FAITHFUL ELDERS (Notes on RCUS History)

FAITHFUL ELDERS (Notes on RCUS History)

INTRODUCTION:

Members of the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS) should know that our denomination was started in 1725 in Pennsylvania (that’s right, we will celebrate our 300th anniversary in just nine years) holding to the same creeds and preaching the same Reformed theology that we do today. Unfortunately, we cannot say that our Church has held strongly to our Reformed heritage over these years. Indeed, in its second hundred years, from 1840 to 1940, it became more and more liberal and less and less biblical in its theology. When the Germans from Russia immigrated to the United States from 1870 to 1900, these folks found that the large majority of the Reformed Church, especially in the Eastern states, was pretty much Reformed in name only. There still were fairly large pockets of Bible-believing churches and Christians left, but they had little say in the national agenda of the then RCUS. These faithful churches also had little contact with each other. The national leadership of the RCUS indeed did much to prevent united movements against their Liberalism by keeping the conservative voices out of denominational media. For example, when Rev. K. J. Stuebbe from Wisconsin spoke out against the proposed Evangelical and Reformed merger at the General Synod of 1933 in Philadelphia, his speeches were reported in the secular newspapers of Philadelphia, but not a whisper of them ever appeared in any denominational papers or magazines.

Facing this situation, the leaders of the German-Russian Reformed churches in the Dakotas sought for ways in which they might preserve their historic Reformed beliefs and practices. They finally discovered that the RCUS Constitution makes provision for specific language classes that can be organized on geographical areas already covered by other classes. Thus the German-Russian churches were given permission in 1910 to form a German-speaking Classis within the areas of the South Dakota and North Dakota Classes. They called this new Classis the “Eureka” Classis reflecting the Greek word “eureka”, which means, “I have found it”, and publicly declared that they had founded their Classis for “theological reasons.” From its beginning then, the Eureka Classis was out of step with its liberal denomination and it was not surprising that it refused to join the Evangelical and Reformed merger, a move that was made by calling each of its congregations to vote on the issue (all voted 100 percent against joining the E & R merger of 1934). They were later joined by other Reformed congregations from around the United States mainly during the 1950’s and 1960’s. In 1945 the four Congregations of the Menno, SD, charge, which were pastored by Rev. William Korn, joined Classis. Yet it was not until 1958 that the Manitowoc, WI, charge joined, and 1959 when Peace Reformed Church at Garner, IA, joined, and 1960 when the two congregations at Shafter and Bakersfield, CA, joined. Thus it was the North and South Dakota RCUS churches that were called upon by God to make their separation from the 1934 Merger stick so that they could be the continuing RCUS and make major decisions such as publishing a more accurate German and English version of the Heidelberg Catechism (done in 1950). Another major decision was to send ministerial students to Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia (done in 1953), rather than to the much more liberal seminaries that were part of the Merged church, and which siphoned off every student sent to them into the Evangelical and Reformed union. All of this was only possible because of strong Reformed Churches in the Eureka Classis led by faithful and competent Elders.

FAITHFUL ELDERS FOR FAITHFUL CHURHES

While the Eureka Classis began its life as a continuation of the RCUS with most of its nine charges with 27 churches served by ministers, it soon found itself with very few ministers to serve what became seventeen charges when the North Dakota Classis merged into the Eureka Classis in 1935. Two of its ministers had returned to Germany at the invitation of the NAZI government to help build a new and mighty Germany. Several ministers were of retirement age and decided to go with the merger in order to keep their pensions. Then WW II came along and emptied the seminaries of students preparing for the ministry. In fact there were only three ministers at its 1943 Spring Classis meeting. This left the leadership of most congregations to the Elders, and God did supply faithful Elders to our Churches. Indeed this article is being written to call attention to the work of these faithful Reformed soldiers who bore the heat and labor of the battle to make the Eureka Classis a continuing part of God’s true Church. Certainly the decision taken by Rev. William Korn of Menno, SD, and Rev. Walter Grossmann of Hosmer, SD, and Stated Clerk of the Eureka Classis, to send our ministerial students to Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia was another important key to the continuation and indeed revitalization of the Eureka Classis. Yet those actions cannot overshadow or minimize the work of these faithful Elders.

All across the Eureka Classis, even in charges that had a minister, Elders led worship services and read printed sermons when a pastor was not present, taught Sunday School and Catehchism classes, visited the sick and did pastoral care of all of the congregation members, and kept the church members together by keeping them informed and scheduling Sunday evening services when a pastor could be available after traveling from 40 to 300 miles on Sunday afternoon to lead a service. It was my privilege as a son of Rev. Walter Grossmann to join him on many of these trips. I would often drive while he slept in the back seat. After worship we would stay over Sunday night with the family of one of these faithful Elders. Along with my older brother, Peter, who shared in this Sunday afternoon duty, I thus became familiar with these unheralded heroes and hearing their theological discussions with our Dad. We also developed life-long friendships with these men and their families. I will mention some names below as examples of such Elders, but by no means can I refer to all of them.

The Hosmer, SD, charge, of which Walter Grossmann was pastor, consisted of three congregations with 442 baptized members in 1948. Elders in the rural Congregations were Albert Martell and Julius Krein at the Calvin Church, and John Job and Jacob Geist at the Neudorf (Newtown) Church. At Hosmer town Church Elders Geist and Hoff were leaders. These men conducted worship services and read sermons on two out of three Sundays, as the pastor was able to serve only one congregation at a time because of travel distance and road conditions. Winter brought blizzards sometimes forcing us to travel the last mile to the country churches by horse and sleigh, while spring brought mud so deep and water so high that ducks literally would swim across the road while we were slipping and sliding through the mud. Summer brought some relief but often was so dry that driving a country road became an exercise in breathing dust. Add to this the poor quality of wartime tires that required us to carry two spares at all times and travel was seldom boring.

Through all of this there still shines to me the character of Elders like Jacob Stegmeier at Heil, ND (180 miles from Hosmer), a pleasant old man with an even more pleasant wife, who was passionately Reformed in his thinking and a leader of men to be respected and followed. His son Albert and son-in-law Arndt Ketterling both followed in his footsteps as elders who led and shepherded their congregation, most all of whom farmed the rather wild country around Heil.

Another outstanding Elder whom I got to know very well after becoming pastor of the Odessa Charge at Artas and Herreid, SD, was Calvin Ochsner. He was re-elected for term after term and served as an Elder for forty straight years before retiring shortly before his death in 1974. Again a sound Christian leader who held the Herreid Congregation together for fifteen years while it had no pastor, and then taught me more about practical pastoring than I had ever learned in Seminary. Not surprisingly, he was also followed by his oldest son, Elmer, into the eldership, where he served most competently. I was, however, a bit disappointed when I asked Mr. Calvin Ochsner (who was twenty years old when my grandfather, Rev. John Grossmann, had started his years as minister of Odessa Charge) what my grandfather’s preaching was like. His answer was a simple, “A lot like yours.” That was a let-down since I wanted more detail. But such an answer should be expected since I have always been impressed with the Bible text on grandfather’s tombstone – Romans 7:24-25. “ 24 O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.” (NKJV)

Added to this list must be Elders Henry Opp of Eureka, SD, Jacob Feil of Lincoln Valley, ND, Leopold Dockter and August Dockter of Venturia, ND, John Gramm of Highmore, SD, Ted Holzwarth, and Jacob F. Mettler of Menno, SD, Jacob Reichert, Isabel, SD, Reinhold Kauk of Sutton, NE, Reinhold Spanenberger of Heil, ND, William Mettler of Upham, ND, and Henry Schnabel of Upham, ND. These men and others are the ones who kept the congregations of the Eureka Classis alive and well during the long times of pastoral vacancy and circuit rider charges.

May God continue to raise up Elders for the RCUS who are of the same theological knowledge and pastoral gifts as were these 20th Century fathers of the present-day Reformed Church in the United States. While these men never attended theological schools, and many did not even attend high school, they studied the Scriptures and Reformed theological writings constantly during their lives. They knew the Heidelberg frontwards and backwards, and thus were self-educated to an extent that very few people are today. Pastors come and go but Elders are the true leaders of the Church.

Dr. Robert Grossmann
Menno, SD

The first row are pastors, and behind them stand some of the faithful elders God has used in the RCUS

The first row are pastors, and behind them stand some of the faithful elders God has used in the RCUS

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