I did not grow up in the Dutch Reformed church. My background is quite eclectic—baptized Roman Catholic, converted in the Foursquare Church, educated in an Assemblies of God college, and serving as a former youth pastor in a nondenominational Pentecostal church—but I can’t recall even meeting a Dutch person until I walked into a Dutch Reformed church.
The Dutch Reformed tradition is a rich one, with a history in North America that stretches back to the seventeenth century, and one that has had tremendous influence. Let’s sketch it out.
The Dutch Reformed in America
The story of how the Dutch Reformed came to America is an unlikely one. A decade before the great Synod of Dort, the Dutch East Indies Company hired an Englishman, Henry Hudson, to find an eastward passage to the Indies. Unsuccessful, he sailed west and came to what is today New York. Because of this Englishman, in 1614 the Dutch West Indies Company set up fur trading posts in what is today Albany and Manhattan, six years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. In 1623, the first permanent agricultural colony was set up in what was then called New Netherland. Spiritual oversight was given to Classis (a regional assembly of churches) Amsterdam and two laymen known as “comforters of the sick” were sent to provide spiritual care. It wasn’t until 1628 that a regular minister or “Dominie,” Jonas Michiels, was sent to New Amsterdam (now New York City). This congregation, in fact, continues to this day as the Collegiate Church of New York.
This and other churches from the Dutch Reformed Church officially became an indigenous, independent Reformed church in 1792, which is now known as the Reformed Church in America (RCA). Soon after, in 1822, there was a small secession of churches from Classis Hackensack (a classis of the Northeastern United States). A key issue was the teaching of what was called “the New Divinity,” or Hopkinsianism (named after Samuel Hopkins). This theology taught a form of original sin, free will, and Christ’s satisfaction that was different from what was taught in the Canons of Dort. Those who seceded called themselves the True Dutch Reformed Church (TDRC).
Problems Back Home
Back in the Netherlands, not only had rationalism and Pietism infected the Dutch Reformed Church, but the Napoleonic era also especially wrecked havoc. After Napoleon’s defeat, the Congress of Vienna installed the exiled William, Prince of Orange and Nassau, as King William I over the new constitutional monarchy of the united Dutch provinces. In 1816, he passed a law called the General Regulations that reorganized the churches into a state church, calling it the Netherlands Reformed (or Reorganized) Church. The church order adopted back at the Synod of Dort stressing the authority of local consistories (ruling bodies of ministers and elders) was replaced with a government-created hierarchical structure of boards. Dort’s form of subscription, which required church officers to subscribe to the doctrine of the Three Forms of Unity—the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dort—was changed. Previously, the subscription had indicated agreement because the Three Forms agreed with the Word of God; this was changed so that reference to the canons was removed and subscription to the catechism and confession was only insofar as they agreed with the Word. One minister, Simon van Velzen, defended the Three Forms of Unity before his classis’ board, leading one of its members to say, “I’d rather have my neck wrung than subscribe to the Canons of Dort.”