Submitted by Gayle Harper

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DUTCH Colonists of New Amsterdam in 1621 are commonly credited with having founded a little school which became the model for an enormous public school system covering the United States and all its Territories. Dutch immigrants to America have come from a land which has long prided itself on the high standard of both its lower schools and its universities. And so competent Dutch parents who watch the education of their children in American common schools seldom fail to compare the systems in Holland and America and complain not a little of American superficiality and lack of thoroughness.

One of the motives assigned for the emigration in 1846 and 1847 was the desire of many Hollanders to educate their children in the principles of the Christian faith. Not only the Dutch government but also the mass of the Dutch people were hostile to the new Separatist congregations which elected to worship God according to the Bible rather than according to government regulations. And so when the Separatists insisted upon their right to educate their children in Christian schools in the fear of the Lord, they encountered strong local opposition. When the enjoyment of real Christian liberty became a vain, forlorn hope, they were forced, after years of persecution, to look away from the home and colonial policy of intolerance in Holland to a land of civil and religious liberty.

Two leaders of the persecuted congregations asked the people of Holland:

     Is it not true that, as the clamor for better instruction and education becomes louder, even the chief advocates of the present system complain of retrogression? And must not thousands of professing Christians educated under the present system blush at the question whether they know God and Jesus Christ better than to use their all-glorious names merely to blaspheme?
     And are not those who pray God, and even offer to undertake the trouble and expense to establish their own Christian schools and do something to save this sinking nation, are not they opposed and checked at every step of the way; do not local government bodies evade giving the permits which the law commands, and are they not supported in this by nearly all who call themselves noble and religious A few local government bodies which would like to grant to inhabitants what the law allows do not dare do so, because they fear that they will fall into disfavor with men higher up.(237)

Elsewhere the same clergymen asserted:

With our lack of the goods of this world, we feel the pressure of a Government which encroaches upon the tenderest rights of the father and compels him to choose between two extremes both of which lead to wretchedness either to let his children grow up in ignorance or send them to schools where according to his innermost convictions they are corrupted; where the Bible, the Word of God, the soul's food, the pure river of the water of life which satisfies the thirst and hunger even of children is denied; denied upon request of persons who either bow down before images or teach that children should not be burdened with the Word of God; and who .  . . . agree upon the theory which dishonors God and exalts man, viz., by your works, at least partly by your works, shall ye be saved, and not merely by your faith! And are there not clear indications that the conscientious teacher is censured for giving instruction in the Bible and accused of breaking the law, for which he must under all circumstances lose his position? (238)

Christian education for their children, therefore, became one of the things for which Hollanders expected to provide as soon as they built homes upon American soil. But when they had entered upon their American farms in Marion County, they discovered that what was needed most and first of all was hands to help bring nature under subjection. All who were able to work were called upon to press their physical strength into service. The Hollanders perceived that for the time being it was not so much religion and religious education as the struggle for existence which demanded the best efforts of old and young. Scholte himself complained that "the things of this world" and "the new, strange, and busy pressure of life in our present unsettled condition contribute much to shatter our ideals". And he also said: "Nearly everyone appears to be so taken up with his own strange environment as to be lost in it", and "the American love of material things is more attractive than Heaven. " (239)

From the very nature of things, when the Dutch settlers had spent most of their money upon farms, buildings, and stock, they had only their hands and bodies left. The Dutch farmer who had several sons in his family considered himself especially fortunate. Since there was abundant work to do upon the farms and no capital to invest in hired labor, boys came to be looked upon as valuable assets, and they were accordingly called upon to furnish their share of labor - all at the expense of education. Thus only boys and girls of tender years found their way into school.

During the early months James Muntingh converted his log house into a school room; and here for three years he is said to have given sound instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic - to children by day and to other persons by candlelight. He devoted much time to the languages: Dutch was translated into English and English into Dutch, and pupils were thoroughly trained to read and write both languages. Indeed, the only child of American parents living in Pella at that time learned Dutch so well that he never forgot it.(240)

In April, 1848, Henry P. Scholte was elected township school inspector. No one could have been better qualified for the position, though many of his friends also were "men of education, refinement, and a high order of intelligence". Scholte had the honor to be a graduate of the famous Dutch University of Leyden, and so was imbued with the highest academic ideals. He took a deep concern in his humble duties as school inspector of Lake Prairie Township. He divided the township into five school districts and at once organized the Pella district where Muntingh's private school had already existed for a few months. Moreover, he established a second district near the Skunk River where the Dutch inhabitants soon built a house for their school-master.(241)

Not until April or May of the year 1848 did the Pella colonists complete a building twenty-five feet wide and twice as long, which was to serve a double purpose as church and school room. This small structure possessed an unplaned board exterior and a rough interior with cross-beams of forest timber. Within stood crude backless pews of rough boards and a few school benches made after a genuine old-Dutch pattern. Over this township school Scholte appointed Isaac Overkamp as master and Henry Hospers as reserve. In November, 1848, the children were receiving instruction in both Dutch and English, similar to that obtained by old and young in Muntingh's private school. (242)

The school-master at Pella taught his pupils what the parents desired in the way of Christian principles for the development of Christian character. Every morning the opening exercises consisted of prayer, the singing of a Psalm, and instruction in biblical history. Many years afterward it was asserted that as a teacher of biblical history for children and of doctrine for adults, Isaac Overkamp had never been surpassed in Pella, and that "during Pella's first twenty years he did more real good than most ministers do in fifty or sixty years of service. " (243)

As many families of Americans found homes in Pella and the village grew larger, the citizens were forced to consider the question of what kind , of a schoolhouse should be built - for as late as April, 1855, they had used any sort of makeshift for the accommodation of their children. Was "a crowded, ill-furnished, uncomfortable room, opening upon a business street or dirty alley, without shade tree, playground, or any other pleasant object to it . .. . as favorable to a healthy physical, intellectual, and moral development, as an edifice whose interior combines comfort, beauty, and convenience; whose exterior is elegant, and is surrounded by that children's paradise, a playground, provided with a neat fence, shade trees, and other comforts?"

The editor of a Pella newspaper addressed the parents as follows: (244)

     Surely the good people of Pella will not much longer consent to send their children to school in a room rented as opportunity may permit without regard to comfort, convenience or suitability. We know there is a college going up in our midst and right glad and proud are we of it; but a college is not our school-house, our public school, the great aorta of our nation, the glory and safety of our free institutions; which ought to receive our first and best care. We are not now going to write a defense of public schools but about a school-house in Pella.
     In many of the older States, especially in New England, New York and Ohio, a course of instruction is adopted called Union Schools, and is fast superseding the older method in cities, villages and thickly populated country districts. - Most of us are familiar with the old method. The towns and villages were districted, and a small house consisting of one room twenty or twenty-five feet square was built in each ward or district in which all of a lawful age who chose to do so, attended school. Over this motley group presided one teacher, who had to care for and instruct all, from the young tyro in his abs, to the young man in philosophy. Many of us could record some strange experiences, especially in the winter session, when the school was oftentimes three times as large as in the summer, without any additional room.
     According to the Union School method, one large house is erected sufficient to accommodate all the pupils in the place, and more too, if they choose to come from less favored places; (and they will come.) A principal is placed at the head of the school and under his supervision and general control, is placed a corps of efficient teachers. The pupils are classed according to their attainments and each teacher has his own class or grade, in a distinct apartment and thus can attend to fifty pupils with less labor to himself, and more profit to them, than twenty-five in the old way. A general plan of instruction is adopted and persevered in, so the mind of the pupil is not confused by the different methods of succeeding teachers, as is too often the case in our common schools. Thus Order and System, which are Heaven's first law, and the secret of success in almost any enterprise are secured.

In the autumn of 1854 the Baptists of Pella secured a two-story brick building of several rooms and at once opened an academic department as the modest beginning of what they intended should later become a university. Early in the year 1855 fifty-six boys had enrolled in the "men's department" under two men instructors, and thirty-five girls in the "ladies' department", under a lady teacher. The pupils were taught preparatory branches. At the same time the Hollanders of Pella maintained a separate school with Isaac Overkamp and Herman Neyenesch as the district teachers, who gave instruction in both Dutch and English. Obviously the Dutch inhabitants of the city did not patronize their school to a very large extent, for the population of Pella would have warranted a much larger corps of teachers.(245)

In 1856, after eight years of existence without a good schoolhouse and without adequate instruction, the citizens of Pella rejoiced to know that a large two-story brick schoolhouse and a three-story college hall were being erected, and they hoped soon to be able to say "that in these fine buildings, fine teachers, receiving fine salaries, are training our youth to virtue and piety, developing their intellects and storing their minds with useful knowledge." (246)

Common schools in those days were dependent upon taxes and tuition. The teachers divided all tuition money and received a share of the school fund, which was a fixed sum for each pupil taught. When, on New Year's Day, 1857, the editor of the Pella newspaper congratulated the people of the town on the completion of a school building for the use of both Hollanders and Americans, ,he offered only one objection to the arrangements which had been made for education:(247)

     The facilities for public instruction should be such as to place its benefits within the reach of every inhabitant, and it is clear that high rates of tuition are a material obstruction to this desideratum. According to the regulations of the District School in this place, the tuition at the institution is eight dollars a year for each pupil. This is too high, and too heavy a tax upon such of our citizens as enjoy only a scanty share of this world's goods. If the benefits of public instruction shall be rendered general these rates must be considerably reduced - and if means could be devised to dispense with them entirely, it would be better yet.
     The free school is the institution for a country where the sovereignty is vested in the people, and where every individual has his share in shaping the course followed in the conduct of public affairs. Individual prosperity and social welfare being closely connected, and the latter depending chiefly upon the management of public business, and, consequently, upon the intelligence of the mass of the people, the extension of proper instruction to all classes of society is a matter of the highest importance to every member of the community. A school tax, sufficient for its purpose, and levied indiscriminately on those who send children to school, and on those who don't, therefore, is not only a just measure, but the only measure to secure the continuance of social harmony and prosperity.

In March, 1858, a new school law went into force throughout the State of Iowa. Thenceforth a heavier tax was levied upon the people for the payment of school-teachers, and tuition fees were abolished. Parents were informed that free schools removed all reason or excuse for not sending their children to school under pretence of poverty. To insure competent teachers all applicants were obliged to secure certificates from the county superintendent, a new officer.(248)

In the spring of 1858 the citizens of Pella were summoned to cast their ballots for school directors. An editorial by Scholte reveals the prevailing condition of local politics everywhere: (249)

     It is necessary that every one takes the subject to heart. Pecuniary as well as educational interests are involved, and it will be wise to elect men of acknowledged integrity and capability, who are willing to work for the well-being of society. There is a scheme on foot to bring the management of the schools under the control of a class of men who are known as Know-Nothings. The citizens ought to be on their guard, and to keep the dark lantern out of their schools. In the school, at least, we want light.
     The citizens of this Township, as well as those of Pella, have the power to nip this scheme in the bud, if they will only use it, and beware of the evil counsels of designing men, who act upon the Satanic principle, "divide and rule." Let the citizens freely exchange their ideas in relation to the persons and measures to be voted for on the first Monday in May next. We owe this to the rising generation, as well as to the society in which we live.


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(237) Scholte's Eene Stem uit .Pella, pp. 33, 45; van Raalte's Landverhuizing, pp. 16, 19; and Brummelkamp's Stemmen uit Noord-Amerika, p. 17.

(238) Van Raalte's Landverhuizing, pp. 8, 16, 17.

(239) Scholte's Eene Stem uit Pella, pp. 35, 36, 37. 

(240) Van Stigt's Geschiedenis, Part II, pp. 82-84.

(241) Scholte's Eene Stem uit Pella, p. 55, and Scholte's Tweede Stem uit Pella, p. 11.

(242) Van Stigt's Geschiedenis, Part II, p. 31, and Part III, p. 60; Scholte's Tweede Stem uit Pella, p. 11; and Report of Superintendent of Public Instruction (Iowa), 1850, p. 94.

(243) Van Stigt's Geschiedenis, Part II, p. 84.

(244) The Pella Gazette, April 19, 1855.

(245) The Pella Gazette, February 1, 1855; and De Hollanders in Iowa, pp. 125-129.

(246) The Pella Gazette, January 17, and May 1, 1856.

(247) The Pella Gazette, January 8, 1857. 

(248) The Pella Gazette, March 25, 1858.

(249) The Pella Gazette, April 28, 1858.


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