Reformed Church in America

Reformed Church in America, Protestant denomination founded in colonial times by settlers from the Netherlands and formerly known as the Dutch Reformed Church. The Reformed Church in Holland emerged in the 16th cent., after Calvinism gained influence in the northern provinces of the Netherlands. In 1571 a synod held at Emden laid the foundation for the Reformed Church. A liturgy was formulated along Reformation lines, and a modified Presbyterian form of polity was adopted. The Belgic Confession of Faith (1561) and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) were made the basis of the new church; later, the canons of the Synod of Dort (1619) were added. After 1581, when the northern provinces of the Netherlands declared their independence from Spain, the Reformed Church grew even stronger.

In America, the early Dutch settlers in New Netherland held informal meetings for worship until Jonas Michaelius organized (1628) a congregation in New Amsterdam, called the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church. Four churches in New York City (the Fort Washington Collegiate Church, Middle Collegiate Church, Marble Collegiate Church, and West End Collegiate Church) are descendants of this early activity. Until the English conquest of New Netherland in 1664, the Reformed Church was the established church of the colony. After that, while still owing ecclesiastical allegiance to the classis (i.e., governing body) of Amsterdam in Holland, the church gave civil allegiance to England. However, the church continued to expand.

Permission was given (1747) to form an assembly in America, which in 1754 declared itself independent of the classis of Amsterdam. This American classis secured a charter (1766) for Queens College (now Rutgers Univ.) in New Jersey. The appointment (1784) of John Henry Livingston as professor of theology marked the beginning of the New Brunswick Theological Seminary. In 1792 a formal constitution was adopted; in 1794 the Reformed Church held its first general synod; and in 1867 the present name became the official one.

The church embraces many of the historic colonial churches of New York and New Jersey, the denominational stronghold; fresh immigration from the Netherlands in the mid-19th cent. led to the development of the church in the Midwest. Hope College and Western Theological Seminary were founded in Holland, Mich., and Central College at Pella, Iowa. In 1857 a group of Dutch settlers in Michigan separated from the Reformed Church and organized the Christian Reformed Church; in 1922 that body received most of the American congregation of the Reformed Church of Hungary.

A small part of the Eureka classis, organized in 1910 in South Dakota, continued as the Reformed Church in the United States after the majority of the body merged (1934) into the Evangelical and Reformed Church, which joined (1961) the Congregational Christian Churches to become the United Church of Christ. The Reformed Church in America, which has long been active in the foreign mission field, numbers about 305,000 (1997). Several attempts at unification between the Reformed Church and other Reformed and Presbyterian groups have proved unsuccessful.

See M. G. Hansen, The Reformed Church in the Netherlands, 1340–1840 (1884); J. J. Birch, The Pioneering Church in the Mohawk Valley (1955).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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