Church History

Rev. E. T. Corwin, D. D., in his Manual of the Reformed Church in America (1628-1902), gives a very concise sketch of the history of said church in his book, issued A. D. 1902, from which book most of our information is obtained. Introducing his history, he says of the Reformed church in general, that “It is the technical name of that division of Protestantism which had its rise in Switzerland, in 1516, under Zwingli. It was contemporary with, but independent of, the Lutheran Reformation. It was subsequently more fully developed and organized under Calvin, with a distinct type of doctrine and policy. While the name, The Reformed Church, was chiefly confined to churches on the continent, this term also embraced Protestantism under all its forms in the British isles. Cranmer gave doctrinal shape to English Protestantism in the Anglican communion, in the days of Edward VI, 1547-53, being the principal compiler of the Thirty-nine Articles and the Prayer-book. The persecutions under Mary drove the best of the English reformers to Switzerland, whence some of them brought back the principles which developed into Puritanism, while John Knox carried back to Scotland with him the principles of Presbyterianism.”

The fundamental thought of the doctrine of the Reformed church is the divine sovereignty. The Doctrines of Grace, as they are called, are emphasized. These doctrines are exhibited in the confessions of faith of each country where the Reformed church prevailed. In Switzerland, in the Helvetic confession; in France, in the Gallician; in Holland, in the Belgic; in England, in the seventeenth article of the “Thirty-nine Articles,” and in the Westminster confession and finally these doctrines were revised and formulated in the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1618-19), by representatives of all the churches above alluded to, besides some churches from the European states. Calvin also brought order out of confusion by thoroughly formulating the system of government of the Reformed church. He distinguished the extraordinary offices of the church in Apostolic times, from the ordinary in later times and divided them into four classes: ministers, teachers (or professors), elders, and deacons. Yet he did not insist on this as the only possible polity. Nor was he inflexible as to the mode of election of these officers. So, also, the several grades of ecclesiastical bodies which he proposed, such as consistories, classes, local synods, and a general synod, were not necessarily binding, but were matters of expediency.

It is generally conceded that the faith of the Reformed church as originally formulated, together with the democratic polity, did more for the development of our modern civilization, including republican institutions, than any other system. In the Netherland the reformation received the most hearty welcome. Entering from Germany, it afterward received its chief impetus from Switzerland and France; hence its distinctive type of the Reformed doctrine and more democratic polity. After much persecution and opposition from Charles V and Philip II, who thought they could stem the tide, it flourished under its defender and deliverer, William of Orange, and was in the next century (1628) carried with the emigrants to our shores, and planted with the first colonists along the shores of the Hudson and the Raritan rivers in New York and New jersey and on Staten and Long Islands. While congregations left the Netherlands in a body, taking with them their pastors, elders and deacons, as well as schoolmasters, and so entered, organized our county and locality in settlements, built at once their church and school as well as their homes.

The Reformed church in America is the oldest body of Presbyterians on the western hemisphere. As the pioneer of those doctrines and forms of government believed to be most in harmony with scripture and the American constitution, she occupies a place unique in the history of our beloved land. The Reformed church of Holland may boast the privilege of having first planted Presbyterianism upon our eastern shores.

As the different nationalities, belonging to the same Reformed faith, kept their distinctive name they bore in their Fatherland, so our church in this country bore the name of Dutch Reformed church; but fearing that, after the descendants of these Dutch ancestors had all become English-speaking churches, the name “Dutch” might deter some friends of the Reformed faith from staying with, or joining our church, the appellation “Dutch” was dropped in 1867.

Since 1846 there had been a constant stream of new emigrants from Holland and the principal points of destination were western Michigan, eastern Wisconsin, western New York and northern Illinois, as well as southwestern Iowa. The center of ecclesiastical operations was Holland, Michigan, in which vicinity again whole congregations settled together in one body as the first pilgrims had done in New York and New Jersey. Soon, through the good offices of their leader, Rev. A. C. Van Raalte D D., connections were desired and sought with the old mother church in this country. A sort of classis of all the churches settled in Michigan was called and delegates appointed to effect the above named union.   Soon other churches were organized in Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa that joined this classis of Holland, Michigan. In 1854 the general synod of said church authorized the establishing of a classical academy at Holland, Michigan, and aided it forthwith with financial and moral support. In 1862 it was organized as Hope College, now a flourishing institution, fully up to date and conducted in the American tongue. In 1866 the first class of eight students graduated, which same class having requested to be allowed to begin their theological studies under special arrangement with the professors in the college, formed the first class of the theological seminary, now prosperous in the same city and which has supplied most of the pastors for our churches in the central and western states. When, about the years 1870-80, these several settlements had become densely settled, many of the sons of these emigrants, as well as emigrants direct from the Netherlands and parts of Germany, settled in northwestern Iowa, South and North Dakota, Kansas and Nebraska, and in various states from Minnesota to the western coast. It is very singular that a board of domestic missions in the east which had been making many fruitless endeavors to induce the people to contribute liberally for the extension of our church in our own land, was by the opening of these many new fields inspired to more earnest and successful effort. Had it not been for the generous aid this board could lend, much of the pioneer work would have been left undone and the immigrants moving into these new regions would have found themselves sadly lacking in opportunities to hear the gospel in their own tongue or to get their children instructed in the Bible class and the Sunday-school, as is now so freely enjoyed. Nearly every one of the fifteen churches in South Dakota has a parsonage built or church furnished or painted by the aid of our Woman’s Board of Domestic Missions, which was instrumental during the present year in raising the sum of forty-four thousand dollars for all the missionary departments of the church.

This history appears in Chapter C of “History of South Dakota” by Doane Robinson, Vol. I (1904), pages 588-592 and was scanned, OCRed and edited by Joy Fisher,  This file may be freely copied by individuals and non-profit organizations for their private use.