Editor’s note: This is the third in a 10-part series on the history of the Holland area.
The history of Europe and the Netherlands are inextricably intertwined with the history of religion.
In 1544, a Catholic prince from the Principality of Orange in southern France died childless, leaving his vast estates, including great portions of the Netherlands, to his cousin William I who had been born into the Lutheran German aristocratic house of Nassau. The one condition was that young William receive a Catholic education. So at the age of 11, William was shipped to the Netherlands, schooled by Catholic scholars, and awarded the honorary title of Stadtholder (head of state) by the branch of the Hapsburg Empire that ruled Spain and the Netherlands.
William I rose to the challenge and opportunity. By his early 20s, he proved an able general in the Dutch military, and was a rising star in the greater Hapsburg empire. But over time, his sympathies tilted toward the mostly Calvinistic rebels of the northern provinces, and William became the leader of the rebellion that won independence for the greater Netherlands from Spain. Thus began the ruling dynasty of the House of Orange-Nassau whose descendants continue to rule the Netherlands to this day.
A break from Spain
The Low Countries, or greater Netherlands, that broke from Spanish domination in the 1560s consisted of both the Netherlands and Belgium. Being closer to the influence of Spanish rule, Belgium was predominantly Catholic. The populace spoke languages reflecting their nearby neighbors, including French, Dutch, and German. Lying to the north, the Netherlands was predominantly Calvinistic Protestant, and the people spoke Dutch with a pocket of Friesian. With the ruling dynasty being Dutch and Protestant, an uneasy national alliance prevailed until Belgium revolted and declared independence in 1830, thereby splitting the kingdom in two. Religious differences were a major contributing factor.
Founder of Holland, Mich., Albertus C. van Raalte.
But religious turmoil continued. Though not “officially” a state church, the Dutch Reformed Church operated much like one, rigidly controlled by the monarchy. And it was growing increasingly liberal. In 1834, a small number of more conservative churches split from the national church in a secession movement known as “Afscheiding,” or “separation.”
This separatist church was the denomination into which Albertus van Raalte was ordained in 1836, at the age of 25. This same tension between mainstream denominations and more conservative dissenters would appear again some 22 years later among Dutch immigrants in West Michigan when the Christian Reformed Church grew out of a schism with the Reformed Church of America.
The Netherlands separatist church remained small. Pastors were denied church assignments and ecclesiastical functions. Although mild compared to some historic religious persecution, the separatists were nevertheless held in suspicion, sometimes spied upon, and very much kept to the national religious fringe. Emigration offered an opportunity for religious freedom in a new land.
For the founder of Holland, Albertus van Raalte, that meant freedom for their more conservative religious expression. van Raalte and 53 members of his congregation emigrated to America in 1846.
Religious freedom was not the only reason for the move to a new Holland.
History teaches about the Irish Potato Famine, running roughly from 1846 to 1852. It is estimated a million people died in Ireland of starvation, and another million emigrated, mostly to the United States. But crop failures during this period were experienced elsewhere as well. Scotland suffered greatly, and in continental Europe, Belgium and the Netherlands were hardest hit by crop failures. The Dutch immigration beginning in 1846 came not as a dribble, but a wave. Hunger and poverty were surely factors for many who chose to leave.
Albertus C. van Raalte and his father Albertus van Raalte.
Then there was the lure and mystique of a new land. Dutch presence in the new world began with traders from the Dutch East Indies Co., seeking wealth in a new land much as they had in Southeast Asia. Before it was New York, it was New Amsterdam. The Dutch simply knew about the new world and its ever expanding frontiers, rich in resources and economic opportunity.
Among the appeal was the abundance of land. As the Dutch population grew, the tradition of dividing family farms among descendants meant diminishing farm sizes, and the difficulty of continuing this tradition to a point of unsustainability. There was no Dutch frontier to move into, other than the slow, tedious, and costly reclamation of seabed by diking. America’s arms were open to immigrants, and land was abundant and cheap.
An unstable Europe
Finally, there was a sense of instability as Europe struggled to recover from 15 years of Naploeanic turmoil that ended at Waterloo (Belgium) in 1815. The Dutch King Wiiliam I tried guiding the nation like a benevolent dictator as it transitioned from a predominantly agricultural economy to industrialization, but labor unrest was widespread. The Netherlands, along with much of Europe, was experiencing an era of discontent.
So, yes, van Raalte sought religious freedom, as many of his followers did. But he also sought escape from turmoil. van Raalte and his congregation sought relief from hunger. They sought land in abundance to farm. They sought economic opportunity. These are the roots of Holland, along with countless other towns across our nation settled by European immigrants during the 19th century.
Dale Wyngarden worked for the city of Holland for three decades, much of that time overseeing the Planning and Development Department during the revitalization of the downtown. Now happily retired, he spends his time writing and gardening.