dr. Michael Douma, the author, and I have become friends through Facebook and other digital exchanges over the past year. As his friend, I am required to write gushy, glowing things about this book. Michael is a serious, somber, searching academic historian confined to libraries, research centers and classrooms. As such, he might appear to be a bit stuffy, but he is also a real frontiersman and outsdoorsman who lives in the mountains, herds cats, listens to bluegrass music, and keeps his wit sharpened to a fine edge.