Rev.H.Hoeksema and the Flag Controversy during WWI

As promised – though later than I intended – I point you to the story of Rev.Herman Hoeksema and the U.S. “flag controversy” which occured during the WWI years and stirred up quite a public outcry in West Michigan and beyond. This controversy occured when Hoeksema was pastor of Fourteenth Street Christian Reformed Church in 1918.

I mention this because an article on this just reappeared in the latest issue of Leben magazine (German for “Life”, with the sub-title A Journal of Reformation Life), published quarterly by the City Seminary of Sacramento, CA (July 2014 issue, vol.10, #3). The article, “Herman Hoeksema and the ‘Flag in Church’ Controversy” is penned by Dr.Robert Swierenga, research professor of history at the A.C.Van Raalte Institute for Historical Studies at Hope College in Holland, MI.

I say this article “reappeared” in Leben because it is actually a reprint of an article which Swierenga wrote for Calvin College’s Origins magazine (CRC archives) back in 2007 (vol.25, No.2, pp.28-25). In its original publication the article was titled “Disloyal Dutch? Herman Hoeksema and the Flag in Church Controversy During World War I”. Below is an image of the title page.


You can actually find this full issue and the article at that page link above (scroll down to the issue #). It makes for fascinating reading, as I never fully understood the intense reaction in the congregation and in the community, nor the full reasons for Hoeksema’s position. Swierenga does an excellent job of laying out the case and Hoeksema’s reasons for not wanting the U.S. flag in his church during worship services – and that, by the way is what his position was – not opposition to the flag in the church per se. It was a principled matter with him and he stuck to his position, though the war had created a passionate patriotic atmosphere and it cost him reputation personally and ecclesiastically.

This is how Swierenga begins his description of the controversy:

In nearby Holland, Michigan Reverend Herman Hoeksema of the Fourteenth Stree CRC ‘stirred up a hornet’s nest’ in 1918 when he barred the American flag from his church sanctuary. The congregation was the first English-speaking body of that denomination in town and proud of its Americanizing ways. But, according to Hoeksema’s logical mind, unfurling the nation’s banner in church was conceding too much to Caesar’s realm.

Later he adds these details:

The growing practice of linking God and country and blessing the American flag was too much for a strict Calvinist like Rev.Hoeksema. To honor the nation more than God smacked of a civil religion, not Christianity. The issue was joined for Hoeksema on Sunday morning, 10 February 1918, when he entered his pulpit and saw a flag on a staff in the front corner of the sanctuary. He said nothing until after the service, when he asked the consistory to have it removed before the evening service. They complied and that evening in the course of his sermon Hoeksema explained to the congregation that the flag ‘had no place in a church and that the national anthem should not be sung there.’ Some congregants did not agree with their dominee and they broadcast his views far and wide. In the charged atmosphere of the war, this brought an immediate public outcry” (Leben, p.17).

If you wish to obtain the article as it appears in Leben magazine, contact them through their website.