Boer, Harry Reinier

Christian Reformed Church

Hendrich Boer was born on Friday April 4, 1913 to Jacob Boer and Anna Vijfhuizen in Hillegom, Netherlands. The name “Harry” stuck with Hendrich as a pet name for the rest of his life. Harry had two sisters, Willem and Elizabeth. Jacob, Harry’s father grew flowers for a living but he also worked as a book-keeper for flower exporting companies in the Netherlands. Harry’s family lived in the Netherlands until 1922, when they moved to America. The Boer family first spent a year in New York after which they finally settled in Holland, Michigan. During this time, the Boer family joined the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in Holland.

Boer studied at Hope College and after his graduation in 1936, the desire to be a missionary prompted him to enroll at Calvin College. From Calvin College, he went on to study theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in 1939. After his graduation from the seminary in 1942, the need arose for Boer to join the US Navy during the Second World War. Before proceeding to the naval chaplaincy during the war, Boer was ordained as a full minister in the Christian Reformed Church in 1942, thereby being the first to double as a CRC minister and a chaplain in the navy.

His experience during the war shows that Boer had more in him as a minister and care-giver than he may have realized. He often preached, taught, counselled, visited with the sick, interacted with the soldiers and mediated very well in difficult situations. This included relating the difficult news of dead soldiers to their loved ones. On one occasion, Boer had helped to keep watch with a rifle while his exhausted combatant colleagues tried to get some sleep. Boer boldly officiated the funeral service of deceased Marines before thousands of viewers, notwithstanding his phobia for burials and the opting out of his ministering colleague.

When the War ended in 1945, Boer took a postgraduate course at Westminster Seminary for a year. With his dream of being a missionary still on his mind, Boer took another short missionary course and left for Africa. Between 1947 and 1950, Boer spent time in the CRC mission fields of northern Nigeria. During his stay in Nigeria, he was offered the Mission Chair at Calvin Seminary. Boer returned from Nigeria and by 1951, he resumed teaching at Calvin. This teaching career at Calvin was short lived due to controversy. Following this development, Boer decided to pursue doctoral studies at the Free University in Amsterdam, from where he graduated in 1955.

After his doctoral studies in Amsterdam, the Sudan United Missions (SUM) invited Boer to help start a seminary in Nigeria. On February 14 1959, the Theological College of Northern Nigeria (TCNN) was officially opened as a training school for pastors and church workers. Boer was the pioneer principal. Boer saw TCNN through its first fourteen years of formation and growth. During these years, Boer taught, preached, led faculty deliberations and facilitated structural developments on the school’s large permanent site in Bukuru. Boer witnessed the civil war in Nigeria that began with riots in 1966 and he bravely stalled assailing machete-armed northerners and kept them from massacring the thirty Ibo people who were hidden in his home at TCNN, until the police came and took them to safety.

In 1971, Boer saw the need to hand over the leadership of TCNN to someone else. He desired to devote more time to writing small readable textbooks for the growing number of native theological students, who may have found the size and content of Western texts quite challenging to engage with. Boer, successfully published a number of small textbooks. Some of these are A Brief History of Islam (1968), The History of the Early Church (1976), The Book of Revelation (1979), The Four Gospels and ACTS (1982), and The Minor Prophets.

Boer was a writer. He had a good number of books and articles to his name. One of his widely read works is the published version of his doctoral thesis, Pentecost and Missions. Some of Boer’s other writings emerged out of his struggle with the understanding of Christian doctrines and views of the Bible. Boer held that the Bible contains literary errors that can be accounted for in its literary history. He goes on to add that the Christian scripture, however, finds its perfection in Jesus Christ. Boer was equally highly critical of the doctrine of predestination, which he understood to be a divine action on humanity that implies some kind of a prescript that plays out regarding who gets saved and how much missionaries like him can expect from their work of evangelism. Boer’s quest for a scriptural backing to the doctrine of predestination put him at great odds with his Reformed community in America but he held on.

In 1978, Boer retired from the mission station in Nigeria and returned to Michigan. In 1991, he had the honor of dedicating the TCNN library, which was named after him. TCNN remains Boer’s biggest legacy. The college has since grown into a much larger community that is devoted to study and worship. The school now runs various undergraduate and postgraduate programs and each year it graduates hundreds of students from all walks of life. The Harry Boer library now houses a growing number of close to 40,000 volumes.

The years following his return from the rewarding experience of dedicating the TCNN library may have been marked by ailment. Boer was eventually diagnosed with the Alzheimer’s disease. TCNN remained in his eroding memory, as attested by caregivers and visitors. He died on April 21, 1999 and was buried at Pilgrim Home Cemetery, in Holland, Michigan.

Samuel Nwokoro

Select Bibliography:

Boer, Harry. “A Confidential Communication to TCNN Board of Governors.” Typescript, 1971.

——–, “This is Where I Came In,” The Reformed Journal. November 1971.

——–. “Saipan-Tinian, 1944: a Chaplain’s Reminiscence,” Reformed Journal 34:7. July 1984.

——–. “My Pilgrimage in Mission,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 11:4. October 1987.

Bratt, James. Dutch Calvinism in Modern America. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984.

Nwokoro, Samuel O.N.G. “Life and Work of Harry Reinier Boer (1913-1999),” MTh thesis in Church History submitted to the Theological College of Northern Nigeria, 2014.

Stob, George. “Remembering Harry R. Boer,” Perspectives 14:8. October 1999.

This article, submitted in 2018, was written by Samuel Nwokoro, a priest with the Anglican Church in Nigeria and a faculty member at the Theological College of Northern Nigeria in Plateau State, Nigeria.