The German Reformed Church

While the independent Congregationalists had been struggling in New England to recover and maintain biblical faithful ness, a stream of German and German-Swiss settlers-farmers laborers, trade and craftpersons, many “redemptioners” who had sold their future time and services to pay for passage, flowed into Pennsylvania and the Middle Atlantic region. Refugees from the waste of European wars, their concerns were pragmatic. They did not bring pastors with them. People of Reformed biblical faith, at first sustained only by family worship at home, they were informed by the Bible and the Heidelberg Catechism.

Strong relationships developed between Lutheran and Reformed congregations; many union churches shared buildings. At first, there were no buildings and laymen often led worship. In 1710, a Dutch Reformed minister, Paul Van Vlecq, assisted a German congregation gathered at Skippack, Pennsylvania. At nearby White Marsh, Van Vlecq established a congregation in the house of elder William Dewees, who held the congregation together until the church was reestablished in 1725.

Another layman, tailor Conrad Templeman, conducted services in Lancaster county, ministering to seven congregations during the 1720s. Schoolmaster John Philip Boehm had maintained a ministry for five years without compensation. Responsible for the regular organization of 12 German Reformed congregations in Pennsylvania, although not regularly ordained, he reluctantly was persuaded to celebrate the sacraments for the first time on October 15, 1725, at Falkner Swamp, with 40 members present. Boehm — orderly, well educated, devout — spent the ensuing years traveling the country on horseback, 25,000 miles in all, preparing Reformed Church constitutions.

Meanwhile, the Heidelberg-educated and regularly ordained pastor George Michael Weiss arrived from Germany in 1727 to minister to the Philadelphia church founded by Boehm. He carried the Word and the Lord’s Supper to communities surrounding Philadelphia. Weiss’ strong objections to Boehm’s irregular ministry caused Boehm to seek and receive ordination by the Dutch Reformed Church by 1729. Funds for American churches were still coming from Europe, and Weiss went abroad to Holland in pursuit of support for his congregations. Successful, he returned in 1731 to minister among German Reformed people in New York. Before 1746, when Michael Schlatter, a Swiss-born and Dutch-educated young pastor from Heidelberg, arrived in America, congregations of German settlers were scattered throughout Pennsylvania and New York. German immigrants had followed natural routes along rivers and mountain valleys, and Reformed congregations had emerged in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. The spiritual and financial health of these 40 congregations were watched over by the Dutch Reformed Church in Holland, assisted by the German Reformed center at Heidelberg, Germany.

Support came from the Classis (“association”) of Amsterdam that sent Michael Schlatter to America to “organize the ministers and congregations into a Coetus (synod).” Schlatter did this within a year of his arrival in Pennsylvania. With the cooperation of Boehm, Weiss, John Bartholomew Rieger, and 28 elders, the Coetus of the Reformed Ministerium of the Congregations in Pennsylvania came to life on September 24, 1747 and the Coetus adopted in 1748 the Kirchen-Ordnung that Boehm had prepared in 1725. The Kirchen-Ordnung placed discipline and care of the local church in the hands of a consistory of elders, deacons, and the minister, elected by the congregation. Members were charged with “fraternal correction and mutual edification.” The minister was to preach “the pure doctrine of the Reformed Church according to the Word of God and to administer the holy seals of the Covenant … : always to adhere to the Heidelberg Catechism … to hold catechetical instruction … [and] give special attention to church discipline, together with those who have oversight of the congregation.”

In light of the multiplicity of German sects, such as Moravians, Mennonites and Dunkards, who competed for the attention and allegiance of German immigrants, the authority of the Coetus, organized according to the same structure and discipline as the local church, was welcome. The German Reformed Churches felt protected from “unscrupulous proselytizers. They achieved a mutual identity and respect, and established authority for faith and practice. Among pastor and people, shared responsibility was carried out within a community faith, under the Lordship of Christ. The leadership of Micha Schlatter and his colleagues prepared the congregations to endure the upheaval of the American Revolution and to maintain their identity in the ethnic and religious pluralism that characterized William Penn’s colony.

Many German Reformed settlers served in the Revolutionary armies, 20 percent of Reformed pastors as chaplains, though Continental Congress Chaplain John Joachim Zu1 was labeled a Tory for his anti-war stand. During the Brit siege of Philadelphia in 1777, farmers wrapped the Liberty Bell and the bells of Christ Church in potato sacks and hauled them to Allentown, Pennsylvania, where pastor Abraham Blumer hid them under the floor of Zion Reformed Church for safekeeping. Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a Reformed layman, disciplined Washington’s troops during the bitter Valley Forge winter.

The Coetus strengthened the churches and prepared t] for self-government in the early years of the United States 1793, European ties were broken. A Reformed Church Constitution was adopted, a Synodal Ordnung; an official name taken, The Synod of the German Reformed Church in United States of America, and a hymnbook committee appointed. There were in that year, 178 German-speaking congregations and 15,000 communicant members.

Revival theology was antithetical to the German Reformed tradition. However, pietistic influences within the German Reformed Church responded to the warm-hearted moral virtue of the revival. On the frontier, people found its emphasis on the individual compatible with their needs. The newly independent German Reformed Church, short of pastors and threatened by a revivalist gospel, established a seminary in 1825, at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, that moved in 1829 to York, in 1837 to Mercersburg and finally to Lancaster in 1871, where it became Lancaster Theological Seminary. Franklin College (1787) of Lancaster, jointly supported by the Lutherans and the Reformed, in 1853 merged with German Reformed Marshall College to form Franklin and Marshall College.

As ministers arrived in America from the pietist centers in Europe, pietistic rather than confessional patterns appeared in Reformed congregations, and the guiding light of the catechism was dimmed. Missionary zeal abounded. People were highly susceptible to the leadership of charismatic frontier preachers. Church leaders were concerned that young and old be instructed in Reformed Christian doctrine. In 1806, the first German Reformed Sunday schools appeared. In the midst of it all, and in reaction to revivalist sectarianism, a controversial movement at the seminary at Mercersburg set off a re-examination of the doctrines of Christ and of the church — not just in the German Reformed Church, but among all American Protestants.

First, however, there would be years of ferment when the Synod would endure turmoil and defection that would test and eventually strengthen its essential stability. Pietist minister Philip William Otterbein, a Reformed Church pastor, later founded the United Brethren Church, today a part of the United Methodist Church. Harrisburg’s pastor, John Winebrenner, locked out of his church by the consistory, met with his followers in private homes to form a new denomination, The Churches of God.

As the Reformed Church grew, continuing use of the German language became an issue. Although German congregations were divided between the use of German or English, the Synod itself conducted meetings and issued minutes in German until 1825. By 1824, the Ohio Synod separated from the parent synod in order to ordain its own ministers and in 1850 organized Heidelberg College and Seminary in Tiffin.

The controversial Mercersburg movement would shake the church. With the arrival at the Mercersburg seminary of John W. Nevin and Swiss-German professor of historical and exegetical theology, Philip Schaff, Mercersburg became a center of concern that the revivalism of the Awakening was inauthentic. Schaff was the most outstanding church historian in 19thcentury America and the primary mediator of German theology to America.

The Mercersburg movement, counter to the sectarian trend of the time, called for a “true revival” centered in the life of the church, guided by the catechetical system, and in particular, the Heidelberg Catechism. The movement’s leaders called for a recognition of the church as one, catholic, and holy. They acknowledged the error to which the church in all ages had been subject, urged an end to sectarianism and pretensions to the one true church and called for cessation of anti-Catholicism which had been pervasive for some time. Schaff’s charitable attitude was seen by some in the Philadelphia Classis, the “Old Reformed” and loyal to Zwingli’s Reformation, as heresy. Nevin, Schaff, and their followers sought to go back to the creeds and to make the mystical presence of Christ, mediated by word and sacrament, the essence of the church. Reverence for the creeds, catechism, and liturgy, they believed, would unify the church and combat sectarianism. In liturgy, the Mercersburg people favored an altar as the center for worship with formal litanies, chants, prayers and clerical garb, while “Old Reformed” pastors preferred a central pulpit, free prayer and informal worship.

The “Old Reformed” were caught up in the American revival and clung to their German sectarian identities. Schaff maintained that Reformed theology’s contribution to the New World lay in the supremacy of the scriptures, absolute sovereignty of divine grace, and radical moral reform on the basis of both. A former member of The Evangelical Church of The Prussian Union, Schaff later cultivated warm relationships with Evangelicals in the West.

The Mercersburg Review, the movement’s chief literary medium, which began publication at Marshall College in 1848, was greatly responsible for effecting changed attitudes. Its challenge would call other denominations to self-examination as well. It was the German Reformed Church’s initial contribution to the movement toward unity and ecumenism that would take shape in the next century.

The low church “Old Reformed” minority in the East, after a long struggle against a revised liturgy, called a convention in Myerstown, Pennsylvania, in 1867 to prevent its use. In January 1868, the Reformed Church Quarterly began and in 1870, Ursinus College opened its doors, supported by the “Old Reformed.”