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Geerhardus Vos: Education in America and Europe, 1881–1888

Danny E. Olinger

Three main options presented themselves to nineteen-year-old Geerhardus Vos for continuing his education after he graduated from the gymnasium in Amsterdam with an honorable judicium on July 16, 1881. He could stay in the Netherlands and either enroll in Abraham Kuyper’s newly created Free University of Amsterdam or the Theological School at Kampen. If he followed his family to America, he could attend the Theological School in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Vos had spent the previous three years living in Amsterdam, so the Free University would have been a familiar option. It also would have been the most intellectually rigorous of the three schools, something that undoubtedly would have appealed to him. The combination of family and church ties probably made the Theological School at Kampen an attractive option as well. Kampen was the official school of his denomination, the Christian Reformed Church in the Netherlands. His father, Jan Vos, and uncle, Hendricus Beuker, were both alumni of Kampen. The Voses’ close family friend Herman Bavinck, was about to be appointed to the Kampen faculty. But, in the end, Vos chose what might have been the least attractive option personally, the Theological School in Grand Rapids. At the end of July he left with his parents from Antwerp aboard the Red Star Line steamer Belgenland for Philadelphia.[1]

One could reasonably surmise that staying near his parents played a leading role in Vos’s decision to attend the Theological School in Grand Rapids. What was not guesswork was that his father and Uncle Hendricus would not have been pleased if he had chosen to attend Kuyper’s Free University. Jan Vos did not favor Kuyper’s juggling of the gospel ministry and politics, much less Kuyper’s political activism. Beuker took exception to the Free University’s theology department not being tied to the church. When news broke in 1878 about the Free University’s creation, Beuker said, “Such a stream or brook needs a Reformed Church as a source to take its rise; and it needs a Reformed Church as well as an ocean to empty itself into.”[2] Both men were further suspicious Kuyper would leave the Seceders ecclesiastically out of any potential Calvinistic revival in the Netherlands.[3]

The connection between church and school was not an issue with the Theological School in Grand Rapids. In 1867 a young man at First Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Jacob Noordewier, wanted to enter the gospel ministry. First Church’s pastor, R. Duiker, trained Noordewier personally, but Duiker knew that other young men would be aspiring to the gospel ministry in the Christian Reformed Church and that a school was needed. Classis Michigan agreed, and in 1869 determined that Douwe Vander Werp would train prospective students at the parsonage of the Graafschap, Michigan, Christian Reformed Church. Vander Werp taught the students for six years, first at Graafschap and then at Muskegon, Michigan, before he became ill with throat cancer and resigned in 1875. The Classis then appointed Gerrit Egbert Boer, Duiker’s successor as pastor of First Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, to replace Vander Werp.

At the start of the next year on February 2, 1876, the general assembly consisting of Classis Michigan and Classis Illinois met in Chicago to address the issue of forming a school to train the young men aspiring to the gospel ministry in the Christian Reformed Church.[4] The general assembly first elected Boer as the president of the assembly. Then they decided against recruiting a minister from the Netherlands to teach at the school. In both 1873 and 1875, an effort had been made to start a school with Jan Bavinck serving as the main teacher. Bavinck, however, did not want to immigrate to America and declined the invitations.[5] After voting to choose a man from their own body, Boer was nominated and elected to serve as the school’s teacher. He accepted and was installed on March 15, 1876.[6]

A graduate of the Theological School in Kampen in 1864, Boer decided to mirror the Kampen curriculum for the new school. He created a six-year course schedule divided between a four-year literary course of study and a two-year theological course of study. The literary courses emphasized the learning of four different languages, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and Dutch, plus Rhetoric, Geography, Psychology, Logic, History, and Dutch History. The theology courses included Dogmatics, History of Doctrine, Hermeneutics, Exegesis, Church History, Symbolics, and Practical Theology.[7] For a meeting place to hold the classes, the synod rented for one dollar a week the second floor of the Williams Street Christian grammar school in Grand Rapids run by the Spring Street Christian Reformed Church.[8]

Geerhardus began his first semester at the school in September 1881. It was quickly apparent that his learning far surpassed that of his fellow students, and in all likelihood that of Boer. Given Vos’s exceptional ability, the Curatorium appointed Vos to the position of instructional assistant to Boer in the literary department in March 1882. They also agreed to pay Vos a salary of $300 for the year. In June, he received his diploma after he passed examinations in Hebrew, biblical history, natural theology, introduction to religion, biblical geography, Hebrew antiquities, and hermeneutics. For his second year, he was promoted to “higher studies in Theology,” which meant that he would split his time evenly between being a paid lecturer and sitting in on classes he had not yet taken from Boer.[9]

Taking on the additional burden of preparing course lectures seemed to have little impact upon Vos. The Curatorium took note, and by the end of his second year in May 1883, they offered him a permanent teaching position at the school alongside Boer.

Spring Street Christian Reformed Church

It was also during the spring of 1883 that Jan Vos, after only two years in America, was elected president (moderator) of the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. This was due in part to his position as pastor of the Spring Street Church, the largest of the sixty-five congregations in the denomination. The Spring Street congregation numbered nearly four hundred families and 1,550 in attendance, although it only had a little over three hundred professing members.[10]

As pastor of the Spring Street Church, Jan Vos was beloved. Christian Reformed pastor and missionary J. W. Brinks, a son of the congregation during Jan Vos’s ministry, recalls his preaching as “especially devout and unctuous. How he could pour out his soul speaking of the love of Christ, exhorting to love and holy living.”[11] Reformed theologian Henry Kuiper was also a son of the Spring Street Church during this time. He testified that, with Jan Vos preaching, revivals would break out in which the complacent were awakened by the Spirit. Young people who filled the pews up front during the evening services would be weeping under conviction of sin or in joy.[12]

In addition to his election as president of the synod, Jan Vos also would serve as secretary of the synod, secretary of the heathen mission’s board, member of the home mission’s board, and member of the Curatorium of the Theological School. Jan Vos’s rise to prominence in America meant that Geerhardus now had access to the leading Dutch Reformed theologians on two continents. Accepting the offer to teach at the Theological School would only deepen those Dutch bonds, but Geerhardus declined. He set out instead to attend the institution that would allow him to become acquainted with the leading Reformed theologians of the English speaking world, Princeton Seminary.

Princeton Seminary

In applying to Princeton Seminary at the age of twenty-one, Vos presented sterling credentials. As a linguist, he had already mastered seven languages, Dutch, German, French, Latin, English, Greek, and Hebrew. As a student, he had earned a higher degree in a single year at a school with a six-year program. As a teacher, he had experience at the college level. Vos requested that Princeton recognize his advanced standing and allow him to bypass the first year of study and enter the school as a middler. Vos explained in his application that his appeal also was due to financial considerations. Spending two years at the school rather than three years would lessen the burden on his parents who were supporting him.[13] Princeton granted Vos’s request and placed him as a second-year student.

When Vos started classes as Princeton on September 20, 1883, the faculty included William H. Green (Old Testament), Archibald A. Hodge (Systematic Theology), Caspar Wistar Hodge Sr. (New Testament), James C. Moffat (Church History), Charles A. Aiken (Ethics and Apologetics), and Frances L. Patton (Apologetics). Little is known of Vos’s student days at Princeton except that he gave notice once again of exceptional intelligence and academic ability. His senior paper, “The Mosaic Origin of the Pentateuchal Codes,” was awarded the Hebrew fellowship prize, which included a stipend for further graduate study. Princeton’s esteemed Old Testament Professor Green was so impressed with the work that he persuaded A.C. Armstrong and Son to publish it as a book.

The Mosaic Origin of the Pentateuchal Codes

In the “Introduction,” Green explained why it was crucial that the question of Mosaic authorship be put before a wider audience. The issue was not merely who wrote the first five books of the Bible, but how the Bible was going to be interpreted. Graf, Kuenen, and Wellhausen, and other leading critics were pursuing a rationalistic interpretation; Vos, standing with historical Christianity, was pursuing a supernaturalistic interpretation. “The question,” as Green put it, “is fundamentally that between rationalism and supernatural religion.”[14]

Vos maintained that what the critics considered their greatest strength, their methodology, actually revealed their greatest weakness. The critical methodology did not allow the Bible to speak for itself. He wrote, “Criticism on the part of our opponents has long since left its independent position, and become subservient to naturalistic tendencies. It manifests a spirit of enmity against the very material upon which it works.”[15] The consequence of such an approach was that the critics “begged the question.” That is, they argued for a conclusion assumed in their premise, namely, that a direct revelation of God was impossible.

To demonstrate the critics’ flawed approach, Vos took as a case study the laws in the books of the Pentateuch. The laws, so said the critics, revealed the fruit of the religious development in Israel, not the product of the direct revelation of God. Redactors after the return from the exile in Babylon were responsible for the placement of the laws in the Pentateuch, not Moses.

Vos answered that the Mosaic laws were given within the context of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. The prophet par excellence, Moses, left to the house of Israel the best of all blessings, a law adapted to all future conditions and not just one generation.[16] His work assumed a prospective and ideal character, that to which the later prophets not only appealed, but also in whose institutions they lived and moved and had their being. Vos said,

We touch here again the weak spot in the reconstructive scheme. Prophetism, at least incipient prophetism, hangs in the air. It had no seed to spring from, no soil to root in: its origin and growth are involved in a profound mystery. The early prophets, we claim, must have stood on the platform constructed by Moses.[17]

Vos not only laid bare the critical methodology, but also he forecasted the coming conflict in Presbyterianism between historic Christianity and liberalism. Deny the supernatural element and exclude the connections of redemptive history, as the critics had done, and no common ground for debate remains. One side, critical, will construe scriptural claims according to their own theories. The other side, Bible-believing Presbyterian, will construe rationalistic arguments according to the claims of Scripture.[18]

Germany: Berlin and Strassburg

The appearance of the Mosaic Origin signaled Vos’s arrival on the theological scene as a capable defender of historic Christianity. The next question was where he would pursue his doctoral studies after his graduation from Princeton. He chose the University of Berlin. His professors included Eberhard Schrader, known as the “Father of Assyriology,” August Dillman[19] in Hebrew, and Eduard Sachau in Arabic and Syriac. Also on the faculty were noted critical theologians Bernard Weiss and Hermann Strack.

At the end of Vos’s first year of study at Berlin in April 1886, he received an invitation from Abraham Kuyper to serve as a professor of Old Testament at the Free University of Amsterdam. F.W. J. Dilloo had resigned the previous summer in order to return to pastoral ministry, and Kuyper needed a replacement in the Old Testament department.[20]

Kuyper’s interest in Vos was probably two-fold. There was Vos’s academic reputation and brilliant rebuttal of critical thought in his just published Mosaic Origin of the Pentateuchal Codes. But, there was also the fact that as the son of Jan Vos and nephew of Hendricus Beuker, young Geerhardus would signal Kuyper’s interest in potentially having the Seceders[21] join those who with Kuyper were in the process of breaking away from the established Dutch Reformed Church. Kuyper’s plan was to have Vos confirmed and in place to start teaching at the Free University by mid-September 1886.

It was an astounding offer considering that Vos at the time was only twenty-four years old with three years of training at Princeton and Berlin. Kuyper sought to meet with Vos personally, but Vos was hesitant to agree to meeting with Kuyper for two reasons. First, he did not want to give the slightest impression that he was doing anything outside of his father’s knowledge. Second, he did not believe that he had the physical strength to undertake such a journey.[22]

Despite his letter to Kuyper declining the invitation to meet in person, Vos was intrigued about the possibility of teaching at the Free University. As a professor at the Free University, Vos would be positioned to combat German critical theology. The educational level of the students would also be far superior to that of Grand Rapids. He also grasped that the situation in the Netherlands had changed in the five years since his father had departed. Led by Kuyper, a schism in the Dutch Reformed Church by the Doleantie (those who sorrow) was occurring just as Vos was considering the Free University offer. The new church that resulted from this schism answered the ecclesiastical objections of his Uncle Hendricus.[23] On the one hand, those associated with the Free University had the courage to separate from the Dutch Reformed Church. On the other hand, a connection now existed for the Free University with the new church.[24] The Doleantie had created an excitement surrounding the Free University that even Christian Reformed members could share.

But, not every objection had been answered for Jan Vos. He was still not enamored with Kuyper’s program of cultural Calvinism in the Netherlands. Such an emphasis made the Free University vulnerable to the forces of secularism that had pervaded the Dutch Reformed Church. The strong pietism that marked Jan Vos’s life and ministry also stood at odds with the scientific language favored at the Free University.[25] Apparently, when Geerhardus informed his father that he had received the invitation to teach, his father made his opposition known. Vos explained in a letter to Kuyper why he had to decline Kuyper’s offer.

The correspondence with my parents made it necessary for me to make a choice which had become doubly difficult after acquaintance with the Free University. Had not such tender motives as the relation between parents and child mixed up in our consideration and made that choice totally inevitable, that would not have been done. The impulse of undivided sympathy with the glorious principle that your institution represents and seeks to propagate drove me, as it were, within her walls. It would have been an honor and a delight to me to be permitted to serve the Free University with my frail energies. The circumstances, as they have formed themselves under God’s rule, apparently do not allow that. My parents cannot view the case in the same light in which I learned to look at it as of late. In case I, against their advice and wishes, dared to follow the inclination of my heart, I would bring grief to them, from which I have to save them at any cost. Taking this into consideration, I see no other way than to choose the field of activity assigned to me in America.[26]

But, Kuyper and the Free University were not the only ones seeking out Vos as a teacher. The members of the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in North America on June 17, 1886, were voting on the appointment of the next professor of exegetical and dogmatic theology to its Theological School. Vos was nominated and on the second ballot was elected to the position.[27]

At the end of July 1886, Herman Bavinck, professor at the Theological School at Kampen, visited Vos at Berlin and even attended lectures with him.[28] Although Bavinck was eight-years older than Vos, they knew each other so well that some even thought that they were related.[29] Such a mistake could be made easily given the shared backgrounds of the Vos and Bavinck families. Both families came from the German county of Bentheim and originally belonged to the Old Reformed Church. Jan Vos and Jan Bavinck, Herman’s father, studied with W.A. Kok in Hoogeveen before Jan Bavinck succeeded Kok in 1854 and tutored Vos himself. Both were closely connected to the Theological School at Kampen, Jan Bavinck helped to establish it and Jan Vos graduated in the inaugural class. The first pastorate of both was the Old Reformed congregation in Uelsen. Both would leave Uelsen to pastor Christian Reformed congregations. The only notable difference was that Jan Vos favored immigration to America while Jan Bavinck did not.[30]

Geerhardus and Herman shared not only the same family training, background, and theology, but also the same temperament.[31] The two were close friends and correspondents.[32] The topic of discussion in their letters was often the theological landscape in the Netherlands and America, but the topic in the summer of 1886 was Vos’s future. After a year at the University of Berlin, which was too large and self-confident for Vos’s tastes, he was looking to transfer to a new school. Bavinck recommended the Kaiser Wilhelm University of Strassburg. The Dutch Orientalist Christian Shouk Hurgronje, a friend of Bavinck’s, had studied there under Theodor Nöldeke, a famed Orientalist.[33]

Vos transferred that October to Strassburg with an emphasis upon the Semitic languages. After a year at the school, Vos told Bavinck that he was very pleased with Strassburg and that it would have been better for him if he had chosen it from the beginning.

I’m very pleased with Strassburg. The institutes are excellent and most of the chairs ably occupied. Moreover one has the advantage here when getting a degree in the Philosophy department to be able to take one theological subject. I chose for instance Semitic languages (Arabic, Egyptian, Hebrew) as my major and Philosophy and Church History as minors.[34]

After talking about his health struggles (“my health allows me to work only a very little”), Vos continued to fill Bavinck in on the content of the lectures he was hearing.

With special fondness, I am keeping busy now with Philosophy—and indeed most of the time with theory of knowledge. Windelband teaches logic. I cannot attend that lecture because the hours conflict with the hours of Nöldeke. In his class, he deals with Kant’s Kritik der Urteilskraft. Then he lectures one hour a week about “Freedom of the Will.” He drove freedom to its grave and with that I enjoyed a great deal of logical satisfaction. Now he braces himself up to save responsibility, and I’m afraid that my logical feeling will now have to pay dearly for the enjoyed pleasure. Without doubt we get a recommendation of Kant’s ‘intellectual character.’[35]

Vos spent his last year at Strassburg working on his dissertation. Written in German, the dissertation (Die Kampfe und Streitigkeiten zwischen den banu umajja und den benu hasim), focused on the textual criticism of an Arabic manuscript that recorded a dispute between two Islamic sects during the thirteenth century.[36]  

When the degree was bestowed, Vos held the distinction of being the first alumnus of the Theological School at Grand Rapids to earn a doctorate. With typical humility, Vos downplayed the accomplishment. He told Bavinck that personally he would not attach much value to a theological degree earned in Germany. But Vos had also communicated to Bavinck in the past year that his heart was torn in returning to America.

I am going to America with the feeling that my place is not there. And I leave the Netherlands with the knowledge that even if my work be insignificant, I could do it there with joy and sympathy. More than once I have regretted that last year when they made a proposal in Amsterdam, I did not make a decision. And I still sometimes doubt if I may or even should return, especially if it is wise to go there without having accomplished my goals here.[37]

Still, Vos set sail on May 19, 1888, for the United States. He would never return to his homeland.[38]

Endnotes

[1] George Harinck, “Vos as an Introducer of Kuyper in America,” in The Dutch-American Experience: Essays in Honor of Robert P. Swierenga, ed. Hans Krabbendam and Larry J. Wagenaar (Amsterdam: VU Uitgeverij, 2000), 246.

[2] Ibid., 245.

[3] George Harinck, “Herman Bavinck and Geerhardus Vos,” Calvin Theological Journal 45, no. 1 (2010): 22.

[4] For a fine summary of the events surrounding Vander Werp’s role and also the general assembly at Chicago, see Henry Zwaanstra, “Calvin Seminary, the Christian Reformed Church, and the World,” in Calvin Theological Journal 42, no. 1 (2007): 132.

[5] Harinck, “Vos as an Introducer of Kuyper,” 246.

[6] This is the official start of what we now know as Calvin College. The school would be expanded into a two-year junior college in 1904, and then a four-year liberal arts college in 1920. In 1931 it would be renamed Calvin College.

[7] Harinck, “Herman Bavinck and Geerhardus Vos,” 26.

[8] Zwaanstra, “Calvin Seminary,” 132.

[9] James T. Dennison Jr., “The Life of Geerhardus Vos” in The Letters of Geerhardus Vos, ed. James T. Dennison Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 205), 18–19.

[10] Regarding the difference between the number of individuals in attendance and the actual members, James DeJong writes, “That the church reported only 310 confessing members indicates that it was characterized by the religious practice in the more experiential churches of the Netherlands of tolerating adult members who, lacking full assurance or conviction, did not make public profession of their faith, but still might have their children baptized.” The practice, known as the doopledenstelsel (baptized members’ system) required parents to attend a catechism class. It continued in the Christian Reformed Church until the synod disallowed it in 1898. See, James A. DeJong, Henry J. Kuiper: Shaping the Christian Reformed Church 1907–1952 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 1–2.

[11] Ibid., 2.

[12] Ibid., 2.

[13] Letter, Vos to William H. Roberts, registrar at Princeton, August 17, 1883, in Dennison, Letters, 115–116.

[14] Geerhardus Vos, The Mosaic Origin of the Pentateuchal Codes, with an introduction by William Henry Green (New York: A. C. Armstrong & Son, 1886), v.

[15] Ibid., 13.

[16] Ibid., 229.

[17] Ibid., 231.

[18] Ibid., 215.

[19] Vos noted in Biblical Theology that Dillman “was reckoned a conservative scholar.” In the context in which Vos made this comment, he pointed out that Dillman had denied the historicity of Abraham. Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 66.

[20] Harinck, “Geerhardus Vos,” 247.

[21] The members of the Christian Reformed Church in the Netherlands (Christelijke Gereformeerde Kirk in Nederland) were commonly known as “Seceders” in light of their 1834 departure from the Dutch Reformed Church.

[22] Letter, Vos to Kuyper, June 7, 1886, in Dennison, Letters, 118–19. Vos struggled with poor health most of his adult life. There is no indication of what the ailment was at this time.

[23] In 1886 the Doleantie congregations became the Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk.

[24] At the 1888 Christian Reformed Synod of Assen, Hendricus Beuker moved that the church acknowledge the Doleantie as a different method of reformation than the Separation of 1834. His interest was in finding a way in which the Seceders and the Doleantie could unite in one body. See, Ron Gleason’s Herman Bavinck (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2010), 126. They did so in 1892 with a merger that created the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.

[25] Charles G. Dennison, “Geerhardus Vos and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church,” in History for a Pilgrim People, ed. Danny E. Olinger and David K. Thompson (Philadelphia: Committee for the Historian, 2002), 78.

[26] Letter, Vos to Kuyper, October 7, 1886, in Dennison, Letters, 120–21.

[27] Harinck, “Vos as Introducer of Kuyper,” 259. James T. Dennison Jr. reasonably speculates, “Perhaps in an effort to augment his family and New World affinities, the Curatorium of the Theologische School in Grand Rapids sent Vos a letter calling him as “third docent.” Dennison, Letters, 22.

[28] Harinck, “Herman Bavinck and Geerhardus Vos,” 21. According to Harinck, when Bavinck visited New York City in 1892, “The Hudson River reminded him of the Rhine River in Germany that he traveled with Geerhardus Vos in 1886.” Bavinck added there was one difference between the two rivers, the romantic aspect of the Rhine was absent. See, George Harinck, “Calvinism Isn’t the Only Truth: Herman Bavinck’s Impressions of the USA,” in Larry J. Wagenaar and Robert P. Swierenga, eds., The Sesquicentennial of Dutch Immigration: 150 Years of Ethnic Heritage, proceedings of the 11th Biennial Conference of the Association for the Advancement of Dutch American Studies, Hope College, Holland, Michigan, June 12 and 13, 1997: 154.

[29] Harinck cites G. Keizer, in De Bazuin, October 10, 1929, who called Herman Bavinck and Geerhardus Vos relatives in print. Ibid., 20.

[30] Harinck, “Herman Bavinck and Geerhardus Vos,” 20–21.

[31] John Bolt, “From Princeton to Wheaton,” in Calvin Theological Journal 42, no. 1 (2007): 71.

[32] In Dennison’s Letters of Geerhardus Vos, Bavinck appears only behind Abraham Kuyper in receiving the most letters from the hand of Vos. The list of Vos letters in this collection in descending order includes Kuyper (19), Bavinck (16), B. B. Warfield (14), J. Gresham Machen (6), Henry Beets (6), Ned Stonehouse (4), Paul Woolley (4), Donald MacKenzie (2), William Elliot Griffis (2), W. H. Roberts (1), J. W. Felix (1), Cornelis van Felderen (1), Sylvester Beach (1), Frank Stevenson (1), F. W. Grosheide (1), Albertus Eekhof (1), Arthur Machen (1), and Edwards Elliot (1).

[33] Harinck, “Herman Bavinck and Geerhardus Vos,” 22.

[34] Letter, Vos to Bavinck, June 16, 1887, in Dennison, Letters, 126.

[35] Ibid.

[36] James Dennison Jr. commented, “If Vos was seeking a ‘safe’ dissertation topic, he succeeded. The work is not only noncontroversial, but inert.” Life of Geerhardus Vos,” in Letters, 24–25. A copy of Vos’s dissertation is located in the Montgomery Library at Westminster Theological Seminary.

[37] Letter, Vos to Bavinck, June 16, 1887, in Dennison, Letters, 125.

[38] Harinck believes that Vos disappointed Bavinck with his decision to teach in Grand Rapids. He cites Bavinck’s December 18, 1888, address at Kampen, “The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church,” translated by John Bolt, Calvin Theological Journal 27, no. 2 (1992): 246, as a place where Bavinck was commenting about Vos. “Many withdrew completely from life; they literally separated themselves from everything, and, in some cases, what was even worse, set sail for America, abandoning the Fatherland as lost to unbelief.” Harinck, “Herman Bavinck and Geerhardus Vos,” 21.

Danny E. Olinger is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as the General Secretary of the Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, November 2016.

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