Calvin was born in France and joined the Reformation movement while a student. His main work is the Institutio Religionis Christianae, “Instruction in the Christian Religion”, commonly called “the Institutes”. This book presents the principles of Christian doctrine from a Protestant point of view. The first edition was in 1536, but Calvin expanded and republished it several times.
Calvin became a minister in the French city of Strasbourg, then in the Swiss city of Geneva. There he reformed both the church and the city. He also commissioned the publication of a rhymed version of the Psalms in French, together with melodies to be used for congregational singing. This Genevan Psalter is still in use in some Reformed churches.
Calvin and his colleagues brought the Reformation to France and Switzerland. In certain areas they were more radical than Luther. For instance, Calvin removed all images from the churches. He also rejected the Lutheran view of the “real presence”, claiming that, while Jesus Christ is truly present at communion, he is present in a spiritual manner only.
The Reformed churches in Europe
Calvin gained many followers in France. Around 1570, about 10% of the French population was Calvinist, known as Huguenots. But the Roman Catholic population and leadership did not take kindly to the Huguenots and persecuted them. Particularly brutal were the assassinations on St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572. Under the persecution, many of the Huguenots fled the country and settled in Germany, the Netherlands, England and elsewhere. As a result of a centuries of persecution, modern-day France is mostly Catholic; there are very few Protestants left.
Scotland also adopted Calvinism as the official theological position, due to the work of John Knox around 1560.
The largest Calvinist or Reformed community was found in the Netherlands. The governors of the Dutch states were sympathetic to the Reformation, but Philip II, the Spanish king of the empire, strongly opposed it. The conflict escalated; Philip and his sister Margaret of Parma persecuted the Protestants, while some of the Dutch Protestants destroyed images in the churches. King Philip sent armies to subdue the Dutch uprising, thus beginning the Eighty Year war between Spain and the Netherlands. The Netherlands became established as a republic and adopted Calvinist Protestantism as the state religion.
The Dutch Reformed churches adopted two statements of faith, which are still in use today.
The Belgic Confession (1561) was written in the south of the Netherlands, following a similar statement of faith by John Calvin. In it, the Reformed attempted to show that they were no rebels and did not oppose the government as the Anabaptists did. Thus the Belgic Confession summarizes the Christian faith, while criticizing both the Roman Catholic abuses and the Anabaptist radicalism. While the Belgic Confession did not convince the authorities, it soon became the standard that would be signed by all Reformed ministers.
The Heidelberg Catechism (1561) originated in the Palatinate (West-Germany). The governor, Frederick III, promoted a moderate Protestantism between Lutheran and Calvinist theology. A catechism is a teaching tool consisting of questions and answers to be memorized by students. Frederick commissioned the production of such a catechism for use in churches and schools. The resulting Heidelberg Catechism is a brief, but passionate summary of Protestant teachings. It was also adopted by the Dutch churches.
The Arminian Controversy
In the early 1600s, Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius proposed an alternative to the Reformed theology of Calvin and other Reformers. These Reformers had emphasized, as Augustine had, that God saves people not because of anything good in them, but out of pure grace. Thus, God’s election is sovereign and not based on any quality in people. But according to Arminius, God chooses people based on his future knowledge of their propensity to believe; that is, election based on foreseen faith.
This view of Arminius and some more radical ideas of his followers caused increased unrest in the Dutch churches. Eventually, the question was brought to the Synod of Dort (1618-19). At this meeting of Dutch and international Reformed churches, the views of Arminius were rejected.
This synod issued an official statement called the Canons of Dort. It not only denounces Arminianism, but also outlines the Reformed teaching about God’s election and how it relates to Christian faith and living. These Canons are still an official standard of Reformed churches today.
Reformed Churches in North America
Already in the 1600s, Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam (= New York) established the Reformed Church of America, RCA.
When in the 1800s much of the Dutch state church had become more secular, several churches separated. These dissenting groups of often poor people were bullied by the Dutch state; many of them sought freedom and new opportunities in the United States. This led to settlements in the Mid-West, such as Holland, MI and Pella, IA. In 1857 they established the Christian Reformed Church (CRC).
Further Dutch immigration and various conflicts in the CRC led to the formation of other Dutch Reformed denominations, including the Protestant Reformed (PRC), the United Reformed (URC), and the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC).