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Religion Library: Presbyterian and Reformed

Missions and Expansion

Written by: Ted Vial

Europe in the 16th century was to a great extent a place of religious anxiety.  The Protestant message of salvation based on God's grace alone, and not depending on human efforts, resonated with many people.  Theologians came to train with Zwingli and Calvin in Zurich and Geneva, and preachers from Switzerland fanned out across Europe spreading the Reformed faith.

France was a firmly Catholic nation, but its King, Francis I, was for a time tolerant of Reformation ideas, and his sister Queen Marguerite of Navarre was an active supporter of reformers in France.  One of the clearest statements of Reformed theology in the 16th century is a letter written by Marie Dentière, wife of a Calvinist preacher near Geneva, to Queen Marguerite of Navarre (her daughter's Godmother), urging her to continue her support, and to come out even more decisively for the Reform. 

Francis I, though Catholic, supported Protestant forces in Germany at times because it aided him in his own political struggles with the pope and Emperor.  On October 18, 1534 posters that many considered blasphemous because they attacked the Catholic Mass appeared throughout Paris.  There were reports that one was even put on the door of Francis's own chambers.  Public reaction was harsh, and Francis responded to the threat to public order by withdrawing all support from the reformers and unleashing a period of persecution.  Most Reformed Christians (known in France as Huguenots) were forced to flee.

The German and Dutch Reformed Churches share a Reformed theology with Swiss Reformed and American Presbyterians, but have slightly different forms of government.  Immigration to America for a time created ethnic churches alongside the mainline Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). 

German Reformed churches in North America take their bearings in particular from the Heidelberg Catechism (1563).  This creed was created under the sponsorship of Frederick William III, a religious moderate, and has an emphasis more on devotion than on the more difficult points of Calvin's theology (predestination is not mentioned).  Reformed Germans founded Germantown, near Philadelphia, in 1683, but most German immigrants settled in western Pennsylvania. 

The German Reformed church struggled for a number of reasons.  Political turmoil in Germany and the predominance of Lutheranism there meant that the Church in the homeland was unable to send many resources in the way of pastors and money to North America.  In the mid 19th century, German Lutherans fleeing the union of the Lutheran and Reformed churches in Prussia had no interest in joining Reformed communities in the United States.  Pietists formed their own church union, which eventually became the German Evangelical Synod of North America.  (Pietism was a German movement that attempted to focus on a personal experience with God, rather than a focus on holding correct doctrine.)   Reformed Germans did have some success by changing their language of worship to English in the 19th century.  In 1938 the Evangelical Synod and the German Reformed Church merged to form the Evangelical and Reformed Church.  In 1944 they joined the Congregational Churches to form the United Churches of Christ in America.


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