First Reformed Church: A Mirror of Immigration

Though not one of the oldest churches in the city, the story of the First Reformed Church in Kalamazoo reflects the development of Kalamazoo from a village to a city and the influence on the progress of that city and the church by Dutch immigrants, who became the backbone of both.

The Church in the Netherlands

In the Netherlands, the war with Spain was at a close and a state church had been established in 1618. An arbitrary revision of church government by King William I led many who belonged to the mother church to separate and meet in secret. The king sent his soldiers to punish them. Though the persecutions and arrests gradually disappeared, the dissenters were socially ostracized. Doors of relatives and former friends were closed, laborers lost their jobs and businesses were boycotted. Add the onset of hunger and poverty, and the Separatists soon became Dutch colonists who began coming to the United States in 1847.

The Coming of the Dutch to Kalamazoo

Kalamazoo's early Dutch settlers came here when their leader, Paulus denBleyker,  changed his mind about settling in Iowa and, instead, chose western Michigan because its rich soil appealed to the agriculturally minded Dutch people. Their  treatment in Kalamazoo was less than welcoming when they arrived in the mid-1800s. They had to spend a quarantine period on the outskirts of the city before they were allowed to settle.

Beginnings of the First Reformed Church

By 1850, the growth of Dutch immigrants in Kalamazoo led to the founding of the First Reformed Church. The worshippers had no buildings or ministers and met on the second floors of various stores and business places in the city for two years. Then, on 28 July1852, the congregation scraped up the grand sum of $700 to purchase Kalamazoo's first church building from the First Congregational Church on West South Street near Rose Street.

New Church Building

As more and more Dutch settled here, the church outgrew its first building. In 1864, the congregation purchased the old First Methodist Church at the corner of Academy and Church Streets. Soon that building, too, proved inadequate, so a new one was built on the site, where, many times renovated, it still stands. The old one was sold and moved to the corner of Eleanor and North Burdick Streets, where it served as a wagon shop for many years. A parsonage was also added to the assets of the church. When Rev. John William Te Winkel was installed as pastor in 1876, he purchased  from Dr. E. H. Van Deusen a building for that purpose located on West South Street between Rose and Burdick Streets. This home stood on the same lot as Kalamazoo's first church building that the congregation had purchased years before.

First Reformed Church

First Reformed Church before it was remodeled, ca1890-1910

Reasons for Growth

Two factors went into the growth of Reformed churches in Kalamazoo. One was language, and the other was the steady increase of Dutch settlers in the community.

Dutch vs. English Services

As more and more children of the Dutch immigrants were born here and spoke English, they began asking for the services in church to be conducted in English instead of the native Dutch language of their parents. At first, in an attempt to keep these young people in the fold, a Rev. Dosker solved this problem by forming the Second Reformed Church, which consisted of 10 families. By 1905 the evening services in the church were conducted in English and, finally, in 1927, the Sunday morning services went into the English language leaving only the Third and Fourth Reformed churches continuing to offer regular service to old time members who preferred the language of their native land.

New Congregations

By 1890, so many Dutch people had settled here that a Third Reformed Church was founded to serve the people of the heavily Dutch north side of the city. In 1904 a committee from the First and Second Reformed churches organized a South Burdick Street Sunday school, which became the Bethany Reformed Church.

Church Discipline

Church members were expected to adhere to the precepts of the faith in strict measure. When they didn't, discipline was meted out unsparingly, such as that to a member in 1893 who sold milk on Sunday. The farmer was called in for a hearing and severely reprimanded.

First Reformed Church. remodeled

After the remodeling, ca 1940

First Reformed Church, Ninetieth Anniversary Record of Progress... 1850-1940, page 2

Building Renovations

In 1910, the First Reformed was remodeled. New windows and a brick veneer cost the congregation $8,000 and was the end product of ten years of patient planning. Nineteen years later, the interior of the church was redecorated, and a new steel ceiling was added. Near tragedy struck just before services on 23 November 1947. As worshippers arrived for Sunday services, suddenly, without warning, a large section of the steel ceiling and its wooden supports crashed to the floor. Luckily, no one was injured, but one member, Ron Bush, ducked under a pew. Everything went dark, but he emerged unhurt.

Women and the Church

As early as 1902, nearly 80 women of the church petitioned for the right to vote on the selection of a new minister. They were turned down "...because it was against the will of God." It wasn't until June 1972 that the Reformed Church in America approved Gertrude Van Zee as the first female elder at First Reformed Church. Three years later, the consistory voted 16-1 in favor of the denomination allowing the ordination of women.

End of First Reformed Church

In November of 2003, dwindling membership at the downtown church caused First Reformed members to close the doors of their historic building. They voted to join with the Second Reformed Church, and in January 2004, the Bible and communion ware from First Reformed was walked up the aisle at Second Reformed as a sign of a new history for the members.

New Residents

Since then, the old church building was the temporary home of Fresh Fire African Methodist Episcopal Church until they were able to purchase a building of their own. Led by Rev. Bobette Hampton, Fresh Fire is the first new AME congregation in the area since Allen Chapel AME was formed more than a century ago.  The building has also housed Within Reach Ministries.

Sources

Ninetieth Anniversary Record of Progress and Directory: The First Reformed Church, Kalamazoo, Michigan, 1850-1940

"Pioneer Kalamazoo House of Worship to Observe Anniversary: First Dutch Church Here 90 Years Old"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 16 October 1940, page 4, column 1

"Church Here Celebrates Centennial"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 15 October 1950, page 13, column 4

"150 Years of Worship: First Reformed Church"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 29 April 2000,  page D1, column 2

"Historic Church Closes Final Chapter"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 3 January 2004, page B1, column 2

"Vacated Church Gets New Life"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 19 June 2004, page A1, column 1