Last week I read in an article in my newspaper that the journal ‘Het Zoeklicht’ is celebrating its hundredth anniversary. It was started a century ago by Johannes (or: Johan) de Heer, and it would become an important pillar in the evangelization-movement of which Johan de Heer would be an important leader.
Johannes de Heer was born in 1866 in Rotterdam as the son of a blacksmith, but he had no desire to follow in his father’s footsteps. He found work in a music shop. He felt at home in this environment and started his own music business in 1898. De Heer married in 1889 with Catharine Frederika Beindorff. Two of their children died at the very young age of 9 months and 4 years, respectively. Their sense of spiritual lostness prompted them to visit the evangelistic meetings that were sponsored by the Seventh-day Adventists. Soon after this they joined the (at that time very small) Adventist Church.
Before too long Johan de Heer had a prominent role in the small Adventist congregation in Rotterdam, where he was elected as elder. However, his membership in the Adventist Church was of short duration. A conflict erupted in 1902 in which Johan played a leading role. The sad result was the departure of almost 200 of the 230 Dutch Adventists of that moment.
A small group of loyal members was left behind in utter confusion. But the star of Johan de Heer would soon rise high, after his ties with Adventism had been severed. Much of his lasting popularity was due to his collection of hymns, on which he started working in 1904. The hymnal of Johannes de Heer is still popular in evangelical circles in the Netherlands. The Adventist hymnal also contains a good number of his hymns. His life-long emphasis on Christ’s Second Coming continued to betray his Adventist roots.
I have often wondered why, over time, the Adventist Church lost so many of its often very creative and inspiring leaders. Johan de Heer is but one example, but I am also thinking of leaders as Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and the German Louis R. Conradi. For sure, in all these cases there were some theological issues. Johan de Heer had little affinity with Ellen White and objected to the teaching of the heavenly sanctuary. (Later he also strongly opposed the sabbath.) Kellogg’s relationship with the church became problematic after the publication of a book that he had written, in which the church leaders saw pantheistic ideas. Conradi came to doubt some traditional doctrinal points and was certainly not on the same wavelength as Ellen White.
However, I happen to think that these (and many other) leaders did not leave the church primarily for doctrinal reasons. They were, I have concluded, ‘too big’ for the small church of their days. Johannes de Heer was a very talented man who needed space in order to develop his initiatives without restraints. Kellogg had become ‘too big’ for the church organization of his days. His health institution employed more people that the entire church! Conradi was a charismatic leaders who did not get the space to think and act ‘European’ in the rather America-oriented denomination.
To give creative people a lot of space may be risky. That is undeniably so. But by restraining them there is the much greater risk that we lose them. That is still the case today. Often theological arguments are used as a reason for leaving. But the real cause may well be something else: frustration for being restrained in developing and implementing visionary plans. What could a man like Johan de Heer have meant for Dutch Adventism if he had stayed with us? This is a question that often pops up in my mind when I sing one of his hymns.