REV. ALBERTUS C. VAN RAALTE, D. D. No name is more widely known and respected in Ottawa County than that of the father of the Dutch settlements. He has imprinted himself on its history, and a hundred years hence his name will stand out in still bolder relief than it does to-day; for as the fruition of his life becomes more apparent his fame will increase. Dr. Van Raalte was a man of commanding appearance, short of stature, with a wide and thoughtful brow; a man of deep convictions and fully possessed of the courage of these convictions; a man of magnificent education and tireless industry, with a will of iron, and a singular magnetism; a man born and bred for the leadership of his fellows. He was born at Wanneperveen, in the Netherlands, October 17, 1811. His parents were Rev. Albertus Van Raalte and Christina Catherina Harking. Seventeen children were born of this union, of whom only four or five survive.
After the completion of his classical studies, Dr. Van Raalte went to the University of Leyden, where he became an associate of a few congenial students, who had come under the influence of the men of the "Reveil," especially of the poet-historian, W. Bilderdyk. The great struggle for the freedom of the church had just commenced when Van Raalte graduated, in 1835, from the university. He was one of the suspects, and the Provincial Ecclesiastical Board of South Holland refused to admit him to the ministry unless he would solemnly promise unequivocal submission to the rules of the church. He refused, and joined the hated "Seceders," who had raised the banner of freedom. By them he was ordained to the ministry, and with them he shared to the fullest extent the cruel persecutions which, to the lasting shame of Holland, raged against the new movement for several years. On that same occasion, in the midst of the brethren who met as a free synod at Amsterdam in the early summer of 1836, he married his estimable life companion, Christina Johanna De Moen, a daughter of Benjamin De Moen, a highly respected burgher of Leyden, and Johanna Wilhelmina Menzel. Of this union several children were born, who are highly connected in this community.
Early in the ‘40s a strong migratory movement began to develop itself in the Netherlands, where the situation, both ecclesiastically and socially, had grown insufferable. Hundreds prepared to leave the Fatherland, and in 1846 Dr. Van Raalte, who had just passed through a critical illness, decided to become the leader of the movement, which had the Western States of North America for its objective point. He arrived with a large company of pioneers, in a comparatively small sailing-vessel, "The Southerner," at New York in October, 1846; and after a brief delay led his followers as far West as Detroit, where they passed the first part of the winter. Mr. Van Raalte, himself, pressed on, and in the severe winter cold of 1846-47 explored the greater part of the present Ottawa County, where he was hospitably received and aided by the Rev. S. Smith, a missionary of the Presbyterian Church among the Ottawas. The Indians, well acquainted with the secrets of the vast maiden forest, materially aided Mr. Van Raalte in his explorations, and he decided to select this spot for colonization.
Returning to his followers, he reached these parts again with a devoted band of pioneers, marching single file along Indian trails, on the 9th of February, 1847. It is impossible to describe in this brief sketch the deadly struggle waged by the pioneers with the forest tangles and wild animals; with inadequate food and insufficient shelter; with summer heat and winter cold; with the malarial effluvia of the swampy forests, and the resulting decimating diseases; with homesickness and despondency, with detractions and evil reports, and all manner of discouragement. With God’s help they persisted and prevailed. Dr. Van Raalte was the head and heart of the enterprise, and his death, in the early years of the history of the Colonies, would have precipitated the whole desperate undertaking of the inexperienced and poverty-stricken settlers in hopeless ruin and confusion.
The broad, well-tilled acres, the cozy homes nestling against the shoulders of the rolling hills, the abundant evidence of affluence and good cheer appealing to the eye in every direction in the settlements in Ottawa County; the thriving city of Holland, Phœnix-like risen in renewed beauty from the ashes of the destructive fire of 1871; the flourishing Hope College, founded by Mr. Van Raalte at Holland, and to-day the best educational centre of Western Michigan; all these bear the imprint of the man and the leader, and are the silent witnesses of his signal success. Truly this man built better than he knew, and succeeded in rearing for himself a mausoleum which will outwear the destructive onset of time. In 1849, Mr. Van Raalte and his followers joined the Reformed (Dutch) Church in America, the oldest Presbyterian Church on this continent. And in this ecclesiastical connection the settlements now spread far and wide over our Western States have developed into a strong branch of said church, numbering fifteen thousand communicants, with one hundred and thirty churches and some ninety pastors.
As a leader Mr. Van Raalte had the gift of wonderful versatility and ingenuity; as a preacher he excelled in rhetorical power and a clear, analytical insight into God’s Word and the hidden ways of men’s hearts. He was a man of power and often made his hearers tremble before the majesty of God. The University of New York and Rutger’s College at New Brunswick, N.J., simultaneously bestowed upon him the title of Doctor of Divinity. When the War of the Rebellion broke out his voice rang out clear and strong in defense of the Union, and willingly he gave his own sons for the defense and establishment of human rights and the life of the Union. His wife passed away, after years of suffering under a frail constitution, on the 30th of June, 1871. This blow, quickly followed by the ruinous fire of Holland in October of the same year, destroyed the remaining strength of the man, and he fell into a slow decay, under which he succumbed, after several apparent rallies, on the 7th of November, 1876, in the midst of the bitterly contested general election of that year.
The strongest proof of his hold on his people is, perhaps, the fact that the announcement of his death at this critical political juncture paralyzed the rancorous party spirit of election day, and made common mourners of bitter political antagonists. The funeral was the largest ever held in Ottawa County, and in his death one passed away who is justly called "a man mighty in words and deeds." He was one of the pioneers of the State a citizen of whom Michigan may justly boast, a man of God and a man of men, one of Heaven’s true noblemen. "Requiescat in pace."