The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Reformed Church in America, The

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The Encyclopedia Americana
Reformed Church in America, The
Edition of 1920. See also Reformed Church in America on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

REFORMED CHURCH IN AMERICA, The, is one in denominational polity and doctrinal type with the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of the Netherlands, and bore that name until the year 1867. The beginnings of distinctive Reformed Church theology should be credited to “The Brethren of the Common Life.” This was a unique organization of Christian community-life throughout the Netherlands, indirectly inspired by the consecrated mystic, John Ruysbroek of Brussels, designed and formally established at Deventer and Zwolle in North Holland by Ruysbroek's devoted pupil and friend, the enthusiastic evangelist-missionary, Gerard de Groote, in the last year of his life, 1384, and fully organized and developed by de Groote's like-minded fellow-worker, Florentius Radewyn, during the last 16 years of the 14th century, which were also the closing and crowning years of the life of this truly diligent and admirable man. Absolute loyalty to the will and person of the Lord Jesus Christ in everything, as necessarily exemplified in continual personal study and obedience of the Holy Scriptures, was the one all-important purpose in the daily life of these single-hearted Christian leaders. For the more practical and complete realization of their one supreme purpose many varied personal and community activities were developed; conspicuous among these were transcribing and multiplying copies of the Old and New Testaments, the early Church Fathers and other truly good books; the grouping of these “copyists” in community-families of not more than 20 persons under the same roof; daily study of the Scriptures, the classic languages and the simpler sciences; the establishing and employing of schools, academies and colleges for the educating of the youth; providing needed teachers as well as needy students in already flourishing schools — with the special design of encouraging and helping every ambitious boy to an education anywhere in the Netherlands; and daily, ordered and useful work of some kind for every person; for preaching Christ and Christian duty, teaching, publishing, farming, gardening, sharing handiwork of any and every useful kind, made up the regular program of the “Brethren of the Common Life.” This carefully organized Christian system, during the century preceding the dawn of the great Reformation, produced such men as Thomas a'Kempis, saintly author of ‘The Imitation of Christ’; Rudolph Agricola, famous for reviving classical studies and freeing learning from scholastic fetters; Alexander Hegius, the greatest educational reformer of his age; Desiderius Erasmus, the foremost humanist, scholar and author of the Renaissance; and John Wessel, more popularly known as Wessel Gansfort, philosopher, physician and pioneer organizer of the earliest Protestant theological system.

Besides these eminent men, the schools of the “Brethren of the Common Life” trained a great number of lesser leaders, who were influential for better things in education, and morals and spiritual life. De Groote and Florentius appreciated the value of the spiritual treasures bequeathed to them by the greatest of all the mystics, Ruysbroek, the venerable abbot of Gruenthal, and Tauler, the impassioned evangelist of the Rhine Palatinate; and realizing clearly the supreme crisis of their time, and their own supreme obligation through the service of fellow-men to seek the greater glory of God, they established wisely and permanently their efficient brotherhood of Christian communities, which directly for nearly two centuries, and indirectly for all succeeding time, was influential in making Holland pre-eminently the home of civil, intellectual and religious liberty. And to these founders and trained leaders of the “Brethren of the Common Life” the Reformed Church in Holland and in America is indebted — above all others — for a religious faith always scriptural, simple and spiritual, which exalts to supreme place the salvation and imitation of the Divine Redeemer, the imperial authority of Holy Scripture, the Fatherhood of God and the true love and service of mankind. These men in Holland shared with Wyclif of England and Huss of Bohemia the honor of faithful preparatory work in the 14th and 15th centuries as evangelical reformers before the Reformation.

Early in the development of 16th century reform the people of Holland showed marked preference for the doctrinal system of Zwingli and Calvin rather than that of Luther. This may have been partly due to their long-time neighborly intercourse and friendship with the Evangelicals living on the banks of the Rhine, and partly due to their sympathy with the persecuted disciples of Calvin in France; but chiefly due, it may well be urged, to the clear, convincing and fearless propaganda of Wessel Gansfort — a man of such culture, conviction and persuasive power that his two years' professorship at Heidelberg University established a virile and abiding evangelical influence in those academic halls which had marked effect upon Ursinus and Olivianus and the Heidelberg Catechism. Without doubt also Gansfort directly, or indirectly, helped to shape the Belgic Confession as truly as that great symbol influenced the countrymen of Gansfort in later years. It may be remembered that Martin Luther himself wrote concerning the writings of Gansfort: “If I had read his works earlier, my enemies might think that Luther had absorbed everything from Wessel, his spirit is so in accord with mine.”

The persecutions for heresy under Charles V of Spain (1519-55), and his son Philip II (1555-98), brought long-continued distress and suffering to the Netherlands people, and continued with occasional brief intervals for more than half a century. The period of horrors, par excellence, was the bloody six years' régime of Alva (1567-73), during which time, as the princely butcher boasted, there were more than 18,000 authorized executions; and it is claimed that in this little country more than 100,000 persons gave up life rather than faith. The more cruelly they were persecuted, however, the more inflexibly the Hollanders refused the obedience their Spanish king demanded. In 1584 William of Orange, the shrewd, self-sacrificing, invincibly fearless and confident defender of Holland's faith and freedom, was treacherously assassinated by Balthazar Gerard; yet his son Maurice proved himself a skilful military leader, and with some little help from England the struggle with the oppressor continued for some years; but finally in 1609 the “twelve years' truce” was agreed upon and Holland's long-protracted agony for conscience's sake was over. Yet during the darkest days of persecution proscribed evangelists continued their fervent preaching in the fields, and the people prayed and sang praises to God, after the example and spirit of the imprisoned apostles — the appeals of the field-preachers and the inspiring hymns of Beza and Marot continually strengthening them all to persevere in “witnessing a good confession.”

Just before the coming of Alva, in 1566, a few Dutch and Walloon pastors organized the first evangelical Church Synod at Antwerp; and with the aid of a few noble laymen a complete Church organization was effected. The Belgic Confession, written by Guido de Brey five years before, was adopted, with slight changes; and the Heidelberg Catechism, now for three years the authorized symbol of the Palatine reformers, was accepted tentatively, to be fully and finally adopted a few years later. Yet it was distinctly professed, whatever doctrinal standards were honored or endorsed, that the Word of God was the only recognized rule of faith. The Synod of Wesel in 1568 somewhat modified and adopted Calvin's Presbyterian polity; the necessity for a learned and consecrated ministry, loyal to the Word of God and the Church standards, was plainly set forth, and the various classes and duties of church officers were clearly defined. In 1571 came the Synod of Emden, which endorsed the acts of previous synods and formulated certain new features of church government. The first Synod of Dort, 1576, defined the four grades of ecclesiastical bodies as follows: the General Synod, the highest court, its members delegated from the Classes, and meeting once a year; the Particular Synod, also a delegated assembly of ministers and elders, meeting annually; the Classis, a permanent body including the pastors and one elder each from a number of nearby churches, and meeting twice a year, and the Consistory, the court of the individual church, consisting of an equal number of elders and deacons elected by the church, with the pastor as president. The same Synod also limited certain conditions of church membership. Five years later the Synod of Middleburg assembled in 1581 to complete the organization of the Church and to determine certain matters relating to schoolmasters, professors of theology, liturgy and creed. A month later the sovereignty of Philip II was formally renounced, and the Reformed Church was declared the established Church of the Netherlands. The great Arminian controversy early in the 17th century made necessary the calling of the second Synod of Dort in 1618, to which all the Reformed Churches of Europe were invited, and most of them consented, to send delegates. James I commissioned as England's representatives the bishop of Llandaff, Samuel Ward, professor of Cambridge, and Joseph Hall, afterward a bishop of Salisbury. Foreordination, perseverance of the saints, man's conversion and free will and the divine atonement were elaborately discussed; under the leadership of Episcopius (Arminius having died before the Synod convened), the Remonstrants warmly favored the system of Arminius, which, in certain points, was finally adjudged contrary to sound doctrine; the Arminian Remonstrants were excluded from office in the Reformed Church, as consciously and wilfully traversing their own solemn pledges of loyalty to the Church and its standards; and in an elaborate formula known as the “Canons of the Synod of Dort,” the Synodal decisions concerning the great doctrines of grace were carefully defined. The “Post Acta” of the later sessions of the Synod set forth authoritatively certain important details concerning the call to the ministry, festival days, hymns for worship, baptism of adults and the sick, professors of theology and their relations to the Church, a new translation of the Bible into Dutch, foreign missions, the Liturgy and ministers' salaries. The Heidelberg Catechism was again heartily adopted, and a “Compendium” of its teachings was prepared that it might be included with the other standards of the Church.

Four years before this time the Hollanders began emigrating to America; for that new-discovered world became increasingly attractive year by year, since the Holland government had formally annexed the country discovered and partially explored as “New Netherland,” and had issued a charter to the East India Company, with specified rights of trading, settling and colony improvement. Within a half dozen years after Henry Hudson, in 1609, had discovered the river that bears his name the Dutch trading posts at New York and Albany had the services of specially qualified and ordained Christian laymen (Jan Huyck and Sebastiaen Jansen Krol by name) as “Comforters of the Sick” and leaders of public worship on Sundays. A distinctly aggressive religious influence was also due to the consecrated personality of the first director of the colony, Peter Minuit, who had been for years an ordained elder of the French Reformed Church of Wesel.

In seeking their comfort and growth, spiritual as well as temporal, at both Albany and New York, these three Christian laymen served their fellow-colonists for some years before the coming of the first missionary minister of the Dutch colony, the Rev. Jonas Michaelius, in the year 1628. Soon after the coming of this minister the first Reformed church was organized with 50 communicants. Many of the early settlers of New Netherland were French Huguenots, more commonly called “Walloons.” The name of the Long Island locality, “Wallabout,” shows the nationality of most of the people who settled there. In 1642 the people of Albany (Fort Orange) were no longer obliged to content themselves with the spiritual ministry of the “Comforters of the Sick,” for Kiliaen van Rensselaer, the first patroon of Rensselaerswyck, secured for them the services of a well-qualified minister, the Rev. Johannes Megapolensis, and in August of 1642 the first minister of Albany began his seven years' pastorate. It is worthy of note that the Classis of Amsterdam (having sole ecclesiastical jurisdiction over New Netherland), which commissioned Megapolensis for his work, also specified in his “call” that his duty was to minister to the spiritual needs of the Indians as well as the Dutch, and the same duty was prescribed in many other Classis “calls,” which served as official commissions of the ministers for their work, whether on the Hudson River, the Delaware, the Mohawk or the Raritan. Early in his ministry at Albany Megapolensis prepared and published a detailed account of the Mohawk Indians, which is the earliest trustworthy book on the life, customs and characteristics of the American Indian. In 1654 a third Reformed church was organized at Flatbush, L. I., with Polhemus as pastor; and other churches were established during the next 10 years, so that at the time of the English occupation in 1664 they numbered 13 in all.

During the next century the need of ministers for the steadily growing American church became more and more urgent; there were no American colleges and seminaries available to prepare students for ministerial service; but few young men could afford the time and expense necessary for seven years of academic and theological study in Holland; and the Reformed Church was thus hindered and dwarfed in the most important stage of its growth. Another condition limiting the increase of the Church was the continued and exclusive use of the Dutch language for more than half a century after it should have been clear to any thoughtful person that this persistent stand of the Dutch Church was a steadily losing policy which must finally bring disaster. Whether among Dutch settlers in America of the early 17th century or among German settlers in America of the early 20th century — to make the language of the street, and social life and business, the language of the school, the newspaper and the Church, is evidently a policy profitable, sensible, Christian and patriotic.

Another obstructive influence, which co-operated all too well with the injurious tendencies already noted, was the propaganda of many leading Episcopalians, crafty or aggressive, persuasive or argumentative, but at all times persistent, which often triumphed, in capturing from the Dutch Church many of her most wealthy and influential communicants. Yet another influence, most lamentable of all in its injury of vital interests, was the long “Coetus-Conferentie” controversy, which seriously crippled and divided the Church from 1755 to 1771. Harmony was at last restored through the wise and gracious activities of Dr. John Henry Livingstone. He was a graduate of Yale College, and later of the theological department of the University of Utrecht, Holland; and he brought with him, as a Dutch doctor of divinity set apart by the Classis of Amsterdam as minister of the Collegiate Church of New York, a most valuable content of influence in the approving counsels and hearty co-operation of the churches of Holland in his plan for reconciliation and peace. (The adoption of the Plan of Union virtually removed the American Church from the jurisdiction of the Classis of Amsterdam; 21 years later absolute independence came with the new constitution). Dr. Livingstone later in life was professor of theology in the New Brunswick Theological Seminary for many years (1784-1825), and 15 years before his death he was also elected president of Rutgers College. Long-cherished plans for a Church college were realized when Governor franklin granted a charter in 1766; but Queens College (later Rutgers) was organized under a second and improved charter in 1770, and was permanently located in New Brunswick, N. J. Besides the theological seminary at New Brunswick, the Reformed Church has a second theological seminary at Holland, Mich., and a third in connection with the Arcot Mission of the Reformed Church in India.

Near the middle of the 19th century there was an extensive immigration from Holland to Michigan and the neighboring States; and the rapid growth of this large Holland colony led to the founding of Holland Academy; which afterward so steadily prospered that it was chartered as Hope College in 1866. Youngest of the colleges of the Church is Central College, located at Pella, Iowa, which, after 63 years of work under the auspices of the Baptists, was transferred to the control of the Reformed Church in 1916. A board of education was established in 1828 with the design of aiding the most desirable young men in preparing for the ministry; and in 1865 the board was empowered by General Synod to aid the Classes of the Church in establishing academies and classical schools. Since 1844 the board of domestic missions has done efficient work in strengthening feeble churches and in supporting infant churches. With several other denominations the Reformed Church was associated in the foreign missionary work of the American Board from 1832 to 1857; since then it has had its own separate missionary work with special responsibility for fields in India, China, Japan and Arabia.

In government the Reformed Church in America is Presbyterian; in public worship the use of the Liturgy is optional, with the exception of the Offices for Baptism, the Lord's Supper and ordination of ministers, elders and deacons.

In 1792 the constitution of the American Church was formed, the 84 articles of the Synod of Dort being enlarged by adding 73 explanatory articles, more perfectly adapting the church law of the older Church to the requirements of modern Christian life in the “new world.” During the last 10 years also many constitutional changes, in form or in substance, have been proposed, discussed, modified and finally ratified. Four officers of the Church are recognized: ministers of the Word, professors of theology, elders and deacons. The judicatories of the Church are also four: the Consistory, the Classis, the Particular Synod and the General Synod. The Consistory of each church includes the minister with the elders and deacons in active service; the elders being charged with spiritual functions and the deacons with the care of the poor; the Consistory are usually the sole trustees of church property; the elders and deacons are elected by the church members for a term of two years; and rotation in office changes half the Consistory each year; the great Consistory is an advisory body of elders and deacons formerly in service. The Classis must have not less than three ministers and three elders, representing at least three churches; it meets twice a year, to license, ordain, install, dismiss, suspend or depose ministers, and legislate on the affairs of the churches, trying cases appealed from them. The Particular Synod has jurisdiction over its constituent Classes, forms new Classes or transfers congregations from one to another, and decides cases of appeal; it meets once a year and is composed of four ministers and four elders from each Classis. The General Synod, the court of final appeal, convenes early in June of each year; has jurisdiction over the entire Church; has a representation of at least two ministers and two elders from each Classis; and sends down to the Classes proposed and desirable changes in the constitution of the Church, to be finally decided for or against by their majority vote. In 1918 the Reformed Church in America had one General Synod, four Particular Synods, 38 Classes, 730 churches and 759 ministers, with 132,937 communicants. Consult Miller, ‘Life and Writings of Wessel Gansfort’ (1917); Kettlewell, ‘Thomas A'Kempis and the Brethren of the Common Life’ (1882); Hansen, ‘Reformed Church in the Netherlands’ (1884); Demarest, ‘Reformed Church in America’ (1889); ‘Centennial Discourses on the Reformed Church’ (1876); ‘Centennial of the New Brunswick Theological Seminary’ (1884); Corwin, ‘Manual of the Reformed Church’ (4th ed., 1902); Corwin, ‘Digest of Constitutional and Synodal Legislation of the Reformed Church in America’ (1906).

Edward P. Johnson,
Professor of Sacred and Ecclesiastical History, Theological Seminary of Reformed Church in America.