Feb 10, 2012

Resistance/adaptation in one Dutch church in 1919 Chicago

"The Dutch," James D. Bratt writes, "also agreed on what 'Americanization' theoretically ought to be. They all believed that sooner or later the 'Dutch Reformed' had to become 'American Reformed' -- that is, that nationality had to be sacrificed to religion."

At first it's so simple: resistance/adaptation.

We look at immigrant groups and their religions with this as the basic set up. The way the pieces work. And then we ask, in a given case, in which direction religion is working. Is it adapting, and aiding adaptation? Or is it a form of resistance?

It works well enough.

The secret, though, which isn't really a secret, is that this model of immigrant's religion is really only really interesting when it's not either/or but both/and. When the model is working, but working in weird ways. When it compounds or doubles back on itself, and it's a good model, still, for what's happening in a given immigrant group and understanding their religion, but just keeping track of those pieces that move takes significant mental focus.

The Dutch Calvinists -- who, Bratt says, were culturally poised to have "'melted' into American society," and in many ways did, but still have had a history "heavy with a sense of antagonism and displacement" -- are a really interesting example of this.

Consider just one Dutch Calvinist church: The First Christian Reformed Church in Engelwood, Ill.

In 1919, the Rev. Peter Van Vliet tried to get the congregation to hold some of it's worship services in English. The congregation rejected his idea, and both services continued to be completely in Dutch "even though many young people could no longer comprehend the nuances of Dutch sermons," according to  Robert P. Swierenga.

Other Dutch churches in the area switched to English at around this time. The Hastings St. Reformed Church went to English with their morning services in 1915, specifically in the context of their allegiance to America in World War I. At the First Christian Reformed Church of Roseland, the switch was made in 1920, at the demand of the young people.

In Engelwood, though, they would have none of this. They actually passed a rule, Swierenga writes, saying that no services could be in English. Van Vliet tried again in the '20s, and failed, and then again in '23. He left a week after the congregation rejected his call for some English in church yet again.

This is a group of immigrants who aren't even really immigrants any more, many of them, yet they refused to be Americanized. They refuse to not be immigrants, however distant a memory the Netherlands happened to be.

Except: there was one exception to the strict no-English rule. The catechism.Van Vliet was able to switch the catechism classes for the young into English on his first try. In 1919. Even as everywhere the congregational resistance to letting go even a little bit of their Dutchness continued on strong, this apparently wasn't a fight. The children of the Chicago suburb church would be taught their Calvinism in an English translation of the Heidelberg Catechism.

But was this acquiescing and adapting to Americanization, or resistance?

While it might seem obviously the former, it's also just as obviously the latter, when you look at it. The church adapted to America specifically in this way in order to resist Americanization. The catechism needed to be taught in English so the children of Dutch immigrants would learn it, and take it to heart, and then, that way, remain a part of the Dutch Calvinist community, and maintain that identity, and be less likely to melt into American society.

So -- it's both.

It's resistance by means of adaptation, and adaptation for the sake of resistance.

The simple model still works, here, it just has to get less simple. The terms are still useful for classifying and understanding what's going on in this Engelwood church at the turn of the second decade of the 20th century. It's a good model to explain things partly just because beneath it's apparent dichotomous simplicity, it's capable of accounting for quite a bit of interesting both/and.