Brief History – Reformation Background

Source: This chapter, which provides a short summary of the history of the RCUS, is taken from J. I. Good’s Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism. Cleveland OH: Central Publishing House, 1904. p. 224-247. It was written for Catechism students. Electronic version, © 2004, The Synod of the Reformed Church in the U.S.

THE German Reformed Church has had its home in three lands, Switzerland, Germany, and the United States.[1] It was the oldest of the Protestant Churches, having been founded (1516) together with the Lutheran Church in the days of the Reformation. The only Evangelical church that is older is the Waldensian of Italy, founded in the twelfth century.

The name of our Church-Reformed-is derived from the fact that the first attempt of the Reformers was to reform the Catholic Church from within. And when they were forced out of the Church the name clung to them and they accepted it.

The Reformation in Switzerland

Ulrich Zwingli

Ulrich Zwingli was the founder. He was born at Wildhaus, a village in northeastern Switzerland on New Year’s day 1484. His New Year’s birth was destined to usher a new day into the world’s religious history. He was educated for the Catholic priesthood at Basle and Berne in Switzerland and at Vienna in Austria. His first congregation was at Glarus (1506-1516); his second at Einsiedeln (1516-1518); his third at Zurich (1519-1531), all located in northeastern Switzerland.

He says he began preaching the gospel in 1516 at Einsiedeln. (Luther nailed his theses on the church door at Wittenberg Oct. 31, 1517.)[2]

The causes that led Zwingli to leave the Catholic church and become a reformer were of two kinds, remote and immediate. The remote were:

1. His early education under the influence of Humanism, (the study of the classics) which gave him liberal ideas.

2. The influence of Thomas Wyttenbach at Basle (1505) who taught him two ideas, which became the seed-corn for his future reformation, (a) that the Bible was a higher guide and authority than the Church, (b) that the death of Jesus was our only ransom from sin.

3. His Patriotism. He saw the members of his congregation at Glarus join the foreign armies of the pope and the French, and he became disgusted with the immoral results of this. Two visits to Italy as chaplain of the troops opened his eyes the more fully to the evils of the Catholic religion.

4. The discovery of an old liturgy at Mollis near Glarus which revealed that formerly the Catholics used to give the wine to communicants as well as the bread.

These remote influences were gathered together and brought to a climax by a direct influence, which appeared in 1516, namely, the publication of the New Testament in the Greek language by Erasmus. This revealed to him that on many points the Catholic Church had departed from the gospel doctrines and rites of the New Testament. He became so intensely interested in it that he committed whole epistles to memory, an excellent example for all Reformed to commit Bible verses to memory. This enabled him later to reply with convincing power to the enemies of the reformation.

The two doctrines which he emphasized in beginning the Reformation were those taught him by Wyttenbach-the supremacy of the Bible over the Church and the death of Jesus as our ransom. These he seems to have begun preaching at Einsiedeln, but especially at Zurich. On New Years’ Day 1519 he astonished the people at Zurich by announcing that he would hereafter preach to them on the gospel of Matthew. As the people had had little or no preaching from the Bible for centuries, this created a tremendous sensation.

Under his severe labors his health broke down and he went away to Ragatz to rest. But the plague broke out at Zurich and like a faithful pastor, he came back, only to fall a victim of it. Although sick almost unto death, God spared his life for great purposes, overruling his sickness to complete his experience of the evangelical gospel. From 1519 to 1525 he labored to introduce into Zurich the new doctrines of the Reformation by means of conferences, and on Easter Day 1525 its introduction was completed by the administration of the Lord’s Supper after the Protestant mode, by giving the wine as well as the bread to the church members.

The new views of the reformation spread through Switzerland. From Zurich as a center they spread westward to Basle. There the citizens cast out the images from the Catholic churches and Oecolampadius became the great reformer. They also spread north and east into the neighboring districts of St. Gall, the Grisons, etc. But the most important event was their introduction into the state (canton) of Bern, south of Zurich. There Haller had preached them amid great opposition until finally a conference was held there in 1528. While Zwingli was preaching in the cathedral at Bern, a friar, who came to celebrate mass, was converted by the sermon and publicly threw off his robes. As a result of this conference that large canton of Bern became Protestant.

The next important event of his life was the Marburg Conference when the Prince (Landgrave) of Hesse in Germany tried to unite the two Protestant churches-the Lutheran and Reformed. It was held at Marburg in western Germany Oct. 1st 1529. There Luther and Zwingli met face to face, the only time in their lives. An epidemic broke up the conference, when the Landgrave insisted on their coming to some union. Fifteen Articles were drawn up, on which they all agreed except one-about the Lord’s Supper. Zwingli held out his hand to unite, but Luther refused and the attempt failed and so those two great churches of the reformation have ever since remained separate.

The last scene in Zwingli’s life was his death. In 1531 the five mountain cantons southeast of Zurich, which were intensely catholic, attacked Zurich suddenly. Zwingli went out with the Zurich army as chaplain to the battle of Cappel, about ten miles south of Zurich. There, while stooping to minister to a fallen soldier, he was struck by a stone. His last words were, “They may kill the body, but they can not kill the soul.” The army of Zurich was driven off of the field and Zwingli’s body was burned by the Catholics, who, to show their hatred, mixed his ashes with that of swine. So died the martyr of the first great quartet of the reformers, composed of Luther and Melanchthon of the Lutheran church and Zwingli and Oecolampadius of the Reformed.

Bullinger and Calvin

But the death of Zwingli did not crush the Reformation. Though the workers die, God’s work goes on. God raised up two men, Henry Bullinger at Zurich for northern Switzerland, and John Calvin at Geneva for southern Switzerland, to complete the work Zwingli had begun.

Henry Bullinger was born in Switzerland but educated in Holland and Germany, where at Cologne he became a Protestant. When he returned to Switzerland he found that his canton of Zurich had, like himself, become Reformed. He became pastor near Zurich but was driven out by the war that caused Zwingli’s death and fled to Zurich. There the church was anxiously looking for a suitable successor to Zwingli. Bullinger’s fearless preaching won him the place and although he was yet young, he was elected Zwingli’s successor. His learning, eloquence, common sense, and earnest piety made him worthy to follow Zwingli. He died as head of the church at Zurich in 1575.

John Calvin, the other successor of Zwingli, was a Frenchman by birth. In early life he was educated to be a lawyer and showed such great ability that he frequently was asked to lecture in place of his teacher. God, however, led him to Christ and he became a fearless preacher. But he was driven out of France because he was a Protestant. Meanwhile another reformer, William Farel, who had been driven out of France because he was a Protestant, had begun, under the protection of the canton of Bern, to preach the gospel in southern Switzerland where the French language was spoken. He crossed the lake of Neuchatel to south-western Switzerland and preached the first Protestant sermon in that canton on a tombstone in the cemetery, because the Catholic bishop had forbidden his preaching in any of the churches. By his efforts the canton of Neuchatel became Reformed. But he had his eye on a greater city, Geneva. He began preaching there although they tried to shoot him, when he replied, “I fear your gun no more than I do a popgun.” They tried to poison him but providentially he did not eat of the soup in which it was placed. In spite of this opposition, the gospel increased in power so much that at Geneva he prayed the Lord to send a helper, and God answered his prayer.

For Calvin happened to pass through Geneva in 1536 on his way to Germany, where he expected to study. Farel happened to hear that he was in Geneva and pled with him to stay. Calvin at first refused, saying he wanted to study, to travel, to rest. Farel reminded him how Jonah fled from duty and was punished. Calvin replied that he was not strong enough to be the reformer of Geneva. Farel finally called down God’s curse on him if he would not stay. Calvin trembled like a leaf and after considering the subject for a night decided to accept Farel’s call as from God and stay at Geneva. Calvin began to thoroughly organize the church there, but his reforms were so strict that he was compelled to leave for several years (1538-1541), but they were glad to recall him. He so reformed the city morally as well as religiously, that it became the model city of its age. He was a great theologian and commentator on the Bible. He completed the organization of our church. Zwingli had begun its organization by founding a synod, Calvin completed it by organizing the lower church courts as classes and consistories. He also prepared the way for liberty by beginning the separation of the church from the state, and this movement ultimately led to the founding of such great republics as Holland and the United States. He died May 27, 1564.

[2] Note: Lefevre, the reformer of the French Reformed Church as early as 1512 taught Evangelical doctrine.

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