Book Review

Man of the First Hour

In the grand sweep of church history, the ordinary men and women don’t often get noticed.

 

We think in terms of the great moments—like the Reformation of 1517, or the Liberation of 1944—and we concentrate on the key players at such tumultuous times.

 

Yet many thousands of the Lord’s people were caught up in these critical periods. All of them faced very real and significant decisions about where to worship, or how to respond to opposition, and ultimately, about who was worthy of their highest loyalty. There are countless untold stories throughout church history about how Christ’s people have always struggled to live in the freedom for which He set us free.

 

In Man of the First Hour, one of these compelling stories of struggle and faith is preserved. We listen to Rev George Van Popta tell the tale of one of Christ’s ‘ordinary’ servants, his father, Rev Jules T. Van Popta.

 

Born in the Netherlands in 1916 and raised by God-fearing parents, Van Popta was witness to the horrors of World War 2 and the church unrest of the 1940s. It is difficult to imagine the sorrow and strain that was compounded in that period. Not only was Jules Van Popta’s father imprisoned in a concentration camp where he died in early 1945, but Van Popta—as a young seminary student—was forced to confront the doctrinal and church political issues of the Liberation. Yet the Lord faithfully led his path, and that of his young bride, Helen.

 

After ministering to a liberated congregation in the Netherlands, Van Popta accepted a call to the Canadian Reformed Church in Edmonton, Alberta. He and Helen and their young family made the transatlantic and transcontinental voyage to the rugged frontier of Canada. For a time, Van Popta was the only minister serving this federation. He often traveled the vast distances of Western Canada by rail—pillow and portable typewriter in hand—preaching the gospel, administering the sacraments, and helping to organize the young churches.

 

Those ‘first hours’ saw their moments of laughter, together with some heartache. The author shares small glimpses of levity in the parsonage, tension at consistory and synod, and tells about the burnout experienced by his father and how God mercifully renewed his strength. Then in 1968, he was appointed as professor at the new seminary in Hamilton. But in his perfect wisdom the Lord called Van Popta to himself before he could take up this important task.

 

Shortly after he passed away, a colleague referred to Van Popta as “the man of the first hour.” Christ had indeed used him for effective service during the first critical decades of the Canadian churches. But Van Popta had a clear sense that he was but one humble man among many who have been privileged to serve Christ’s catholic church. The author relates how as a young boy, he once asked his father whether it was true that he was the first minister in Canada. And his father replied, “No, there have been many, many ministers before me.”

 

This book is delightfully engaging, and I’m confident that it will be enjoyed by many. It radiates the warmth of a son’s love for his father, and it expresses deep gratitude for the Lord’s unwavering faithfulness. The unmistakable and encouraging message in Man of the First Hour is that Christ has always used ordinary people to build his kingdom, and will continue to do so, until he comes again.

George Van Popta

Carman: Reformed Perspective Press, 2021

Paperback, 226 pages

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