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A Tale of Two Dominies

Updated: Mar 3

by Paul Vander Kooi

Definition one: Faith—The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. By faith, Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go. For he looked forward to the City which has foundation, whose builder and maker is God. "The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?

Definition two: Dominie—Dutch word for pastor, spiritual leader, rabbi, most respected and trusted person in the community. The man who will understand you and guide you through your sorrows and tragedies, who will honestly preach the Word of God to you, and will speak the last words of consolation to your family when your life has ended.

The Dutch separatists had faith in the Dominie when they embarked for Pella, the City of Refuge, on the plains of Iowa. Their dominies had faith in the God of Abraham to lead their flock. Hounded by an autocratic monarchy, spied upon, threatened, fined, imprisoned, they were convinced that they were confronted with the Anti-Christ and with hopes of the millennium were leading their flock, as Moses had in the days of old, to the promised land.

Four sailing ships, carrying a total of 800 souls, embarked in 1847 from the Netherlands with their destination the port city of Baltimore. Dominie A.J. Betten was leader on the ship Nagasaki. Rocking to and fro on the wooden vessel, the dominie was so sea sick on the entire 49-day journey that he could not carry out any of his responsibilities.

When at last the four ships gathered together in Baltimore, 20 of their number had perished at sea. But faith and hope persevered. During the passage, the De Jong family, while grieving the loss of their only daughter, rejoiced in the birth of a son, Koenrad, who was the first child born to the pilgrim band.

By faith, the group organized their belongings, allowed themselves to be pressed like sardines into the small box cars of the primitive railroad that pulled them up the slope of the continental fall line, up and down the Alleghenies, and packed into the canal boats. All the time they guarded their Bibles and the one chest filled with their savings in gold, until they finally arrived in Pittsburg. Four more died. From there they headed onto the steamboats bound for St. Louis, the gateway to the west. Here they rested awhile, living in hastily erected wooden sheds, and were cared for by local Presbyterian folk.

By faith, they packed their belongings again when a place of refuge had been found for them, headed upstream to Keokuk, the gateway city of Iowa, where they made their final trek by foot, oxen and horse to their City of Refuge, Pella.

Reverend Scholte
Rev. Scholte

Dominie Scholte was president of the emigrant group. Dominie Betten, who had been denied formal seminary training in the Old Country because of his separatist connection, had received instruction from Dominie Scholte and was the vice-president. Dominie Scholte, an independent person, wanted no association with any other denominational group: No creeds, no by-laws, no rules but the Bible. Their group would be simply called "The Christian Church."

Dominie Scholte also had some of the beliefs of an autocratic aristocrat and he took it upon himself to claim the Garden Square as his own possession without the consent of the Committee. Dominie Scholte intended to make the square his own decorative garden. The Committee protested and Dominie Betten was asked to confront his old mentor about the matter. Dominie Scholte would not recant and as a result Scholte was expelled from the First Christian Church. He formed his own little group and Dominie Betten was left in charge of the larger body.

Reverend A. J. Betten

For years Dominie Betten struggled and did the best he could for the group. He preached, disciplined and administered the sacraments. He complained of people smoking in the meetings, walking in and out of the services, not coming to the administration of the sacraments, and being too lax in their moral behavior. He sensed a need for more able leadership and tried to get Dominie Van Raalte, the leader of the Michigan Dutch, to come: VanRaalte did come for a while: he forbade smoking during the long consistory meetings. Betten attempted to get Dominie Brummelkamp, one of the early leaders of the separatists, to come from the Netherlands. He refused, feeling that his position as head of the separatist seminary in Kampen was more important.

Cholera struck Pella in the summer of 1857. Sixteen persons died, including the Dominie Betten's wife and the village doctor who died just a few hours after his last call to one of the afflicted. The dominie had to officiate at the funeral service of one of the families and his sermon was recorded as being one of the most impressive, touching messages ever heard. Perhaps the dominie was thinking of his recently departed wife and his grief for her as he intoned, "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, Blessed be the name of the Lord."

The town grew and the people of the First Christian Church began to murmur against their "Moses." Dominie Betten had been instrumental in effecting the entrance of his separatist flock into the Dutch Reformed Church denomination, the church of the original Dutch settlers to the Hudson River Valley. The people now wanted an ordained clergyman and wanted to get rid of Dominie Betten.

Dominie Betten had remarried to Adrianna Van Pelt, whose only compatibility with him was that she had likewise lost her spouse in the cholera epidemic. It was rumored that their marriage was bad and that the dominie couldn’t even manage his own household, let alone the church. Dominie Betten was exhausted and resigned. Too much had been asked of him.

Dominie Betten then wished to join the other group associated with Dominie Scholte. His old friends were at first ready to accept him, but after much debate and discussion, refused him into their fellowship because the dispute over the land ownership had not been settled and there had been no reconciliation between Scholte and Betten.

The rumors of the marriage difficulties were well-founded. Dominie Betten and his second wife, Adrianna, were just not compatible. Not being interested in religious matters, she would go as far as to hide his preaching clothes. The marriage ended in a divorce.

Dominie Betten's oldest son, A.J. Betten, Jr., had become a successful businessman and had been one of the pioneer emigrants to the new colony on the prairies of Northwest Iowa, Orange City. In 1875 he kindly offered a place in his home for his father to live out his last years.

The old dominie, now 65 years old, accepted the invitation to move to Orange City and lived with his son, A.J. until his death in 1900. His former wife, Adrianna Van Pelt, also moved to Orange City and set up her own household, raising their children Derek and Mary, Derek was owner and manager of the Betten Hotel at the turn of the century.

Adrianna died in 1887 at the age of 58. She is buried beneath a prominent gravestone by the big pine tree in the middle of the local cemetery. The marker reads "Adrianna Van Pelt." Beside the big stone are the two smaller markers of Derek Betten (1858-1940) and Mary (1864-1957).

Dominie Betten, the last of the separatist dominies of the original group of leaders to die, is buried in an unmarked and unknown site in the Orange City Cemetery. His obituary of 1900 asks that the current generation not judge him too harshly, reminding them of their own faults. The writer of the obituary feels that he was the most profound thinker of all those early spiritual leaders of the Dutch immigrants.

Thus ended the long career of a man of faith. May the memories of him and his fellow heroes of the faith persist in the halls of the Orange City Century Home which was being built by his son in another act of faith just as his father's life was coming to an end.

I would like to thank Margaret Betten Reitmeyer of Scribner, Neb., great-granddaughter of Dominie Betten and Betten family historian for the verbal and written material she provided me. Also, thanks to Alice Lammers, Pella archivist, for her input. Thanks to First Reformed Church of Pella for allowing me to examine the old minutes of the original separatist church of Pella and also the minutes of Scholte's group which we found gathering dust in the closet of the church.

Dr. Paul Vander Kooi (1932-2010) was an Orange City medical doctor, local historian and founding member of the Dutch Heritage Boosters. As a pioneering member of the DHB he translated Dutch documents and led historical research.


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