Early History

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.

EUROPE was too small a continent to contain the Reformed Church; she spread to other continents. Africa, Asia, and, too, our America received her. The Middle Ages saw the Crusades, those marching armies going eastward to rescue the Holy Land from the power of the infidel Moslem. The last two centuries saw another crusade, not eastward but westward, not of war, but of peace, as thousands sailed from the old world to capture the new world of America for Christ. A voyage across the ocean in those days was a dangerous one. It was long, and in it, storms, sickness, perhaps shipwreck awaited them. (Thus of the 4,000 sent by Queen Ann in 1709, 1,700 died either on, or from the effects of, the voyage.) And even after our forefathers landed, there was danger of sickness so common to new land, and the greater danger of death from the Indians.

Why then did our ancestors come to this western world in the face of so many dangers? Because they felt that there were greater dangers behind them in the old world than those before them in America.[1] And {50} they expected to get here what they did not have in Europe, peace and freedom to worship God according to their beloved Reformed faith. The causes of this emigration are given in a Memorial published in 1754. “Some of them fled from the severe persecution to which they had been exposed at home on account of their being Protestants, others from the oppression of civil tyranny and attracted by the pleasant hope of liberty under the milder influence of the British government, others were drawn by the solicitations of their countrymen who had settled there before them, but far the greatest part by the prospect they had of relieving themselves under the deep poverty and providing better for themselves and their families.” The last point, however, is emphasized all through the Memorial too strongly, as the Germans were not so poor or illiterate as it makes them out to be. But these were the reasons why the Germans came in such numbers that, it is said, there were 30,000 of them in Pennsylvania (15,000 Reformed) in 1731, and the British became alarmed lest Pennsylvania would become a German rather than an English colony.

They began coming in the latter part of the 17th century. Peter Minuit, the first governor of New Amsterdam (New York), who was a deacon in the Reformed Church of Wesel, Germany, and afterwards an elder of the Reformed Church at New Amsterdam (New York), came earlier (1626). Later, in 1638, he founded the first Swedish colony in Delaware, where a Dutch Reformed Church was founded at New Castle, but given up.[2] It was not, however, until the end of that century that the Germans began coming in {51} such large numbers as to form congregations. Many of them settled near Philadelphia, in a town which received its name from them, Germantown. But as most of them were farmers and the most desirable farms in the neighborhood of Philadelphia had already been taken by the Quakers, they pushed out further into the wilderness and began settling Montgomery and Bucks counties. At first they had no regular pastors, but sometimes would employ a pious schoolmaster who would read sermons to them or they would appoint one of their own number to hold such a service, and thus they would worship God as best they could.

Samuel Guldin and John Philip Boehm

The first Reformed minister in Pennsylvania, Samuel Guldin, came in 1710. But although he preached as occasion offered (Boehm says he occasionally preached in the Reformed church at Germantown) he never attempted to organize the Reformed congregations. His only attempt was a book, published in 1743, in which, although he had been a Pietist at Bern, Switzerland, he wrote against the religious movement which arose under Count Zinzendorf in Pennsylvania.

It was left for an unordained but pious schoolmaster, John Philip Boehm, to found our Church. This he did in 1725, when the Reformed people living in Skippach, Falkner Swamp, and White Marsh, north of Philadelphia, asked him to become their minister. He consented and at their first communion, in 1725, there were 101 communicants at the three places mentioned. He proposed to them a Church constitution, which they adopted and which organized them after the Reformed custom, by having a consistory of regularly elected elders and deacons.

George Michael Weiss

On September 18, 1727, Rev. George Michael Weiss arrived at Philadelphia with a colony of Germans and {52} became pastor of the first German Reformed church of Philadelphia. The coming of a regularly ordained minister like Weiss led some of Boehm’s people to begin to oppose him, as he had never been ordained, so he applied to the Reformed Classis of New York, which was ordered by the Church of Holland, to ordain him, which they did November 23, 1729. Then Rev. Mr. Weiss, seeing the great need of funds to carry on the work among the German Reformed of Pennsylvania, went back to Europe (1730) to raise money for them, leaving the Philadelphia church in the care of Boehm. This lone man seemed destined to be the strong tower-the pioneer of the Reformed in this country and her defender against all storms and dangers. Rev. Mr. Weiss returned the next year, but without money.[3] Then Mr. Weiss left Pennsylvania and settled at Rhinebeck, N.Y. So Boehm was left almost alone to minister to the Pennsylvania churches for 15 years. It is true, a few ministers arrived to aid him, such as Goetschy, Dorsius, and Rieger. But the weight of the care of the widening territory of the Reformed rested mainly on Boehm’s shoulders. Gradually these settlements of the Germans spread out into the wilderness beyond Montgomery and Bucks counties into Berks, Lehigh, Lebanon and Lancaster counties. A call came to Boehm to come to Conestoga, near Lancaster, and administer the communion, which he did, Oct. 14, 1727, to 59 members; also from Tulpehocken, near Lebanon, where he administered the communion October 18, 1727, to 32 communicants. Twice every year after that, this faithful servant of God would go to these outlying districts and administer {53} the Lord’s Supper to them until finally Miller came to his assistance for a time and went to Tulpehocken, and Rieger at last went to Conestoga. Boehm was a sort of overseer of the Reformed of Pennsylvania. His territory extended from Egypt, near Allentown, west to Tulpehocken and Lancaster and south to Philadelphia. His consecration to this arduous work is shown by his death, for it was while on a long, hard journey to the Egypt congregation, near Allentown, that he died, April 29, 1749. He may well be called the founder of the German Reformed congregations in Pennsylvania.

He was her defender too. For at this time she passed through a severe storm that strained her to the utmost. As there were so few ministers there was danger of our people being carried away to other denominations or led away by any one who came along and claimed to be a minister. As early as 1736 an inspirationist named Gruber had begun a fanatical movement, but it was the coming of Count Zinzendorf, the great Moravian bishop (1741), that gave a power to this movement. By his influence he carried a number of our people over to the Moravians. Now the Moravian Church was in the last century a splendid witness for the truth against the rationalists of Germany, but she was charged by the other Churches with proselytizing. She had, however, a policy of gathering all earnest believers, no matter of what denomination, into circles called Tropes. The members of these could then semi-officially belong to the Moravians, although still remaining in their own denominations. Zinzendorf attempted such a union movement of Lutherans, Reformed, and Moravians in Pennsylvania, when he arrived. He could do this the better {54} because the Moravians, like the Lutherans, held to the Augsburg Confession; while the Reformed would be attached to him by the fact that he had been ordained by a Reformed minister, Jablonsky, the court preacher of Berlin, who at the same time was a Moravian bishop. So he began to organize a movement called “The Congregation of God in the Spirit,” composed of different religious elements. From January 1742, to June of that year, these held six Synods, and at the seventh, in August of that year, this “Congregation of God in the Spirit” was founded. Quite a number of the Reformed went into the movement. Already John Peter Miller, the pastor of the Reformed church at Tulpehocken, had joined the Seventh Day Baptists (1735) at Ephrata. And now Henry Antes, the prominent Elder of Falkner Swamp, John Bechtel, John Brandmuller, Christian Henry Rauch, and Jacob Lischy went into the movement and were ordained by Zinzendorf as ministers of the Reformed Church in this Union.

The man who rose up against this movement, which threatened to disorganize the Reformed, was Boehm, who did it in order to preserve the Reformed faith and organization (for Weiss by this time was in New York state). He published his “True Letter of Warning,” August 23, 1742, addressed to the Reformed congregations of Pennsylvania, warning the Reformed against Zinzendorf’s efforts. It was signed by the officers of the six congregations-Falkner Swamp, Skippach, White Marsh, Philadelphia, Oley, and Tulpehocken. On May 19, 1743, he published another attack especially directed against Lischy, Bechtel, and Antes. On the other hand, the Reformed who were in “The Congregation of God in the Spirit,” claimed that they were also {55} Reformed. Bechtel published a brief Catechism based on the Articles of Bern. They, however, claimed to be lower Calvinists than Boehm, who held to the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort. They claimed that their low Calvinistic views were also truly German Reformed, because they had always been the views of the Reformed churches of Brandenburg, where Jablonsky, who ordained Zinzendorf, lived. Their claims were true, and yet, like so many union movements, they went to pieces because theirs was made up of such different elements. The churchly Lutherans reacted against them, especially as Muhlenberg had arrived from Germany to organize them. The Moravians themselves, after Zinzendorf left America, became somewhat more churchly, so that Antes rather lost interest in them. The Reformed element in the Union either faded out or was absorbed in the Moravian Church. But the one man who stood against them like a tower through the storm was Boehm. He saved the Reformed Church, and continued her historic existence. Our Church should ever honor him as the defender as well as the founder of our denomination.

Organization of the Coetus

If Rev. Mr. Boehm was the founder of our Church, Rev. Michael Schlatter was the organizer of it. It was a glad day for the former when the latter arrived on our shores. For he was bowed down with the weight of years and when he saw Schlatter coming to take the work off his shoulders he could say, like Simeon of old, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” {56}

Michael Schlatter

Rev. Michael Schlatter was born at St. Gall, in northeastern Switzerland, July 14, 1716. He studied at his native place and after two brief assistant pastorates in Switzerland, he went to Holland, where he was appointed by the deputies of the Synods of North and South Holland, May 23, 1746, to go to America and organize the German churches of Pennsylvania. On August 1, 1746, he arrived at Boston, and on September 6 of that year he arrived at Philadelphia, where he was gladly received by the Reformed congregation. As soon as he arrived he began his missionary journeys, which were truly surprising in their length and continuance. The day after he arrived at Philadelphia he traveled 16 miles to visit Rev. Mr. Boehm, and the next day, eight miles further to meet Mr. Reiff and try to close Reiff’s account with the Reformed about the money he had collected for them in Europe 16 years before. The following day he traveled 23 miles back to Philadelphia. The next week he visited Rev. Mr. Dorsius, pastor of a Dutch Reformed church in Bucks County, Pa., 16 miles from Philadelphia. The week following he went with Rev. Mr. Weiss over the mountains to Oley, Berks county, and the following day to Lancaster to meet Rev. Mr. Rieger. Meanwhile Rev. Mr. Boehm had gone to Tulpehocken, where on September 24, Mr. Schlatter and Mr. Weiss, after traveling 29 miles the previous day, also arrived. The Reformed people of the Tulpehocken charge on Sunday, September 25, wept at the sight of three Reformed ministers together in the pulpit-a sight that they had not seen since they left their Reformed churches in the fatherland. Mr. Schlatter invited the three German Reformed ministers and Rev. Mr. Dorsius to a {57} conference, October 12, 1746, at Philadelphia. All came but the latter, who sent a friendly letter. This was the first meeting of the Reformed ministers in America. It was an informal meeting for conference.

No organization was made till the Coetus was organized next year.[4] Then Mr. Schlatter, like the Apostle Paul, went again on his missionary journeys, so that he might organize the Reformed into congregations and find out how many of these would be willing to support a minister. At Providence, October 18, he preached in a barn and in the afternoon traveled 18 miles to Goshenhoppen to see Mr. Weiss. On the 20th he went to Indianfield, and by the 22nd was back again at Philadelphia. On November 4th he went to New Jersey, 33 miles. But during the winter, owing to the inclemency of the weather and the roughness of the roads, he remained in Philadelphia, organizing that congregation and also the congregation at Germantown. But as soon as the spring opened, he started out in March again and by the end of April, in response to many letters, he made a journey southward. On May 2, 1747, he arrived at Yorktown (York), visiting Conewago, Monocacy, and returning to Philadelphia by way of Lancaster, May 14, having traveled homeward 88 miles. On June 10, he started on an extensive trip to Seltenreich’s congregation, near Lancaster, Donegal, Modencreek, Cocalico and Weiseichland, where he found a pious tailor named Templeman had been preaching to the people. Then he went to Tulpehocken, and eastward to Manatawny, Magunschy, Egypt, and Bethlehem, where he met with Jacob Lischy, who had been fraternizing with the Moravians; but who, repenting of this, now agreed to join the Reformed Church. He returned by way of {58} Sacony and Springfield to Philadelphia, where he arrived July 3rd.

On September 29th, 1747, the first Coetus of our Church was held at Philadelphia. Rev. Messrs. Boehm, Weiss, Rieger and Schlatter were the ministers present. There were also 27 elders present from the congregations in Philadelphia, Falkner Swamp, Providence and Witpen, Old Goshenhoppen and Great Swamp, Schaffer’s church and Erlentown, Tulpehocken, Indianfield, Springfield, Blue Mountain and Egypt, Klein Lechau (Little Lehigh), Sacony, and York-12 congregations in all, Lancaster, however, being unrepresented because it had no pastor. The first item of business was the formal reading of Mr. Schlatter’s instructions from the Synods of Holland, which were approved by the Coetus. Then he read his journal, in which he detailed his travels and the results of his attempts to organize the various charges. The Coetus appointed Mr. Schlatter to make a report to the Synod of Holland for their approval and to ask for more ministers, especially for Manakesy Caniketschek in Maryland, Schanador, South Branch, Botomic, Lykens Run and Germantown. It also took action in regard to Mr. Lischy and decided that the monies collected by Rev. Mr. Boehm in New York should be given to the Church in Witpen Township, Montgomery County.

In the fall of 1747 Mr. Schlatter visited York and also western New Jersey. In the spring of 1748 he made a longer tour, going as far as Frederick, Md. Very interesting are his notes. “On the 10th of May, after we had gone twenty miles farther, we took our dinner in Fredericktown, in Virginia. On this road we met a fearful rattlesnake seven or eight feet long {59} and five inches thick across the back. This is one of the most dangerous kinds of snakes. Still it warns the traveler by rattling when he is even yet twenty steps off, so that he has time to avoid it.” “On the 15th of May, I preached at Fredericktown, in a new church which is not yet finished, standing behind a table upon which had been placed the holy covenant seals of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. When I was preparing myself for the first prayer and saw the tears of the spiritually hungry souls roll down their cheeks, my heart was singularly moved and enkindled with love, so that I fell on my knees, in which the whole congregation followed me, and with much love and holy desire I commended the house and the congregation to the Triune God and wrestled for a blessing from the Lord upon them.”

He returned to Philadelphia by May 19. On September 28, 1748, the second Coetus was held at Philadelphia. Rev. Mr. Weiss was absent, but three new ministers had come from Europe; Rev. Messrs. Leydich, Bartholomaus and Hochreutiner. This Coetus formally adopted the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort as its Creeds. Rev. Mr. Schlatter continued his journeys through the churches, often preaching day after day, traveling thousands of miles, and organizing the churches.

The Coetus of 1749 met at Lancaster, September 27th. But a storm was gathering in the new Coetus. Rev. Mr. Steiner, of Switzerland, a fine pulpit orator, had arrived at Philadelphia September 25, 1749, and Coetus held a special meeting October 20th of that year to receive him. He was called to Lancaster, but delayed his going and soon a party was formed in the Philadelphia congregation favorable to him and against Mr. Schlatter. This resulted in a division in the {60} congregation, but the civil courts decided in favor of the Schlatter party. A new congregation was then formed of which Mr. Steiner became the pastor (1750-1751) when he resigned and afterward Rev. Mr. Rubel took charge of the congregation. But the Synods of Holland decided against Rubel and he left (1755). Finally the new congregation went back into the old church; and once again united, called Rev. Mr. Steiner (1759-1762).

In 1751 Rev. Mr. Schlatter was requested by the Coetus to go to Europe to get money and ministers for the Pennsylvania congregations, who were as scattered sheep having no shepherd. He visited Holland, Germany, and Switzerland, and created a great interest in the Pennsylvania churches: He stated that there were 30,000 Reformed in Pennsylvania in 46 congregations, with only six ministers to serve them. He also refers in this appeal to the missionary work of Eliot and Brainerd among the Indians. Even the poor Palatinate Reformed Church, though then struggling for its very existence under a Catholic rule, raised three hundred dollars for the fund for Pennsylvania. The States General of Holland and West Friesland granted $800 a year. But best of all, Mr. Schlatter was able to secure six young ministers for America, with whom he arrived in Pennsylvania, July 28, 1752. It now looked as if the German churches were to be placed on a firmer footing, but a new difficulty soon confronted them.

One of the things that was expected to greatly aid them was the one that turned out to their injury. Mr. Schlatter’s trip to Europe created so much interest that Rev. Mr. Thomson, pastor of the English Reformed congregation at Amsterdam, went to England and Scotland and, with others, raised {61} considerable money, about $20,000, to establish charity schools among the Germans here. This kindly movement, however, soon roused great opposition among the Germans, which was led especially by Saur, the publisher, of Germantown. The English circular describing the scheme cast serious reflections, some thought, on the Germans here, for illiteracy and poverty and semi-heathenism. Some of them suspected it was an effort to rob them of their loved German language, as English was to be taught in the schools; while others looked on it as an effort to secretly introduce the Episcopal Church among the Germans. Rev. Mr. Schlatter, by request of the Trustees, became the Superintendent of these charity schools. At first the Coetus stood by Mr. Schlatter and the charity schools and suggested two of its ministers, Rev. Messrs. Otterbein and Stoy, as persons who could be used by that society, but by and by the opposition to them became so strong that it reacted against Mr. Schlatter too, and he became very unpopular with the Germans. In 1754 Mr. Schlatter was dismissed from the Coetus at the request of the Holland Fathers.

For 33 years he lived at Germantown and never in all those years attended a Coetus meeting, although he occasionally, it is said, preached in Reformed churches. Nevertheless, he did a remarkable work in the few years that he was in the Coetus. During the ten years that he labored for it, his labors were incessant. He gave himself no rest, riding occasionally as high as 80 miles a day, preaching day after day, and outdoing other ministers, who sometimes tired by the way and had to stop. In all he traveled more than 8,000 miles, not counting his travels across the ocean to Europe and back. All honor to him and his industry. {62}

Mr. Schlatter, having retired from the Coetus, became chaplain in the British army and was at the siege of Louisburg, Nova Scotia, in 1757. After his return he lived at his home, “Sweetland,” Chestnut Hill, near Germantown. In 1764 he was appointed chaplain of the Bouquet expedition to Pittsburgh (Fort Pitt) against the French. During the Revolution his home was attacked and plundered by the British, who still looked on him as a chaplain of their army, and were angry with him for his sympathy with the American cause. He died in 1790, universally respected, and having among his intimate acquaintances many of the leading men of Pennsylvania such as General Hiester.

History of the Coetus

Our early Reformed Church had to pass through many vicissitudes before it was permanently founded and could spread itself through our Western land. We have already called attention to some of the dangers that surrounded it. In Boehm’s time the Moravian movement threatened to undermine it. In Schlatter’s time the quarrel concerning Steiner and Rubel threatened to divide it. As an ecclesiastical body, it now began growing more compact. But now, instead of danger within the Church, political dangers outside of it appeared. The French war broke out and some of the border churches suffered a good deal (1755). Rev. Mr. Stoy vividly describes the sufferings of the Tulpehocken charge from the Indians. The charge of Wissler on the Lehigh, near Allentown, also suffered. But although political dangers threatened it, the Church began to increase in efficiency. This was due {63} to the fact that some of her best ministers began to arrive, as Alsentz, Gros, Weyberg, Bucher, Henop, Hendel, Gobrecht, J. F. Faber, Pomp, and later Helffenstein and Helffrich. The Church had often been compelled to contend with unworthy men, who tried to become pastors of the congregations or to be elected into the Coetus such as Pithan at Easton, Berger at Reading, and later Spangenberg at Shamokin, and others. Nobly she tried to prevent these adventurers from entering like wolves into her fold and scattering the sheep. Over against these she began rearing her own ministry, in addition to receiving those sent from Holland. Wack, Wagner, Weymer and others she trained herself, as they studied privately under Hendel, Gros, Weyberg, and others.

When the American Revolution broke out, the Coetus had spread her territory beyond the Blue Mountains on the north and westward down the Cumberland Valley to Frederick, Hagerstown, and Baltimore. The Germans pretty generally sympathized with the Americans against England, although there were some Tories among them. One minister, Stahlschmidt, reveals the awkward position of some of our ministers, in his book, “A Pilgrimage by Land and Sea.” He says: “I acted with extreme caution, so as not to give offence to the Royalists in my congregation (near York), but where such a party spirit reigns, it is impossible for a minister’s political sentiments to remain long concealed. An order was issued by the American government to march against the enemy, which produced such confusion that I could not do otherwise than advise them to yield as much as possible to present circumstances, because it was incumbent upon us to be obedient to the existing authorities in all things not {64} contrary to conscience. Those who vented their rage against the Congress were dissatisfied with me, especially one Royalist, who went about among the congregation and stirred them up against me. The confusion increasing to the highest pitch, I perceived it was best to resign my charge.” He left and went back to Europe.

But many of the Reformed ministers were more outspoken patriots than Stahlschmidt. We have not yet found any action taken by the Coetus in favor of the Colonies and against England. Perhaps, although most of the ministers were patriots, yet they did not think it wise to mingle politics with their Coetus’ acts, especially as they were under the control of a foreign Church and did not wish to implicate Holland or complicate her relations to England. The meetings of the Coetus were sometimes interfered with by the war, so that in 1778 and 1780 there was no meeting held. And although almost every alternate Coetus had been held in Philadelphia, yet after 1774 for seven years no meeting was held there. Sometimes owing to the war, the Philadelphia and Germantown churches, especially the former, would be cut off from the other congregations, and the White Marsh, Skippach, and Germantown congregations were overrun at times by marching armies. The ministry often suffered much from non-payment of salaries, owing to the scarcity of money or its little value. Thus Stahlschmidt, of whom we spoke above, says that when he resigned to go away to Europe, “there were thousands of dollars due him on his salary, but as sixty or seventy paper dollars were only equivalent to one silver one, he could for all this money scarcely procure a new coat for himself.” On the Indian borders, especially the Lykens Valley, there {65} were many dangers. In 1779 the ministers of the Coetus were so much impressed by the danger and uncertainty around them, that they appointed a day of prayer and appointed a committee to issue a call to the people for prayer to God for guidance. At the end of the war the Coetal letter to the fathers in Holland rejoices that the war is over, and they pay their respects to Holland by congratulating themselves on being citizens of a republic, like Holland.

But while the Coetus itself does not seem to have taken any political action, many of the individual ministers did. The First Reformed church of Philadelphia was known for the sympathy of its pastor, Weyberg, and its people, with the patriots. When a memorial service was to be held February 19, 1776, on the death of General Montgomery, who was killed in the attack on Quebec, the Reformed congregation boldly threw open its doors for that meeting, although there were many Tories about and it was somewhat dangerous to do so. Indeed Dr. Weyberg dared even when the British were occupying Philadelphia, to preach such patriotic sermons that the British (fearing he would influence the Hessians, many of whom were Reformed and attended his German services, to desert) imprisoned him. When the British departed from Philadelphia and the congregation again regained possession of their church (which had been used as a hospital by the British), Dr. Weyberg took the significant text, “O God, the heathen are come into thine inheritance. Thy holy temple have they defiled” Ps. 79:1.

Dr. Hendel was accustomed to go over the Blue Mountains north of Tulpehocken to preach to the Reformed in the Lykens Valley. His sympathy with the {66} patriots was so well known that this trip was quite dangerous, as the Indians on that border sympathized with the British. So a delegation of the Reformed would come armed to meet him at the entrance of the valley and guard him to the church, watch while he was preaching, and act as his bodyguard on the journey homeward until they brought him back safely to the Tulpehocken.

Several of the prominent officers of the Revolution were members of the Reformed Church. General Herkimer, the hero of Oriskany, a battle in New York State, was a German Reformed, and General Philip Schuyler was a Dutch Reformed. Baron Steuben was also a member of the Reformed Church of New York City. He created a great furor among the Germans here, for he had been an officer in the famous army of Frederick the Great of Prussia, the military hero of Europe. He came to our land to bring the tactics to our army that had made Frederick victorious, and he probably saved our cause by his military drills. “After his coming,” says Lessing, “the army was drilled and after this the Continental Congress regulars were never beaten in a fair fight. Before he came the American soldier, because he did not know how to use the bayonet, had lost faith in it as a piece of armor. The only use of it to which he had been accustomed had been to roast his meat with it over the fire. Yet in a little more than a year after Baron Steuben came, an American column, without firing a gun, stormed Stony Point, on the Hudson, and captured it after one of the most splendid bayonet charges of history.”

Nine miles west of Reading is one of the oldest Reformed churches in Pennsylvania, formerly called the Cacusi, now called the Hain’s church (near Wernersville). {67} It had over the door the inscription placed there by its first builders when that church was built (1766), “All who go in and out must be true to the God and the King.” After the war was over, one of its builders said the word “king” must be cut out, and the word “king” was cut out, and so the inscription remains mutilated to this day, a silent witness to the patriotism of the members of that church.

Thus the Reformed proved faithful to the American government. After the war was over the Coetus presented General Washington (1789) with a letter of congratulation when he was elected President. General Washington, although an Episcopalian, attended the Reformed church at Germantown under Dr. Hendel’s ministry, and rumor has it that he communed there. And after Washington’s death the Cincinnati Society, founded in 1783, by the officers of the Revolutionary army, met in the First Reformed Church of Philadelphia, Feb. 22, 1800, to commemorate his death.

[1]For a full description of the persecutions of our forefathers, the only full description in English, see History of the Reformed Church In the United States, by Rev. James I. Good, D.D.

[2]See History of the Reformed Church in the U.S., by Rev. James I, Good, D.D. pages {62-64}.

[3]For his companion, Mr. Reiff, kept it for a number of years until Rev. Mr. Schlatter came, when a settlement was made.

[4]A sort of synod having less independent powers than the synod.


The founders of the church in this country were colonists from the Palatinate and other parts of western Germany and also from Switzerland. The first minister, Samuel Guldi, came from Bern to America in 1710. The first purely German congregation was founded at Germania Ford, on the Rapidan, Virginia, 1714. But the first complete congregational organization took place 1725, when John Philip Boehm, a schoolmaster, organized the congregations at Falkner Swamp, Skippach, and White Marsh, Pennsylvania, according to the principles of Calvin, and adopted as standards the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort. George Michael Weiss came in 1727 and organized the Philadelphia congregation. Boehm was ordained 1729 at New York by the Dutch Reformed ministers under the authority of the classis of Amsterdam in Holland. In 1742 Count Zinzendorf tried to unite all the German churches and sects in Pennsylvania into one organization with the Moravians as the leading body. This was opposed by Boehm and Guldi.

In 1746 Michael Schlatter came from St. Gall, Switzerland, commissioned by the Reformed Church of the Netherlands to organize the Germans of Pennsylvania. After traveling much among the congregations, he completed their organization, begun by Boehm, by forming the coetus at Philadelphia Sept. 29, 1747, at which there were present four ministers and representatives from twelve charges. The second coetus (1748) completed the organization by adopting as its standards the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort. It also adopted a constitution, which was Boehm’s constitution of 1725 somewhat enlarged. In 1751 Schlatter returned to Europe, traveling through Holland, Germany, and Switzerland seeking aid for the Pennsylvania churches, and returned with six young ministers appointed by the Reformed Church of the Netherlands. Some effort was made, 1741-51, toward union with the Dutch Reformed and Presbyterians, but the attempt failed. The coetus continued under the control of the Reformed Church of the Netherlands, which sent thirty-eight ministers to America and spent about $20,000 on the American churches. The actions of the coetus were reviewed by the deputies of the Synods of North and South Holland and by the classis of Amsterdam. This relation to Holland continued until 1792, when the coetus virtually declared itself independent.

Source: J. I. Good’s Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism Cleveland OH: Central Publishing House, 1904, p. 224-247; Electronic version, © 2004, The Synod of the Reformed Church in the U.S.

The Founding of the Reformed Church

Long before our German forefathers came to America in the 18th century, the Reformed from Holland had started a church at New York (New Amsterdam) in 1628 which is now the oldest Evangelical Church in this country. The first governor of New York (1626) was Peter Minuit who was an officer in the Reformed church. He later (1638) founded a colony of Swedes in Delaware. Our German forefathers however, did not come to America in large numbers until about 1720, when they began settling the Schuylkill and Perkiomen Valleys of Pennsylvania, and later going farther into the wilderness of Lehigh and Lancaster Counties of the same state.

The first Reformed congregation in America was organized by Rev. Henry Haeger, who came to Virginia in 1714. The first Reformed minister who came to Pennsylvania was Rev. Samuel Guldin. He had been a minister at Bern, Switzerland and came to America in 1710 and lived in the suburbs of Philadelphia. He occasionally preached but did not do anything toward organizing congregations. The man who organized the Reformed church was Rev. John Philip Boehm. He had been a schoolmaster at Worms in Germany and came to America in 1720. In 1725, as there were no ministers to preach there to the Reformed, those who lived at Falkner’s Swamp, Skippack and White Marsh, Pa., prevailed on Boehm to become their pastor even though he had not yet been ordained. He finally, reluctantly yielded to their wishes. He organized those three congregations and later congregations at Tulpehocken and Conestoga.

In 1727 Rev. George Michael Weiss arrived at Philadelphia and founded the First Reformed church there. He soon came into conflict with Boehm, for he felt Boehm was acting irregularly because he was preaching without ordination. The difficulty was finally overcome by the ordination of Boehm by the Dutch Reformed ministers at New York in 1729.

In 1746 Rev. Michael Schlatter came to America, authorized by the Reformed church of Holland to organize the German Reformed. He completed Boehm’s work of organization by gathering the various congregations into a Coetus which held its first meeting at Philadelphia, September 29th, 1747. There were present four ministers, Boehm, Weiss, Rieger, and Schlatter and twenty-seven elders representing twelve congregations.

The History of the Coetus

In 1751 Schlatter, who had traveled extensively in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and even Virginia returned to Europe to get more aid and the next year he returned to America with six young ministers of whom Otterbein and Stoy were the most prominent. In 1754 Schlatter left the Coetus and lived near Philadelphia where he died. The Reformed church of Holland sent over a number of ministers of whom Weyberg, Hendel, Helffrich, and Helffenstein were the most prominent. These with a number of ministers raised up in this country, as Weber, Weymer, Wack and others laid good foundations for our church.

During the Revolution our church suffered severely. Most of the Germans sided with the patriots against England, although there were a few Royalists who clung to the King.

One of the most eloquent ministers in the colonies was Rev. J. J. Zubly of Savannah, Ga. He became prominent at the beginning of the Revolution and was elected to the Congress but later fell under suspicion and was exiled by the patriots. But others were very outspoken patriots. Rev. Dr. Weyberg of Philadelphia preached so eloquently to the Hessians in the British army that they were inclined to desert. His church was used by them as a hospital and after their departure, when it was reopened for worship, he preached on Ps. 79:1, “O God, the heathen are come into Thine inheritance, etc.” Rev. Dr. Hendel’s patriotism was so well known that when he went over the mountains to Lykens Valley to preach he was guarded by the Reformed lest he would be attacked by the Indians. General Nicolas Herkimer, the hero of the battle of Oriskany in New York State who died on the battlefield, was German Reformed. But the most prominent Reformed officer was Baron Steuben. He came to America from service in the army of King Frederick the Great of Prussia. He became the great drillmaster of our army. After his coming the regulars of the Continental army were never beaten in a fair fight. The effect of the Revolution on the church was unfortunate. Many of the ministers were unpaid or paid in continental money which was almost worthless. Some of the congregations were overrun by armies, as Germantown and Skippack. The attention of the people was diverted from sacred things and almost no ministers were raised up for the church. In view of these various difficulties the Coetus appointed a fast-day for the church in 1779. At the beginning of the war the memorial service on the death of General Montgomery, Feb. 19th, 1776 was held in the First Reformed Church of Philadelphia. And after Washington’s death the Society of Cincinnati composed of the officers of the Revolutionary army, held memorial services in that church, February 22nd, 1800.

The First Synod and Classes

The first synod was held at Lancaster April 27, 1793. The church then consisted of 22 ministers, 178 congregations, and about 15,000 members. Its first problems were the education of ministers and the change of language from German to English. After a number of conflicts as at Philadelphia and Baltimore, the latter was solved by the gradual introduction of English into the services. The former was solved by the education of young men privately by different ministers. Of these, three were especially prominent, Christian Lewis Decker of Baltimore, Samuel Helffenstein of Philadelphia, and L. F. Herman of Falkner Swamp.

In 1820 the synod divided itself into classes and decided to found a theological seminary, which, however, was not opened until 1825. The Ohio classis broke off in 1824 and organized itself into an independent synod. In 1822 the free synod of Pennsylvania also broke away but returned in 1837. Similarly an independent synod was organized in Ohio in 1846, but returned about 1853. From 1829 to 1844 a revival wave spread over the church.

The Early History of the Synod

Source: J. I. Good’s Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism Cleveland OH: Central Publishing House, 1904, p. 224-247; Electronic version, © 2004, The Synod of the Reformed Church in the U.S.

In 1792 the Coetus prepared to separate from the mother church of Holland. The reasons for it were:

  1. Holland was so far away that correspondence between our church and the Dutch church was difficult.
  2. There was a difference in language, as the Hollander’s spoke Dutch, our church, German.
  3. The Holland Church was unwilling to give our Church certain privileges, as the right to ordain or to found a school for the education of ministers.

The first Synod of our Church was held April 27th, 1793 at Lancaster. It then contained twenty-two ministers, seventy-eight congregations and about 15,000 communicants. Two problems faced the new Synod, (1) The change of the language from German to English, (2) The need of a school to educate ministers.

The change of the language often caused bitter feelings in congregations between the younger or more progressive party and the older or conservative, who desired to retain German. The Philadelphia congregation was the first to be greatly divided, first the English party going out, then the German seceding. Gradually, however, our Church has learned to deal wisely with this question.

The second, difficulty, the lack of ministers, was for awhile partially met by private theological schools. The Rev. C. J. Becker, D.D. opened one at Baltimore, Rev. S. Helffenstein, D.D., at Philadelphia, and Rev. F. L. Herman, D.D., at., Falkner Swamp. They educated a number of young men, Helffenstein educating the most, twenty-seven. But in spite of all these efforts, the Church outgrew the number of ministers. So an effort was made to found a theological school in 1820. It was not opened till 1825 when Rev. Lewis Mayer, D.D., began teaching at Carlisle in connection with Dickinson College. This school was removed in 1829 to York when Prof. F. A. Rauch was added to the faculty. A classical school was started in connection with it which was removed to Mercersburg in 1835, where it was changed to Marshall College and later in 1853 removed to Lancaster. The theological seminary was removed from York to Mercersburg in 1836 and later in 1871 removed to Lancaster.

In the early part of the 19th century our Church sent home missionaries to North Carolina which led to the founding of North Carolina Classis. It also sent missionaries to Ohio and the West, where it grew rapidly, spreading in Indiana and Wisconsin. A theological seminary was founded in 1848 at Tiffin, Ohio where also Heidelberg College was founded. The Germans also founded a Mission House at Franklin, Wisconsin in 1860 for the education of German ministers.

In 1863 the Church observed the 300th anniversary of the publication of the Heidelberg Catechism in 1563 and a large conference was held in Philadelphia, January 17th, 1863. The various classes and congregations held tercentenary services during that year. Free-will offerings were made which in the Eastern Synod alone amounted to $108,000. In 1863 the various Synods and Classes united to form the General Synod of our Church. In 1893 the Church observed the Centennial of the organization of its synod independent of the Reformed Church of Holland.

The Synod of the Reformed Church in the United States

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.

JUST as the United States was changed from a colony to an independent nation by the Revolution, so our Church was changed from the Coetus, which meant dependence on the Holland Church, to a Synod, which meant independence and self-reliance. And just as our great nation had grown from its small beginning to its present greatness, so our little flock of Reformed has grown to be a large and influential denomination.

Progress in Spite of Difficulties

In 1792 the members of the Coetus declared their independence of the Fathers in Holland, and in 1793 adopted their new constitution. The Coetus was no more-it had become the Synod. Several causes led to this change. One was that communication with Holland had been exceedingly difficult, especially during the Revolutionary War. Often the Coetus had to wait for months, sometimes for years, for important decisions by the Synods of Holland on its acts, and sometimes the answer never came from Holland because it was lost at sea. Although they would ordain a licentiate when there was extreme necessity, yet often the young man would have to wait for months before the Coetus would get authority from Holland to do so. This caused much inconvenience and our fathers therefore found this arrangement too clumsy to be {70} continued.

Another reason was that our Church here was getting strong enough to take care of herself and did not so much need the money sent from Holland. Perhaps one fact tended more than any other to cause the ultimate outbreak. It was the founding of Franklin College at Lancaster in 1787. This strengthened a feeling which had already appeared in the Coetus as early as 1782, when it was suggested by Rev. Mr. Helffrich. The Coetus then requested the Synods of Holland to establish an Academy in Pennsylvania which would prepare its ministers. The interest in this movement was so great that Coetus met in 1787, at Lancaster, so as to attend the opening of Franklin College. And although Franklin College did not at first prosper, owing to lack of funds, yet the feeling grew more and more decided among the members of the Coetus that they ought to be free, so as to educate their own ministers in America and not be compelled to wait until either they were sent from Holland or their ordination was ordered from Holland. So at Easton, in 1791, the Coetus took action that it had the right to ordain a minister without asking or waiting for permission to do so from the Fathers in Holland. In 1792, it went a step farther toward becoming independent by appointing a committee to draft a new constitution, and Rev. Messrs. Pomp and Blumer were appointed to prepare a constitution, not for a Coetus, but for a Synod. This was adopted in 1793. However, although our Fathers thus broke away from the Reformed Church of Holland a century ago, we should always remember with great gratitude the debt we owe to them for aiding our infant Church for almost half a century. They sent many ministers and paid their salaries and also the salaries of many school-masters {71} for many years. They also very patiently listened to the complaints and troubles of our early Coetus and wisely decided them, all the while fostering the Church.

So, on April 27, 1793, the first Synod of our Church met at Lancaster. Thirteen of the 22 ministers belonging to Coetus were present, but all but three sent excuses for absence. The Synod contained 178 congregations and 15,000 communicants.[1]

The Coetus adopted the constitution for a Synod prepared by Rev. Messrs. Hendel and Blumer and decided that it would not transmit to the Fathers in Holland its proceedings, as heretofore, but only send a letter. This act completed their separation from the Mother Church of Holland.

But our fathers had hardly declared their independency, when serious difficulties began to appear. The first was the conflict of languages. As Germans, they tenaciously clung to their beloved mother-tongue, yet the English language kept forcing itself more and more into the families, so that English preaching was becoming a necessity. Rev. Casper Wack, as early as 1782, began to preach English in addition to German in his congregations, in western New Jersey, near Easton. Under Dr. Herman, English preaching was occasionally heard at Germantown. But it was in the Philadelphia congregation that the strife became most bitter in regard to the two languages. Again and again the subject was carried up to the Synod by members of this church, asking that the preaching in English be stopped. The Synod generally tabled the matter. But finally the strife became so bitter that it led to a division in the congregation (1818). Gradually {72} the English language was introduced into many of the congregations, but very often some of the congregations waited too long, until they had forced many of their young people into other denominations, which was a great injury to our Church. This conflict of languages has gradually settled itself by a gradual change to English as circumstances demand it.

Early Theological Education

The other difficulty of the Church was the lack of ministers. Formerly she had depended on Holland for them, but now she had to depend on herself. But as she had no college to educate them or money to found such an institution, how was she to provide herself with ministers? Individual ministers stepped into the breach and privately prepared many young men for the ministry. Weyberg, Gros, Hendel, and Helffenstein had done this under the Coetus. This was continued under the Synod by Samuel Helffenstein, Herman, Becker, and others. Helffenstein is said to have prepared as many as 27 young men for the ministry.

But all these excellent efforts were found to be insufficient. So, in 1820, the Synod at Hagerstown adopted a plan for the establishment of a theological seminary. It elected Rev. Dr. Milledoler, of New York, as its professor and selected Frederick, Md., as its location. Alas, their expectations were soon doomed to disappointment. Dr. Milledoler, after deliberating about it for two years, finally decided to decline the call; and as much of the money subscribed to the new institution, was conditioned on his acceptance, it never came into the treasury of the Seminary. With this reverse came a reaction in the Church. In some parts of the Church ministers and people revealed an opposition to the Seminary. These looked upon the raising of so much money as an unnecessary {73} extravagance, and some said they feared tyranny on the part of the Church.

Some, too, like Dr. Herman, objected to the location of the Seminary at Frederick, so far southwest of the center of the Church. As a result of this opposition, quite a number of ministers and congregations left the Synod (1822) and formed a free Synod, which at different times had connected with it 51 ministers and more than 100 congregations. This Free Synod lasted for fifteen years and had in it some of our most influential congregations and ministers, but in 1837 it returned to the Synod. In the meantime the Synod went on trying to build up its Theological Seminary.

In 1823 it elected Rev. Dr. S. Helffenstein Professor of Theology, but he declined. In 1824 it elected Rev. Dr. Lewis Mayer professor, and at last the Seminary was opened March 11, 1825, at Carlisle. The Church having once begun this work, went at it with a will. In 1825 Rev. James R. Reily went to Europe to solicit money and books for it, and brought back $6,669, and 5,000 books, while Rev. J. C. Beecher collected $10,000 for its endowment in this country. The Seminary was, however, removed to York in 1829, where it continued till 1837, Dr. Mayer being assisted in the teaching by Rev. Samuel Young and Dr. F. A. Rauch. It was then removed to Mercersburg, where it remained till 1871.

The Synod of Ohio

Thus the Church gradually met its difficulties and overcame them, and grew in numbers and influence. It began to spread to the West during this period, the first minister, Rev. Jacob Christman, going to Ohio in 1803, and Rev. J. T. Larose in 1804. In 1812 the Synod ordered that certain ministers should be sent to the West, and Mr. Dechant was sent in 1816. When the Synod was divided into classes in 1820, there were {74} enough ministers in Ohio to form a classis, which grew so that in 1824 it organized itself into a Synod of Ohio. It separated itself from the mother Church in Pennsylvania, because the latter treated it just as the fathers in Holland had treated them. It refused to give the Ohio Synod the right to ordain, and wanted the young men who desired to enter our ministry to cross the Alleghenies so as to get ordination. This the Ohio brethren refused to do, and they declared themselves independent.

This Ohio Synod grew, until in 1838 it started its own Theological Seminary by the appointment of Rev. J. G. Buettner as professor. But he resigned the next year and went back to Europe, and the Seminary ceased for a time to exist. These home missionary movements prepared the way for foreign missionary movements which came later.

Developments in Publications and Interchurch Relations

Other events occurred which showed that the Church was moving forward. A Church paper was started at Carlisle in 1828. In 1806 the first Sunday-school was organized in the Reformed Church of Philadelphia.

The Church also made progress in its relations to other denominations. The cause of Christian unity began to attract attention. When, in 1817, the Lutherans and Reformed of Prussia and many other States in Germany united, there were some rumors of such a union in America between the Reformed and the Lutherans. No action, however was taken by the Synod looking toward it, although a very pleasant correspondence took place between the two denominations in reference to the tercentenary of the Reformation in 1817. But although our Church did not unite with the Lutherans, it came into correspondence with other evangelical bodies. In 1823 it entered into fraternal relations with the Presbyterian Church, and earlier, 1813, with {75} the Dutch Reformed Church, with whom it had several very pleasant conventions in 1844 and 1847.

Thus the Church, in spite of its great difficulties, grew so that by 1840 it had reached a high-water mark. Several of the oldest ministers have told us “Those were the halcyon days of the Reformed Church.” She was united and progressive. God’s Spirit was poured out on the Churches. Her institutions were being firmly established. Controversy had not yet entered. The outlook was hopeful.

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.

By Rev. Norman L. Jones


WHAT were the religious beliefs of those early German emigrants who left their homeland and braved the dangers of ocean travel to settle in the new land called America? This question is an important one for us as the German Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS) was begun by many of those early settlers. The theology and worship of the Reformed Church in the United States has undergone several twists and turns in the past two hundred and fifty years, and at times it could be questioned whether the RCUS was really “classically Reformed” and true to the orthodox Calvinist tradition. There have been theological developments in the RCUS that were {2} decidedly not in keeping with Reformed orthodoxy. This volume tells about such matters.

Coming closer to our own day, we must be honest with ourselves at this point in history. Serious problems have indeed plagued our churches at various points in its history. It does no good to try to excuse these things.

So we come back to our original question, Was the original theology of the German Reformed churches of America flawed? Were our doctrine and practice weak from the beginning, from an orthodox point of view, so that the serious, religious problems which developed over the years were a natural result of that weakness? It is our contention that the theology and practice of the early RCUS was truly orthodox Calvinism, and that later aberrations can not be laid to the theology of the founding fathers. What then was the theology of these founding fathers? To answer this question we must get back to the original documentation and the historical circumstances that led to the founding of the RCUS in the first half of the eighteenth century in the colonies, particularly the colony of Pennsylvania. There is extant, but not readily available, a large amount of historical material that covers the religious history of the Reformed Germans in the colonies. Dr. Joseph Henry Dubbs, a historian of the German Reformed Church, lists 71 volumes and articles in a bibliography dealing with the German Reformed Church in Europe and America.[1] Most of this material is in the German language. By far the greatest researcher and writer on the history and theology of the German Reformed Church in America is the late Prof. J. I. Good who wrote numerous volumes of minute detail giving the history of our church as to its main leaders, work, and theological developments. It is the work of these two scholars that we shall rely upon primarily in the argumentation of this chapter. Much of what we shall say will be more or less a paraphrase of what these men have written. Also, we should give credit to our own Rev. Robert Grossmann who has carefully analyzed the overall history of the RCUS from its beginning to the present day and written a history in outline form that is very valuable to all who are interested in our church.[2]

The theology of the early German Reformed Church in America can easily be determined by examining a number of different evidences. We shall consider two main lines of evidence which demonstrate the orthodox, Calvinistic character of the early RCUS: The evidence from the Reformed character of the Church in Germany, and the evidence of the orthodox character of the German Reformed {3} Coetus (pronounced see-tus)[3] (i.e., synod/classis) in Pennsylvania.


To understand and appreciate the nature of the Reformed convictions of the pastors and people who emigrated to America and established the first German Reformed churches, which led in turn to the formation of the first coetus and then to the RCUS as a denomination, we need to examine the Reformed church in Germany, particularly the Palatinate area from which most of the German Reformed Christians came.


The Protestant Reformation was born by God’s Spirit in Germany and Switzerland. In Germany it was Martin Luther who ignited the spark which eventually set Europe and England ablaze. The Reformation in Germany was originally Lutheran in nature, but soon experienced the more purified Reformed doctrines and practices which emanated from John Calvin’s ministry in Geneva, Switzerland, 1536 to 1564, and from his predecessor, Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) in Zurich, Switzerland. The historian Charles Miller notes that “Although Calvin’s primary personal influence was in Geneva, in Switzerland, and in France, Calvinism was to have considerable influence in the area now known as Germany. Then, among the more than two-hundred states and cities which constituted the Holy Roman Empire, it (Calvinism) was generally a continuation of Zwinglianism and more generally in conflict with Lutheranism than with Catholicism.”[4]

Miller summarized the religious situation in Germany in the mid-1500s as follows:

The most important German Reformed movement was in the Palatinate, a major principality in southwestern Germany. Here from about 1545 to 1620 Calvinism was to flourish. Because the elector was friendly with the German emperor, the area did not {4} become Protestant until late in the Reformation, in 1545.

Legally the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, which caused the French Reformed Church Calvin had served in Strassburg to be closed and ended Calvinist influence in Hesse, denied individual religious freedom in Germany and permitted the princes the right to choose only between Lutheranism and Catholicism in their territories. However, Elector Frederick III of the Palatinate, one of the seven electors of the Holy Roman Empire, was so disgusted by the controversy within Lutheranism that he welcomed Calvinist ideas.

High Lutheranism at the time was moving back toward Catholic practices, reintroducing Latin in the services and the veneration of the Virgin. Moderate Lutheranism led by Melanchthon was in retreat. In the face of this conflict, Elector Frederick invited Zwinglian and Calvinist teachers to come to the Palatinate. Under the influence of these men Elector Frederick moved the church of the Palatinate toward Calvinistic doctrine and practices without abandoning the Augsburg Confession. There were no feasts to the Virgin; altars, baptismal fonts, religious pictures and even organs were removed; Latin was abandoned in all liturgy; and public and private morality was enforced.[5]

With the arrival of these Calvinistic scholars in Heidelberg to preach and teach in his new university Elector Frederick III (“The Pious”) soon asked them to draw up a confession of faith in the form of a catechism to define the Protestant religion of his realm, the Palatinate. The result of the work of Caspar Olevianus and Zacharias Ursinus was the Heidelberg Catechism, published in German in 1563. Three years later Frederick was called on by the Diet (the parliament of the Holy Roman Empire) to defend his catechism in view of the fact that according to the Peace of Augsburg (1555), the only two legal religions to be permitted in the Germanic Augsburg Empire were Catholicism and Lutheranism. Frederick gave such a magnificent defense of his catechism before the Diet that his realm, the Palatinate, was permitted to be the exception to the rule.

That the Heidelberg Catechism is a standard of Calvinistic theology there can be no question. The two authors were Calvinists, Olevianus himself having {5} studied under John Calvin. The catechisms of Calvin and à Lasco [6] were closely followed, and one can easily see a similarity of phraseology between the Heidelberg Catechism and the Calvinistic Belgic Confession which was published two years earlier.

The charge sometimes made that the Heidelberg Catechism is more “Melanchthonian” (from the “low” or moderate Lutheran theologian, Philip Melanchthon), than Calvinistic is without foundation. The Catechism teaches total depravity (Questions 5, 8), sovereign election (Questions 26, 31, 52), the forbidding of pictures for worship (Questions 96-98), the perseverance of the saints (Questions 1, 31, 51, 54); Calvin’s view of the article of the creed, “He descended into hell; Calvin’s view of the division of the Ten Commandments and the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer; and his view of the sacraments. Each of these points is contrary to Lutheran-Melanchthonian theology. Indeed, the Melanchthonian theologians and princes opposed the Heidelberg Catechism very strongly.

Other evidence could be adduced to prove that the Palatinate was a center of Calvinism in spite of the fact that three times the official religion of that state was changed in the course of the turbulent sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Palatinate became a refuge for thousands of Huguenots (Reformed) who fled from France after the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre (1572). The Palatinate Liturgy (1563) which provided for exclusive psalmody (a Calvinist distinction) was in effect for 100 years in the Reformed Churches, until 1657. The closeness of the Dutch Reformed church, which was staunchly Reformed, to the German Reformed Church is an obvious fact. The Hollanders “borrowed” the Heidelberg Catechism from the Palatinate as their own precious expression of the Reformed Faith.

We should also consider the great Synod of Dort, held in Holland (1618-19), at which Arminianism was officially condemned by the Dutch Reformed Churches, and by many Reformed theologians from other countries, including theologians from Germany. The Elector of the Palatinate delegated three theologians to the synod who signed their names to the completed document, The Canons of Dort. Likewise, did the four theologians from the German Landgrave of Hesse, the four from the churches of Bremen, and the two from Emden. {6}

Not only were the German Reformed churches anti-Arminian, they took the lead in what became known as Federal or Covenant Theology.[7] The German theologian Johannes Cocceius (John Kock) advanced the theological idea of the covenant, the seeds of which are to be found in Calvin, Olevianus, and Ursinus. Covenant theology was developed further in the writings of Herman Witsius and the English Puritans, and incorporated into the Westminster Confession and Catechisms.

This, then, is some of the theological background, the spiritual legacy, which the early German Reformed emigrants brought with them when they came to these shores. They were Calvinists! {7}


Something should be said here about why so many Germans left their homeland and migrated to America. This is a rather involved story, but our people should be made aware of its fascinating and pathetic character. The primary reason for the mass migrations from Germany in the late 1600s and the following decades can be said in one word: war!

The poor land of Germany had been a battleground for many decades as the armies of various nations fought for control of this area. These battles were both politically and religiously motivated.

The following is a historical digression, but it should be useful to explain the motivation of thousands of Germans who made the life-changing decision to brave the perils of the sea and face an unknown environment, never to see their homeland again.

Church historian William Toth describes the devastation of Germany resulting from the Thirty Years War (1618-1648):

(The Thirty Years War was a period) of unceasing warfare, involving plunder, rapine, intrigues, and constant death. All Germany lay prostrate. Business had succumbed completely; schools and churches were left without leaders; cities and villages smoldered in ashes; and once-fertile farms sank into unbelievable neglect. The extent of physical destruction staggers the imagination, and the toll of human lives remains forever unknown. . . . Historians agree that the after effects of this war thwarted German life for a hundred years.[8]

After the Thirty Years War came the French aggression led by Louis XIV. Louis’ armies invaded the Palatinate with some 50,000 men, and many German towns were reduced to ashes. In 1689 French cavalry surrounded the country around Heidelberg and set fire to a dozen more towns. In all, more than 1200 communities, Catholic and Protestant alike, fell victim to wanton devastation. Four hundred thousand inhabitants of Baden and the Palatinate were made destitute. The men who attempted to defend their wives and daughters were murdered. Others were driven from their towns and villages into the snow and ice of winter to look for shelter.[9]

By the Treaty of Ryswick (1697) the French occupied the {8} Palatinate, Breisach, Freiburg, Phillipsburg and Strassburg. . . Philip the Catholic puppet ruler of the Palatinate, enforced his right to impose his religion throughout his new possessions, especially since over 1,922 places in the Palatinate had already been re-Catholicized during the course of the war.[10]

Next, after a brief interval, came the War of Spanish Succession (1701-14), during which western Germany once more experienced the devastations of armed conflict.

In the commotion of those times. bands of German people quietly left their homeland for England and then to other lands. Pennsylvania became the destination of many of these homeless Germans. Toth gives the following statistics: By 1727 the immigrants numbered about 20,000 in Penn’s colony. By 1742 another 18,000 were added. Six thousand more arrived by 1748, and between 1749 and 1754 nearly 32,000 more came through the Port of Philadelphia alone. In 1776 Benjamin Franklin told the British House of Commons that of the 160,000 white people in Pennsylvania about one-third were Germans.

How many of these immigrants were Reformed? We will never know. In 1730 it was reported, according to Toth, that the Reformed holding to the old confession constituted more than one half of the whole number of German immigrants, about 15,000. The principal source of these people was the Palatinate and the nickname “Palatine” was commonly used for all German immigrants.[11]

By this historical digression into the miseries of the Palatines we can better understand the mentality and motivation of those brave souls who struggled to reach a land of religious and political freedom.

We shall now turn to the Reformed character and principles of these, our spiritual forefathers, who laid the foundation for the RCUS.


John Philip Boehm (1683-1749)

All historians of our church recognize John Philip Boehm as the earthly father of the German Reformed Church in America. It was he who laid the foundations for what was to become the RCUS. Boehm came to “Penn’s Woods” in 1720 as a school teacher from Worms, Germany. Being a very able and devout Reformed Christian he was prevailed upon to conduct worship services for the {9} Reformed people who did not have the services of an ordained pastor. For five years he ministered the Word to the farmers in his area without any compensation. He was even prevailed on to baptize children and administer the Lord’s Supper. Reluctantly he heeded the requests of the people, knowing that it was contrary to Reformed Church order for an unordained man to administer the sacraments. Altogether he helped organize thirteen congregations in a territory now comprising eight counties in Pennsylvania.

When an ordained minister came on the scene from Germany in 1727, the Rev. George Michael Weiss, and saw what was happening, he vigorously protested that Boehm’s ministry was not in accordance with Reformed church polity. Upon Weiss’ insistence that Mr. Boehm seek ordination, the consistories involved sought the help of the Dutch Reformed consistory in the colony of New York. The New York consistory, in turn, contacted their Classis in Holland. This lengthy process was finally concluded when Classis Amsterdam permitted the New York consistory to ordain Mr. Boehm (1729). His previous acts of ministry were also declared valid. As a result, both Boehm and Weiss promised to submit their work to the authority of the Classis Amsterdam in Holland and this established the German Reformed-Holland Reformed connection which lasted until 1793. This ecclesiastical connection between the Pennsylvania and Holland Reformed churches became a most blessed relationship, as the Holland church working together with the Heidelberg Consistory in the Palatinate[12] provided the Pennsylvania Reformed Church with ecclesiastical oversight and financial help for over half a century-without which the German Reformed Church in America would probably not have remained intact.

This binding ecclesiastical connection between the churches of Pennsylvania and the strong orthodox Reformed church in Holland demonstrates the truly orthodox character of the German Reformed Church. The Dutch, if nothing else, were insistent upon orthodoxy!

Michael Schlatter (1716-1790)

If John Philip Boehm should be called the Father of the German Reformed Church in America, Michael Schlatter should be called its Founder. It was Schlatter (born July 14, 1716 in St. Gall, Switzerland) who became the instrument in God’s hands to organize the independent Reformed congregations into an organized body called a coetus (which can be translated synod, or, as we have preferred, classis).

The Rev. Schlatter was a highly energetic young man who loved a challenge. He came from a prominent Reformed family in St. Gall and was raised {10} in a strict Calvinist church of that city. He studied briefly at Leyden, Holland and was eventually ordained to the ministry. He returned to Switzerland for a few months and served as an assistant pastor. Through a providential series of events he found himself visiting the Heidelberg Consistory just after that body had received a request from the Amsterdam Classis for a German minister to be an organizer of the independent Reformed congregations in Pennsylvania. At this time, Rev. Boehm was an old man and not able to further the development of the churches into an organized denomination.

Schlatter (a single man) accepted the challenge by the Heidelberg Consistory and the synods of Holland, and made arrangements to come to Pennsylvania in 1746.

To understand and appreciate this development in the story of our church and our great indebtedness to our concerned Dutch brethren, we are reprinting as an appendix at the end of this chapter Professor Good’s account of the arrangements and instructions the Holland “deputies” made with Rev. Schlatter to organize a coetus.

Arriving in Philadelphia September 1746 after a harrowing sea voyage, Schlatter plunged into the work set before him. He immediately took trips to visit the aged Rev. Boehm and the other ordained pastors J. Reiff, Dorsius and Weiss. He also visited the churches to help solve any problems they might have, such as niggardly pastoral support. On October 12, 1746, Schlatter called Boehm, Weiss and Rev. Rieger to meet in Philadelphia to make preliminary plans for the formation of a coetus as per his instructions from Holland. Unordained preachers in the area were not invited. The first meeting of an organizing coetus was held the following year in Philadelphia, on September 29, 1747, and was attended by 32 ministers and elders. Schlatter was also installed as the pastor of the Germantown and Philadelphia congregations in January of that year. Yet he still managed to take extensive trips to visit the churches, sometimes preaching daily. As Dubbs notes:

From northern New Jersey to the Valley of Virginia there was hardly a Reformed congregation which he did not visit, except some of those which were supplied by independent ministers. He succeeded in establishing 16 charges, each consisting of several congregations.[13]

Schlatter estimated that there were 30,000 German Reformed people in Pennsylvania with 53 small churches and four settled pastors!

In 1751 Schlatter went back to Holland to report on the ecclesiastical conditions in Pennsylvania and to try to raise more funds. His published appeal {11} resulted in the collection of £12,000. On his return to America he brought with him six young ministers and 700 Bibles for distribution to churches and families. The condition that the Dutch synods always laid down when they provided money for the German churches in Pennsylvania was that they continue to be subject to the authority of the Holland church.

In the four years between 1747 and 1751, Schlatter traveled over 8,000 miles (mostly on horseback) and preached 635 times. In 1755 he was induced to resign his pastorate in Philadelphia and become involved in other charitable activities (charity schools) and still later he became a chaplain in the Royal American Regiment. During the War for Independence he was imprisoned as an American patriot because he refused to continue as a chaplain in the British army.[14]

The RCUS can be thankful to God for the Rev. Michael Schlatter, and for the Holland church for their great contributions to the formation of the German Reformed Church in America.


J. H. Dubbs states that the earliest German Reformed congregations in this country were organized in strict accordance with the polity of the churches of the Palatinate. As early as 1563, Elector Frederick ordered that the churches in the Palatinate should elect elders and deacons following the pattern of the other Calvinist churches.[15] Dubbs goes on to say:

The pastor, elders, and deacons in each congregation constituted a body which was officially termed Consistorium (Consistory) or Presbyterium (Presbytery), but was popularly called Kirchenrath (church council). Ordinarily one half of the Consistory was annually retired from active service; but the eldership was nevertheless regarded as a permanent vocation, and the men who had once been ordained to this office retained its functions, though they might be temporarily relieved from labor.

According to this pattern, which was familiar to the Reformed everywhere, the earliest American congregations were constituted; and there is no evidence that any other form of government was even suggested.[16]

The constitution prepared by Pastor Boehm in 1725 was used by the 13 congregations which he organized. Dubbs says that a few copies survive, and a few {12} extracts taken from the Mercersburg Review (October 1876) are reprinted in his book.[17] Boehm’s Constitution follows the general principles of congregational government found in Europe, many of which operated under the Church Order of Dort. It does contain some unique provisions as one can readily see.

Professor Grossmann summarizes the Reformed features of Boehm’s Constitution as follows:

1. It reveals a thoroughly Reformed position.

2. It sets forth a well-organized consistorial government with strict discipline.

3. It accepted the Three Forms of Unity, as they are known today. (Note: This point will be discussed later.)

4. It was adopted (with necessary modifications) as the Constitution of the Coetus (Classis) which was organized in 1747.

5. It clearly recognized the authority of the Classis by submitting the congregations to classical authority in those functions which belong to a Reformed Classis.

6. It was accepted by Classis Amsterdam which had oversight over the church polity in the American German Church. This meant that the Constitution was in agreement with the Dutch Confessional standards and the Church Order of Dort.[18]

September 29, 1747 was the date of the organization of the German Reformed Coetus. It took place in the Philadelphia church with four ministers and 28 elders present. In the following year (Sept. 28, 1848), the second coetus met and adopted Boehm’s constitution. Prof. Grossmann summarizes the significance of this historic event:

a. At the request of Holland, the ministers and elders present signed the Heidelberg and Canons of Dort as their creeds, although Rieger refused because of scruples on the doctrine of reprobation “in the sense of Calvin.” Later Rieger agreed and signed. . . .

b. Boehm signed the minutes as president, and Schlatter sent a report to the Holland deputies.

c. With some additions for coetal use, Boehm’s 1725 Constitution was adopted as the church order for the coetus including the {13}

following statement: “(This church order) shall be kept inviolate according to our best ability, in order that we may hold steadfastly to the Heidelberg Catechism, all the formulas of unity and the Synod of Dort, and neither we nor our descendants shall be permitted to add anything thereto, to take anything therefrom or to acknowledge anyone as their regular minister before such a one, as well as everything else, be submitted by the consistory of the congregations to the Very Reverend Classis of Amsterdam or to their delegates and approved by the same, and at all times the answer received shall be final.” (No Congregationalists these!)

d. This constitution provided that aggrieved parties could appeal to the coetus and that no minister should officiate in the charge of another without permission.

e. This constitution of the coetus is exactly the same as that adopted by Boehm’s three churches in 1728. It was originally written in 1725 by Boehm. He then submitted it to the Dutch pastors in New York, who revised it and sent it to Holland. The Dutch synods approved it and it was sent back to America where Boehm’s congregations approved it in 1728. (See Minutes and Letters of the Coetus, p. 41, in the Records of 1748.) The constitution itself begins on page 47 in the Minutes and Letters.[19]

A further proof that the coetus operated under a constitution patterned after the Church Order of Dort (1619) is to be seen in the practice of the censura moram (examination of conduct) at the annual meetings of the coetus. It went like this:

The letters from Holland were read, and the state of the churches minutely considered. Then the elders were for a time dismissed, and the censura moram was held, at which the character of individual members was investigated and advice given with regard to future conduct.[20]

This procedure is taken directly from the Church Order of Dort, Article 81 (cf. the older Christian Reformed edition).


As we’ve seen, the coetus in 1748 adopted the Calvinistic Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort. These were reaffirmed at the Coetus of 1752; and the Coetus of 1765 again refers to them. J. I. Good mentions an incident in {14} 1787 in which a certain Mr. Hautz was ordained by the coetus without awaiting the consent of the Holland Classis. He had signed “an oath of agreement with the doctrines, usages and regulations of the Biblical Reformed Church.” The Holland Classis rebuked the coetus for this action because this oath did not specifically mention the Holland creeds. This, of course, would have meant The Three Forms of Unity: The Heidelberg Catechism, The Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort.[21] The Coetus in 1790 defended its action by declaring that the “doctrine, customs and ordinances of the Reformed Church” implicitly included “the Netherlands Confession of faith and Church Formulas …”[22]


Professor Good says that all the ministers who were sent over from Holland, and there were quite a number over the course of time, were required to give adherence to the Dutch creeds,[23] and this was true of those received by the coetus in America, who, before they would be approved by the Amsterdam Classis, must pledge agreement with the Dutch creeds. Indeed, they were said to have signed the Formula of Unity which meant the three creeds. The oath of the early ministers who were sent over from Holland to the German Reformed church reads as follows:

We, the undersigned, acknowledge by this subscription that we hold ourselves, with heart and mouth, to all those formulas whose maintenance the preachers of the coetus of Pennsylvania under the Netherlands synods shall help to secure.[24]

This oath, says Good, is on record from extant copies of calls from 1752 to 1784, hence it was the requirement of all the ministers serving in the coetus.[25]


The Calvinistic character of the German Reformed worship is instructive. Professor Good summarizes the original worship as follows: “The early [German Reformed] church was non-liturgical. It used a free service in the regular Sabbath worship, although it used forms for special occasions, such as the sacraments, {15} marriage and ordination.[26] He proves this assertion by showing that there was never any mention of a liturgy in connection with the coetus meetings. Prayer is always mentioned in the Minutes as “fervent prayer,” “an earnest prayer,” etc. In the Holland correspondence, the only time liturgy is mentioned is in connection with the forms for the sacraments, marriage, and ordinations, and not with the ordinary Sunday services. Good says that there was no liturgy published during the entire period of the coetus (1748-1792), the reason being that the Reformed used only the simple Palatinate Liturgy. The Palatinate Liturgy had no responses, and the prayers were not mandatory. [27]

Good says that the Reformed followed the Palatinate Liturgy in the observance of the Church Year. The five special days of worship were: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension and Whitsunday (Pentecost).

There was no altar in the Reformed churches, only the communion table. In those cases where the Reformed and the Lutherans shared the same church building, the Reformed never used an altar, only a table. Good remarks, “It was not until the controversy began in the church about 1860 that altars-high altars-began to be spoken of and introduced. They would have been a novelty to our fathers of the Coetus.”[28]


The Protestant Reformation with its renewed interest in Bible reading by the laity, immediately stressed the importance of Christian schools for the children. This was true for both the Lutheran and Reformed churches. Professor Dubbs comments that “Every German regarded it as a religious duty to teach his children to read the Bible and the catechism, so that they might be properly prepared for confirmation and holy communion.”[29]

The Reformed churches in Germany required catechetical instruction and the maintaining of Christian schools (see Heidelberg Catechism, Question 103). Toth describes the emphasis on education for the covenant children in Protestant Europe:

Schools also were entering a period of renewed strength and vigor so that they were steadily whittling down the rate of illiteracy among Germans. A study of the lists of German immigrants in the first half of the eighteenth century shows that 74 percent of the {16} male immigrants were able to write. This high rate of literacy, unusual among Europeans at that time, was neither accidental nor incidental. It was rather the result of a long tradition of commitment to the idea of education embodied in the support of higher schools of learning as well as parochial schools. Protestant princes took the initiative in fostering education. As early as 1559 a state-church school system had been organized in Wurttemberg, followed by Brunswick in 1569, Weimar in 1619, and Gotha in 1642. By the middle of the seventeenth century most of the German states had adopted some state-church plan of education. As a rule, both Lutheran and Reformed churches were accustomed to engage a minister as well as a schoolmaster-providing them with a stated salary and a home-and to set up high educational standards. The effectiveness of these schools, of course, fluctuated with the vicissitudes of the times, but never waned completely. Whenever the state failed to provide the necessary schools, the churches rallied to the challenge involved in maintaining the standard of literacy among their numbers. Educational leadership came from the universities, which generally were a special responsibility of the rulers. At the beginning of the eighteenth century universities, like those at Heidelberg, Herborn, and Marburg, came to new life, and others, like the one at Halle in 1691, were founded. The German-Swiss universities of Zurich, Basel, and St. Gall stood high among European institutions devoted to the cultivation of learning. The foundations for an aggressive educational leadership in later periods were thus substantially laid.[30]

Following the tradition of the old country, the schoolmaster in those early colonial days, was a very important person. Dubbs comments on his activity in the Reformed community:

(The schoolmaster) was ordinarily the most educated man in the community (next to the pastor.) In a fully organized congregation he was regarded as the pastor’s chief assistant. He not only taught the children to read and write, and to sing the chorales which the fathers loved so well, but he also instructed them in the Bible and in the catechism. If no pastor was present, the school teacher would often read sermons at the Sunday services and take charge {17} of funeral services.[31]

The following observation by Dubbs showing the close connection between the Reformed congregation and the Reformed Christian school for mutual support is of great importance:

(We must) recognize the great value of the system of parochial schools as it prevailed in this early period. Indeed, it is difficult to see how without them the Reformed Church could have been established in this country. Pastors, though earnestly longed for, were slow in coming; and if it had not been for the imperfect ministrations of a better class of parochial teachers-most of whose names are now forgotten-the great number of the earlier churches could hardly have been founded.[32]

School teacher John Phillip Boehm was just such a person, and mightily used by God to perform a service that resulted in the founding of the RCUS!

The above comments illustrate the fact that the Christians-almost all Christians-in that era never conceived of education and religion as two separate compartments of life: secular and sacred. Such a dichotomy would have been unthinkable to them. Education was a religious function, or in Reformed terms it was a covenantal obligation required by the baptismal vow to raise up the child in the fear and admonition of the Lord. So the church building and the church school building were two important buildings to be erected when the Reformed settled a community. The two men to be supported were the pastor and the school teacher. The two institutions worked together in the minds of the early Reformed. {18}

In the area of covenant education, it must be admitted, our German Reformed forefathers were far ahead of many of us in the RCUS today. They sacrificed to give their children an education that was in keeping with the doctrines of the Reformed faith. How much are we willing to sacrifice to do the same for our covenant children? Their commitment to Reformed education did much to preserve their churches from extinction, as Dubbs noted. Likewise, unless our Reformed parents today catch the vision and begin to understand the covenantal requirements for Reformed education, whether in an organized day school or in a home school (which is increasingly becoming the preferred option today), our churches will not survive! The covenantal education of our baptized and confirmed youth is not a mere luxury, it is the requirement of God’s Word, and understood by our Reformed forefathers as the requirement of the holy baptismal vow. May we learn from those early Reformed Christians before we see more and more of our youth succumb to secular humanism and become spiritual dropouts.


To be Reformed means to be opposed to all doctrines and practices which are not biblical and not in keeping with the Reformed creeds.

Accordingly, the early German Reformed Church had its share of trouble with anti-Reformed sects and doctrines that found Pennsylvania to be a fertile ground for their cancerous growth. Penn’s colony was a haven of freedom, not only for the orthodox Christians, but also for many cultic groups. Professor Good lists, along with the Lutherans and Reformed, such groups as Dunkards, Mennonites, Schwenkfelders, Quakers, Inspirationists, The New Born, Labadists, Ronscorfers, etc.[33] It was a “wilderness of sects.”

It is not necessary to go into detail about the various heresies that confronted the Reformed churches in those early days, but we’ll mention a major one that has received a lot of attention.


This was a movement organized by the Moravian Brethren, an Anabaptist group, led by one Count von Zinzendorf of Moravia.[34] Zinzendorf arrived in Pennsylvania and was greeted by a leading Reformed elder in the Germantown {19} church, Henry Antes. Plans were made to organize a spiritual communion of Christians from whatever denomination or sect. This communion was to be called “The Congregation of God in the Spirit.” Zinzendorf claimed to have authority to ordain both Lutheran and Reformed ministers (!). He said he held to the Augsburg Confession (Lutheran). Again, he could represent the Reformed, for he had been ordained by the head of the Reformed Church of the Electorate of Brandenburg, Jablonsky, who was also a Moravian Bishop.[35]

This man must have had an impressive, charismatic personality. He had a powerful influence on many Christians in the various denominations, especially the Lutherans and Reformed. Elder Henry Antes, who had been a close associate of Pastor Boehm in earlier days, could now say under Zinzendorf’s influence, “I am Reformed; I am Lutheran; I am a Mennonite-a Christian is everything!”[36]

A sympathetic writer (professing to be Reformed) many years later had this to say about the aims of the Moravian movement:

The avowed purpose of the Congregation of God in the Spirit was not to supersede the existing denominations, but to form a superior organization of sincere followers of Jesus, who should cultivate the higher graces of the Christian life, guide by their pious influence the bodies they represented, and maintain a godly fellowship, leaving the congregations to attend to minor and temporal affairs as before.[37]

Professor Grossmann has summarized the conflict between the staunch Reformed and Zinzendorf and his followers in the Philadelphia area:

a. This began in 1740 when Henry Antes, a “pious (Reformed) elder of Falkner Swamp,” had (George) Whitefield preach there in the morning and Bishop Bohler, the Moravian in the afternoon.

b. The Moravians soon began ecumenical work among all the Germans in Pennsylvania which eventually led to “the Congregation of God in the Spirit,” a Moravian union movement. Zinzendorf planned to establish the “tropes” (circles of believers) system, which they used among the state churches in Europe, among the Germans in America.

c. Zinzendorf himself came to Pennsylvania in December, 1741, {20} and met with Elder Antes on the way to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where the Moravians were laying out a colony.

d. Zinzendorf was able, with the full cooperation of the Reformed pastor in Germantown, Rev. John Bechtel, to gather a number of meetings among the many parties of German Christianity in Pennsylvania. However, it was not long before the Seventh Day Baptists pulled out and only parties of Lutheran and Reformed continued to attend.

e. Into this situation old Rev. Samuel Guldin stepped as a great adversary of the Moravians. He published a pamphlet against them at his own expense, sold half and gave the other half away, thus raising considerable opposition (to Zinzendorf’s movement).

f. The union movement eventually went wholly into the Moravian church, and with the strong opposition of (John Philip) Boehm for the Reformed and Muhlenberg for the Lutherans the union movement itself died.

g. This was the greatest theological controversy among the Reformed in this period and though some families were lost to the Reformed churches, no congregations were lost. The Germantown church came back fully to the Reformed Coetus and the pastor, Lischy, also came back after rejecting his earlier conversion to Moravian principles.[38]

It was especially Pastor Boehm who took a stand against Zinzendorf’s proselytizing efforts which, as Grossmann has indicated, included the defection of the (unordained) John Bechtel. Bechtel became the main assistant for Zinzendorf among the German Reformed. He was ordained by the Count into the Reformed Church! He then proceeded to publish his own catechism, Bechtels Catechism (1742) that was decidedly antagonistic to the Heidelberg Catechism. Bechtel’s Catechism was introduced into all the congregations which joined The Congregation in the Spirit. [39]

Pastor Boehm was not taken in by the Zinzendorf Moravians. He had been forewarned by the Holland Classis of this heretical influence. In fact, a book had been written by an Amsterdam pastor, G. Kulenkamp, exposing the Moravian theology as one of “enthusiasm, fanaticism, and corrupt mysticism”[40] which was sent to Boehm. Boehm subsequently had several personal unfriendly encounters with {21} Zinzendorf, by mail primarily. The basic disagreement between the two sides was over the issue of predestination and reprobation. Boehm heartily affirmed the Canons of Dort and Zinzendorf rejected them. On one occasion, Zinzendorf wrote to Boehm, “I am not inclined to the doctrine of an absolute reprobation, as a doctrine which in my religion is confessedly held as fundamentally and wholly erroneous.[41] In August of 1742 Boehm published his first attack on the Moravians called True Letter of Warning, Addressed to the Reformed Congregations of Pennsylvania. In it he not only condemns the heretical doctrines of The Congregation of God in the Spirit, he expresses his deep sorrow for those who had been his close friends in the Reformed faith, such as Elder Henry Antes, who had defected. It was Henry Antes who had persuaded Pastor Boehm to seek ordination many years earlier.

The Moravian Congregation of God in the Spirit represented at least three heresies that the conservative Reformed pastors rejected: Arminianism, Pietism, and a false ecumenism based on spiritual feelings (mysticism) rather than truth.

Professor Good speaks of the strong influence of pietism among the Germans, including the Reformed Germans. He speaks of a good and a bad pietism! He writes, “The Reformed Church from the beginning was pietistic. What was the Reformation but a great revival? And our church, which grew out of the Reformation, partook of this spirit.”[42] Perhaps we’re caught up in semantics here, but the usual understanding of pietism is that it is an overemphasis on subjective religious experience, often involving mysticism, and a preference for “spiritual experiences with the Holy Spirit” over against the objective truth of the Bible (i.e., doctrine). Men like Rev. Boehm were strongly opposed to the “fanatics,” the “enthusiasts,” as these pietists were called. The Calvinists were pious, but they should not be called “pietists. “

The tendency of pietists is to ignore doctrinal differences among Christians and focus on their “spiritual oneness.” This in turn promotes ecumenicity at the expense of truth and confessional boundaries. The conservative Reformed Germans resisted this temptation to have fellowship at the expense of truth. Even merger with the Presbyterians was not to be, because of some (minor) differences between them. Boehm, for example, did not like it that the Presbyterian form of worship did not use liturgical forms for the sacramental and extraordinary occasions.[43]

Later in her history different “spirits” would enter the RCUS, which were unconfessional and which caused grievous damage to the Reformed character of the {22} faith and worship of our denomination. About these matters other chapters in this book will explain.

In our day there are always men of an ecumenical frame of mind who put “love” and “unity” ahead of truth and theology. They are dangerous people, even though they talk loudly of their spiritual experiences. As Reformed people we must ever be sensitive to the relationship between truth and love, between doctrinal differences and unity with other professing Christians. We must indeed seek to cultivate unity with other Christians (John 17:21), but only on the basis of shared doctrinal convictions.


The purpose of this chapter has been to demonstrate that, quite apart from what happened to the Reformed Church in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the early German Reformed Church was based squarely on orthodox Calvinism, in both theology and worship.

That theology is articulated in the Three Forms of Unity which teach the absolute sovereignty of God in creation, providence and redemption. The Five Points of Calvinism, as taught in the Canons of Dort, were basic to our theological foundation. The other doctrines elucidated in the Belgic Confession were our theological property and heritage.

We trust that the evidence presented in this chapter will convince all our RCUS people, and others who have been skeptical about us, that we began as an orthodox, Calvinistic, Reformed denomination. True, we have lost much of our heritage from time to time and trifled with it; but by God’s amazing grace to us sinners we have begun to see a genuine return to the Faith of our Fathers in recent years. Indeed, already we are beginning to hear murmurs from some quarters that “the RCUS is a small, hyper-conservative denomination” that is far too intolerant toward other denominations in the ecumenical scheme of things! So be it, if our witness is based entirely on God’s Word!

These words from Professor Good are a fitting conclusion to the early history of the American German Reformed Church:

The Church during the period of the coetus was evidently strongly Calvinistic and predestinarian. The matrix in which our Church was born was Calvinism. Melanchthonianism was not thought of under the Dutch control. For sixty-four years (long enough to mold a Church for its future) the Church was distinctly Calvinistic.[44]

And to this we add, Amen! Thank God! {23}

[1] Joseph H. Dubbs, The American Church History Series, Vol 8 (New York: The Christian Literature Co., 1895), pp. 214-220.

[2] Robert Grossmann, Outline History of the Reformed Church in the United States, 1725-1995 (Garner, IA: Elector Publications, 1995).

[3] J. I. Good explains that “the word coetus is taken from the organization of John à Lasco , who first organized the ministers at Emden in northwestern Germany into a coetus in 1544. It was a synod with limited powers, and still exists as the oldest Reformed organization in Europe, except one, the Venerable Company of Geneva, founded by Calvin. Or its name may also have been taken directly from the deputies of the North and South Holland synods, whose united organization, when it met at the Hague to transact business for Pennsylvania, etc., was called a coetus. So South Holland synod had two coeti-one at the Hague, composed of its deputies, and the other in Pennsylvania.” J. I. Good, History of the Reformed Church in the United States, 1725 -1792 (Reading, PA: Daniel Miller, Publisher, 1899), pp. 331-32.

[4] Charles Miller, The Rise and Development of Calvinism, chap. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin College, syllabus, no date), p. 11.

[5] Ibid., p. 12.

[6] John à Lasco (1499-1560) was a Polish scholar and theologian. He came in touch with the German and Swiss Reformers and broke with the Roman church, becoming an influential Reformer. He is credited with founding the Reformed Church in Friesland (North Holland), and organizing the ministers into a coetus. He spent many years in London ministering to the foreign Protestant refugees. He returned to Poland to establish the Reformation there. He published an influential book on church discipline, a confession of faith and a catechism.

[7] Clouse summarizes the development of covenant theology as follows: “Covenant Theology. Sometimes called ‘Federal Theology,’ this system describes the relationship between God and man in the form of covenants. One of the features in the development of Calvinism, it was especially popular with the Puritans and the Reformed theologians of Germany and Holland in the latter sixteenth and during the seventeenth century. . . . Covenant theology in a strict sense began in Germany when a number of Calvinists such as Olevianus and Ursinus emphasized the idea of the covenant of God with man and the believer’s mystic union with Christ. Parallel with this German movement was the British development of covenant theology which was sometimes related to political thought. . . . William Ames became the leading British exponent of federal theology, which in a moderate form appears in both the Westminster Confession and the Savoy Declaration. Debtor to both British and German schools, John Cocceius published a book Summa Doctrinae de Foedere et Testamento Dei (1648), which has the most elaborate explanation of the covenant principle produced to that time.” Robert G. Clouse, The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, article on “Covenant Theology” (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1974), p. 267.

[8] Dunn, David, et al., History of the Evangelical and Reformed Church, Part 2 (New York, NY: Pilgrim’s Press, (1961], 1990) pp. 7-8.

[9] Cf. Dunn, David, et al., op. cit., pp. 8-10.

[10] Ibid., p. 10.

[11] Ibid., pp. 4, 5.

[12] It should be noted that as early as 1728 the Consistory of Heidelberg, fully aware of its inability to help the immigrant Germans to establish churches in the new world, appealed to the synods of South Holland to help these impoverished brethren. The Dutch did so with great compassion.

[13] Dubbs, Ibid., 282.

[14] Article on M. Schlatter in The New Schaff Herzog Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1950). Vol. 10, pp. 239, 240.

[15] Dubbs, op. cit., p. 264.

[16] Ibid., pp. 264, 265.

[17] We have reproduced it as an appendix.

[18] Grossmann, Ibid., pp. 15-16.

[19] Ibid., pp. 24, 25.

[20] Dunn, David, et al., op. cit., p. 38.

[21] Good, op. cit., p. 675.

[22] Hinke, William, ed., Minutes and Letters of the Coetus of Pennsylvania 1747-1792 (Philadelphia: Reformed Church Publication Board, 1903).

[23] The term “Dutch Creeds” should not be misinterpreted. They refer to the Heidelberg Catechism (German), the Belgic Confession (French) and the Canons of Dort (the work of an international synod held in Dordrecht, Holland). The Dutch Church early recognized the biblical truth of these creeds and adopted them as their Three Forms of Unity. The unity of the Reformed Churches around the world is not based on ethnic background but on the truth of the Word of God.

[24] Good, op. cit., p. 675.

[25] Ibid., pp. 675-676.

[26] Ibid., pp. 678.

[27] Ibid., pp. 678-680.

[28] Ibid. pp. 680-682.

[29]Dubbs, op. cit., pp. 241, 242.

[30] Dunn, David, et al., op. cit., pp. 21, 22.

[31] Dubbs quotes a typical contract made by a school teacher between himself and a local church: “On this 4th day of May, 1747, I, the undersigned, John Hoffman, parochial teacher at Lancaster, have promised, in the presence of the congregation, to serve as chorister, and, as long as we have no pastor, to read sermons on Sunday. In summer I promise to hold catechetical instruction with the young, as becomes a faithful teacher, and to lead them in singing; and also to attend to the clock. On the other hand, the congregation promises me an annual salary, consisting of voluntary offerings from all the members of the church, to be written in a special register and arranged according to the amount contributed, so that the teacher may be adequately compensated for his labor.

“Furthermore, I have firmly and irrevocably agreed with the congregation on the aforesaid date that I will keep school on every working-day during the entire year, as is the usual custom, and in such manner as becomes a faithful teacher. In consideration whereof they promise me a free dwelling and four cords of wood, and have granted me the privilege of charging for each child that may come to school the sum of five shillings for three months and for the whole year one pound. I promise to enter upon my duties, if alive and well, on the 24th of November, 1747.

“In testimony whereof I have written the above document and signed the same with my own signature, to remain unchanged for one year from date. Sealed with my usual signet. -John Hoffman, Teacher. “

[32] Dubbs, Ibid., pp. 243-244.

[33] Good, op. cit., p. 200.

[34] Zinzendorf, the son of a high Saxon official, was in government service before becoming an influential religious leader. He had connections with Lutheranism, Pietism, the Reformed, Roman Catholicism and non-churchly groups. He invited Bohemian Protestant refugees (United Brethren) to settle on his estate at Bertheldorf (1722) which became known as Herrnhut. It became the center for a world-wide missionary outreach by their missionaries known as The Moravian United Brethren. Zinzendorf became their superintendent and traveled widely to evangelize for the movement.

[35] Good, Ibid., p. 203.

[36] Dubbs, op. cit., p. 272.

[37] Henry S. Dotterer, Boehm’s Reformed Church (Norristown, PA: Herald Printing and Binding Rooms, 1891), p. 36.

[38] Grossmann, op. cit., pp. 39, 40.

[39] Good, op. cit., p. 213.

[40] Ibid., p. 225.

[41] Dubbs, op. cit., 274

[42] Good, op. cit., p. 592.

[43] Ibid., p. 679.

[44] Ibid., p. 674.

The Commission and Instructions Given to Rev. Michael Schlatter by the Amsterdam Classis Prior to His Leaving for the Colony of Pennsylvania in 1746 [1]

The Classis deputies gave Rev. Schlatter the following:

1. An introduction to the German Reformed Church of Pennsylvania, giving his reasons for being sent thither.

a. Because originally the settlers in Pennsylvania were from the Palatinate and Switzerland, to which two countries Holland was under the greatest obligations of gratitude, because from them the light of the Gospel first streamed to Holland.

b. Because the Pennsylvania congregations are attached so loyally to their time honored Reformed faith, and

c. because Pennsylvania would become thus a safe asylum for the oppressed brethren of their faith of Europe when driven out by persecution.

Then they gave two reasons for not being able to do something for Pennsylvania before.

1. They could not get a clear idea about the Church in Pennsylvania.

2. Because they had hitherto lacked a suitable German minister, although they had sought for one for fifteen years since 1731. They then say that they believe they have found a proper person in Rev. Michael Schlatter, one of the 26 ministers of St. Gall. He was of good family, well educated, understanding Hebrew, Greek, German, Dutch and French. After being admitted as a candidate to the ministry in 1739 he had visited the five great universities of Holland and the principal Protestant universities of Germany. He was willing, because of the great need of Pennsylvania, to go there, and they recommend them to give him a cordial reception.

2. They also gave Schlatter the following instructions about his work in Pennsylvania:

1. He was to organize the ministers and congregations into a coetus, which should meet annually.

a. It should subscribe to the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort with heart and voice.

b. It should consider the concerns of the Church, the members being appointed president and secretary in rotation, beginning with the oldest. {24}

c. It should correspond with the deputies of the synods of Holland, and render reports of their work as a coetus. The deputies allow Schlatter half a year as a sufficient time in which to do this. After that he was to take charge of a congregation.

2. He was to fulfill the duties of a church officer known in Holland as the visitor extraordinary. He was to visit the congregations and find out their condition, how many members each congregation had, whether they were steadfast in the faith, whether they paid a fixed salary to their minister and how. (The deputies say they were willing to aid the congregations in Pennsylvania, but they were not willing to divert the money which was already used to aid more than a hundred Reformed congregations in various parts of the world.)

3. Where there was no congregation as yet, he was to gather the most intelligent and zealous Reformed together, and learn how much money they would be willing to raise for the salary of a minister, and also how much they would pay toward building a church. He was then to install elders and deacons in those churches.

4. He was to ascertain how the 130 Bibles sent over to Pennsylvania in 1742 had been distributed. He was also to bring the money accounts of Reiff to a desirable settlement.

5. At the end of the first half year he was to hold a coetus, act as president and send a faithful account of its proceedings to Holland. That having been done, he was to take charge of a congregation and become pastor. They gave him money only for his traveling expenses and for half a year’s work, but hoped that the Dutch and the Swiss churches would contribute toward this worthy cause. This instruction was dated May 23, 1746, and was signed by all the deputies. They placed in his hand a passport of both the Dutch and English governments, and committed him into the hands of Him who rules the wind and the waves. He sailed from Amsterdam, June l, 1746, on his mission to, complete the organization of the Pennsylvania Reformed Church, by organizing the coetus. {25}

[1] Quoted from J. I. Good, op. cit., pp. 305-308.

Source: You Shall Be My People. Copyright © 1996 by the Synod of the Reformed Church in the United States.

By Rev. Frank Walker

WHEN a seminary goes bad, the denomination it serves usually follows right behind. This observation, sadly enough, summarizes the history of the Reformed Church in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century.

Three professors-Friedrich Rauch, John Williamson Nevin and Philip Schaff-wielded their influence at the RCUS seminary in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, between 1837 and 1863, promoting a dialectical approach to church history, a view of the sacraments and the church that was more Lutheran than Reformed, and a Hegelian idealism. Because few RCUS pastors were acquainted with the German philosophy and theology from which these ideas arose, the new thought marched successfully forward. There appears to have been no one in the RCUS at the time with the competence to thwart the sheer brilliance of the Mercersburg men. A few pastors tried but the results were less than successful.

This chapter tells the lamentable story of the negative influence of worldly thought on the church of Jesus Christ.


During its formative years, the RCUS benefited greatly from the guidance and assistance of Classis Amsterdam of the Reformed Church in Holland. The Dutch church, for example, sent the Rev. Michael Schlatter with a commission to organize the German Reformed churches of the colonies into a coetus (similar to a Classis but without self-determination) within six months. After he did so, Classis {30}

Amsterdam continued to advise the coetus and review its minutes. Lacking authority to ordain ministers, the coetus was completely dependent on Holland to approve all ordinations of ministers.

This arrangement had one obvious drawback: due to the distance between the Netherlands and the American colonies, the Dutch brethren found it impossible to provide an adequate supply of pastors for the struggling immigrant church. Thus, in 1793 (the year the German Reformed Church reorganized as an independent Synod) congregations outnumbered pastors by almost four to one. Preachers were so hard to come by that many churches had become accustomed to hearing a trained preacher as infrequently as once a month (and often less).

Following its separation from the church in Holland, the RCUS began educating its own ministers under the tutelage of especially skilled pastors. While this method of ‘parsonage training’ seemed to offer adequate instruction, it fell far short of increasing the number of qualified ministers. Solving the problem of the four to one ratio proved harder than was first imagined.

The Synod of 1820, meeting at Hagerstown, Maryland, sought again to remedy this undesirable situation by taking the first steps toward establishing a theological seminary. It chose Dr. Philip Milledoler of New York to be its first Professor of Theology, offering him a starting salary of two thousand dollars per year. Milledoler, however, held this call for nearly two years before he finally declined it, accepting instead the presidency of Rutgers College in New Brunswick, New Jersey. In an effort to encourage support for a seminary, the 1820 Synod also adopted the following resolution prohibiting the parsonage training of students for the ministry:

Resolved, That no minister shall hereafter have the privilege of receiving a young man in order to instruct him in theology, but may only direct him in his preliminary studies.

Apparently, this resolution was directed specifically against Dr. F. L. Herman, who was the only minister at the time training several young men for the pastorate. This action of Synod outraged Herman, who immediately set himself against the proposed seminary. The ensuing controversy, the failure of Synod to raise adequate funds to establish a theological institution, the unfounded suspicions of the laity and Milledoler’s decline of the call doomed the project almost before it began. Another effort to establish a theological school in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, proved equally as disastrous.

Though its first attempts to establish a seminary never bore fruit, the Synod of 1824 received an invitation from Dickinson College-then a Presbyterian institution-to establish a seminary on its campus in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. This {31} offer was almost too good to be true. The college agreed to provide classrooms and permitted theological students to attend certain other lectures without charge. Its only stipulation was that the Professor of Theology appointed by the RCUS must also assume the chair of History and German Literature in the college proper. In the minds of most, the benefits of such an arrangement far outweighed any inconvenience the professor might have to endure; therefore, the RCUS accepted the offer without delay. With Dr. Lewis Mayer as its only professor, the theological school began operation on March 11, 1825, with an enrollment of five students.

Four years later, the seminary moved to York, Pennsylvania, and in 1832 it acquired the services of Dr. Friedrich Augustus Rauch, who taught mostly in the classical school. Only thirty-five students completed the seminary’s course of instruction before it relocated again in 1837; this time it moved to Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. Not willing to leave York, Mayer resigned his position. However, at the request of Synod he reconsidered his decision but resigned permanently in 1839. With Rauch’s health declining, the Synod of 1840 extended a call to Dr. John Williamson Nevin, a Presbyterian who was then a professor at the seminary in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, to fill the position of Professor of Systematic Theology. Nevin’s knowledge of the German language and contemporary German theology made him uniquely qualified for the job in the eyes of those who elected him. When Rauch died in 1841, Nevin, assisted only by a teacher of Hebrew, assumed complete control of the seminary.

The Synod was by no means satisfied that this arrangement should continue indefinitely. Hoping to attract a German professor to continue Rauch’s work, the Synod of 1843 elected Dr. F W Krummacher of Elberfeld, Prussia, as his successor and dispatched Drs. T. L. Hoffeditz and B. S. Schneck to present the call to him in person. To their dismay and under pressure from the Prussian government, the German pastor declined the call. J. I. Good surmises that “the later controversy [i.e., the controversy surrounding the Mercersburg professors, specifically the liturgical question] would probably never have occurred” had Krummacher (a strict Calvinist) accepted,[1] but this seems rather unlikely for two reasons: (1) it underestimates Nevin’s ability, and (2) Krummacher lived only two years after rejecting the offer of the Synod. In any case, Hoffeditz and Schneck, not willing to return without a German professor to nominate to the vacancy at Mercersburg, consulted with the leading theologians of Germany (including John Augustus William Neander and the conservative E. W. Hengstenberg), who referred them to Dr. Philip Schaff. Though a rather young man, Schaff had already distinguished himself as an extraordinary lecturer at the University of Berlin. He accepted the invitation to come to America, was ordained to the ministry (April 12, 1844), and, after a six-week trip to England, {32} was installed as Professor of Church History and Biblical Literature on October 25 of the same year.

As one can easily see, the establishment of a theological seminary occupied the attention of Synod for more than two decades. However, the controversy that emanated from Rauch, Nevin and Schaff, its chief professors, would affect the church well into the next century. Their doctrine became known as Mercersburg Theology.


The first of the renowned Mercersburg theologians, Friedrich Rauch, was born in Hesse Darmstadt in 1806. Following his education at the University of Marburg, he began teaching at Giessen before migrating to the United States in 1831 for political reasons. Here he first taught German at Lafayette College, and later took up his work at the classical school and seminary of the RCUS, conveying Hegelian idealism (though apparently without its inherent pantheism) to his students, who received it with enthusiasm. This state of affairs left Mayer extremely distressed.

In 1840, Rauch published his Psychology, or a view of the Human Soul, Including Anthropology, which was intended to introduce the German type of philosophy to his American students. It was also to be the first in a series on conservative Hegelian thought. However, his untimely death at the age of thirty-four left a far more extensive work on ethics unfinished.

Rauch’s short life might seem to betray a lack of influence, but this is far from the case. Nevin, his successor, utilized “psychological theories learned from Rauch in relation to the Eucharistic presence, the nature of the risen Christ, and the conception of the final resurrection state,” using a vocabulary and set of categories unfamiliar to American theology.[2] Professor T. Appel carried Rauch’s influence to Lancaster in 1853. There he used Rauch’s courses in psychology and ethics, adding material gleaned from Daub, Rosenkranz, Steffens and Schubert. Horace Bushnell also claimed to have learned much by reading Rauch’s Psychology.


Born in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, on February 20, 1803, John Williamson Nevin grew up within twenty miles of Mercersburg, the town whose name would become synonymous with his own theology. His education at Union College, from which he graduated in 1821, was financed by his uncle, Captain John {33} Williamson. Several men whose careers later became somewhat noteworthy attended Union at the same time, including George Doane and Alonzo Potter, who became Episcopal bishops; Robert J. Breckinridge, President of Jefferson College, superintendent of public education in Kentucky, and theology professor at Danville; William H. Seward, Governor of New York and Lincoln’s Secretary of State; William Kent, law professor at Harvard; and Laurens P. Hickok, theology professor at Auburn and President of Union. Nevin’s conversion seems to have occurred during the 1819-20 school year when Asahel Nettleton toured the area during the Second Great Awakening.

Two years after his graduation from Union, Nevin entered a course of study at Princeton Theological Seminary, where Charles Hodge had just been promoted to the professorate. Nevin had distinguished himself so well as a student (especially in Hebrew) that, when Hodge went abroad in 1826 for two years of advanced instruction, he invited Nevin, whose studies were nearing completion, to teach his classes in his absence. Not sure of a call to the ministry and lacking an appointment elsewhere, Nevin accepted Hodge’s offer, viewing it as an opportunity to test his gifts.

When Hodge returned in 1828, Nevin left New Jersey to assume a teaching position at Western Theological Seminary, a newly opened Presbyterian school west of the mountains. Since Western Seminary did not need him immediately, Nevin lived at home, preached occasionally in a few local churches, and lent loyal and fierce support to the growing temperance movement. His uncle, Dr. Hugh Williamson, advised him earlier: “Take care, my boy, that you do not learn to smoke, for smoking will lead to drinking and that is the end of all good.”[3] When he finally arrived at the site of the new school in December 1829, to his disappointment he found neither building nor library. Instead, all classes were conducted in the session room of the First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh, where they had begun just two years earlier.

At Western Seminary, Nevin occupied himself, in characteristically “puritan”[4] manner, with the social issues of the day. He continued to preach against alcohol, citing the cholera epidemic of 1832 as an example of “the Scourge of God” for the manufacture, sale and use of demon spirits. His devoted opposition to fancy fairs, theaters, horse-racing and slavery made him well known within the Pittsburgh Synod.

The decade of the 1830s introduced several changes in Nevin’s thinking. {34} He turned more and more from an objective and intellectual comprehension of Christianity to a subjective and experimental apprehension, relying on the wisdom of Puritan mystics of the seventeenth century. Creation, he wrote in The Friend (Jan. 15, 1835), is pervaded by the presence of spiritual realities, “the idea of which must be stirred up in the soul itself before either they or their shadows can be apprehended as they are.” His poems, many of which also appeared in The Friend, reflect a heavy preoccupation with the contrast between this present transitoriness and the eternal verities of the world of truth. Interestingly, Nevin successfully evaded conflating faith with feeling, as the rising Transcendental Movement did.

But perhaps the greatest influence on Nevin at this time, at least according to his own admission, was the German historian Neander, from whom he learned to regard religion as a communion with spiritual realities, something to be experienced and not learned. He was particularly captivated by Neander’s historical perspective, which, as he came to understand more of its implications, began to affect his outlook on every other subject. Through this historical perspective, he began to appreciate the value of opinions other than those of orthodox Christianity, viewing even heresy as necessary for the development of Christian doctrine. Nevin later declared that his soul had been awakened to a new historical consciousness by reading Neander.

When the RCUS called Nevin to teach at Mercersburg in 1840, how much his views had already changed or how much he was aware of whatever changes may have occurred is hard to say. At any rate, the 1840s brought an even more drastic change to his theology than the previous decade; he gradually turned more away from the old Reformed position on predestination, the sacraments and the apostasy of Rome, and more toward a broad eclecticism. Though it would be too much to credit Schaff with this change, there can be no doubt that Schaff confirmed his catholic tendencies. Doubtless, he regarded the call as providential in light of his recent interest in the German language and contemporary German theology. It also offered him a chance to return to his native Cumberland Valley, to live among the Pennsylvania Germans with whom he was already so well acquainted. Neither did he regard transferring from Scottish Presbyterian to German Reformed, from the Westminster standards to the Heidelberg Catechism, as a problem. He believed, instead, that both the Presbyterian and Reformed communions sprang forth from the same mold. He even wrote at the time that the German catechism had, in fact, laid the groundwork for the Westminster Confession. Further, he saw an affiliation with the RCUS seminary as an opportunity to test the depth of learning of his German-educated colleague, Dr. Rauch. With these considerations in mind, Nevin readily accepted the call and moved to Mercersburg.

Although Rauch’s early death prevented him from developing the theological aspects of his psychology, Nevin carried on from Rauch’s beginning. He {35} had already taken an interest in the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper while at the seminary in Pittsburgh, concluding that American churches in general, even those of Reformed persuasion, had exchanged Calvin’s high view of the sacrament for the low view of the Puritans, a position which he maintained at Mercersburg in opposition to the prevailing (as he saw it) Zwinglian or “rationalistic” doctrine of the RCUS. Rauch’s work provided him with the necessary psychological categories for a defense of his position. The believer’s union with Christ, he taught, must not be conceived of as a merely moral union but as a transfusion of the soul and body of one into the other. Accordingly, Nevin located the atonement not in the propitiatory death of Christ (as the catechism teaches), but in the incarnation itself, that is, by “an organic union of the Incarnate Word with humanity, as a whole, and this in order to form a basis for the regeneration of the race.”[5] Therefore, believers are not saved by the sufferings and death of Christ but by Christ conveying to them the very substance of his incarnate life. This impartation of Christ’s theanthropic life (Nevin’s definition of justification) finds its consummate expression in the Lord’s Supper.

In his most profound work, The Mystical Presence: A Vindication of the Reformed or Calvinistic Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist, Nevin developed his doctrine of the Supper as follows:

According to the old Reformed doctrine, the invisible grace of the sacrament includes a real participation in his person. That which is made present to the believer, is the very life of Christ himself in its true power and substance. The doctrine proceeds on the assumption that the Christian salvation stands in an actual union between Christ and his people, mystical but in the highest sense real, in virtue of which they are as closely joined to him, as the limbs are to the head in the natural body. They are in Him, and He is in them, not figuratively but truly; in the way of a growing process that will become complete finally in the resurrection. The power of this fact is mysteriously concentrated in the Holy Supper. Here Christ communicates himself to his Church, not simply a right to the grace that resides in his person, or an interest by outward grant in the benefits of his life and death, but his person itself, as the ground and fountain, from which all these other blessings may be expected to flow . . . . Christ first, and then his benefits. Calvin will hear of no other order but this. The same view runs through all the Calvinistic symbols. Not a title to Christ in his benefits, the efficacy of his atonement, the work of his spirit; but {36} a true property of life itself, out of which only that other title can legitimately spring.[6]

To be sure, Nevin did not teach a corporeal presence of Christ in the sacrament, a position which he emphatically denies in the same book, but he nonetheless exalts the sacraments above other acts of worship, even assigning to them an intrinsic efficacy. Concerning baptism, for example, he says,

If the sacraments are regarded as in themselves outward rites only, that can have no value or force except as the grace they represent is made to be present by the subjective exercises of the worshiper, it is hard to see on what ground infants, who are still without knowledge or faith, should be admitted to any privilege of the sort.[7]

Anything less than this mystical view of the sacraments, he argues, “becomes necessarily an unmeaning contradiction” and is a sure sign of the sectarian spirit of the modern church with its diminished view of the church and its sacraments. The intrinsic value of the Supper, to return to the subject at hand, lies precisely in the believer’s participation in the true humanity of Christ, especially in the life of his glorified state.

For Nevin, the Lord’s Supper was “the very heart of the whole Christian worship,” in which “the entire question of the Church” finds its center and core. He says, “Our view of the Lord’s Supper must ever condition and rule in the end our view of Christ’s person and the conception we form of the Church. It must influence at the same time, very materially, our whole system of theology, as well as all our ideas of ecclesiastical history.”[8] This is about as good a summary of Nevin’s contribution to Mercersburg Theology as one can find.

In this debate, Nevin accused Hodge of holding to a merely memorial view of the Holy Supper. Hodge responded by calling Calvin a “crypto-Lutheran” and charging him with making serious concessions to Lutherans to gain their favor. While it is rather unfortunate that Hodge took this extreme and ill-founded position, the fact that Nevin was able to elicit it from the greatest theological giant of the day shows how truly clever he was.

The Mystical Presence was followed the next year by The History and Genius of the Heidelberg Catechism, which began as a series of essays published {37} by the author between 1841 and 1842. In the latter book, Nevin portrayed the catechism as the glory of the sixteenth century Reformation. If he had meant by this that the catechism reflects a pure Calvinism coupled with a heartfelt love of the truth, true heirs of the Reformation might readily agree. But for Nevin the catechism is the result of both Lutheran and Reformed influences: its view of the sacraments is Calvinistic, but nearly everything else comes from Philip Melanchthon.[9] Nevin’s explanation of the rite of confirmation is clearly Lutheran:

Confirmation is no sacrament of course; but it is a beautifully significant ordinance, in which the sacrament of baptism may be said to come finally to its natural and necessary completion. Baptism becomes complete only in the personal assumption of its vows on the part of its subject. This calls for some rite; and it is certainly hard to conceive of any more appropriate in itself, or less open to the charge of superstition, than the scriptural ceremony which the Church has in fact employed from the earliest time for this purpose.[10] Accordingly, the “genius” of the catechism, at least in part, is its ability to mediate between the two branches of the Reformation.


When Philip Schaff arrived in the United States in the summer of 1844, it would not be long before he would meet one with whom his own views so thoroughly agreed that together they seemed to share one mind. About this time, he wrote in his diary: “I think I could not have a better colleague than Dr. Nevin. I feared I might not find any sympathy in him for my views of the church; but I discover that he occupies essentially the same ground that I do and confirms me in my position. He is filled with the ideas of German theology.”[11]

Born in the Grisons, a canton in east Switzerland, on January 1, 1819, Schaff would eventually become one of the most influential theologians of the {38} nineteenth century. Unlike Nevin, whose theological journey seems to have lacked an occasion, Schaff’s ideas (except his high-church views, which he garnered from the Saturday evening gatherings of Ludwig von Gerlach) thoroughly reflect his experiences and German education. When he was fifteen, the preacher at Chur recognized his unusual talents and arranged for him to study at the Kornthal academy in WŸrttemberg. Kornthal was, at the time, a pietist colony. During his first year there, Schaff experienced a conversion after the pietistic manner and was confirmed by a local Lutheran pastor. This would forever leave its imprint upon his character and learning. As a result he abandoned the hope of becoming a poet (though he would later prove himself more than adequately gifted in his command of languages) and turned his attention instead to the study of theology.

Shortly thereafter, Schaff entered the gymnasium at Stuttgart. There he mastered Latin, Greek and Hebrew in preparation for a university education. After two years of preliminary study, he applied to the University of TŸbingen, the foremost leader in higher criticism and Hegelian philosophy. There he met Ferdinand Christian Baur, who applied the critical methods to the documents of the New Testament to reconstruct the “actual” history of their time, and Isaac Dorner, who helped students learn Hegel and Schleiermacher (as his reputation has it) without losing their Christian faith.

From TŸbingen, Schaff went to Halle and studied under F. A. G. Tholuck. Tholuck identified the controlling factor of current theological thought as Entwicklung (evolution or development). Tholuck seems to have had a particular interest in American students, attracting men of the caliber of Charles Hodge and Henry B. Smith.

Within a few months, Professor E. W. Hengstenberg invited Schaff to Berlin to assume a position tutoring the children of Prussian nobility. He began with the son of Baroness von Kroecher, who allowed him sufficient time to attend the university lectures of Hengstenberg, Neander and Leopold von Ranke.[12] Though he had learned the principle of historical development from Baur at TŸbingen, Neander, whose views were also far from orthodox, seems to have been more influential in the development of his religious thought. In fact, the faculty of the University of Berlin later sent him a testimonial, praising his eight volume History of the Christian Church as “the most notable monument of universal historical learning {39} produced by the school of Neander.”[13] As with Schleiermacher, Neander believed that the heart of true religion consists of the experiences of the church out of which religious thought grows.

After two years of tutoring (the second of which he spent traveling in southern Europe), Schaff, at the age of twenty-three, returned to Berlin and began offering courses as a Privatdocent in the New Testament and the theology of Schleiermacher. Even at this early age, Schaff had earned the heartiest recommendation of the leading thinkers of mid-nineteenth century Germany, both conservative and otherwise: F. W. Krummacher, Tholuck, Hengstenberg, Neander and Dorner. These were the men who directed the representatives of the RCUS to Schaff in 1843 and counseled him to accept the post at Mercersburg.

Schaff’s arrival in the United States was greeted with both approbation and disappointment. Some lauded his exceptional learning and abilities, especially for one so young (only twenty-five at the time); others heard about his ordination sermon, in which he criticized German Americans as being in danger of succumbing to various sectarian interests, and deplored his coming.

If Nevin laid down the first principle of Mercersburg Theology (viz., the centrality of the person of Christ in the life of the church), Schaff provided the second (viz., the principle of historical development); and he wasted no time doing so. At the opening of the Synod in 1844, Dr. Joseph Berg, pastor of the First Reformed Church of Philadelphia and the retiring President of Synod, preached on the historical background of the Reformation, making the rather preposterous claim that the apostolic church had been preserved unchanged throughout the entire Middle Ages by the Waldenses. Schaff’s inaugural address, Das Prinzip des Protestantismus (translated into English the following year and published with a lengthy forward by Nevin) was aimed directly at Berg, just as Berg’s sermon seems to have been aimed at him. In this address, Schaff countered Berg with another absurdity: that the Reformation was simply the natural development of the best in the medieval Catholic tradition. The printed version of this address contained an appendix of 112 theses; according to Thesis 31, ” . . . the Reformation is the greatest act of the Catholic Church itself, the full ripe fruit of all its better tendencies, particularly of the deep spiritual law conflicts of the Middle Period, which were as a schoolmaster toward the Protestant doctrine of justification.” Schaff’s friend Gerlach, who openly described his own position as evangelische KatholizitŠt, used to speak of the Reformation as the finest flower of the Middle Ages and longed for an eventual reunion of the two parties. With somewhat less enthusiasm for Catholicism, Schaff adopted his friend’s view. {40}

Almost as soon as The Principle of Protestantism appeared in print, the Mercersburg professors found themselves on trial for heresy. However, this had little effect on their productivity. Schaff began his first full year of teaching with a lecture to his church history class on historical method. Again, this lecture was translated by Nevin and published the following June (1846) as What is Church History? A Vindication of the Idea of Historical Development. Later, Schaff reproduced this and expanded it in the first volume of his church history series. Its purpose, of course, was to clarify, explain, and defend his position.

Relying on Hegel’s dialectic, Schaff compared church history to the growth of a plant, which, in the course of its life, goes through various stages of development, each negating and yet fulfilling that which came before it. Likewise, the epochs of church history build on those that preceded them, adding their own contributions and offering solutions to previously unanswered problems. Church history, he argued, shows the unmistakable imprint of divine wisdom in that God uses each period of the church’s development to bring to light some hitherto undiscovered truth. It is the great or distinctive ideas of each age that make it different from all others. The doctrines of justification by faith alone (the material principle) and sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”: the formal principle) he regarded as the great ideas of the Protestant Reformation. Actually, Schaff reductively considered these doctrines as one, since the Word cannot be correctly understood apart from faith. The Word he saw as the form, and faith its content; Scripture is spirit, and the believer’s appropriation of it is life. He maintained that, although Christianity is theoretically complete in Christ, its inner life was only gradually appropriated and implemented by the church. The Reformation was only one step in the process. Schaff’s “Protestant Principle” was the principle of the development of the church, not of this or that doctrine (or even the collection of doctrines) taught by the Reformers.

On the other hand, Schaff also found certain “diseases” dominating the history of Protestant churches. Lutherans tended toward theological rationalism, which made its first appearance more than a century after the Reformation began. It began, ironically, as an anti-intellectual reaction of pietism to scholastic orthodoxy; then moving into Biblical criticism and Hegelian pantheism; and ending with Feuerbach redefining religion as the deification of human experience. The disease of the Reformed tradition is sectarianism (or “sectarism,” according to Nevin’s translation), by which Schaff meant the practical and organizational fragmentation of the church. The chief culprit here was seventeenth century Puritanism. None of the Reformers, he argued, advocated unbridled liberty for individuals, but rather a liberty that subscribed to the authority of divine truth. Puritanism, however, prostituted the Reformation principle by emphasizing the conversion experience of individuals; it was, therefore, spiritualistic (rejecting forms {41} of worship), unhistorical (disdaining the elements of Catholicism preserved in the Reformation tradition) and unchurchly (neglecting the broader picture of the church as the Body of Christ). Furthermore Puritanism, because of its influence on American religious thought, had communicated these traits to American religion in general. Now, it might seem that rationalism and sectarianism have little in common, but Schaff saw them as the two sides of a single coin: rationalism being nothing more than theoretical sectarianism, and sectarianism being practical rationalism. His third disease of Protestantism was political revolution. Schaff regarded the Reformation’s contribution to culture in a primarily negative sense. By this, he meant that the Reformers, instead of advocating social change, merely stood by as the forces already present worked for improvement. Their heirs, however, used revolution to advance the authority of Christ in the political realm.

Schaff further contended that even the diseases of Protestantism had some limited justification. Rationalism, for example, purged the church of many of its erroneous and exaggerated opinions. Sectarianism also, by protesting against real faults of the orthodox church, contributed to its proper development. Even Puritanism offered a heightened sense of a Biblical moral responsibility and self discipline-characteristics too often lacking among Protestants in general.

To the dismay of many, Schaff’s heresy trial ended with his exoneration. The reason, according to Sydney E. Ahlstrom, was that “none of his assailants knew what the German Reformed standards were.”[14] Not too long afterward, Dr. Berg, author of the charges against Schaff, resigned his Philadelphia charge and transferred to the Dutch Reformed Church. However, the trial so shook the denomination that Nevin eventually resigned from the seminary and concentrated more on the college. Schaff also resigned in 1863, taking a position at Union Seminary in New York. As early as 1847, the Dutch Reformed Church voted to end its relationship with the RCUS; the theology of the Mercersburg professors was, no doubt, a factor in its decision.


If worship articulates the theology of a church, the most practical articulation of Mercersburg Theology came with the liturgical controversy that began in 1847 when the East Pennsylvania Classis sought to have either the Palatinate liturgy reprinted or another based on the catechism approved. The resulting controversy shook the RCUS all the way down to its foundation, almost tearing it apart.

However, the problem was far more general than this suggests. Two factors {42} forced the RCUS to consider the liturgical question before Nevin and Schaff came along. We see this in the fact that the Synod of 1820 appointed a committee of five leading ministers to consider the possibility of translating and printing the old German liturgy. In 1821 this committee reported that nothing had been done. Its report the next year recommended only the printing of the Palatinate order with some slight modifications, but little was actually done at the time. The matter surfaced again in 1834. Seven years later, the Mayer liturgy was approved but only by four Classes. If anything, this history shows (contrary to the claims of Mercersburg adherents) that there was very little enthusiasm for ritual in the church.

The first factor that drew the attention of the RCUS to a consideration of liturgy was the anglicization of the church; that is, with English replacing German as the language of the people (especially in the east), even the Palatinate model had become unserviceable. Of course, the Palatinate liturgy, which was never used in the RCUS in any substantial way, was also becoming harder and harder to obtain.

Second, the influence of Puritanism had cast disdain on set forms of worship, contrary to the semi-liturgical worship in the early Reformed churches. Precomposed prayers, it was said, hampered the work of the Spirit in converting the unconverted. Free prayer (with its omissions, disorderliness and solecisms) was becoming the American standard. However, this had the lamentable effect also of limiting congregational participation to the singing of an occasional hymn. By contrast, the Palatinate liturgy included set prayers for the regular Lord’s Day service and special prayers for Christmas, New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost. It also included a schedule of Bible readings for the entire year. Following the pattern established by John à Lasco , the communion was celebrated monthly with appropriate preparation observed beforehand. Its order of service for the Lord’s Day (which focused on the sermon) was more rigid than one might suppose. The usual service began with a blessing and psalm, followed by a confession of sin, a prayer for the saving apprehension of the Word and the Lord’s Prayer (in unison here and throughout). A Scripture reading and the sermon came next, and the service concluded with another confession of sin (in unison), a declaration of forgiveness to the penitent and of condemnation to the impenitent. Then followed the Lord’s Prayer (the second time), a series of prayers with various themes, the Lord’s prayer (or a rather lengthy paraphrase of the same), a psalm and the Aaronic blessing.[15] Though services were formal, there was not the slightest hint of a Mercersburg style altar worship; the German order was decidedly a pulpit-liturgy (i.e., designed for use by the pastor, not the people). It is also highly doubtful that many early fathers of the RCUS even knew what was in the Palatinate model {43} although Boehm encouraged its use as early as 1748.[16] Though the RCUS looked to the Palatinate liturgy as a “model,” none of its early liturgies (the Germantown liturgy of 1798, the Weisz liturgy of 1828, and the “Mayer liturgy” of 1841) contained special forms for the Lord’s Day service. Though the RCUS had never been strictly liturgical, the Palatinate liturgy precipitated many of the questions that reappeared in connection with the Mercersburg movement. This forced the RCUS to decide what kind of worship it would endorse. How to decide was not so easy.

The Synod of 1848 erected a committee, chaired by Dr. J. H. A. Bomberger, to study the issue and offer recommendations, but this committee failed to act. When Synod met the following year, various opinions were expressed; some wanted set forms only for the sacraments and other special services, while others preferred forms for the regular services as well. Bomberger successfully argued for the latter, asserting that a regular liturgy offers the best opportunity for corporate worship. The Synod then formed a second committee, larger than the first, giving it the responsibility to begin developing such a liturgy. Nevin, who had already begun referring to the table as an “altar” and had expressed his preference for vestments and other liturgical devices, was chosen to head this committee.

However, Nevin knew that his views on worship were vastly different from those of most RCUS ministers at the time. He argued, for example, that a central pulpit must give way to a pronounced altar; but few others looked for anything more than forms for special occasions, allowing considerable room for extemporaneous prayer. Nevin even despaired of affecting the church in any significant way. His own committee recommended nothing more than a translation of the Palatinate liturgy. The battle raged both in print and in personal correspondence.

Nevin resigned from the chairmanship of this committee in 1851 (the same year he tendered his resignation from the seminary) and was replaced by Schaff. Like his predecessor, Schaff had also voiced his preference for an altar worship, complete with gowns and candles, but was far more optimistic about success. Chaired by Schaff, the committee proposed four forms for the regular Sunday service, two for baptism and a form for the solemnization of marriage. Not surprisingly, the committee made it clear that it had adapted the forms of the Greek and Latin churches of the third and fourth centuries. The Reformation’s contribution was, more or less, limited to its hymnology, since (as Schaff saw it) the liturgical developments of the sixteenth century embraced little more than translations and purifications of those that preceded them. To promote congregational participation, the committee further proposed the publication of a book, similar to the Anglican {44} Book of Common Prayer, to be used by the people. Abandoning the old Reformed practice of preaching consecutively through various books of the Bible, this proposed prayer book would include a pericope system of Scripture readings and thematic collects based on the ecclesiastical calendar.

Schaff plan received the approbation of the 1852 Synod. It seems likely, however, that most RCUS ministers did not fully grasp the intent of the committee’s proposals. Even Dr. Henry Harbaugh, the committee’s secretary and himself a proponent of Mercersburg altar worship, labored under the assumption that the committee would produce a liturgy basically of the Reformed model.

The Synod of 1857 finally approved the completed liturgy for provisional use. Some churches received it almost without noticing a change. In others it caused considerable strife and division. Though it sold three printings in its first year, James Hastings Nichols asserts that it was probably not used regularly by more than a dozen congregations.[17]

It soon became evident that this provisional liturgy had not provided the church with a functional tool. In 1863, the General Synod gave permission to the Synod of Ohio to prepare another liturgy and encouraged the Eastern Synod to continue revising the 1857 provisional liturgy. Three years later, the revised Order of Worship was completed. A Western Liturgy appeared the next year. Opponents of the revised Order, at a meeting held September 24, 1867, protested its use in the church, and founded Ursinus College in an attempt to preserve the old Reformed theology and worship. This new college received the formal recognition of the Synod in 1872.

The battle over a liturgy continued for several years until the General Synod of 1878 appointed a Peace Commission to find an amicable solution. This committee was reappointed in 1881 and submitted a revised (and compromised) Directory of Worship in 1884, which it then referred to the Classes for their adoption. With the consent of the Classes, the General Synod of 1887 ratified the new Directory.


There can be no doubt that the RCUS lost more than it gained as a result of establishing a seminary at Mercersburg. Yes, some members, and even entire congregations, sought fellowship from other sources. A few of its more orthodox ministers, including Berg (who transferred to the Dutch Reformed Church), went elsewhere. But members, congregations and even ministers can be replaced. We see {45} that this is so when we consider that the number of RCUS ministers increased fifty times in the nineteenth century, while the number of members grew by fifteen times. Yet, at the same time the RCUS gave up something of far greater historical importance-much of its Reformed heritage.

Instead of allowing the doctrines of the Reformation to control policy, a practical matter (the need for more ministers) became the dominant consideration. Then came the misguided notion that German professors, or at least professors who were well acquainted with German thought and life, would serve the church best. However, these German professors had adopted the new German philosophy, which they soon introduced to their students at Mercersburg. By redefining the nature of Reformed theology and church history, Mercersburg Theology gradually replaced the theology of the Reformation. And since worship is the articulation of theology, the Mercersburg movement required a new liturgy. This, in turn, started the liturgical controversies of the mid-1800s.

Did the RCUS get what it wanted? If we define its wants in terms of its priorities as they were actually settled upon, it would be impossible to come to any other conclusion. But priorities are not always so neatly arranged; therefore, it seems best not to malign the motives of our forefathers, but to learn from their mistakes. The compromised theology and liturgy that came because of their decisions paved the way for the infamous and disastrous 1934 merger of our church with the Evangelical Synod of North America.

To avoid leaving such a legacy to our children, we must retain sound doctrine as our highest priority. Jesus said, If you have my doctrine, you have life. The Bible, which we accept as the Word of God, must be set before our people first. All other considerations must be secondary to it.

[1] J.I Good, History of the Reformed Church in the U. S. in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Board of the Reformed Church in America, 1911), p. 205.

[2] James Hastings Nichols, Romanticism in American Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), p. 104.

[3] Good, op. cit., p. 109.

[4] Early in his career, Nevin held the Puritans in very high regard, but later he looked on them with scorn and contempt. Both his earlier and later views were extreme.

[5] B. S. Schneck, Mercersburg Theology Inconsistent with Protestant and Reformed Doctrine (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1874), p. 14.

[6] John Williamson Nevin, The Mystical Presence: A Vindication of the Reformed or Calvinistic Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1846), p. 122.

[7] Nevin, Mystical Presence, p. 149.

[8] Nevin, Mystical Presence, p. 3.

[9] Philip Melanchthon’s views underwent some change between the early years of the Reformation and his death. His early views suggest a strong disposition to predestination and supralapsarianism, while his later writings lean more toward synergism. This was due in part to a perceived overemphasis by the Swiss Reformers on the sovereignty of God. Apparently, in making the claim that the catechism reflects Melanchthon’s influence, Nevin, who had also abandoned a strict Calvinistic understanding of predestination, refers to Melanchthon’s later views. In any case, we must regard Nevin’s contention as spurious, unfounded, and contrary to the historical purpose of the catechism.

[10] John Williamson Nevin, The History and Genius of the Heidelberg Catechism (Chambersburg, PA: Publication Office of the German Reformed Church, 1847), p. 160.

[11] D. S. Schaff, The Life of Philip Schaff (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1897), 103, quoted in Nichols, p. 64.

[12] For a fascinating survey of the leading schools and professors of nineteenth century Germany by one who had firsthand knowledge, see Philip Schaff, Germany, its Universities, Theology, and Religion; with Sketches of Neander, Tholuck, Olshausen, Hengstenberg, Twesten, Nitzsch, Muller, Ullmann, Rothe, Dorner, Lange, Ebrard, Wichern, and Other Distinguished German Divines of the Age (Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston, 1857).

[13] D. S. Schaff, 467, quoted in Nichols, p. 69.

[14] Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, vol. 2 (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1975), p. 58.

[15] Jack Martin Maxwell, Worship and Reformed Theology: The Liturgical Lessons of Mercersburg (Pittsburgh: The Pickwick Papers, 1976), pp. 90-91.

[16] By the mid-nineteenth century, the Palatinate liturgy had become so rare that Nevin admitted in a footnote in his book on the catechism that he had only once seen a copy of it. See Nevin, Heidelberg Catechism, p. 153.

[17] Nichols, Mercersburg Theology, p. 305.

Scroll to Top