While Reformed Christians from the Netherlands came to America and brought their faith with them beginning in the later seventeenth century, there was also a great influx of Reformed Christians immigrating from Germany in the early eighteenth century. These immigrants settled primarily in Pennsylvania and New York. In 1776, Benjamin Franklin noted that a third of the white population in Pennsylvania consisted of Germans, and that half of them, about twenty-five thousand, were Reformed.
The German immigrants, however, did not bring pastors along with them, and so they met together for worship being led primarily by learned men from their midst and the elders that they chose. John Phillip Boehm, a schoolteacher who was eventually ordained by the Dutch Reformed Church in New York, is considered the founder of the German Reformed Church in America (1725). Boehm organized numerous churches and drew up constitutions for them. Church orders are called constitutions in the German Reformed Church.
More German Reformed churches began to be formed. These new congregations were eventually overseen, and pastors provided for them, by the Dutch Reformed Church (Reformed Church in America [RCA]). All proceedings of the German Reformed churches had to be reported and approved by the Synod of Holland across the Atlantic Ocean. Due to this inconvenience, in 1747 the German congregations in America formed their own synod, and in 1793 they separated from the Dutch churches. At that time there were 22 ministers and 178 congregations made up of 15,000 members. They named their new denomination High-German Reformed Church in the United States of North America. In 1863, the words “High-German” and “North America” were removed, resulting in the name that it still bears at the present time, Reformed Church in the United States. Beginning in 1825, theological seminaries were founded by the RCUS.
By the mid-1800s, the German Reformed Church was the sixth largest denomination in America, being larger than the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics. Churches continued to be organized throughout the United States, and by 1863 there were nine synods. At this time a General Synod was organized which met every three years.
By 1900, the leadership of the RCUS had become quite liberal and began to push for church union. In 1934, a plan of union with the Evangelical Synod of North America was approved, and the union was finalized in 1940. The Evangelical Synod of North America was an immigrant church from the United Lutheran and Reformed Church of Germany. Their new constitution stated that there was to be liberty of conscience concerning doctrine, the doctrinal statements being advisory and not binding statements.
One classis composed of seven ministers and fifteen congregations refused to participate with the church merger. A number of immigrants in the 1870s came to the Upper Midwest from the German colonies of South Russia as a result of the Russian government canceling their previously guaranteed priveleges in that land. These German Russian pioneer farmers from churches located in North and South Dakota organized the Eureka Classis in 1910. Seeing the union of the RCUS with the ESNA as compromising the Reformed faith, the Eureka Classis declined to participate in the 1934 merger. In 1942, the classis incorporated as the continuing Reformed Church in the United States and continues as that to the present.
Eventually the Evangelical Synod of North America merged with the Congregational Church to form the United Church of Christ (UCC), which today is known as an extremely liberal denomination.
For many years after the merger the RCUS did not see growth, but presently the denomination is made up of four classes representing forty-seven congregations in thirteen states with a membership of approximately three thousand. Their synod meets annually. They subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity. Their elders and deacons together are called the consistory, and the elders are called the spiritual council. Otherwise, their church government is more like that of the Presbyterian churches, as explained at the outset of this series (November/December 2013). One distinctive not pointed out at that time is that the ministers are not members of the local congregation but are members of the classis (or presbytery in the Presbyterian churches). C
Among their forty-seven congregations are a number of church plants scattered throughout the United States. More recently, former URC minister Rev. Valentin Alpuche was called as a RCUS Hispanic church planter in the Bakersfield, California, area.
The RCUS presently conducts foreign mission work in three areas. These mission works are somewhat nontraditional in that the RCUS has no permanent missionaries on the field. Rather, it uses native leaders to found and build new churches, and it relies on radio and periodic visits to the fields for contact with and instruction of the native leaders. In 1984, the RCUS pioneered in the founding of the Reformed Confessing Church of the Congo, and in 1998, it pioneered the founding of another African denomination, the Free Reformed Church of Kenya. Overlapping the foreign missions work the RCUS is doing in the Congo is the continuing radio work for French-speaking Africa being carried out by Rev. Eric Kayayan. This work is supported also by with other Reformed and Presbyterian churches in the United States.
Not having their own seminary, for many years RCUS ministers were trained at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, and more recently also at Mid-America Reformed Seminary. The RCUS began City Seminary, located within the Covenant Reformed Church in Sacramento, California, in 1998; and Heidelberg Theological Seminary located within the Trinity Reformed Church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in 2002. Within these seminaries, the students are trained primarily by RCUS ministers.
For some time in more recent years, few men from within the RCUS have come forward to study for the ministry, and a majority of RCUS ministers have come from various backgrounds. They are men with fascinating life stories in coming to the Reformed faith and now wholeheartedly committed to proclaiming and defending their newfound faith.
The RCUS has had a long-standing fraternal relationship with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) and is in phase three of ecumenical relations with the URC, but they have expressed no intention to enter into organic union. Rev. Spencer Aalsburg, a URC minister, and Rev. Chuck Muether, an OPC minister, serve as adjunct professors at the RCUS Heidelberg Seminary.
On a personal note: Among those German immigrants who belonged to a small country church of the Eureka Classis, which did not go along with the merger, were the paternal grandparents of this writer. By God’s providence, through my grandfather’s legacy I was spared from potentially finding myself in the darkness of the UCC and deprived of the rich Reformed heritage which I am now blessed to cherish.
Further information can be found on the RCUS website at http://rcus.org/ rcuswp/.
Mr. Myron Rau is the chairman of the board of Reformed Fellowship. He is a member of the Covenant United Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, MI.