Man of the First Hour: A Son’s Story: Jules Taco Van Popta, George van Popta. Carman: Reformed Perspective Press, 2021. Paperback, 226 pages.
At a certain point in this biography, the author describes going to the Netherlands with his mother Helen. His father, Rev. J.T. Van Popta, had died two years earlier. While visiting his old church in Mussel, they heard congregation members still speak reverentially of “onze dominee” (our minister). My grandparents on both sides had Rev. J.T. Van Popta as their pastor in Edmonton. Long after he was gone, they continued to speak highly of him. My Opa Bredenhof described him as a “good, peaceful man.” When he became my paternal grandparents’ pastor again some years later when he accepted the call to Cloverdale, they were extremely thankful. Rev. J.T. Van Popta became a legendary figure, even for us grandchildren who’d never met him.
So, when I heard about this biography written by his son George, I was all over it like white on bread. The book certainly doesn’t disappoint. It’s a well-told story of one of the pioneer Canadian Reformed pastors – in fact, the very first Canadian Reformed pastor. We hear of his family background in the Netherlands, the trials of immigrating to Canada, and the enormous challenges in being a “man of the first hour.” There’s joy and laughter, but the tears aren’t left out either. In particular, the author relates his father’s struggle with depression and burnout, as well as the toll his sudden passing took on Helen and her children.
Let me share a few details I found particularly interesting. Though he wasn’t yet a pastor, Jules Van Popta experienced the Liberation of 1944. This was an ecclesiastical event which tore apart the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. It happened because of autocratic (and unlawful) synod decisions. During and afterwards, Van Popta showed a keen understanding of the main issue resulting in the Liberation:
A theological opinion had developed that the children of believers are to be baptized on the basis of the presumption that they have been born again. The issue was not whether or not someone could hold that opinion; rather, it was that the opinion was made binding upon all. The ministers were required to teach this upon the threat of deposition from office. That, said my father and many others, was not allowed. The synod erred in binding a theological opinion on the pulpits of all the churches. (p.130)
Ultimately this was about the freedom which Christ has won for us – a synod had illegitimately seized that freedom.
Living in the freedom won for us by Christ was a theme throughout the life of Jules Van Popta. It comes out also in how he approached the issue of labour unions. This became controversial in the early years of the Canadian Reformed Churches. To find out Van Popta’s view, you’ll have to buy the book – I won’t spoil it. Appendix 3 contains a lengthy article he wrote on the subject. Looking back at Van Popta’s legacy, the author points out that his father’s “position on union membership left a stamp on the Canadian Reformed Churches” (p.131).
For those interested in apologetics, it’s noteworthy that Jules Van Popta corresponded with Cornelius Van Til, and even met with him on one occasion. Van Popta loved to study philosophy – and so it’s no wonder he would take an interest in Van Til. There seem to be echoes of Van Til in what Jules Van Popta writes in Appendix 7, “Either Faith or Science?”, especially when he says that in the Bible “Divine authority demands that every thought must surrender in obedience to Christ” (p.187).
If you’re like me and appreciate church history biographies, Man of the First Hour is a must-read. If you’re interested in the Dutch immigration experience in the post-Second World War period, you’ll enjoy it too. But more than enjoyment, you’ll be edified by both the life and the writings (in the appendices) of Jules Taco Van Popta. He lived for Christ and his witness calls us to do the same.