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History of the RCA

In the small colonial town of New Amsterdam, on a Sunday in 1628, about fifty people gathered around a crude table in a mill loft. Their celebration of the Lord’s Supper marks the birthdate of the Reformed Church in America. The congregation they founded still continues today as the Collegiate Reformed Church in New York City, the oldest evangelical church in North America with a continuous ministry.

The Reformed branch of Protestantism is rooted in the Reformation of the 1500s. Its primary leader was John Calvin of Switzerland, whose reform movement spread to Scotland, where it became the Presbyterian Church, and the Netherlands, where it became the Dutch Reformed Church.

In the 1600s, congregations of the Dutch Reformed Church in North America spread and expanded, even after the English took control of the region from the Dutch. The church sent its ministers to Holland to be ordained and did not hold services in the English language until 1764. When America became independent, the Dutch-founded church also cut its ties to its European mother country. The Revolutionary War was particularly divisive in parts of the church and some of the congregants split from each other following the war. A group of parishioners loyal to the British settled in Canada along the St. Lawrence River. The congregations these refugees founded eventually became part of the Presbyterian Church of Canada.

Throughout the first half of the 1800s, the church’s Dutch beginnings shifted from an everyday reality to a remembered heritage as Dutch-language worship began to fade. The church, incorporated in the United States in 1819 as the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church, changed its name in 1867 to the Reformed Church in America.

During this time, the RCA was already involved in worldwide mission programs in Africa and Asia. Long a pioneer in overseas mission, the church has consistently made a contribution beyond its size. The first RCA mission programs began in America in 1796, when the RCA and other denominations formed the New York Missionary Society that primarily reached North American Indians. Missionaries had reached China, India, Africa, and other parts of America by 1820, and the RCA revamped its Board of Foreign Missions in 1857 to be an RCA-only supported, non-partnered agency.

John and Harriet Scudder began mission work in Ceylon in 1819 under the direction of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Moving from Ceylon to the subcontinent of India, they established the Arcot Mission in 1853. This work was continued by the Church of South India in 1947.

Missionaries of the RCA established a mission in Japan in 1859 and one in Arabia in 1892, and global mission outreach continued with the added support of the auxiliary Women’s Board of Foreign Missions, organized in 1875. (It merged with the general Board of Foreign Missions in 1945.)

The church’s growth in North America continued, bolstered by a new wave of Dutch immigrants in 1847. That year, two groups, prevented in the Netherlands from worshiping in a Reformed church free from state domination, fled to the United States. They settled in Pella, Iowa, and Holland and Zeeland, Michigan. After consideration and deliberation, the Holland-area groups (in 1850) and a splinter faction of the Pella group of settlers (in 1856) united their churches with the Reformed Church in America.

During this period of growth, however, disagreements among congregations in Michigan arose about such topics as the singing of hymns (instead of only psalms) in worship, secret societies such as the Freemasons, and regular Christian education, among other issues. In 1857, several congregations seceded from the then-named Reformed Dutch Church and became the Christian Reformed Church. Further secessions in 1882 added to the Christian Reformed Church, as did immigrants who seemed to choose the CRC almost automatically. The seceding church in the Netherlands, too, transferred its loyalty to the Christian Reformed Church, leaving the RCA without a sense of historical roots in Europe.

Despite the loss of congregations through the split with the Christian Reformed Church, through the additions of Midwestern congregations the Reformed Church spread westward and established a presence outside the eastern seaboard. Most of the RCA’s influence in America continued to be among settlers and immigrants of Dutch descent throughout the nineteenth century–including two congregations organized with Dutch immigrants in Alberta, Canada, in 1909 and 1912–though in 1895 the church started mission programs among Native American Indians. A mission program to Appalachian families began in 1899 in Jackson County, Kentucky. Ministries to other minority groups began during this time and during the early 1900s, but only the Native American Indian programs and the ministries in Jackson County still are part of the RCA.

Another expansion of RCA ministry in Canada took place in the middle of the twentieth century, following World War II. The RCA worked to assist Dutch immigrants who were leaving Europe and seeking new starts in Canada. By 1950, the RCA had ministers working in seven sites helping more than 18,000 immigrants, and two congregations were organized in Ontario. This foundational work led to the establishment of the Regional Synod of Canada in 1993.

While Dutch immigrants were expanding the church in Canada, the Reformed Church in the United States also underwent change in the 1950s, the years following World War II and encompassing the tensest years of the Cold War. The social and cultural mood in America welcomed churches and religiosity, if only as a counterpoint to the atheism practiced by the nation’s Cold War enemies. Americans moving to the cities and suburbs prompted the RCA to spend millions of dollars to organize 120 new churches between 1949 and 1958, and for the first time in the denomination’s history, many were opened among people unfamiliar with Dutch heritage and the Dutch Reformed traditions. In the 1960s, mission work also took on a new tone, as the Board of Foreign Missions was renamed the Board of World Missions.

To further welcome people from backgrounds other than Dutch, the RCA formed four racial/ethnic councils between 1969 and 1980. The councils help the denomination face and address issues related to race and ethnicity, dealing particularly with people connected to the RCA through Pacific and Asian American congregations, Hispanic congregations, Native American Indian congregations, and African-American congregations.

Women have always played a vital role in the RCA. Their contributions began with such activities as initiating and supporting missions in North America and around the world, and serving as missionaries. Today they are missionaries, teachers, study leaders, volunteers, elders, deacons, and pastors. Denominational approval of the ordination of women as elders and deacons came in 1972, though women had been ordained to those offices beginning in 1970. The first woman RCA minister was ordained in 1973, and ordination to the office of minister was opened to all women by an act of General Synod in 1979.

Today women continue their involvement in the Reformed Church, in many kinds of ministries. Dozens of women are ordained ministers in the RCA, serving as pastors and specialized ministers, pursuing graduate work, and serving elsewhere without charge. Nearly 50 percent of the students in RCA seminaries are women, and many women have been sent as delegates to General Synod.

In 2000, the RCA assembled for Mission 2000, a whole-church event that aimed to discern and direct the denomination’s role in mission into the twenty-first century. The RCA’s Statement of Mission and Vision, introduced in 1997, spells out the calling of the church, and the Pentecost Letter, written at Mission 2000, exhorts the many congregations of the RCA to go forth into their communities and make a difference there for Christ.

Emphasis on mission continues, at home as well as overseas. The “Discipling All Nations” paper talks about the need for and methods of ministering to people around the world in this new century. Urban ministries focus on churches and people who live in cities around North America, charged with the reminder that, as cities grow into population centers, the future of the church depends on how it touches the lives of people in the cities.

The mutual-mission initiative developed in 2002 acknowledged the North American church’s need to learn from the strong and developing church in the Southern Hemisphere and elsewhere in the world. Mutuality fosters exchanges of people, knowledge, and understanding between the long-established North American churches and their younger, innovative, growing counterparts in Africa, Asia, and Europe.

In 2003, General Synod adopted Our Call, a ten-year goal focused on planting new churches and revitalizing existing congregations. As Our Call drew to a conclusion, a denomination-wide discernment process took place, involving thousands of voices over two years. Conversations at the grassroots led to the adoption of Transformed & Transforming in 2013, a 15-year vision for discipleship, leadership, mission, and engaging the next generation. RCA staff work with churches and church leaders to equip them to take a next faithful step to follow God’s call in their context.

Reformed and always reforming, the RCA has moved into the twenty-first century, rooted and established in careful theology and committed to grow as the Spirit leads.

About the RCA