The Formation of the Early Synod

The First Synod and Classes

The first synod was held at Lancaster April 27, 1793. The church then consisted of 22 ministers, 178 congregations, and about 15,000 members. Its first problems were the education of ministers and the change of language from German to English. After a number of conflicts as at Philadelphia and Baltimore, the latter was solved by the gradual introduction of English into the services. The former was solved by the education of young men privately by different ministers. Of these, three were especially prominent, Christian Lewis Decker of Baltimore, Samuel Helffenstein of Philadelphia, and L. F. Herman of Falkner Swamp.

In 1820 the synod divided itself into classes and decided to found a theological seminary, which, however, was not opened until 1825. The Ohio classis broke off in 1824 and organized itself into an independent synod. In 1822 the free synod of Pennsylvania also broke away but returned in 1837. Similarly an independent synod was organized in Ohio in 1846, but returned about 1853. From 1829 to 1844 a revival wave spread over the church.

The Early History of the Synod

Source: J. I. Good’s Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism Cleveland OH: Central Publishing House, 1904, p. 224-247; Electronic version, © 2004, The Synod of the Reformed Church in the U.S.

In 1792 the Coetus prepared to separate from the mother church of Holland. The reasons for it were:

  1. Holland was so far away that correspondence between our church and the Dutch church was difficult.
  2. There was a difference in language, as the Hollander’s spoke Dutch, our church, German.
  3. The Holland Church was unwilling to give our Church certain privileges, as the right to ordain or to found a school for the education of ministers.

The first Synod of our Church was held April 27th, 1793 at Lancaster. It then contained twenty-two ministers, seventy-eight congregations and about 15,000 communicants. Two problems faced the new Synod, (1) The change of the language from German to English, (2) The need of a school to educate ministers.

The change of the language often caused bitter feelings in congregations between the younger or more progressive party and the older or conservative, who desired to retain German. The Philadelphia congregation was the first to be greatly divided, first the English party going out, then the German seceding. Gradually, however, our Church has learned to deal wisely with this question.

The second, difficulty, the lack of ministers, was for awhile partially met by private theological schools. The Rev. C. J. Becker, D.D. opened one at Baltimore, Rev. S. Helffenstein, D.D., at Philadelphia, and Rev. F. L. Herman, D.D., at., Falkner Swamp. They educated a number of young men, Helffenstein educating the most, twenty-seven. But in spite of all these efforts, the Church outgrew the number of ministers. So an effort was made to found a theological school in 1820. It was not opened till 1825 when Rev. Lewis Mayer, D.D., began teaching at Carlisle in connection with Dickinson College. This school was removed in 1829 to York when Prof. F. A. Rauch was added to the faculty. A classical school was started in connection with it which was removed to Mercersburg in 1835, where it was changed to Marshall College and later in 1853 removed to Lancaster. The theological seminary was removed from York to Mercersburg in 1836 and later in 1871 removed to Lancaster.

In the early part of the 19th century our Church sent home missionaries to North Carolina which led to the founding of North Carolina Classis. It also sent missionaries to Ohio and the West, where it grew rapidly, spreading in Indiana and Wisconsin. A theological seminary was founded in 1848 at Tiffin, Ohio where also Heidelberg College was founded. The Germans also founded a Mission House at Franklin, Wisconsin in 1860 for the education of German ministers.

In 1863 the Church observed the 300th anniversary of the publication of the Heidelberg Catechism in 1563 and a large conference was held in Philadelphia, January 17th, 1863. The various classes and congregations held tercentenary services during that year. Free-will offerings were made which in the Eastern Synod alone amounted to $108,000. In 1863 the various Synods and Classes united to form the General Synod of our Church. In 1893 the Church observed the Centennial of the organization of its synod independent of the Reformed Church of Holland.

The Synod of the Reformed Church in the United States

Source: The Historical Handbook of the Reformed Church, 1902, James I. Good, Electronic version, © 2004, The Synod of the Reformed Church in the U.S.

JUST as the United States was changed from a colony to an independent nation by the Revolution, so our Church was changed from the Coetus, which meant dependence on the Holland Church, to a Synod, which meant independence and self-reliance. And just as our great nation had grown from its small beginning to its present greatness, so our little flock of Reformed has grown to be a large and influential denomination.

Progress in Spite of Difficulties

In 1792 the members of the Coetus declared their independence of the Fathers in Holland, and in 1793 adopted their new constitution. The Coetus was no more-it had become the Synod. Several causes led to this change. One was that communication with Holland had been exceedingly difficult, especially during the Revolutionary War. Often the Coetus had to wait for months, sometimes for years, for important decisions by the Synods of Holland on its acts, and sometimes the answer never came from Holland because it was lost at sea. Although they would ordain a licentiate when there was extreme necessity, yet often the young man would have to wait for months before the Coetus would get authority from Holland to do so. This caused much inconvenience and our fathers therefore found this arrangement too clumsy to be {70} continued.

Another reason was that our Church here was getting strong enough to take care of herself and did not so much need the money sent from Holland. Perhaps one fact tended more than any other to cause the ultimate outbreak. It was the founding of Franklin College at Lancaster in 1787. This strengthened a feeling which had already appeared in the Coetus as early as 1782, when it was suggested by Rev. Mr. Helffrich. The Coetus then requested the Synods of Holland to establish an Academy in Pennsylvania which would prepare its ministers. The interest in this movement was so great that Coetus met in 1787, at Lancaster, so as to attend the opening of Franklin College. And although Franklin College did not at first prosper, owing to lack of funds, yet the feeling grew more and more decided among the members of the Coetus that they ought to be free, so as to educate their own ministers in America and not be compelled to wait until either they were sent from Holland or their ordination was ordered from Holland. So at Easton, in 1791, the Coetus took action that it had the right to ordain a minister without asking or waiting for permission to do so from the Fathers in Holland. In 1792, it went a step farther toward becoming independent by appointing a committee to draft a new constitution, and Rev. Messrs. Pomp and Blumer were appointed to prepare a constitution, not for a Coetus, but for a Synod. This was adopted in 1793. However, although our Fathers thus broke away from the Reformed Church of Holland a century ago, we should always remember with great gratitude the debt we owe to them for aiding our infant Church for almost half a century. They sent many ministers and paid their salaries and also the salaries of many school-masters {71} for many years. They also very patiently listened to the complaints and troubles of our early Coetus and wisely decided them, all the while fostering the Church.

So, on April 27, 1793, the first Synod of our Church met at Lancaster. Thirteen of the 22 ministers belonging to Coetus were present, but all but three sent excuses for absence. The Synod contained 178 congregations and 15,000 communicants.[1]

The Coetus adopted the constitution for a Synod prepared by Rev. Messrs. Hendel and Blumer and decided that it would not transmit to the Fathers in Holland its proceedings, as heretofore, but only send a letter. This act completed their separation from the Mother Church of Holland.

But our fathers had hardly declared their independency, when serious difficulties began to appear. The first was the conflict of languages. As Germans, they tenaciously clung to their beloved mother-tongue, yet the English language kept forcing itself more and more into the families, so that English preaching was becoming a necessity. Rev. Casper Wack, as early as 1782, began to preach English in addition to German in his congregations, in western New Jersey, near Easton. Under Dr. Herman, English preaching was occasionally heard at Germantown. But it was in the Philadelphia congregation that the strife became most bitter in regard to the two languages. Again and again the subject was carried up to the Synod by members of this church, asking that the preaching in English be stopped. The Synod generally tabled the matter. But finally the strife became so bitter that it led to a division in the congregation (1818). Gradually {72} the English language was introduced into many of the congregations, but very often some of the congregations waited too long, until they had forced many of their young people into other denominations, which was a great injury to our Church. This conflict of languages has gradually settled itself by a gradual change to English as circumstances demand it.

Early Theological Education

The other difficulty of the Church was the lack of ministers. Formerly she had depended on Holland for them, but now she had to depend on herself. But as she had no college to educate them or money to found such an institution, how was she to provide herself with ministers? Individual ministers stepped into the breach and privately prepared many young men for the ministry. Weyberg, Gros, Hendel, and Helffenstein had done this under the Coetus. This was continued under the Synod by Samuel Helffenstein, Herman, Becker, and others. Helffenstein is said to have prepared as many as 27 young men for the ministry.

But all these excellent efforts were found to be insufficient. So, in 1820, the Synod at Hagerstown adopted a plan for the establishment of a theological seminary. It elected Rev. Dr. Milledoler, of New York, as its professor and selected Frederick, Md., as its location. Alas, their expectations were soon doomed to disappointment. Dr. Milledoler, after deliberating about it for two years, finally decided to decline the call; and as much of the money subscribed to the new institution, was conditioned on his acceptance, it never came into the treasury of the Seminary. With this reverse came a reaction in the Church. In some parts of the Church ministers and people revealed an opposition to the Seminary. These looked upon the raising of so much money as an unnecessary {73} extravagance, and some said they feared tyranny on the part of the Church.

Some, too, like Dr. Herman, objected to the location of the Seminary at Frederick, so far southwest of the center of the Church. As a result of this opposition, quite a number of ministers and congregations left the Synod (1822) and formed a free Synod, which at different times had connected with it 51 ministers and more than 100 congregations. This Free Synod lasted for fifteen years and had in it some of our most influential congregations and ministers, but in 1837 it returned to the Synod. In the meantime the Synod went on trying to build up its Theological Seminary.

In 1823 it elected Rev. Dr. S. Helffenstein Professor of Theology, but he declined. In 1824 it elected Rev. Dr. Lewis Mayer professor, and at last the Seminary was opened March 11, 1825, at Carlisle. The Church having once begun this work, went at it with a will. In 1825 Rev. James R. Reily went to Europe to solicit money and books for it, and brought back $6,669, and 5,000 books, while Rev. J. C. Beecher collected $10,000 for its endowment in this country. The Seminary was, however, removed to York in 1829, where it continued till 1837, Dr. Mayer being assisted in the teaching by Rev. Samuel Young and Dr. F. A. Rauch. It was then removed to Mercersburg, where it remained till 1871.

The Synod of Ohio

Thus the Church gradually met its difficulties and overcame them, and grew in numbers and influence. It began to spread to the West during this period, the first minister, Rev. Jacob Christman, going to Ohio in 1803, and Rev. J. T. Larose in 1804. In 1812 the Synod ordered that certain ministers should be sent to the West, and Mr. Dechant was sent in 1816. When the Synod was divided into classes in 1820, there were {74} enough ministers in Ohio to form a classis, which grew so that in 1824 it organized itself into a Synod of Ohio. It separated itself from the mother Church in Pennsylvania, because the latter treated it just as the fathers in Holland had treated them. It refused to give the Ohio Synod the right to ordain, and wanted the young men who desired to enter our ministry to cross the Alleghenies so as to get ordination. This the Ohio brethren refused to do, and they declared themselves independent.

This Ohio Synod grew, until in 1838 it started its own Theological Seminary by the appointment of Rev. J. G. Buettner as professor. But he resigned the next year and went back to Europe, and the Seminary ceased for a time to exist. These home missionary movements prepared the way for foreign missionary movements which came later.

Developments in Publications and Interchurch Relations

Other events occurred which showed that the Church was moving forward. A Church paper was started at Carlisle in 1828. In 1806 the first Sunday-school was organized in the Reformed Church of Philadelphia.

The Church also made progress in its relations to other denominations. The cause of Christian unity began to attract attention. When, in 1817, the Lutherans and Reformed of Prussia and many other States in Germany united, there were some rumors of such a union in America between the Reformed and the Lutherans. No action, however was taken by the Synod looking toward it, although a very pleasant correspondence took place between the two denominations in reference to the tercentenary of the Reformation in 1817. But although our Church did not unite with the Lutherans, it came into correspondence with other evangelical bodies. In 1823 it entered into fraternal relations with the Presbyterian Church, and earlier, 1813, with {75} the Dutch Reformed Church, with whom it had several very pleasant conventions in 1844 and 1847.

Thus the Church, in spite of its great difficulties, grew so that by 1840 it had reached a high-water mark. Several of the oldest ministers have told us “Those were the halcyon days of the Reformed Church.” She was united and progressive. God’s Spirit was poured out on the Churches. Her institutions were being firmly established. Controversy had not yet entered. The outlook was hopeful.

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