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Reformed Churches

Protestant bodies which adopted the tenets of Zwingli and; later, the doctrinal principles of Calvin

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Reformed Churches, the name given to Protestant bodies which adopted the tenets of Zwingli and; later, the doctrinal principles of Calvin. This distinctive title originated in 1561 at the colloquy of Poissy. Initiated in Switzerland, the movement from which the Churches sprang gained ground at an early date in France, some German states, the Netherlands, England, Scotland, Hungary, and Poland. Later, emigration and colonization secured a still wider diffusion of the Calvinistic system. Some of the denominations which adopted it go today under a special name, e.g. Presbyterianism: they receive separate treatment in this work. Others became national churches and are mentioned under the name of the country in which they exist. (See Ulrich Zwingli; Calvinism; Reformation; Arminianism; Holland; Huguenots; Scotland. etc.). The following bodies are here considered:


(1) Name, Doctrinal Standards, and Organization.

—The denomination known as “The Reformed Protestant Dutch Church in North America” until 1867, when the present name was adopted, asserts with Protestants generally the sole sufficiency of the Scriptures as a rule of faith. Its recognized theological standards are the Apostles‘, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds, the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of the Synod of Dort. It believes in the spiritual reception of Jesus Christ by the believer in the Lord’s Supper, and also accepts the distinctively Calvinistic doctrine of a limited election to salvation. The liturgy is characterized by great simplicity; its forms are optional, except in the administration of the sacraments. In polity, the Church is Presbyterian; the constitution recognizes four kinds of officers: ministers of the word, professors of theology, elders, and deacons. The elders exercise spiritual functions and the deacons are in charge of temporal interests. At the head of individual congregations is the Consistory, which is composed of minister, elders, and deacons. The authority over a district is vested in the Caassis which is itself under the jurisdiction of the Particular Synod. The General Synod exercises supreme control in the Church. The elders and deacons are elected to office for two years, after which they may be reelected. Former elders and deacons may be called together for consultation in what is known as the “Great Consistory”. The other Reformed Churches especially treated in this article are similarly constituted and organized.

(2) History.

—The Dutch Reformed Church was organized among settlers from Holland in New York City in 1628 by Rev. Jonas Michaelius. Fifty communicants were present at the first celebration of the Lord’s Supper. When, in 1664, the colony passed from Dutch into English hands, 11 Reformed churches, with an approximate membership of 10,000 souls, existed in the country; they were all situated in New York and neighboring states. By the terms of surrender the Dutch were granted “the liberty of their consciences in divine worship and in church discipline”. During the first decade of English occupation this provision was faithfully observed. Later, however, the governors sought to impose English ecclesiastical customs upon their Dutch subjects, in consequence of which much bitterness was engendered, and a prolonged struggle ensued. In spite of this unfavorable circumstance and the cessation of Dutch immigration, the number of churches, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, had increased to thirty-four. They were under the jurisdiction of the Classis of Amsterdam. In 1738 a petition for the authorization of a coetus, or ecclesiastical assembly, was sent to that body. But it was only after nine years that a favorable reply was received. This was the first step towards independence, which was completely realized in 1755 by the authorized formation of a classis. This action of some members of the coetus led to protracted strife, which was to be healed by the plan of union submitted by the Rev. J. H. Livingston in 1771 and accepted by the American Dutch churches and the Classic of Amsterdam. After the troublous times of the Revolution, the internal organization was further perfected in 1792 by the adoption of a constitution, which provided for a General Synod. In 1794, this synod met for the first time; it held triennial sessions until 1812, and then became an annual and representative body. A period of increased prosperity opened for the denomination in 1846, when numerous Hollanders settled in the Middle West and connected themselves with the church. In 1910 the Dutch Reformed Church numbered 728 ministers, 684 churches, and 116,815 communicants (statistics of Dr. Carroll in the “Christian Advocate”, New York, January 26, 1911; this statistical authority is cited throughout for the United States). Through the emigration just referred to, the Christian Reformed Church was also transplanted to America. This denomination was organized in Holland (1835) as a protest against the rationalistic tendencies of the State Church. To it were joined in the United States in 1890 the diminishing members of the True Reformed Church, a body organized in 1822 by several clergymen. It numbers today 138 ministers, 189 churches, 29,006 communicants.

(3) Educational Institutions and Missionary Activity.

—Some of the educational institutions controlled by the Church were established at a very early date. Rutgers College was founded in 1770 under the name of Queen’s College at New Brunswick, New Jersey, where a theological seminary was also established in 1784. At Holland, Michigan, Hope College was founded in 1866, and the Western Theo-logical Seminary in 1867. A board of education organized by private persons in 1828 was taken over by the General Synod in 1831; it extends financial assistance to needy students for the ministry. A “Disabled Ministers’ Fund” grants similar aid to clergymen, and a “Widows’ Fund” to their wives. A Board of Publication has been in operation since 1855. The proselytizing activity of the Church is not confined to America; a Board of Foreign Missions established in 1832 was supplemented in 1875 by a Woman‘s Auxiliary Board. The Church maintains stations at Amoy, China, in the districts of Arcot and Madura, India, in Japan, and Arabia.


This church was founded by immigrants from the Palatinate and other German districts of the Reformed faith. Its history begins with the German immigration of the last quarter of the seventeenth century. Among its early ministers were Philip Boehm and George M. Weiss, whose fame is eclipsed, however, by that of the real organizer of the Church, Michael Schlatter. The latter visited most of the German Reformed settlements, instituted pastors, established schools, and, in 1747, formed the first coetus. On a subsequent journey through Europe he obtained financial aid for the destitute churches by pledging the submission of the coetus to the Classis of Amsterdam. Six young ministers accompanied him to America in 1752; the supply of clergymen, however, was insufficient for many years and resulted in some defections. In 1793 the synod replaced the coetus and assumed supreme authority in the church, which now comprised approximately 180 congregations and 15,000 communicants. The process of organization was completed in 1819 by the division of the synod into districts or classes. About 1835 the “Mercersburg controversy”, concerning certain theological questions, agitated the Church; in 1863 the tercentenary of the adoption of the Heidelberg Cathechism was celebrated. From this time dates the foundation of orphans’ homes in the denomination. Foreign mission work was inaugurated in 1879 by the sending of missionaries to Japan. The first theological seminary was organized in 1825 at Carlisle, Pennsylvania; It was removed in 1836 to Mereersburg, and in 1871 to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The Church also controls Heidelberg University and Western Theological Seminary (both at Tiffin, Ohio), Ursinus College (Collegeville, Pa.), Catawba College (North Carolina), and several other educational institutions of advanced grade. Its present membership is 297,116 communicants with 1226 ministers and 1730 churches. The Hungarian Reformed Church, which numbers at present 5253 communicants, was organized in 1904 in New York City for the convenience of Hungarian-speaking immigrants.


Dutch settlers transplanted the Reformed faith to South Africa as early as 1652. Churches of some importance at present exist in the country and are organized as the Reformed Churches of Cape Colony, of the Orange Free State, of the Transvaal, and of Natal. The progress in political union favorably influenced church affairs: in 1906 these separate bodies placed themselves under a federal council, and in 1909 under a general synod. Their collective membership amounts to about 220,000 communicants. The movement towards union had been preceded by secessions caused by liberal and conservative theological tendencies. As a representative of conservatism the “Reformed Church in South Africa” was organized in 1859 by the Rev. D. Postma. It has today an aggregate membership of about 16,000 communicants distributed through Cape Colony, the Orange Free State, and Transvaal. An offshoot of the liberal spirit is the separatist “Reformed Church of the Transvaal”, which was organized by the Rev. Van der Hoff and has at present about 10,000 communicants.


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