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Recent History

250th Celebration

Source: You Shall Be My People. Copyright © 1996 by the Synod of the Reformed Church in the United States. The following is the introduction to a publication which includes various essays on the history of the RCUS.

The volume you hold in your hands celebrates the anniversary of a very special work of God’s grace and providence. We celebrate in the year of our Lord 1996 the 250th annual meeting of a national assembly of ministers and elders of the Reformed Church in the United States. While the remnant of the Reformed Church in the United States which continues today could only be considered extremely small in the way that human society measures size, it does constitute a real continuation of the biblical, Christian, Protestant and Reformed teaching and life of God’s people on earth that has characterized them since the time of the Protestant Reformation. Indeed, because God’s dealings with His people are one throughout history, it is our conviction that we are looking here at the same grace of God that saved the patriarch Abraham and his believing ancestors right back to the first humans needing salvation, Adam and Eve. While it is with fear and trembling that we place ourselves in the line of God’s true people, for we are truly fallible and earthen vessels, we do not hesitate to recognize and confess the unity of God’s true people in all of history, for that is one of the cardinal teachings of Scripture and of the Reformed faith.

The occasion of this volume is indeed important to the life of our denomination. A history of 250 years of annual assemblies itself goes back before the Revolutionary War and the founding of our Nation. Actually, the history of our Church is longer than 250 years for our first continuing congregations were founded 271 years ago in 1725, and German Reformed worship services were held before 1710. A good part of this fascinating history is unfolded on the pages that follow. Nevertheless, we must be careful to observe that in terms of world history, and even in terms of Protestantism, our Church is quite young. The Heidelberg Catechism, the central confession of our members, was written in 1563, over 150 years before the founding of our first congregations here in North America. This European Protestant background of our Church will also find reference on the pages of this book. Finally, the history of our Church is but a tiny portion of the history of God’s covenant dealings with His people, and even less than tiny in the face of His own eternal existence. “For with the Lord, one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Pet. 3:8).

On these pages we will have reference to the work and faithfulness of many men and women, and of their endurance and triumphs as well. But let it be said here and now, right at the beginning, that man deserves no credit for what we find in the way of labor or even in faithfulness to God, for all of this is what God Himself works in His people. Therefore this book is dedicated to the glory of Almighty God, the only Creator and Savior of all things visible and invisible, and is published by the Synod of the Reformed Church in the U. S. in humble thanksgiving for what He has given and worked in us. Furthermore, we have no pretensions that the Reformed Church in the United States is unique in any of this, for both our blessings and our temptations have been such as are common to mankind. We recognize and confess with joy and satisfaction that we have brothers and sisters in Christ all over this great nation, and literally to the ends of the earth. It is indeed a great encouragement to us that we have biblical ecumenical relationships with a number of church denominations of like precious faith, both in the United States, and in Europe and Africa. And it is even more encouraging to know that God is calling forth His people out of every nation, and tongue and tribe, and that these folks too are our brothers and sisters in the Lord.

The makeup of the Reformed Church in the U. S. today is that of melting pot America. We began and continued for many years as a mostly German background Reformed Church. Nevertheless, this Church did participate fully in American life, beginning with participation in the American Revolution, a participation which included personal contact with George Washington and hiding the Liberty Bell under the floor of one of our churches while the British occupied Philadelphia. Today our membership still includes congregations of mostly German extraction, but we also have congregations containing only a small minority of such people. Indeed, we seek to attract people of every race and background into our churches to participate with us in what we believe is the authentic life and worship of Christian people.

On the pages of this celebration book, or Festschrift, as such works have come to be called, even when they are written in English, you will find sections on the history, theology and various influences that have affected our Church over the past 250 years. The past history of our Church, and the influences of our brothers and sisters in other Reformed and Presbyterian Churches has given us a goodly and godly heritage of sound theology and biblical practice. We are far from perfect, indeed, we are often beset by personal and community sin. Nevertheless, we seek to live up to this heritage and carry it with us in full confidence that our faithful Covenant God, who has helped us hitherto, will also enable us to pass it on to succeeding generations.

To live in the United States of America in 1996 is an unsettling thing for Bible-believing Reformed Christians. We see all around us the decay of the moral fiber and Christian faith upon which our society was founded and through which it has prospered. We cannot help but compare our days and our task to those of the young prophet Jeremiah, who was sent by God to call Judah back to submission to Him and His word. Jeremiah prophesied, but Judah did not listen and God’s judgment followed. Certainly that possibility is something we must consider today. Our fathers and mothers were immigrants, many for the sake of religious oppression. Shall our children be the same? But we have no time to speculate, “he who has put his hand to the plow and turns back” is not worthy of Christ’s kingdom. Let us labor on, pray and work for the conversion of our nation, and be ready to serve the Lord no matter what He sends. It is He who sends, and it is He who saves, whether we are faithful or not. Therefore let us be faithful, lest God saves and we are a part of the problem rather than a tool in His hand for good.

The writers of our chapters are all ministers in the Reformed Church in the U. S. They come from diverse backgrounds to serve in one Church with one heart and one mouth. Some of us are sons of the Reformed Church, others have come to us from elsewhere, but all are committed to the one true God who sent His Son to die for our sins. Rev. Norman Jones, pastor of Hope Reformed Church at Pierre, South Dakota, has written our opening chapter on the strictly Reformed character of the Reformed Church in the U. S. during its founding generations. The Rev. Frank Walker, of Bakersfield, California, provided the chapter on the Mercersburg Theology, a development at the Seminary of the RCUS which held great implications for our later history. Rev. Robert Grossmann, of Garner, Iowa, has written on our most recent history, that since the continuing Reformed Church in the U. S. remained free of modern ecumenical entanglements by separating from the Merger of 1934. His brother, the late Rev. Peter Grossmann, provided the chapter on the Evangelical and Reformed Merger of 1934, the historical dividing line between those who have left the old Reformed Church and those who have continued its existence. The Rev. Paul Treick, pastor at Modesto, California, has written the chapter on our beloved Heidelberg Catechism, the creed which is to this day memorized by each covenant youth preparing for communicant membership. The Rev. Howard Hart of Lincoln, Nebraska, contributed a chapter about the influence of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on the Reformed Church, a major influence indeed. Our oldest active pastor, the Rev. Norman Hoeflinger, pastor at Lincoln Valley, North Dakota, has written the chapter on the influence on our denomination of the German theologian Herman Kohlbruegge, an influence that also needs to be known and measured in order to understand our history. Finally, the Rev. Jim West, pastor of Sacramento (California) Covenant Reformed Church has contributed a chapter discussing the future of our Church. A special thanks is due to Rev. Paul Treick, who handled the computer typesetting for this book.

We, the editors of this volume, place it in your hands knowing full well that it is lacking in many respects. As busy pastors we have not been able to edit every jot and tittle. Yet we believe our brothers have provided a valuable historical resource, not only for retrospect, but also for considering the future of our little Church. We pray that God will use this book for these purposes, and even more fervently that it will please Him to use the Reformed Church in the United States to glorify His name and spread His Gospel in the years ahead.

Rev. Robert Grossmann,
Rev. Norman Hoeflinger
March 1996