The Reformed faith came to the Netherlands in the 16th century. The first Reformed congregation in North America was established in New Amsterdam (now New York City) in 1628 and continues to this day as the Collegiate Dutch Reformed Church. The Reformed Church in America (RCA) is the oldest Protestant denomination in the United States.
The early settlers in the Dutch colony of New Netherland held informal meetings for worship until Jonas Michaelius organized the first Dutch Reformed congregation in New Amsterdam in 1628. During Dutch rule, the Reformed Church was the established church of the colony and was under the authority of the classis of Amsterdam.
Even after the British captured the colony in 1664, all Dutch Reformed ministers were trained in the Netherlands, and services remained in the Dutch language until 1764, after which it began to give way to English.
In 1747, the church in the Netherlands gave permission to form an assembly in America, which in 1754 declared itself independent of the classis of Amsterdam.
The Dutch-speaking community prospered as farmers and traders, dominating New York CIty, the Hudson Valley, and parts of New Jersey while maintaining a significant presence in southeastern Pennsylvania, southwestern Connecticut, and Long Island.
Theodorus Jacobus Frelinghuysen (1692 – circa 1747) was a Dutch Reformed minister and theologian who is most remembered for his religious contributions in the Raritan Valley during the beginnings of the First Great Awakening. Some have argued that the Great Awakening grew out of his revivalist preaching in the Raritan Valley.
Unlike the Second Great Awakening, that began about 1800 and reached out to the unchurched, the First Great Awakening focused on people who were already church members. It changed their rituals, piety, and self-awareness. To the evangelical imperatives of Reformation Protestantism, 18th century American Christians added emphases on divine outpourings of the Holy Spirit and conversions that implanted within new believers an intense love for God. Revivals encapsulated those hallmarks and forwarded the newly created evangelicalism into the early republic.
Although some ministers favored revivals, in general the church did not support either the First or the Second Great Awakening, which created much evangelical fervor.
During the American Revolution a bitter internal struggle broke out in the Dutch church, with lines of division which followed ecclesiastical battles that had gone on for twenty years between the "coetus" and "conferentie" factions. A spirit of amnesty made the church's survival possible after the Revolutionary War.
In 1792, a formal constitution was adopted, in 1794 the Dutch Reformed Church held its first general synod, and in 1867 it formally adopted the name Reformed Church in America. In the nineteenth century, the descendants of the original Dutch settlers in New York and New Jersey struggled to preserve their European standards and traditions while developing a taste for revivalism and an American identity.
There was a small secession from the Dutch Reformed Church in 1822. The seceders called themselves the True Dutch Reformed Church (TDRC) and maintained great antagonism toward the RCA throughout their history.
Some members owned slaves, the most famous of whom was Sojourner Truth, and the church was not supportive of abolitionism. In rural areas, ministers preached in Dutch until about 1830-1850, then switched to English and dropped Dutch clothing and customs.
Religious dissenters in the Netherlands had a hard time following the secession (Afscheiding) that began in 1834, and many chose to emigrate to America, where they could find religious freedom. These immigrants were generally welcomed and encouraged by the Dutch Reformed in New York on their way to settle in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and elsewhere in the Midwest, where they founded Holland, Michigan, and Pella, Iowa, among other settlements.
In the 1857 Secession, a group of more conservative members in Michigan led by Gijsbert Haan separated from the Reformed Church and organized the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) with four congregations. In 1882, another group of churches left for the CRC, adding greatly to its numbers.
Post-World War II
Starting around 1950, the RCA expanded in Canada due to a large group of Dutch immigrants. It was a charter member of the Presbyterian Alliance, the Federal Council of Churches, and the World Council of Churches.
Norman Vincent Peale is one of the most well known Reformed Church in America pastors. He joined the RCA in 1952 as leader of the Marbel Collegiate Church in New York City. Under his leadership the church grew to over 5000. He is the father of the Power of Positive Thinking and founder of Guideposts magazine.
Robert H. Schuller may be the most well-known Reformed Church pastor ever. He is a retired televangelist, pastor, motivational speaker, and author. He is principally known for the weekly Hour of Power television program, which he began in 1970, and as the founder of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. Following in the footsteps of Peale, Schuller taught Possibility Thinking.