An Abstract of the History of the United Reformed Churches in North America
with permission from the Clarion Volume 48, No. 15, July 23, 1999
- A Unity Committee Report
Synodically appointed committees from the United Reformed Churches and the Canadian Reformed Churches have been quietly meeting, discussing and pursuing fraternal dialogue with a view towards establishing federative unity. In this and the next two issues of Clarion, some of the fruits of their labours are being made available for a wider audience. Each topic has two papers coming from the two committees. The first papers are on the history of the church. Subsequent issues of Clarion will feature papers on the doctrine of the church, on the covenant, and the church order. The series will be concluded with a summation of points of agreement.
We are pleased to be able to make these papers available and so involve the members of the churches in the process of thinking along with our deputies. May the Lord bless this work and may we find each other as church federations to the praise of the Head of the Church.—Editor of The Clarion
The Church's one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord,
She is His new creation by water and the Word.
From heaven He came and sought her to be His holy Bride,
With His own blood He bought her, and for her life He died.
With these moving and descriptive words Samuel Stone pictured in 1866 how "the Son of God out of the whole human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, defends, and preserves for Himself by His Spirit and Word in the unity of true faith, a Church chosen to everlasting life," LD 21, Answ.54. At the same time Stone knew that persecutions and perils would follow the Bride of Christ throughout all the centuries. Thus he taught the Church also to sing:
Though with a scornful wonder, men see her sore oppressed,
By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,
Yet saints their watch are keeping, their cry goes up, "How long?"
And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.
Origin and Roots of the United Reformed Churches
Stone's nineteenth century witnessed not only the defeat of Napoleon, but also the rise of romanticism leading to rationalism and liberalism. Jean Jacques Rousseau is known as the apostle of romanticism, while F. Schleiermacher worked out some of romanticism's implications. He reinterpreted the Christian faith by taking his starting point in man's feelings. The result was that "the antithesis between Christianity as the only true religion and all others as false was wiped out ... There was no room left for Christ as the only Saviour from sin," writes D.H.Kromminga.
The political and ecclesiastical changes in the Netherlands as a result of these European developments were not long in coming. The exiled prince William of Orange returned and was crowned King William I, constitutional monarch of the united Dutch provinces. The experiences of his exile motivated him to reorganize the Dutch Reformed Churches, placing them firmly under the control of the state. P.Y. De Jong summarizes the events. "All ecclesiastical power was shifted from the congregations to a series of boards, at first appointed by the king and thereafter largely self-perpetuating. Final decisions were in the hands of a national board, still called a "synod" which met annually and had the right to impose its regulations on every pastor, consistory, and congregation."
These draconian changes in the life of the Dutch Reformed Churches were initiated in 1816 by means of a law called Het Algemeen Regelement or the General Regulations. A.M. Lindeboom observes that "the Church Order of Dort was put aside and replaced by a new church order ... The confession was declared non-operative." The lamentable deformation was aptly described by L. Praamsma, "1816 means the reversal of 1618."
We adduce this historical background material in the Netherlands at some length to highlight its significance to the United Reformed Churches in North America of the last decade of the 20th century. Our ecclesiastical origin and spiritual roots are traced in God's gracious providence to the reformation of 1834, when a small struggling congregation braved the forces of unbelief to return to the Word of God and the Reformed Confessions. The enemy of Christ's Bride uses different armament in his spiritual warfare to destroy the Church in our century, but the resultant liberalism and secularism will and has produced apathy, ignorance, and disregard for God's Word and the confessions in several Reformed Churches, including the Christian Reformed Church, from which the URC seceded. Martin Luther's words apply to all centuries.
And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God has willed His truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo his doom is sure,
One little Word shall fell him.
It was on the evening of October 13, 1834 that the consistory of the Reformed Church of Ulrum in the province of Groningen, led by their pastor Hendrik De Cock, drafted and signed a statement which they entitled an "Act of Secession and Return." The next evening 130 believers, not all members, representing most of the congregation of 247 souls signed the document. All present heard and read the words, "...having for a long time taken notice of the corruption in the Netherlands Reformed Church, both in the mutilation or the denial of the doctrine of our fathers based on God's Word, in the degeneration of the holy sacraments...and in the almost complete neglect of ecclesiastical discipline, all of which according to our Reformed confession article 29 are marks of the true church...taking all this together it is now more than clear that the Netherlands Reformed Church is not the true but the false church."
Henry Beets' explanation of De Cock's pathway to the secession sounds familiar to many United Reformed church members, since almost all sought to bring about change within the denomination. "De Cock's original purpose was to re-form the old Church of his fathers, which he loved heartily, and to restore and maintain her purity of doctrine and life ... He expressed it more than once: 'We have not seceded from the true Reformed Church, nor from the true Reformed; we separate only from the synodical Church until it returns to the way of the fathers which it has forsaken, and to the most holy faith which it has denied.'"
The return to the faith and practice of the fathers clearly appears in the Act of Secession and Return. "...testifying herewith that in all things we bind ourselves to God's holy Word and our venerable forms of unity...arrange our public worship according to the revered ecclesiastical liturgy, and with regard to our ecclesiastical ministry and government bind ourselves for the present to the Church Order drawn up by the aforementioned Synod of Dort."
The minutes of the Ulrum consistory contain this simple yet memorable record, "Tuesday evening, the 14th of October, after we knelt and in prayer looked up to the LORD, we have separated ourselves from the false church, and in the authority of the LORD have assumed the office of all believers, which He, the LORD Almighty, the Eternal and Triune God, will establish. With psalm singing and prayer the solemn assembly was concluded."
The opposition and persecution of the government and other churches was not long in coming. H. Berkhof, belonging to the old State Church, later wrote, "For the courage of faith of De Cock and many of his followers we can only have respect. And of the liberal self-satisfaction and intolerance of the church authorities we can only be ashamed, not to speak about the attitude of the government."
After many difficulties, divisions, and disasters, the growing churches of the Secession were finally able to start their Theological School in Kampen in 1854. But before then, already in 1847, the flow of their ministers and members to America had begun. It is to these hardy, enterprising immigrants from the seceded churches that the Christian Reformed Church owes its beginning in 1857, when after first affiliating with the Reformed Church in America, four small churches in the woods of Western Michigan formed the beginning what in the leading of the King of the Church became a strong defender of the Reformed faith.
The Christian Reformed Church in North America
"The most significant event in the life of the Christian Reformed Church was its secession from the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church in America [later renamed the Reformed Church in America] in 1857." With these words H. Zwaanstra begins his doctoral dissertation, Reformed Thought and Experience in a New World. The book's sub-title is "A Study of the Christian Reformed Church and its American Environment 1890 -1918," a time period when profound events took place in the Netherlands which had an immense impact on the Christian Reformed Church.
The members of the Secession churches who formed the CRC shared the pious and stubborn character of those who led the 1834 event. A number of them had previously worshipped in conventicles. Many of them read the books of "the ancient writers" such as Wilhelmus a Brakel whose widely known work Redelijke Godsdienst was brought to the new land, and who had also been influenced by the "Second Reformation" of the 17th century. In 1989 C. Trimp set out to examine preaching in the Reformed churches, including the impact of the "Second Reformation" which produced an emphasis on piety in the sermons often called "experiential preaching." Trimp observes that the "Second Reformation" was reacting to sterile preaching, and "...was influenced by English and Scottish puritanism. We should realize that this reactionary movement was the preferred choice for the situation of those days."
It is fair to say that piety in life characterized many early immigrants. J. Kromminga writes of them in this way. "The people that formed that church were humble, but stubborn defenders of the Reformed doctrine and polity. They were also in varying degrees conscious of a warm personal relation to their Lord and Saviour. It was no race of intellectual giants which founded the church in the wilderness. The members of the church were the common people."
With the rapid growth of the small denomination after its first quarter of a century in the new land, educational institutions began, churches were built, and magazines flourished. Clearly the Lord was blessing the Christian Reformed Church. W. Groen wrote in "The Banner" of September 13, 1935, "The golden era of our denominational history was undoubtedly the period between 1900 and 1915." The author also makes an assessment of that era. "There were two definite doctrinal tendencies, both of which had been carried over from the old country. The one followed the traditional views of the Secession Church of the Netherlands, and the other favoured the things championed by Dr.A. Kuyper in the Netherlands. The issues were sharply drawn and each tendency expressed itself in a monthly periodical."
Kuyper's views were vigorously debated in the CRC. In his detailed study Zwaanstra demonstrates how Kuyper's doctrine of the Church in particular caused great division. F.M. Ten Hoor was a prominent professor opposing Kuyper's teaching of church as organism and the church as institute. Ten Hoor maintained that "either the church as organism was essentially church as well as the church institute, and the name 'Calvinism' should not be associated with it and its activities; or else what Kuyper called the church as organism was not essentially church, and therefore the name 'church' should not applied to it." Ten Hoor came to the conclusion that the Secession of 1834 and the Doleantie of 1886 proceeded from fundamentally different conceptions of the essence of the church.
R.B. Kuiper was a leading figure in the Christian Reformed Church for a long time. He attempted to set forth what it was that constituted the essence of being Reformed. He wrote, "The Calvinist gets both his doctrine of particular grace and his doctrine of the covenant from the Word of God. And, difficult, at some points impossible, though he may find it to square the two with each other before the bar of human reason, he accepts both unreservedly for the simple reason that both are taught unmistakably in the Word of God"
The problems in the Union churches of the Netherlands (GKN) reached a measure of resolution with the decisions made by the Synod of Utrecht in 1905. These decisions were taken over by the CRC in 1908 as the "Conclusions of Utrecht," and set aside again in 1968. T. Plantinga evaluates the matters in this way. "The doctrinal controversy that sprang up around Schilder had a good deal to do with these conclusions: what happened was that one element within them was brought to undue prominence, while other elements were disregarded."
Out of the dynamics surrounding the Conclusions of Utrecht as well as Kuyper's teaching of Gemeene Gratie, or common grace, came the first major secession from the Christian Reformed Church. Kuyper distinguished between "particular" and "common" grace, the latter being that grace "by which God, maintaining the life of the world, relaxes the curse which rests upon it, arrests its process of corruption, and thus allows the untrammeled development of our life in which to glorify Himself as Creator."
The Synod of the CRC in 1924 adopted the three points of common grace, namely that God shows a certain favour or grace to all His creatures, that there is a restraining of sin by God, and that the unregenerate people are able to do civic good in God's sight. Synod also urged those who held opposing views to refrain from advocating them. They did not. H. Hoeksema was a key figure in this secession that resulted in the formation of the Protestant Reformed Churches. A decade later Hoeksema produced a book itemizing the events of 1924. In it he notes that the CRC Synod recorded about those who were later deposed, "They are Reformed in respect to the fundamental truths as formulated in the confessions."
The hierarchical tendencies of the classes were clearly noticeable in these happenings. Classis Grand Rapids East declared Hoeksema "guilty of insubordination to the church authorities and 'by his own action, for the time being, suspended from office.' His consistory was declared guilty of the same offense and of having broken ecclesiastical relationship with the Christian Reformed Church." About a month later Hoeksema was deposed for "open rebellion against the classis, ignoring Art.31 of the Church Order, and schismatic actions, as named in Art.80, Church Order." At about the same time Classis Grand Rapids West deposed two ministers, H. Danhof and G. Ophoff and their consistories "on the grounds of insubordination to ecclesiastical authority and public schism."
During the ensuing decades the CRC continued and deepened the fraternal and ecclesiastical relations with the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands (GKN). Many of the immigrants to the USA and Canada who had been part of the Doleantie of 1886 and the Union of 1892 joined the CRC, the vast majority of the denomination, however, hailed from and retained the characteristics of the 1834 Secession. These factors may have contributed to the CRC response to the Secession of 1944 in the GKN commonly called the Liberation. In an appendix T. Plantinga observes, "Virtually no official attention was ever devoted to the question: what are we to make of the deposition of Schilder and the division that came about in the Reformed churches of the Netherlands in 1944?" A committee of Synod decided the CRC had no official relations with the Liberated churches, and therefore could not honour their request to be present at their first Synod of 1946. Regretfully the CRC Synod approved their action, and instead the churches continued the relationship with the GKN, which eventually produced negative results.
The Secessions of the 1990s
Deviations from historical Reformed emphases in doctrine and in practice were beginning to surface in what had been a faithful and true Church. Two tendencies can be discerned in the Christian Reformed Church during the decades beginning with the 1960s. The first is an increasing trend toward centralization and accompanying hierarchy. This development may be attributed to the rapidly growing number of agencies with large budgets and professional personnel, and to the adoption of the new Church Order in 1965 which proved to allow and even encourage hierarchical potential, as greater authority came to be vested in the broader assemblies than in the local consistory. A consequence of this development has been an increasing disregard for the Church Order, and an unconstrained individualism of the members, with an almost libertarian attitude concerning local church practices bordering on independentism.
The second tendency in the CRC has been the growth of doctrinal indifference accompanied by or resulting from a more liberal interpretation of the Scriptures. One observable consequence has been the emphasis on human dignity at the expense of divine sovereignty. The changes were becoming noticeable in the preaching as well as in the liturgies of some churches. One of the result was that in addition to the denominational Calvin Theological Seminary, a new small seminary was founded in Iowa, the Mid America Reformed Seminary. Graduates of MARS focused on textual preaching, with a renewed emphasis on the Reformed Confessions. Yet catechism books and Sunday School materials used in the churches began to stress the human experience and God's love rather than God's sovereign covenantal demands and human submission in obedience. Doctrinal sermons became more infrequent in many churches, and the Heidelberg Catechism was no longer used in proclamation in a majority of the congregations, a published survey showed. The result was growing doctrinal ignorance, a benign disregard or a limited acceptance of evolution, and women office bearers.
It was clear to many members that increasingly the Christian Reformed Church was in danger of disregarding the marks of the true church as confessed in Article 29 of the Belgic Confession. By the time the 1980s started, conservative members were beginning to produce organizations, reading materials, and to have meetings challenging and condemning the decisions of Synod as well as the direction of the denomination. The Consistorial Conferences, held for a decade, were followed by an Alliance of Reformed Churches uniting the more conservative churches of the CRC. In 1980 a small secession took place among the Canadian churches, as the Orthodox Christian Reformed Churches were organized. It was evident that the Christian Reformed Church was showing signs of becoming unfaithful to the Word of God as summarized in the historical confessions, and that in keeping with Article 28 of the Belgic Confession the time had come to separate from that church.
The consequence was that most churches of the Alliance of Reformed Churches and others formed a new federation. Firmly resolving to be faithful to God's Word and the Reformed confessions, the United Reformed Churches in North America began with 36 congregations joining initially. Most churches published a statement of Secession and Return, but the conviction of all was that the CRC was unfaithful and showing signs of being or becoming a false church, in spite of God's many blessings. A return to the mother church was impossible until true repentance and change took place.
The first Synod of the URC was held in Lynwood in 1996 where the name was chosen, the Three Forms of Unity agreed upon, and a Church Order as an adaptation of Dort was adopted. Also decided was to adopt the Liturgical Forms and the Formula of Subscription of the 1976 Psalter Hymnal. The second Synod took place in St. Catharines in 1997. The Church Order was cast in its current form.
The Charter Member Issue of the Directory of the United Reformed Churches of 1998 shows that 14,973 souls make up the federation, with 82 ministers serving the 65 congregations located within 6 classes. Statistics indicate that at the publication of the Directory 27 churches were situated in Canada, with the remainder in the United States.
For the Committee for Ecumenical Relations and Church Unity of the URCNA,
Stienstra, minister of Grace Reformed Church (URCNA), Dunnville, Ontario
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