Celebrate and Imagine #3: Thought Leadership in the Boom Years, 1950 to 1990

Dan BeerensCelebrate and Imagine, The CACE RoundtableLeave a Comment

The introductory post to this series on the history of the Calvinist Christian day school movement in North America focused on its growth through the lens of the geographical and historical elements. In this post we will delve into the philosophical and curricular aspects of the movement, highlighting key individuals, particularly from the years leading up to the early 1990s. One could make an argument that these years were a key time in the Calvinist Christian day school movement in terms of articulating belief, uniting around a philosophical direction and identity, and at the same time assessing the effectiveness of the movement as leaders looked to the future.

One of my favorite signs in the area where I live (Holland, Michigan) is the one by the channel connecting Lake Macatawa and Lake Michigan. The sign explains how the channel first came to be, documenting the  spirit and grit of my Dutch ancestors in the late 19th century. 

Desiring to be able to bring ships from “the big lake” closer to town, the settlers appealed to the government for help digging the connecting channel. After getting turned down, the settlers went home, grabbed their shovels, and returned to dig the first channel by themselves. 

Words like determined, pragmatic, impatient, stubborn, and independent come to mind. These qualities helped the early settlers to surmount illness and lack of resources to build not only this channel but also the first churches and Christian schools in western Michigan. They were “all in” with setting up churches and schools.

In a discussion of Christian day school education at a Dutch Reformed Church (now Reformed Church in America) Classis Holland meeting of September 27, 1848, the minutes record this note: “The judgment is: the schools must be promoted and cared for by the churches, as being an important part of the Christian calling of God’s church on earth. All lukewarm and coldness toward the cause must be condemned and rebuked” (Classis Holland Minutes 1848-1858, published by Eerdmans, 1943).

The immigrant group of Dutch settlers in Western Michigan who started the Calvinist Christian day school movement were Seceders: they had left home and country to seek a place where they could practice their faith with freedom, integrity, and intensity. They left behind what they viewed as an increasingly watered-down theology taught in Dutch churches and Christian schools. 

This zeal led to further church splits once in America; among other things, the desire for Christian day school education was one of the reasons the Christian Reformed Church was formed in Holland and Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1857. Consequently, Calvin College was established by the Christian Reformed Church in 1876 to educate preachers and teachers for churches and Christian day schools. 

Although the “colony” was settled by those more pietistic in nature and concerned about doctrinal purity, newer immigrants impacted by the thinking of Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper in the late 1800s and early 1900s brought that emphasis to America and the new denomination. Kuyper’s desire for Christians to engage with and impact culture (“every square inch”!) was manifested not only in his writing but in his life’s work as theologian and statesman, including roles as the prime minister of the Netherlands and founder of the Free University. For more on his life, please see this book.

Impacted by Kuyperianism, educators at Calvin College took leading roles in forming the Calvinist Christian day school education movement in the 1900s. Peter DeBoer chronicles the educational philosophy and practice of this era in this book chapter: North American Calvinist Day Schools

To give you a sense of the historical development of the articulation of Calvinist Christian day school education, I have pulled quotations from selected works by these leading thinkers from a wonderful compilation, Voices from the Past: Reformed Educators (University Press of America, 1987), edited by Donald Oppewal. I hope that these excerpts will prompt you to investigate these philosophers more fully and thereby appreciate their foresight and vision—their gift to Christian education.

Cornelius Jaarsma

1953: “In selecting and organizing curriculum materials, therefore, for any level of Christian education, we asked three important questions. First, what is needed on this level to have the learner face God and God’s claim upon his life? Second, what is needed to have to learn to discern the cultural product and cultural activity of man with reference to his heavenly citizenship? Third, what is needed to have the learner face the call of service as a worker?” (p.195)

William H. Jellema 

1953: [The point of Christian education] “lies particularly in the Calvinist characteristic (though not novel) insistence that God is not only the object in the narrower sense of religious faith and devotion but is also the ground and end of all existence and truth and value . . . that religious faith is confirmed by and itself furnishes the ultimate explanation of and motivation for all human experience and activity; in short that religion and reason and morality are inextricably interwoven.” (p.57)

Henry Zylstra 

1951: “No man is religiously neutral in his knowledge of and his appropriation of reality.” (p.78)

1953: “Action must spring from thought, from thought that is seated in worship, and worship that is worship of God. The knowledge of God is proper to us as creatures, and it satisfies. That is the finest fruit of the contemplative life: to know and enjoy God. . . . Our life is not a treadmill, but a journey, and we should be sometimes arriving. Essence of contemplative life is delight in the knowledge of God.” (pp.88-89)

Nicholas Wolterstorff 

1966: “A curriculum for Christian education will aim at equipping the student for living the life of faith.” (p.103)

“In so far, then, as Christian education fails to educate for comprehensive faith, in so far as it fails to educate for life discipleship, it fails to be fully Christian education. In so far, for example, as it educates for the passive contemplation of God rather than the active service of God, it fails of its true end. In so far as it confines its Christian content to separate courses in the curriculum rather than putting everything in Christian perspective, it fails of its true end. It is not faith added understanding that we are after. It is not faith seeking understanding that we are after. Rather it is faith realized in life.” (p.105)

“The redemption of man in Christ is the restoration of God’s creation to its intended ends. The life of the redeemed is a life of serving God in the whole range of cultural tasks. Not Christ or culture. Not even Christ in culture. Christ through culture is what we must seek.” (p.109)

“Today, I have made but one point. It is this: That the curriculum of a Christian education is for Christian life. It is not for the training of theological sophisticates, nor for the continuation of the evangelical churches, not for the preservation of Christian enclaves, not for getting to heaven, not for service to the state, not for defeating the Communists, not for preserving United States or Canada, not for life adjustment, not for cultivating the life of the mind, not for producing learning and cultured gentlemen. Christian education is for Christian life.”(p.110)

Nicholas Beversluis 

1971: “[From] early grades on teachers will progressively guide young persons through intellectual understanding and insight to know, through moral awareness and commitment to choose, and through creative self-acceptance and freedom to participate in the life appropriate to a Christian human being. . . . [A] Christian school must foster in the life of all its pupils their intellectual, moral, and creative growth.” (pp.126-127)

“A Christian School must aim, in its learning goals and its curriculum, to free young Christians in and for the religious moral life, one in which piety replaces pietism, ethical awareness replaces legalism, conscience replaces conformity, and allegiance to God’s will replaces sectarian withdrawal from life. Young Christians must be frequently unsettled in a Christian school, wisely, carefully, pedagogically, in order that they may be brought to greater moral maturity. Such growth, along with intellectual growth, can help young persons grow also in the disposition and competence they need for creative participation in the Christian life.” (pp.133-134)

During this time, Nicholas Wolterstorff’s work stands out as being especially impactful. His Curriculum—By What Standard? speech given in 1966 is as relevant today as it was then. His later emphases on creativity and justice forged distinct paths for both K-12 and university level Christian education. (See Educating for Responsible Action, Educating for Life, Educating for Shalom.)

The influence of Calvin College professors was felt through the Christian Educators Journal, founded in 1961 by the National Union of Christian Schools (NUCS), and in collaboration with Calvin College, the predecessor to Christian Schools International (CSI); the magazine Christian Home and School (another publication of NUCS); The Banner (the denominational journal of the Christian Reformed Church); conventions such as the Midwest Christian Teachers Association; workshops; curriculum materials; and books. 

Western Michigan was the epicenter of the Calvinist Christian day school education movement pre-World War 2, but the movement quickly spread west and north throughout North America. Development of Christian schools in Canada grew rapidly after World War 2. And with the establishment of additional Reformed institutions of higher learning (Dordt College in Iowa in 1955; Trinity College in Chicago in 1959; King’s College in Edmonton, Alberta; Redeemer College in Hamilton, Ontario; and the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, Ontario), other leading thinkers emerged.

After the initial growth stages of the movement, some began to wonder if Christian schools were meeting their distinctive missions or if they were starting to look too much like their public school neighbors. By 1972, there was concern expressed that Christian education was “a slumbering giant.” In this book of edited essays mostly by Canadian thinkers (plus two from Dordt College), the authors make a case for what Christian education should be and do. Two of the authors continued to play a large role through the 90s and early 2000s in the further development of Christian educational philosophy and practice: John Van Dyk and Harro Van Brummelen.

Van Dyk’s pamphlet The Beginning of Wisdom: The Nature and Task of the Christian School was just the succinct and extremely helpful articulation of Christian education that I was looking for when I re-entered Christian education in 1993. Van Dyk’s work through books, articles, and conferences helped translate philosophy into pedagogy while Van Brummelen’s work set the stage for significant curriculum development in Canada and the US.

Over the past one hundred years, Calvinist Christian day school education has benefitted from a reasoned and thoughtful articulation of what it means to educate Christianly. As Donald Oppewal states, “For the size of its intellectual and religious community [Calvinist Christian education] has made a considerable contribution to the thinking of not only its own group of believers, but has had an influence in the larger Protestant evangelical community” (preface to Voices from the Past). 

Indeed, I recall reviewing the catalog of the much larger Association of Christian Schools (ACSI) in the late 1990s and being delightfully surprised that the preponderance of books were by authors from the Calvinist tradition reflecting a Kuyperian view of cultural engagement. In summary, our work in Christian education rests on a rich legacy. A preview of the next post in this historical series (scheduled to be published on March 8): In the late 80s and early 90s, things were brewing among thought leaders in the Calvinist Christian day school education world—a growing restlessness about whether Christian schools were distinctive and meeting their missions, awareness of rising materialism and an increasing nationalist spirit, concerns about the impact of technology, and a sense of student disengagement in learning. Did the “Slumbering Giant” need to be prodded? Look for the post entitled, Seeking a New Paradigm of Educating: 1990-2010, Part 1.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.