Holland history: Van Raalte’s Vision of New “Kolonie”

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a 10-part series on the history of the Holland area.

Dale Wyngarden
There were numerous well-established old Dutch settlements along the East Coast to which the Rev. Albertus van Raalte could have led his fellow travelers in 1846 as they left the Netherlands for the New World. But he had a greater vision than planting an ethnic neighborhood in an established urban area. Van Raalte envisioned establishing a colony of his own — not a cosmopolitan American city, but a close-knit Christian community, governed by Protestant Christian people and principles.

Family tradition

Van Raalte was the son of a minister, and one of eleven children. He did not come from family wealth. His decision to be ordained in the Secession Church movement left him on the ecclesiastical outside looking in and brought no personal prosperity. It was his wife’s inheritance that allowed him to purchase the few thousand acres in which the first immigrants put down roots.

It is interesting to note that while Holland was settled in 1847, it was not until 20 years later, 1867, that the city of Holland was chartered as a home rule city in Michigan, and a mayor and council elected to govern the city. Van Raalte’s initial vision was governance by a Christian Assembly. It was short lived, though, and for most of the first two decades, governmental affairs were left to the townships, which had limited governing authority under the Michigan constitution. Van Raalte used his great influence, however, in selecting candidates for office.

In fact, managing economic affairs had become increasingly demanding. He was the principal real estate agent for the young community, the spearhead of economic development, the manager of educational affairs, and above all, the dominie of the city’s first church — the Pillar Church.


It took a person of vision and no shortage of self confidence to manage such a diverse array of community affairs. One observer characterized him as a benevolent dictator. In some respects, van Raalte’s hope for a tight-knit ethnic enclave stumbled. Immigrants from treeless lands to a new world of old growth forests needed lumbering help and expertise from outside.

Launching successful businesses and industries relied on interaction with the outside world as well. While Dutch was the unofficial language of the colony, by 1862 church leaders saw the need for a church for English speakers, and Hope Church was founded.

Despite the creeping Americanization of Holland, however, van Raalte’s leadership of the early community can’t be seen as anything but successful. Four years after the first tree was felled, a Pioneer Academy was established.

Hope College

Originally intended as a religious alternative to public education, with an eye to preparing young men for ministry, the school and vision by 1862 had grown to a college, and the first freshman class of 10 men were enrolled. Four years later, nine of them graduated, and Hope College received its state charter. In 1856, the Pillar Church was dedicated as impressive testimony to the centrality of religion in community life. Business and industry prospered and the city developed in a well planned and orderly manner.

All of this speaks to van Raalte’s gifts not only as a pastor and religious leader, but business manager and educational visionary as well. He may have led with a strong hand, but his leadership served the young community well. The Holland of today stands in testimony.

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.

Read more articles by Dale Wyngarden.