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.