‘How Dutch Americans Stayed Dutch’ as an example of teaching

I am indebted to John Fea for pointing out Michael J. Douma’s How Dutch Americans Stayed Dutch: An Historical Perspective on Ethnic Minorities (Amsterdam University Press, 2014, 978-90-8964-645-3). Douma’s book has been a delight, enlightening and useful to my continuing question “how can I teach about evangelicalism to students who have almost no awareness of it?” without becoming either divine or pedantic. Americans of Dutch heritage are no more uniformly evangelical than any other group, but Douma’s insights provide clues to the challenge of teaching about other people’s arguments to those who don’t already know or care about them.

Fea pointed out Douma’s book and Douma’s response to a misleading article in the Economist that sets out a complex reality in simplistic, bite-sized terms appropriate to The Economist’s readers. The pretext was a remarks by U.S. Ambassador Pete Hoekstra, and the sagas of Betsy DeVos and Erik Prince, all recognizably Dutch-American conservatives of a certain positivist stripe. Like many Americans academics, in past months I have winced at the antics, pratfalls, and utter cluelessness of Betsy DeVos, incumbent Secretary of Education. Anyone who knows West Michigan (and Holland, Michigan in particular) will know name well, such as the DeVos Field House at Hope College, and the endless genuflection towards the Amway Corporation, alleged to be a barely legalized, cult-like pyramid scheme. A member of the Van Andel family (DeVos’ relations) has established rules for restricted access to Holland State Park’s Big Red Lighthouse appropriate to a medieval lord of the manor (photo above); Erik Prince (Betsy’s brother) remains a person of interest to Robert Mueller’s investigation. Any long familiar with the Dutch American pale of settlement in West Michigan might role their eyes.

To West Michigan, Dutch American culture, I am an outsider with one foot inside that small tent. One quarter of my personal ancestry is Dutch (maternal grandmother, and Fries to be exact) and may mother lived decades as a Dutch American expatriate in distant, foreign parts –those of industrial eastern Michigan. (Her ashes are fittingly interred in Grand Rapids.) I earned my bachelor’s degree at Hope College, but only after three years at Michigan State in heathen East Lansing. So I could have been an insider, but chose otherwise. (I will say more in a subsequent post.)

Douma’s eminently readable book, accessible public history well-informed by theoretical, scholarly insights, presents Dutch American ethnicity as an evolving set of internal disagreements about how to cope with an external human and natural environment very different from the particular, original locations in the small country from which the ancestors emigrated. He limits his investigation to the 19th and 20th-century Dutch immigration to the Middle West, which was only tangentially related to 17th- and 18th-century Dutch American immigration to New York and New Jersey; he also leaves aside Dutch “Indos” from Indonesia.

Location, location: the emigrants came from pre-industrial villages and small cities in Gronigen, Friesland, Utrecht, and Overijssel that were transformed by industrialization and modern transportation shortly after their departure in the 19th century. They arrived in differing areas of the Middle West: West Michigan, the plains of Iowa (Pella, Orange City), burgeoning Chicago (South Holland), and were dispersed throughout Wisconsin.

The emigrants’ descendants experienced varying personal and community outcomes in urban, small city, and rural locations. Dutch-American immigrant identity largely evaporated by the 1920s in many locations except two areas with a critical mass of shared ancestry: the West Michigan axis of Holland and Grand Rapids, and the the neighborhoods of Pella, Iowa (southeast of Des Moines) and Orange City (northwest Iowa). Three of those areas were anchored by colleges associated with the Reformed Church in America (RCA): Hope College (Holland, Michigan), Central College (Pella, Iowa), and Northwestern College (Orange City, Iowa). Grand Rapids became the Mecca of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), and home of Calvin College and Theological Seminary (to become Calvin University in 2020).

The educational institutions are an important hook: Dutch Americans were justly famous for their work ethic and religious commitment. As my mother said, “God made the world, but the Dutch made Holland,” referring to the dikes, sea-walls, and canals of the Netherlands, an intending the remark to mean, “therefore, get to work.” Dutch Protestant Christianity of the Reformed tradition carried all the marks of Calvin’s humanist character: based on texts (the Bible above all), theological reflection, and leaning towards pietism in a rather learned, cerebral manner. The revivalist enthusiasms of late 19th-century America were alien to Dutch temperaments and Dutch Americans became evangelical only as those immigrant tendencies passed. Originally birthed in the afschieding (secession) of orthodox, traditional Dutch Calvinists from the Netherlands State protestant church (Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk) in 1834, the secessionists in America fell out amongst themselves in 1857 over the Dutch immigrant’s incorporation into the American Reformed Protestant Dutch Church (now RCA), which some considered to be entirely too worldly, lax, and American.

Consequently: the Dutch colleges became involved in Reformed disputes (Hope, founded 1851 and 1866 to the RCA; Calvin founded 1876 to the CRC; the RCA founded Northwestern College in 1882, and took control of Central College, founded 1853, in 1916). Consequently (also), Dutch Protestant religion took on an disputatious character that both nurtured and was fed by intellectual argument. Consequently (also), Dutch Americans became over-represented in skilled trades, the professions, and the sciences. West Michigan, which lacked major extractable natural resources, and depended upon manufacturing and trade (with its access to the Great Lakes), owed much of its economic development to skilled labor, and the manufacture of furniture, building materials (such as bricks), and pharmaceuticals.

Douma’s book lends some weight to a view that Dutch American cultural and economic impact was not hindered but furthered by intra-Dutch immigrant debates and rivalries. In West Michigan cities the narcissism of small differences between the RCA and CRC correlated with a range of economic and cultural positions and produced varying responses to and acceptance of mainstream Anglo-American culture (regarding organizations such as the Freemasons, for example). Southern Michigan, originally part (with northern Ohio and Indiana) of the Midwestern “third New England” by the mid-19th was long habituated to Yankee habits of thrift and cultural positions such as Abolitionism; the Dutch immigrants were both similar and different to the Yankees as well as to the numerous other ethnic minorities present (especially Eastern European). Dutch Americans were at first outsiders to the fraught American conflicts that foreshadowed the Civil War, and a number of young Dutch American men absorbed a “American” habits and dispositions through war-time military service. Dutch American rivalries extended a discourse that unintentionally preserved or prolonged Dutch American identity in those areas of Michigan and Iowa that held a critical mass of Dutch descendants. In time these descendants remembered not Dutch culture so much as the culture of their grandparents or great-grandparents: “Tulip Time” in Holland Michigan (an ethnic festival in May) harks back not so much to the Netherlands as to memories of an idealized Netherlands in the minds of the early immigrants.  Dutch American identity has by now evaporated or turned into genealogical interests with a barely religious overlay.  The institutions of the CRC, RCA and the colleges have moved on to other identities and evolving missions.

What does this tell me about teaching American evangelicalism to secular or minimally Catholic undergraduates who don’t have (or sometimes want) a clue? It reminds me that cultural identities are always a work in time, evolving in changing circumstances, and apt to idealize their own pasts. Their disputes, far from weakening them (unless they become too divisive), in fact strengthen them by giving the participants something to really care about. Whether many Evangelicals’ current nearly cultic for the Chief Executive will in fact divide them from their recent compatriots (those Evangelicals who did not support him) remains to be seen: how divisive will that dispute become? Douma’s book also reminds me of the way that religious commitment can be felt as nearly an ethnic identity, and thoroughly entangled with multiple, sometimes conflicting other commitments.

Sometimes it can also really help when a professor includes a sufficient (but not overpowering) testimony: “here’s why this subject really matters to me.” I find that students often respond to genuine commitment: this is important because it expresses something close to my heart. (I have seen, believe it or not, the teaching of accounting standards enlivened in this manner.) My subsequent post will tell a bit more of my own story.

 

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