Dutchmen. The Dutch Reform Church was Calvinistic and similar in theology and ecclesiastical structure to the Presbyterian Church. It was the established, or state, church of Holland, where its governing body, the Classis of Amsterdam, remained. This religion arrived in New York when the Dutch West India Company established it in its trading outposts in 1624. The first ordained minister, however, did not arrive until five years later. Followers were led by laymen appointed as Krankenbesoeckers (Comforters of the Sick). Although established, the church coexisted with denominations that were tolerated in the interest of attracting settlers. When the English took over the colony in 1664, there were only twelve struggling churches and six ministers, three of whom immediately left. Yet the church grew, spreading into New Jersey and later into Pennsylvania in spite of the lack of clergy, who could only be ordained by the Amsterdam Classis. They survived by welcoming any Reform or Presbyterian preacher and seriously considered joining with the Presbyterians in the early 1740s. The projected union failed because the church insisted that services be conducted in Dutch. Yet in New York several Dutch ministers did employ the English language and even adopted the more formalistic liturgy and practices of the Anglican Church. Churches in New Jersey went in the opposite direction after the arrival of Theodorus Jacobus Frelinghuysen in 1720. He and two other pietistic preachers spurred a series of Dutch revivals in 1735, marked by spontaneous prayers, evangelical preaching in Dutch, and a minimum of ritual. Frelinghuysen claimed to be able to recognize those who had not been saved and refused to allow them to take communion. He and his followers spread out, intruding on other congregations with their fervent preaching and lambasting their clergy as lifeless formalists. The New York ministers were their main targets. Congregations began to split into two warring factions as lay followers of Frelinghuysen preached and spread revivals throughout the area. This finally forced the Amsterdam Classis in 1748 to establish a subsidiary coetus, or synod, in America with the power to ordain ministers. Further autonomy was granted after 1750.
Germans. The German Reform Church was quite similar to that of the Dutch, and their histories are intertwined. It was established in the Palatinate and several Rhineland provinces and overseen by the Heidelberg Reform Group. Wars in the early eighteenth century drove many of them to the middle colonies, mainly Pennsylvania. Because few moved as organized religious groups, they lacked ministers and were ill-prepared to organize themselves; in the past, state authorities had directed ecclesiastical matters. Their earliest church, organized in 1719 in Germantown, operated without a minister, which was typical of later congregations. Nevertheless, churches were built and operated as community centers, with schoolmasters and pious laymen conducting services. John Philip Boehm, for instance, was a schoolmaster who rode a sixty-mile circuit to exercise pastoral duties in three churches. An ordained minister arrived in 1727 to found the Reformed Church of Philadelphia and convinced the Amsterdam Classis to accept responsibility for the Germans as well. It directed Dutch ministers in New York to ordain Boehm and in 1746 sent Michael Schlatter to establish a more comprehensive organization for the denomination. Within a year this energetic man brought together four ministers and twenty-seven elders representing twelve churches to form a coetus, which decided to meet annually for the general oversight of the church. Its actions could be vetoed by either of the two synods in Holland, and it could not ordain ministers, but it did put the church on a firmer foundation. Schlatter was untiring in his missionary efforts, organizing and overseeing congregations from northern New Jersey to the backwoods of Virginia and garnering financial and ministerial support from Holland.
Randall H. Balmer, A Perfect Babel of Confusion: Dutch Religion and English Culture in the Middle Colonies (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989);
Dutch Calvinistic Pietism in the Middle Colonies: A Study in the Life and Theology of Theodorus Jacobus Frelinghuysen (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1967);
William J. Hinke, ed., Life and Letters of Rev. John Philip Boehm, Founder of the Reformed Church in Pennsylvania, 1683–1749 (Philadelphia: Publication and Sunday School Board of the Reformed Church in the United States, 1916);
Sally Schwartz, “A Mixed Multitude”: The Struggle for Toleration in Colonial Pennsylvania (New York: New York University Press, 1987).