What follows is a brief overview of the history of the Free Reformed Churches of North America.
The oldest of the doctrinal standards of the Christian Reformed Church is the Confession of Faith, popularly known as the Belgic Confession, following the seventeenth-century Latin designation "Confessio Belgica." "Belgica" referred to the whole of the Netherlands, both north and south, which today is divided into the Netherlands and Belgium. The confession's chief author was Guido de Bräs, a preacher of the Reformed churches of the Netherlands, who died a martyr to the faith in the year 1567.
As a Reformed federation, the Free Reformed Churches of North America are part of a tradition which began in the Netherlands during the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands came into being, under the blessing of God, as a result of the influence of John Calvin-largely through his writings. The earliest Dutch Reformed congregations were formed in exile during the years 1548-1550 due to the suppression of Protestantism in the Netherlands during this period.
During the 1570's, the provinces revolted against Spain and as the revolution progressed, the Dutch Reformed churches were able to establish themselves on their native soil. By 1579, Calvinism was officially accepted in the northern part of the Netherlands.
The years 1618-1619 marked an important point in the history of the Reformed Church in the Netherlands. During these years the Synod of Dordrecht was held which produced the well-known Canons of Dort. This document was formulated to counter the teachings of Jacobus Arminius and his followers, known as Arminianism. The Canons of Dort affirmed those Biblical doctrines which have come to be known as the five points of Calvinism.
During the latter part of the seventeenth and the eighteenth century, the Reformed churches in the Netherlands began to feel the influence of rationalism which was having such an influence in society in general. Gradually the church began to depart from orthodox Calvinism and embraced theological liberalism.
There were those within the church, however, who continued to hold to orthodox Reformed theology and in 1834 some of these orthodox people broke away from the Dutch Reformed Church in what has come to be known as the Secession of 1834.
The federation resulting from this Secession, the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken (CGK), still exists in the Netherlands today. The Free Reformed Churches are the North American counterpart. The issues of the Secession of 1834 are still vital concerns in the Free Reformed Churches and thus it is necessary to pay some attention to them. The Secession of 1834 began when Rev. Hendrik de Cock was no longer permitted to preach the truth of the Word of God and to warn against the erroneous teachings of some of his colleagues, neither baptize the children of believers who refused to have their children baptized by their own ministers who were not sound in the faith. At that moment a large majority of the congregation of the Dutch Reformed Church in Ulrum, a town in the north of the Dutch province of Groningen, signed The Act of Secession and Return.
In this manifesto they declared that the present Dutch Reformed Church could no longer be considered the true church according to the marks given in Article 29 of the Belgic Confession. Furthermore, they declared that it was incumbent upon them, according to Article 28 of the same confession, to separate themselves from that church until it would return to the true service of the Lord. They expressed their desire to have fellowship with all true Reformed believers and to associate with all those assemblies which confessed that they were dedicated to God's infallible Word.
The popularity of the Secession (over 120 congregations joined in the next two years alone) and the government's negative reaction to it, indicated that this was no mere ecclesiastical quarrel. The leader of the first congregation to secede and a leading figure in the Secession movement, Hendrik de Cock (1801-1842), had studied at the University in Groningen and initially preached along much the same line as he had been taught by his liberal professors. It was a comfortable sort of preaching: tolerant, optimistic, proclaiming Jesus of Nazareth as the supreme Example of love and virtue. There was no mention of man's sinfulness and the need for regeneration.
About 1830, however, de Cock's heart was touched by conversations with certain godly members of his congregation. He began to read the authors of the so-called "Reveil," a nineteenth century movement which stressed the importance of personal piety. He also studied Calvin's Institutes. As a result of God's blessing on these various influences, Rev. de Cock was converted to God. As a consequence of his conversion, his preaching was transformed. He began to preach, in accordance with God's Word, Christ and Him crucified emphasizing man's sinfulness and his need for regeneration. The stress was on the inability of man to save himself and the necessity of divine grace. This kind of preaching attracted a considerable number of believers from far and near who were discontented with the ministry of their own pastors. In 1834, the congregation gathered by this kind of preaching, withdrew from the church which they now recognized to be a false church.
As was noted, the Secession movement spread very quickly. Hendrik de Cock was joined by a number of other ministers who gave leadership to the Secession churches, among whom were Hendrik Pieter Scholte and Albertus Christiaan van Raalte. These were young men, fresh from the University of Leyden. One by one they broke with the stategoverned church of the Netherlands. They continued preaching the Reformed doctrines, and soon little congregations were organized in different parts of the country.
The Secession did not go unchallenged by the authorities. King William I invoked an old Napoleonic law which forbade unauthorized meetings of more than twenty persons, in order to prevent the people from worshipping outside the Dutch Reformed Church. The Secession churches were persecuted for a number of years. Some of their pastors were imprisoned, those who assisted them were often excessively fined and soldiers were quartered in the homes of these "trouble makers." This policy ended in 1840 when King Willialm I abdicated the throne and was succeeded by his son William II who was more inclined to negotiate a compromise. Ultimately a settlement was reached. The Seceders were free to worship on their own.
Not all the orthodox people in the Dutch Reformed Church went along with the Secession. There were those who shared the same objections with regard to doctrinal purity and church government with the Seceders, but they conscientiously felt that they should try to promote a return to orthodoxy within the Dutch Reformed Church. They also felt that as long as they could hear pure and spiritual Gospel-preaching in their own congregations, they should stay in the church of their ancestors rather than join another denomination. In 1906 these orthodox believers within the Dutch Reformed Church formed an alliance, known as the Reformed Alliance (Gereformeerde Bond), for the purpose of promoting orthodoxy in their denomination.
In 1886 another exodus from the National Church took place. In that year many ministers and thousands of other church members left the Dutch Reformed Church. They were doleful of the situation in the national church and organized themselves as the "Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk" under the leadership of Dr. Abraham Kuyper. Almost immediately there was a union of the new denomination and the existing Secession denomination, the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken (CGK). This union took place on June 17, 1892 at the Synod of Amsterdam and the resulting denomination was called the Gereformeerde Kerken (GKN).
Not all of the Secession denomination (CGK) went along with this union, however. A number of congregations had objections to some of the principles of the new denomination and chose to continue the Secession tradition with the same name, the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken. This denomination still exists today in the Netherlands and as has been already mentioned, the Free Reformed Churches are its North American counterpart.
During the years after the Secession of 1834, the members of the Secession churches experienced many hardships. They were often treated with contempt even after the persecution was over, and there was a great deal of economic poverty. In this context some of the ministers, Scholte and Van Raalte, began to consider emigration to America in order to escape the difficulties that many of their members experienced. Gradually, the conviction was born that the religious interests of such pioneers could be best served if they emigrated in groups, with their own leader. Between 1844 and 1857 almost ten percent of all Seceders left the Netherlands for the United States.
The leader of the western Michigan settlement, Rev. Van Raalte, proposed to enter into ecclesiastical union with the Reformed Church of America (RCA) which had given him considerable moral and financial support. Many of the Secession people, however, were unhappy with the RCA. They complained that the RCA used hymns in worship, their ministers administered open communion, they neglected to catechize the youth, they did not preach sermons on the Heidelberg Catechism and the RCA was uncertain about the validity of the Secession in the Netherlands.
In 1857 four congregations from the East broke away to form the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). In 1880 four Western classes requested the General Synod of the RCA to declare membership in the Masonic lodge to be incompatible with church membership. When the Synod rejected this petition, many mid-western congregations left the RCA and joined the CRC.
In the Netherlands, at the beginning of the largest wave of Dutch emigration to the United States, the Secession church (CGK) began to recommend that its emigrants affiliate with the CRC. The result was that a large number of immigrants joined that denomination. From 1873 to 1899 the CRC grew 831 percent, while the RCA grew 111 percent. During the years of the Masonic controversy (1881-1884) the CRC grew 66 percent and the RCA only 3 percent.
From the latter part of the nineteenth century on, however, the CRC, due to various influences, began to change.
The result was that, during the 1950's a number of the immigrants from the Secession churches and from the Reformed Alliance formed separate congregations instead of joining the CRC. From the beginning these congregations were united with an already existing independent Reformed congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, known at the time as the Old Christian Reformed Church. In 1965 the federation was joined by another independent Reformed congregation from Clifton, New Jersey. In 1974 the name Free Reformed Church of North America (FRC) was adopted for the denomination.
Why did our founding members not feel at home in the Christian Reformed Church of the fifties? Historically and confessionally there was considerable similarity between the Christian Reformed Churches and the churches they had belonged to in the Netherlands.
However, they soon realized the impact of the fact that the Christian Reformed Churches had, in 1908, adopted the Conclusions of Utrecht 1905, which insisted on adhering to the doctrine of presumptive regeneration.
Furthermore, the kind of preaching heard in other Reformed churches of the 1950's was also significantly different from the preaching that had been the hallmark of the Secession tradition. Most problematic for those who wanted to stay true to traditional Reformed orthodoxy were the teaching of presumptive regeneration and the optimistic views of culture. They saw these doctrines leading to superficiality and worldliness in the churches. And further, the preaching was lacking in what they considered to be some vital elements. Our founding members felt that the Scriptural teaching concerning the subjective experience of God's people was being neglected with the result that the struggles which are experienced in their spiritual lives were not being addressed. They felt that the differences between true believers and nominal Christians were not being dealt with sufficiently and unconverted people were not duly called to repentance.
Nevertheless our founding members did not wish to have an inbalance emphasis in the preaching on the need for regeneration, and the marks of regeneration, for fear that the preaching would focus attention of the congregation on the born again person. Thus these experiences would become focal points in the preaching, rather than leading the congregation to look evermore "unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith" (Hebrews 12:2).
Our members did not presume children of believing parents to be saved. They believed that such children needed to be taught that they were born in sin and are in need of salvation and that they must be born again.
The grace of salvation is promised to them, but they are also called to be spiritually active with these matters before the face of God. (Ezekiel 36:2,5-27,37.)
We in the Free Reformed Churches, therefore, are convinced that today we need to adhere to the classic doctrines of the Reformation as set forth in the Reformed confessions, and to confirm the truth of these doctrines by living a holy life of separation from the world and consecration to God.