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Early History

Developments in the Nineteenth Century

Source: The Historical Handbook of the Reformed Church, 1902, James I. Good, Electronic version, © 2004, The Synod of the Reformed Church in the U.S.

Theological Education and Church Expansion

The Church having equipped herself with a Board of Missions so as to enlarge her field, and with theological seminaries to supply the Churches with ministers, was now ready for an onward movement. First she strengthened her institutions of learning. In 1840 Rev. J. W. Nevin, D.D., was elected from the Presbyterian Church to be professor of theology at Mercersburg. Dr. Rauch’s death soon after (1841) compelled the Synod to elect a successor. They decided to look abroad for another man like Dr. Rauch. Rev. F. W. Krummacher, D.D., pastor of the largest Reformed Church in Germany, at Elberfeld in western Germany, was then attracting the attention which afterwards led him to be called as court preacher to the King of Prussia. The Synod elected him (1843), and Rev. Drs. Schneck and Hoffeditz were appointed to go to Germany and present the call personally to Dr. Krummacher. Dr. Krummacher found it necessary to decline the call, but recommended Rev. Philip Schaff, D.D., who was then professor extraordinary at the {76} University of Berlin. The Synod then elected Dr. Schaff, and he accepted. He came to this country, and was inaugurated (1844) at Reading as professor of history in the Theological Seminary at Mercersburg. On this occasion he delivered an address, “The Principle of Protestantism,” which created a sensation and caused some criticism.

The Western Seminary soon after was revived (1848) and located (1850) at Tiffin, Ohio, and Rev. E. V. Gerhart, D.D., was made professor. The Pittsburgh Synod was organized in 1870, and the Potomac Synod in 1873. The Germans, too, began extending their operations in the great West. Rev. Dr. M. Stern, Rev. Dr. H. A. Mühlmeier, and Rev. Dr. H. J. Ruetenik began (about 1853) their work in the West, which has resulted in the formation of the two Western German Synods. In 1860 Dr. Mühlmeier started the German Mission House at Franklin, Wisconsin among a colony of emigrants from Lippe, Germany. Rev. Dr. Ruetenik, after teaching at Heidelberg College, went to Cleveland and started Calvin College. The Synod of the Northwest was organized in 1867; the Eastern (German) Synod in 1875; and the Central Synod in 1881. The Church also began moving in the South as well as in the West. The Classis of North Carolina founded Catawba College in 1851. Although separated from the North by the Civil War, which caused it to lose a large part of its endowment, yet it has done excellent work. Finally the Interior Synod was formed (1887), consisting of the English Classes west of Indiana. The name “German” was dropped from our title in 1869.

Controversy over Worship, 1845-1878

From 1845 to 1878 was the period of controversy. But, although the Church during the past half-century was uniting, yet she was also dividing. There were centrifugal forces at work as well as centripetal. Her progress was to be a progress, in spite of a controversy, which caused her the loss of many individuals and of some Churches. For many years she was divided into two parties, which threatened to split her into two. The main subject that caused the controversy was the liturgy.

In 1844 Philip Schaff delivered his inaugural address on “The Principle of Protestantism,” which led to the formation of the Mercersburg theology. This was formulated (1847) by the publication of The Mystical Presence by John Williamson Nevin and by What is History? by Philip Schaff. Soon after the Mercersburg theology appeared, a liturgical movement began at the synod of 1847. In 1857 the provisional liturgy was published. In 1863 the tercentenary of the Heidelberg Catechism was celebrated by a convention at Philadelphia, and in that year the Ohio synod united with the old synod in forming the general synod. In 1867 the order of worship was published.

In 1847 the Eastern Synod appointed a committee to prepare a new liturgy. Very soon there appeared a division in that committee, Rev. J. H. A. Bomberger, D.D., resigning from the committee. But the committee continued its work, and in 1857 a Provisional Liturgy was published. The use of this liturgy was allowed by the Eastern Synod, but it did not come into general use. The Ohio Synod also desired to prepare a liturgy, and the General Synod in 1863 gave it permission to do so, and also recommended the Eastern Synod to revise the Provisional Liturgy. In 1866 the Eastern Synod published the Order of Worship, and the next year the Ohio Synod published the Western Liturgy.

In 1867 the Myerstown convention was held to protest against the tendency toward ritualism in the church. The opponents to the Order of Worship held a meeting at Myerstown, September 24, 1867, to protest against its use, and founded Ursinus College, under the presidency of Rev. J. H. A. Bomberger, D.D., which was recognized as an institution of the Church by the General Synod in 1872. In 1869 the western (or low-church) liturgy was published. Both the order of worship and the western liturgy were permitted by the general synod to be used, but neither was adopted constitutionally by being voted upon by the classes.

The controversy on the liturgical question continued until 1878, when, at the suggestion of Rev. C. Z. Weiser, D.D., the General Synod appointed a peace commission. This commission aimed to harmonize the Church, and having been reappointed by the General Synod in 1881, prepared The Directory of Worship which it submitted to the General Synod of 1884, and having been adopted by the Classes, it was formally ratified by the next General Synod in 1887. The Church then proceeded to arrange for the publication of a new hymnbook. In 1893 a new hymnbook was adopted and is at present in general use. The Church has also been trying to formulate a new constitution, but although the subject has been discussed and committees appointed since 1884, the new constitution has not yet been adopted.

Formation of the General Synod

Thus, in spite of controversy, the Church kept on increasing. There is no doubt that she lost much by it and would have grown faster had there been no controversy. Yet in the nineteenth century she had grown to fifty times as many ministers and fifteen times as many members as at its beginning. And if the liberty that has been granted by the peace compact be continued, the Church will continue to grow even faster in the new century

The Church also began a revival of historic consciousness. In 1841 she held her first centennial, although it is not really clear of what it was the centennial, as the Coetus was not organized until 1747, although the first organization was really as early as 1725 when Boehm formed the first charge of three congregations-Skippach, Falkner Swamp, and White Marsh-and thoroughly organized them. But, at any rate, they kept this year (1841) as a Coetus’ centennial and endeavored to raise $100,000.

In 1863 the Church observed the 300th anniversary of the publication of the Heidelberg Catechism and a large conference was held in Philadelphia, January 17th, 1863. In that year the tercentenary of the Heidelberg Catechism was held which lasted six days. Papers were read on the Catechism by leading ministers of our Church and of other Churches, and also of other countries. Free will offerings were made in the Churches, which amounted to $108,125 in the Eastern Synod. The tercentenary edition of the Heidelberg Catechism in three languages (German, Latin and English) called the triglott, was published.

One result of this tercentenary festival was the bringing of the different parts of the German Reformed Church in this land closer together. In 1863 the various Synods and Classes united to form the General Synod of our Church. The Synod of Pennsylvania and the Synod of Ohio, which had been separated, united on November 18, 1863, when they formed the General Synod, holding their first meeting in Pittsburgh. The various classes and congregations held tercentenary services during that year. Thus the German Reformed Church became fully organized by capping the Synodical Church Government by a General Synod.

Ineffectual efforts were made (1874 and 1887) to unite with the Dutch Reformed Church, and later to form a federal union with that Church, but, after negotiations had continued for six years (1887-1893), it failed. In 1880 she entered the “Alliance of the Reformed Churches holding the Presbyterian System,” and thus progressed still farther in uniting with Churches of like faith and order in all parts of the world. In 1893 the Church observed the Centennial of the organization of its synod independent of the Reformed Church of Holland.

The General Synod, at its session in Reading in 1893, observed the centennial of its organization as a Synod in 1793, with fitting addresses and services. And the year 1897 was observed as the sesquicentennial of the organization of the Coetus of 1747. The Board of Home Missions proposed to raise a Michael Schlatter Building Fund of $100,000 in honor of the sesquicentennial.

In 1901 she had eight Synods, 57 Classes, 1,074 ministers, 1,653 congregations, 242,831 members, 195,033 communicants, 1,466 Sunday-schools, 182,134 Sunday-school scholars, 223 students for the ministry; she had raised yearly $244,430 for benevolent purposes, and $1,181,350 for congregational purposes.