A Brief History of the First Protestant Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan*
First Church of Grand Rapids is the oldest church in our denomination. Its organization, according to the "Yearbook Chart" in our denominational yearbook, is 1879. That's the date of the founding of Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church.
In the early 1920s, the CRC was embroiled in controversy over the so-called Janssen case. Janssen was a seminary professor who engaged in higher-criticism of Scripture. Rev. Hoeksema, as a member of the seminary board, took the lead in the investigation which led eventually to Janssen's deposition. Many professors supported Hoeksema's efforts to get rid of Janssen but turned against him in 1924.
The vast majority of Hoeksema's congregation agreed with him and his preaching. But there were some dissidents. They hated Hoeksema. They supported the modernistic tendencies of the CRC and resented Hoeksema's hard line. In 1924, during the common grace controversy, 92 individuals held out against the consistory, who supported Hoeksema and his views. Thus the little poem, "The 92, they were a mighty few." We lost the building, but not the battle. We came through the controversy much stronger spiritually.
We met first at the Franklin Park auditorium and then later at the St. Cecilia auditorium until our new church was ready on the corner of Fuller and Franklin. The total cost for the building of the original First Church was $250,000. This included the cost of the land and the parsonage. This was a huge sum in 1925. The general contractor was Mr. Sam Bylsma from our church. To save money, the volunteers of the congregation decided to lift the church bell into the belfry. But they dropped it. It is cracked.
In the 1940s Rev. Hoeksema produced two celebrated series of sermons. The one was on the book of Romans and the other on Revelation. Not only were all 1,400 seats occupied, but 200-300 folding chairs were set up in the aisles. It was truly a thrilling time.
Rev. Richard Veldman accepted the call to our church to become associate pastor at First in 1939. He was Rev. Hoeksema's nephew. He was well received and was an outstanding preacher. Rev. Veldman left First church to become pastor of Fourth (SE) PRC in 1944. Rev. Hubert DeWolf accepted our call and became our "second" pastor soon thereafter. Rev. C. Hanko joined First's ministry in 1948.
During World War II we all suffered some privations. Gasoline, sugar, and many other items were rationed. Few new autos and few new houses were being built. As many as 80 young men from First were in military service. Two of them did not come back. The names of all our service men were on a huge plaque in the narthex. Each name was in bronze.
In the early 1950s Rev. DeWolf began to preach sermons which promoted conditional theology. He and many of our ministers saw the Liberated immigrants and their theology as providing the PRC an opportunity to become a much bigger church. The elders who were serving in First Church in 1942 were about evenly divided between the PR view and the Liberated view of the covenant and conditional theology. The "split" occurred in June and we were locked out of First Church. DeWolf made it clear that he would be preaching there. Rather than force a confrontation, Rev. Hoeksema and Rev. Hanko let the congregation know that we would meet at the Grand Rapids Christian High auditorium. Eventually in 1956 we won back the building on Fuller and Franklin. We again filled the main floor and even some of the balcony. But from that time on, many families began to move to the western suburbs, and today the congregation numbers only 73 families.
Rev. Gise VanBaren became our pastor in 1965 and remained with us for over 11 years. Rev. Joostens came to us from Faith Church in 1978 and served us for another 17 years. It was during those years that the church on Fuller and Franklin was sold, and First Church built a new sanctuary on Michigan Street, on the northeast side of Grand Rapids. Rev. Slopsema answered our call in 1995 and is still our pastor today. We are growing under his leadership.
*Excerpts taken from Our Godly Heritage Preserved, published by The Protestant Reformed Churches in America in 2000. Some items updated to the present year.