I have in my possession a bulletin of the order of service for Hope Reformed Church, Holland, Michigan, on January 2, 1952, the day of my baptism. Since the Reformed Church In America doesn’t celebrate Epiphany, I will assume that the service was a standard one for Ordinary time. There was an introit, an invocation, a Kyrie, an Old Testament reading, a Gloria Patri, a New Testament reading, and Offertory, a sermon, and me, red, misshapen, and howling, according to my mother, being subjected to the waters of Baptism.
Now, it wasn’t until my father died in 2005 that I learned that the reason I had been present on that undoubtedly cold and blustery morning was because my great-great grandfather had no desire to walk 130 miles in a Wisconsin winter.
Arend had come over from the Netherlands in 1848 with his brother Jacob on the promise of a job in Chicago. During the months that they were crossing the Atlantic and portering up the Saint Lawrence and into the Great Lakes to Chicago, the brothers’ sponsor had passed away, and no one met them at the pier. Jacob decided to try his luck in the Yukon, and left, disappearing into the northern mists and most likely from the gene stream as well. His brother never heard from again, but his name lingers on in the family. ‘Jacob’ was my grandfather’s and my father’s middle name.
Arend, whose name means ‘eagle’ in Dutch, was Catholic, although his grandmother was a Huegenot refugee. He knocked around Chicago for a while until someone told him there was a colony of Netherlanders about 60 miles up the shore in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He walked there, arriving in late October. It turned out that the colony was Reformed, and if my ancestor wanted to stay, he would have to convert to the Reformed faith. There was a colony of Catholic Hollanders up near Green Bay, about 120 miles north, but an early winter was and setting in, and besides, one of the Reformed maidens had caught his eye. Arend decided that my great-great grandmother was worth forgoing a Mass, and accepted the Reformed faith.
He outlived my great-great grandmother and two other Protestant wives as well, who are buried in the Reformed churchyard in Kenosha. Interestingly, he requested that he be buried apart from all of them, in unconsecrated ground.
There is no evidence that my ancestor was particularly devout, either as a Catholic or as a Protestant, but his choice sealed the religious destiny of my family for five generations, and nobody deviated from the norm until I came along. This is interesting to me because it speaks to me that no one makes decisions entirely for one’s own self.
Baptism has fallen on hard times recently. A lot of Christians in the United States would maintain that the baptism that I was surrendered to by my young father and my even younger mother, on that cold January morning accomplished nothing at all. Funny, the less baptism means, the keener people seem to be that you have done it “by the book”. I have been baptized twice, as has my son, my daughter, and my wife. We just barely escaped a third baptism as well. Between the four of us, we have probably spilled enough baptismal water to regenerate a small Germanic tribe in the fifth century. My first baptism, though, fixes me in time and space and history as a member of a family and as a member of a clan, a gens, and an ethne’ in a way that none of the subsequent laverings accomplished. I’ve been all over the map since then, both geographically and ecclesiastically, but my roots are there, and as the Psalmist says, “all my springs are in her”.