Religious Life of Willem Van Wyk

Rather than review the religious components of the Van Wyk family during the different time periods of their time in Iowa, it was thought better to consider this as a separate section. The religious life of the Van Wyk family is difficult to pin down. Unlike many Dutch-American family histories – with stories of heavy involvement in the local church, sermons being read at home when the weather and roads did not permit travel on Sundays, and a degree of day-to-day religious piety imposed by a strict Reformed theology – both the written and oral Van Wyk history is largely absent of these facts.

A couple of items quickly come into play both Willem and Trijntje were offspring of the Afscheiding of 1834, with their parents and grandparents involved in the bold decision to leave the Dutch State Church because of its creeping liberalism. While this movement showed a trend towards conservatism from a theological standpoint, it also showed a degree of independence from a social standpoint in not willing to just automatically follow the status quo. Additionally, the first several years of the Van Wyk stay in America was primarily marked by settling down in areas of limited Dutch Reformed influence. This was not a typical pattern of many Dutch immigrants, who exclusively chose their residence in connection with an existing or planned church with a Reformed tradition. As such, Willem Van Wyk did in fact show a non-conformist trend in some of his decision making.

Adding to the question of Willem’s church involvement may be Willem’s personal characteristics and traits, which don’t always give a sense of devotion to religious teachings. Consider the following statements about Willem that were made at the De Goey/Van Wyk/Uithoven trial in Knoxville in 1894:

  • Buerkens regarding a wagon he had sold: “I was going to have him in the penitentiary for getting my goods under false pretenses. I was threatening van Wyk with criminal prosecution if I did not get my wagon back. “
  • B Trout a Galesburg implement dealer who repossessed 2 cultivators and a spring wagon from Willem: “I took them because they were not paid for and he got them under false pretenses.”
  • Ed Beintema a Galesburg area farmer: “I knew the general reputation of van Wyk for truth in the neighborhood where he lived it is bad all through.”
  • H van der Waal a Jasper County farmer who lived 4 miles from Willem: “I am acquainted with the general reputation of Mr. van Wyk in the neighborhood where he resides, for truth and veracity. I guess it is pretty bad. Lots of people know van Wyk’s reputation is bad. ”
  • Cornelius Heimstra 52-year old Galesburg resident: “I am acquainted with the general reputation of Wm. van Wyk in the neighborhood where he resides….It is bad. I have heard people say he was a liar. Those who speak of him say so. “
  • Klaas Heimstra 25-year old Galesburg resident and son of Cornelius: “I am acquainted with van Wyk’s general reputation. It is bad. I mean by bad reputation that he would cheat a man or anything like that, and that he would tell stories. ”
  • Hengg van Putten, farmhand who worked first for Willem and then later worked for and resided with De Goey: “I am acquainted with the general reputation of Wm. van Wyk for truth and veracity, it is bad.”
  • J.T. Winters a Galesburg general store owner: “l held a claim against van Wyk last winter. I am acquainted with the general reputation of van Wyk for truth and veracity. It is bad. ”
  • Jacob de Vries, collector for van der Meulen, a Pella general store owner—gave testimony on property sold to Willem, with Willem giving both De Goey and van der Meulen a mortgage on the same property.
  • John De Goey, plaintiff in the lawsuit against Willem: “I learned Mr. van Wyk desired to see me and I went over. When I got there Mr. van Wyk, the boys and girl, and woman were all there. The girl was 15. They were all in the front yard. Mr. van Wyk asked me to come into the house. Mr. van Wyk said his wife had sent the boy down for some groceries and the storekeeper refused to let them have them and he wanted to know of me what to do about it; that they had to work and had to have something to eat, and that he did not have the money. I told him he had lied me out of that money and I am not going to help any more. That he had taken corn out of my crib and sold it, and took out of my crib and fed it, and I had to have money for that. I told him I could not do anything for him. While we were talking this over the two boys [John and Dirk] came in. The boys began cussing and swearing. ”

Do all these statements under oath reveal some of the true characteristics of Willem, which are certainly less than favorable and not very consistent with Christian behavior? Or are they simply part of the plaintiff’s courtroom strategy to discredit Willem? In his summary to the Iowa Supreme Court upon the appeal of this case, the defense attorney took issue with this:

“It is true that evidence was introduced tending to impeach Wm. Van Wyk, but an examination of the testimony and a knowledge of the people who gave it, will disclose the fact that Mr. Van Wyk was suffering in his reputation from the fact that he was unable to pay his indebtedness. De Goey had taken all of his property, and this of course left it impossible for Mr. Van Wyk to pay indebtedness which was in part created for the purchase price of the very things that were turned over to De Goey. This naturally places him in bad odor. The Hollanders are a peculiar people, and anyone who will not pay his debts among them is always considered a bad man: but no one who saw Mr. Van Wyk upon the witness stand and heard his story, could for a moment doubt it or could really have it in his heart to question his sincerity and integrity. At least the jury, who are the sole judges of the credit to be given to the witness, believed his story and promptly returned a verdict in accordance therewith. “

These conflicting viewpoints merely add to the speculation of the character and business practices of Willem, particularly relating to those first couple of years in America.

Efforts to discover details of Van Wyk church involvement in Haarlemmermeer have not proved to be successful. There were several churches with roots in the Afscheiding located in the Haarlemmermeer Polder, and complicating the search was the fact that this Polder comprised a large territory, with uncertainty of the exact location of the Van Wyk family. While it is assumed that the Van Wyks were members of a church there and that their children were baptized there, this could not be proven. The same is true for the Dutch church affiliation and baptism of Taekje and the Bontekoe children in Friesland—no details are known.

Questions about the Van Wyk church affiliation begin immediately after their immigration to Iowa. There is no record of them officially joining a church upon their arrival. Even though their first couple of years in Jasper County in the 1892-1893 era were well beyond the ability to travel to and from the nearest Reformed-type church in Pella (none had been established in Sully or Galesburg at the time), they nonetheless could have still retained a membership in one of the Pella churches. This lack of a church home was made quite clear after the birth of Willem and Trijntje’s only child in America, Cornelis (Neal). Running well to the contrary of established Reformed theology, Neal was never baptized. As Trijntje died just a couple of months after Neal’s birth, one can easily accept that both distance and health issues would have prevented a baptism in a timely manner. But by 1895, when the Van Wyks were living in Pella with it’s very numerous and accessible church facilities, Neal’s baptism could have easily been accomplished. Did Willem Van Wyk have an “anti-establishment” character that made him wary of being connected to an organized church? Or did the early tragic death of his wife Trijntje, as well as the financial struggles he faced as evidenced by the De Goey judgment against him, make him bitter and resentful towards God, and by extension, the organized church?

The Van Wyks’ move to Union Township in Mahaska County mirrored the pattern of Jasper County – few folks of Dutch descent and no established Reformed congregation in the area. However, by that time the Reformed Church in America was actively seeking to start a congregation in New Sharon, and was supplying college students to hold services in Dutch in the Universalist Church there. One of these students from Hope College in Holland, Michigan was B. D. Dykstra, who eventually married a New Sharon girl and would later become a legend in Reformed Church circles. He was an independent spirit in his own right, and was jailed in South Dakota during World War I when he defiantly operated a Christian academy and published pacifist literature. He was known to visit Dutch immigrants surrounding New Sharon on foot, and attracted large audiences for his sermons. It is virtually certain that he communicated with the Van Wyk family during this time, with Willem likely identifying with his free-spirit character. But whether or not the Van Wyk family took part in the church services in New Sharon is not known. But it is interesting to note that over the years on the State of Iowa census, which occasionally asked the question of religion preference, Willem always noted that he was “Dutch Reformed.”

During this time and afterwards, it appears that the older sons and daughter of Willem took a far more traditional approach to their church activities. Hendrika had known her future husband Willem Lanser from the Haarlemmermeer and Jasper County days, and, while in Mahaska County, John, Guy, and Lambert all met spouses who were likely affiliated with the Christian Reformed church in Peoria, and Dick met a spouse connected to the Reformed church in Leighton. It appears that these older Van Wyk children made active attempts to associate themselves with the Reformed church body in the area where they were working and/or living. Did these children purposely take a differing approach to church activities than Willem? Or were they motivated by a desire to interact with young people of their own culture and language, which naturally led them to church as the traditional Dutch-American family centered itself around a Reformed fellowship? The answer to this isn’t entirely clear, but this pattern would also be largely repeated by the younger children of Willem and Trijntje as they became of age to marry.

When Willem moved back to the Pella area in 1900, he once again became surrounded by the habits, traditions, and language of his fellow countrymen. It was there he met Taekje, and she too may have had some misgivings about organized religion. It must be remembered that she had the experience of having her seventh child born out of wedlock two years after her husband died, and because of that would have likely not received much support from the Dutch religious community. Also, while Taekje’s parents lived on a small farm south of Pella, her brother and sisters had spread out to very non-traditional Dutch areas, including Madison County, Iowa, and the state of Oklahoma, indicating a non-reliance on traditional Dutch influences. Also, it would later be seen that all of Taekje’s Bontekoe/De Bont children from her first marriage found spouses of non-Dutch descent, and lived in non-Dutch areas. Willem and Taekje were married by the Rev. Cornelis De Haai. He had immigrated to Pella from the Netherlands as a farmer and then turned into a preacher. He was the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Pella, which later disbanded. The Tigchelaar family may have been associated with this church as well, since this Rev. De Haai also officiated at the funeral of Taekje’s mother. The Presbyterian Church would likely not have had the rigidness of a Dutch Reformed church, and Willem may have appreciated the non-traditional farmer background of De Haai far more than the formal seminary-trained background of all the pastors of the Pella Dutch Reformed churches. But the Presbyterian Church would have also been an ardent supporter of the sacrament of baptism, and Willem and Taekje still did not bring their children to church to be baptized.

But sometime later, likely after 1910, a change apparently took place in the religious life of the Van Wyks. For the first time, a strong recollection of going to church was given by the children. Ben Van Wyk recalled taking the buggy out for special occasions, including the weekly attendance at the First Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in Pella. The long poles with the bags attached at the end that were used for the collection of offerings from members in the pews during the service, was a sight that was etched in his mind. This church would have been considered the most conservative church in Pella of that era, with its core membership having seceded from First Reformed Church in Pella in 1866 over theological differences with that denomination, believing that it was becoming too liberal. This would have been a stark contrast to the Presbyterian Church background, and why Willem and Taekje opted to affiliate with First CRC is unknown. The pastor of First CRC at the time was Rev. Cornelius De Leeuw, and he had some popularity at the church as he was one of its longest serving pastors, staying there ten years. The record is unclear whether or not Willem ever became an official member of the church. However, he and Taekje did send their children to the Christian grade school in Pella after they moved from the farm to town, which would have been an action strongly endorsed by the leadership of First CRC.

As Taekje’s health situation deteriorated, perhaps the church began to play a greater role in the lives of the Van Wyk family. Then, on December 20, 1914, the most significant and interesting item of the Van Wyk historical religious record occurred: All five children of Willem and Taekje were baptized at First CRC on the same day. This would have been quite an event for a church that heavily promoted infant baptism, as Irene was 10, Ben was 9, the twins Joe and Gerrit were 7, and Tillie had just turned 6. What kind of work were Rev. De Leeuw and/or the church consistory (governing body of elders/deacons) doing with the Van Wyks to get this done? Was the uncertainty of life playing a role in this decision, with Taekje sensing urgency for a baptism before she died? This may well have been the case, as in less than six months the church records reflect the deaths of both Taekje and Tillie.

The newspaper reported that Rev. De Leeuw officiated at the service of Taekje, and it is likely he did the same for Tillie. In his lengthy thank-you to the public that was printed in the Weekblad following Tillie’s death and burial, Willem gave a very passionate description of his sorrow as well as his theological perspective on this event.  Willem also publicly thanked Tillie’s Christian school teacher, Gertrude Bennink, and classmates who attended the funeral service.

The Van Wyk connection to First CRC in Pella would cling for a few more years. When Dora Bontekoe died at Mt. Pleasant State Hospital in 1918, her body was shipped back to Pella for burial. Despite no record of the De Bonts or Tigchelaars ever being members of that church, the funeral service took place at First CRC, with Rev. De Leeuw officiating. And when Dora’s brother Jerry De Bont died in 1922 at the U.S. Veterans Hospital in Colfax from complications of being poisoned with gas during WW I, his funeral service was also held at First CRC in Pella, with the officiating minister Henry Walkotten of Second CRC in Pella.

So, how can we sum up the religious outlook of the original Van Wyk family of Willem and his two spouses? Without a one-on-one conversation or a clear record such as a diary, it is somewhat dangerous to comment on an individual’s religious beliefs. But the record is clear that Willem had some earth- shaking influences in his life, from the religious upheavals encountered by his forebears, to the financial losses he endured in Iowa, to the early deaths of his two wives and child. All these factors play a role in shaping a world-and-life view and affect one’s religious philosophy. But if Willem’s newspaper comments following Tillie’s death are any indication of his beliefs at the end of his life, it appears he died with the full comfort and assurance of God’s care and providence.

Ben Van Wyk Reminisces ->

<- Return to Index