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“United as Members of One Body in True Brotherly Love”: The Reformed Church in America, 1628-1857   10 comments

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Above:  Marble Collegiate Church, New York, New York, 1901

Publisher and Copyright Claimant = Detroit Publishing Company

Image Source = Library of Congress

(http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994005022/pp/)

Reproduction Number = LC-DIG-det-4a08186

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U.S. DUTCH REFORMED LITURGY, PART I

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Besides, that we by the same spirit may also be united as members of one body in true brotherly love….

–The Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper, 1789

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I.  PREFACE

There is a long-running conflict between the quest for doctrinal purity (according to whatever standard one measures that) and the desire for ecclesiastical unity.  The former flows from an exclusive spirit, but the latter indicates an inclusive impulse.  The names, dates, places, and issues change, but people repeat the old pattern.  I have studied these matters closely and long enough to recognize without surprise that breakaway groups frequently suffer from schism.  Apparently many of the self-identified pure are impure according others among the self-identified pure.  What else is one supposed to expect when setting out on the schismatic enterprise?  The quest for doctrinal purity is the road to a series of schisms, for each of us is somebody’s heretic.

I write as one outside the Reformed camp.  My initial theological formation occurred inside The United Methodist Church.  At age eighteen I became an Episcopalian.  Since then I have never looked back.  The mix of my Anglicanism has become more Lutheran in recent years, but I have collection of Madonnas and crucifixes.  I am, in order, an Anglican-Lutheran-Catholic.  Thus I approach this material as an outsider–an intellectually curious one committed to the idea that, despite the plethora of small theological differences among we Christians, more unites us than divides us.  We ought, therefore, to focus on the latter, not the former.

II.  INTRODUCTION

The saga of Dutch Reformed Christians in the United States of America is a fascinating one.  This series of blog posts, focused on liturgical matters, requires a certain amount of historical background for comprehension.  So this post will provide much of it.  I will not attempt to recreate books I have consulted while preparing this post or will consult while preparing subsequent ones.  Therefore I refer anyone who seeks more details to the books in my bibliography and to the links I have embedded and will embed in the text.

The Reformed Church in America (RCA), one of the oldest denominations in the United States, is among the smaller of the mainline Protestant bodies.  It is a denomination with a mixed identity, for its shrinking Eastern branch is more progressive than its growing Western arm.  The Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA or just CRC), the RCA’s more conservative offshoot, is moving to the left while the RCA is moving to the right.  The two denominations are converging, even sharing a hymnal, Lift Up Your Hearts, since 2013.  Nevertheless, substantial differences remain.  The continuing saga of the evolving relationship between these two bodies will remain a story worth monitoring for some time to come.

One storytelling technique is to start at the end then move to the beginning and move forward.  I have given you, O reader, a glimpse of the end of the story.  Now I take you to the beginning and move forward.

III.  THE DUTCH REFORMED CHURCH IN AMERICA DURING THE COLONIAL AND REVOLUTIONARY ERAS, 1628-1783

Our story begins in New Amsterdam, the capital city of the colony of New Netherland (New Jersey, much of New York, and parts of Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Maryland).  In 1628 the congregation known today as Marble Collegiate Church came into being.  From that event the present Reformed Church in America (RCA) dates its beginning.  For a few decades the Dutch Reformed Church was the religious establishment in New Netherland, enjoying all the benefits which come with that status.  Then, 1664, forces of the British Empire seized the colony.  New Amsterdam became the City of New York and the slow process of the Americanization of the Dutch Reformed Church in the territory which would become the United States of America began.

This was an emotionally and theologically difficult transformation, for the question of identity was at stake.  Dutch Reformed adherents settled on ethnic loyalty to their church, keeping it distinct from other Calvinist groups, such as the Congregationalists and the Presbyterians.  “Dutch” mattered more than “Reformed.”  That was how the former establishment adjusted to its demoted status.  Few liturgical issues have proven thornier down the corridors of time than the language of worship.  That language remained Dutch among the Dutch Reformed for a long time.  The Marble Collegiate Church installed its first English-speaking pastor, Archibald Laidlie, in 1764.  Many congregations used a variety of English-language psalters, none of which the Dutch Reformed Church had authorized, prior to the publication of the official and English-language Psalms of David in 1789.

Those who study the immigrant experience know that the process of adjusting to and accommodating another culture is difficult.  In the case of the Dutch of the former New Netherland this process played out on home turf.  I have mentioned some changes they made.  Here are two more:

  1. A church in New York City installed a pipe organ in 1727.  This proved quite controversial.  The organist, however, did not play the instrument on Communion Sundays.
  2. The practice of separating men and women during Sunday worship became less frequent during the 1700s.

And here is a third.  The (First) Great Awakening also proved controversial in Dutch Reformed circles.  Not only did it shape the Dutch Reformed Church, but that denomination influenced it.  Two components of Dutch Reformed theology clashed.  The experiential aspect of the religion told people that ought to have a personal experience of salvation and emphasized personal piety, often at the expense of sacraments and other “externals.”  Thus Pietism and Revivalism occupied the minds of one wing of the church.

There was a very different camp of Dutch Reformed Christians, however.  They looked back to the Canons of Dort (1619), from which we receive our explanation of the five points of Calvinism:

  • Total depravity,
  • Unconditional election,
  • Limited atonement,
  • Irresistible grace, and
  • Perseverance of the saints.

Some especially strict Dutch Calvinists regarded the Canons of Dort as not only accurate but divinely inspired.  Back in the old country

The Dutch Calvinists came to consider themselves as the new Israel, a chosen people under God, country, and the house of Orange.

–Elton  J. Bruins and Robert P. Swierenga, Family Quarrels in the Dutch Reformed Churches of the 19th Century (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), page 9

And many Dutch Calvinists in America, part of a church still part of the Dutch national church, agreed.

The Reverend Theodorus J. Frelinghuysen (1691-1748), a leading light of the pro-(First) Great Awakening wing of the church, struggled with the conundrum of affirming both Predestination and the message that people must be born again.  Many of his critics thought that emphasized the latter too much and the former too little.

From 1747 to 1771 the colonial Dutch Reformed Church had two warring factions:  Coetus (Frelinghuysen’s camp) and Confertentie (traditionalists).  Coetus partisans favored not only Pietism and Revivalism but American control of the American church.  No longer should candidates for the ministry have to study in The Netherlands, they insisted.  And, they said, the time to cut the umbilical cord had come; the American church should cease to answer to the Classis of Amsterdam.  Confertentie partisans, being traditionalists, favored a stricter reading of the Canons of the Dort as well as maintaining the status quo with regard to the church in The Netherlands.  They were, relatively speaking, the more orthodox Calvinists.

The Reverend John H. Livingston (1746-1825) became the Father of the Reformed Church in America.  In 1772 he reunited the Coetus and Confertentie factions.  For the rest of his life Livingston shaped the denomination liturgically and theologically.  That body achieved independence from the mother church in 1772, becoming the Reformed Dutch Church in North America (RDCNA).  Later it became the Reformed Dutch Church in the United States of America (RDCUSA).  In 1819 the denomination became the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church in North America (RPDCNA).  Finally, in 1867, it took its current name, the Reformed Church in America (RCA).

Both Frelinghuysen and Livingston felt the irenic influence of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563).  Elector Frederick III of the Palatinate, a German state, had commissioned the writing of the catechism, designed to be agreeable to Lutherans and Calvinists alike.  That theological generosity was evident in Livingston’s emphasis on the unity of church as it continued to adapt to changing political and social conditions.  That theological generosity marked the denomination’s leadership even as forces within the body tore it asunder in subsequent decades.

IV.  THE DUTCH REFORMED CHURCH IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, 1784-1857

The Psalms of David (1789), The Psalms and Hymns (1814), and Additional Hymns (1831 and 1846)

The Reverend John H. Livingston (1746-1825), Father of the Reformed Church in America, presided over the denomination’s continued Americanization and edited its earliest service books-hymnals The Psalms of David (1789) and The Psalms and Hymns (1814).  He adapted the Canons of Dort for the American scene in 1792, accepting voluntary church membership, for example.  And his Psalms of David (1789) broke with the already weakened Reformed tradition of singing only Psalms and rejecting hymns, “the compositions of sinful men,” as many said of them.

I plan to avoid the trap of attempting to do too much in this post.  Therefore I will discuss the 1789 Psalms of David and 1814 Psalms and Hymns in detail in the next post in the series.  In this post I remain committed primarily to providing historical background information.  Nevertheless, I do offer a brief summary of the those books here.

The table of contents for the 1789 and 1814 books was identical:

  1. The Psalter;
  2. Hymns and spiritual songs “faithful to the Heidelberg Catechism” and pegged to it;
  3. A Compendium of the Christian Religion, a catechism;
  4. The Confession of Faith and the Canons of Dort;
  5. The Liturgy; and
  6. The Nicene and Athanasian Creeds.

The Liturgy came in six sections:

  1. Public Prayer;
  2. The Administration of the Holy Sacraments;
  3. The Exercise of Church Discipline;
  4. The Ordination of Church Officers;
  5. The Celebration of Marriage; and
  6. Comforting the Sick.

The thoroughly Reformed liturgy fell into widespread disuse in the early 1800s.  Proponents of the liturgy lamented this fact, but their protests changed nothing.  Liturgical differences proved pivotal in preventing an attempted union of the Reformed Church in America and the German Reformed Church, for the latter U.S. denomination was undergoing a liturgical revival due to the Mercersburg Theology of the Reverends John Williamson Nevin (1803-1886) and Philip Schaff (1819-1893).  They called the Reformed Churches back to their Protestant Reformation liturgical roots and away from Revivalism and Pietism.  Along the way Nevin and Schaff faced charges of heresy–Romanism, specifically.  That was strong language in those days.  Yet Nevin and Schaff won the argument in their denomination.  The Reformed Church in America, however, was not yet ready for the Mercersburg Theology.

The Reformed Church in America, in its post-Livingston phase, embraced the Second Great Awakening, which was at its height after his 1825 death.  Two hymnals, both named Additional Hymns and bound with both separately and with The Psalms and Hymns, proved indicative of their times.  Additional Hymns (1831) abandoned the practice of pegging hymns to the Heidelberg Catechism in favor of a topical arrangement.  Most of the content of this revivalistic hymnal came from Pietists.  The largest category was “Revival,” focused on individual believers struggling with adversity.  Most of the 172 new hymns in the book were about people, not God, in true Pietistic fashion.  Additional Hymns (1846), also Pietistic, went further, adding 340 new hymns.  “Particular Duties” was among the largest categories.  The sense of social responsibility which the Heidelberg Catechism engendered and which had influenced the 1789 and 1814 collections, although present, was weaker.  The authorized texts indicated an emphasis not on God or on social improvement, but on judgment, the uncertainty associated with death, human responses to grace, and how individuals should live faithfully each day.  The first person singular was prominent, consistent with much of Evangelicalism.

I feel the need to make a point plainly:  another aspect of Evangelicalism encourages social responsibility.  At the time of the Second Great Awakening many Northern Evangelicals became deeply involved (or more so) in the movement to abolish slavery.  Many Southern Evangelicals, however, quoted the Bible more vigorously to defend slavery.  The Second Great Awakening encouraged many people to join social reform movements.  It fostered a sense of social responsibility in many people, but not in all whom it influenced.

Hopkinsian Theology and the Secession of 1822

Tensions focused on the question of how strictly Reformed to be and to remain resurfaced in the early 1800s, as the Reformed Church in America engaged in ecumenical efforts related to Sabbath observance, temperance, the abolition of slavery (some people were for it, others against it), and frontier evangelism.  The church was expanding westward.  But what was the best way to do so?

This question began to flare up in the second decade of the nineteenth century and led to a minor schism in the third.  The General Synod of 1814 questioned the practice of receiving Congregationalist clergymen without doctrinal examination.  The trigger for the dispute was the Reverend Jonathan Hopkins, a student of Jonathan Edwards.  Hopkins, however, emphasized free will more than his teacher did.  Was Hopkins too Arminian?  Was Arminianism infiltrating the Reformed Church in America?  This was a major issue.  The Synod of Dort (1618-1619), after all, had convened to refute Arminianism and produced the Canons of Dort.

Two synods were the chief ecclesiastical bodies involved in the conflict internal to the Reformed Church in America.  The Synod of New York favored relaxing Calvinist orthodoxy in the name of winning converts on the frontier, but the Synod of Albany preferred the old orthodoxy.  This dispute of 1822-1824 rehashed an ecclesiastical altercation from 1747 to 1771.  Abstract theology, however was not the major issue for the Synod of New York.  The Dutch Reformed of southern New York, having lost their establishment status in 1664, had retained numerical strength for a long time.  Yet, in the early 1800s, that was changing due to changing demographics and to intermarriage with descendants of English people.  The Synod of New York was playing catch-up.

Some of the stricter members of the Reformed Church in America broke away in 1822, forming the True Reformed Dutch Church (TRDC), also known as the True Protestant Dutch Reformed Church (TPDRC).  (Was the parent body false?)  The new denomination formed with twenty-six congregations and twenty-four ministers.  Some of the churches of this body joined the Christian Reformed Church in North America (founded in 1857) in 1890.  The first of the three U.S. Dutch Reformed schisms had occurred and presaged the second.

The General Synod of 1824 addressed the dispute with the theological generosity.  It reaffirmed the Canons of Dort and permitted participation in revivalism.  The True Reformed Dutch Church was not impressed.

The Secession of 1857 and the Christian Reformed Church in North America

The Secession of 1857, which created the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA or just CRC), had its roots in The Netherlands.  The National Synod of 1816 had altered the church-state relationship by making King Willem I the highest authority in the church.  Later that year he had mandated the singing of hymns–an affront to many strict Calvinists.  An ecclesiastical resistance movement ensued and culminated in the Secession of 1834.  Religious persecution–fines, imprisonment, et cetera–followed.  The persecution, although over in 1848, had convinced many of the Seceders to emigrate to the United States, with encouragement from the Reformed Church in America.

There were several factions of Seceders in The Netherlands.  All agreed that they wanted nothing to do with the Dutch national church, but they disagreed regarding what should replace it.  One camp argued for a return to the Canons of Dort in lieu of the national church.  Another favored congregational independence and an experiential Gospel in that place.  A third faction, that of the Reverend Albertus C. Van Raalte (1811-1876), supported defense of liberty and the separation of church and state in lieu of the national church.  Van Raalte’s mentor was the Reverend Hendrik P. Scholte (1805-1868), who emigrated to the United States and remained within the Reformed Church in America from that point to his death.

Van Raalte led an exodus to the United States.  He arrived in late 1846; many others followed.  The Reformed Church in America sponsored their journeys westward and financed the construction of houses of worship.  These new congregations formed the Classis of Holland (as in Holland, Michigan), which joined the Reformed Church in America  (RCA) in 1850.  This merger proved crucial to the Reformed Church in America, for it gave the denomination an anchor for expansion into the Midwest and the West.

Van Raalte had found his ecclesiastical home in the New World.  He began to Americanize, something which some of those who had followed him to the United States never did.  Van Raalte, ever grateful for all the Reformed Church in America had done for him and his partisans, remained within it for the rest of his life.

Some of Van Raalte’s fellow emigrants disagreed, however.  No matter how generous the Eastern establishment of the Reformed Church in America was, that amount of money proved to be less than some had expected.  Regardless of how orthodox the RCA was, it proved to be too liberal for some people.  Emigrants had broken away from a national church they considered too liberal, formed more orthodox churches, moved to the United States, and affiliated with a denomination considerably more conservative than the Dutch national church.  Yet, for some, the Reformed Church in America was still too liberal–apostate, even.

There was a litany of complaints.  The singing of hymns proved unacceptable to many.  Some RCA congregations in the East used choirs in worship and/or practiced open communion.  Freemasonry was a widely accepted secret society (albeit less so than before the late 1820s).  Many RCA congregations permitted Freemasons to join.  None had to do so, however.  And sermons based on the Heidelberg Catechism were less frequent than in former times.

Purity of doctrine was only one issue, though.  It was not even the major one.  Cultural differences took center stage.  Those who formed the Christian Reformed Church in North America (five congregations and one minister at the beginning) in 1857 were thinking as transplanted Europeans, not as Americans.  They reacted against the Dutch national church and took out their frustrations on the Reformed Church in America.  They did  not make the distinction between European Freemasonry and American Freemasonry.  And they resisted Americanization, clinging to their Dutch identity, language, and Psalters in the wilderness of the Midwest.  They, Van Raalte said, fought ecclesiastical battles from the old country.

What separated the seceding emigrants from the non-seceding ones in 1857?  As Elton J. Bruins and Robert P. Swierenga wrote:

The RCA members acted like immigrants and the CRC members acted like colonists.

Family Quarrels in the Dutch Reformed Churches of the 19th Century (1999), page 103

The deed was done.  The Christian Reformed Church, initially weak, became a major force via the third secession of the 1800s.

That, however, is a story for another post.

V.  CONCLUSION

The past, in a real sense, is present.  This is especially true in ecclesiastical groups with origin stories which many well-informed adherents have come to regret.  The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, came into existence in 1845 in defense of slaveholding missionaries.  That, like so much else which almost nobody in the Western world defends these days, seemed like a good idea at the time.  That denomination, to its credit, has apologized for the conditions of its founding.  The Christian Reformed Church came into existence for reasons which many of its leaders these days admit were dubious at best.  I have read criticisms from prominent contemporary CRC figures of the founders of that denomination.

The previous owner of my copy of Family Quarrels in the Dutch Reformed Churches of the 19th Century resisted agreeing with those leaders.  He, a member of the Christian Reformed Church, underlined much and wrote fascinating marginalia.  He suspected an anti-CRC bias in the book, to which a prominent Christian Reformed pastor wrote the Preface.

We humans form attachments to organizations, about which we prefer to hold the best possible opinions.  We tend to be loyal to these groups.  That can be laudable, but somber honesty is a higher virtue.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY OF HARDCOPY SOURCES

Benedict, Philip.  Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed:  A Social History of Calvinism.  New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 2002.

Bruins, Elton J., and Robert P. Swierenga.  Family Quarrels in the Dutch Reformed Churches in the 19th Century.  Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999.  The Historical Series of the Reformed Church in America, No. 32.

Brumm, James Hart, ed.  Liturgy Among the Thorns:  Essays on Worship in the Reformed Church in America.  Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.  The Historical Series of the Reformed Church in America, No. 57.

Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), The.  Part I.  Book of Confessions.  Louisville, KY: The Office of the General Assembly, 1996.

Lift Up Your Hearts:  Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2013.

Our Faith:  Ecumenical Creeds, Reformed Confessions, and Other Resources; Including the Doctrinal Standards of the Christian Reformed Church in North America and the Reformed Church in America.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2013.

Smidt, Corwin, et al.  Divided by a Common Heritage:  The Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America at the Beginning of the New Millennium.  Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006.  The Historical Series of the Reformed Church in America, No. 54.

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KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

MAY 16, 2014 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF SAINTS ANDREW FOURNET AND ELIZABETH BICHIER, COFOUNDERS OF THE DAUGHTERS OF THE CROSS; AND SAINT MICHAEL GARICOITS, FOUNDER OF THE PRIESTS OF THE SACRED HEART OF BETHARRAM

THE FEAST OF SAINT JOHN NEPOMUCENE, ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIEST

THE FEAST OF THE MARTYRS OF SUDAN

THE FEAST OF TE WERA HAURAKI, ANGLICAN MISSIONARY

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