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Recent History

The German-Russians and Dr. H. F. Kohlbruegge

Source: You Shall Be My People. Copyright © 1996 by the Synod of the Reformed Church in the United States.

Rev. Norman C. Hoeflinger

SOME years ago at an adult Bible study I gave a lesson on “How the Christian Church became German.” In a German Reformed Church that might seem a bit “chauvinistic.” What I had in mind was the invasion of the Roman Empire by the Germanic tribes beginning in 376 A. D. when the Goths crossed the lower Danube and culminating with the fall of Rome in 476. But while the Germans conquered the Roman Empire, the Christian Church converted the Germans. And it was no less a German than Martin Luther who reformed the German church, or one might say the church as a whole (Protestant). It’s not my task to trace how a portion of that German church became Reformed, but we are all familiar with the story of the Elector Frederick III, Olevianus and Ursinus and our beloved Heidelberg Catechism. Most of us who read this have cut our Reformed teeth and were made to chew on this meaty instructor in the German Reformed Church in the U. S. But among those of us in the Reformed Church in the U. S. who were nurtured on the Heidelberg, a considerable number are not only German but are known also as German-Russians. And that’s the story of this chapter: How the German Reformed Church became German-Russian.

Of course not all German-Russians are Reformed. We wish that they were, seeing that in the 1970s according to the estimate of {126} Richard Sallet there were 303,532 first and second generation German-Russians in the U. S.[1] North Dakota led the way by far with approximately 70,000 while South Dakota and Kansas each had less than half that amount with Nebraska and Colorado numbering a little over 20,000 each. When we subtract the 37,000 Volhynian (Polish) and Lithuanian Germans spread throughout the U. S. there were 266,000 Black Sea and Volga Germans. Of these 67 percent were Evangelical, that is, Lutheran, Reformed, Congregational, etc., while 21 percent were Catholics and 12 percent Mennonites. How many of the German-Russians were Reformed? It’s hard to say. In the 1897 census in Russia 3.6 percent of all the German-Russians were Reformed.[2] If we use 3 percent for the 1970s in the U. S. we get about 9,000 Reformed, but RCUS statistics just before the merger in 1934 show about 5,000 in the Classes Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota and Eureka.[3] The Eureka Classis in 1915 showed 1,186 confirmed members and in 1935 1,406. No doubt almost all of these were German-Russians. Today the RCUS shows a confirmed membership of 3,160. Of these I would estimate that 58 percent are German-Russians.

The Eureka Classis was the one classis in the Reformed Church in the U. S. that did not go into the Evangelical and Reformed merger of 1934 nor the United Church of Christ merger in 1957. Why? Undoubtedly it was because the Eureka Classis organized in 1911 on dogmatic or doctrinal grounds. “Wir haben uns dogmatisch organisiert” (We have organized ourselves doctrinally), is the way one of the founders of the classis expressed it. And what was that doctrine? It was the Calvinistic theology of Dr. H. F. Kohlbruegge (KohlbrŸgge). His distinctive teaching so impressed certain Reformed pastors that it united them in the conviction that this is the true doctrine of the Reformed Faith. And it was some of these pastors who labored among the German-Russian congregations of the Eureka Classis convincing them to maintain their doctrine and their congregations against the compromising unionism of the mergers. So it was the German-Russians who were Kohlbrueggians who maintained and saved the Reformed Church in the U. S. And that’s what this chapter of our celebration volume is all about.


The name German-Russians is convertible. It can even be more accurately Russian Germans, or the name that perhaps says it best: {127}

Germans from Russia, as in the “Germans from Russian Heritage Society” at Bismarck, North Dakota, and the “American Historical Society Of Germans from Russia” at Lincoln, Nebraska. One thing about these German-Russians: there is very little Russian about them, though they were in many ways model citizens in Russia for a hundred years. But they were not Russians in politics, language, culture and religion. They not only came from Germany, but they were Germans all the way through. So faithfully had they maintained their heritage that in the 1940s when some returned as refugees to Germany the native Germans said of them. “They are more German than we are.”[4]

When I came to South Dakota in 1955 as pastor of the Reformed churches at Artas and Herreid, I found out how German they still were. I was expected to preach occasionally in the German language. However, with my German preaching their English improved so rapidly that the German soon became unnecessary! Of interest though, our children, at least on one occasion, played with children who spoke no English, and the “congress” in the town store was conducted in German except when the minister was there. (That was before TV and the leveling, or should I say mongrelization, of all cultures in America and the even more horrible modern “multi-culturalism.”)

But the story of the German-Russians is well-known, appearing in the celebration booklets of our churches in Nebraska and the Dakotas. Also the centennial volumes of the various communities in North and South Dakota, for example, Menno, Tripp, and Eureka, South Dakota, all repeat the German-Russian saga.

It is a tale of two continents, or as T. C. Wenzlaff titled his work, Pioneers on Two Continents,[5] using a phrase in James Griess’ The German-Russians: Those Who Came to Sutton;[6] a tale of two continents, not, A Tale of Two Cities. As Dickens began that work with the familiar words, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” so in God’s providence it was the worst of times in Germany that made emigration attractive to these solid German farmers and burghers to leave their homeland and go to the bleak steppe of Russia, and then a century later when they saw their situation in Russia worsening that they looked to another great plain for a homeland. And it was the best of times for them to establish themselves first in their own dorfs on the vast steppe that isolated and insulated them from the rest of society: {128}

. . . They sit, as it were, alone on the lonely steppe. Mingling in closer association with other nationalities has served to erase the differences among the Germans themselves; yet the German cares not for an intimate association with the filthy, degenerate Tartars, Bulgarians or Jews. He stays in his own village and only maintains a limited contact even with the nearest German colony; often only a mile (five English miles) wide field on the steppe separates a neighbor, but is a formidable obstacle for any contact. This, then, is how the colonist lives his lonely existence in his colony on the endless steppe to which broad plain no sound from the outer world penetrates.[7]

Then, when again in God’s providence it seemed time to move on, it was the best of times because the American west was opening up, and the German-Russians found the “endless prairies of the northern Great Plains, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Eastern Colorado, much like the landscapes they had abandoned in South Russia.”[8]

Why did these folks go to Russia to begin with? War, famine and pestilence can be mentioned: the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), the Seven Year’s War (1756-73) and the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars (1789-1816) all contributed to the devastation of South Germany. The disruption and destruction of war, plus occasional crop failures and unemployment, and the resulting social stress made many feel the need to move out. For whatever reason one hears the common German complaint, “Wir sind bis zur Stunde ein volk ohne Raum,”-a people in need of room. During the late eighteenth century and through the nineteenth many Germans emigrated. And early on the push was eastward to Russia, a land of opportunity.

Catherine II of Russia made this an attractive move. In order to bring Russia into the Western World and at the same time buffer her eastern frontier against the wild Siberian tribes, she sought European farmers, particularly Germans, to settle along the Volga River. She particularly sought after Germans as she herself had been a German princess of the House of Anhalt-Zerbst. After she married Peter (Peter the Great’s grandson), he despised her and she in turn conspired to have him deposed. He was later murdered! Catherine the Great, as she is known, issued a proclamation in 1763, encouraging the colonization along the Volga River with promises of religious liberty, tax exemption up to thirty years for farmers, exemption from military service and cash grants for buildings and livestock. Along with these and certain other privileges was the freedom to leave Russia at anytime. {129}

By 1768, 103 colonies were established on both sides of the Volga, containing about 23,000 Germans from Hesse, the Rhineland and the Palatinate. Sixty-five of these colonies were Evangelical and thirty-eight were Catholic.

Certainly some of these Volga Germans were Reformed. A number of the Volga German-Russians later settled in Nebraska, temporarily in Sutton, but more so in Lincoln and Hastings, working for the railroad. I do not know whether or not any of the congregations of the Reformed Church in the U. S. were made up of Volga River Germans.

However the other major settlement of Germans in Russia, in the Black Sea area, has provided the Reformed Church in the U.S. with that corps of people who made up the Eureka Classis, who are most of the people in the congregations of the continuing RCUS. The grandson of Catherine the Great, Alexander I, furthered the plan of his grandmother by sending agents into troubled southwest Germany. In 1803 he promised the settlers free acreage in addition to those former promises made by Catherine. But he required that the immigrants must be families worth no less than 300 guilders-a sizable amount-and he wanted no singles-adventurers or drifters-but farmers and craftsman who could serve as models to the Russian citizens.

While most Black Sea Germans say they are from Odessa, there were actually only a very small number who were from that seaport city on the Black Sea. There was a Reformed Church in Odessa itself. In 1843, forty-two members separated themselves from the Lutherans in the Evangelical Church, and the group quickly grew to seventy voting members and 200 souls. By 1865 there were 138 voters and 514 souls.[9] However the German-Russians in the Reformed Church in the U. S. came not from Odessa but from its vicinity, from the villages of Rohrbach, Worms, Johannesthal and Waterloo in the Beresan Group (by the Beresan River between the Bug and Dniester rivers in the southern Ukraine). These were from Wuertemberg, the Palatinate and Baden in Germany. The Glueckstal group was made up of the villages of Glueckstal, Neudorf, Kassel and Bergdorf. These came from Wuertemberg, Alsace, Baden and the Palatinate. The Reformed from Alsace organized a number of villages.[10] In all, the German immigrants established 214 colonies and 1,000 daughter colonies in the Black Sea region.


At the beginning life was extremely difficult for these colonists. There first homes were dugouts, though eventually they had homes of brick and stone quarried {130} or made locally. Diseases, such as cholera, were a threat to the whole community; and robbers were always a danger. And as an agricultural people they constantly faced the problems of natural disasters of one kind or another causing crop failures. But another hazard is reported in the colony Rohrbach; not just poor farming but an unchristian life style. There was a lack of the fear of God; immorality was unchecked and applauded by those who sat idly in the shade of the whiskey taverns unconcerned about the welfare of their families. Village officials didn’t seem to care and the education of the youth was neglected. But then a change took place:

A new era was ushered in with the year 1824. God had mercy on us in every respect and in His discerning design sent us Johannes Bonekemper, a serious minded preacher of the Gospel, whose labors were blessed. . . . His twenty-four years work with us will long be remembered.”[11]

In 1865 Pastor Hermann Dalton of the German Reformed Church in St. Petersburg wrote in his “History of the Reformed Church in Russia” after visiting the Reformed colonies, “All other interests yield to that of religion. Politics, literature, commerce, art, in so far as they can relate to a rural population, have entirely receded to the background, while all church and religious questions occupy most of the colonists in their leisure hours.”[12] Another report states that Sundays especially were devoted to religious interests: Sunday morning worship and Sunday afternoon Bible study-with a nap in between. Preparation began already Saturday with regular work stopping at 6:00 P. M. and the cleanup begun for Sunday so that by 9:00 o’clock everything was ready and everyone waited for Sunday. On Sunday the mood was festive. No one worked. The only wagon driven Sunday morning was the one that brought the minister. Everyone went to church. The report concludes, “The German settlements in foreign countries were recognized for their diligent labors on workdays and as being a haven of rest for the residents on Sundays.”[13]


The people in the colonies had a strong religious background, and the Protestants had a Reformation heritage. This was true of the Reformed. It can be illustrated by the Ochsner family. Johann Nikolas Ochsner had emigrated from Edenkoben in Germany in 1809 to South Russia and helped to found the colony of Worms. Cleon Ochsner reported at the Ochsner family reunion in 1994: {131}

According to church records, Felix Ochsner was married by the Swiss Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli. It is safe, therefore, to assume that the Ochsners were very early involved in the Reformation movement. When Jacob “Jaegli” emigrated from Witikon, Switzerland to Edenkoben in 1656, he chose to go to the Palatinate, where in 1563, under the sponsorship of Elector Prince Frederick III, the Heidelberg Catechism was published. We know from the history of the time, that the citizens of a particular principality were expected to embrace the religion of the ruler and Frederick embraced the Reformed movement whole-heartedly. As far as we can determine, the Edenkoben Ochsners were all baptized, married and buried in the Reformed Church there.[14]

So from this we see that Nikolas Ochsner came from a long and strong Reformed background. We are not surprised to hear him mentioned as being present at the farewell sermon of Johannes Bonekemper which he preached on March 25, 1848 at Rohrbach. He was no doubt a friend of this staunch Reformed pastor.

Johannes Bonekemper came to Rohrbach in 1824 from the Mission House at Basel, Switzerland. He lived at Rohrbach and preached there, and at Worms and Johannesthal, and later also in Gueldendorf and Waterloo. His main pastoral concern was to strengthen the Reformed consciousness of his people by arranging classes for Reformed instruction and by teaching the young people the Heidelberg Catechism.[15] Dalton reports of him that he was accused of being a hyper-Calvinist,[16] and he refused to conduct worship and communion according to the new church regulations of the Consistorium in Odessa in the Lutheran form. He opposed liturgy, ritual and candles. In the Evangelical Church the Lutheran and Reformed worshiped together, and the Lutherans had been satisfied with Bonekemper’s Reformed worship. But now there was trouble, and the upshot of it was that separate worship services were ordered to be held for each. Bonekemper’s own conscience and his Reformed convictions no doubt led to this separation. At a later date the Reformed in Rohrbach and Worms were organized as a separate parish, calling its own Reformed pastor.

But Bonekemper had another problem. He was not only Reformed, but he was an ardent pietist. Now pietism emphasizes the personal experience in the life of the Christian; the experiential above the doctrinal and confessional aspects of church life. Due largely to the dead orthodoxy in the Lutheran Churches at this time, pietism made its appeal throughout Europe. Three groups made an entrance into {132} Russia: the Stundists, Separatists and Chiliasts. The Chiliasts were the most extreme and were those who looked for Christ to return in 1836 on Mt. Ararat in the Caucasus Mountains of South Russia. Disastrous journeys were made by many German emigrants to be present for this event, journeys on which a great many of them lost their lives because they were unprepared for the hardships and disease. Less radical than the Chiliasts but still withdrawn from society were the Separatists who had lost faith in both government and the established church. Johannes Bonekemper certainly avoided these extremes, but he was an advocate of the Stunden. Bonekemper introduced the “Erbauungstunde” (hour of devotion). These hours of prayer and study were something like our present day home Bible study groups of prayer gatherings, though they did not militate against the organized worship of the church but were supportive of it. Nevertheless they had the unfortunate result of separating the congregation into the “converted” and the “unconverted,” or the “children of God” and the “world.”[17]

A further complication developed. A further development that eventually brought an end to Bonekemper’s ministry was the bizarre activities that began in 1847. Among the children and young people of the parish, repentance took the form of bodily convulsions and shivering. Some screamed out loud or groaned and beat themselves so that their hands bled, pulling on their clothing and hair. They became stupefied. Some shouted, “Get away, devil. . . I have obeyed you long enough. . ” Some jumped up and smiled and said, “Only a little bit more of faith,” and others shouted, “Jesus lives. . . I’ve got the Savior.” This was all reported by Bonekemper himself in his diary. His son, Carl, later wrote in the margin of the diary, “peasants”, indicating his disapproval. He also noted that the young school teacher, Jacob Orth, who later became the first minister among the German Russians in America was as a child among these religious fanatics.[18]

The Lutheran authorities objected to this phenomenon and informed Bonekemper to “regulate more carefully the ways of true Christian salvation by prayer and sane exploration. . . .” But Bonekemper defended these activities as the work of God because those who “engaged and praised divine grace for the forgiveness of sins showed themselves from that day on to be decent Christians.”[19] Now, though he had served for twenty-four years, he realized he could no longer remain as the pastor at Rohrbach and resigned, intending to go to America with his friends; but he never made it.

Bonekemper’s son, Carl, had already gone to America. On his trip to the United States he experienced a severe storm on March 20, 1848 that produced such {133} a spiritual awakening in him that he decided to become a minister. He studied at the Theological Seminary at Mercersburg in Pennsylvania. After that he was ordained and organized the Zion Reformed Church in Philadelphia. He returned to Europe in 1855 and studied at the University of Berlin. He was then a teacher for seven years at Pilgermission in Basel before returning to South Russia to undertake pastoral labors in the Rohrbach-Worms Reformed congregations where his father had served so long. It seems that he shared his father’s theology and pietism without the extreme physical manifestations of previous years. He was a very learned man of whom it was said that he could preach in seven languages or be silent in seven languages. In Rohrbach he also introduced preaching in Russian to the farm laborers and was largely responsible for bringing the Gospel to the Russian and Ukrainian people.[20]


But the times were a changing in Russia. Tsar Alexander II, introducing a more liberal policy, freed the Russian serfs in 1861 and introduced some self-government. But in so doing he sought to make all citizens equal and so revoked the privileges given the German colonists in the Volga and Black Sea areas. All schools and local government had to be in Russian, and universal military conscription was instituted in 1874. The “forever” privileges promised the German colonists were interpreted by the Tsar to mean a century. The colonists were given ten years to decide whether or not they wished to remain in Russia or emigrate.

Already in 1849 one group from Odessa left Russia for the United States. Among them was Ludwig Bette and A. Scheller. Some of this group settled in Ohio. Scheller and Bette ended up on Kelley’s Island in Lake Erie where they operated very successful vineyards. A German Reformed Church was organized there in 1865. Ludwig Bette anglicized his name to Lewis Beaty. He made a trip back to Russia in 1872 to visit his relatives, and talked up the advantages and opportunities of America so freely that the authorities sought to arrest him. He had to get rid of his American top hat and suit for a colonists cap and clothing to escape detection. Bette’s relatives decided for the U. S. and left in 1872. There were three groups who first came, for a total of 121 persons. These were from the Odessa area: Johannesthal, Rohrbach and Worms.

These first groups came to Sandusky, Ohio, where there was a German population and a Reformed Church since 1853. From there they sent scouts to the surrounding states but could not find what they were looking for: “We want to be {134} together and have our church and school.”[21] So they looked further, to Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota and the Dakota Territory. In this last they found what they were looking for-the land, a steppe, similar to the one in Russia. When they visited Yankton, the city of entry, “They were most pleasantly surprised for they found in ill-reputed Dakota the most pleasant spring weather,” and they thought they were back in Russia. When the families arrived in April, they found deep snow lying in the fields! But they stayed anyway.[22]

In 1873 fifty-five families of about four hundred individuals left Worms and Rohrbach for the U. S. This group was led by Johann Grosshans, who had married J. Bonekempers widow, and Heinrich and Michael Griess and Heinrich Hoffmann. They came through Burlington, Iowa, where there were some earlier settlers from the colonies, and then on to Lincoln, Nebraska. They moved on to Sutton where twenty-two of the families bought land from the Burlington Railroad. The rest of the group decided in favor of the Dakota Territory. Yankton was the “Mother City of the Dakotas” at that time, and the German-Russians came there in 1873. However they didn’t stay there but began a settlement, which they called Odessa, southeast of present Scotland, South Dakota. The laws passed by congress enabled these immigrants to acquire homesteads cheaply in South Dakota whereas the lands owned by the railroads in Nebraska were higher priced. From then on the German-Russians continued to pour into the countryside through Yankton, among them were those by name of Neuharth, Koerner, Goehring, Aman, Nuss, Becher, Hoff, and Bentz. P. F. Neuharth reported:

First we began to look for land. There was enough of it at that time. All that was necessary was to wish to settle on it and to choose a suitable place. We found such a suitable place forty miles north of Yankton, in Hutchinson County. Then we had to fix us an abode. In the beginning tents were built. Thus my father built one size 10×12 with the help of planks. We children had to sleep on the floor. Of course we did not have a door in our tent. My mother simply hung a blanket over the entrance and that was it. Besides us, two other families were in this region. We were the only ones as far as one could see.[23]

In 1874 the first settler in Menno was Ludwig Mehlhaf. The settlers north of Menno were from Kassel, so that’s what they named their settlement. When some moved from there north of Freeman that was called KleinKassel (Little Kassel). In the Tripp area the first settlers came by ox cart from Yankton in 1875, others in {135} 1879. There were also settlements in the Marion, Delmont and Emery areas where Reformed congregations were established. Of the one hundred or so families in the Menno, Scotland, and Tripp area, about half were Reformed.


In Russia it was the custom for the Lutheran and Reformed congregations to worship together in one parish without stressing the differences in confessions. We remember that there were exceptions to this as in the case where separation occurred in the Worms Rohrbach parish where J. Bonekemper was pastor. But the practice of combined worship did not continue in this country. One Reformed elder reports:

But we remembered the prayer meetings which we had over there and began to gather in the larger homes to hear God’s Word in order to strengthen our faith and to get consolation for our poor heart. Soon a minister of a Lutheran church found us and threw out his net, but it was (done) awkwardly and clumsily. He taught us that the only right and true church was the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, that the ministers of all other churches were fanatics and heretics. The prayer meetings which we held he called foolish humbug, which had to come to an end. That was too much; we did not want to listen to him any more. . . . . Thus we were without a religious leader; but God in His mercy thought of our need and sent us in Jacob Orth a capable and faithful pastor.[24]

Jacob Orth was born in Worms, South Russia, in 1837. He grew up under the instruction of Pastor J. Bonekemper and became a teacher in the Reformed school. There he served for seventeen years before coming to this country in 1874 to homestead near Lesterville, South Dakota. In Russia the school teacher was also the minister’s assistant. He often conducted worship and carried on the religious instruction-since most of the education was religious in character: catechism, Bible History, reading from the Bible, plus writing and arithmetic. So the neighbors of Jacob Orth, being dissatisfied with the Lutheran pastors, asked him to be their spiritual leader. He consented and began holding reading services. Soon there were some from farther away who asked him to do the same for them.

In the providence of God, the Rev. Carl Kuss, who had known Jacob Orth in Russia, was sent out by the Mission Board of the Reformed Church to bring aid to the German-Russian immigrants struggling with the drought and locusts and to help them in their spiritual needs. Rev. Kuss went around with Jacob Orth and {136} visited various congregations gathered in overcrowded homes. He preached every day in the week, sometimes three times. He also informed the people on the practices of the Reformed Church. These congregations were then organized into churches, and many are still in existence today.

Rev. Kuss recommended to the Mission Board that $50 be given to Jacob Orth to travel to Sheboygan, Wisconsin, to be examined, licensed and ordained by the Sheboygan Classis. It was given, and he went and attended a few classes at the Mission House Seminary and copied in his notes the Dogmatics of Dr. H. A. Muehlmeier. He also became acquainted with the practices of the Reformed Church in the U. S. The Mission Board also offered $500 to the Reformed congregations in South Dakota, but they turned it down for fear of too much influence from Synod! These Dakota congregations were organized into the newly created Nebraska Classis, and later transferred to constitute the Dakota Classis.

After his ordination, Pastor Orth was called by both the Friedens Charge of Tripp and the Kassel Charge of Menno. He chose the Friedens but ended up serving Kassel as well. Congregations organized by him included Scotland, Menno, Tripp, Delmont, Cassel, Marion and others.[25] An example of the stand he took recalls what occurred possibly in the Johannesthal congregation. The group assembled in the house was Lutheran but had diligently attended services though they seemed hesitant to come over to the Reformed side. Orth was somewhat reluctant to go in but was urged to do so. His texts for that day were 1 Kings 18:21, “How long will you halt between two opinions?” and 1 Corinthians 11:19, “For there must be heresies among you. . . .” A few weeks later a Reformed congregation was organized there.[26] Jacob Orth was ordained at age 37 and labored as a pastor for eight years, serving as many as 240 families spread over the area. His estimation of his work, shortly before he died at the age of 46, “I have worked myself to death.”[27] Pastor Orth encouraged the reading of sermons by the elders in each congregation on the Lord’s Day when there was no minister there. In that way regular worship was encouraged.

In the meantime, the Reformed German-Russians in Sutton, Nebraska, also obtained a pastor. As we mentioned, the widow of Rev. J. Bonekemper (his third wife) had married the teacher Johann Grosshans. They were among the group that came to Sutton. On the trip from Russia to the U. S., while in Hamburg, Germany, Grosshans and H. Hoffmann made the trip to Barmen where William Bonekemper, the son of J. Bonekemper and his third wife, was studying at the Mission House to be a missionary to China. They petitioned the school to send William to the U. S. {137} when he finished his education. This was agreed as long as the group would pay his travel expense. So in 1876 William Bonekemper came to Sutton and was ordained as a Reformed minister. The next week the Immanuel Reformed Church was organized in Sutton, and Pastor Bonekemper served the parish for thirty-two years.

In 1897 a group withdrew from the Immanuel Reformed Church and organized the Free German Reformed Salem Church, calling Rev. Michael Hofer from Menno, South Dakota, to be its pastor. Rev. Hofer served this congregation for thirty-one years, until his death in 1929. Since that time, this congregation has continued to read over again and again in the German language 275 published sermons of the more than 800 he preached.[28] This congregation is aptly referred to as the “Hofer Church.” In recent years many of the younger families have joined Immanuel or Hope churches in Sutton. Hope Reformed Church was also organized by a group that withdrew from Immanuel Church. Seventy-one members organized the church in 1908. Rev. U. Zogg was its first pastor. Hope Reformed Church was independent until 1937 when it joined the Nebraska Classis of the Synod of the Northwest. But it withdrew again in 1942 and in 1945 under the second pastorate of Rev. Zogg, the congregation united with the Eureka Classis, RCUS. The Immanuel Reformed Church went along with the mergers, though maintaining the Heidelberg Catechism and its Reformed stance. In 1969 Immanuel withdrew from the United Church of Christ and overwhelmingly voted to rejoin the Reformed Church in the U. S., Eureka Classis.

In the Dakotas the German-Russians, including the Reformed, moved northward in 1884 and 1885. In central South Dakota there were congregations at Alpena, Wessington Springs and Highmore. West of the Missouri there was a church at Herrick. But the main movement was to the northern counties, Edmunds, McPherson, Walworth and Campbell. Most of the Reformed settlers there came from the Menno area. In 1887 the railroad terminated at Eureka, and Eureka was for a while the “Wheat Capital of the World.” It really seemed that the community had “found it,” since that’s the meaning of the name. The Rev. Frank Grether, a Reformed Church missionary to the Dakotas, visiting at the time was present at the meeting when the name was being considered. He suggested “Eureka”-“I have found (it).” This Greek word was reportedly said by Archemides when he found out how to refine gold.[29] The Eureka Classis founded in 1911 was given that name for the same reason, having nothing to do with the town of Eureka, but indicating that they had truly found a way to maintain their Kohlbrueggian theology in the less-than-sympathetic RCUS.

Congregations were also numerous in the areas surrounding Artas, Herreid, {138} Hosmer and Leola. In 1887 the South Dakota Classis was organized with four ministers, twenty-nine congregations, 1,145 confirmed members and 1,400 unconfirmed. Rev. Walter Odenbach has said the obvious, “The need for German speaking ministers was great in the Dakotas, lack of whom considerably hampered the growth of the Reformed church. Congregations were organized but there were too few pastors to serve them.”[30] And again, “It seems likely that the Reformed Church in the United States missed a great opportunity to gain more strength in South Dakota because it failed in any strong missionary effort to organize more congregations and have more pastors available to serve them. The availability of pastors was the major problem.[31] Language too was a problem since as one elder said, “Unser Gott is ein Deutscher Gott” (Our God is German).[32]

A great many German Russians entered North Dakota. Early Reformed settlements were in the area of Streeter and Medina in Stutsman County, served by the traveling missionary Rev. Peter Bauer, and in the Ashley-Wishek area, under the ministry of Rev. H. W Steinecker. Congregations were also established at Upham, up north, and at Heil, out west river. Also there were a number of congregations in the Goodrich area, again served by Rev. Bauer. Very interesting reading is his booklet, Experiences From My Missionary Life in the Dakotas.[33] Also very inspiring are the spiritual pilgrimages of Johannes Bonekemper, Carl Bonekemper and Michael Nuss found in the Heritage Review.[34]

A number of the early pastors who contributed much to the life of the Reformed Church in the Dakotas came from South Russia: Carl Bonekemper, Peter Bauer, Michael Nuss and Michael Hofer. Other ministers who played an important part were F. A. Rittershaus, A. Steinecker and Ulrich Reue. (No doubt others could be mentioned.) Michael Hofer was the most controversial of these. He had been a missionary worker in India. When he came to Scotland, South Dakota, in 1883 he claimed he was ordained but had no papers to prove it and the authorities in Russia said that he never had been ordained. He refused to be examined, licensed and ordained by the Classis but let his church elders ordain him. The Reformed Church therefore erased his name from its roll of ministers. Thereafter he pastored the Reformed Zion Church (Kassel), north of Menno, and led it out of the bounds of the {139} RCUS [35] Later, as we have seen, he went to the Free Reformed Church near Sutton, Nebraska. The Zion Reformed Church, sometime later, returned to the RCUS, joining the Eureka Classis in 1944. On the whole these pastors were dedicated servants of Christ, and to read of their lives and labors is truly edifying and inspiring. In many ways the Reformed Church in the U. S. today is a living fruit of the labors of Johannes Bonekemper. As it was said of him in 1848, “For a long time this blessing which he left will be with us, a memorial which he established by his activities of twenty-four years.”[36] Professor Rath goes on to say with regard to the continuing Reformed Church, “The pietistic inclinations of Bonekemper were quenched during the years but not the Reformed convictions.”[37] How did that happen? Enter Dr. Kohlbruegge.


Who was Dr. Hermann Friedrich Kohlbruegge, that he made such a lasting impression on the German-Russians in the Dakotas? He was not a German-Russian, and he never came to America. For that matter neither was he ever in Russia. His life span though was during the same period that most of the forebearers of our Dakota German-Russians were in Russia. His dates were 1803-1875, and our German-Russian Reformed began settling in the Odessa area in 1804-1805 and started to leave around 1874. While they may have been contemporaneous, there was no personal connection.

Actually Hermann Friedrich Kohlbruegge was born in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. As a child he acquired from his grandmother great enthusiasm for “church, Netherlands, and Orange,”[38] this last being the House of Orange, the ruling family of the Netherlands. On his deathbed he said, “Cut me up and you will find nothing but Orange.”[39] His mother was Dutch, Petronella Terhuis, but his father, Hermann Gerhard, was a German immigrant from Osnabrueck in western Germany. Hermann Friedrich was baptized in the Westerkerk Reformed Church, but his parents left that congregation because of its liberalism and joined a “Hersteld” (Restored) Lutheran Church, a group which had separated from the more liberal Lutheran congregation to restore original Lutheranism.

After the time of Luther a number of controversies raged among the Lutherans. While we think generally of the differences between the Reformed and Lutheran on the Lord’s Supper, relating also to the person of Christ, these were by {140} no means the only areas of discussion and disagreement among Lutherans. Luther had raised the basic issue of how a man can be righteous before God, and thereupon founded the Reformation on the biblical doctrine of justification by faith. Or as is frequently stated, by faith alone. Virtually no one denies the role of faith in justification; it’s the “alone” part that creates the controversies.

In the Majoristic Controversy, it was charged that George Major omitted the word “alone” in the phrase justification by faith alone. He later denied this but said, “I will teach all my life that good works are necessary for salvation.”[40] In the course of the controversy Amsdorf over-reacted by writing a pamphlet, “Good Works Are Injurious to Salvation: This is a correct, true, Christian proposition taught and preached by St. Paul and Luther.”[41] A further issue growing out of this controversy was the place of the law in the life of the Christian-the Antinomistic Controversy. Some held that there is no use of the law in the life of the Christian, who should simply remain in faith. The Synergistic Controversy dealt with the question of the freedom of the will and man’s cooperation in conversion, that is, “Man must do his part.” In attempting to defend genuine Lutheranism, Flacius went so far as to say that not only is man dead in sin but that the image of God has been replaced by the “true and living image of the devil.[42] Then there was the controversy with Osiander who said that Christ’s righteousness was infused into the believers for justification rather than accounted to them as the forensic (legal) ground of their acceptance with God. These and others were the battle grounds between the Philippists, defenders of certain positions attributed to Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s aid and successor, and the Gnesio Lutherans, or “original, genuine” Lutherans, who claimed to be going back to Luther. The issues raised in these controversies certainly had some bearing on the questions that Kohlbruegge wrestled with later on.

So it was in the Hersteld Lutheran congregation that Kohlbruegge grew up and received his catechetical training. As a child he entered whole soul into the Bible stories his grandmother told him, and as a boy he didn’t care much about playing.

He gave himself to learning Greek, Latin and Hebrew, and in time Syriac and Arabic. Books were his joy and pleasure. At the age of twenty he attended the theological lectures of Professors Hengel and Bendinger for three years, after which he became a vicar in his home congregation and thus a candidate for ordination in the Lutheran church. Meanwhile his father’s business, a soap factory, failed and so did his health with it. “Now I die in peace,” he said on his deathbed when his son {141} promised to continue his studies until he received his Doctor of Theology degree.[43]


Revival was sweeping across Europe at this time, especially among the Reformed. Called Le Reveil, it began in French Switzerland, and spread through France and settled in Holland to produce among other things what we know as the Christian Reformed Church. Kohlbruegge delved into this movement in Holland and associated with its leaders-the Reformed Bilderdijk, a famous poet, and his disciple, the converted Jew, Isaac Da Costa, who became the leader of the movement. Kohlbruegge met with these and other intellectuals in the stimulating gatherings in their homes. Yet it seems he saw this as an indulgence in mysticism. A life of uninterrupted prayer and contemplation of God is not healthy. One day he heard a voice ask, “What are you worshiping-God or yourself?” He confessed that he worshiped himself, that he had brought God down out of heaven and into his heart. “Then he lost and condemned mysticism.”[44] So in his first sermon he stood before the Hersteld congregation as one who was not a mystic nor a poet, but as one who had lost all possibility of saving himself and cast himself into the arms of grace by which God saves the godless. “As far as virtue and works are concerned, we are done for-faith alone justifies. Only by this will we enter the kingdom of heaven. Only by this can we stand before God.”[45]

In 1825, “In fear of hell, I had the Bible before me. . . in a moment something penetrated my heart that I cannot describe. . . . I heard the words of Isaiah 54:7-10. A cloud of deep peace was in me and around me, and all my sins were gone from me. And from that hour I spoke another language.”[46] This continued until 1833. This first conversion occurred as he was preparing a sermon on Romans 5:1. Later he was to experience a second conversion when he was preparing his famous sermon on Romans 7:14.

Though he got a good response to his sermon from some, it did not go over so well with the powers that be. Liberal tendencies were now felt in the Hersteld congregation too. Pastor Uckermann was of that mind and he persuaded the church consistory: “He had committed a mortal sin; he had brought unrest to the congregation; he couldn’t stay.” In Kohlbruegge’s own words, “I threw the match into the powder keg.” He told the congregation, “What I preached to you I have {142} learned from the Lord. It came out of my heart. . .”[47] So Kohlbruegge was deposed from his position in the Hersteld church but later declared that it was “the true church (that) was excommunicated out of the fellowship.”[48]

Kohlbruegge was now jobless and down to his last penny, but he remembered the promise to his father and moved from Amsterdam to Utrecht where a stranger befriended him and gave him housing. There he pursued his doctoral studies and chose for his dissertation Psalm 45. In this he defended the orthodox view as over against the view that Uckermann held. After receiving his doctorate he got married to Catherina Louisa Engelbert, an orphan, and a member of the Hersteld congregation. But her grandmother forbade the marriage until she knew that Kohlbruegge was defending the view of Psalm 45 that it was about Christ and His bride![49]


Surprisingly, now we find that the Kohlbruegges sought to have their first child baptized in the Reformed Church in Utrecht. In his soul searching study of the prophets he became convinced of the sovereignty of God and His election, and he concluded that Calvin and the Reformed church best understood this. Also he remembered his roots in the faith of his grandmother, as well as the historic, stalwart stand of the Dutch Calvinists. So Kohlbruegge became a Calvinist, though he didn’t give up Luther. In fact he read more of Luther than Calvin, but the clear explanation of Scripture by Calvin deeply impressed him. And he gladly embraced the teaching of Olevianus in the Heidelberg Catechism.

So Kohlbruegge stated, “I could no longer, as an honest man, accept an office in the Lutheran Church. . . .”[50] But now when he applied for membership in the Netherlands Reformed Church, he was rejected and told by the president of the Classis, “We must have peace in our church.” Kohlbruegge was considered a troublesome agitator. But still he felt his was a happy situation because he took it as a “powerful proof of the truth.”[51]

Kohlbruegge turned to his friends in the Reveil movement for support, but their individualism and differences of opinion proved no help. He was desperate, yet {143} the dregs of the cup were not yet drained. His beloved wife died of a fever leaving him with two small children. Then the news reached him that his dear brother had died at sea. Truly the shadow of death hung over him; yet he wrote “The Lord is with us. . . He is our portion. He leads us in the narrow way to glory. . . .” [52]


When he was thirty years old, Kohlbruegge’s doctors advised him to take a cruise down the Rhine for the sake of his health. As he made his way he looked for those who “understood the language of Canaan,” or as some would say today, who “really know the Lord.” His journey took him to the Wuppertal Valley, where at an earlier date revival had come. And now the fire had been rekindled by the Reformed pastors Gottfried Daniel Krummacher and his nephew, Friedrich Wilhelm Krummacher, at the Reformed Church at Elberfeld. Kohlbruegge was welcomed here and even asked to preach. Sixteen times in one month he gave witness to the all sufficient grace of the Gospel of Christ. He proclaimed the inability of man, even the pious man, and God’s justification of the ungodly.

On July 29, 1833, Kohlbruegge spoke at the Mission House in Barmen on the text Romans 7:14, explaining it in the traditional manner: “I am fleshly, that is, as much as I am fleshly, I am sold under sin.” When he arrived home he had a request from G. D. Krummacher, who was sick, asking him to preach for him on Wednesday evening. Kohlbruegge asked God for a text and then settled on the text Romans 7:14. As he thought on the text,

. . . he noticed something which he never noticed before, and this changed the whole sense of the entire chapter, and everything came in a new light. In the Greek text there was a comma after the word “fleshly.” This caught a hold of him and shook him up-it was an enlightenment to him. Hence, not only “as far as I am fleshly, I am, Paul, sold under sin.” No. “I Paul as Paul am fleshly; I Paul am, as I am, sold under sin; I also as the regenerate man am opposed to the law.” And this sudden insight did not distress him but rather it made him drunk with comfort. He had to praise the mercy of God.[53]

This date, July 31, 1833 was a very special date in Wuppertal, but also in the life of Kohlbruegge. A second conversion of Kohlbruegge had taken place. “I don’t know that in my whole life anything has gripped me more than the seeing of this comma.” That even the regenerate (those born again) stand under the judgment, {144} “I am flesh, sold under sin.” Thus for the regenerate also Christ alone is wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption. Kohlbruegge intends from now on to proclaim that God justifies the godless, and that Jesus Christ as the one made sin by God coming in the flesh is the only Savior. He says, “I am fleshly. -notice what we read. Paul does not say . . . I was previously-but I am fleshly.” This was now Kohlbruegge’s message to all, and the emphasis that would dominate his preaching and the preaching of the Kohlbrueggians. It is that God justifies the ungodly, and that includes the believer as well; “I am fleshly, sold under sin.”[54] Was this a second conversion of Kohlbruegge? Rightly understood, it was a conversion of his conversion.[55]

With this very special day in the spiritual pilgrimage of Kohlbruegge, we will break off following the details of his life except to give a brief summary. He was asked to continue in the Reformed Church at Elberfeld, but he was unable to be licensed to preach because the Prussian government viewed him as an opponent to their proposed union of the Lutheran and Reformed churches.

He returned to Utrecht and remarried. Because of the poor health of his wife some time was spent at Godesburg in Germany. Many gathered on Sundays to hear him open the Scriptures to them. At Elberfeld a battle over the union and a new liturgy caused a group of twenty-nine to leave the Reformed Church. Daniel and Carl van der Heydt were its leaders. In 1846 they sent a call to Kohlbruegge to come and be their pastor. He accepted and sought ordination, but neither the Reformed Church in Elberfeld nor the Reformed Church in the Netherlands would ordain him. So the congregation of fifty-three decided to ordain him themselves. In the meantime the church was organized as the Niederlaendisch Reformierte Gemeine with the Belgic Confession, the Scotch Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism as its doctrinal standards. It was recognized by the Prussian state, and in 1848 Kohlbruegge was ordained by the elders of the congregation which had grown to 696 members. While Kohlbruegge was considered controversial, and there was much opposition to the church, in time there was acceptance and Kohlbruegge was fairly well received in the Reformed Church in Germany and in his native Holland. He was a friend of the famous Dr. Abraham Kuyper in the Netherlands and was invited to preach in his church in Amsterdam. He continued to serve the independent Elberfeld congregation until his death on March 5, 1875. Kohlbruegge’s sermons and writings were widely distributed among the Reformed in Europe and to some extent here in America, including among the German-Russians. And that’s our story-but first a look at the theology of Dr. Kohlbruegge. {145}


Life’s experiences help to forge one’s faith and theology. It’s true in the Bible. God touched the lives of His people with His redemptive revelation. But it’s also true in our lives; and as we have seen, the life situation of Hermann Friedrich Kohlbruegge largely directed and drove him to his theological conclusions. To some extent his was a theology of reactions. He not only spoke to his generation but in many ways he spoke against it. And not just against the rationalism and liberalism which was rampant in the nineteenth century, but also against the pietistic reaction to them. Kohlbruegge saw both the liberalism of his day and its pietism as man centered. He saw the focus of the Gospel elsewhere, and in his own catechism, Die Lehre des Heils (The Doctrine of Salvation) the three parts are-I. I am man and nothing more; II. That God is God; III. God also fulfills His promises to me. This could be summarized, “Let God be God,” and that certainly is not a foreign theme to Reformed thinking. At one time Kohlbruegge began translating Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress but gave it up in favor of writing what appears to be a more autobiographical “conversation between two pilgrims on the journey to eternity” entitled Die Sprache Kanaans. This title was taken from Isaiah 19:18, “The Language of Canaan,” and Kohlbruegge takes it to mean the conversation of the redeemed. In this allegory the pilgrims are tempted by various religious groups: freethinkers, moralists, rationalists, revivalists, liberals, skeptics, quietists, pietists, antinomists and separatists (these were Kohlbruegge’s conflicts in Holland); then the unionists, orthodox glad-hearers, peace preservers, enthusiasts, planners and sentimentalists (with these he struggled in Germany). But none of these could help the pilgrim find the King, “I was concerned about the city, that I might behold the king in His beauty, but they were concerned only about the temple, ‘I’. . they were all united in this out of eagerness for their own glory. . . . They had the words of truth, but not the truth of the words.”[56]

Then in contrast to all the others there is True-Work who said, “I have sinned against the king, and truly against better knowledge and conscience. I am utterly lost.” Nothing could console him until one morning he said, “I have found the King, and grace in His eyes. He told me Himself that He has paid everything for me, and that His Father and God is my Father and God and will remain so forever.”[57] Here then we see something of Kohlbruegge’s themes: I am nothing (more than man), God is God, and He fulfills His promises to me. {146}

We notice, too, the statement about those who had “the words of truth.” These were no doubt the orthodox, confessional churches, whose confidence was in believing the right things and maintaining the confessions-but who suffered perhaps from dead orthodoxy. On the other hand there were those who did not have “the truth of the words” because they were trusting in their own religious experience, whether mystics, or the pious, whose confidence was in God’s work in them rather than the finished work of Christ.

If then God’s grace is not received by merely orthodox belief nor by pious subjective experience, how does one live by grace? By a life out of God. In his Erlaeuternde Fragen and Antworten Zum Heidelberger Katechismus (Questions and Answers Explaining the Heidelberg Catechism) he says in regard to Question 8 of the catechism that we need to learn of our depravity,

To bring us to the conviction that we are truly lost, however virtuous, however pious, however upright we may be, if we are not born of God. So the knowledge of our misery shall drive us to seek life from God, to seek to be justified in Christ. The catechism leads us to a new creation of grace.[58]

This life from God, this life of grace, comes by the Spirit. Kohlbruegge says in regard to the life of thankfulness of the believer,

Christ has risen from the dead and purchased the Holy Spirit. In His resurrection rests a power of grace for all God-pleasing walk, and His Spirit keeps us in the freedom wherewith Christ has made us free from devil, sin and world. God works with this power and with this Spirit in the believers. . .[59]

But God’s free grace operates not in our “God-likeness” but in our “Godforsakenness.” Nevertheless there is a real personal encounter with the Lord:

However dark it appears, before long a guiding star will rise for one; however forsaken one walks along, before long he will surely encounter a companion, who does not, like so many, plague us with a speech which flesh and blood inspire, but encourages us with the words of the Holy Spirit, that through Him we become newly aware from God Himself that it is nevertheless the good way.[60]

This good way is out of the Word of God, law and Gospel. This is one {147} word of God’s grace. This Word is Christ in the Scriptures,

Who can raise up a spirit that is cast down? Only the Word of God, yet not the word in itself but united with the Spirit who makes alive, who glorifies the grace of Jesus Christ in the soul; the letter, we know kills. Only through the Spirit of the Lord are the words of the Lord spirit and life to us.[61]

For Kohlbruegge the Bible is the Word of God, self-validating and verbally inspired. He states, “What a presumption and want of understanding, what lack of attention, what deplorable blindness and ingratitude is manifest when a person questions the verbal inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”[62] It is to be noted that Karl Barth was influenced by Kohlbruegge. He considered him the one truly Reformed theologian of the nineteenth century. The Barthians endeavor to find in Kohlbruegge a forerunner of their dialectical and existential theology. But our fathers in Eureka Classis understood Kohlbruegge’s view of Scripture to mean not only that the Bible is the Word of God, but that the Word of God is the Bible.

For Kohlbruegge, the Bible, law and Gospel, is all Christ. The law was preached throughout the Holy Scriptures but its full spirituality is revealed in the New Testament and is fulfilled in Christ. The law must prevail for both unbeliever and believer. Romans 7:14 is central here, “For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am fleshly, sold under sin.” The law is misused when the Christian seeks either to use it legally as a means of justification, or subjectively as a measure of his sanctification. The believer when he sees himself in the light of the law can only see his own death. “The law is the commandment which kills while the Spirit makes alive.”[63] The law itself is good, but man uses it wrongly because of sin.

Therefore it was not that which is good in itself, but I myself, who made use of the good in such a way that thereby I brought death upon me: and because I brought death upon me by that which is good, it had to become clear that that sin had become sinful beyond measure through the commandment.[64]

When the Heidelberg Catechism asks in question 3, “From where do you know your misery? Out of the law of God,” Kohlbruegge uses this as the place to bring in the Ten Commandments and prayer; but primarily (as Luther) to reveal man’s sin in contrast to the optimistic view of man in that age. So Kohlbruegge {148} entitles the first section of his catechism, “I am Man and Nothing More.” He then asks, “What are you saying when you say you are human? That I am subject to vanity, that I am evil and sold under sin.”[65] But isn’t man made in God’s image? Yes, this is the effulgence and reflection of His glory, to which He gave a form which is the image in which man is made.[66] Kohlbruegge understands man’s sin as being that like Adam he does not accept God’s word but desires to know good and evil. Man’s inability then is his passion to have his salvation in his own hands.[67] This is the great temptation of the third use of the law as the standard of the Christian life. If Christ has fulfilled the law, then man cannot take into his own hands to add to the finished work of Christ. It is here that he must learn that he is flesh and nothing more, and must seek his life from God. It is the law of God’s grace that condemns him because he is unwilling to live by every word which proceeds out of the mouth of the Father as a word of promise but seeks to take the law in his own hands. Man knowing himself as a sinner is not just the first step in the right relationship to God, it is the continued walk of the Christian who in Christ is simul just et peccator-at the same time righteous and sinner.[68]

The second part of Kohlbruegge’s catechism is “That God is God.” This means that, “When I confess to being a man, a sinner, I leave to God the honor of being none other than the one who has made Himself known to us in His Word.[69] This revelation of God is in the Mediator, the only begotten and well-beloved Son, Jesus Christ our Lord in whom God did “establish His law, remove the barrier of sin and present man to Himself in righteousness.”[70] To do this He came in the flesh, in our state. He was made sin for us by God so that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him and be restored to that state in which Adam was originally. Because He did this in my place I do God’s will when I regard this as a certain truth. For Kohlbruegge, in the incarnation Christ did not come in the nature of Adam before the fall, but rather “in flesh,” the state of man separated from God.[71] This was life apart from God, that is under the law and judgment of God. “Now Jesus was the person of the sinner, had become sin for us. The whole curse of the law, the eternal condemnation rested on Him.”[72] (Kohlbruegge of course did not teach that Christ committed any sin or was personally sinful.) We are justified {149} before God in Christ through faith. Yet our faith, as we ourselves are, is sinful and according to the flesh, so that it is not our faith that justifies but the faith and faithfulness of Jesus Christ. The biblical phrase “faith of Jesus” is not understood by Kohlbrueggians as our faith in Jesus but of Jesus’ own faith and faithfulness on our behalf.[73]

The third part of Kohlbruegge’s catechism is “That God Fulfills His Promises to Me.” Here however he does not deal with the commandments, as does the Heidelberg, for the law is not for him the means and measure of our sanctification. Thankfulness is “to take leave of my ‘I can, I should, I would,’ ” and “proclaim His righteousness only, preach His name, and seek refuge at the throne of His grace. . . in order by grace to please God. . . .”[74] We cannot please God with “works that He did not command,” to quote Kohlbruegge on Heidelberg Question 2. These works are an effort at self-sanctification. True sanctification is the actualization of justification in the life of the believer. True thankfulness is to accept what God has offered to me and use it with joy. Kohlbruegge cites the dog as the most thankful of God’s creatures because he is faithful to his master and approaches him in the most humble way precisely at the time when he has been punished! “He is thankful to God who confesses that it is impossible for him ever to be thankful to God.”[75] Christ is the Christian’s “new man” just as Adam is his “old man.” The man in Christ walks in the Spirit and brings forth the fruit of the Spirit, that is to deny himself and do God’s will which is to believe (1 John 3:23). Our conversion, when we have put off the old man and put on the new, occurred “in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. . . ” We become partakers of this when:

a certain moment occurs in our life in which, by the Spirit of faith, we are transferred into this grace (salvation) and pass from death into life. That is the complete transformation of a person which reconciles him to the righteousness which is valid before God, a transformation which is also called a new birth.

Kohlbruegge says that the mark of that rebirth is “That I fear God, love and honor my neighbor, and not comfort myself with my rebirth but with the eternal faithfulness and mercy of God.”[76] For Kohlbruegge sanctification is the work of God in the Gemeine-the building up of the body of Christ in the fellowship of the believers, that is the church. {150}


So far we have looked at the circumstances and concerns of Kohlbruegge’s life that helped formulate his doctrine. And we’ve taken a summary look at that doctrine without much comment or criticism. Before we do that, there is another question: How did this teaching of Kohlbruegge enter the Reformed Church in the U. S., and more particularly, how did it become the basis on which the Eureka Classis was formed? Remembering that this one classis did not go into the merger but remained faithful to the Reformed faith and to preserving the Reformed Church? Was this teaching in South Russia before these people came here? Or did they get it after they were here? Or both there and here? I remember forty years ago when I first came into the Eureka Classis there were many statements made about the early days. So I thought I would ask some of the old-timers. I made a lot of phone calls here, there and just about everywhere. And what did I learn. There are no more oldtimers. I myself am one of them now, and those I asked couldn’t remember any of the answers anymore!

But I felt I couldn’t write this chapter without the answer to that question of the origin of Kohlbrueggianism in Eureka Classis. Then one day I recalled seeing something in the booklet, Experiences From My Missionary Life In The Dakotas by the Rev. Peter Bauer, that referred to Kohlbruegge. Pastor Bauer served too many congregations to get to them frequently enough.

To help overcome this shortcoming, we installed reading services in all the congregations in which the elder read the sermon to the congregation in my absence. I had learned about the writings of Kohlbruegge in Worms, South Russia from Pastor A. Vencianer, who had been a pupil of Kohlbruegge, and I introduced them into all my congregations. Several years later an elder once said to me: “Pastor, did you know that you would no longer be with us today if you had not introduced Kohlbruegge’s writings into the congregation?” I said to the man, “This I know right well, that is why I placed them into your hands.[77]

So there we have it. Already in Russia the influence of Kohlbruegge was felt in the Reformed Churches, and it was brought over here.

But I still thought there must be other sources as well, especially as I looked through fifty years of The Witness magazine and saw all the articles setting forth the distinctive Kohlbrueggian teaching. Then I heard this story. A theological student from Germany was traveling through Iowa on the train. He became ill and was put {151} off the train at Dubuque. He did not recover but died and left a box of books. Pastor Jacob Stark came into possession of these books, books by Kohlbruegge, and consequently became convinced of this teaching and then began teaching it himself. However afterwards I came across a more authorized version of this story in the book, Zeugnisse Reformierter Lehre (Testimonies of Reformed Doctrine) by Pastor Stark. He was pastor at the Presbyterian church at Sherrills Mound near Dubuque. In 1877 a student came to Rev. Stark, Rudolph Grau by name, who was sick and broke. For awhile Rev. Stark extended his hospitality to him. This student had been acquainted with Adolph Zahn, a Kohlbrueggian, at Halle in Germany and had attended the student-parties at his home, which were actually Bible studies. The student had brought with him the writings of Zahn, Wickelhaus (a good friend of Kohlbruegge) and of Kohlbruegge. Stark read these and was stirred deeply by them. So much so that he couldn’t let go of them and was by them led into the Scriptures. At this point he had to part with many things he previously held as his only comfort on the way to blessedness, that is, the holy “I” and the self-life of the regenerate. From a pious man he had to become an unclean sinner with no advantage over the godless and sinners but found life only through faith in Christ.

The more he studied the more convinced he became, and he became the leader of this “new teaching,” though there was soon much opposition to it in the Presbyterian Church. By his home training and excellent studies at Princeton Seminary, he was well suited for leadership, though, as he says, he had to unlearn many things that he had learned at Princeton before he had read Kohlbruegge. He had spent three years at Princeton and was a fellow-student with Benjamin B. Warfield, the famous Presbyterian theologian and Princeton professor.

Stark was an editor of the Presbyterianer (the Presbyterian), but when the editorial office became a theological battleground, the paper was discontinued. He then became a founder of the Waechter (the Watchman), a vehicle for sending forth the new teaching. In 1883 he became pastor at Waukon, Iowa, for twelve years. But in the controversies over doctrine he made some strong personal attacks and was deposed from the ministry of the Presbyterian Church. Then in 1896, while living on a farm, he was invited to preach a missionfest in South Dakota. It was his first contact with the German-Russians. Though he had been deposed they showed him great respect and could not get enough of his sermons. For eleven years he preached among the German-Russians and continued the publication of the Waechter. These were years of much joy and pleasure in his work. He died of cancer at age sixty.[78]

So according to my understanding it was through Pastor Jacob Stark that {152} the German Presbyterians and the German-Russians in the Reformed Church in South Dakota were strengthened in Kohlbrueggianism. Now there may have been others also, since the Reformed churches at Garner, Iowa, and Newton, Wisconsin, came under this influence. Newton pastor D. W. Vriesen mentions attenders from Kohlbruegge’s church at his home congregation in Suderwyck, and speaks of Pastor Geyser preaching there in his autobiography Aus meinem Leben. But at least we have two contacts of Kohlbrueggianism with the German-Russians: Pastor Peter Bauer and Rev. Jacob Stark. (Perhaps when this gets in print and reaches the congregations and other interested readers that more sources will surface. I won’t be a bit surprised!)


Before concluding this chapter with some of the criticisms that have been made of Kohlbrueggianism and my own evaluations, I would like to include some of my own experiences and impressions on coming in the Eureka Classis in the mid 1950s. At that time Kohlbrueggianism was the dominant, almost universal, message heard in the pulpits of classis. I soon acquired a five-foot shelf of Kohlbrueggian writings, all German, I think. The following evaluations are not intended to be derogatory though some may seem negative. What they attempt to do is bring out how some of the distinctive Kolbrueggian emphases were understood by the people, some people.

One of the first questions I was asked repeatedly at the beginning of my ministry was, “Do Reformed people need to be converted?” I understood from a Reformed covenantal perspective that our children belong to the Lord. They wondered whether these children need to be “converted,” as do those outside of the covenant in the world. What I realized later was that the question really meant, “Since our salvation is wholly in Christ and not in us, are we therefore to expect any personal change?” In my first sermons I preached with considerable zeal that the distinct Reformed emphasis was “doing all things to the glory of God.” But that seemed to fall on deaf ears-maybe astonished ears. What they understood as the glory of the Reformed Faith was that we do nothing. Christ has done it all-even believe for us-and there is nothing we can or should do. Since we as Christians are totally depraved, there is no difference between us and the world. Sometimes this was taken to mean we could live like the world, and it was reportedly said after some indiscretion or immorality, “that’s another one Jesus will have to pay for.” Preaching about our sinfulness and even denouncing prevalent sins was well received: “Good sermon.” But it did not seem to produce much change. Since our salvation is all in Christ (objectively) and not in us (subjectively), one elder raised the question, “Do I wear my boots in heaven?” meaning, “Will I still have my sinful nature in heaven?” {153}

I’m sure that these responses to his doctrine would have upset Kohlbruegge as much as they did me. And I’m not for a moment suggesting that our older pastors promoted or approved of these aberrations. Most church members showed a sincere interest in the preaching of the Word of God, and as in all denominations and churches there are those whose lifestyle contradicts their profession. Of those pastors that I have known who might be designated as Kohlbrueggians, they were all devout and godly, devoted to the proclamation and practice of the Word of God. Of one of the older ministers it was said, “He doesn’t believe in “Christian experience,” yet I could only respond that I had never met anyone who demonstrated a greater experience of faith and knowledge of the Lord. In another instance an older minister said to me, “Norman, Norman, it’s always the “I,” “I,” “I.” I was a little bit offended by this at first, but afterwards benefited from it. Many hours of my ministry were spent in discussion of these questions concerning the place of the law in our lives as Christians, and whether we really live by grace if we are trying to keep the commandments, since Christ has fulfilled all righteousness for us. Truthfully and thankfully I can say that over the years even where we differed we have respected and loved each other in the Lord, and have shared a common faith, the Reformed faith-that our salvation is in the Lord.


In this closing portion we will look at some of the criticisms that have been brought against Kohlbrueggianism and my own brief evaluation. Kohlbrueggianism has always been sharply attacked. Perhaps that is because it was itself an attack on both traditional Reformed orthodoxy and piety. As we have seen, Kohlbruegge himself reacted against these, and his writings are unrelenting in his criticisms of them. Likewise Jacob Stark went on the attack and brought the censure of the church on himself. Stark’s tone is seen in the concluding segment of his The Church and Her Doctrine, a segment not included in the booklet but found in The Witness and entitled “Kohlbrueggianism.”[79] He writes:

And whoever finds in Kohlbruegge a false concept of the Redeemer, may be wholly sure that he himself believes on an antichrist. . . . Whoever finds antinomianism (opposed to the Law) in Kohlbruegge, ought not to doubt, that he himself is wholly a servant of the law and lies under its curse. This error is not to be attributed to Kohlbruegge, but is always on the side of his opponents. And if these masters be saved-saved at all-then they must learn something about all these contested points of doctrine and learn precisely that what they have contradicted and {154} maligned in him. In all cases it is only the truth of salvation that has been contested. Nothing else and nothing more. . . . Our Churches’ final destiny will be dependent on what we will do with it. Do we yet wait for other teachers of righteousness?

These points of doctrine are set forth in the same piece. Stark rather angrily complains that it is the orthodox Reformed theologians who have opposed Kohlbruegge. Why?

Cause and plausible basis for it was given by the fact, that Kohlbruegge in some instances really goes farther in the reformation doctrine, grasps it more deeply, yes, executes it with less deference than even the Reformers. Thus though apparently led to it by the Reformers, especially Luther, yet he was the first since the time of the Apostles, who grasped and presented the doctrine of the image of God in its entire extent and exact truth. Thus he obtained a clearness about the human nature of the Son of God and His position under the law which no one else had. Accordingly he received light and clearness of the whole doctrine of the Holy Spirit, of regeneration, justification and sanctification.[80]

The first criticism of Kohlbruegge came from F. W. Krummacher, the pastor of the Reformed Church at Elberfeld. After Kohlbruegge had preached his famous sermon on Romans 7:14 as the guest preacher: “The celebrated guest has only one side on his instrument-his constant theme is ‘man is flesh and sold under sin, free grace does it alone and does it completely.’ “[81] Thus the charge of “one-sidedness” was brought against Kohlbruegge and has been repeated ever since.

Perhaps the criticism that stung him the most and hurt him most deeply was in the letter written by his former friend Isaac Da Costa in response to the same sermon: “There is in your teaching a true and blessed teaching of justification by faith without the works of the law. Yet it is not free altogether from the dangers of antinomianism . . . in respect to the Law. . . this doctrine and disposition are not grounded on the infallible word of God.” Da Costa then goes on to criticize Kohlbruegge by saying that there is not a greater difference between east and west than between Kohlbruegge’s teaching and that of the Heidelberg Catechism. In opposition to Kohlbruegge’s doctrine Da Costa says, “This confession that we are still far from what we ought to be is seen in respect to the fact that sanctification follows after conversion and justification, not that we make ourselves holy in our {155} own power, partly or completely. But our sanctification is the forming of the image of Christ in us by the Holy Spirit.”[82]

Abraham Kuyper did not criticize Kohlbruegge in this matter because he knew of his concern for the Christian life. But he was critical of Kohlbruegge’s son-in-law, Prof. Eduard Boehl, and of the Neo-Kohlbrueggians.[83] In particular he criticized Boehl’s doctrine of the image of God that

Man is created ‘in’ not ‘after’ God’s image, that is, the image is not found in man’s nature or being, but outside of him in God. Man was merely set in the radiance of that image. Hence, remaining in its light, he would live in that image. But stepping out of it, he would fall and retain but his own nature, which before and after the fall is the same.[84]

Kuyper refutes this position by appeal to Genesis 5:1 where Scripture says that Adam “begat a son in his own likeness, and after his image.” Kuyper argues,

Hence to beget a child in our image and after our likeness means to give existence to a being bearing our image and resemblance, although as a person distinct from us. From which it must follow that when Scripture says, regarding Adam, that God created him in His image and after His likeness. . . it cannot mean that the divine image shone upon him so that he stood and walked in its light; but that God so created him that his whole being, person, and state reflected the divine image, since he carried it in himself.[85]

Thus the criticism of Kohlbruegge’s contemporaries. But the criticism and controversy goes on. In the United States Rev. H. A. Meier, professor at the Mission-House of the RCUS in Plymouth, Wisconsin, attacked Kohlbrueggianism in the seminary publication in 1905 and 1906. The Waechter charged Meier with heresy, and a complaint was brought against him from the Eureka congregation but nothing came of it.[86] In more modern times, while there is some appreciation expressed for Kohlbruegge, as by Barth and Berkouwer, the same criticisms continue. Even Barth {156} says that he let justification swallow up sanctification, grace swallow up nature and mortification obliterate vivication.[87] Professor Louis Berkhof summarizes most of these criticisms in his preface to Boehl’s The Reformed Doctrine of Justification; salvation is merely by imputation, the image of God is a sphere in which man lives, neither the fall nor regeneration change the inner nature of man, sanctification is by imputation leaving the regenerate man just as wicked as the unregenerate.[88] To all these criticisms by the renowned professors, Jacob Stark would say,

Whoever is involved in such errors, will not understand Kohlbruegge, and constantly takes offense. A Reformed professor and a doctor of theology wrote: “Kohlbruegge was a man of God, full of faith and the Holy Spirit; but his exaggerations of the doctrine of justification, his false conception of the person of Christ, and his antinomianism are not to be approved.” A man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit and yet a heretic![89]

For my own evaluation of Dr. Kohlbruegge and his disciples and their teaching, I would say that for all the denials of the place of subjective experience in the life of the believer, the Kohlbrueggian doctrine is rooted in the subjective spiritual experience of H. F. Kohlbruegge. He does speak of Scripture and experience. In God’s providence his thinking was forged through his own rejections and reactions to them. This is not to psychologize his theology. It is a theology of the Word, but an understanding of the Word that focuses on one idea that had its inception through his own spiritual experiences. He has made it a theological idea and has read both the Bible and the catechism in the light of that idea. The plain words of the Heidelberg Catechism cannot be understood in a Kohlbrueggian sense. His theological idea has to be read into it. The handling of the catechism by the Kohlbrueggians is close to modern literary interpretation which makes a document say what the reader wants rather than what the author intends.

I would like to suggest the following answer to the questions raised by Kohlbruegge. Dr. Geerhardus Vos writes in The Pauline Eschatolgy:

In the Apostle’s construction of Christian truth, two distinct strands show themselves. The first we may call the forensic one. It revolves around the abnormal status of man in the objective sphere of guilt, and deals with all that is done outside of man, in order to its reversal, so that instead of unrighteous he may become {157} in legal standing righteous before God. The other. . . may be called the transforming one. It has to do with everything that pertains to the subjective inward condition of him to whom the grace of God is imparted. The former effects justification, the latter regeneration and sanctification. . . . Each (of these two strands) after a fashion may lay claim to relative completeness. Hence. . . some writers from a sense of personal preference have chosen the one line, and tracing it out, have felt that they were offering the student a full-orbed compass of the Apostle’s religious thought. All the time they were forgetting, or perhaps with some intentional partiality ignoring, that alongside of it, there runs the other twin strand making up the other semi-cycle of the teaching. . . a loose juxtaposition of two tracks of thinking without at least an attempt at logical correlation is inconceivable. . . the two strands shall not be entirely equal in rank within the system of doctrine, for that would yield a dualism hard to put up with. . . . The solution can hardly be other than that the forensic principle is supreme and keeps in subordination to itself the transforming principle. Justification and sanctification are not the same, and an endless amount of harm has been done by the short-sighted attempt to identify them. But neither are these two independent one of the other; one sets the goal and the other follows.[90]

Vos finds the answer in the resurrection, “the most radical and all-inclusive transforming event.” Yet we read that Christ “was delivered for our offenses and raised again for our justification” (Romans 4:25). By this foundational principle, the acquisition of righteousness through the resurrection of Christ, we have the basis on which the believer is declared righteous (justified); and by the same event, the resurrection of Christ, the Spirit is gained for our transformation! Kohlbruegge was not all wrong; neither was he all right!


“God moves in a mysterious way,” the hymn writer tells us. And the Lord Himself reminds us, “Your ways are not My ways” (Isaiah 55:8). Who could have written such a scenario of the story of the saving of the Reformed Church in the U. S. : The German-Russians and Kohlbruegge? Only the Architect who said, “I will build My Church.” {158}

[1] Richard Sallet, Russian-German Settlements in the United States (North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, Fargo, 1974), p. 112.

[2] Karl Stumpp, The German-Russians (Edition Atlantic-Forum, Bonn-Brussels-New York, 1967) p. 20.

[3] David Dunn, et al, A History of the Evangelical and Reformed Church (The pilgrim Press, New York, 1990), p. 340.

[4] Edward C. Ehrensperger, Ed., History of the United Church of Christ in South Dakota (Pine Hill Press, Freeman, SD, 1977) p. 203.

[5] T. C. Wenzlaf, Pioneers on Two Continents (Service Press, Henderson, NE, 1974).

[6] James Griess, The German-Russians: Those Who Came to Sutton, (Hastings, NE, 1968) p. v.

[7] Ibid., p. 32, quotation from Hermann Dalton

[8] R. Sallet, op. cit., p. 5.

[9] Hermann Dalton, Geschichte der Reformierten Kirche in Russland (Gotha, 1865), p. 186.

[10] George Rath, The Black Sea Germans in the Dakotas (Pine Hill Press, Freeman, SD, 1977) pp. 4, 5.

[11] T. C. Wenzlaff; Heritage Review (Germans from Russian Heritage Society, Bismarck, ND), Vol. No. 2, May 1988, p. 30, 31.

[12] H. Dalton, op. cit., p. 201, Trans. Heritage Review 1974, No. 9, p. 32.

[13] Heritage Review (Bismarck, ND), Vol. 21, No. 3, p. 27.

[14] Cleon Ochsner, Jacob and Klara Ochsner Family, Ochsner Family Reunion (Hastings, NE, 1994).

[15] G. Rath, op. cit., p. 365.

[16] H. Dalton, op. cit., p. 225.

[17] G. Rath, op. cit., pp. 365, 366.

[18] Ibid., pp. 32-34.

[19] Ibid., p. 38.

[20] Ibid., pp. 368-372.

[21] Ibid., p. 68.

[22] Ibid., pp. 70, 71.

[23] Ibid., p. 87.

[24] Ibid., 24.

[25] Ibid., p. 375-377.

[26] Ibid., p. 173.

[27] Ibid., p. 377.

[28] T. C. Wenzlaff, Pioneers on Two Continents, p. 46.

[29] G. Rath, op. cit., p. 118.

[30] W. Odenbach in History of the U. C. C. in S. D., p. 206.

[31] Ibid., p. 214.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Peter Bauer, Experiences From My Missionary Life In The Dakotas (Germans from Russia Heritage Society, Bismarck, ND).

[34] Heritage Review, (Germans from Russia Heritage Society, Bismarck, ND).

[35] G. Rath, op. cit., p. 177.

[36] Ibid., p. 289.

[37] Ibid.

[38] H. K. Hesse, H. F. Kohlbruegge (Emil Muellers Verlag, Wuppertal-Barmen, 1935), p. 25.

[39] Ibid., p. 26.

[40] Book of Concord, (Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, MO, 1922), p. 115.

[41] Ibid., p. 122.

[42] Ibid., p. 144.

[43] H. K. Hesse, op. cit., p. 35.

[44] Ibid., p. 54.

[45] Ibid., p. 55.

[46] Ibid., pp. 55, 56.

[47] Ibid., p. 68.

[48] Ibid., p. 78.

[49] Ibid., p. 89.

[50] Eric Bristley, “An Historical Comparison of the Interpretation of Romans 7:14-25 in Augustine, Luther, Calvin and H. F. Kohlbruegge” written in 1981 at Westminster Theological Seminary, Phila., PA. p. 29. Mr. Bristley was a licentiate of the Eureka Classis, RCUS in 1984. He very graciously sent me this paper and other information which was very helpful to me.

[51] Hesse, op. cit., p. 106.

[52] Ibid., p. 123.

[53] Ibid., p. 151 and Bristley, p. 35. But there were no commas at all in the earliest Greek manuscripts, i.e. the uncials (ed. note).

[54] Hesse, op. cit, pp. 151-153.

[55] Ibid., p. 156.

[56] Edward Martin Huenemann, Hermann Friedrich Kohlbruegge (Doctoral Dissertation submitted to the Faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, NJ, 1961). This dissertation was sent to me by Dr. Huenemann’s nephew, Lynn Huenemann. It has been very useful to me as I have followed much of Dr. Huenemann’s outline. p. 26.

[57] Ibid., pp. 28, 29.

[58] Ibid., p. 33.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Ibid., p. 36.

[61] Ibid., p. 38 & Kohlbruegge, I Believe in the Holy Spirit (Reliance Printing Co., Green Bay, WI, n.d.) p. 6.

[62] Kohlbruegge, I Believe in the Holy Spirit, p. 5.

[63] Huenemann, op. cit., p. 66.

[64] H. F. Kohlbruegge, Romans Seven (Reliance Publishing Co., Green Bay, WI, 1951), pp. 25, 26

[65] Huenemann, op. cit., p. 128.

[66] Ibid., p. 129.

[67] Ibid., p. 130.

[68] Ibid., p. 149.

[69] Ibid., p. 152.

[70] Ibid., p. 153.

[71] Ibid., p. 158.

[72] Ibid., p. 159.

[73] Ibid., p. 169.

[74] Ibid., p. 174.

[75] Ibid., p. 178.

[76] Ibid., p. 187.

[77] P. Bauer, op. cit., p. 11.

[78] Jacob Stark, Zeugnisse Reformierter Lehre (Central Publishing House, Cleveland, OH, 1909), pp. vii-xvi.

[79] J. Stark, “The Church and Her Doctrine (Kohlbrueggianism)” (The Witness Vol. XIX, No. 1, Jan. 1939) p. 6.

[80] Ibid., pp. 6, 7.

[81] Huenemann, op. cit., p. 81.

[82] Bristley, op. cit., p. 41.

[83] Neo-Kohlbrueggians were the theological descendants of Kohlbruegge who in succeeding generations took some of his principles to extremes.

[84] A. Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit (Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, 1956), p. 218.

[85] Ibid., p. 133.

[86] J. I. Good, History of the Reformed Church in the U. S. in the Nineteenth Century, (New York, the Board of Publications of the Reformed Church in America, 1911) p. 605.

[87] Huenemann. op. cit. p. 210.

[88] E. Boehl, The Reformed Doctrine of Justification, (Grand Rapids, Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1946) Preface by L. Berkhof, p. 10.

[89] J. Stark, The Witness, op. cit., p. 6.

[90] G. Vos, The Pauline Eschatology, (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1953), pp. 148-151.