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AMSTERDAM—The brick alleyway leading to an inner courtyard may be lined with bicycles, but inside the cloister and across the lawn the English Reformed Church stands as it has since 1607.
The building itself dates to the Middle Ages and once served as a chapel for Beguines, a Catholic order that helped to care for the elderly in the housing enclave known as the Begijnhof. Following the Reformation it became a Protestant church and a haven for Separatists who fled England, the center of English worship in the Dutch Calvinist city.
About 100 Separatists worshipped in the garden chapel before most made their way to Leiden, and—as any fifth-grader in America should be able to tell you—40 of them set out in 1620 aboard the Mayflower.
The Begijnhof’s English Reformed Church could be considered the sending church that birthed America.
It was a stormy passage before a brutal winter spent aboard the Mayflower in the New World harbor they called Plymouth Colony. Half the colonists died. But the Native Americans, led by the English-speaking Samoset, came to their aid, teaching them to hunt, fish, and plant crops. But upon arrival, William Bradford, fluent in Greek and Hebrew, recalled a Jewish service for thanksgiving and deliverance, birkat ha-gomel, and held a first Thanksgiving service even before the better-known harvest feast.
Bradford recounted the voyage as Moses leading God’s people, the Pilgrims arriving at “a hideous and desolate wilderness,” then he turned to Psalm 107:
When they wandered in ye deserte wilderness out of ye way, and found no citie to dwell in, both hungrie & thirstie, their sowle was overwhelmed in them. Let them confess before ye Lord his loving kindness, and his wonderfull works before ye sons of men.
As we recite our own litany this Thanksgiving, our thoughts will turn to the prosperous nation that grew from Bradford’s “desolate wilderness.” We will eat the fruit of the land and be humbled by so much bounty from so meager a beginning. But there’s more.
In reality, the Begijnhof’s English Reformed Church could be considered the sending church that birthed America. In Holland its remnant congregation faced hardships but sent more Pilgrims to America over the next decades. These and others founded churches and schools that a century on would power Great Awakenings on both sides of the Atlantic leading to great missionary movements. Sending provoking more sending.
The 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, ignited a century of global evangelization. According to leading missions researcher Patrick Johnstone, the least evangelized constituted 54 percent of the world population in 1900, but by 2000 made up 25 percent of the world population. Looked at another way, in 1900 over 71 percent of the world’s evangelical Christians lived in two countries—Great Britain and the United States—and from there they went into all the earth. “The powerhouse for evangelical renewal has been the USA with its freedom of religion, its dynamism and its wealth,” writes Johnstone, a Brit.
Today the United States is the only majority Caucasian nation among the top 10 leading countries with evangelical Christian populations. The others are Asian, African, or South American.
“Living God, speak to us words of life and give us strength for the journey,” begins Rev. Lance Stone in a sermon at the English Reformed Church on Oct. 29. Now long affiliated with the Church of Scotland, the church for 400 years only missed holding English-language services during Nazi Germany’s occupation of Amsterdam. The congregation is again growing and supports a mission hospital in Malawi.
In his sermon Stone, too, recounted Moses’ journey with God’s people through the wilderness to reach the promised land, though Moses is barred from entering. “Christian faith is a bearing witness in word and deed to God’s liberating future,” he said. “The grace of God in Jesus Christ triumphs and brings us through the wilderness of this world.”
America has not become the promised land, but it has been used by God to bless the whole world. Let’s pause to consider that blessing this Thanksgiving along with the bounty before us. A blessing we pilgrims again may take to other desolate wildernesses of the world.