Calvinistic Character of the Early German Reformed Church

Calvinistic Character of the Early German Reformed Church

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

By Rev. Norman L. Jones


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


John Philip Boehm (1683-1749)

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

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

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

Michael Schlatter (1716-1790)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

1. It reveals a thoroughly Reformed position.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[5] Ibid., p. 12.

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

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

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

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

[10] Ibid., p. 10.

[11] Ibid., pp. 4, 5.

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

[13] Dubbs, Ibid., 282.

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

[15] Dubbs, op. cit., p. 264.

[16] Ibid., pp. 264, 265.

[17] We have reproduced it as an appendix.

[18] Grossmann, Ibid., pp. 15-16.

[19] Ibid., pp. 24, 25.

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

[21] Good, op. cit., p. 675.

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

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

[24] Good, op. cit., p. 675.

[25] Ibid., pp. 675-676.

[26] Ibid., pp. 678.

[27] Ibid., pp. 678-680.

[28] Ibid. pp. 680-682.

[29]Dubbs, op. cit., pp. 241, 242.

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

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

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

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

[32] Dubbs, Ibid., pp. 243-244.

[33] Good, op. cit., p. 200.

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

[35] Good, Ibid., p. 203.

[36] Dubbs, op. cit., p. 272.

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

[38] Grossmann, op. cit., pp. 39, 40.

[39] Good, op. cit., p. 213.

[40] Ibid., p. 225.

[41] Dubbs, op. cit., 274

[42] Good, op. cit., p. 592.

[43] Ibid., p. 679.

[44] Ibid., p. 674.

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