A 130-Year-Old Surprise

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Herman Bavinck was one of the brightest theological lights in the Netherlands during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Calvin Seminary, at which I was trained, keeps Bavinck’s thought alive by assigning readings from his work and even sponsoring a Bavinck conference a few years ago. In my Dutch Reformed tradition, what Bavinck wrote and did still carries some weight; therefore, I’m grateful to Dr. John Bolt of Calvin Seminary for sharing a Bavinck anecdote with me.

In the course of his research for a book he’s writing about Bavinck, Bolt came across an event in Bavinck’s life in which he included two youth with disabilities in the life of the church. This behavior is especially remarkable considering that institutionalization of people with disabilities was a common practice 130 years ago.

Upon completing his doctoral studies he accepted the call to the Christian Reformed congregation in Franeker, Friesland, a charge he served from 1880-1882. Though brief, Bavinck’s pastoral work at Franeker was memorable. The church’s immediate history under its two previous ministers was troubled and characterized by division; under Bavinck’s care, the congregation experienced healing and flourished. . . . As one example of Bavinck’s pastoral heart, Bremmer [one of Bolt’s sources] tells the story of someone who experienced it firsthand when a young man. After his death in 1921, the man recalled Bavinck’s compassion for those who were physically and developmentally disabled. Bavinck visited the home of an “elderly woman whose two daughters were practically crippled, spoke with difficulty, and lived in circumstances of poverty; the mother was also not very neat. The two sisters expressed a desire to become members of the congregation and after a conversation with the consistory were gladly welcomed to the Table of the Covenant.” Even though their infirmities often hindered them from coming easily to church for Sunday services, “they were brought to the church by ambulance and they sat near the pulpit where they listened attentively and gladly.” Recalling a time in his youth forty years earlier, the man reported that this “small tableau” made a significant impression on the young people. He adds that “it was precisely here, with and by means of these simple people whom the world despised as ‘of no account,’” that Bavinck called on his congregation “to refashion themselves in the salvation that is found in Jesus.” (Quoted from Bolt’s draft of Herman Bavinck on the Christian Life. Used by permission.)

Bolt concludes , “It is wonderful to see a great doctor of the church instinctively do something so pastorally right. I have a feeling this might not have been so common in those days.” And I have a feeling that Bolt is right about that. Such care is not always found in churches today, 130 years later.

In what ways do you think that the presence of people with disabilities or disadvantages can call a congregation to refashion themselves in the salvation that is found in Jesus?

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