Reformed Church

General Information

The Reformed churches, which originally used this designation to distinguish themselves from the "unreformed" Roman Catholic church, are those denominations of Protestants which are Calvinistic in theology and usually Presbyterian in church organization. They trace their origin to the reforming work in Zurich of Ulrich Zwingli and in Geneva of John Calvin.

The Reformed perspective spread rapidly to Germany, France, Holland, Hungary, Bohemia, and elsewhere on the Continent. In the British Isles, its principles shaped the Church of Scotland and influenced the Church of England, especially through Puritanism. The Presbyterians constitute the largest Reformed bodies in America. Active Reformed churches are found worldwide where European settlers have migrated (as in South Africa). Since 1877 a World Alliance of Reformed Churches has provided a forum for discussion and consultation.

BELIEVE Religious Information Source - By Alphabet Our List of 2,300 Religious Subjects
Mark A Noll

Reformed Church in America

General Information

The Reformed Church in America is a Protestant denomination with roots in Dutch Calvinism. In 1989 it numbered nearly 337,408 members in more than 963 churches, with its greatest strength in the Middle Atlantic states, Michigan, and Iowa. By 1628, Dutch settlers had established a church in New Amsterdam (now New York City). This and other American churches were directed from Amsterdam until the 18th century when, under the influence of revivalist Theodore Jacob Frelinghuysen (1691 - 1747), an American body was formed (1748). Difficulties between this group and others loyal to the Dutch body were eventually resolved (1771) through the efforts of John Henry Livingston (1746 - 1825), an influential leader at Queens College (now Rutgers University), New Brunswick, N J , which had been founded by the Dutch Reformed. The Reformed Protestant Dutch Church adopted a new constitution in 1792; in 1867 it changed its name to the Reformed Church in America.

The denomination's doctrinal standards are the Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), and the canons of the Synod of Dort (1619). Its organization is essentially Presbyterian. It is somewhat closer to mainline Protestant bodies than a sister denomination of Dutch Calvinists, the Christian Reformed Church.

Mark A Noll

G F De Jong, The Dutch Reformed Church in The American Colonies (1978); F J Hood, Reformed America (1980); J W Van Hoeven, ed., Piety and Patriotism: Bicentennial Studies of the Reformed Church in America, 1776 - 1976 (1976).

The Reformed Tradition

Advanced Information

The term "Reformed" is used to distinguish the Calvinistic from the Lutheran and Anabaptist traditions. The Reformed tradition finds its roots in the theology of Ulrich Zwingli, the first reformer in Zurich, and John Calvin of Geneva, who in his biblical commentaries, his pamphlets, but especially in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, developed a Protestant theology. Calvin's teachings have been followed by many different individuals and groups who came out of the Reformation down to the present day, but they have not always followed exactly the same line of thinking or development. Thus in the Reformed tradition Calvinists, while basically agreeing and resembling each other in many ways, have certain differences produced by historical and even geographical circumstances. These differences have resulted in a number of what might be called lines or strains in the tradition.

The Reformation and the Reformed Tradition

The first line of development in the Reformed tradition was that which has been common to northwest Europe, Switzerland, France, Holland, Germany, and has also had an influence to the east in Hungary and to the south in the Waldensian church in Italy. The Reformed churches in the first - named areas were very active in producing the early confessions of faith and catechisms still held as doctrinal standards in many of the churches. Calvin drew up the first Reformed catechism in 1537 and rewrote it in 1541. This work was translated into a number of different languages and was widely influential. Even more important was the Heidelberg Confession of 1563, which is still a standard confessional document in most European Reformed churches. The Helvetic Confessions (1536, 1566), the Gallic Confession (1559), and the Belgic Confession (1561) also set forth a Calvinistic doctrinal position.

Across the channel in the British Isles, Calvinism was a dominant influence in the Reformation. While the Church of England was obliged by Queen Elizabeth to retain a quasi - Romanist liturgy and form of government, Calvinism was the underlying theology as expressed in the Thirty - nine Articles (1563), which were a rewritten version of Archbishop Cranmer's earlier Forty - two Articles (1553). Calvin's Institutes also provided English theological students with their basic theological instruction into the seventeenth century. The Puritans, consisting of Independents and Presbyterians and more consistently Calvinistic, sought to have all traces of Roman Catholicism eliminated from the Established Church. At the same time a considerable number of Protestants influenced by Anabaptism, while accepting adult baptism as the only proper method of administering the sacrament, also accepted most Reformed doctrines. Because of their belief in the doctrine of predestination they were known as "Particular" Baptists, as distinguished from the "Freewill" Baptists who rejected the doctrine.

These nonconformist groups were responsible for the drawing up of the Westminister Confession of Faith, catechisms, Form of Church Government, and Directory of Worship, which have become the standards of all English - speaking Presbyterian churches. The Presbyterian church in Scotland, the Church of Scotland, which had originally used the Scots Confession (1560) and the Genevan Catechism, adopted the Westminister standards in 1647, after the English Parliament, dominated by the Independents, had refused to agree to their becoming the standards of the Church of England.

The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

In the European and British colonies throughout the world Reformed and Presbyterian churches from the late seventeenth century on were founded by the colonists who emigrated to Massachusetts, New York, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and other places. Although they often received little support from the home churches, at least at first, they nevertheless developed churches of their own, usually following the doctrinal, liturgical, and governmental traditions of the ecclesiastical background from which they had come. Most Presbyterian churches accept the Westminister documents as their subordinate standards, while those in the European Reformed tradition hold to the confessions and catechisms of the bodies from which they came.

The history of the Reformed tradition has been by no means peaceful or noncontroversial. Problems have arisen at times that have required those holding to the Reformed position to reexamine and defend their basic beliefs. One of the best examples and most influential developments was that which began with Dutch theologian James Arminius, who rejected Calvin's doctrines of grace. In 1610 his followers set forth a Remonstrance against those opposing them, bringing the matter to a head.

The outcome was a synod held at Dordrecht in the Netherlands in 1618, made up of theologians from a number of countries, who condemned the Arminian teachings, asserting (1) the total depravity of man; (2) unconditional divine election; (3) that Christ's atonement was limited to the elect; (4) that divine grace is irresistible; and (5) the perseverance of the elect until the end. The Arminians were forced out of the Reformed church, but established their own bodies, and have had a wide influence, forming the basis for Wesleyan Methodism and other non - and anti - Reformed Christian groups. The Canons of the Synod of Dort are one of the Three Forms of Unity, the doctrinal standards of most Dutch Reformed churches, the other two being the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism.

In England and Scotland a somewhat different conflict took place. In the Puritans' attempts to bring about a complete reform of the Church of England, they found themselves opposed by Elizabeth and her two successors, James I and Charles I. Influential in Parliament, they were able to oppose the monarchy, but eventually this led to war. The actual cause or starting point of the war was in Scotland, where Charles I sought to force episcopacy upon the Presbyterians. They resisted, and when Charles sought to raise an army in England the Puritans in Parliament made such demands upon him that he attempted to overawe them by force. He was defeated, captured, and executed by the Parliament in 1649.

For the next nine years Cromwell ruled the country, but shortly after his death Charles II, Charles I's son, ascended the throne and sought to follow his father's policies in both England and Scotland. Although the Puritans in England were forced to submit, the Scots by taking up arms against Charles carried on a type of guerrilla warfare. The Covenanters, so called because they had covenanted together to defend the "Crown Rights of Jesus Christ," continued their opposition when Charles's brother James, a Roman Catholic, became king, and did not lay down their arms until James was forced off the British throne and was succeeded by William, Prince of Orange, in 1688.

While the Reformed tradition has had its conflicts, it also has had a very positive influence in the world. In the eighteenth century it was one of the principal centers of the evangelical revival. In Scotland the movement had begun by 1700 through the influence of Thomas Boston and the Marrow Men, so called because they had been greatly influenced by the Puritan work The Marrow of Modern Divinity. The revival associated with the work of this group eventually merged with the Evangelical revival in England through the influence of George Whitefield. At the same time in the American colonies Jonathan Edwards was involved in the Great Awakening, which was again linked to the English movement through Whitefield. In all these cases Calvinistic theology was the underlying influence.

The Reformed Tradition in Recent Times

The revival of evangelical preaching and power did not stop there, for through Scottish influence it was carried to Europe in 1818, when Robert Haldane visited Switzerland on an evangelistic tour. He greatly influenced such men as Cesar Malan and Merle d'Aubigne, and through them the Evangelical revival spread to other parts of Europe. In Holland it had a particularly strong impact, resulting in the labors of Groen van Prinsterer, Herman Bavinck, and Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper was the founder of the Free University of Amsterdam, the leader of the movement that separated from the state church to form the Gereformeerde Kerk, and in 1901, as leader of the Anti - Revolutionary Party, became prime minister. As a result of Kuyper's work a revival of Calvinism took place not only in ecclesiastical circles but in many other aspects of Dutch life, which have had an influence far beyond Holland.

In the British Isles the same Reformed tradition was bearing similar fruit. One of the most important ecclesiastical events was the exodus of a large part of the Church of Scotland to form the Free Church of Scotland. Although the immediate cause was the opposition to the right of patrons to impose ministers on congregations, fundamentally the cause was the fact that the Church of Scotland had largely given up its Reformed position, and those who wished to maintain it insisted that they must be free to choose their own ministers. When this was denied, they withdrew and formed their own denomination. But it was not just in the ecclesiastical sphere that those of Reformed persuasion took action.

The Industrial Revolution in Britain had caused great changes, with widespread exploitation of the workers. To counteract this men such as Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury in England, the Rev. Thomas Chalmers in Scotland, and others worked to have laws passed to protect factory hands, miners, and those with physical disabilities. Many of these leaders were strong Calvinists, and later in the century many with the same Christian views sat in the British Parliament and were responsible for other laws to ameliorate the condition of the working classes.

This Reformed practice of social and political involvement was carried to America, where those in the Reformed tradition have taken a considerable part in such matters. Many in the Presbyterian and Reformed churches were participants in the movement to abolish slavery, and more recently have been prominent in civil rights and similar movements. Unfortunately in South Africa the Reformed tradition has been involved in support of racial apartheid policies and their application, but this is changing as some of the Reformed elements within the country and Reformed churches outside, through agencies such as the Reformed Ecumenical Synod, are putting pressure on South African churches to change their attitudes toward the government's policies.

The Reformed tradition has always been strongly in favor of the education of church members. Calvin's insistence upon catechetical training of the young, and his establishment of what is now the University of Geneva, was imitated in Scotland by John Knox in the educational provisions in the First Book of Discipline, in the Netherlands by the establishment of such institutions as the University of Leiden, and in France by the founding of various seminaries. Similarly in America this educational tradition was responsible for the founding of universities such as Harvard and Yale. In more recent years Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Redeemer College in Hamilton, Ontario, and similar institutions indicate that Reformed tradition in education is still functioning and is fulfilling an important part in developing an educated, Christian citizenry.

During the latter part of the nineteenth and throughout the twentieth centuries, there has been a growing stress upon the importance of Christian scholarship. Although there had always been Reformed scholars, Abraham Kuyper stimulated a strong interest in this field, which was followed in other countries. Outstanding modern scholars include Herman Dooyeweerd, D H Th Vollenhoven, J H Bavinck, and others in the Netherlands, particularly in the Free University of Amsterdam; James Orr in Scotland; J Gresham Machen and Cornelius Van Til in the United States; Pierre Marcel in France; and many others who have devoted themselves to developing a Reformed approach in many learned fields.

From 1850 another noticeable development has been the endeavors of the various Reformed and Presbyterian churches to cooperate in many ways. In 1875 the World Alliance of Reformed Churches holding the Presbyterian system was organized, and still continues. As some of the churches in the alliance, however, have drifted away from a truly Reformed theological position, as evidenced by new confessions and practices which do not seem to be Reformed, a number of Reformed denominations, particularly recently formed bodies, have refused to join the W A R C.

As a result in the 1960s a new body, the Reformed Ecumenical Synod, was established to ensure that a fully Reformed witness would be maintained. Just prior to this some nonecclesiastical organizations had come into being. In 1953 at Montpellier, France, under the leadership of Pierre Marcel, the International Association for Reformed Faith and Action was founded, and in the United States more recently the National Association of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches was organized. In this way Reformed Christians are increasingly working together to set forth the gospel to the world. The outcome is that the Reformed tradition is exercising an influence not only in the Western world, but even at times more powerfully in such places as South Korea, Indonesia, India, and Africa.

The Reformed tradition has formed an important part of Western culture, influencing many different aspects of thought and life. Gradually, however, much of its contribution has been secularized, the religious roots being discarded and rejected. One cannot help wondering, therefore, if the condition of the Western world today is not the result of this rejection, with selfcenteredness taking the place of doing all things "to the glory of God."

W S Reid
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

J Bratt, ed., The Heritage of John Calvin; W S Reid, ed., John Calvin: His influence in the Western World; W F Graham, The Constructive Revolutionary; J T McNeil, The History and Character of Calvinism.

Reformed Churches

Catholic Information

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 ZWINGLIANISM; CALVINISM; REFORMATION; ARMINIANISM; HOLLAND; NETHERLANDS; 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 policy, the Church is Presbyterian; the constitution recognizes four kinds of officers: ministers of the word, professors of theology, elders, and deacons. The elders exerecise 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 Classis 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 re-elected. 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 neighbouring 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 unfavourable 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 cœtus, or ecclesiastical assembly, was sent to that body. But it was only after nine years that a favourable 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 cœtus 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 Amsterdam Dutch churches and the Classis 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, 26 Jan., 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 Theological 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 Catechism 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 Mercersburg 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 0f 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 favourably 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.

Publication information Written by N.A. Weber. Transcribed by WGKofron. With thanks to St. Mary's Church, Akron, Ohio The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XII. Published 1911. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York


SCHAFF, Creeds of Christendom, I (New York, 1877), 354- 816; III, 191-597; CORION,History of the Reformed Church (Dutch) in Amer. Church Hist., Ser., viii; DUBBS, History of the Reformed Church, German, ibid. (both studies are preceded by extensive bibliographies); CORWIN, Manual of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church in America (4th ed., New York, 1902); GOOD, History of the Reformed Church in the U. S., 1725-92 (Reading, Pa., 1899); ZWIERLEIN, Religion in New Netherland, 1629-1634 (Rochester, 1910).

Also, see:
Canons of Dort
Belgic Confession
Heidelberg Catechism

Helvetic Confession
Westminster Confession of Faith

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

This page - - - - is at
This subject presentation was last updated on - -

Copyright Information

Send an e-mail question or comment to us: E-mail

The main BELIEVE web-page (and the index to subjects) is at: BELIEVE Religious Information Source - By Alphabet