Reformed Churches

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Part I: Europe

The term "Reformed Churches" designates those churches that in the early development of Protestantism adopted the tenets and ecclesiastical organization of Huldrych zwingli, Martin bucer, Heinrich bullinger, and John calvin. Because Calvin's doctrinal principles ultimately became dominant, the Calvinist Church is identified with the Reformed Church, although Calvin was not the first but a subsequent influence in its growth. The presbyteral type of church government characteristic of the Reformed Churches affected the progress of Protestantism also in Great Britain and America, so that presbyterianism traces its origins to these reformers, although it has developed its own distinctive marks. Originally the word "reformed" was used indiscriminately by all the established churches having common cause against Rome, including Lutherans; but the disputes over Christ's presence in the elements of the Last Supper, which grew grave in 1529, separated the Lutherans from the Reformed. The Reformed movement began in Switzerland and spread rapidly to Germany, the Netherlands, England, Wales, Scotland, Hungary, Poland, and America.

Switzerland. The Evangelical program of Huldrych Zwingli was already active in Zurich in 1516, thereby antedating that of Martin Luther. Switzerland offered advantages to the reformers because of its political structure, in which all affairs including religious policy were determined by a group elected to govern within each federated canton. Thus success could be facilitated by gaining control of the Council and the votes of the community. This Zwingli achieved through public religious debates with the Catholic clergy preceding elections. Beginning with 1523, Zurich and then Basel voted for the new religion. Bern made the change in 1528 and was followed by other cantons. Calvin, who had his own church firmly established at Geneva by 1536, met with Guillaume farel and Bullinger in Zurich in 1549. There they formulated the Zurich Consensus concerning the Real Presence, so that by 1580 Zwinglianism and Calvinism became the Reformed Church. This assured the predominance of French Protestantism in the Swiss cantons until the Enlightenment of the 18th century, when German influence grew stronger. In 1920 the Federation of Swiss Evangelical Churches was organized with membership from all 22 cantons. This union with its many commissions and groups such as the Junge Kirche and the Heimstätte allowed the penetration of Evangelical Christianity into all aspects of society.

Germany. The Reformed movement in Germany made its start in the Rhineland, specifically in Strassburg, through the preaching of the Zwinglian Evangelist, Mattäus Zell. Its growth there began in 1521 and extended to 1549, when the interim of charles v restored Roman Catholicism. Catholicism continued to dominate through the devastation of the thirty years' war (161848) and the francophile episcopates of Charles Egon and Wilhelm Egon von furstenberg. When Protestantism returned to Strassburg it was in a Lutheran form. From 1521 to 1549, however, Swiss Reformed theology flourished at Strassburg under the protection of Elector Frederick III of the Palatinate. From Heidelberg University issued the heidelberg catechism of 1563, which became the standard creedal expression for all Reformed Churches. From Strassburg as the center, the movement spread along the cities of the Rhine and into the rest of Germany. It suffered reverses during the religious wars but gained explicit recognition at the Peace of westphalia in 1648, when Switzerland was also accorded independence from the Empire. The large emigration brought on by Louis XIV's revocation of the Edict of nantes in 1685 also swelled the number of Reformed in Germany, though they never became a serious threat to the influence of Lutheranism on German Protestantism, especially not in the periods of Pietism and the Enlightenment. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the German Reformed Churches experienced a revival of interest in social works and missionary activity, though they suffered a decline during World War II. Today much of the territory in which they were strongest lies in the eastern part of Germany.

The Netherlands. The Reformed Church came to the Netherlands in about 1560 and gained popularity because of its appeal to the rising middle class and its sympathy with William of Orange in his struggle against the Hapsburgs for home rule. In 1584 when the war for independence was won, Reformed theology was accepted and defended in the Remonstrance by Bisschop, a disciple of arminius, at the Synod of Dort (see confessions of faith, protestant). Disagreement with its standard of doctrine has brought schisms, so that by the 19th century many Reformed theologians and pastors had departed from the Synod of Dort and regarded Christianity principally as a code of morality. The Netherlands Reformed Church (De Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk ) is the oldest and most traditional group today and is generally considered the national church, although there are two influential secessionist branches, the Christian Reformed Church (De Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken ) and the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (De Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland ). In 1944 one-quarter of the congregations and one-third of the clergy of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands split and formed the Reformed Adhering to Article 31 of the Church Order of Dort (De Gereformeerde Kerkonderhovdende Art. 31k.o. ). (see netherlands reformed church.)

France. The Reformed Church appeared in France in 1555 and held its first synod in 1559. The impetus came from Geneva, where Calvin, Farel, and Theodore beza eyed their homeland as a mission field, sending evangelists to France by the hundreds. The French Reformed Church, whose members were called hugue nots, adopted Calvinism as a basic body of dogmas, but freely altered it. Their history was troubled during the Wars of Religion (156294), until Henry IV granted religious tolerance by the Edict of Nantes (1598). Upon the revocation of the Edict (1685), they were forced underground or emigrated. They regained their rights after the Revolution of 1789. France's recovery of Alsace-Lorraine after World War I augmented the number of Reformed, as well as Lutherans within her borders, and furthered the need for strong and unified organization. In 1905 the Reformed Church separated into the orthodox and conservative Église Réformée Évangélique and the Églises Réformées Unies, which were liberal. Mediation between these branches has been attempted. In 1939 a union of Reformed, Methodist, and several Free Churches made up the Églises Reformées de France.

Hungary. After the Battle of Mohács in 1526 and the death of King Louis II in the same year, Hungary became the scene of contest over the succession between Ferdinand of Hapsburg, brother of Charles V, and John Zápolya. In the warfare that followed, Transylvania turned to Calvinism, and by 1563 the Hungarian Reformed Church accepted the Calvinistic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and elements of Puritan belief brought back by ministers studying in England. At the end of the 16th century Hungary was 90 percent Protestant. Through Hapsburg political pressure and the work of the Jesuits, the influence of the Reformed Church was lessened, so that by the 19th century the Reformed numbered less than one-fifth of the population. The Treaty of Trianon on June 4, 1920, further diminished their membership by the transfer of territory to Czechoslovakia, Rumania, and Yugoslavia.

Poland. The Reformation entered Poland in 1518 when James Knade, a monk who renounced his vows, preached Lutheranism. In 1540 Calvinism appeared and caused a breach among Catholic clergy. James Uchánski, Archbishop and Primate of Poland, advised that a national church be established. By 1573 the Reformation had spent its force and through the activity of the Jesuits, the Reformed Church movement diminished.

Other Countries. In Scotland the Reformed faith, known as Presbyterianism, was established by John knox in 1560, and 30 years later was recognized as the official religion of Scotland (see scotland, church of). It began its spread also in the Union of South Africa in 1562 and became officially adopted in 1859 as the Reformed Church of South Africa. It is found in Wales and England, Northern Ireland (see ireland, church of), the republics of former Yugoslavia, the Czech and Slovak republics, Romania, Ukraine, throughout Africa, Oceania, Asia, and the Americas (see reformed churches in north america).

Bibliography: j. dillenberger and c. welch, Protestant Christianity Interpreted through Its Development (New York 1958). h. j. grimm, The Reformation Era, 15001650 (New York 1954). k. s. latourette, Christianity in a Revolutionary Age: A History of Christianity in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, 5 v. (New York 195862) v.2, 4. h. g. hageman, Pulpit and Table (Richmond, Va. 1962); "Reformed Worship: Yesterday and Today," Theology Today 18 (1961) 3040. d. sinor, History of Hungary (New York 1959) 184187. i. rÉvÉsz, History of the Hungarian Reformed Church, tr. g. a. f. knight (Washington 1956). Cambridge History of Poland, ed. w. f. reddaway et al., 2 v. (Cambridge, Eng. 194150).

[j. a. leahy/eds.]

Part II: North America

Reformed Churches are descendants of the church of John Calvin, and therefore collateral relations of the Presbyterian bodies in Europe and America. But whereas Presbyterianism is mainly an Anglo-Saxon development through the Scot John Knox, the Reformed groups derive from Calvin directly. Their immediate ancestors are the Calvinists in France, Switzerland, and the Low Countries (see calvinism). Although they are concentrated in the U.S., Reformed congregations have been established also in Latin America, principally in Mexico.

History. The Reformed Churches emerged in North America as a direct result of the business migration of Calvinists from Holland, sponsored by the Dutch East India Company. At first they were only scattered groups along the Hudson River, but in 1628 they organized at New Amsterdam what has become the oldest church in America with an uninterrupted ministry. In 1792 they broke away from the parent body in Holland and held their first general synod two years later. Insistence on keeping the Dutch language in preaching and the liturgy retarded the church's growth and alienated some of its younger members, but no grave doctrinal crisis arose until the 19th century.

To understand this crisis it is necessary briefly to retrace the European origins of the Christian Reformed Church, which, together with the Reformed Church in America, accounts for 90 per cent of the Reformed membership in the U.S. After the troubles of the Napoleonic era in the Netherlands, William I reorganized the Dutch (Calvinist) Church, but in the process took over so much control that a conservative reaction set in. In 1834 a secession of strict Calvinist ministers started a church of their own. Social and economic conditions in the Netherlands forced the secessionists to migrate to the U.S. One group went to Holland, Mich., in 1846, where they were invited to enter into a loose merger with the Reformed Church in America.

Almost from the day the union was effected, some leaders in the conservative party were dissatisfied. Their basic fear was the same that had motivated those who had seceded in the Netherlands 20 years before. Believing themselves to be the true heirs of the Reformed position, they argued that continued association with the Reformed Church in America would entangle them in embarrassing alliances with churches of other beliefs. They felt that instruction in the seminary tended to weaken the Reformed tradition and that the laity needed to be better instructed in their creedal inheritance. But the most crucial factor was the lodge question, i.e., whether members of the Reformed Church may belong to such lodges as the Freemasons and continue in good standing in the church. The Reformed Church in America tolerated lodge membership and, in the eyes of the conservatives, belittled its significance. When the final break came in 1857, grievance over the existence of Freemasonry in the Reformed Church in America was decisive. In 1857 four congregations with about 750 people left the Reformed Church in America to form what eventually became the Christian Reformed Church in America. A steady tide of immigrants from the Netherlands gradually swelled the membership.

Since 1857, each of the two main branches has developed a history of its own. The Reformed Church in America remained concentrated in the East, mainly New York and New Jersey, and in the Middle Western states of Michigan and Illinois. The General Synod meets annually, with headquarters in New York City. An elaborate missions program sponsors operations in the U.S. and in foreign countries. The Reformed Church in America has cooperated actively with the world council of churches. Its representatives have given exceptional leadership in the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.

With its strong emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy, the Christian Reformed Church developed along different lines. More concerned with integrating religion and education, and more compact in geographical distribution, the church promoted a system of Christian day schools from elementary through secondary and college grades. The Society for Christian Instruction on a Reformed Basis was organized in 1892 to federate the dozen schools in existence at that time. At its first meeting, the society recommended that all Christian schools should be owned and operated by the parent society. This departure from parochialism is generally credited with having produced the nation's most extensive program (80 percent) of religion-centered education in the Reformed tradition.

Also consistent with its stress on doctrinal integrity, the Christian Reformed Church has engaged in such projects as neighborhood evangelism, home mission work, catechism instruction to children and adult converts, and church publications with an appeal to denominational loyalty. The preamble to the constitution of a national youth organization illustrates this emphasis on distinctively religious values: "recognizing the desirability and necessity of uniting the youth of Calvinistic churches for service in the Kingdom of God, and the need of guidance and direction in this work in order that the youth of the church, as well-prepared servants of the Lord, may recognize Jesus Christ as King and serve Him always and everywhere, the Young Calvinist Federation of North America is established."

Unlike the Reformed Church in America, the Christian Reformed body is centered in smaller cities, mostly in the Middle West but also along the West Coast and in Canada. The largest single contingent is in Michigan, around Grand Rapids, Holland, and Kalamazoo.

Bibliography: w. d. brown, My Confession of Faith (New York 1941). h. g. hageman, Lily Among Thorns (Grand Rapids 1953). Christian Reformed Church Centennial Committee, One Hundred Years in the New World: The Story of the Christian Reformed Church, ed. h. j. kuiper (Grand Rapids 1957). j. kromminga, The Christian Reformed Church: A Study in Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids 1949). b. kruithof, The Meaning of My Confession of Faith (Grand Rapids 1951). l. nixon, The Doctrinal Standards of the Reformed Church in America (Grand Rapids n.d.); Reformed Standards of Unity (Grand Rapids 1957). m. schooland, Children of the Reformation: The Story of the Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids 1958). f. s. mead, s. s. hill and c. d. atwood, eds., Handbook of Denominations in the United States, 11th ed (Nashville 2001).

[j. a. hardon/eds.]

Reformed Churches

views updated May 21 2018


REFORMED CHURCHES. The Reformed branch of the Protestant Reformation yielded two main streams in North America. Presbyterians, the English-speaking expression of Reformed Christianity, have always had a larger presence in American history thanks in part to language and culture. The second stream came to the United States by way of northern Europe, where the term "Reformed" signifies essentially the same thing as "Presbyterian" in Britain. Both Reformed and Presbyterians follow the reforms launched most notably by John Calvin in the sixteenth century. Theologically, they stress human depravity and dependence on divine mercy for salvation. Liturgically, they practice a simple form of worship that stresses the centrality of Scripture. Governmentally, these churches follow a presbyterian order that grants authority to elders through a series of graded ecclesiastical assemblies. For Reformed churches these are the consistory at the congregational level, the classis at the regional, and the synod for national purposes.

The first Dutch Reformed congregation was established in 1628 in New York City. The surrounding areas were centers of Dutch Calvinist strength throughout the colonial period. These churches remained generally uniform in their Dutch identity and piety, even after the English gained control of New York, until a new and more enthusiastic form of devotion began to divide ministers and laity alike. The revivals of the First Great Awakening fueled these tensions to the point that two identifiable parties emerged—the conferentie, who championed the order of inherited Dutch ways, and the coetus party, who favored zeal and autonomy from the Old World. By 1772, church leaders had effected a compromise that allowed the American churches greater autonomy from Dutch oversight while retaining the Dutch language for worship. Eventually, this led to the founding in 1792 of the Reformed Church in America (RCA) the oldest and largest of the Dutch Reformed bodies.

A new wave of Dutch immigration in the mid-nineteenth century, however, created strains on the established church, especially notable when American practices did not line up with those in the Netherlands. The recent immigrants became frustrated with the perceived laxness of the RCA and in 1857 founded the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), the second-largest Dutch Reformed denomination. In the 1920s, a debate in the CRC over worldliness and ecumenical relations precipitated the 1924 split that produced the Protestant Reformed Churches in America. In 1996, a number of congregations left the CRC over the issue of women's ordination to found the United Reformed Churches in North America. Subsequent twentieth-century migrations from the Netherlands have yielded several other Dutch Reformed denominations—the Free Reformed Churches, the Canadian and American Reformed Churches, the Netherlands Reformed Congregations, and the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregations.

German and Hungarian Reformed denominations have also been part of the ecclesiastical mosaic of the United States. The former traces its roots back to the formation of the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS), a synod that first convened in 1793. The RCUS blossomed during the mid-nineteenth century under the theological leadership of John Williamson Nevin (1803– 1886) and Philip Schaff (1819–1893), both of whom taught at the denomination's seminary in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. From the beginning of the twentieth century, the RCUS participated actively in Protestant ecumenical conversations, and in 1934 joined the Evangelical Synod of North America to become the Evangelical and Reformed Church, the denomination in which brothers Reinhold (1892–1971) and H. Richard Niebuhr (1894– 1962) ministered. In 1957, this body merged with the Congregational Christian Churches to form the United Church of Christ. The German Reformed tradition continues in another denomination with the name Reformed Church in the United States, a body that refused to join the merger of 1934. First called the RCUS, Eureka Classis, the regional association of churches in the Dakotas and northern Iowa, these congregations eventually dropped the geographical descriptor to be simply the RCUS.

The history of the Hungarian Reformed churches is bound up with the German Reformed. The small number of Hungarian Reformed made the construction of a formal association of churches difficult. Consequently, from 1890 they received oversight from the RCUS. In 1904, the Hungarian Reformed churches withdrew from the RCUS and came under the supervision of the Reformed Church in Hungary. After World War I (1914–1918), maintaining relations with the church in the motherland became difficult. Some of the Hungarian Reformed churches reaffiliated with the RCUS and eventually became an ethnic synod within first the Evangelical and Reformed Church and then within the United Church of Christ. Other congregations in 1924 formed the Free Magyar Reformed Church in America. In 1958 this body adopted the name Hungarian Reformed Church in America.


Balmer, Randall H. A Perfect Babel of Confusion: Dutch Religion and English Culture in the Middle Colonies. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Bratt, James D. Dutch Calvinism in Modern America: A History of a Conservative Subculture. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1984.

Fabend, Firth Haring. Zion on the Hudson: Dutch New York and New Jersey in the Age of Revivals. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2000.

Gunnemann, Louis H. The Shaping of the United Church of Christ: An Essay in the History of American Christianity. New York: United Church Press, 1977.

Parsons, William T. The German Reformed Experience in Colonial America. Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1976.

Piepkorn, Arthur Carl. Profiles in Belief: The Religious Bodies of the United States and Canada. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.

D. G.Hart

See alsoCalvinism ; United Church of Christ .

Reformed church

views updated May 21 2018

Reformed church Any Christian denomination that came into being during the Reformation by separating, as a congregation, from the old universal Catholic Church (the Western Church). More specifically, Reformed Churches are those Churches that adopted Calvinism in preference to Lutheranism. In the USA, the largest Reformed Churches, such as the Dutch Reformed Church and the Evangelical and Reformed Church, originated from n European countries, particularly Holland and Germany.

Reformed Churches

views updated May 14 2018

Reformed Churches. Term loosely applied to Protestant churches, but specifically those which hold Calvinistic, as opposed to Lutheran, theology. See further PRESBYTERIANISM for the distinctions among Reformed Churches.

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