WMU News

From waffles to windmills

Aug. 12, 2002

KALAMAZOO -- It's pretty hard to miss the Dutch influence in West Michigan.

From Meijer Thrifty Acres to Van Andel Arena, Calvin College to the communities of Holland and Zeeland, one can scarcely throw a stone in the region without hitting someone with a surname beginning with "Van."

How the Dutch became so prevalent in this corner of Michigan and what influence they have had on the development of the region and state are among the topics explored in a new book written by Western Michigan University's Dr. Larry ten Harmsel.

"Dutch in Michigan" is the latest volume in the "Discovering the Peoples of Michigan" series published by the Michigan State University Press. The series, edited by WMU faculty members Arthur Helweg and Linwood Cousins, encompasses more than 11 volumes covering the history of various ethnic groups in the state, from the Amish and African Americans to Jews and Asian Indians.

In the book, ten Harmsel, a WMU professor of English and associate dean of the Lee Honors College, explains that, unlike many of the other ethnic groups who immigrated to America for economic opportunities or to be free of religious persecution, the boatloads of Hollanders who came to Michigan in the late 1840s actually came "to escape a spirit of tolerance in their native land."

"The leaders that led the emigration sought to set up a new religious order because they disagreed with the Dutch government's Reformed Church's stance of tolerance for other religions including Catholics, Baptists and Jews. Church doctrine dictated that these religions were 'false religions' and the dissidents believed the Reformed Church had an obligation to stamp out heresy," he says. "But the Dutch government had a history of being tolerant and it became a political battle."

The leaders of these dissidents chose West Michigan to establish their "kolonie" because of its similarity to the landscape of the Netherlands. The densely wooded land also offered economic prospects and the area's isolation allowed the community to become insular and avoid outside influences.

"The Dutch kept themselves apart culturally and geographically," says ten Harmsel.

By 1880, nearly 40,000 Michiganders could claim to be of Dutch descent, and they became the state's largest well-defined ethnic group.

"They live in a particular area, think of themselves in the same ways and go to the same churches," he explains.

But just as they had religious differences with their homeland, the Michigan Dutch soon found they had brought their fractious nature across the Atlantic with them to the New World. In 1857, a schism developed within the West Michigan Dutch community, splitting families and communities into those aligned with either the Reformed Church of America or the newly created Christian Reformed Church.

"The dissident group said it was returning to the 'true roots' of its organization," ten Harmsel explains of the schism. "Among those things they were opposed to were the use of hymns that humans had made up, funeral services, fire insurance, white dresses, Christmas trees and the English language. It soon became obvious that the religious conflict concerned not theology, but strategies of integration with the modern world.

"I see it as one group being more assimilative, and the other trying to hang on to its heritage."

For ten Harmsel, a native of Zeeland of Dutch descent, writing the book was an interesting examination of his own heritage. Much published history already existed on the Dutch in Michigan, but ten Harmsel found these to be written from the perspectives of either the Reformed Church of America or the Christian Reformed Church.

"I really tried to tell the story from a secular point of view, which gives the book a somewhat different slant," he says. "I had great fun with it and hope that the book stimulates conversation about these historical issues, which are so important to these groups and to the development of this area."

Media contact: Marie Lee, 269 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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