Reformation History

Our Heidelberg Catechism is one of the finest fruits of the Reformation, tried and proven in the furnace of affliction.

Holding forth the gospel of redemption in Jesus Christ as our only comfort in life and in death, it presents, very personally and eloquently, what is necessary to know that we may live and die happily in that only comfort, that of belonging to the Triune God through Jesus Christ by faith.

Its three main divisions, following the Epistle to the Romans, teach first, how great our sin and misery is: second, how we are redeemed from all our sins and misery; third, how we are to be thankful to God for such redemption.

Composition and Translations

Elector Prince Frederick III of the Palatinate had called men of Reformed principles to the professorship at the University of Heidelberg, entrusting them with the preparation of a clear, concise, and popular statement of the doctrines of salvation in catechetical form, a booklet that could be used by young and old alike in the home, in the church, and in the school. The responsible authorship was placed primarily upon two young professors, Caspar Olevianus and Zacharius Ursinus.

Numerous catechisms were already in use, in fact, too many; their very number caused endless confusionand none received any general and whole-hearted approval. It became apparent therefore, that a catechism was needed that would meet every requirement, a catechism so comprehensive, in which all the cardinal doctrines would be clearly stated, and yet so simple that the common folk and even children could grasp the truths of salvation.

Frederick III, a man of culture and an ardent student of the Bible, was determined to have such a catechism. Being a man of grace and faith and prayer, strong in the Lord, as were also his co-laborers, the work progressed unto full fruitage. The finished manuscript, presented toward the close of the year 1562, received the hearty approval of the entire faculty and also of the pastors and teachers. Submitted to the Synod, which met at Heidelberg at this time, it was received with applause, and a resolution was passed January 19, 1563, to have it published immediately by government authority. The first edition (German) came off the press early in 1563. A Latin edition followed the same year and also a second German edition, besides an edition as part of the Church Order (Kirchenordnung).

The spread and influence of this little book within the bounds of the Palatinate and beyond, in fact in all the world exceeded all expectations. It was welcomed by the Reformed everywhere. It was made mandatory in all the schools and churches of the Palatinate to teach the Heidelberg catechism, and to read it from the pulpit every Sunday according to its divisions of fifty-two Lord’s Days. Catechetical preaching and exposition was made a fixed institution for the Sunday afternoon service.

The Church Order for the Reformed Church of the Palatinate, issued in November 1563, contained the Heidelberg Catechism as the authoritative expression of the doctrine that is to be taught and preached. All education, whether in the home, in the schools, or at the university was based upon it, and the theological training of students for the ministry centered on it. Ursinus, at the “College of Wisdom,” immediately started his lectures on its contents. These lectures were published by David Pareus, of which an English edition appeared as early as 1587.

Besides the original Latin version, a translation into the Dutch language by Petrus Dathenus and another into Saxon-German appeared within a year. The English Turner edition, used in the Anglican Church, appeared in 1567. This was followed by translations into Hungarian in 1567, French in 1570, Scottish in 1571, Hebrew in 1580, and Greek in 1597. During the early years of the following century the catechism was translated into Polish, Lithuanian, Italian, Bohemian, and Romanian. The Dutch East India and West India Companies were zealous missionaries for the Heidelberg Catechism. Circling the globe with it, they prepared translations in Malay in 1623, Javanese in 1623, Spanish in 1628, Portuguese in 1665, Singhalese in 1726, and Tamil in 1754. In the nineteenth century, the Dutch Reformed Church in America prepared translations in Amharic, Sangiri, Arabic, Persian (Farsi), Chinese, and Japanese.

The Heidelberg Catechism was accepted by the Anglican Church, England, in 1567, as a standard expression of her faith. It was adopted by the Dutch Synod of Wesel in 1568, by the Synod of Dort in 1571, by the Scottish Church in 1571, and by the great ecumenical Synod of Dort in 1618-19. The British delegates at the Synod of Dort agreed that neither in their own nor in the French Church was there a catechism so suitable and excellent. They reported: “Our Reformed brethren on the continent have a little book whose single leaves are not to be bought with tons of gold.”

In 1859 the General Synod of the Reformed Church in the U.S. appointed a committee for “the preparation of a critical standard edition of the Heidelberg Catechism in the original German, and Latin, together with a revised English translation, and an historical introduction, to be published in superior style as a centennial edition in 1863.” This very fine, comprehensive edition appeared in 1863, giving an excellent historical and theological review of the catechism and the text in parallel columns in the original German, the Latin, modern German and an English translation conforming closely to the original German. This is known as the Tercentenary Edition.

The English versions in use up to this time; the Anglican 1567, Parry 1591, and Laidlie 1765 (1770), were translations from the Latin and the Dutch, and their sentence construction often deviated from the original German.

The committee, preparing the Tercentenary Edition, was governed by three leading principles:

First, to translate only from the German edition of 1563, as being the ultimate standard of judgment, and refer to translations and all subsequent German editions, not as possessing coordinate authority, but as subordinate aids to the correct understanding of the original. We have accordingly, as in the Modern German text, eliminated every word that has crept into later editions, but is not supported by the text of the ultimate standard. Secondly, to make a faithful translation. It has been the aim of the Committee to express the true sense of the German correctly in the idioms of the English language, without weakening or strengthening a single phase of thought. Thirdly, to employ Anglo-Saxon words; avoiding, as far as practicable, the use of Latin and Greek derivatives.

Contents of the Catechism

The keynote, the grand solemn chord from which is built up and proceeds the great salvation oratorio, is the first question and answer, “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”

The tone throughout is not merely didactic, as in many other catechisms, but confessional. The Heidelberg is animated by the grace of God in Christ Jesus, for the Father “hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son, in whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13-14). The teaching is that the just shall live by faith, for in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith (Rom. 1:17). It speaks of the whole scope of God’s sovereign grace in saving sinners, “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.” (Rom. 8:29-30).

The Heidelberg is designed to be a Catechism, or as its original title states, “Christian Instruction.” Imbued with the spirit of Christian worship and devotion, it is both simple and pro-found, a fit manual of instruction for the young, and yet a wonderful statement of sound doctrine for the older. The language and style are beautiful, at times eloquent since it speaks the language of faith derived from the Word of God. Since it is a distillation of biblical Truth, its statements resonate with those who love God’s inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word.

The body of the catechism centers on the exposition of the Creed, the Law, and the Lord’s Prayer, wherefore its tone throughout is confessional, and its central doctrine is justification by faith through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Salvation from beginning to end is rooted in God’s covenant of grace, of which baptism is the holy pledge, sign and seal. Those who have been baptized are called to use this manual of instruction to prepare for confessing their faith and becoming communicant members of the church of Jesus Christ. For this purpose it continues to hold a treasured place in the bosom of Reformed Churches throughout the world.

Historical Background

Our catechism received its name “Heidelberg” from the ancient capital city Heidelberg of the lower Palatinate (Unterpfalz) and its noted university. The founding of this seat of learning dates back to the year 1385.

The Reformation of the sixteenth century did not immediately find favor in the Palatinate, although Luther had been heard in Heidelberg as early as 1518. His message, however, left a powerful impression on the minds of young theologians, whose names became conspicuous afterwards in the Protestant movement. The university was bound to the Church of Rome and therefore it was impossible for any belonging to it to take any other position than that of hostility to the Reformation. The government also remained apathetic, fearing turmoil and changes.

Nevertheless, the impact of church reformation found its mark. The people themselves took the matter into their own hands at a fitting occasion, when mass was about to be celebrated at the principal church of Heidelberg, by singing “Es ist das Heil uns kommen her” (To us Salvation Now is Come). This occurred on Sunday, December 20, 1545. But the struggle for church reformation lasted another ten years, when finally the Peace of Augsburg (1555) established religious freedom, and “Sapienz College,” or the “College of Wisdom,” an institution for the education of ministers, was opened in the Augustinian convent at Heidelberg.

The following decade, however, proved most critical for the reform movement. The followers of Luther were already divided among themselves: the ultra-Lutherans maintained the bodily presence of the Lord in the sacrament, while the Melanchthonians held to a spiritual presence, as taught also by Calvin. The Augustana Variata, prepared by Melanchthon and in which the idea of the material and bodily presence of the Lord in the sacrament was modified, now was furiously attacked by those who strove to retain the Augustana Invariata (unchanged).

The Palatinate, and especially Heidelberg, became the very battleground for these and other factions. Lutheranism finally became fixed in the Formula of Concord, while the several Calvinistic confessions, which appeared in the midst of this controversy, were embodied in the Heidelberg Catechism as the expression of the Reformed faith.

Frederick the Third

In 1559 the electoral power of the Palatinate passed into the hands of Frederick III, who subsequently merited the reputation of being the Father of the Heidelberg Catechism. He determined to carry out the Reformation among his people in a way suited to his own convictions of truth and right without any further regard for impractical schemes of compromise and union. This meant that in the Palatinate, religion should be ordered and established, both in regard to doctrine and worship, after the Reformed standard, and not after the Lutheran views. The church should not be identified as Lutheran, proclaiming the name of Luther; she is to proclaim Christ and hold forth the Word of Truth and Life.

It was made mandatory that only the words of the institution of the Lord’s Supper were to be used in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. All crosses, candles, altars, and pictures were removed from the churches, and the singing of the Psalms in the German language was introduced. Dissatisfied and contentious teachers and ministers were disqualified and dismissed. Teachers and ministers with Calvinistic, Zwinglian, and Melanchthonian principles were called to fill the pulpit and the lectern. It was by this reform that the able young men, Caspar Olevianus and Zacharias Ursinus, the renowned authors of our catechism, came to Heidelberg.

Caspar Olevianus

Caspar Olevianus, born on August 10, 1532, in the city of Treves on the French border, applied himself diligently to the study of the general knowledge and sciences of his day. After attending various noteworthy schools, he studied jurisprudence at the University of Bourges. One of his schoolmates was a son of Count Frederick of Simern (later Frederick III of the Palatinate). This promising young man, together with two other students, drowned when their boat turned over while they attempted to cross a river. Olevianus witnessed this tragedy and tried to rescue his friend, almost losing his own life in the attempt. Then and there he vowed to dedicate his life to the gospel of God.

He finished his studies in jurisprudence and returned to his home with the degree of doctor of civil law. His great desire now was to prepare himself by proper studies for the ministry of the Gospel, and so he went to Geneva, Switzerland, and attended the lectures of the renowned theologian and teacher, John Calvin. At Zurich he made the acquaintance of Peter Martyr Vermigli, and at Lausanne, Theodore Beza. At Geneva the zealous Reformer William Farel prevailed upon him to return to his home to preach.

In 1559, at the age of twenty-seven, he returned to Treves, where he took charge of a school and also began preaching with fearless fervor. Treves was thrown into commotion. Olevianus and other reform leaders were cast into prison, and after ten months of negotiations, were set free under condition of heavy fines and banishment from the city. The temper of the man of God is forged in the furnace of tribulation, and the Lord always has a greater task ready for those who are thus tempered.

Frederick III, recalling that this same Olevianus, as a young student, had risked his life to save his son, and realizing that he was now being persecuted and banished for the sake of the gospel, called him into the service of the gospel at Heidelberg.

In 1560 he became lecturer at the university, and the following year professor of dogmatics. Within a year, however, he exchanged his position for the pastorate of a city church. Although there were many very able and older men at Heidelberg, Olevianus, still very young but tried in the furnace of affliction, was eminently a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Clad in the full armor of God, he affirmed:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to sepa-rate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus, Our Lord (Rom. 8:35-39).

Zacharias Ursinus

Zacharias Ursinus, born at Breslau, Silisia, on July 18, 1534, entered the University of Wittenberg, Germany, at the age of sixteen. He remained there for seven years and it was during this time that he became strongly attached to his eminent teacher, Philip Melanchthon, with whom he attended the conference at Worms in the year 1557. After this he made personal contacts with the leaders of the reformation at Heidelberg and Strassburg in Germany, at Basel, Lausanne and Geneva in Switzerland, and at Orlean and Paris in France.

In 1558 he became the rector of the Elizabethan Gymnasium at Breslau, his native city. The views of the sacraments, whether the Lord was materially or spiritually present in the elements, were being discussed in church circles. It was apparent from the beginning that Ursinus held to the views of Melanchthon, and for this reason the fury of the ultra-Lutherans rose against him and he was branded as an anti-Lutheran Calvinist. He ably defended and vindicated his teaching on the sacraments and on the person of Christ in a tract which he published at that time. This, however, did not bridge the differences as Ursinus had hoped; instead, it increased the antagonism, and early in 1560 he resigned his position. “I will go,” he said, “to the Zürichers, whose reputation indeed is not great here, but who have so famous a name among other churches that it cannot be obscured by our preachers. They are God-fearing, thoroughly learned men with whom I have re-solved to spend my life. God will provide for the rest.”

He went to Zürich and there he again greeted his old friends Heinrich Bullinger and Peter Martyr Vermigli. It so happened that Frederick III at this time had requested the help of Vermigli to continue the Reformation in the Palatinate. Vermigli considered himself too old for such a difficult task and recommended his capable young friend Zacharias Ursinus, who, in the year 1561, was called to the professorship of theology at the University of Heidelberg and also to the rectorship of Sapienz College.

For many years Ursinus lectured at these institutions of learning. He was very exacting in his studies and lectures, always clear and concise. For this reason he was eminently fitted for the teaching profession and also for the great task of preparing a catechism so comprehensive as to include all the principal doctrines and yet so simple, clear, and practical, that young and old, students and theologians would cherish and love the “only comfort in life and in death.”

Under the supervision of Frederick III the preliminary work was done by the faculty of the university, but the final form of the Catechism and its editing was entrusted to Olevianus and Ursinus. The finished manuscript was ready by the end of 1562 and was unanimously approved. The first edition came off the press early in 1563.

Defense of the Catechism

The appearance of this catechism immediately aroused not only the Roman Catholic Church but also the Lutherans and even Emperor Maximilian II. It particularly met with the disapproval and unwarranted fury of the Lutherans. Lifting up the Calvinistic standard in the land of Luther was considered treason and injury to his name and memory.

At the Diet of Augsburg in 1566, Frederick III, Elector of the Palatinate, was charged with innovations and the use of a catechism not agreeing with the Augsburg Confession. By decree it was demanded of him that he change or disown the catechism, and if he refused to do so he would be excluded from the peace of the Empire, and that he would have to suffer the consequences both in respect to himself and his province. The Elector then withdrew from the Diet for a moment.

He soon returned with his son Casimir, who carried a Bible, and began modestly but firmly to make his defense, appealing to the Emperor’s sense of justice and right when he said,

“Your Imperial Majesty, I continue in the conviction which I made known to you before I came here in person, that in matters of faith and conscience I acknowledge only one Lord who is Lord of all lords, and King of all kings. That is why I say that this is not a matter of the flesh, but of man’s soul and its salvation which I have received from my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. His truth I am duty bound to guard. As regards Calvinism, I can say with God and my Christian conscience as witnesses that I have not read the books of Calvin, so that I can little say what is meant by Calvinism. But what my catechism teaches this I profess. This catechism has on its pages such abundant proof from Holy Scripture that it will remain unrefuted by men and will also remain my irrefutable belief. As regards the Augsburg Confession, your majesty knows that I signed it in good faith at Naumberg, and I continue to be true to that signature. For the rest, I comfort myself in this, that my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, has promised me and all His believers that whatever we lose for His name’s sake here on earth shall be restored to us a hundredfold in the life to come. And with this I submit myself to the gracious consideration of your Imperial Majesty.”

This manly address in the defense of the faith gained for him a signal victory over the Diet. Disagreeing with the judgment of the Emperor, the Diet voted that the Elector of the Palatinate was to be regarded and treated as belonging to the Alliance of Augsburg and within the jurisdiction of the Peace of the Empire.

The Heidelberg Catechism thus gained general recognition, and while Prince Frederick III was governor of the Palatinate, the catechism was the medium for instructing his people in the Only Comfort. The Elector was called to his reward on October 26, 1576, at the age of sixty-one years. On his death-bed he confessed to those present:

“I have lived here long enough for you and for the Church; I am called now to a better life. I have done for the Church what I could, but my power has been small. He who is almighty and who has cared, for his Church before I was born, lives and reigns in heaven. He will not forsake us, neither will He allow the prayers and tears, which I so often shed upon my knees in this chamber for my successors and the Church, to go unanswered and without effect.”

God endowed this princely man with wisdom and courage as well as unpretentious humility, and when it came to defend the cause of the gospel of God, his province, and his very life before the Diet of Augsburg, 1566, he stood ready to declare the whole counsel of God concerning our salvation set forth in his catechism of the Christian Faith.

The Heidelberg Catechism is a precious heritage of faith passed to us from our Reformed fathers. For that reason we are to treasure it, as Rev. Paul Trieck states,

Countless people through the years have carried on the Heidelberg tradition. That is well, but will we and our children continue to carry on the Heidelberg’s truths? Will we continue to commit it to our heads and our hearts? Will we faithfully teach our covenant children to walk in the doctrines it so clearly expounds? Would we be willing, as many before us, to put our life on the line to cling to the Christian faith as set forth in the Heidelberg? The use of the Heidelberg is very much a part of our past, but will we take that heritage with us into the future? To recount the rich heritage of our forefathers is an exercise in futility and no more than “name-dropping” unless we still walk in those shoes and are committed to instill these truths in the hearts and minds of the generations to come. Just to preserve and honor a heritage as a thing of the past is to make an idolatrous icon of it. To persevere in the faith expressed in our Heidelberg heritage will be a blessing to us and to our covenant children. (You Shall Be My People, 1996, p. 209-10)

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

Rev. Paul H. Treick

OUR beloved Heidelberg!-this is an expression one seldom hears about a confession or a creed of the church. After all, a confession is composed of doctrines which are supposed by many to be dry and unemotional theological statements. Yet, love for the Heidelberg Catechism has characterized the 250-year history of the Reformed Church in the United States and continues. It is not a love for a book or a document as such, but a love for the faith it expresses so well.

Along with us, Christians of many languages from all over the world have uttered these words as they have known the “comfort” so beautifully and soundly expressed by this document first published in 1563. What is it that makes the Heidelberg Catechism so unique?

The continuing history of the Reformed Church in the United States is due in large part to the use of the “Heidelberger.” The defining word here is “use.” What benefit is a creed for us if it is not used? What good is a creed carefully preserved on our “beloved historical document” shelf, if it is not also in our hearts and heads? How can a creed benefit the church if it is not taught to believers and to their children? It is alleged that indoctrination of our covenant children is somehow suspect or simply wrong. Critics say it leads to “dead orthodoxy.” We would counter by saying that not knowing what to believe leads to “unorthodoxy.” The anti-creedal trend in the twentieth century has been to render mere lip-service to the historical, confessional statements of the church, but not make them living documents in the life of the church. If you want to see a dying church, look at one which no longer teaches or adheres to its own creeds. If you want to see a dead church, look at one which can no longer define what it claims to believe. If its belief is unknown, then what reason is there for its existence? The exodus from the historic Reformed faith in recent years has not been the fault of the creeds, but a failure to make them the center of instruction and discipline. {172}

In some quarters, attempts are made to rewrite theology so frequently that a book like the Heidelberg Catechism seems like little more than a relic of the past. The results are clearly seen today and they are disastrous. The pathetic trend of today is doctrinal avoidance where theological awareness is exchanged for feelings. Doctrinal ignorance is often lauded. Feelings, opinions, and experiences have become the basis for truth. People fear that doctrines (usually considered to be too old-fashioned and divisive) will drive people away from the church. In reality, the opposite is true-people leave when they no longer know or can state what they believe. When people are no longer able to distinguish between truth and error, they easily fall prey to liberalism or neo-evangelicalism.

Doctrines are simply teachings and everyone follows some teaching. Everyone believes something-whether true or false. Today’s anti-creedal environment says, “No book but the Bible; no creed but Christ.” As clever as this might sound, this is the creed of many who prefer to disguise their actual beliefs either because of ignorance or because their doctrines are too bizarre to be presented up front.


The Heidelberg Catechism, along with the Belgic Confession of Faith and the Canons of Dort are the official creeds of the Reformed Church in the United States. These all complement each other and were united as a package of creeds by the Synod of Dort in 1618. Of these, the Heidelberg is unique since it is a catechism. It is designed as a teaching tool to be memorized and to become a part of the daily confession of the believer. The latter two creeds are excellent statements of the Reformed faith, but their form and purpose are more suitable as administrative statements than pedagogical tools.

The word “catechesis,” derived from the Greek, describes the teaching and instruction given to “catechumens” in preparation for confirmation. The word “catechism” is from the Greek word Katecheo which means to “sound from above” and came generally to mean “to give instruction concerning the content of faith” (see Lk. 1:4; Acts 18:25; Rom. 2:18; 1 Cor. 14:19 for the use of this word). The method of this instruction involved a teacher asking questions and the student responding with carefully worded answers provided by the teacher. We see in Galatians 6:6 (where this word is used twice) the contrast between the catechumen ( ‘him that is taught in the word”) and the catechizer (“him that teacheth in all good things”).

The word “catechism” is often associated with Roman Catholicism, perhaps because of the papal sanctions and blessings associated with it. The Protestant Church, however, was the first to write a catechism. Luther’s larger and shorter {173} catechisms appeared in 1529. The Heidelberg and the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms are the most important of the Protestant contributions. Peter Canisius (1534-1566), a Roman Catholic Jesuit priest, was the first to issue a catechism within the Roman Church.[1] All catechisms are not of one sort-there are good and bad catechisms depending on the doctrinal content of each.

The use of catechisms became quickly associated with the rite of “confirmation”-not as the Roman Catholics practiced it, but covenantally, where the baptized child would be taught the promises of the Gospel in order to confess them by examination and confirm them as his own. The covenant, the catechism, and confirmation are thereby inseparably intertwined. Calvin, in speaking of confirmation favored . . .

a catechizing, in which children or those near adolescence would give an account of their faith before the church. But the best method of catechizing would be to have a manual drafted for this exercise, containing and summarizing in simple manner most of the articles of our religion, on which the whole believers’ church ought to agree without controversy. A child of ten would present himself to the church to declare his confession of faith, would be examined in each article, and answer to each; if he were ignorant of anything or insufficiently understood it, he would be taught. Thus, while the church looks on as a witness, he would profess the one true and sincere faith, in which the believing folk with one mind worship the one God.

If this discipline were in effect today, it would certainly arouse some slothful parents, who carelessly neglect the instruction of their children as a matter of no concern to them; for then they could not overlook it without public disgrace. There would be greater agreement in faith among Christian people, and not so many would go untaught and ignorant; some would not be so rashly carried away with new and strange doctrines; in short, all would have some methodical instruction, so to speak, in Christian doctrine.[2]

In accord with this, in the Second Helvetic Confession (Swiss) by Heinrich Bullinger (1566), we read,

The Lord enjoined his ancient people to exercise the greatest care {174} that young people, even from infancy, be properly instructed. Now since it is well known from the writings of the evangelists and apostles that God has no less concern for the youth of his new people, when he openly testifies and says: “Let the children come to me; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Mark 10:14), the pastors of the churches act most wisely when they early and carefully catechize the youth, laying the first ground of faith, and faithfully teaching the rudiments of our religion . . . . Here let the Church show her faith and diligence in bringing the children to be catechized, desirous and glad to have her children well instructed. (Chapter XXV)

Let us never underestimate the importance of catechetical instruction for the believer and for the church as a whole. To the extent that this practice has been neglected we have seen the theology of the church shift and drift. Certainly there are other methods of instruction, but the catechetical approach is difficult to rival in terms of its overall structure and progressive building up of the faith. If just one generation is not instructed in the basic truths of the Gospel the damage done to the next generation is very difficult to recover from.

It is common to attempt to begin instruction with moralistic lessons and a lot of emphasis on how to love God and our neighbor-a noble thought, but a terrible mistake. The basis of the Christian life that glorifies God is a knowledge of sin followed by repentance and faith in Christ. Obedience to God’s law, growing out of thanksgiving, can only come when there is a salvation to be thankful for. The catechism is well-suited to give to children as well as adults the step by step guidance in these blessed truths.

Parents, take heed that you may say to your children, as Paul to Timothy, that “from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures” (2 Tim. 3:15).


Our purpose in this chapter is to uncover the course of development which laid the foundation for the Heidelberg. The book known as the Heidelberg Catechism did not appear out of a vacuum, but was the fruit of God’s providence. Many events and numerous godly men contributed to the final product. To give a complete history of the Heidelberg Catechism would require volumes, since to put ones finger on the pulse of the German Reformation is to feel the heartbeat of the Heidelberg Catechism.

At the time of the Reformation catechisms abounded throughout Europe. Protestants were eager to teach their followers and defend their faith to both ecclesiastical and civil authorities. Many catechisms were written before and many {175} after the Heidelberg.[3] The distinctiveness of the Heidelberg does not lie merely in the question and answer format, but it lies in the very personal, pastoral nature of the questions and answers. This is exemplified in the very first question, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” The answer provides the response of a confessing Christian, “That I, with body and soul, in life and in death am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. . . .” The Heidelberg not only outlines the essential doctrines of the Christian faith, but it reveals the course of the Christian’s life from sin to salvation to thankfulness. It employs the basic outline of the book of Romans and it follows the definition of the word “redemption”-to be set free from the bondage of sin by purchase through the blood of Jesus to glorify God. It incorporates the fundamental teaching that our salvation includes both our body and our soul (ie. a Calvinistic world and life view). This approach is in distinction to the false dichotomy of the scholastics who saw man’s salvation in terms of the soul, but not of the body. In that sense the Heidelberg Catechism is both doctrinal and practical. Among catechisms the Heidelberg is a unique treasure from which we have drawn great wealth for many generations. It was the stated creed of the RCUS from its organization in the United States, having been already accepted by the German and Dutch immigrants who came to this country.

The format of the Heidelberg was intended to be pastoral-the pastor asking the questions and the student responding with the answers. Early catechisms, including Calvin’s first catechism, were arranged in paragraph format, without questions and answers.[4] Later, it was seen that the question and answer method (the catechetical method) was more effective.[5] Some began using this catechetical method the wrong way-where the student asked the question and the pastor gave the answer. Leo Juda, of Zurich, did this in his first catechism. He reversed this in the second catechism, so the minister asked the questions and the pupil gave the answers. This is still the present method. A number of editions of the Heidelberg were augmented with detailed explanations of each question, numerous Bible texts, {176} prayers, and even hymns written to express each Lord’s Day of the catechism.[6] It was also widely used in homes so fathers could instruct their children.

In this 250th year celebration, happily catechism classes and the memorization of the Heidelberg Catechism still continue among the covenant children of the Reformed Church in the United States. This is still much the same as in the days of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. This practice is continued not out of blind adherence to tradition, but because it has proven to be the most effective method of instilling these precious truths in the minds of our children. It gives them not only a ready grasp of deep truths and definitions for their own benefit, but aids in explaining the Gospel to others.

Some have opined that this catechetical method is spurious because children are giving answers to questions that someone else has prepared. It isn’t their own answer. We’re putting words in their mouth. That is exactly the purpose of catechizing. Were we to allow each child to formulate his own answers to the questions, they would each be formulating a new creed according to their childish understanding. In teaching any other subject, the same method is employed. Water is not just wet, but we tell students that it consists of specific amounts of hydrogen and oxygen. In catechizing, it is expected not just that children are able to parrot the answers, but to demonstrate an understanding of them. It is always our hope and prayer that the Holy Spirit will use this instruction to create a true and living faith in their hearts. A thorough examination is required for confirmation-to determine that the answers recited are also understood and have become the basis for a knowledgeable confession of true faith in Jesus Christ.

The Heidelberg Catechism is not just a children’s book. It is a book for all who are the children of God. One of the most effective tools of evangelism today is still the Heidelberg. Because of its strong biblical basis, it possesses an ageless quality. It must be used, not as a substitute for studying the Bible, but in conjunction with the Holy Scriptures. A thorough knowledge of the Heidelberg should initiate a more intensive study of other creeds, namely, The Belgic Confession of Faith, the Canons of Dort, and other Reformed creeds as well.

In the words of Zacharius Ursinus in the introduction to his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, catechetical instruction is necessary for the following reasons:

1. Because it is the command of God (Deut. 11:19) {177}

2. Because of the divine glory which demands that God be not only rightly known and worshipped by those of adult age, but also by children, according as it is said, “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength” (Ps. 8:2).

3. On account of the comfort and salvation; for without a true knowledge of God and his Son Jesus Christ, no one that has attained to years of discretion and understanding can be saved, or have any sure comfort that he is accepted in the sight of God (John 13:3; Heb. 11:6).

4. For the preservation of society and the church. If we are not correctly instructed in our childhood out of the sacred Scriptures concerning God and his will, and do not then commence the practice of piety, it is with great difficulty, if ever, we are drawn away from these errors which are, as it were, born in us, or which we have imbibed from our youth, and that we are led to abandon the vices in which we have been brought up, and to which we have been accustomed.

5. There is a necessity that all persons should be made acquainted with the rule and standard according to which we are to judge and decide, in relation to the various opinions and dogmas of men, that we may not be led into error, and be seduced thereby, according to the commandment which is given in relation to this subject, “Beware of false prophets” (Matt. 7:15).

6. Those who have properly studied and learned the Catechism, are generally better prepared to understand and appreciate the sermons which they hear from time to time. . . .

7. The importance of catechization may be urged in view of its peculiar adaptedness to those learners who are of weak and uncultivated minds, who require instruction in a short, plain, and perspicuous manner . . . .

8. It is also necessary, for the purpose of distinguishing and separating youths, and such as are unlearned, from schismatics and profane heathen, which can most effectually be done by a judicious course of catechetical instruction.

Lastly. A knowledge of the catechism is especially important for those who are to act as teachers, because they ought to have a more intimate acquaintance with the doctrine of the church than others, as well on account of their calling, that they may one day {178} be able to instruct others. . . .[7]


The unique character of the Heidelberg Catechism is the product of the time in which it was written and the exceptional preparation God gave to those responsible for its composition. The heritage of the Heidelberg for the RCUS goes back much further than our years here in the United States. While the authors of the Heidelberg are significant, the impetus it needed to be widely distributed was due in large measure to the one who authorized and defended it. In the sixteenth century, the writing of a confession such as the Heidelberg Catechism could easily cost you your life.

When we survey the history of the Heidelberg Catechism, the names of Elector Frederick III, Zacharias Ursinus, and Casper Olevianus are most conspicuous. These were all gifted workmen of God who were used in a very special way at a crucial time in the history of the church. The sixteenth century was not only a time of tremendous change in the church, but also in the lives of those used in the Reformation. In observing the lives of these men, we will also be exposed to some influential events and individuals who paved the way for the Heidelberg. In looking at this history, behold the hand of God and give Him all the glory.

We should remember that this period of history was at the latter half of the Renaissance which was the rebirth of cultural interest-especially an interest in studying the classic writings of the past. Those engaged in this study were known as “humanists” (not to be equated at all with the secular humanism of today). This revival began in Italy in the twelfth century and gradually moved northward. Its effect north of the Alps in the sixteenth century was characterized more by theological study-especially the writings of the Christian classics from the New Testament period and following. These men were known as “Christian humanists” (such as John Colet, Johannes Reuchlin, Thomas More, Jacques Lef_vre, and Erasmus). Many of these young humanists turned Protestant, such as Ulrich Zwingli, Philip Melanchthon, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, and Casper Olevianus. The interest shifted to the task of reforming the church according to apostolic principles. It may be true that “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched.”


Frederick’s predecessor, Otto Henry (d. 1559), was a Low-Lutheran and a Christian humanist. At this time three groups dominated the Protestant scene-High-Lutheran (closer to the Roman Catholics), Low-Lutheran (more liberal and {179} humanistic), and Reformed. Northern Germany was generally High-Lutheran and the south, since it was reformed more by the Calvinists, was Low-Lutheran. Otto was committed to improving the condition of the University of Heidelberg, which since its change from Catholicism to Protestantism had deteriorated. His desire was to hire the best professors he could find to bring it out of the scholasticism of the Middle Ages. Being more committed to humanism than mere confessionalism, he hired some Reformed professors, most prominent were Peter Boquin (French) and Thomas Erastus (Swiss). No small controversy with Lutherans ensued, but they remained at Otto’s insistence and offered a strong foothold for the Reformed at the university.[8] Thus the door was open for Frederick to appoint Ursinus and Olevianus during his later tenure as Elector.

Otto Henry also was quite broad-minded about allowing the Reformed a place in the realm. It should be remembered that in 1555 the Peace of Augsburg[9] was signed which gave each prince the authority to determine the official religion of his domain according to his own religion (Cuius regio, eius religio). Those citizens who refused were allowed to sell their land and depart. In addition, cities could permit different faiths, if they were already established. This peace applied only to Roman Catholics and those Protestants who subscribed to the Augsburg Confession (1530).[10] Significantly, Calvinists and Anabaptists were excluded from this freedom. However, Otto, being quite broad-minded and somewhat sympathetic to the Reformed, gave permission for Reformed refugees to settle in Frankenthal despite warnings from Phillip Melanchthon that this would create friction.[11]

Perhaps one of the most significant acts of Otto Henry was to reform the worship in the Palatinate according to the Low-Lutheran position. His Church Order of 1556 departed from the High-Lutheran practice of exorcism. He threw out the altars except for the main altar for Lord’s Supper, and he ordered that pictures should be removed from the churches. {180}

A final preparation for Frederick’s reign was Otto Henry’s intervention in the heated disputes between two very vocal and zealous men-Tileman Hesshusius (High-Lutheran) and William Klebitz (Reformed). Here, as controversies erupted around such issues as images, hymn books, the form of Lord’s Supper, and a degree given to a Reformed student from the University of Heidelberg (which was Lutheran at the time), it was Otto Henry who offered the greatest concessions and sympathy to the Reformed.

So, the stage was set for Frederick III to assume the Electorship at the death of Otto Henry in 1559. God had providentially been laying the foundation before Frederick’s time so that out of this High-Lutheran state, one of the greatest confessions of the Reformed faith could be written.


Elector Frederick III (1515-1576) of the Palatinate in Germany might be said to be the “father” of the Heidelberg Catechism since he authorized and defended the writing of the Heidelberg. His reference to the Heidelberg Catechism as “my catechism” reflects not only his love for the doctrines of the Heidelberg, but the responsibility he felt for its creation and defense.

As were many of the Reformers, Frederick was born into a Roman Catholic home, the eldest son of Duke John II of the Palatinate. In 1537 he married Mary a daughter of Margrave Casimir of Brandenburg. She was an outspoken High-Lutheran, even warning Frederick about Zwinglian (ie. Reformed) influences in Heidelberg. As a condition of marriage, she got him to read the Bible. Through her influence he was converted from Roman Catholicism to Lutheran, but a Low-Lutheran, and much more inclined to the Reformed position than the High-Lutheran. He was a very quiet and peaceful man and did not invite controversy. While he was often attacked viciously, he did not respond in kind. The castle at Heidelberg was characterized by a godly atmosphere. It is said that he and his wife prayed and sang a psalm (psalm-singing was forbidden among the High-Lutherans) at the beginning and close of every meal. Every day he prayed for his people and was generous with his wealth.[12]

In 1559, two weeks after Otto Henry died, Frederick was appointed as the Elector of the Palatinate. His predecessor had created some sense of peace and stability, but there was definitely a undercurrent of controversy between the three major factions-Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed. The Hesshusius and Klebitz debates and attacks heated up. Most of the controversy centered around the Lord’s Supper, not only in the manner in which it was served, but especially whether {181} the physical or spiritual presence of Christ was present. Frederick accepted the Low Lutheran position which said that the body of Christ was not “distributed,” but “exhibited” at the Lord’s Supper.

While Frederick did not initially declare that he was Reformed, it became increasingly apparent that he came down on the side of the Reformed whenever controversies had to be settled. This was in part due to his peaceful nature, but perhaps more so to his deepening conviction that all doctrine must be derived from the Bible alone.

Frederick felt that since the Catholics had gained greater unity with the developments at the Council of Trent (meeting in three stages from 1545-1563), all Protestants should present a united front against Catholicism. It is clear that Frederick never espoused the High-Lutheran position. Phillip Melanchthon (also Low-Lutheran) played an important role in supporting Frederick. It was Melanchthon who advised Frederick to settle the dispute as to the formula used in the Lord’s Supper by using the biblical formula of 1 Cor. 10:16 instead of the formula used in the Augsburg Confession (ie. Christ’s body and blood are “communicated” to believers, but it avoided saying that the elements “are” the body and blood of Christ. He added an important clause which said that this “communication” did not occur without thought, as occurs when mice gnaw at bread).[13]

But Frederick was still a Low-Lutheran and had his son Christopher instructed in Luther’s Catechism. Within his own heart Frederick was not satisfied with the conclusions on the matter of the Lord’s Supper and set out on an intensive study of the Bible to find the truth. Day and night he labored, searched, and prayed that God might reveal the truth to him. During this search his motto was also formulated, “Lord, according to Thy will.”[14]

This search of the Scriptures is significant, for Frederick used nothing but the Bible to seek the truth. This is precisely the Reformed principle to determine the truth, even though Frederick may not have employed it because he was self-consciously Reformed at that point in time. The Bible had become the rule of faith with a different emphasis than Luther had held. Frederick forwarded the Reformed principle of theology which said, “only what is commanded in the Bible,” as opposed to the Lutheran principle of, “only what the Bible does not forbid.” The Augsburg Confession contained no biblical references to the Bible as the only rule of faith. Contrast this to the Heidelberg Catechism and its strong biblical basis. This is a first sign that Frederick was openly becoming Reformed in his theology.

Gradually, we see Frederick shift away from Lutheranism toward Reformed {182} theology. He also became tired with the authoritarian nature of Hesshusius (already dismissed from his position at the University of Heidelberg) which he was now demonstrating in his church. He appointed a consistory to rule in the church, headed by a strong Reformed man named Zuleger.[15] In 1560 Casper Olevianus was appointed as a professor of theology at the University of Heidelberg. Fear began to set in that Frederick was becoming a Calvinist. His wife, Mary, was so upset at Frederick’s leanings that she called upon his son-in-law, Duke John Frederick of Saxony (a High-Lutheran), to have prayers in the churches to the end that Frederick might be kept in the Lutheran faith. Mary remained Lutheran for some time, but later changed and also became zealously Reformed. It was certainly true that the High-Lutherans were now a minority and that the large number of Low-Lutherans made the later change to Calvinism in the Palatinate easier.

By 1561 the majority of the faculty at Heidelberg University was Reformed. One striking example is the fact that Heidelberg University supported the teachings of Jerome Zanchius (1516-1590) who was driven from Strassburg by the Lutherans for his teaching of the doctrine of predestination.[16] For a Lutheran university to support the position of a Reformed theologian evidences the Reformed position of the University at this time. Zanchius later became a professor of Reformed theology at the University of Heidelberg. Following a conference at Naumburg, which attempted to unite the Protestants, Frederick made his break with the authority of the early Lutheran faith (which he called “popish”), and with Melanchthon (who with Luther authored the Augsburg Confession of 1530) Frederick was inclined now to distance himself from Melanchthon, concluding that if Melanchthon could be so wrong on the first Ausburg, then why not also on the later editions. While they were a slight improvement over the original Augsburg confession, Frederick deemed these to be in error also.[17] Melanchthon’s 1540 Altered Augsburg Confession, which Frederick eventually signed, stated in Article X that “with the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ are truly shown forth” {183} instead of “are truly present.”[18]

It was in 1561 that Frederick took an openly Reformed position in various areas. Again, he was driven to the Bible for more study. Reformation took place in the worship and the churches. Statues were covered with black cloth, the veneration of the wafer in the Lord’s Supper was halted, pictures in churches were covered with whitewash, the use of the organ ceased, Latin hymns were replaced by Luther’s psalms and other hymns, stone baptismal fonts were removed, altars were thrown out and replaced with communion tables, the golden chalice for Lord’s Supper was replaced with wood or pewter, bread was used in Lord’s Supper instead of the wafer, lay baptism was halted, and communion to the sick was lessened so that it did not appear to be a saving work. Zacharias Ursinus was appointed to the faculty at Heidelberg and Olevianus became the head of the Palatinate church. More and more Reformed writings were coming out of the Palatinate which put fear in the hearts of the High-Lutherans that the Palatinate had fallen to the Reformed. They were right.

In 1562 Thomas Erastus,[19] a Reformed professor at Heidelberg and a physician, demonstrated his extensive knowledge of the Reformed doctrine of the Lord’s Supper with the publication of a remarkable booklet on the body of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. The doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ was denied and here we see the sacraments are called “signs and seals.” Frederick ordered the publication of this work. A second order by Frederick in this year was that a catechism should be written. His desire was that this new catechism should be, above all, biblical. The suggestion for this catechism first came from Olevianus and the majority of the writing of it would be by Ursinus. A commission representing the court, the university, and the churches was set up. It was this commission that gave the primary authorship to Ursinus and Olevianus. In the introduction to the first three editions of the catechism, Frederick III states that it originated, “with the counsel and assistance of our whole theological faculty, also all superintendents and principal church councilors.”[20] That would include such faculty members as Bouquin, Tremellius, Ursinus, Olevianus, Diller, Erastus, and Frederick himself. {184}

God used Frederick’s reign at just this time in history to produce for us a beautiful and biblical expression of the Reformed faith which remains for us today. As we will see later, the catechism of Frederick came under severe attack, yet God caused it to be preserved against almost unbelievable odds.


Zacharias Ursinus (Baer) at age 26 and Casper Olevianus (Van der Olevig) at age 28 were the primary authors of the Heidelberg Catechism. Yet Frederick participated in the structure and everything had to be subject to his assent, including the literal expressions. The Synod of the Palatinate would ask for a change in Question 78 before the first edition was published in 1563[21] and in a later edition Frederick had Question 80 added.[22] Each author formulated his own draft without consulting each other about the main features. The effect was that the first drafts were far apart in form even though both the Genevan Catechism of Calvin and the Emden Catechism of à Lasco were used as a guide. Olevianus’ composition existed of a simple development of the Covenant of Grace, and Ursinus’ division was misery, redemption, and thankfulness. Olevianus deemed the structure of Ursinus’ work as best for this catechism.[23]

These two men were well adapted to perform this monumental work since they were bosom friends and of like faith. Both were brilliant scholars. They belonged to the second generation of Reformers, when the vibrations from the initial blast of the Reformation were less pronounced. Theirs was a period when less of the outward and more of the inward, formative work needed to be done. While the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism will probably remain as their claim to fame, yet we should remember that this was but one work in their lives. They faithfully served the cause of the faith and did a great deal to further the understanding, formulation, and defense of the Reformed faith.


Zacharias Baer, whose last name was Latinized (in Latin “bear” is “ursus”) to become Ursinus, was a native of Breslau, the capital of Silesia. His father was a deacon at the Magdalen Church. He was a gifted scholar whose embrace of mathematics and philosophy served him well to express the faith with keenness and clarity. He possessed a quiet personality and avoided public discourse. In 1550, at {185} the age of 16 he enrolled at the university at Wittenberg where Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) was not only his professor, but became his lifelong friend. After seven years of study he traveled widely. In Geneva he met John Calvin (1509-1564); in Zurich he met Johann Bullinger (1504-1575) and Peter Martyr (who became a very close friend). His acquaintances were impressed by Ursinus and he in turn was influenced by them. After a short tenure of teaching in Breslau, he was called in 1562 by Frederick III to become Professor of Philosophy (and in the same year made Doctor and Professor of Theology) at the University of Heidelberg.

As a professor he gave himself totally to his work and was closely attached to and loved by his pupils. He did not enjoy being disturbed by lengthy visits in his study and so he attached as sign above his door which read, “Amice, quisquis huc venis: aut agito paucis, aut abi, aut me laborantem juva” (“Friend, whoever you are who enters here: either make your matter short, or go, or assist me in my work”).[24]

With the change of power back to Lutheranism following Elector Frederick’s death in 1576, Ursinus was forced to leave Heidelberg since he could not receive Luther’s catechism or Lutheran doctrine. He was called by the second son of Frederick, John Casimir, to the newly established Reformed Theological School in Neustadt. The school flourished during his stay there. In failing health, the Lord called Zacharias Ursinus to Himself at the age of 49 years. Here he knows fully the “only comfort in life and in death” which he proclaimed so vigorously in this life.


When requested to write a catechism which would express the Reformed faith, we should remember that Ursinus did not begin this work in a vacuum. He was influenced by his past training and the writings of others. As noted earlier, Ursinus was a close friend and, in some respects, a follower of Phillip Melanchthon (1497-1560) who was a Low-Lutheran. It would be an error to think that Ursinus was himself a Melanchthonian. Unlike Melanchthon, Ursinus believed in predestination, he believed that Christ’s physical body was at the right hand of God (see Heidelberg Catechism Questions 46, 76 and 80), and he rejected the teaching that {186} Christ was physically present in the elements of the Lord’s Supper. Melanchthon would not have assented to these teachings.[25]

It might be noted also that Melanchthon was well-respected among the Reformed theologians. In 1543 John Calvin dedicated to Melanchthon a publication in which he set forth the errors of Dr. Albert Pighuis, an opponent of the doctrine of grace. Calvin also edited Melanchthon’s Loci Communes which was translated into French.[26] Calvin did not have such a relationship with Luther, although he did write to him on occasion. Calvin used Melanchthon to get through to the less than congenial Luther, for Calvin said, “For so far as I could understand by report, and by letters from different persons, the scarcely pacified temper of the man might, on very slight occasion, break out into a sore.”[27] So, it is not surprising that we find a very cordial relationship between Ursinus and Melanchthon. While divided by theological issues, the Reformers often had to consider the greater evil and enemy in Rome.

While often siding with the Reformed when disputes arose, the influence of Melanchthon on Ursinus was more personal than theological. Melanchthon was a peaceful man and aided the Reformed cause at times because he wanted to distance himself from Catholicism and from the caustic attacks by the High-Lutherans against the Reformed. We should be aware that there were also sharp differences between the High-Lutherans and the Low-Lutherans, especially in the area of the ubiquitous presence of Christ’s body. In examining the evidence, it is clear that Melanchthon was closer to the High-Lutheran doctrines than to the Reformed.[28] Perhaps we can also conclude that Ursinus, like Melanchthon, had the desire to see a more united front against the papal powers who wanted both Lutheran and {187} Reformed churches destroyed. In this there was sometimes cooperation, and even some attempts to mollify the various parties. Yet, on the basic issues of Calvinism, Ursinus stood with Calvin and Melanchthon did not.[29]


Another noteworthy influence on Ursinus was his childhood training in the church under his pastor Ambrosius Moibanus. Moibanus was a Protestant whose theology was developed before the specific details of the Lutheran or Reformed position were clearly formulated or the heated debate had begun. Later in his life, Moibanus, a student of Calvin’s Institutes, wrote a letter to John Calvin in which he states that Calvin’s writings met with his approval.[30]

Moibanus, as did many in the early Reformation, wrote a catechism for the instruction of the youth in the truths of the Bible. His first catechism (1533) was in Latin, his second (1535) in German, and a third (1537) in Latin. The format of the catechisms also changed. The first was in a ten topic arrangement common at that time-Piety the Law, the Gospel, Christ, the Sacraments, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, Love and Good Works, Calling, and Prayer.[31] The second and third editions each had an appendix with catechetical questions and answers. Not only the catechetical form, but the practical and personal approach of Moibanus’ catechism is reflected in the Heidelberg Catechism. Ursinus learned Moibanus’ catechism and it left a lasting impression on him. The truths and style that Ursinus learned as a youth stayed with him. These he incorporated into the Heidelberg Catechism some fifteen years later. Moibanus’ beginning emphasis on Christian piety and man’s relationship to God is reflected in the Heidelberg beginning with the “comfort”-with the emphasis on man’s personal redemption and reconciliation more than merely outlining the decrees of God. We see Moibanus’ influence in Ursinus’ treatment of God as a “heavenly Father” (Question 26); of faith as a “hearty trust” (Question 21); in his treatment of the requirements of God’s law as being “love” (Question 4); and in the teaching on the sacraments as promises and assurances. Moibanus’ catechism laid the foundation for Ursinus to direct his catechetical instruction in terms of man’s sin, redemption, and thankfulness. We might note how closely this discipling method is to our Lord’s command, “Deny yourself, take up the cross, and follow me.” Ursinus’ boyhood instruction was remembered and built upon. The Heidelberg Catechism demonstrates a more mature Reformed theology than Moibanus, yet his style is in evidence. {188}

From this, let the church of today also take note of the blessed influence which children receive when they are catechized early and soundly (cf. 2 Tim. 1:5 and 3:14, 15). If what is learned as a youth is actually committed to memory, it will provide a deep spiritual reservoir for every endeavor of Christian life.


Ursinus was well-acquainted with various other catechisms which were available to him.[32] Some of these catechisms proved to be sources for the Heidelberg. Olevianus, on the other hand, was quite familiar with Calvin’s catechism in France and Calvin’s teachings from his stay in Geneva where he studied under Calvin. However, he did not have as an extensive a catechetical background as Ursinus had.

James I. Good lists the following sources (in addition to Moibanus mentioned above):

1. The Strassburg catechisms by Capito, 1527; Bucer, 1534, and Zell, 1535 and 1537.

2. The Zurich catechisms of Leo Juda, 1534, 1535, and 1538, and of Bullinger, 1559.

3. Calvin’s catechism, 1537 and 1541. Sometimes also Calvin’s Institutes.

4. The à Lasco catechisms, à Lasco’s 1551; Micronius’ 1552; the London compend 1552; and the Emden, 1554.[33]

In addition to these catechisms, we should be aware that Ursinus had himself written two catechisms-a larger and a shorter catechism before he was given the task to write the Heidelberg. His larger catechism was drawn largely from the Catechism and Institutes of John Calvin. Of the 323 questions in this Larger Catechism, 173 refer back to Calvin’s catechism, 58 are references from à Lasco’s catechisms, 28 are derived from Bullinger, and 31 from Melanchthon’s “Considerations of Ordinances.”[34] In Ursinus’ larger catechism the central theme was the covenant of grace-a theology which was in the process of being formulated and more carefully defined. {189}

It has been said that Olevianus also used his catechism as a basis for the Heidelberg, but that is not likely. His longer catechism, Fester Grundt, das ist, die Artickel des alten, waren ungezweiffelten Christlichen Glaubnis, was published after the Heidelberg. He spoke of writing this larger catechism in a letter to Bullinger, but it was first published in Heidelberg by Michel Schirat to 1567.[35] He had written some materials on the matter of the covenant of grace before 1563, but not a catechism as such.

Ursinus’ shorter catechism (108 questions) was quite unlike the larger. It was not centered as much on the development of covenant theology, but the outline of it is significant in determining where the outline of our Heidelberg began. The format of this smaller catechism had a familiar three-fold division-1. Sin; 2. Redemption; and 3. Thankfulness. Clearly, our Heidelberg Catechism was an expansion of this unique division. Where did Ursinus arrive at this three-fold format? Most likely he got it from a book of instruction republished at Heidelberg in 1558, entitled, “A Brief and Orderly Statement of the True Doctrine of Our Holy Christian Faith for House-fathers” (based on a work by Gallus of Ratisbon).[36] This book appeared between Ursinus’ writing of his larger and shorter catechisms and followed the outline of: 1. The law, including sin and penitence; 2. The gospel or faith; and 3. Good works. This book was Lutheran on the sacraments, which were included in the second part of the outline.[37]

On the doctrine of election, Ursinus in both the larger and smaller catechisms, is very clearly a Calvinist and not sympathetic to Melanchthon. More is said on the doctrine of election and double predestination than even Calvin wrote in his catechism. When the Heidelberg Catechism was written there are markedly less direct references to election, leading to the erroneous conclusion that it was conciliatory toward the doctrines of Melanchthon. This change of emphasis may be because of the nature of the Heidelberg itself. Its purpose is not to simply define a doctrine, but to call the elect of God to repentance and faith. The sovereign grace of God is foundational throughout (see especially Questions 26, 52 and 54). In Ursinus’ explanation of Question 54 in his commentary there is a lengthy explanation of both the nature of the Church and also of the eternal predestination of God. Here he says, “The common place of the eternal predestination of God, or of election and reprobation naturally grows out of the doctrine of the church: and is for {190} this reason correctly connected with it.”[38]

Is the Heidelberg avoiding the doctrines of the covenant and election? Certainly not. While the Heidelberg and Ursinus’ shorter catechism do not expound covenant theology as such, it is important to note that the whole structure of the Heidelberg is covenantal in its purpose and application.[39] It is specifically intended to be the tool to instruct our covenant children. It is covenant theology in practice. The doctrine of the covenant and of election are only briefly mentioned by name, yet the basis for the “comfort” spoken of in the Heidelberg are the comforts that Christians find in these doctrines. The doctrine of election or predestination was viciously attacked by many who opposed the Reformed Church. This is still true today. Ursinus rightly saw the doctrine of God’s sovereign, electing grace as a comfort, not a mystery or a threat. The Christian’s comfort rests in the unshakable stability of his salvation. The doctrine of election provides this for the believer. In addition, the concept of God is not merely that of a sovereign, but of a loving Father. Question 28 rightly teaches the confidence that the believer has in God the Father for the future-that “no creature shall separate us from His love, since all creatures are so in His hand, that without His will they cannot so much as move.” The elect are the children of God by adoption. God, who is our Father through Christ, unfailingly cares for His children. What greater comfort can a child of God have than this?

Quite a number of questions in the Heidelberg Catechism inquire of the learner, “What comfort or benefit is this to you?” (see Questions 1, 2, 28, 36, 43, 45, 49, 51, 52, 57, and 58). A striking example of this approach appears in Question 52 which asks, “What comfort is it to you that Christ shall come to judge the living and the dead?” In most treatments of the second coming of Christ and the judgment the concept of it being a comfort is lacking. Yet, comfort is exactly what the true believer experiences when he contemplates the return of our Lord. Such comfort can only belong to those who are assured that, by true faith in Jesus Christ, the promise of the covenant is theirs forever. The stress on the passive obedience of Christ on the cross which atoned for all our sins, and the active obedience of Christ which merited for us all our righteousness, is foundational to the whole {191} structure of the catechism and of our comfort. The stress on comfort and benefit has led some of the more scholastic critics to accuse the Heidelberg of being merely pragmatic and self-centered. While this approach is practical, it is not mere pragmatism, and it is certainly not centered on man as evidenced from the very first question and answer. Furthermore, the Heidelberg exhibits the central unity of the covenant by placing the Law of Love (Question 4) in its first part and the ten commandments in the third. This is the genius of Reformed covenant theology.


A study of the history of the Heidelberg Catechism would be incomplete without recalling the oft forgotten contributions of John à Lasco. The dominant theme in the Heidelberg Catechism regarding comfort finds its basis in the à Lasco catechism (1546) where a number of questions ask, “What comfort is it . . . ?”

This catechism was written by a remarkable man of God, John à Lasco, the founder and organizer of the Reformed Church in East Friesland, the Netherlands, the lower Rhine, and in England.[40] He was born in Poland of a family of nobility. His study at Zurich under Zwingli’s influence directed him to a more Reformed view of worship and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. He held unswervingly to the position that faith and life must be subordinate only to the Word and will of God-in contrast to the prevailing view that popes and councils determined all truth for faith and life.

The fiery à Lasco undertook the duties of his office as pastor of the Reformed Church at Emden, and as superintendent of ecclesiastical affairs in East Friesland. Where Luther desired a gradual change in worship, à Lasco aimed for a thorough and decided reformation so as to avoid gradual and successive changes. Regarding change he stated,

For such changes serve to render religion at first uncertain, and then contemptible, in the judgment of the uncultivated. If, therefore, a change of cultus is to be introduced, I desire it to be done in such a way, that no additional changes will be necessary in (the) future; that is, that all papal abominations, as soon as their sinfulness shall be made evident, be abolished, without exception; and in the introduction of new customs, an effort be made to conform as much as possible to the original purity and simplicity of the Apostolic Church, in order thus to supersede the necessity of any subsequent improvement.”[41] {192}

Sensing the need for a confession of faith for the Frisian Reformed Church, à Lasco wrote a catechism (1554) based on Calvin’s. This catechism which was known as the Emden Catechism, was used in all the foreign Reformed churches for a time and provided an important source for Ursinus in the preparation of the Heidelberg Catechism. Several questions of à Lasco’s catechisms (he wrote several) have the theme of comfort which belongs to the believer.

It is interesting to see this theme of comfort and that of the covenant combined in Ursinus’ Larger Catechism. It reads as follows:

“What firm comfort do you have in life and death?” That I am formed of God according to his image. And after I had lost this image willingly in Adam, God, out of His infinite and free mercy, received me into the covenant of his grace, in order that He, on account of the obedience and death of His Son, sent unto us in the flesh, may give to me, a believer, justice and eternal life; and this covenant He had sealed in my heart through His spirit, re-forming me in accordance with the image of God and calling me ‘Abba Father’ through His Word and visible sign of the covenant.”[42]

In comparison, Ursinus’ second, shorter Catechism, reads as follows:

“What is your comfort by which in life and death your heart sustains itself? That God, for Christ’s sake, has truly forgiven my sins and given me eternal life, that in it I may glorify him forever.”[43]

In these forerunners of the Heidelberg we see the change of emphasis on the matter of the covenant, and the comfort theme is expanded to the beautiful expression of our only comfort found in the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism. There is comfort in belonging to the covenant and people of God and of knowing by faith the meaning of “I will be your God, and ye shall be my people.” The Heidelberg Catechism is designed to focus on and impress this covenantal truth upon the hearts of the pupils in a very convincing way.

Thus, Ursinus preferred to view and teach the Christian faith in terms of the comfort we receive from being a member of God’s covenant family. Within that covenant community God has his elect people. While the teaching of the sovereign electing grace of God was certainly a truth precious to Ursinus (see Heidelberg Catechism Question 54), yet he may have felt that this doctrine might appear too harsh for young children (or those not familiar with the Reformed faith) to under {193} stand. So concludes James I. Good. I think this is to miss the depth of thinking that went into the Heidelberg. Ursinus’ view of the Christian faith is rightly defined more in terms of the covenant of grace than in terms of election. The elect are the faithful “remnant” of the covenant people (Romans 11:5-7). Covenant administration does not proceed from election, but the assurance of one’s election must develop out of a strong covenant consciousness. Within God’s covenant He has His elect, and in the final analysis only the elect will ever know the eternal blessings of the covenant. The covenant-breaker will have heard of the blessings, but will only experience the curses.

The comfort that Christians have is based on both of these truths-the security of election by God unto salvation in Christ, and the communion with God that we have as His covenant people. These two important doctrines are carefully and beautifully interwoven into the fabric of the Heidelberg to give us the promise, the ground and the fruits of our salvation.


The oft forgotten coauthor of the Heidelberg Catechism is Casper Olevianus. He did not contribute as many words to the catechism as Ursinus-but let us not underestimate the tremendous contributions he made in the formulation of covenant theology and Reformed ecclesiology. He stands shoulder to shoulder with the Reformers of his day.

Casper Olevianus (van Olewig) was a native of Olewig, a village near Treves (Trier) in France. His father was a baker who also held the office of mayor and senator. He was educated in Paris, Orleans, and Bourges. Here he became acquainted with and accepted Reformed theology. Later he studied theology in Geneva, Zurich, and Lausanne where he was influenced by such eminent leaders as Farel, Calvin, Peter Martyr, Beza, and Bullinger. He was appointed by Frederick III to become the eloquent court preacher in St. Peter’s Church in the Palatinate. Recognizing his commitment to Reformed theology and extraordinary abilities, he was appointed to share in the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism.

It was through a terrible tragedy that Frederick III first became acquainted with Olevianus. When Olevianus was a student of law at Bourges, he became close friends with Herman Louis, the son of Pfalzgraf Hermann Ludwig (later Frederick known as Frederick III of the Palatinate). One day, while strolling along the Eure {194} River, both young men were invited to join another group of students in a boat trip across the river. This group of students was rather drunk. Olevianus declined to go with them, but Herman Louis went. In the course of the crossing, the boat was overturned and all the occupants drowned. Olevianus dove into the water to save his friend, but was not successful. In doing this Olevianus himself very nearly drowned. Here Olevianus also promised God that should he be saved from death he would give himself to the service of the Gospel in his homeland.[44] Olevianus was rescued and he kept his promise by giving himself to the study of the works of John Calvin.

After graduating with a law degree in 1557 he went back to Treves for a short time. In 1558 he actually went to Geneva to study theology under John Calvin himself, and later on to Zurich to become a student of Peter Martyr, Bullinger and Beza. On his way back to Geneva, he met William Farel, the “persuader,” who along with Calvin, convinced him that he must return to his homeland to teach the doctrines of the Reformed faith. He was now well-armed with Reformed theology, especially the teaching of the Covenant and Presbyterial Church government learned at Geneva. These would become important later in his ministry.

This young man, now twenty-three years old, returned to Treves filled with exuberance and fire to teach the Reformed theology. He was hired to lecture in Latin on Melanchthon’s Dialectics at an academy known as The Bursa. It should be remembered that Treves was the city of the “Coat” (a coat supposedly worn by Jesus Christ which the Roman church taught the people to venerate). The size of the audience was so small he decided to preach (on his twenty-third birthday) in German on the subject of the doctrine of justification by faith. In his sermon he attacked the Roman mass, the worship of saints, religious processions, and other evils of the church. This was on August 10, 1559. Word of this spread rapidly to the enemies of the Reformed faith. The authorities favorable to the Roman Catholic Church ordered him never again to use the lecture hall to preach. At this time they did not forbid him to preach elsewhere in the city of Treves, which had a growing Reformed movement. His church grew to 500-600 adults. In a letter to the ministers of Strassburg (written from prison) Olevianus states that about half of the citizens embraced the Gospel.[45] The Elector, Johan von der Layen, returned from a meeting at the Reichstag in Augsburg, and was informed by the Roman Catholic sympathizers that this Calvinistic movement was getting out of hand. By August 25, the Elector’s investigators issued a decree forbidding Olevianus from preaching entirely.

The Treves city council, in attempting to weaken the grip of power held by the Elector declined to obey. On September 6, with 170 of his knights, Elector Johann returned and agreed to some political freedoms. He still could not gain {195} sufficient support on the city council to stop Olevianus from preaching. His answer was force. He left the city and placed it under siege from late September to October 11. The city council capitulated to the Elector’s demands and Olevianus and his colleagues were placed under arrest with capital charges of high treason.[46]

Through the intervention of Frederick III of the Palatinate (along with six other Protestant electors), Olevianus and eleven of his colleagues were released from prison on December 11, 1559 (after paying a fine of 3,000 gulden) and required to leave the city. After their release other Protestants were soon forced to flee the city. Olevianus’ mother lived there for another twenty years until the next Elector of Treves drove out all Protestants. She fled to Herborn. The Jesuits were then given the task of reconverting all the Protestants. A holiday, “The Whitmonday Procession,” was founded by the Jesuits in 1560, to celebrate the exile of the Protestants who followed the teachings of Olevianus. No Protestant was allowed to live in Treves for 200 years, until in 1784 an edict of religious toleration was issued. In 1817 the first Protestant church service was held.[47] The city of Treves, for better or worse did realize that a prophet had been in their midst! His name was Casper Olevianus.

Olevianus’ journey now took him from prison to Heidelberg. Frederick III invited him to return to Heidelberg with him, where in 1560 he became an instructor in preaching at the College of Wisdom (which had just been converted to a seminary). In 1561 Olevianus was promoted to Professor of Theology at the University of Heidelberg where he was also given a degree of Doctor of Theology. Soon after this he married a girl, Philippina, whom he had met in Strassburg.

Olevianus felt he was better suited to preach than to lecture, so he accepted the position as pastor of St. Peter’s Church and later the Church of the Holy Spirit.[48] His influence here was truly reformational (and revolutionary!), as he not only preached Calvinistic theology, but organized the church of the Palatinate along the lines of Presbyterianism which Calvin had established in Geneva. Especially, the practice of church discipline was instituted (as opposed to the idea that the civil authorities alone could institute and execute discipline).[49] Perhaps Olevianus’ most noteworthy contribution to the theology of the Reformation is in the area of covenant theology. He is deemed by many to be the founder of covenant theology {196} (not the first to expound it, but to define and systematize it).[50]

When appointed to work with Ursinus on the production of a catechism, Olevianus brought with him not only a sound Calvinistic theology, but a zeal which grew out of the fires of affliction, in order to produce a catechism filled with sound doctrine and the heartfelt comfort of knowing that “whatever evil He sends upon me in this troubled life, He will turn to my good; for he is able to do it, being Almighty God, and willing also, being a faithful Father” (Heidelberg Catechism Question 26).

Following the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism, Olevianus labored faithfully as a pastor and was especially responsible for the formation of a Reformed ecclesiology in the Palatinate.[51] After the death of Elector Frederick III (in 1576), the Lutheran doctrines and customs were immediately reinstated by Frederick’s son, Ludwig. Since Olevianus was the primary leader in the Reformed church in Heidelberg, he was singled out as an enemy. He was suspended from office of pastor and professor, forbidden to correspond with any of the scholars, prohibited from holding any private assemblies in his house, and he was even placed under arrest. Another adherent of Reformed doctrine, Count Ludwig, of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleberg, was also deposed. He immediately called Olevianus to instruct his sons and also to preach in Herborn (Rhine-Westphalian area). Here Olevianus labored vigorously and tirelessly during the last ten years of his life, especially preparing the way for the introduction of the presbyterial order of church government in the provinces of Nassau, Wittgenstein, Solms, and Wied. This form of government was adopted in this region in 1581.[52]

In 1587, at the age of 50, Casper Olevianus entered into his eternal comfort, leaving behind his wife, two sons and a daughter. In his last testament he gives {197} evidence of his firm faith in the Almighty, saying,

Herewith I also commend my body and soul to my beloved God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, through the eternal High Priest, relying upon His gracious covenant and promise, that he will, to all eternity, be my God, and the God of my seed, and that he will never deal with me in anger, as he has sworn to me in His oath (Isa. 54:9).[53]

Another example of Olevianus’ fatherly concern for his covenant children comes in a letter three days before his death, written to his son Paul, who was too ill to be at his side,

My dear son Paul, with the patriarch Jacob I say: I wait for thy salvation, O Lord! for I have arrived at that point where I exclaim, with the apostle: I have a desire to depart, and to be with Christ, to whom also I commend and commit thee; as I did in holy baptism, so also I do now, when I am about to depart to the Lord. In like manner do I also commend your dear mother, your brother, and your sister to Him, and the word of His grace. True, I would gladly have seen you once more; yet I could not urge you to come, as it is very cold, and your leg is not yet recovered. Yesterday I arranged all my affairs, as it is meet for a pious father to do; and our noble prince, John has ratified, by a document, his liberality toward you, without laying any restraint upon your liberty. Hourly do I expect to make my pilgrimage to the Lord. Do not undertake hastily to come to me. We will see each other again, according to God’s gracious covenant, in eternal life. I commit to you your pious mother, even as I know your love to her. Care for your young brother Ludwig, as for my beloved one; and, with that wisdom which is constitutional with you, treat him gently. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate; and so direct your studies that many may be benefited by them. The blessing of God be with your going out and coming in. Amen. And let your spirit repose upon the free and gracious sacrifice of the Son, expecting the heavenly inheritance only through and in the will of the Son of God. Amen. Your father, Casper Olevianus, of Treves, minister of the Word of God. Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”[54]

Such an epistle of at the end of a life’s journey demonstrates the depth of faith and {198} conviction which characterized the life’s work of Olevianus.

Apart from the trial by fire in prison and the providential connection with Elector Frederick III, there are several elements that are significant in the theology and contributions of Olevianus-his contributions in the area of church polity and discipline, his formation of a more consistent and mature covenant theology than heretofore. We are deeply indebted to God for this faithful laborer in our Reformed heritage.

PETER RAMUS (1515-1572)

Pierre de la RamŽe, a Fench philospher, better known by his Latin name, Peter Ramus, had an effect on the thinking of Casper Olevianus. At the time of the Reformation, the predominant philosophy was still based on the pagan dualism (scholasticism) of Aristotle. The Roman Catholics had merely modified the heathen philosophy of Aristotle. Aristotle not only held that all of life is divided into the realms of form and matter (the spiritual and the physical). He also employed a form of logic to arrive at truth. Ramus led a movement which was critical of the Aristotelian method. In 1561 he was converted to Protestantism which involved Ramus’ application of his principles to the area of theology, especially in the area of “federal” or “covenant” theology.

Today, we would not agree with all the conclusions of Ramus’ philosophy, but one significant conclusion that Ramus and Olevianus came to was that you cannot reform theology without also reforming the whole philosophy of life and approach to truth. On this we would certainly agree. Since the Reformation brought the church back to the Bible as the sole source of all authority for faith and life, it was necessary that the Bible, not logical syllogisms, be seen as the source of truth. Ramus replaced the deductive logic of scholasticism with the inductive method of reasoning. He was still left with a constant and unacceptable method of dichotomizing (dividing everything into two parts). Ramism was a semi-Platonic system of thought which is unacceptable to the Reformed church today. The error was to use Aristotelian logic to refute Aristotle. Using that method which turned logic into rhetoric, one does not reach a Christian philosophy such as Cornelius Van Til has done in this century, but, at best, one can only become Platonic which is also non-Christian. More needed to be done in this area of study, but Ramus did make an important contribution in breaking with the scholasticism of the church of Rome. Ramus had four presuppositions:

The first is a twofold confidence in the ability of man to know, and in the “knowledge” of that which is known. The second is an assumption that the form of presentation is to be determined by the desire for communication rather than the nature of the subject {199} matter. The third is that the cause of a thing is more evident than a statement to its effect. And the fourth, a general and universal is more evident than a particular and single.[55]

Ramism had a great influence on Puritan federal (covenant) theology and also came to Heidelberg in 1569 after visits to Strassburg, Basel, and Zurich. At Heidelberg he made a public profession of Protestantism in the French Reformed Church at Heidelberg. Elector Frederick III was impressed with Ramus and was inclined to have him as a professor there. He appointed him to fill a vacated chair in the ethics department. Among the professors who accepted him was Olevianus. The university senate, predominately Aristotelian, however, refused to have Ramus join the faculty and immediately appointed another man, ignoring Frederick’s appointment. Their reason: Heidelberg University was Aristotelian and Ramus was Platonic. Frederick did appoint him to teach a course in the classics and later in Aristotelian philosophy, but much opposition against him was raised by both students and faculty. Zacharias Ursinus prevailed upon Frederick III to suspend any further lectures by Ramus.

Ramus returned to Paris. In August of 1572 he fell victim to the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre in which Roman Catholics deceived the Reformed with the promise of protection, when in fact, they ambushed and slaughtered over 2,000 Reformed Christians. Assassins entered his fifth floor room at the college. They pillaged his room, then despite his plea for mercy shot him in the head, dragged his body about the room, and then threw it out the window. Students then dragged him about the streets to the River Seine where a surgeon cut off his head and had his body thrown into the river. They retrieved the body, and literally hacked it to pieces. Such was the hatred for this reformer.[56]

The significance of Ramus is that Ursinus and Olevianus were on opposite sides of the Ramus controversy. Olevianus stressed the practical which was more consistent with Ramism; Ursinus stressed the analytic which was more consistent with scholasticism. Together these temperaments and outlooks resulted in the production of the Heidelberg.[57] We do not read that this difference in philosophical approach ever caused a real breach between Ursinus and Olevianus. There is a difference of opinion regarding how much of Ramus’ philosophy affected the work of Olevianus. It is doubtful that Olevianus ever fully embraced Ramism for it is not {200} evident in his work.[58] What is significant is that Olevianus recognized the error of Aristotelianism and saw the need for a more consistent biblical philosophy.


Any overview of the life of Olevianus without seeing his contribution to covenant theology would be incomplete. While Ursinus stressed covenant theology in his first, Larger Catechism, the covenant receded into the background in his later writings. In the case of Olevianus, his interest and formulation of a consistent covenant theology grew more prominent after the completion of the Heidelberg Catechism. We cannot say that Olevianus was the first to use covenantal theology, but it is clear that he was instrumental in its development. While in Zurich he became acquainted with the early covenant theology of Zwingli and Bullinger.[59]

For Olevianus, “the covenant of grace is the kingdom of Christ, or better: through the covenant of grace that the kingdom of Christ is brought about. In the covenant it takes shape.”[60] He says that the articles of the Apostles’ Creed are really a summary of the covenant of grace-the Father is the first party; the Son is the Mediator of the covenant, the Holy Spirit is the Applicator of the covenant, and the Church is the second party of the covenant. In his Fester Grund, a catechism he wrote after the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism, he beautifully states the basis for the covenant of grace in saying, “One’s salvation consists in union and communion with God.[61]

Olevianus saw the covenant of God as the covenant of works with Adam before the Fall and the covenant of grace after the fall which God secured in the crucifixion of Christ.[62] Olevianus stood between the early covenant theologians and the later 16th and 17th century covenant theologians. The school which Olevianus founded in Herborn saw the professors there expound and expand upon the covenant theology of Olevianus.

Zacharias Ursinus, who also studied the covenant extensively, was the first {201} Reformed theologian to speak of a covenant of nature (or “works” as it was referred to later) in addition to the covenant of grace. This covenant of nature was initiated by God with man at creation and remains with man. This is that part of God’s image in us which results in the perception of the divine will and gives the ability to determine right from wrong. This was a step toward a fuller formulation of the covenant and understanding of the nature of man. Calvin also speaks of the “sensus divinitatus” as the sense of the deity in man even after the fall (see Rom. 1:21). Ursinus saw the Christian not only as a member of the covenant but as a member of Christ Himself-a union with Christ in all things (see Heidelberg Catechism Question 43)

Olevianus was the first theologian to speak of a covenant with the devil (which man entered into at the Fall), a covenant which believers have with other creatures, and a pretemporal redemptive arrangement between the Father and the Son (which we sometimes today call the covenant of redemption).[63] He also spoke of the covenant of grace in terms of a mutual covenant instead of a unilateral covenant. By this he did not deny the fact that God unilaterally imposed the covenant on man, but that the essence of the covenant requires faithfulness and obedience on the part of man. This covenantal consistency is clearly seen in the unique position of the law of God in the Third Part of the catechism under “Thankfulness.” The covenant of grace does not abrogate moral requirements on the part of the believer, but the believer, who now has a different relationship to God, has a different relationship to the law-a joyful, thankful service rendered to a heavenly Father whose covenant not only requires us to be faithful, but by the fulfillment of redemption, has rendered us willing servants. Man, after the Fall, sees his sin and misery in the fact that he cannot fulfill the Law of Love-the basic requirement of God (Question 4 of the Heidelberg Catechism).

Olevianus spoke of a “general administration of the covenant promise to all within the visible church-elect and non-elect alike-and a special administration of the substance of this promise to the elect alone. The . . . outward administration of the covenant promise.” . . was given to all of Israel (ie. circumcision), but . . . “the administration of the substance of the covenant promise only to the elect” (i.e. spiritual circumcision). Therefore, “while the reprobate in the visible church partake of the visible signs of the covenant, they do not partake of its substance.”[64]

Both Ursinus and Olevianus were quick to point out that any obedience is due to the work of God’s Holy Spirit working in us (Phil. 2:12, 13). The mutual aspect of the covenant is seen in the administration of the Word and sacraments (see Heidelberg Catechism Question 82). Reconciliation between the King and subject {202} involves a mutual commitment. This commitment is by the grace of God through His Holy Spirit. It appears that when Olevianus interprets, “I will be your God, and you shall be my people,” he is taking the latter part of this covenant promise to be both a statement of promise by God and a required commitment on the part of his people. Here we see the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man brought into harmony. This was indicative of a move away from the supralapsarianism of that day toward sublapsarianism.

Olevianus and Ursinus together have given us a rich heritage in the precious doctrines of covenant theology, of which the Heidelberg Catechism is more the product than the instruction manual. Due to the work of these men the roots of covenant theology were established on the continent of Europe and later developed further by Scottish and British theologians (such as Robert Howie, 1565-1654; Robert Rollock, 1555-1598; William Ames, 1576-1633, and others).


From the quiet, contemplative theology of Ursinus and the eloquent, practical theology of Olevianus a new catechism was produced which literally shook the world. It brought comfort to some and made others very uncomfortable. Other creeds were harsher and more negative toward their enemies. The Heidelberg, while defining the essentials of the Reformed faith, did not set out to simply condemn the errors of others, but to deal with the personal sin of man, the way of salvation, and the purpose of God’s redemption-His glory. This is the genius and uniqueness of the Heidelberg. It did not set forth all the details of the covenant, but it put the covenant responsibilities into practice. It did not set forth in detail the doctrines of God’s sovereignty as the Canons of Dort did later, but it assumed these as the foundation of man’s salvation.

In many ways the Heidelberg Catechism grew out of theological controversy, as creeds generally do. And it was a creator of controversy by those who hated the Reformed faith. For those who saw in it a summary of biblical truths, it was a confession of comfort. For pastors in their churches and fathers in their homes it was an implement of tremendous value to instill the promises of the covenant in the hearts of students and children. It was a statement of faith useful for the church, but no less so for the homes. We might think that everyone would have embraced it with great affection, but storm clouds rapidly overshadowed it in its infancy.

The ink on the pages of the Heidelberg Catechism was barely dry when it became the center of controversy. Much of the abhorrence for the Heidelberg centered around its teaching on the sacraments. Those who opposed it saw this as the point of attack and missed seeing how the sacraments as set forth in the catechism were the natural outworking of the covenantal basis of the catechism. In {203} the Heidelberg Catechism the sacraments were set forth as the covenantal signs and seals which God has appointed for his covenant people. By directing their attack against the sacraments, opponents were causing the tail to wag the dog. Yet, the sacraments were the most visible points to attack. Had these assaults not been heroically thwarted by the grace and power of God, the Heidelberg might have been put to ashes-the heritage destroyed by the heretics.

If Frederick took credit for the production of the Heidelberg and was willing to call it “my catechism,” so too he would have to defend it with his life. And defend it he did. This was a critical time in the life of the Reformed Church, for in the Heidelberg, doctrines were defined and allowed to see the light of day. Opposition to Frederick and his catechism grew until in the year 1566 Frederick was summoned by Emperor Maximilian to defend the Heidelberg (and the Reformed faith) at the Diet of Augsburg.

Maximilian (inclined toward the High-Lutherans) wanted unity in the empire, but the Calvinists here, as in France and in the Netherlands, were stirring up controversy. They were branded as rebels. As the diet convened Maximilian appeared to take the side of the Catholics. Few sided with Frederick and the Reformed. Lutherans were not willing to unite with the Reformed for the cause of Protestantism in general. The Elector of Saxony, a Low-Lutheran, had the foresight to see that if the Lutherans and Reformed were not united, Catholicism would rise to power. The Protestants at the diet did not agree to isolate Frederick, so it would be up to the Catholics (with the help of High-Lutherans) to bring charges against him. This they did as they charged Frederick with casting out images, altars, and introducing Reformed liturgy.

Maximilian issued a decree against Frederick that if he would not cast out all the Reformed changes that were made in the regions of Neuhaus and Sinzheim, he would be deposed. With that deposition would go the Heidelberg Catechism! Frederick had less than two days to prepare his defense which would take place on May 14, 1566. Frederick protested against the procedures and against the fact that he was condemned before he had an opportunity to defend himself. In other Diets we have seen theologians such as Luther defend the faith. Here, a layman, a civil ruler, would be taking up the cause of Christ and the Reformed faith. His son, John Casimir, stood at his side carrying a Bible.

Taking a page from Luther’s defense at the Diet of Worms, Frederick finally appealed to the conscience which must be bound by the Word of God. In his defense he said,

So far as matters of a religious nature are involved, I confess freely that in those things which concern the conscience, I acknowledge as Master, only Him, who is Lord of lords and King of kings. For {204} the question here is not in regard to a cap of flesh, but it pertains to the soul and its salvation, for which I am indebted alone to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and which, as His gift, I will sacredly preserve. Therefore I cannot grant your Imperial Majesty the right of standing in the place of my God and Savior.[65]

Frederick then began to defend the faith as set forth in the Heidelberg Catechism,

But that my catechism, word for word, is drawn, not from human, but from divine sources, the references that stand in the margin will show. For this reason also certain theologians have in vain wearied themselves in attacking it, since it has been shown them by the open Scriptures how baseless is their opposition. What I have elsewhere publicly declared to your Majesty in a full assembly of princes; namely, that if any one of whatever age, station or class he may be, even the humblest, can teach me something better from the Holy Scriptures, I will thank him from the bottom of my heart and be readily obedient to the divine truth.[66]

Frederick closed his defense with courage and commitment borne out by the words,

Should, contrary to my expectations, my defense and the Christian and reasonable conditions which I have proposed, not be regarded of any account, I shall comfort myself in this that my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has promised to me and to all who believe that whatsoever we lose on earth for His name’s sake, we shall receive an hundred fold in the life to come.[67]

Silence fell on the assembly until his sole friend, Elector Augustus of Saxony, slapped him on the shoulder and exclaimed, “Fritz, you are more pious than all of us.” He was right.[68] Maximilian adjourned the assembly which was to meet again in six days to consider the decree he had made. At this meeting the Protestants held together, fearing that what might happen to Frederick might also be brought against them. Frederick did not agree with them on the matter of the ubiquity of Christ, but they were willing to overlook this for the sake of unity. They declared that Frederick was an adherent of the Augsburg Confession despite the one doctrine {205} on the Lord’s Supper that he objected to and therefore they would side with Frederick. On May 24, the diet was called together again by those who would not agree with Frederick’s exception. Now Frederick was called on to allow nothing else than what was taught in the Augsburg Confession to be preached. They deemed the teachings of Frederick to be more dangerous than Calvin’s. These teachings should cease, the teachers driven out and their books destroyed. Frederick refused to do this. On the matter of the Lord’s Supper, Frederick took his Bible, laid it on the table, and urged anyone present to teach him something better out of the Bible. No one dared.

Frederick left the council that day. Maximilian’s decree was overturned, but he was still determined to rid his realm of Calvinism. There was celebration in Heidelberg as Frederick returned and had retained his reign. The next day at a church service he grasped Olevianus’ hand and publicly admonished the whole congregation to demonstrate the same faithfulness that he had shown.

A final diet convened in September of that year exonerated Frederick. Not only was Frederick cleared of charges, but the Heidelberg Catechism was allowed to be used in Germany. Had Frederick failed, his catechism might well have been destroyed. It was a victory for Frederick, but more importantly a victory for the Reformed faith.

Frederick would likely be a forgotten man were it not for the Heidelberg Catechism which continues today as the fruit of Frederick, Ursinus, and Olevianus. Without question, the courage and abilities which God gave these men was responsible, more than any others, for the establishment of the Reformed Church in Germany. In God’s providence these men were able to learn and develop the doctrines of the Reformed faith from institutions and men of many countries, primarily Switzerland, France, and the Netherlands. Their catechism was returned {206} to these lands and many others in gratitude.


The Heidelberg Catechism, like few other books at that time, became an international catechism. It was first published in the German language and since 1563 it has been read by many thousands of people in scores of languages throughout the world. Our own efforts to provide the Heidelberg Catechism for Zaire may be the most recent-with translations in Swahili, Tschiluba, Kiluba, and Lingala. In the 17th Century the Dutch published a Greek version of the Heidelberg bound with the Canons of Dort and the Belgic Confession of Faith.

The Dutch were instrumental in bringing the Heidelberg Catechism to their trading partners. The Dutch East India and West India Companies had the Heidelberg translated into the languages of the countries they traded with in the hope of converting these people.[69] Their own coat-of-arms was placed on the title page of the catechism. When they established colonies, they often sent missionaries with the ships. In contrast, the East India Company of Great Britain was forbidden from introducing Christianity to their colonies for fear of exciting the hostility of the natives.[70]

Some additions and deletions appeared in the course of history. The first edition of the Heidelberg did not have Question 80, the second had most of what we now have, and the third edition added the phrase which said that the Mass was an “accursed idolatry” The Swiss added to the 27th question a sentence which said that, “God is not the author of sin.”[71] In Hungary, Empress Maria Theresa forbade the use of the Heidelberg. Her son, however, allowed the use of an altered edition which removed all references to the Roman Catholic Church.[72]

King Frederick William I of Prussia stated in his 1717 regulations, “that in all the evangelical churches and schools of my dominion there shall be used and taught no other catechism than the Heidelberg Catechism, to which I myself hold allegiance.”[73] Henry Bullinger, the successor of Zwingli at Zurich, said, “I am confident that no better catechism has made its appearance. God’s name be praised {207} for it. May He grant it abundant success.”[74] We can all join in the sentiments of Henry Alting, Professor at Heidelberg and Groningen (d. 1644) that, “the Heidelberg Catechism is at the same time milk for babes and strong meat for adults.”[75]

Various shorter versions of the catechism also appeared-the first in German by Count John Casimir (son of Frederick III)[76] in 1585, then a short version was produced by the Synod of Dort entitled, “A Compendium of the Christian Religion.” Various other short versions were produced through the years. Some, as early as 1597, were set to poetry in various languages. And as mentioned earlier, some editions included the teachings of each Lord’s Days set to music. Many versions of the Heidelberg Catechism are spotted with the blood of martyrs-Reformed Christians who were shamefully martyred for the cause of the faith, of which the Heidelberg Catechism was a vital part.[77]

There is probably no other Reformed Church existent today in which the Heidelberg Catechism plays such a central role in the instruction of the covenant youth as in our beloved Reformed Church in the United States. After 250 years here in the United States, and for years before that, we continue to utilize it in very much the same way as the families and churches of our forefathers. May this never change for the sake of our youth and the glory of our Lord from whom we draw this everlasting comfort for body and soul.


We should understand the unique character of the Heidelberg Catechism as a “creed-catechism.” There were great Reformed creeds and many good catechisms to teach the faith. The creeds were statements of doctrine and the catechisms were used only for catechizing. But it was not until the Heidelberg that a catechism became a creed and a creed became a catechism. Frederick was very cautious in endorsing the Heidelberg, since only the Augsburg Confession was legal in Germany. The Heidelberg was carefully written to instruct the youth, but it was also written to be the creed of the Reformed Church in Germany. Children recited it in the schools, and ministers would preach catechetical sermons from it. {208}

In the turmoil of the history of the Reformed Church in the United States in the 1930s, the stubborn refusal to give up the Reformed faith and the Heidelberg Catechism attests to the powerful influence that the Heidelberg has had upon us as a denomination. The proposed merger of the RCUS with the Evangelical Church of North America placed the Heidelberg on the same par as Luther’s Catechism-a compromise that would surely have enraged our forefathers from Heidelberg! Those committed to a Reformed position would have been allowed to choose the Heidelberg, others could have followed Luther’s, and for the undecided, both! What a bargain!-the faith for a bowl of pottage. The Reformed get to keep the Heidelberg and still end up with the benefits of this huge denomination. Those committed to the Reformed faith knew that this compromise was unholy, and also that the use of the Heidelberg would soon end. And end it did in the resulting united churches. It is difficult to say whether the people held on to the Heidelberg, or whether the Heidelberg held on to them. Either way, through a firm commitment to the biblical faith as set forth in the Heidelberg, God was pleased to preserve both the Heidelberg as a confession and, more importantly, His church. This steadfastness which God wrought is part of our Heidelberg heritage. There will certainly be challenges in days to come. Be prepared.

In recent days the RCUS has again officially adopted the Belgic Confession of Faith and the Canons of Dort. These were the creeds of the RCUS at its beginnings in the United States. It is fitting that on this anniversary of the 250th Synod we should be able to lay claim to all three again. It was feared by some that having three creeds would undermine the importance and the use of the Heidelberg. If it falls into obscurity, it is not the fault of other creeds, but of those who are willing to neglect them all. The Synod of Dort was really the first to bind these three creeds together as necessary and complementary confessions of the Reformed Churches.[78] The teachings of the Heidelberg are beautifully supplemented and “fleshed out” by these other expressions of biblical teachings. The Heidelberg Catechism will always be the unique teaching tool of these three. The Heidelberg is very much at home with what is sometimes referred to as the Three Forms of Unity.

This is the remarkable nature of the Heidelberg. It is loved dearly by those who love the faith. It is hated intensely by those who deny the faith. Yet the Heidelberg, and the true faith it expresses, still stand and cannot be ignored. Its teachings are fundamental. Due to its firm biblical foundation, it has proven itself to be not only an enduring creed, but a rich blessing for many generations. It is not {209} simply a children’s instruction book.

It’s enduring quality is seen in the picture of children at their parents knee struggling to memorize the first question, to the catechumen coming to catechism class with a Heidelberg stuffed in the back pocket of his jeans, to the funeral service where it is often quoted to provide a special sort of comfort and warmth for the families of those who have carried these words of comfort in their hearts throughout their lives.

Ursinus perhaps best describes the design of the catechism in his closing words of the introduction to his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism:

The design of the doctrine of the catechism is our comfort and salvation. Our salvation consists in the enjoyment of the highest good. Our comfort comprises the assurance and confident expectation of the full and perfect enjoyment of this highest good, in the life to come, with a beginning and foretaste of it already in this life. This highest good is that which makes all those truly blessed who are in the enjoyment of it, whilst those who have it not are miserable and wretched. What this only comfort is, to which it is the design of this catechism to lead us, will be explained in the first question . . . .[79]

What is your only comfort in life and in death?

That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with his precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live unto him.


Countless people through the years have carried on the Heidelberg tradition. That is well, but will we and our children continue to carry on the Heidelberg’s truths? Will we continue to commit it to our heads and our hearts? Will we faithfully teach our covenant children to walk in the doctrines it so clearly expounds? Would we be willing, as many before us, to put our life on the line to cling {210} to the Christian faith as set forth in the Heidelberg? The use of the Heidelberg is very much a part of our past, but will we take that heritage with us into the future? To recount the rich heritage of our forefathers is an exercise in futility and no more than “name-dropping” unless we still walk in those shoes and are committed to instill these truths in the hearts and minds of the generations to come. Just to preserve and honor a heritage as a thing of the past is to make an idolatrous icon of it. To persevere the faith expressed in our Heidelberg heritage will be a blessing to us and to our covenant children. The Heidelberg is not just a book to memorize, but to use so that the Scriptures might be opened to us in a most beautiful and comforting way.

The Heidelberg Heritage is not something we should speak of merely in the past tense. We are the ones who, with others of like precious faith, must carry this heritage into the future. We appear to pale in comparison to some of the men instrumental in producing the Heidelberg, yet we should not view ourselves as under them. As Dr. Cornelius Van Til used to teach, each generation must stand on the shoulders of those preceding to further the cause of Christ and His Kingdom.

As a Reformed Church, celebrating our 250th Synod by the grace of God, the Heidelberg is a vital part of our heritage. It can only be our fervent and continued prayer that the Heidelberg Catechism will always be “our beloved Heidelberg”-an expression of our only comfort-for generations to come.

Praise God for our Heidelberg heritage! {211}


Bierma, Lyle Dean, The Covenant Theology of Casper Olevian. Ann Arbor: UMI Dissertation Services, 1995.

Buehrer, Emil, The Reformation. Green Bay: Reliance Publishing Company, 1945.

Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion. McNeill, John T., Ed., Transl. and Indexed by Ford Lewis Battles. The Library of Christian Classics Vol. XX. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960.

Catechismus, Oder Kurtzer Unterricht Christlicher Lehr. Schaffhausen: Johan Ulrich Ziegler, 1789.

Empie, Paul C. and McCord, James I., Marburg Revisited. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1966.

Faulenback, Dr. H., Meyer, Dr. D., Mohr, Dr. R., editors, Casper Olevian (1536 bis 1587). Kšln: Rheinland-Verlag-GmbH, 1989.

Fuhrmann, Paul T., Transl. and Ed., Instruction in Faith (1537) by John Calvin. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992.

Godfrey, Robert and Boyd, Jesse L. III, editors, Through Christ’s Word. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1985.

Good, James I., The Heidelberg Catechism in its Newest Light. Philadelphia: Publication and Sunday School Board of the Reformed Church in the United States, 1914.

Harbaugh, Rev. Henry, The Fathers of the German Reformed Church in Europe and America, Vol. I. Lancaster: Sprenger and Westhaeffer, 1857.

Heyns, W., Handboek voor de Catechetiek. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans-Sevensma Co. Date unknown.

Kindler, F. P., Der Heidelberger Catechismus. Erlangen: 1846.

Schaff David S. DD., Our Fathers Faith and Ours. New York: G. P Putnam’s Sons, 1928. Schaff Philip, The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. III. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1882.

Spitz, Lewis W, Ed., The Protestant Reformation. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966.

StŠhelin, Christoph, Catechetischer Haus-Schatz, Oder ErklŠrung des Heidelbergischen Catechismi. Zurich: F. Hanke, 1724.

The Encyclopedia of Christianity, Vol. III. Marshallton, DE: The National Foundation for Christian Education, 1972.

The Heidelberg Catechism. Publications Committee, RCUS. Freeman, SD: Pine Hill Press, 1986. {212}

Thelemann, Otto, An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism. Trans. by Rev. M. Peters, Grand Rapids: Douma Publications, 1959.

Ursinus, Zacharias, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism . Trans. by Rev. G. W Williard, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1956.

Van Halsema, Thea, Three Men Came to Heidelberg. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1963.

Zanchius, Jerome, The Absolute Doctrine of Predestination. Trans. by Augustus Toplady. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977.

[1] David Schaff, Our Fathers Faith And Ours: A Comparison Between Protestantism and Romanism, (New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1928) p. 20.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV. xix. 13.

[3] The first Protestant Catechism (which inclined to the Reformed faith), according to August Lang (Lutheran historian) was a Dialogue-book by Rev. John Bader, of Landau, 1526. In 1527 a catechism appeared in St. Gall and was used until the Heidelberg replaced it in 1615. Luther’s Larger and Shorter Catechism was published in 1529.

[4] See John Calvin, Instruction in Faith (1537), Paul T. Fuhrmann, Trans. & Ed., (Louisville, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992).

[5] Some, such as J. I. Good, refer to this as the “Socratic” method. While this method resembles the Socratic method, it differed greatly from the premise of Socrates (an unbeliever) which held that all men had an inherent or innate knowledge which the instructor was to draw out of the student by a series of questions. In contrast to this, the catechetical method assumes just the reverse-that man’s knowledge is totally corrupted. A proper catechism, therefore, provides not only the question but also the correct answer.

[6] Examples of these are: Catechismus, oder Kurtzer Unterricht Chrislicher Lehr, Schaffhausen, (Gedruckt, bei Johann Ulrich Ziegler, 1789); Christoph Stähelin, Catechetischer Haus-Schatz, oder Erklärung des Heidelbergischen Catechismi, (Zurich, bei F. Hanke, 1724); F. P. Kindler, Der Heidelberger Catechismus, (Erlangen, 1846).

[7] Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1956) pp. 14-16.

[8] James I. Good, The Heidelberg Catechism In Its Newest Light, (Philadelphia, Publication and Sunday School Board of the Reformed Church in the United States, 1914), pp. 124-132.

[9] This ruling was tremendously significant in that it permanently shattered both the political unity of Germany and the medieval unity of Christendom. It remained the law of the land until the end of the Thirty Years War and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. It was not until the end of the Thirty Years War that the Reformed Church was given official status in Germany.

[10] The 1530 edition of the Augsburg Confession (a Lutheran document) allowed for the physical presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. A 1531 edition had this particular reference removed. The Protestant princes signed this “Altered Augsburg Confession.” Frederick III signed this Altered Augsburg Confession which was generally accepted by the Low-Lutherans. If the Reformed church was to have any freedom to worship they were forced to agree with the Augsburg Confession. The Altered Confession was broad enough to allow the Reformed to sign it until the time when the Heidelberg was officially recognized in Germany in 1566.

[11] James I. Good, loc. cit.

[12] Thea B. Van Halsema, Three Men Came To Heidelberg and Glorious Heretic, (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1963), p. 69.

[13] James I. Good, op. cit., p. 144.

[14] op. cit., p. 146.

[15] Ibid., p. 147.

[16] See Jerome Zanchius, The Absolute Doctrine of Predestination, Translated by Augustus M. Toplady, (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1977).

[17] Ibid., p. 159. See footnote 205 also. Melanchthon was the primary author of the Augsburg Confession of 1530. More significantly, he authored the Altered Augsburg Confession of 1540 (Confessio Augustana Variata). In this confession there was enough latitude concerning the physical presence of Christ to satisfy the Low-Lutherans, and the Reformed who wished to find some area of agreement with their Lutheran counterparts. The High-Lutherans repudiated this Altered Ausburg Confession. Elector Frederick III signed this confession, but refused the earlier versions. John Calvin also subscribed to Melanchthon’s Altered Confession. While Melanchthon was not totally embraced by the Reformed, he and his followers had also lost respect and influence in the Lutheran Church which was gradually becoming solidified in High-Lutheran doctrine.

[18] John T. McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism (NY: Oxford University Press, 1962) p. 197.

[19] Thomas Erastus, a Zwinglian and although helpful in this area of the Lord’s Supper, later became an opponent to Olevianus. He opposed Olevianus’ establishment of a presbyterian government and church discipline. Erastus held that the state has the right to intervene and overrule in church affairs. He denied that the church had the power to excommunicate-only the state had that power. He served both on the Heidelberg faculty and as Elector Frederick’s personal physician. He eventually was forced to leave Heidelberg. His teaching (much like Richard Hooker’s in England) became known as Erastianism.

[20] Emil Buehrer, The Reformation, (Green Bay, Reliance Publishing Company, 1945) p. 92.

[21] Ibid., p. 168.

[22] Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, VolIII, (New York, Harper & Brothers, 1882), p. 336. This 80th Question was designed by Frederick to be a counter to the Council of Trent which adjourned Dec. 4, 1563. This question caused a temporary prohibition of the catechism in the German Empire.

[23] W. Heyns, Handboek voor de Catechetiek, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans-Sevensma Co.) p. 53.

[24] Henry Harbaugh, The Fathers of the German Reformed Church in Europe and America, Vol. I, (Lancaster, Sprenger & Westhaefer, 1857), pp. 240-241.

[25] The Marburg Colloquy between Luther and Zwingli having failed, Martin Bucer invited Luther to meet in Wittenberg in 1536 to seek some union. The resulting document, the Wittenberg Concord, is illustrative of Melanchthon’s position on the Lord’s Supper. In drafting this Concord, Melanchthon wrote, that “with the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ are truly and substantially present, offered, and received.” Paul C. Empie and James I. McCord, Marburg Revisited (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1966) p. 59.

[26] Bonnet, Jules, Letters of John Calvin, Vol. I, (Edinburgh: Thomas Constable and Co., 1855) p. 349. Jules Bonnet cites the following statement from a letter of Calvin to Melanchthon, “Would that the union between all Christ’s Churches upon earth were such, that the angels in heaven might join their song of praise!” Melanchthon’s Loci Communes, first published in 1521, was a systematic treatment of Luther’s theology. In this work Melanchthon treated the doctrines of free will, the Law-Gospel dichotomy, and justification by grace through faith. He strongly repudiated scholasticism.

[27] Ibid., p. 412.

[28] J. D. Douglas, ed., The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1974) Carl S. Meyer states in an article on Melanchthon, “Recent scholarship has asserted Melanchthon’s integrity as a Lutheran theologian against those who fault him for deviations.” p. 647.

[29] See James I. Good, op. cit, p. 45 where he concludes that Ursinus gave up Melanchthonianism for the Reformed faith after he went to Zurich.

[30] James I. Good, op. cit., p. 245.

[31] Ibid., p. 87.

[32] Ibid., p. 41. There were scores of catechisms, filling several thousand pages, published before 1563 and unto the end of the sixteenth century in Germany and Switzerland.

[33] Ibid., p. 42. In addition to the four groups listed, there was also the Brenz catechism of the Palatinate which Otto Henry had incorporated into the Church Order. It has some phrases similar to the Heidelberg, but nearly the entire catechism deals with the sacraments. It would be considered to be Low Lutheran.

[34] Ibid., p. 45.

[35] Lyle Dean Bierma, The Covenant Theology of Casper Olevian, Doctoral Dissertation for Duke University (Ann Arbor, University Microfilms International, 1980), p. 7.

[36] Ibid., p. 47.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, translated by the Rev. G. W. Williard, (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1956), p. 293. Fully eleven pages are given to thoroughly setting forth the matter of predestination and election.

[39] Ibid., p97. Here we read Ursinus’ definition of the Covenant as “a mutual promise and agreement between God and men, in which God gives assurance to men that he will be merciful to them, remit their sins, grant unto them a new righteousness, the Holy Spirit, and eternal life by and for the sake of his son, our Mediator. And, on the other side, men bind themselves to God in this covenant that they will exercise repentance and faith, or that they will receive with a true faith this great benefit which God offers, and render such obedience as will be acceptable unto him. This mutual engagement between God and man is confirmed by those outward signs which we call sacraments. . . .”

[40] Henry Harbaugh, op. cit., pp190-218.

[41] Ibid., p198.

[42] James I. Good, op. cit., p. 65.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Bierma, op. cit., p. 3.

[45] James I. Good, op. cit. p. 235.

[46] Lyle Dean Bierma, op. cit. p. 5. cf. also James I. Good, op. cit., pp 204 ff. for a detailed account of this ministry of Olevianus in Treves.

[47] James I. Good, op. cit., p. 241.

[48] It was Olevianus’ desire to have his friend Peter Martyr fill his seat, but when he turned down this request, it was Zacharias Ursinus who filled the vacancy left by Olevianus. Olevianus and Ursinus became close friends and co-workers as a result.

[49] Lyle Dean Bierma, op. cit., p. 6.

[50] The earliest treatise on the subject of the covenant was that of Henry Bullinger, A Brief Exposition of the One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God which was written in 1534. This predates Olevianus’ writings on this subject by nearly 30 years. Yet, Olevianus was a student of Bullinger for some time before writing on the subject himself. John Murray says that “Bullinger mapped out the lines along which the thinking of covenant theologians proceeded.” (J. Murray, Encyclopedia of Christianity Vol. III [Marshallton, DE: The National Foundation for Christian Education, 1972] p. 204.) For a translation of Bullinger’s Treatise, see Charles S. McCoy and J. Wayne Baker, Fountainhead of Federalism: Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenantal Tradition (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991) pp. 99-139.

[51] The teaching of the key of Christian discipline in Question 85 of the Heidelberg Catechism was a courageous move in the Palatinate. It was a direct challenge to the prevailing position that the state alone had this power. Were it not for the fact that Frederick III, a part of the civil establishment, commissioned the writing of the catechism, the Heidelberg would have met with immediate opposition if not banishment by the state. Olevianus, who learned much concerning Christian discipline from Calvin, must be credited for stressing this matter both in the catechism and in the Palatinate.

[52] Henry Harbaugh, op. cit., pp257-258.

[53] Ibid., p. 259.

[54] Ibid., p. 260.

[55] W. Robert Godfrey, Jesse L. Boyd III, ed., Through Christ’s Word, “Federal Theology” by W. Wilson Benton Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company) 1985, p. 196.

[56] James I. Good, op. cit., pp. 112-113.

[57] James Good notes that there was one dispute regarding Question 35, but “God’s grace prevented it.” (op. cit., p115).

[58] Lyle Dean Bierma, op. cit., pp230-238, has a lengthy discussion on Ramus. His conclusion is that Olevianus never adopted the philosophy or theology of Ramus. Olevianus entered the debate between Ramus’ empirical theology and Beza’s rationalism in order to neutralize Beza’s predestinarianism with the covenant idea of Calvin. This placed Olevianus in opposition to Ursinus who “remained a defender of the Aristotelian-Reformed orthodoxy.”

[59] Lyle Dean Bierma, op. cit., p215, and Dr. H. Faulenbach, Dr. D. Meyer, Dr. R. Mohr, ed., Casper Olevian (1536 bis 1587), Köln, Rheinland-Verlag-GmbH, 1989), pp. 85-86.

[60] Dr. H. Faulenbach, Dr. D. Meyer, Dr. R. Mohr, ed., op. cit., p87. (translation mine)

[61] Lyle Dean Bierma, op. cit., p. 211 and p. 93. In two of Olevianus’ greatest works, the Expositio and De Substantia, the covenant is the major theme, as it was in the majority of Olevianus’ writings.

[62] Ibid., p86.

[63] Lyle Dean Bierma, op. cit., p227.

[64] Bierma, op. cit., pp126-126.

[65] James I. Good, op. cit., p.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Frederick III is often referred to as “Frederick the Pious” since that remark.

[69] This mission enterprise was a requirement of their charter from the Dutch government.

[70] Ibid., p. 11.

[71] Ibid., p17.

[72] Ibid., p17. Question 30 was largely omitted; Question 80 had the last sentence removed. In 1891 the complete version was again published and used in Hungary.

[73] Otto Thelemann, An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism, (Grand Rapids, Douma Publications, 1959) p. xx.

[74] Ibid.

[75] Ibid., p. xxi. We might be surprised to find B. B. Warfield among the critics of the Heidelberg. He charged in the Princeton Review, 1908 p. 565, that the Heidelberg is hedonistic and contains a spiritual utilitarianism because it asks such questions as, “What is my comfort, benefit, profit, etc.” This, he said would attract a child to religion by selfish ideas of enjoyment. (J. I. Good, op. cit., p. 296.)

[76] John was responsible for bringing the Reformed faith back to the Palatinate after a brief lapse into Lutheranism after the death of his father, Frederick III.

[77] Ibid., pp. 19, 20. James I. Good rightly notes that at the center of the Heidelberg history written in blood is the “blood of Christ. “

[78] Otto Thelemann op. cit., p. xx, quotes from the Synod of Dort (1618), “That the doctrine contained in the Palatinate Catechism is in accordance with the Word of God, and that it contains nothing which on the ground of dissonance with the Word of God needs to be altered or amended, and that it is also an exceedingly correct hand-book of sound Christian doctrine, adapted with special skill not only to the capacity of youths, but also of adults. “

[79] Zacharias Ursinus, op. cit., p. 16.

Source: This chapter, which provides a short summary of the history of the RCUS, is taken from J. I. Good’s Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism. Cleveland OH: Central Publishing House, 1904. p. 224-247. It was written for Catechism students. Electronic version, © 2004, The Synod of the Reformed Church in the U.S.

The Reformed Church spread from Switzerland, its birthplace, out in every direction into other parts of Europe. Its doctrines spread southward into Italy but were crushed by the Catholics in the inquisition. They spread eastward into Poland, Bohemia and Hungary; in Bohemia they were crushed out with awful atrocities by the Jesuits and in Hungary many suffered for their faith. They spread westward into France, where the terrible massacre of St. Bartholomew (1572) killed 70,000 and the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1675) drove out 500,000 more. The Reformed church has therefore been especially the church of the martyrs. She has had more martyrs die for her faith than any other Protestant Church. She spread northward into Holland where under the fearful persecution of Spain, her martyrs were counted by the thousands. She also spread into Scotland and England. Today the Reformed are found in every continent except Australia. But it is especially with Germany that we have to do, for it was from that land our forefathers brought our faith.

Johannes à Lasco

In 1524 the Reformed doctrines were introduced into Strasburg in southwestern Germany by the reformers Zell and Bucer, but later they were forbidden. They, however, found a permanent foothold in northwestern Germany at Emden where Aportanus founded a congregation in 1526. This church was later permanently established through the work of à Lasco.

Johannes à Lasco was the great Reformer of three lands, Germany, England, and Poland. He was born in Poland in 1499 and was of noble family. He soon gained high honors in the Catholic Church because his uncle was one of its highest officials, but he was not satisfied. He had been influenced by the Reformation with which he had come into contact while on a tour as a young man, especially when in Switzerland, he met Zwingli in 1523. As a result he finally gave up all his splendid prospects in the Catholic church and renounced his title of nobility in order to become an humble preacher of the gospel, like Moses, “esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt.”

He left Poland and was appointed superintendent of the church at Emden in 1544. He was then called to London where he became pastor of the foreigners (Dutch, French, etc.), to whom was given the church of Austin-Friars. He there organized the congregation thoroughly after the presbyterian form of government, as Zwingli had done by synods and Calvin by classes and consistories. Soon after, the Catholic queen Mary began terribly persecuting the Protestants and à Lasco and many of his congregation were compelled to flee. They sailed for Germany, but the winter’s storms drove them to Denmark, where the people drove them away because they were Reformed as did also some of the northern cities of Germany. They at last found an asylum at Emden and Frankfort in Germany. Johannes à Lasco became pastor at Frankfort. But in the meantime his native country of Poland began receiving the gospel, and he was recalled there, glad to found a Reformed church and to translate the Bible into its language. He died in 1560, one of the most beautiful characters among the reformers, “a soul without a stain,” as Erasmus used to call him.

Elector Frederick III and the Heidelberg Catechism

But it was the introduction of our church into Heidelberg in western Germany that gave it a permanent home in Germany. Elector Frederick III (also called the Pius) was ruler of the Palatinate of which Heidelberg was the capital. He became Reformed and ordered two of his ministers, Zachariah Ursinus and Casper Olevianus to prepare a catechism. He published this catechism, which is called the Heidelberg Catechism, its preface being dated January 19th, 1563.

Ursinus was born in eastern Germany at Breslau, July 18th, 1534, and after studying under Melanchthon at Wittenberg University and teaching at his native city he was driven out because he was Reformed. He went to Zurich, where he studied under Peter Martyr and was called to Heidelberg as professor. He was a fine theologian.

Casper Olevianus was born at Treves in western Germany August 30th, 1536. He was led into the ministry by a providence. While almost drowning in a river at Bourges, France, where he was studying, he vowed that if God would spare his life, he would become a minister. True to his promise, he studied under Calvin at Geneva. He then preached the gospel in his native city, Treves, for which he was imprisoned and driven out. But Elector Frederick III called him to be the superintendent of the Reformed Church in the Palatinate and with Ursinus he was appointed to compose our catechism.

When the catechism appeared, it gained such popularity that it went through several editions during its first year (1563). But the Catholic and Lutheran princes of Germany bitterly opposed it. And finally, Frederick III of the Palatinate, was summoned to appear before the Diet of Germany at Augsburg (1566) to answer for his catechism. His friends urged him not to go to the Diet as they feared his country and perhaps his life might be taken from him for publishing it. But he had the spirit of the martyr and bravely appeared before the Diet. There he made his great defense of the catechism May 14th, 1566. In doing so he entered the room of the Diet, followed by his son, Casimir, who carried a Bible. He declared that his catechism was in harmony with the Bible. So eloquently did he defend it that when he closed, two of the Lutheran nobles complimented him. He was finally permitted to continue the use of his catechism and as a result we in America have this priceless treasure as the creed of our church.

Frederick III was one of the most pious princes of his age. When asked why he did not build more forts, he replied in the words of Luther’s hymn, “A mighty fortress is our God.” He died October 26th, 1576 and was succeeded by his son, Lewis, who reintroduced the Lutheran faith into the Palatinate. As a result; both Ursinus and Olevianus were compelled to leave the country. Ursinus went to Neustadt, southwest of Heidelberg, where he taught, and died March 6th, 1583. Olevianus went from Heidelberg to Herborn, where he taught, and died March 15th, 1597. Olevianus, when dying, was asked about his salvation and replied, “I am most certain,” thus echoing his faith in the first answer of our catechism.

Our Reformed faith after it had been introduced into Heidelberg, spread into other districts of Germany-northward to Nassau, Westphalia, and the Rhine Provinces, eastward into Hesse-Kassel, Lippe, Anhalt, even to Berlin, the capital of Brandenburg. There the Prince, John Sigismund, announced to his chancellors before Christmas 1613 that on Christmas Day he would celebrate the Lord’s Supper after the Reformed mode by using bread instead of wafers. Since then the royal family of Prussia, from whom the Emperor of Germany is descended, has been Reformed, although the present Emperor belongs to the Evangelical Church of Germany, which is the union of the Reformed and Lutherans.

Of this line of princes of Brandenburg the most interesting to the Reformed is the Great Elector Frederick William. He was the great defender of the Reformed in the 17th Century. His wife was equally interesting, Louisa Henrietta, who led to the publication of the great German hymn “Jesus meine Zuversicht” (Jesus My Eternal Trust). She was a beautiful Christian character, her home at Oranienburg near Berlin being a veritable chapel of prayer and praise. She died June 28, 1667 and the great Elector after mourning her loss, finally died May 9, 1688.

Persectutions of the Reformed

Why did our forefathers come to America? is the question that has often been asked. The answer is that they came because of the persecutions and wars in the German Fatherland and because of the poverty caused by them. They looked across the ocean to the new world of America as an asylum where they might gain religious liberty and also sufficient means to live. The wars and persecutions of our German forefathers took place mainly in two periods: 1. The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). 2. The Palatinate Wars (1688-1695 and later).

The Thirty Years’ War

The Thirty Years’ War was caused by the Prince of the Palatinate, Elector Frederick V, accepting the crown of Bohemia. For that he was attacked by his rival Ferdinand, the Emperor of Germany and defeated. He was deprived of his country, the Palatinate, a Catholic prince was placed on his throne, and he became an exile. The Reformed people of the Palatinate and of other districts in Germany were greatly oppressed. Hostile armies overran their lands, destroying, burning, ravaging the country and killing or ill-treating the people. The University of Heidelberg was lost to them, most of its famous library being carried away to Rome. In 1627 the Reformed of Heidelberg were summoned to the city hall and commanded to give up their religion. This they bravely refused to do, declaring they would give up everything, yes, even leave their country rather than give up their Reformed faith. Famine and pestilence followed close upon each other in this war until finally in all the rich Palatinate there were only two hundred farmers in 1636, and around Heidelberg there were more wolves than men.

The Palatinate Wars, 1688-1693

In 1688 the King of France sent his armies to ravage the Palatinate. They destroyed 1,200 towns and villages and made 40,000 families homeless in winter. Heidelberg’s beautiful castle was blown up March 2nd, 1689, and is now a ruin, but the most beautiful ruin in Europe. In 1693 another French army was sent into the Palatinate. It captured Heidelberg and destroyed what had been left by the previous invasion. One hundred Reformed churches fell into the hands of the Roman Catholics and two hundred Reformed ministers and schoolteachers were driven out.

After the wars of 1688 and 1693 came a period of peace. But the persecutions of peace are sometimes more severe than those of war. For more than a century the Reformed of the Palatinate were ruled by Roman Catholic princes (1685-1802). The Roman Catholics often persistently oppressed them for being Reformed. They took possession of their cemeteries and then of their churches-they had their bells ring for Catholic festivals and hours of prayer-compelled them to kneel in the street when the pyx (containing the Lord’s Supper for the sick) passed by. In 1705 the largest church of the Reformed at Heidelberg, the Holy Ghost Church, was taken from them and given to the Roman Catholics. Through the intercession of Protestant princes the church was finally given back to the Reformed. But in 1719 the prince not only took this church from the Reformed but also forbade the use of the Heidelberg Catechism. Again through the intercession of Protestant princes that church was returned to the Reformed and the catechism was permitted to be used. But in 1755 the meetings of the synods were forbidden and also of their classes, so that no synod was held for thirty-four years (1755-1789). Finally in 1799 the last Roman Catholic ruler allowed religious liberty. The wonder was that after almost two centuries of persecution (1618-1800) there was any Reformed Church left in the Palatinate. No wonder our forefathers came to America to gain religious liberty and a home.

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.

SWITZERLAND was too small a land to retain the Reformed faith within her borders. It spread to other lands and soon proved a blessing to all Europe. France, Holland, England, Scotland, Bohemia, Hungary, and Germany all received it. Of these the land that interests us mostly is Germany, the land of our forefathers.

The Writing of the Heidelberg Catechism

In Germany the Reformed doctrines were late in gaining permanent hold. The early German Reformation was almost entirely Lutheran. Not until nearly half a century after, about 1562, did the Reformed doctrines gain a firm foothold in Germany by conquering the Palatinate. It is true the first Reformed congregation in Germany was organized as early as 1526 by Aportanus at Emden, a town at the extreme northwestern end of Germany. And there had also been certain movements toward the Reformed as at Strasburg by Bucer (1524-1549); and at the conference at Marburg (1529), where Lambert of Avignon, the reformer of Hesse, was led to embrace the Reformed faith, and the Presbyterian form of government had been introduced into Hesse.

The Church at Emden has an interesting history. {30} For it was there that John á Lasco became the first great Reformed reformer of Germany. Born in Poland, 1499, he was one of the most beautiful characters of the Reformation-“a soul without a stain,” as Erasmus said.[1] He it was who first laid the permanent foundations of the Reformed faith in Germany. He had a brilliant career as a student and a bright future before him in the Catholic Church, as his uncle was the head of the Catholic Church of Poland and he was in a fair way to succeed his uncle in his dignities and titles. But he gave up his honors and wealth and nobility to become a reformer; for while being educated, he had traveled westward from Poland to Switzerland and met Erasmus, and through him he became a Humanist. He returned to Poland and became Catholic archdeacon of Warsaw. But he was not satisfied. Humanism and its learning failed to satisfy him. Only the Evangelical doctrine, which he had once heard from Zwingli (1523), satisfied him, and so he became a Protestant. Having left Poland he came to East Friesland, of which Emden was the capital, and its ruler persuaded him in 1544 to become the superintendent of the Church in his land. á Lasco at once introduced the simple worship of the Reformed and organized (1544) the Coetus (a sort of synod), the oldest Reformed organization in Europe today, except the Venerable Company of Geneva. This Coetus is still in existence and holds its meetings regularly at Emden. Then he went to England to aid the Reformation there, but was driven out by the persecution under bloody Queen Mary. Those who accompanied him in his vessel were refused shelter by Denmark because they were {31} Reformed but he succeeded in finding his way back to Emden. Then he went to Frankford where he became pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church. His anxiety for his Church at Frankford led him to go to Heidelberg to get the Elector of the Palatinate to intercede for him. Soon, however, he had a fine opportunity to go back to Poland, which was now opening up to the Gospel. He returned there and founded its Reformed Church and aided in translating the Polish Bible He died there in 1560. He was a prince-preacher-a reformer in three lands, Germany, England, and Poland.

But the most important event for the Reformed was the conversion of the Palatinate from Lutheranism to the Reformed faith. The Palatinate in western Germany, situated on both sides of the Rhine, and whose capital was Heidelberg, was one of the most beautiful and fertile parts of Germany. Certain events had been preparing parts of Germany to receive the Reformed faith. The main one was the conflict in the Lutheran Church. Luther was now dead and his followers split into two parties, a high Lutheran party led by Flacius and a low Lutheran, led by Melanchthon and his followers. While the Lutherans were dividing, the Reformed doctrines were becoming better known in Germany. So that a large part of the Melanchthonians, wearied of the attacks of the high Lutherans on them, went over to the Reformed. The first prince to do this was Elector Frederick III of the Palatinate, one of the best and most pious princes of his day. When he came to the throne he found four different parties in his Church-High Lutherans, led by Hesshuss; Zwinglians, led by Erastus; Melanchthonians, led by {32} Diller, and Calvinists, led by Boquin. Hesshuss, by his narrow bigotry, caused the Elector to dislike him and he was soon deposed. Reformed professors like Boquin, Erastus, and finally Ursinus and Olevianus, had been appointed so that in 1562 Frederick, having become fully Reformed, ordered Ursinus and Olevianus to prepare a new catechism. Who were these two young men, the one only 26 years of age, the other only 28, who were so mature as to prepare one of the most wonderful of creeds?

Zacharias Ursinus and Casper Olevianus

Zacharias Ursinus was born in eastern Germany, at Breslau, July 18, 1534. He was a pupil of Melanchthon at Wittenberg and was compelled to leave his native city by the High Lutherans because of his sympathy with Melancthonianism. He then went to Zurich, in Switzerland, where he came under Reformed influences, especially of Peter Martyr. When the latter refused a call to Heidelberg University, Ursinus was called in his place (1561). He there became professor in the Sapienz College, which was intended to prepare young men for the ministry. He was one of the strongest theologians of that second generation of reformers.

Casper Olevianus, the other author of our catechism, was from Western Germany. He was born at Treves August 30, 1536and was educated at Bourges, in France. Here an event turned his mind to the Gospel ministry. He had at this university an intimate friend in the son of the Elector of the Palatinate. They were walking together along the shore of the river, when some students called to them to join them in their boat. The prince accepted, but Olevianus refused. A few moments after, the boat was upset and all thrown out. Olevianus rushed into {33} the water to save the prince, but instead found himself in imminent danger of drowning. While thus hanging between life and death he vowed that if God would spare his life he would become a minister. The servant of the prince then appeared, rushed into the water and saved Olevianus. True to his promise, he studied theology under Calvin at Geneva. But his heart burned to tell the Gospel to his own city, which was one of the most priest-ridden cities of Europe. So having gained a position there as teacher, he had the boldness one morning to nail up on the city hall a notice that he would hold an evangelical service that Sunday morning. The people came in crowds to hear this novelty, but the Catholic Elector of Treves, hearing of this, returned with his army, besieged the town, captured it, drove out the Reformed and put Olevianus in prison. Elector Frederick III, of the Palatinate, interceded for him and he was released and appointed as preacher and superintendent at Heidelberg.

These were the two men appointed by the Elector to prepare his new creed, in the latter part of 1562It was published early in 1563, the Elector’s preface being dated January 19 of that year. Hence our Church generally observes the Sunday nearest to that date as Reformation Day. So popular did this new creed become that four editions of it were required in the first year (1563). It was introduced everywhere in the Palatinate and soon began to win its way into other lands.[2] But a storm of opposition to it began to gather over Frederick’s head. The Lutheran and Catholic princes of Germany joined hands {34} to suppress it. A conference was held at Maulbron, in Wurtemberg, near the Palatinate border, on April, 10, 1564, between the Lutheran and Reformed theologians, but they could not come to an agreement. Then the Emperor of Germany summoned Frederick to appear before the Diet (Congress) in May, 1566, at Augsburg, to answer for his catechism. It looked as if the Emperor would crush out the catechism and perhaps depose Frederick. So threatening did matters look that his brother warned Frederick not to go to Augsburg. Indeed a rumor came to Heidelberg after he had gone to Augsburg that he had been deposed from his throne because of his catechism. But Frederick had the martyr-spirit and said he was ready to suffer for his catechism if necessary. So he went to Augsburg to the Diet.[3] On the day appointed to him to answer for his catechism (May 14, 1566), he entered the room followed by his son Casimir, who carried a Bible. He defended his catechism, and asked that it be shown to be contrary to the Word of God. His address was so able, so convincing and so spiritual that it disarmed all opposition. The Elector of Saxony said: “Fritz, you are better than all of us,” and the Margrave of Baden remarked: “Why trouble ye this man. He is more pious than all of us.” The result of this trial was that Frederick was allowed to retain his catechism. It was a magnificent defence and revealed the true greatness of Frederick. He continued to rule the Palatinate until October 26, 1576, when he died. He was one of the most pious princes of an age that produced many pious princes. When asked why he did not {35} build more forts he replied in the words of Luther’s famous hymn: “A mighty fortress is our God.” The money that other princes spent in war or luxury he gave to churches, schools and hospitals. He was a true nobleman, a nobleman by character as well as by birth.

After his death his successor and son, Elector Lewis, re-introduced Lutheranism into the Palatinate and both Ursinus and Olevianus had to leave Heidelberg. Ursinus went with Prince Casimir westward to Neustadt, where the latter opened a new university (1578). Here Ursinus taught theology with great acceptance till he died, March 6, 1583. His epitaph says of him-“a great theologian, a keen-sighted philosopher, a wise man, a mighty teacher of the youth.”

While Ursinus went to Neustadt, Olevianus went northeast from Heidelberg, first to Sayn Wittgenstein and then settled at Herborn in Nassau (a district east of the Rhine and north of Frankford). There Count John of Nassau founded a new university and made him professor of theology. He taught there till he died, March 15, 1787. The “comfort” of his Heidelberg catechism remained with him till he died, for at his death when he was asked whether he was certain of salvation, he replied, “I am most certain.”

The Spread of the Reformed Church in Germany

The Reformed doctrine, like the banyan tree, sending forth its shoots, which rapidly grow into new trees, spread rapidly through Germany from province to province. The Reformed of Holland, who then found a refuge from their persecutions in Germany, {36} adopted the Heidelberg Catechism at the Synod of Wesel, 1568. The Reformed faith was introduced into Nassau in 1578, about 1577 into the northern Rhine region, into Bremen in 1581, into Zweibrucken 1588, into Anhalt 1597, and Lippe 1600. Two large and influential provinces received it early in the seventeenth century. The first was Hesse Cassel. There Landgrave Maurice, the ruler, weary of the attacks of the High Lutherans on the Melanchthonians, with whom he sympathized, ordered in 1604 that bread be used instead of wafers at the communion. This change was usually the first sign that a church became Reformed. He not only introduced it into lower or Eastern Hesse, but attempted to introduce it into upper or Western Hesse, and for this purpose went to the capital of the latter province, Marburg. After he left, on August 6, 1605, the people, who were strong Lutherans, became alarmed by all sorts of rumors about this and broke out into an open riot. They forced the Reformed ministers from the pulpit, drove them into a corner of the church, where they assaulted them. One of them, Schonfeld, thought they were going to kill him. As they struck him to the ground he cried out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” But he afterwards revived again. Another Reformed minister, Cellarius, was pursued through the streets until he escaped to the country to a place of safety. The Reformed faith was not, therefore, introduced into upper Hesse, although a few congregations were formed there, but lower Hesse became almost entirely Reformed.

But the most important addition to the Reformed ranks was the Elector of Brandenburg. On Christmas week, 1613, he called his councillors together and {37} announced to them that he had made up his mind to go over to the Reformed faith. His conversion created a great sensation, especially as he was not followed in it by his people, who remained Lutheran. On Christmas day, 1613, he celebrated the Lord’s Supper at Berlin after the Reformed manner, by the use of bread instead of wafers. His conversion was most important, for it gave to the Reformed two of the six Electors of Germany who elected the Emperor. And when the Elector of the Palatinate afterward lost his throne, or was no longer Reformed, it was this Brandenburg family of princes, who were always prominent as the great protectors of the Reformed. Many a time did they defend or intercede for their persecuted Reformed brethren. This Brandenburg family afterwards became the Kings of Prussia, who are now the royal family of Germany, and from them the present Emperor of Germany is a direct descendant. Thus the Reformed faith spread from Switzerland northward along the Rhine and to Bremen; and then eastward through Hesse and Anhalt to Berlin, so that perhaps one-fourth of Germany may be said to have become Reformed.

But although the Reformed faith had gained so much influence, it was not yet recognized by the laws of Germany. To gain that, a terrible war, the Thirty Years’ War, had to be undergone. The treaty of Augsburg (1555) had made the only legal Protestant creed to be the Augsburg Confession of the Lutherans. As the Reformed had not existed then as a distinct denomination in Germany, and the Heidelberg Catechism was not published till later than 1555, of course they were not mentioned by that treaty. So during their first century the Reformed existed only by sufferance in Germany, though not by law. {38} They had no rights that might not be taken away from them at any time, as they were not legally recognized. The Thirty Years’ War broke out in 1618.[4] Elector Frederick V., of the Palatinate, the grandson of Elector Frederick III., who ordered our catechism to be written, was elected King of Bohemia. This caused a war, for Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, who had just been elected Emperor of Germany, also claimed the throne of Bohemia. Frederick went to Prague and reigned as king for only a year, when he was defeated by a one-hour’s battle at White Mountain, near Prague, Nov. 8, 1620. He was compelled to flee and became an exile from his home till his death, Nov. 29, 1632.

With him suffered his beloved land, the beautiful Palatinate. For he was declared an outlaw by the Emperor, his land was confiscated, and at once Spanish armies appeared in it to take possession of it. The Reformed people before this time felt great anxiety for their future and spent much time in prayer. Owing to the scarcity of money, the ministers and schoolmasters were not paid. Colonel Obertraut took command of the Palatinate army, but General Tilly, the Austrian general, soon appeared in the land with a large army. For a very brief time Elector Frederick V. came back to his land, but he soon had to flee. His neighbor and ally, the Margrave of Baden Durlach, was defeated at Wimpfen May 6, 1622. Tilly soon after began besieging Heidelberg and stormed it on September 15, 1622. That day the cruel Croatians burst into the city, murdering men and women and also burning it. {39} The Reformed professor of theology, Henry Alting, started to escape through a back door of his house, when he was met by an Austrian soldier, who said: “With this club I have killed ten men today. If I knew where Professor Alting was, he would be the eleventh.” By a kind providence his life was spared. But the castle as well as the city soon after surrendered to the Austrians. Tilly having captured Heidelberg, besieged Manheim (near Heidelberg) which surrendered to him. He also attacked Frankenthal (also near Heidelberg) which bravely resisted him, and as winter was approaching Tilly gave up its siege. But the next year, Frankenthal was basely surrendered by the King of England without the loss of a drop of blood, and so the whole Palatinate lay at the mercy of its cruel conquerors. The sufferings of the Reformed became terrible. Their ministers, 250 in number, were driven away (1623). The new elector was a Catholic. He summoned (May 13, 1627), all the citizens of Heidelberg to the city hall and commanded them all to become Catholics. They absolutely refused to do so, whole trades declaring that they would give up property and everything rather than give up their Reformed faith. When Gustavus Adolphus made his victorious campaign through Germany (1630-32) there was a slight lull in their persecutions, but after his death their sufferings became ten times worse. Heidelberg, which had been captured by the Swedes (1633) was now again recaptured by the Bavarians (1635). The whole country was ravaged by marauding companies of troops of both armies, plundering and killing the people. Famine and pestilence came, one after the other, until (1636) there were only 200 farmers in all the rich Palatinate, while around Heidelberg there were more wolves than men. {40} The neighboring Reformed districts of Zweibrucken on the south and Nassau further north, also suffered very severely during this war. “When the enemy had marched through, it looked,” said a minister, “as if Lucifer or Beelzebub had passed by.” Houses were deserted, villages lay in ruins, the fields were covered with weeds and lay uncultivated for years. The Reformed districts of Nassau were also terribly devastated; and Hesse Cassel (also Reformed) was partly overrun by the enemy, but by its bravery and especially by the heroism of its ruler, the Landgravine Amalie, it suffered less, although the Reformed ministers were driven out of parts of her land. During this terrible war it seemed as if the Reformed districts were the ones that especially suffered. Her universities of Heidelberg and Marburg were closed, and those of Herborn and Frankford on the Oder suffered severely.

But although the war cost the Reformed so much, yet they gained more than it cost. Their religion was now recognized by law. This was mainly gained through the efforts of Landgravine Amalie of Hesse Cassel, and the young Elector of Brandenburg, Frederick William, whose wife, Electress Louisa Henrietta, was one of the most beautiful of Reformed princesses, and the authoress of the famous hymn, “Jesu Meine Zuversicht” (“Jesus My Eternal Trust”). For when the peace of Prague in 1635 had threatened to close the war without recognizing the Reformed, Amalie refused to sign it and joined herself with Sweden and France to gain their rights. When the negotiations began, which closed the war, Elector Frederick William aided her efforts, so that the war closed with honor to the Reformed, as they were recognized by name in the Treaty of Westphalia. {41} And when the war was over, the Reformed religion revived again and rose phoenix-like from its ashes. The Palatinate and Nassau districts began to bloom again; Hesse returned to greater power than ever, and the Elector of Brandenburg became the great leader and defender of the Reformed. Thus the Reformed, having spread through a large part of Germany’s territory, continued increasing in influence until they were included in the laws and treaties of Germany also.

The Persecutions in the Palatinate

For nearly half a century after the awful Thirty Years’ War, the Reformed of Germany had peace. Then came more terrible persecutions than ever.[5] Two events united to bring this about. One was the death of the last Reformed Elector of the Palatinate, Charles, in 1685. After that its rulers, until this century, were Catholics. The other was the French wars (1688-1695). The King of France, Louis XIV., laid claim to the Palatinate after the death of the Elector Charles, because his brother had married Princess “Lize Lotte,” a Palatinate princess. And suddenly, without a moment’s warning, he precipitated an army of 80,000 soldiers into the Palatinate in the fall of 1688. In seven weeks he had changed that fertile land into a desert. On October 25, Heidelberg surrendered to his armies. Then an idea struck his mind more worthy of a barbarian than of a Christian king. “Ravage the Palatinate” was his command, and the awful work was begun. {42} Not Attila, “the scourge of Europe,” did such terrible work more thoroughly. On January 18, 1689, the ravage began. From the walls of Heidelberg could be seen in all directions the flames of burning villages. The children of the Reformed Orphanage at Handschuheim, near Heidelberg, had to flee almost naked over the snow to the neighboring village of Schonau, and two of them were frozen to death in the snow. The French shut up the almost naked magistrates of that town in the church in the bitterest cold for three days. This ravage was completed by the baptism of fire for Heidelberg herself. On March 2, 1689, the city was fired, and the beautiful castle, which it had taken six centuries to build, was blown up in a single morning. The city was then fired at many places. The French General, Melac, sat on his horse in the central square of the town, laughing, like Nero at Rome, at the sufferings of the inhabitants. Had it not been for the pity of some of the lower French officers, like de Tesse, the whole city would have been destroyed; but they secretly allowed the people to put damp straw in their windows, which, when burning, produced a great smoke, so that it looked as if the house was rapidly burning, although it did little damage. At Manheim the French so utterly destroyed the city, that in the rubbish the streets could not be deciphered. Thus twelve hundred villages and towns were destroyed by the French, and 40,000 inhabitants rendered homeless in mid-winter. Many of the Reformed churches were utterly destroyed, especially west of the Rhine. Often the Reformed children, because they would not go to the Catholic church, were beaten with rods or were sometimes driven into the woods in winter, where some of them perished. {43}

But the cup of the Palatinate was not yet full. In 1693 the French king sent another army into the Palatinate, to complete what had been left undone in the previous terrible invasion. In May they approached Heidelberg. Its commander treacherously surrendered. The poor Reformed people were then driven by the soldiers into the Church of the Holy Ghost, until it was packed so full that they were huddled together like sheep in a pen. Then the French locked the door and set the church roof and steeple on fire. Such a wailing arose from the Reformed within (who expected to be burned up in an awful holocaust), that “it was enough,” said an eye witness, “to make a stone weep.” But this produced no effect on the hearts of the enemy, harder than stone. When the steeple was in flames and the bells threatened to fall, then the French opened the doors and let them out; but some of them had already died of fright in the church. Then the French drove them into a neighboring square, where their sufferings were worse than death. The city was so destroyed by this attack of the French that it was little else than a mass of rubbish. Almost the only thing that remained were the churches, and of these sometimes only the walls were standing.

But the greatest sufferer of all was the Reformed Church. One hundred Reformed churches, mainly west of the Rhine, were in the hands of Catholics. Two hundred Reformed ministers and school-masters were driven out. The few who remained had such large parishes, or were so persecuted, that they could hardly attend to their duties. To Professor J. L. Fabricius, of Heidelberg, probably belongs the honor of saving our Church, so that it was not utterly destroyed. He sacrificed everything for her and went to other lands raising money for her. {44} The Reformed minister of Manheim, Schmidmann, did not desert his congregation even when the town was utterly destroyed. He preached in its ruins, and divided his last crust of bread with his starving Reformed people. In 1697 these terrible sufferings of the Reformed were finally brought to an end by the peace of Ryswick.

But, although the persecutions of war were over, those of peace remained; and sometimes the persecutions of peace are more trying than those of war. Now the great enemy of the Reformed was not foreigners like the French, but their own ruler, the Elector of the Palatinate, who was a Catholic. These Electors began to take away, one after the other, the liberties of their Reformed subjects. They first took possession of the Reformed cemeteries, then rang their bells for Catholic festival days, and finally took their churches for Catholic services. In vain did the Reformed protest. The Government kept back the salaries of the Reformed ministers and school-masters. Often when the Catholic “host” was carried through the streets, the Reformed would be compelled to kneel before it. In many places they were forbidden to work on Catholic feast days. Finding that their protests were unheard by the Elector, the Reformed appealed to the Evangelical States of Germany. These princes of the empire then took up the matter. Finding that protests were in vain, they began to retaliate on the Catholics in their countries. The Kings of Prussia and England and the Landgrave of Hesse closed up some Catholic churches in their lands until the Reformed of the Palatinate had their churches returned to them. This finally brought matters to a crisis, and on November 21, 1705, the Elector again granted the Reformed their rights. {45}

But they were not to have peace and toleration long. For a new Elector, who had been more bigotedly trained than any before, ascended the throne. Soon after he became Elector, the Jesuits adroitly called his attention to the fact that the Heidelberg Catechism, which was issued with his coat-of-arms on the front page, had in it the eightieth question, which says that “the mass is an accursed idolatry.” In rage he ordered the use of the Heidelberg Catechism to be stopped, and thus our forefathers would have been without a creed. The Reformed professors at Heidelberg, Mieg and Kirchmeyer, defended their Catechism, saying that it had been in use for a century and a half, and no one had objected before-even under Catholic rulers it had been used for a quarter of a century, and yet not one of them had objected to it. But the Elector, instead of receding from his position, advanced to greater persecutions. On August 29, 1719, he summoned the Reformed consistory to him and demanded of them to give up to him their largest church in Heidelberg, the Church of the Holy Ghost. As they did not do this by September 4, although the Reformed had locked the church and barricaded it, the Catholics forced an entrance into it through the tower and forcibly took possession. The division wall in it, which had separated the choir where the Catholics had worshiped, from the nave where the Reformed had worshiped, was broken down, and the Catholics took possession of the whole church. At the same time the other Reformed churches were again taken possession of by the Catholics. As the Reformed could not worship in the Church of the Holy Ghost, during that fall and winter they worshiped in the cold and storm in an open square near the eastern end of Heidelberg, called “the monks’ court.” {46}

The Reformed now became greatly alarmed. They appealed again to the Evangelical States of Germany to aid them. These had already found that the only way to deal successfully with the Elector was to retaliate. So the Kings of Prussia and England and the Landgrave of Hesse Cassel closed several Catholic churches in their lands until the Catholics would return the Church of the Holy Ghost to the Reformed. The Elector became very angry at this. He declared that if he were ever compelled to give back the Church of the Holy Ghost to the Reformed, he would forever leave Heidelberg and make Manheim his capital instead; that he would shake the dust of Heidelberg off of his feet and let it become like an ordinary country village, instead of his beautiful capital. Finally, on February 29, 1720, the Church of the Holy Ghost, by order of the Emperor, was given back to the Reformed, and the Heidelberg Catechism was also again allowed (1721) to be used by the Reformed, although it was no longer printed with the Elector’s coat-of-arms on the title pages as before. But the Elector in anger forsook Heidelberg, which had been the capital of his land for centuries and removed to Manheim, where he built a new capital. The Reformed received back their churches and their rights; yet very often, owing to their lack of money, they were not able to rebuild their churches.

About 1750, the Elector, having failed to destroy the Reformed by persecutions, now tried to do so by corruption. He enlarged the church-court, which governed the Reformed, and intoduced men into it who were corrupt and who would take bribes. Thus they practiced simony or the sale of places (pastorates, school teachers’ positions, etc.) for money. {47} Against this abuse the Reformed ministers nobly protested. Then the Elector in anger forbade them any longer to hold the meetings of their classes. They again appealed to the Evangelical States of Germany, but by this time its princes had either grown weary or careless, and there was now no one to look after their case. So for 34 years (1755-1789) no synods were held. Finally, in 1799, they were again allowed religious liberty under the last Catholic Elector, Max Joseph, and in 1802 they again came under the control of a Protestant prince, the Lutheran Duke of Baden. It is a wonder that, after almost two centuries of persecution (1618-1800), there was any Reformed church left in the Palatinate, but in 1783 there were 240 Reformed parishes and 140,000 members in that land. These persecutions explain why our forefathers came to America.

[1]For fuller accounts of this interesting man, see The Origin of the Reformed Church in Germany, by Rev. James I. Good, D.D., pages 80-108.

[2]For the best commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism get Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism by Otto Thelemann, translated by Prof. M. Peters.

[3]For a graphic account of this most magnificent scene in our Reformed Church history see The Origin of the Reformed Church, by Rev. James I. Good, D.D., pages 193-216.

[4] For a fuller account of the sufferings of the Reformation during the Thirty Years’ War, see the History of the Reformed Church of Germany by Rev. James I. Good, D.D., pages 9-144.

[5] For a full account of the awful sufferings of the Reformed in the Palatinate see The History of the Reformed Church of Germany, by Rev. James L Good, D.D., pages 225-307.

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.

A SUNRISE on the Alps is a never-to-be-forgotten sight. The traveler who sees it from the top of the Rigi mountain, will never forget the scene. After he has waited breathlessly for the first sign of the coming day, suddenly one of the snow-capped peaks will be tipped with golden light. Then far distant from it another will be touched; then another near the first; then another and another until the sun seems to play a game of hop, skip and jump among the snow-capped mountain tops. And when at last the sun appears, lo! those snow-capped peaks stand around like lighted torches to welcome the bridegroom of the new day, as he again begins to circle the earth. Then slowly the sunlight creeps down the mountain side of the Rigi until at last the dark lakes and cities, 5‚000 feet below, are bright with the light of another day.

But grand as is the sunrise on the Alps, still grander was the sunrise of the Gospel in Switzerland in the days of the Reformation. It rose first on the top of one of the lower Alps in the upper valley of Einsiedeln, where Zwingli began preaching. Then it descended to light the city of Zurich with the brightness of the Gospel. Then from city to city and canton to canton it spread its light-Basle, Schaffhausen, {6} Berne, Neuch‰tel and Geneva were, one after the other, lit with its glorious light, until almost all Switzerland had received it. Let us study this sunrise, in Switzerland, the birthplace of our Reformed Church.

Zwingli, the Founder of Our Church

Ulric Zwingli, the founder of our Church, was born January 1, 1484, at Wildhaus, a little village in one of the upper valleys of the Alps in northeastern Switzerland, about 40 miles east of Zurich. A New Year’s boy, he was destined to usher in a new year to the world-the Reformation. He was reared as a shepherd boy; but his father soon saw that he was too bright a boy for the mountains, so he took him, when nine years of age, to Ulric’s uncle, the priest of Wesen, about 12 miles further south, where the boy could attend school. But his uncle soon said, “Wesen can do no more for him.” So the next year he was sent to a high school at Basle (situated at the northwest corner of Switzerland). There he gave promise of future, greatness, for he excelled all his classmates in debate. And when not yet 13 years of age, he was sent to the school at Bern (located at the center of Switzerland). Providentially Bern had one of the new teachers called Humanists (who were progressive in their ideas), named Lupulus. He introduced Zwingli to the classics, especially the Latin language. This was his first step toward becoming the future reformer- his contact with the classics or Humanistic studies. In a year or two he attracted so much attention there, that the Dominican monks, admiring his musical talents, tried to get him to join their order. But Ulrich’s {7} father had no liking for monks, so he was taken away from Bern and sent to Vienna to study philosophy. But his studies here seem to have been largely a return to the old scholastic philosophy. Had Zwingli’s education stopped here, he would have remained a scholar, but never could have become the reformer. But in the providence of God (because he was yet too young to enter the priesthood), he went to Basle, where while teaching and attending the university, he met a decidedly religious and spiritual influence, which led him, ten years later, to become the reformer. For Thomas Wyttenbach here became his teacher. He it was who gave Zwingli the impulse toward the study of Greek, which Zwingli began six years later. Wyttenbach especially impressed him with the keynote of his future preaching. “The time is not far distant,” he said, “when the scholastic theology will be swept away, and the old doctrine of the Church established in its room on the foundation of God’s Word. Absolution is a Romish cheat, the death of Christ is the only payment for our sins.”

The year 1506 finds Zwingli entering his first pastorate at Glarus, about 35 miles southeast of Zurich. Here, for about 10 years, he continued the faithful priest of the people. No sign of his becoming the future reformer appears at Glarus. Nevertheless, there were certain influences being brought to bear on him that loosened the hold of Rome on him. Thus he saw some of his members go as soldiers hired to fight in the French and Roman armies and either shed their blood for foreign princes on the battlefield, or come home morally corrupt to demoralize the parish. Against this Zwingli wrote his work, “The Labyrinth” (1510). He himself went as a chaplain with {8} the army to Italy and his eyes were there opened to the corruption of the papacy. He also happened to discover an old liturgy at Mollis, the next village north of Glarus, which said the priests formerly gave the cup as well as the bread to the laity at the Lord’s Supper, and it suggested a question to his mind why that could not still be done.

While certain influences were thus loosening the hold of Rome on him, others were tightening the hold of truth upon him. It was especially the influence of Humanism, which led him to take up the study of the Greek language, for it was Greek that prepared him to read the New Testament a few years later. Picus Mirandula, an Italian freethinker, and Erasmus of Basle, the leader of the Humanists, both greatly influenced him.

In 1516 two events tended to prepare him to make his break with the papacy. One was the publication of the Greek New Testament by Erasmus. Before that, he had been able to get at the Greek of the New Testament only by the roundabout way of reading it as found in scattered verses in the homilies of the early church fathers. Now he could get it directly from the Testament. And so enthusiastically and earnestly did he read it, that he learned whole epistles of Paul by heart.

The other was his call to Einsiedeln, his second charge, a little mountain abbey in an upper Alpine valley, about 20 miles southeast of Zurich, and 16 miles west of Glarus. As this Abbey had no congregation connected with it, he could spend his whole time in study. Here, set aside from the world before entering on his great mission, like Moses and Paul, he studied and prayed. And here he started the {9} Reformation, as he says, in 1516. This was one year before Luther nailed his famous theses on the church-door at Wittenberg in Germany, Oct. 31, 1517, which began the Lutheran Reformation. Here the old instruction of Wyttenbach, given ten years before, came to fruitage, and he preached that “Christ is the ransom for sin.” “Not the Virgin Mary (whose sign was over the doorway of the monastery) can forgive sin, but Jesus Christ.” The thousands of pilgrims, who came to do honor to the black virgin of Einsiedeln, as the patron saint of that abbey was called, were astonished at this new doctrine, and some took it to their homes as they scattered over Switzerland, saying with him, “Christ alone saves and he saves everywhere.”

A third event, which occurred a little later, also came to lead Zwingli away from Rome, namely, the sale of indulgences. In 1518 Samson appeared in Switzerland to sell them. Zwingli boldly lifted up his voice against them. “Can your gifts save you?” he said. “No, Jesus is the only sacrifice, the only gift, the only way.”

It however soon became evident that his little mountain eyrie was too small a place for so great a man. The center of northeastern Switzerland has always been Zurich. To this larger field Providence called him at the close of 1518. On New Year’s day, 1519, when he began preaching in the great cathedral in Zurich, it was indeed a new year, such as they had never seen there. For he began preaching the Gospel to which they had been strangers, and announced that he would preach on the Gospel of Matthew, chapter after chapter. The people crowded the church to hear this novelty. “We never heard it after this fashion,” they said. Some mocked, but {10} most were impressed and blessed by it. Soon, however, overwork so broke him down so that he was compelled to go away for his health to the baths of Ragatz Pfaffers, about 40 miles southeast of Zurich. But, like a faithful shepherd, when he there heard that the plague had broken out in Zurich, he hastened home to comfort the sick and bury the dead. Laid low himself by it, he sank to death’s door. But God in His providence brought him health again. However his sickness deepened his religious experience, so that afterward his humanistic learning and his eloquence were consecrated more fully to God. This baptism of fire gave him Pentecostal power.

The first idea of the reformers in the Reformation was to reform the Catholic Church of its errors and abuses. Hence they were then called Reformed. But it soon became evident that they could not do this, and they were compelled to leave that Church. Their name “Reformers” or “Reformed,” however, clung to them. At first both Lutherans and Zwinglians were called Reformed, but later the name clung to those who were followers of Zwingli and Calvin. So Zwingli and Zurich were compelled to break from the Romish Church. They could not reform the old Church, which now turned against them, so they left it. One event after another occurred to cause the final breach. On January 29, 1523, a great disputation took place in the council hall of Zurich. Just as Luther had nailed 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg, so Zwingli brought 67 theses before this council meeting. At a table in the middle of the room he sat, with the Bible in Latin and Hebrew before him. For it, he claimed supreme authority. The disputation resulted in a complete victory for the {11} Reformed, so that the council ordered that nothing should be taught in the churches except what was founded on the Bible. Soon after it took another step. In October 1523, some of the Catholic customs were brought to the attention of the council, which ordered that images should be cast out of the churches. The publication of Zwingli’s marriage to Anna Reinhard, in 1524, still further widened the breach with Rome. Finally, on April 13, 1525, the Reformation was completed at Zurich, as the Lord’s Supper was celebrated, not after the Catholic fashion, but by giving the cup as well as the bread to the communicants. Thus Zurich and its canton became Reformed.

But the Reformation did not stop there. It spread from city to city. Oecolampadius, the twin-worker with Zwingli, introduced it into Basle (1528). A great conference was held at Berne (1528), the capital of the central and the largest canton of Switzerland. Here Berthold Haller had been trying to introduce the Reformed doctrines amid great difficulties. At this conference the Reformed gained a great and signal victory. For while Zwingli was preaching in the cathedral against the mass, a priest came into the church to celebrate mass at one of the side altars. But Zwingli’s words so impressed him that he cried out, “This is in contradiction to the mass.” He threw off his priestly robe, saying, “Unless the mass rests on a more solid foundation, I can celebrate it no longer.” His conversion caused a profound impression and proved the forerunner of the conversion of that great canton of Bern to the Reformed faith. Thus almost all of northern Switzerland became Reformed. {12}

And now an attempt was made to extend the influence of the Reformed still farther, even into Germany. Landgrave Philip, the ruler of Hesse, was anxious to unite the Lutherans and the Reformed, so that when united, they might be stronger against the Pope. He arranged a conference at Marburg, October 1, 1529. There Luther and Melanchthon appeared for the Lutherans, and Zwingli and Oecolampadius for the Reformed. Their discussion was mainly about the Lord’s Supper. It continued for three days, when the appearance of the sweating sickness broke up the conference. Landgrave Philip, finding that the Lutherans and Reformed would not agree to unite to form one Church, urged Luther and Zwingli to acknowledge each other as brethren. Zwingli, bursting into tears, held out his hand. The two Churches of the Reformation were about to become one. But no, Luther refused the proffered hand, and ever since the two denominations have remained separate. Two more years of life remained to the founder of our Church. They were years of anxiety and prayer. The five Catholic cantons of the upper Alps, southeast of Zurich, plotted against Zurich. The first Cappel war broke out in 1529 but providentially closed without bloodshed. Zwingli, while on this campaign, wrote his hymn:

Do thou direct thy chariot, Lord,
And guide us at thy will;
Without thy aid our strength is vain
And useless all our skill.
Look down upon thy saints brought low,
And prostrate brought beneath the foe.

Send down thy peace and banish strife,
Let bitterness depart;
Revive the spirit of the past
In every true Swiss heart,
Then shall thy Church forever sing
The praises of her heavenly King.

But the peace was only temporary. In 1531 hostilities broke out again. Suddenly news came to Zurich that the army of the Five Cantons was approaching. A small army was hurriedly gathered together, among it, however, the bravest soldiers of Zurich. Zwingli went along as its chaplain. The two armies met at Cappel, about ten miles south of Zurich. The Zurich army was completely defeated. Zwingli, while stooping to minister to a fallen soldier, was struck with a stone. As a lance sent him reeling to the ground, he exclaimed, “What evil is it? They may kill the body, but they cannot kill the soul.” He died under a pear-tree (Oct. 11, 1531). His body was burned and its ashes mixed with those of swine because his conquerors considered him a heretic. So died the martyr of the first great quartette of the reformers, Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli and Oecolampadius. He was a brave patriot, an eloquent preacher, a brilliant scholar, and a faithful pastor. And now more than twenty millions of Reformed and Presbyterians in all parts of the globe look to him as their founder.

From Zurich to Geneva

The workers die, God’s work does not. God’s work depends on no single individual. For though the workers die, God’s work goes on. They are {14} mortal, but it is immortal. Other workers come to take the places of those who drop out of the ranks by death. And so when Zwingli died, two men arose to take his place in Switzerland, so that the Reformation went on with greater power than ever before.

Henry Bullinger

He was born at Bremgarten, July 18, 1504. When a boy, his life was twice remarkably preserved. The first was when he had been so ill with the plague that they supposed he was dead, and were assembled for the funeral, when suddenly, to the astonishment of all, he came back to life and recovered. God’s providence preserved him for great purposes. He early showed great precocity of mind and inclination to spiritual things. When 12 years old, he was sent to Emmerich, in northern Germany, to one of those schools which were the forerunners of the Reformation-founded by the Brethren of the Common Life. These had been founded by Gerhart Groot a century and a half before, and their brightest ornament had been Thomas à Kempis, who wrote The Imitation of Christ. Their aim was to disseminate the knowledge of the Bible by education, and they thus prepared some of the leading reformers for their work in the Reformation. At Emmerich, Bullinger studied Latin, and, like Luther, sang hymns in the streets so as to get money to gain an education. At the age of 15 he went to the great Catholic University at Cologne in order to study for the priesthood. There, while reading dogmatics, he discovered that they referred constantly to the early church fathers, and found Chrysostom’s Homilies on Matthew and other works of the fathers. From them he began reading Luther’s writings. These led {15} him still further to the root of things, so that he did not stop with the fathers until he went to the source whence they drew their authority, namely, the New Testament. Day and night he thus studied (1521-1522). The result was that he gave up the idea of becoming a priest and became a Protestant instead.

Meanwhile strange changes were taking place in his native land of Switzerland, under Zwingli. So when he went home he at once found a school ready for him in which he could teach, at Cappel, where Zwingli afterwards was killed on the battlefield. Here he became greatly influenced by Zwingli’s teachings.

In 1529 he was called to be assistant to his aged father, pastor of the church at Bremgarten. But in 1531, when Zwingli was killed at the battle of Cappel, the war drove both Bullinger and his father from Bremgarten, and they fled to Zurich. Here everything was in confusion after Zwingli’s death. There was danger of a reaction toward Catholicism. To prevent this, the Reformed were anxiously looking about for a leader. They first invited Oecolampadius, of Basle, to come and take Zwingli’s place, and meanwhile asked Bullinger to preach in the cathedral. His preaching astonished every one. Though so young a man (only 28) he revealed just the qualities they sought for in their leader. And so, as Oecolampadius declined, he was elected to this important position (Dec. 9, 1531) just two months after Zwingli’s death. He proved to be the man for the hour. His learning, eloquence, common sense and earnest piety enabled him to fill that difficult office with success. By his wisdom he destroyed the hopes of the Catholics and by his firmness he rallied the power of the Reformed. He soon was known all over Europe as the worthy {16} successor of Zwingli. During his life Zurich became the asylum for all Reformed refugees. There English bishops and Italian refugees from Locarno rejoiced at his kindly reception. He had taken the wife and family of Zwingli into his own home after Zwingli’s death, and cared for them as his own. The same kindness he showed to the persecuted foreigners, even starting an English theological seminary for the young English students for the ministry who were there. His kindness was so appreciated by the English, that Queen Elizabeth afterwards presented him with a goblet as a token of the appreciation of the English people. He wrote many theological works, the most important being the “Second Helvetic Confession,” which was adopted by all the Swiss Reformed churches as their creed. Frederick the Third, of the Palatinate, was so pleased with this creed that he incorporated it in his will. His writings were in great favor, especially among the English, his “Ten Decades” being for many years the leading theological textbook in England. But his most important work was to unite the two Reformed churches of Switzerland, the Southern or French Reformed, and the Northern or German Reformed. This he did by uniting with John Calvin in the Zurich (Tigurine) Confession (1549). He died at Zurich honored near and far by all, Sept. 17, 1575.

John Calvin

If Zwingli was the founder of our Reformed Church, John Calvin was its organizer. He was the greatest commentator and most acute theologian of the Reformation. He was a Frenchman, born at Noyon, in Northern France, July 10, 1509. He was destined {17} for the priesthood, and studied at Paris and Bourges in France. At the latter place he met a German, Wolmar, who did for him what Wyttenbach had done for Zwingli-he led him to Christ (1535).[1] Called to preach first at Bourges, Calvin then became pastor of the rapidly increasing Reformed Church of Paris. But because of an inaugural address favoring Protestantism, which he prepared for the rector of the university, he was compelled to flee. For two years he was a fugitive under assumed names. He spent some time in the library of his friend du Tillet, at Angouleme; at another time he was at Poitiers. There he did a braver thing than ever the Black Prince of England had done in battle there, centuries before. Calvin gathered a few Reformed together in a cave, still called “Calvin’s Cave.” Behind it were the ruins of a Roman aqueduct; below it flowed the river. There he assembled them to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and pledged them to go out and save France for Protestantism-an act which led some of them to martyrdom. Calvin again went to Paris, but was again compelled to flee. On his way to Strasburg he was robbed of all that he had. But Strasburg was the asylum of all God’s saints, and good mother Zell, the wife of the first reformer there, gave him a welcome to their home. He then went to Basle, where he wrote his immortal “Institutes,” the finest work on doctrine that appeared in the Reformation. It was a wonderful creation for a young man of only 27 years of age, but it is to be remembered that the Reformation made men precocious. Then he went to northern Italy, to {18} the court of the Duchess Renee at Ferrara, who sympathized with the Reformation. So even in Italy, the Pope’s country, he bore witness for the truth. But the Inquisition did not allow him to remain there long undisturbed, and he fled. There is a pass over the Southern Alps to Switzerland called the St. Bernard pass, famous now for its large and intelligent dogs. At the southern end of it, at Aosta, is a place still shown as “Calvin’s Farm,” where he stayed temporarily in his flight to Switzerland.

And now we come to one of the most dramatic scenes in Reformed Church history-the call of Calvin. It and the defense of our Heidelberg Catechism by Elector Frederick III at Augsburg, in 1566, are the two greatest dramatic scenes in our history. The bravest of all the early reformers was William Farel. “He never feared man, only God.” Like Calvin, he was a Frenchman, and had been driven out of France for his Reformed faith. But as he could not save France, he would save French Switzerland. So, disguised as a schoolmaster, he appeared in the southern part of the canton of Bern and began teaching the people the Gospel. This caused a commotion. Then he crossed the Lake of Neuchatel one December day in a little boat. Not great Caesar of Rome in his boat in a storm carried a greater destiny with him than did Farel in his boat, for he came to save the canton of Neuchatel and French Switzerland. Forbidden to preach in the churches, he made a pulpit of the stone in the cemetery of the church at Serrieres and proclaimed the evangelical gospel. Soon they called on him to come to the neighboring city of Neuch‰tel, where he preached at a fountain. And at last they took him by main force from this fountain and hurried him {19} up the steep hill to the cathedral of Neuch‰tel. Here from the pulpit Farel preached the Gospel and that day they cast all images out of the church. The traveler who visits Neuch‰tel today will see in that church the inscription, “On October 23, 1530, idolatry was overthrown and removed from this church by the citizens.” But Farel had his eye on the conquest of a greater city than Neuch‰tel, namely, Geneva. To it he stole and privately began holding services. The Papists became alarmed at him and tried in every way to get rid of him. They tried to shoot him, but the gun failed to go off and the intrepid reformer said, “I fear your gun no more than if it were a popgun.” They tried to poison him, but providentially he did not eat of the poisoned soup, although the poison almost carried off his young helper and reformer, Viret. In spite of all these obstacles, the Reformation continued to gain power in Geneva, and Farel soon felt that the work was becoming too great for him.

Just as Farel was praying for God to send someone to help, Calvin came to the city. He expected to stay only over night, but in the providence of God he was led to stay there almost a whole lifetime. Farel heard of his arrival and a voice seemed to say to him, “This is the man whom you are seeking.” “Stay with me,” he said to Calvin, “and help me.” Calvin refused. He wanted to study, to travel, to rest. He was not strong enough to undertake so great a work as to reform Geneva. Farel reminded him of the fate of Jonah fleeing from his duty. Calvin was shaken by the struggle going on within him like an oak assailed by the tempest. Suddenly Farel, fixing his eyes of fire on him, placing his hands on Calvin’s head, exclaimed in a voice of thunder, “May God curse your {20} repose and your studies if in such a necessity you refuse to give us help.” Calvin trembled in every limb and finally yielded and stayed at Geneva. His reforms, however, were so severe that a reaction took place. And when he refused to introduce the church customs of Bern, he and Farel were compelled to leave Geneva (1538). He found a refuge, as before, at Strasburg, and Farel found a home at Neuch‰tel. Calvin’s stay at Strasburg was very important, for it brought him in contact with the German reformers and also enabled him to counteract some of the Catholic designs in Germany. There Melanchthon became his warm friend. He also found a wife, Idelette de Bure, whom he married in 1540.

But Geneva could not get along without Calvin. Matters went from bad to worse, until in 1541 the city was glad to recall him. And from that time until his death he was the great reformer of Geneva. By his strict moral code it became the model city of that age, and his fame drew many scholars to it. An unfortunate event occurred when Servetus, for his pantheizing unbelief was burned at Geneva, Oct. 27, 1553. Calvin has been charged with having caused his death. But this does not seem to have been true, for Servetus’ judges were Calvin’s political enemies.[2] But his extraordinary labors as preacher, pastor, professor, and leader, proved too great for his frail body. His health began to give way, until he was confined to his bed. On April 30, 1564, he gathered the city council of Geneva before his deathbed and addressed them, thanking them for their kindness, asking pardon for his occasional impatience, and exhorting them to continue in the true doctrine of Christ. They were moved {21} to tears by his remarks. His last days were spent in prayer. With the setting of the sun he fell asleep May 27, 1564. Great was the grief of Geneva, in which she had the sympathy of Protestants all over Europe. In the cemetery at Geneva is a stone marked J. C., which is said to mark the grave of Calvin, but this is not probable, for he, with his characteristic modesty, desired that his grave be unknown. His better monument was the city of Geneva and the Calvinistic churches which since his day have spread all over the world.

Development of the Reformed Church of Zurich

It was providential for Zurich that when such great minds as Zwingli and Bullinger had passed away, she still had a minister of the first rank, intellectually, to put into their place as antistes.[3] The third antistes was Rudolph Gualther (1575-1585). He was the son-in-law of Zwingli. For Bullinger had noticed this precocious youth and taken him into his family, where he already had the family of Zwingli. So that Gualther grew up with, and married, Zwingli’s favorite daughter, Regula. Soon after he became pastor at Zurich he created a great sensation by preaching a sermon against the Pope as Anti-Christ. The Catholics, who had been plotting against Zurich ever since Zwingli’s death, made an effort to have him punished by the Swiss government. Failing in this, they resorted to treachery. One day as Gualther was going to morning service at the cathedral a stranger met him and warned him that if three young men, clothed in white, came to see him, he should not admit them {22} to his house or read their letters, for they wanted to assassinate him. Gualther put his family on their guard. Fifteen days after, while he was at dinner, one of the students who boarded with him admitted three young men dressed in white. Gualther arose from his seat with his dinner knife in one hand and a dagger in the other. The strangers seeing him and the students who were boarding with him so well armed, went away, leaving letters with him. When he searched for them at the hotel where they said they stopped, he could not find them. And it was found afterwards that they had horses secreted near the town, so as to escape when they had assassinated him. Thus the Lord spared his life and made him finally the head of the Zurich Church, worthy of his predecessors. “Zwingli,” says a writer, “excelled in his excellent reforms, Bullinger in his commentaries, and Gualther in his sermons and homilies.”

The seventh antistes (the fourth from Gualther) was also a great man, John Jacob Breitinger (1613-1645). He was educated at Zurich and also in Holland, where he formed many acquaintances who afterwards greatly influenced his life, as at the synod of Dort. Having returned to Zurich, he became pastor there. In 1610 occurred an event that made him the most hated and the most loved man in Zurich. That summer he quietly went on a vacation trip to southern Switzerland. Hardly had he gone before the plague broke out in Zurich with terrible violence. At once the rumor started that he had fled from his post of duty because of fear of the plague. So great was the feeling against him that his wife hardly dared go out of the house. In the meanwhile, all oblivious of this, he continued his tour. When he returned he at once set {23} to work to allay the prejudice by faithful visitation on the sick. He was instant in season and out of season, visiting the sick morning, noon, and at midnight. His pastoral visits became so popular that he was sent for from every part of the city. Often at night five or six persons would be waiting at his house to take him to their sick. Mercifully his health was spared, although the plague carried off 6,000 in Zurich. Through this plague he became the most popular minister there. And when there was a vacancy he was elected antistes (1613).

It was providential for Zurich that she had so great a man in the antistes’ chair at that time, for two storms, one political, the other religious, were gathering over her. The first was the awful Thirty Years’ War; the second was the Arminian controversy in Holland. It needed both a very profound theologian and a very wise manager to carry the Church safely through the storms that then threatened her. Providentially Breitinger was the man for the hour. In 1618 the Dutch government and theologians sent an invitation to the Swiss Reformed churches to send delegates to the Synod of Dort (in Holland) which was to decide the controversy that had arisen between the Calvinists and Arminians in Holland.[4] At first the Swiss held back from accepting the invitation because they did not want to become involved in what seemed to them a foreign controversy. But Breitinger’s early student friends in Holland appealed to him to use his influence in their favor. They urged that Zurich, as the mother Church of the Reformed, ought to be represented at the synod, so as to declare the doctrine of early Reformed Church. So {24} Breitinger, with six other Swiss delegates, was sent to the synod. But he was the leader of the delegation, although Diodati, of Geneva, was also prominent. Fortunate it was for Zurich that she had so able an antistes at that time, who could exert such a commanding influence at Dort and bring credit to herself. When he arrived at Dort, he was received with great honor by the Dutch because he was the representative of the mother Church of the Reformed and the successor of Zwingli. At this synod (1618-1619) he took sides against the Arminians, but did not favor the severe civil measures that were used by the Dutch government against them. When he returned home from Dort the Dutch government rewarded him very handsomely, and when he again came within the bounds of the canton of Zurich he was received with so much honor that his course was like the triumphal entry of a conqueror.

After Breitinger’s death, it became noticeable that the strongest thinkers were not in the antistes’ chair, but were outside of it, in the professors’ chairs. The most brilliant mind that Zurich then produced was Prof. John Henry Hottinger, who was professor at Zurich (1653-1667). So great was his talent for languages that he became the foremost Hebrew scholar in his day. The Elector (prince) of the Palatinate in Germany borrowed him for a few years to teach in his university at Heidelberg. There is a story told that a Jewish rabbi with his son, called to see him there. The rabbi had for a long time been trying with little success, to train his son to speak Hebrew. When the rabbi heard with what ease Hottinger spoke Hebrew, he suddenly fell into a great rage and began beating his son severely, saying, “You clown, {25} how long have I taught you Hebrew and you let yourself be outdone by this Christian.” The Elector tried to retain Hottinger at Heidelberg, but Zurich called him home. His fame, however, had become too great for Zurich to retain him. The University of Leyden in Holland, which was the foremost Reformed University of its day, called him twice. The second call he accepted, and he was about to leave Zurich when he was accidentally drowned there in the Limmat River, to the great sorrow of the Reformed of Zurich and of all Europe.

The most able theologian of Zurich was Prof. John Henry Heidegger. Like Hottinger, he was educated in Holland as well as at Zurich, but returned home, where he was made professor in Hottinger’s place. His fine theological abilities led to his appointment to draw up the new Creed, the Helvetic Consensus, in 1675. The Swiss Church had before adopted the Second Helvetic Confession, but in the seventeenth century a triumvirate of theologians-Gernler of Basle, F. Turretin of Geneva, and Heidegger of Zurich-desired a new creed, which should be directed against the school of Saumur, in France, which held lower views on predestination. Heidegger drew up the creed with great care and ability. After Heidegger the only antistes of any note was the thirteenth, Klingler, who was a strong leader for the Church.

In 1722 the King of Prussia requested the Swiss Churches to cast off the new creed, the Helvetic Consensus, because its high Calvinism prevented Church union. In this movement he was aided by the Archbishop of Canterbury in England. A new triumvirate of Swiss theologians-Werenfels of Basle, Osterwald of Neuch‰tel, and A. Turretin of Geneva-aided in {26} securing its rejection by the Reformed Churches of the different Swiss cantons. Basle, Geneva, and Neuchatel cast aside its authority, but Zurich and Berne retained it, in spite of all influence brought to bear on them. Zurich recognized its authority as late as 1741, when it declared for the old creeds over against the rationalism which had entered the Church through Antistes Wirz and Professor Zimmerman.

After rationalism had blighted the Church of Zurich for well-nigh half a century (1741-1795), a reaction took place back to orthodoxy. Two men became especially prominent in this movement. The first was J. Casper Lavater, probably the most eloquent preacher of his day in Europe, who astonished the Zurich Church in 1779 by coming out boldly against rationalism. Even in the first year of his ministry (1762) he showed the braveness of his heart. A Zurich magistrate, Grebel, was known for his corruption and bribes, yet because he was of an influential family, everyone feared to bring accusations against him. Not so Lavater. Although so young a man, he brought charges against the magistrate. At first the magistrate laughed at him, but soon he fled from the town. This natural boldness of Lavater, which led him so early to attack this magistrate, led him just as boldly to attack rationalism. He was called to the largest and wealthiest Church in Zurich, St. Peter’s. Here with great eloquence, from 1778 to 1801, he attacked rationalism and preached the Gospel of Jesus. And he was as bold politically as he was theologically. His denunciation of the French, who conquered Switzerland at the close of the last century, made them his bitter enemies, and finally led to his death. When the battle of Zurich was taking place (1799), he was {27} about to perform a kind act to a French soldier on the street near his home when one of them shot him. Severely wounded, he lingered for about a year in great pain and then died (January 2, 1801), rejoicing in hope. His deathbed was a transfiguration scene.

The second was John Jacob Hess, the eighteenth antistes (1795-1828). He was less brilliant than Lavater, but a more practical man. In his character he reminds one of Breitinger. Indeed it may be said that Zurich had, in all, five great antistes: Zwingli, Bullinger, Gualther, Breitinger, and Hess. Fortunate it was for Zurich that she had a man, at once so wise and so able as Hess to lead the Church through the dangerous days of the French occupation. He was a man of superb poise of character and self-control, a genius of common sense. When the French were bombarding Zurich in 1802, he kept on writing his sermon as if nothing were happening around him. He was the calm John of that age as Lavater was the impulsive Peter. The one complemented the other, but both were true disciples of Christ against rationalism. He is famous for his “Life of Christ,” the first of its kind. Providence blessed him with long life, so that in his old age he was privileged to preside over the tercentenary of the Reformation at Zurich, January 1, 1819. Although eighty years of age, he made an able address, which for its ability and adherence in the old faith made many think he was a “Zwingli risen from the dead.”

This sketch of the Zurich Church is important for us because it reveals the origin of our Reformed Church in the days of the Reformation and because so many of our early ministers, who organized our Church in America came from northeastern Switzerland, whose theology and thought, for the last three centuries, were dominated mainly by Zurich. {28}

[1]Le Franc, in his late work, claims that Calvin’s parents were Protestants and that he was a Protestant before he went to study at these universities.

[2] See Presbyterian and Reformed Review, July, 1893.

[3] Antistes is the head minister of the canton.

[4] The Arminians gave up the doctrine of predestination.

Scroll to Top