Reformed Church In The United States (formerly German Reformed Church in the United States of America), a religious body which is an offshoot of the Reformed church of Germany. The first minister was the Rev. George Michael Weiss, who, aided by the classis of Amsterdam, emigrated with about 400 people of the Palatinate in 1727. They settled along the Skippach, in Montgomery co., Pa., and built a wooden church. The majority of the immigrants who followed these pioneers settled in Pennsylvania, E. of the Susquehanna; smaller numbers settled in New York, along the Hudson, in New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia, and even extended into the Carolinas. But though the members of the church were soon counted by thousands, no effort was made to establish an ecclesiastical organization, and until the middle of the century the number of ministers was at no time more than three or four. In 1746 the Rev. Michael Schlatter was commissioned by the synods of North and South Holland to visit their German missions in America, and to regulate their ecclesiastical relations.
After visiting all the German congregations, he assembled in Philadelphia the first synod (or, as it was then called, coetus) of the German Reformed church, Sept. 29, 1747. It consisted of 31 members, 5 ministers and 26 elders, who represented 46 churches and a population estimated at 30,000. Schlatter not only organized the church, but greatly promoted its growth by inducing clergymen in Germany to come as missionaries to America, and by collecting in England, Holland, Germany, and Switzerland a large fund for the support of ministers and teachers. The German Reformed coetus continued under the jurisdiction of the synod of Holland, sending its acts and proceedings to it for revision, till 1793, when it resolved to assume the right of self-government. It adopted a constitution, entitled Synodal-Ordnung der hochdeutschen Reformirten Synode und der mit ihr verbunde-nen Gemeinden in den Vereinigten Staaten von Nord-Amerika ("Constitution of the High German Reformed Synod and of the congregations connected with it in the United States of America"). The church, which was called High German in distinction from the Low German or Dutch, had at this time at least 150 churches, but only 22 ordained ministers.
It increased rapidly in membership and congregations, but as the influx of clergymen who had received their education at European universities ceased, and as the church had as yet no theological school of its own, the standard of ministerial education was considerably lowered. Here, as in the Reformed church of Germany, there was a general indifference to the original faith of the church, as embodied in the Heidelberg catechism. A reaction against this indifference began about 1815, and in 1820 the synod enjoined on all ministers to use no other book but the Heidelberg catechism in the instruction of youth preparatory to confirmation. The first theological seminary of the church was opened at Carlisle, Pa., in 1825. It was removed to York in 1829, to Mercersburg in 1835, and to Lancaster in 1871. In 1830 a high school was opened at York, which in 1835 was also removed to Mercersburg, and in 1836 received the name of Marshall college. In 1853 it was united with Franklin college at Lancaster. The first religious paper in English was established in 1828, the first German in 1836. Church boards for missions and beneficiary education were also organized.
The German language, in which, with only two or three exceptions, all the pastors had conducted public worship till 1825, began in some districts to give way to the English, a transition which caused no little dissension and confusion, but was finally accomplished. The spread of the English language and the establishment of theological and classical schools led to a closer connection with other Protestant churches of the United States; and many ministers and congregations, chiefly those using the English language, showed a tendency to abandon some peculiar customs of the church, as catechization, confirmation, and the observance of great festivals, and to assimilate their church to the other Protestant denominations. But a powerful counter movement set in, which received its first impulses from the philosophical teachings of Dr. Rauch, first president of Marshall college, and found its ablest and most influential expounder in Dr. John Kevin. The controversy was long and animated. The organism of the church underwent considerable changes. In 1819 the constitution had been revised and amended.
The territory was divided into classes (corresponding to the presbyteries of other churches), and the synod, instead of being a convention of all the ministers and one lay delegate from each parish, became a delegated body of ministers and elders elected by the classes. In 1824 the classes of Ohio became an independent body, assuming the name of the "Synod of Ohio," which in 1837 was changed into "Synod of Ohio and Adjacent States." The new synod, which in 1842 divided its territory into six classes, sympathized with the opponents of Dr. Nevin, who was sustained by the eastern synod. Both synods, however, felt the need of creating a higher body that should have jurisdiction over the whole church, and consequently agreed upon the organization of a triennial general synod, which met for the first time in Pittsburgh, in November, 1863. In the same year the church celebrated the 300th anniversary of the publication and adoption of the Heidelberg catechism. The second general synod, held in Dayton, O., in 1866, authorized the organization of two more synods, the northwestern and the Pittsburgh. The general synod of 1869 resolved to drop the word German from the name of the church.
The general synod of 1872 appointed a committee to confer with the Reformed church in America, formerly called the Protestant Reformed Dutch church, with a view to forming a union. The joint committee of the two churches, at a meeting held in November, 1874, agreed upon a report declaring that the rite of confirmation and the observance of festal religious days in the Reformed church in the United States were no serious obstacles to a union; but that, on the other hand, the fact that the Reformed church in America does, and the Reformed church in the United States does not, regard the Belgic confession and the canons of the synod of Dort as standards of faith, was a discrepancy seeming to preclude any further present negotiation in the direction of organic union. The growth of the church in the western states appears to have given to what has been called the "Low Church" party the ascendancy in the church; for at the general synod of 1872 the appeal of a prominent leader of that party, Dr. Bomberger, president of Ursinus college, against a resolution of the eastern (high church) synod censuring him for assuming the office of teacher of theology and giving theological instruction independently of any proper ecclesiastical supervision and direction, was sustained by a vote of 100 to 78. - The Heidelberg catechism is the only standard of doctrine.
As this book was intended to harmonize the Melanchthonian and Calvinistic tendencies, it has been construed by theologians of these two schools in different ways. In the German Reformed church the Melanchthonian element has been predominant, and in the American branch of the church this element was more fully developed, so that many representative theologians incurred the charge of Romanizing tendencies. This was especially the case with the doctrine of the church, which is thus explained by a leading theologian of this (the "High Church") school, President E. V. Gerhart: "The German Reformed church denies that the church is an association of converted individuals; that the Bible is the foundation of the church; that this relation of the contents of the Bible to the individual is immediate; that Protestantism has its ground immediately in the Sacred Scriptures. On the contrary, the church affirms that the person of Christ is the true principle of sound theology; that the Christian church is an organic continuation in time and space of the life powers of the new creation in Christ Jesus; that private judgment is subordinate to the general judgment of the church, as expressed particularly in the oecumenical creeds; that the individual comes to a right apprehension of the contents of the Bible through the teaching of the church; that Protestantism is a historical continuation of the church catholic, in a new and higher form of faith." The worship of the church is liturgical.
The first ministers in America brought with them the liturgies of those sections of Germany and Switzerland from which they emigrated, a preference being generally given to the Palatinate liturgy. A new liturgy prepared by Dr. Mayer, and adopted in 1840, did not sufficiently satisfy the theological (high church) school which had gained predominance in the church, and in 1847 a new one, known as the provisional liturgy, was reported by a special committee to the eastern synod, and by the latter recommended to the churches for trial. As it evoked an animated controversy, it was referred for revision to a committee which included Dr. Nevin, Dr. Schaff, Dr. Gerhart, Dr. Harbaugh, and Dr. Bomberger. This committee in 1866 reported a book, entitled "An Order of Worship for the Reformed Church." The eastern synod authorized its use by a vote of 53 to 14, while the general synod approved it by only a small majority (66 to 55) as "an order of worship proper to be used." - The government of the church is presbyterian. Each congregation is governed by a consistory composed of the pastor, elders, and deacons. The elders and deacons are chosen by the communicant members, and are ordained by laying on of hands.
The consistory is subordinate to the classis, which consists of all the ministers and one elder from each parish of a district. The synod is composed of ministerial and lay delegates of several classes, and meets annually. The general synod, which meets triennially, is made up of delegates, ministerial and lay, from all the classes of the church. It is the duty of each pastor to catechise all the children and youth regularly, and reception into the full communion of the church, which is preceded by an examination of the candidates in the presence of the elders, takes place by the rite of confirmation. Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, and Whit Sunday are regarded as high church festivals, and are observed with much solemnity. - The reports for 1874 give the following statistics: particular synods, 5; classes, 38; ministers, 597; congregations, 1,325; communicants, 135,792; unconfirmed members, 82,249; Sunday schools, 1,137; scholars in the same, 69,132; amount of benevolent contributions, $86,238. Eleven English and five German papers are published in the interest of the church; and there are 16 theological and literary institutions under its control. - See Dr. E. Y. Gerhart, "The German Reformed Church" (1863).