Part 3 (Developments in the Reformed Church till 1900)

We are on a brisk tour of the Reformation. In the last two articles, we saw the events that led up to the Reformation at breakneck speed and only stop to take a few snapshots from a distance. We paused ever so briefly in the 16th century, during the time when the magisterial Reformers, Calvin, Luther and Zwingli, lived. There we managed to take a few quick shorts of the landscape and an occasional flower. In this third leg of our journey we are speeding on again.

Having seen the beauty and significance of the Reformation, we marvel at the confusing landscape of modern Christianity. But things did not become what they are today suddenly. There have been almost 500 years of Church history since the Reformation. Things began to change rapidly in the last 100 years or so because of the communication explosion and other reasons, and so we expect to slow down a little in our tour as we approach the present century. But for now, 400 years lie ahead of us. An immense number of paths would lead to the 20th century so that however much we try to cover, we will still grossly over-simplify our description of what may be seen along the way. Indeed, we can only afford glimpses of all we see, and we shall have miss many important scenes. What can we do in such a tourist brochure as this? But this survey is designed to give some very, very basic knowledge of what had gone ahead of us, so that we may have some idea of what has happened to the Reformation.

Now, since the Protestant Reformation,—even as the Roman Catholic Church moved generally along the line of the counter Reformation pronouncements of the Council of Trent (1545–1563),—the various branches of the Christian Church have moved along one of four lines: First, some hold to the creeds and confessions of the historic Reformed churches or wrote updated confessions which are consistent with the earlier confessions. We may call these the Reformed churches. Reformed Christianity developed on in England, Scotland and Netherlands, as well as France, Germany and Switzerland. Secondly, some have continued on in some form of quasi-catholic traditions, which appear to occupy the middle ground between Roman Catholicism and the Reformed Faith. Among these would be Lutheranism and Anglicanism. Thirdly, some have departed more or less from either the quasi-catholic traditions or the Reformed tradition. Among these would be the Arminians, Quakers, Pietists, Moravians, Baptists, and Methodists. And fourthly, some have entirely given up the Bible as the infallible and authoritative Word of God. These were the Socinians, Unitarians and Modernists.

In the interest of relevancy and space, we shall, in this survey, only look at some of the developments in the Reformed Tradition in Holland, England, Scotland and America. The influences of the other traditions, however, will become quite clear, especially in the next article.

The Dutch Reformation

The Dutch Reformation may be roughly divided into four periods. The first may be known as the Lutheran period (1517–1530), during which time, the church was mainly Lutheran in doctrine and character. The second may be known as theAnabaptist period (1531–1545), during which Anabaptistism was the dominant religious movement. It was only in 1545 and 1560 that Calvinism began to infiltrate the Southern and Northern Netherlands respectively. Nevertheless, as Dr. Beeke notes, “the buds of Dutch Calvinism did not flower profusely until the seventeenth century, initiated by the Synod of Dort in particular (1618–19), and intensified by the Dutch Second Reformation (Nadere Reformatie), a primarily seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century movement…” (Joel Beeke, “The Dutch Second Reformation,” in The Christian’s Reasonable Service by Wilhelmus á Brakel, [SDG, 1992], 1.lxxxv). It is interesting to note that, today, conservative Dutch Reformed churches are generally found not in Holland but in America! Among these, there are those who trace their history to the Dutch Second Reformation, and others who would denounce the key developments in the Second Reformation as being mystical and pietistic, and so tend to dissociate themselves from the movement while claiming continuity with the Calvinism of the earlier periods. It is also interesting to note the tendency towards legalism in the former and antinomianism in the latter.

Nevertheless, it is without dispute that the greatest contribution from Netherlands to the Reformed Church comes by way of the Three Forms of Unity, which comprises the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort.

The Belgic Confession was composed in 1561 and revised by the Synod of Dort. Its chief author was the Guido de Bres, who was one of several itinerant preachers during those days when Roman Catholic King Philip II of Spain was persecuting Reformed believers in Belgium as being revolutionaries. De Bres had written the Confession mainly to testify to the king that Reformed believers were not rebels. When the copy of the Confession was sent to the king, it went with a petition for relief of persecution, in which petitioners promised obedience to the king in all lawful matters, though they would “offer their backs to stripes, their tongues to knives, their mouths to gags, and their whole bodies to fire, rather than deny the truth of God’s Word.” The king was unmoved, and eventually De Bres died a martyr’s death. Nevertheless, the Confession became a source of great encouragement to the persecuted saints to endure suffering for Christ’s sake during those troublous days, when more than 18,000 Protestants fell to the Roman Inquisition in the Netherlands.

The Heidelberg Catechism (HC) was penned by Zacharias Ursinus, professor at Heidelberg University, Germany, with possibly some contributions by Caspar Olevianus, the court preacher in Heidelberg. It was written under the behest of Elector Frederick III (i.e., Frederick the Pious), who was converted from Lutheranism to Calvinism in 1559. It was first published in 1563, and became part of the Three Forms of Unity under the direction of the Synod of Dort. Today, this document, which was of German origin, is generally known to Reformed believers not as a German statement but a Dutch statement because of its promulgation through the Three Forms of Unity.

The Canons of Dort was the product of the Synod of Dort, which was convened by the Dutch Parliament to examine the teachings of the disciples of Jacobus Arminius, known as the Remonstrants. In all, 81 theologians (56 Dutch and 25 foreign) met for 154 sessions, and at the end of it condemned the five points asserted by the Remonstrants as being contrary to Scripture and heretical. The articles of the Canons are essentially a systematic apology of the doctrine of salvation as taught by John Calvin. This document was held in great esteem by Calvinistic churches throughout the world; and the essence of it, as summarised in the Five Points of Calvinism or TULIP, is regarded as the yardstick of Calvinistic orthodoxy in most English speaking churches in the world, even today.

In addition to the creeds, the Dutch Reformed tradition also gave rise to solid theologians and pastors, such as William Ames, Wilhelmus á Brakel, Hendricks de Cock, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, etc.

The English Reformation

Unlike in most of Europe, the Reformation in England started much later, and had political, rather than theological, beginnings. Although William Tyndale’s English New Testament had already reached England in 1526, it was not until 1536 that there was some rumbling in the Church of England, which marked the beginning of a rather tumultuous and volatile Reformation history.

King Henry VIII was granted permission by Pope Leo X to marry Catherine of Aragon after the death of his brother Arthur, her previous husband. But his love for her waned, especially since she did not give birth to any sons who survived infancy. So he wanted a divorce. He asked the next pope, Clement VII, to declare that the papal permission given him to marry Catherine was against the law of God, and so he was not legally married at all. But the Pope refused to commit himself because Catherine was the aunt of Emperor Charles V, the most powerful monarch at that time. Well, Henry VIII, eventually found a theologian, Thomas Cranmer, who was ready to back him up theologically and also to marry him with Anne Boleyn whom he had already begun courting. To cut the long story short, in 1536, Henry broke with the Pope, made Cranmer the Archbishop of Canterbury, and appointed himself the head of the Church of England.

But Cranmer was not yet a Protestant, and so the doctrine and practices of the Church of England remained largely Romish. But in 1538, on the advice of Cranmer, Henry decreed that an English Bible be placed in every church, and required that it be available for reading by the parishioners. Cranmer himself was, moreover, reforming, so that by 1547 when Edwards VI became king, the Reformation in England began to make much progress under his guidance and the preaching of Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer.

However, Edwards VI did not live long, and Mary Tudor, a spiteful and hardened Roman Catholic became queen in 1553. In her reign, 300 English Protestants were martyred (including Latimer, Ridley, Cranmer), and 800 fled to the Continent, where they imbibed the doctrinal tenets of the continental Reformers, especially Calvin. Among these was John Knox, who considered the Genevan academy under Calvin was “the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the apostles.”

We may say that it was the Marian persecution that produced the seed bed for true Reformation in England and Scotland, for when Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne, many of the English and Scottish ministers returned to be pastors, well equipped with proper knowledge of Reformed doctrine and practices. When Knox returned in 1559, for example, he and others were able to write the Scottish Confession, and established the first truly Presbyterian church based on the teachings he had received at Geneva.

But in England, especially, the state-sanctioned church remained quasi-catholic. In fact, Elizabeth I herself had some inclination to Romanism and she imposed some practices which many conscientious Protestants could not accept. These became known as Puritans or Precisionists for their stance. Many remained in the Anglican Church, hopeful of further reforms, though they were inclined to Presbyterianism. Other separated themselves and form non-conformist churches.

More providential turn of events came in 1603 when James I of England became king. Although he authorised a new translation of the English Bible (KJV) in 1611, he was no friend of the Protestants. In 1604, 300 Puritan ministers were deprived of their livings. Again, large numbers emigrated. Many went to Holland, from where they would later sail the Mayflower to Massachusetts, America, and so brought the Reformation, or rather the Church, there.

In 1625, another king unsympathetic to the Reformed believers or Puritans, Charles I, became king, and three years later William Laud, a hater of Calvinism and lover of Rome like Charles I himself, became the Bishop of London (and Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633). He undertook stringent measures to stamp nonconformity out of the Anglican Church. Laudian oppression was a leading contributor to Puritan migrations to America, such as the large group led by John Winthrop in 1630.

But the hand of God was about to intervene so that both Charles I and Laud would become indirect instruments for the advancement of the Reformed Faith in England and Scotland. “Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee: the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain” (Ps 76:10).

It happened in this wise. One day, some members of Parliament, irked by Laudian persecutions, began to speak openly against Arminianism. The king heard about it and in anger decided to rule without Parliament, and so for 11 years he did not convene the Parliament.

But in 1637, William Laud decided to extend his influence, and decreed that the Anglican Prayer Book should be used also in Scottish churches. There was great opposition, and soon the people rose in revolt. They would not be ruled by bishops. The people flocked to sign the National Covenant (1638) upholding Presbyterianism. The result was that civil war broke out.

The king quickly found out that it was not so easy to force the Scots into submission. He soon ran out of money and also found it difficult to raise troops. Soon he was compelled to recall the Parliament.

The Parliament met twice in 1640. In the second sitting, known as the Long Parliament, the Parliament decided to curtail the power of the king! The rift between Parliament and king widened. In 1642, a second civil war broke out, this time between Parliament’s New Model Army led by Oliver Cromwell and the king’s army. Immediately, John Pym, the parliamentary leader and a Puritan, decided to appeal to Scotland to help. Scotland agreed, but on condition that the English Parliament undertook positive steps for the reformation of religion in doctrine, worship, discipline and government of the church, according to the Word of God! The agreement was ratified in 1643, in what is known as theSolemn League and Covenant, a religious covenant and a civil league between the Scots and the English. Among other things, the signatories swore to preserve “the Reformed Religion in the Church of Scotland” and the Reformation of religion in England. The English Parliament, moreover, convened an assembly of divines to bring about the necessary changes in the English churches.

This assembly met at the Westminster Abbey and is thus called the Westminster Assembly. From 1 July, 1643, to 22 February, 1649, in 1,163 sessions, 121 English divines and 6 invited Scottish commissioners met. The result was the Westminster Confession, the Larger Catechism, the Shorter Catechism, the Directory of Worship, as well as metrical Psalter and other documents, such as the Presbyterian Form of Church Government.

By 1646, Oliver Cromwell’s army defeated the king’s army and made Scottish help unnecessary. In the same year, the episcopalian form of church government was abolished in the Church of England, and three years later in 1649, King Charles I was executed. Cromwell became the Lord Protector of England. But because his army comprised many Independents, Cromwell refused to enforce or to encourage the spread of Presbyterianism.

Nevertheless, Presbyterianism has left a lasting contribution to the development of the Reformed Church through the Westminster Standards. Presbyterian churches, which remain faithful to the Confession, may be found not only in Scotland (which generally adopted the Confession), but also in England, America, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and elsewhere. Many independent churches have also adopted much of what has been taught in the Westminster Confession, including the manner of worship.

Moreover, like in the case with Holland, the Lord also raised up many illustrious ministers of the Gospel during this period, who though dead yet speaketh through their books, such as: William Perkins, Richard Sibbes, Thomas Watson, Thomas Manton, Joseph Caryl, John Owen, John Bunyan, Richard Baxter, Matthew Henry, etc., etc.

The Scottish Reformation

The early history of the Scottish Church may be said to be characterised by covenants, Covenanters and confessions. Covenanters are generally those who affirmed the two national covenants already mentioned, and were prepared to lay down their lives according to their vows to maintain the sole headship of Christ in the church, and therefore the spiritual independence of the church. Many indeed laid down their lives, especially after King Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, following Cromwell’s death. Charles II, who had deceptively signed the two covenants in 1649, sought almost immediately to be recognised as the head of the church and was determined to root out anyone who opposed him. Many Covenanters were martyred as a result, during his 25-year reign. But persecution only made the church stronger.

The Church of Scotland was founded in 1560 as the national Scottish Church. At that time the Scottish Confession, as well as the Genevan Confession and the Second Helvetic Confession, were the adopted standards of the Church. In 1647, however, the Church adopted the recently completed Westminster Standards as the subordinate standard of the church.

At first, only verbal compliance was expected of ministers of the Gospel, but by 1690, all probationers, elders and ministers were required to vow subscription to the Confession of Faith as the true doctrine which was constantly to be adhered to. In 1711, the formula of subscription was tightened so that at their ordination, ministers had to sign the following formula:

I do hereby declare, that I do sincerely own and believe the whole doctrine contained in the Confession of Faith… to be the truth of God; and I do own the same as the confession of my faith.

This requirement was relaxed somewhat in 1796 not without consequence; for in 1843, further relaxation of the need for subscription became one of the reasons for the formation of the Free Church of Scotland, though the ostentatious reason was the patronage system in which godless patrons had the legal rights to nominate whom they wish to appoint as pastors in the churches. It is not difficult to see how the two reasons are tied. More than 400 ministers, led by Thomas Chalmers, constituted the Free Church in what is historically known as the Disruption of 1843. The Free Church of Scotland claimed to be the true successor of the national church reformed in 1560, because the continuance of the patronage system meant the setting aside of Christ as the head of the Church in the remnant body.

The Free Church was further strengthened by unions with the Original Secession Church in 1852 and the Reformed Presbyterian Church in 1876. However, trouble loomed in 1892 when the large majority at the General Assembly passed what is known as the Declaratory Acts, which have been criticised as being accommodative to Arminian and Amyraldian views in the church, even though such views were contrary to the Calvinistic position of the Confession. In reaction, the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland was formed the next year in 1893 by two ministers, Donald Macfarlane and Donald Macdonald. In 1900, the Free Church eventually united with the United Presbyterian Church (despite earlier protests by James Begg), and became known as the United Free Church.

The present Free Church of Scotland and Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) trace their roots to the 27 Free Church ministers who refused to be part of the 1900 merger, believing that many important doctrine and church principles which are founded upon the Westminster Confession of Faith were compromised in the merger.

The Scottish Presbyterian churches may not have great impact on Reformed churches outside of Scotland, but the fact that the Free Church and the Free Presbyterian Church continue to maintain the polity and manner of worship described in the Westminster Confession of Faith, based on biblical convictions rather than mere tradition, is a great encouragement to Presbyterian churches seeking to return to the old paths and desiring to be honest to their confession of faith.

Those who find the courage to do so, would find a great cloud of witnesses to cheer them on, whom the Lord had raised on Scottish soils, such as: John Knox, Samuel Rutherford, George Gillespie, Thomas Boston, John Kennedy, James Begg, John Brown of Haddington, David Dickson, Rabbi Duncan, William Cunningham, James Bannerman, George Smeaton, etc., etc.

The American Reformation

We have noted that it was the persecution during the reign of James I (1603 on) and Charles I (1630 on) that led to the large number of Puritan emigrations to New England (America). Most of these Puritans were Calvinistic, though most of the earlier settlers in New England were Congregationalists rather than Presbyterians.

Nevertheless, in the early eighteenth century, many Scots emigrated, so that by 1706 the first presbytery in America (PCUSA) was formed with Rev Francis Makemie (1658–1708) as moderator. Although the first synod met in 1716 it did not officially adopt a doctrinal standard until 1729. When it finally adopted the Westminster Confession, under the urging of the Scottish and Irish immigrants, however, a clause was inserted into the Adopting Act that states that every member of the synod must subscribe to “the essential and necessary articles” of the Westminster Confession.

Although this qualifying clause was essentially to cater for the controversial twenty-third chapter with regards to the authority of civil magistrates over the synod, it in fact opened the way for ministers to disagree with the Westminster Confession. The fact that not everyone agreed with what are “essential and necessary” began to bear upon the church as the next generation of leaders began to rise up the rungs.

By 1810, the first permanent split in the denomination occurred over a dispute over the educational qualification of ministers and the issue of predestination: the Cumberland Presbyterian was founded (her ministers did not believe in predestination and insisted that the ordination standards for ministers be more relaxed).

By 1836, the difference between those who adhered fully to the Confession and those that did not in the PCUSA was so sharp that the denomination divided into Old School and New School branches.

Among the numerous differences, the New School did not believe in Original Sin and even redefined sin merely as self-love. Interestingly a group which broke away from the Old School in 1861 would combine with a group that broke away from the New School in 1858, and together constituted the Presbyterian Church in the US (PCUS) in 1864; while the remnant in both the Old School and New School would came back together in 1869 and continue to be known as the Presbyterian Church of USA (PCUSA).

All these splits and consolidations, plus others which resulted from those associated with the Associate Presbyterians and Reformed Presbyterians which begun independently in 1755 and 1774 respectively, would result in nine Presbyterian Denominations by the end of the 19th century, namely: (1) PCUSA; (2) PCUS; (3) Cumberland Presbyterian; (4) Second Cumberland Presbyterian; (5) Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (Old Light); (6) Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (New Light); (7) Associate Reformed Presbyterian of the South; (8) United Presbyterian Church of North America; and (9) Associate Synod of North America.

Without going into details, it is instructive to note that the confusing situation in Presbyterianism in the United States at the turn of the 19th century was largely due to the failures by most of the groups to give conscientious subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith which all held to, which was so wonderfully brought about by God’s providential guidance. This neglect would lead to further splits and departures from the Confession as well as downright apostasy in the 20th century.

But again, despite all the struggles, many luminaries of the Reformed Faith,—some Presbyterian, some congregational and some Dutch,—have been raised on these soils during these 400 years. We can think for examples of Jonathan Edwards, William Tennent, Achibald Alexander, Robert Lewis Dabney and Charles Hodge.


As we indicated earlier, this survey can in no way be exhaustive even though we are extremely selective in our coverage of what happened in the Church from the Reformation till 1900. But it is hoped that these articles will provide some key information, which will give us some idea of where the Reformed Faith, particularly of the Presbyterian strain, has been heading in the last 400 years.

Most of us would marvel at the wisdom and sovereignty of God by which He providentially led the Church to produce the major creeds of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches. However, when we look down the history of Presbyterianism and see how splits and mergers have occurred largely on account of different understanding with regards to the Confession, we may tend to wonder if the use of a Confession in the church is wise at all. Such a tendency in our mind, however, occurs only because we fail to see that in fact the number of denominations and varied ecclesiastical expressions that have arisen from confessional churches is in fact extremely small when compared to the proliferation that have resulted from churches that have abandoned the use of the Confession altogether, while claiming to believe in the authority of the Holy Scripture.

Beside, it remains a fact that there is in general much more similarities among different believing denominations, which hold to the same Confession than between any two churches which do not use any confession. And, furthermore, the fact remains that there are still churches, which seek to hold to the Confessions in all honesty, which still defend and maintain biblical worship in much the same way as the churches which adopted the Confession when they were first penned. This is amazing unity when we consider that almost 500 years have gone by, and the fact that the worship of non-confessional churches have changed many times over.

J.J. Lim