To understand any church, it is necessary to know something of its history. A brief review of its history will give a sense of how it stands in relationship to the multitude of Christian churches found on the Canadian and North American scene. Like nearly every other Christian church in North America, this requires going back to the Europe of the sixteenth century and the developments that took place which radically changed the face of Christianity.
At the start of the sixteenth century, Christianity in Western Europe did not have the diversity of denominations so common today. The Church was organizationally unified under the leadership of the Church of Rome. Over many centuries, the Christian Church drifted away from its Scriptural roots.
The key figure who protested against the deformation in doctrine and church life and called it to reformation was a German monk by the name of Martin Luther. At the heart of his call to reformation was the teaching that salvation from sin is out of God’s grace, by faith, apart from human works. His call was rejected by the church leadership and he was excommunicated in 1521.
While Luther’s main teaching was welcomed by many, the Protestant Reformation developed into three main branches. In Luther’s native Germany, as well as Denmark and the Scandinavian countries, there was the development of the Lutheran churches. In England, beginning in the 1530s, there developed the Anglican churches. In the 1540s, through the leadership of John Calvin in Geneva, there developed the Reformed churches in Switzerland, an area in Germany called the Palatinate, the Netherlands and Scotland.
The Canadian Reformed Churches are rooted in this third branch of the Protestant Reformation as it developed in the Netherlands from the 1550s and onward. The cause of the Reformation made great inroads and led to the establishment of a vigorous Reformed church life. The key confessional documents of these Reformed Churches were the Belgic Confession, first published in 1561, and the Heidelberg Catechism, first published in 1563.
It did not take long before these churches faced threats from within that touched the very heart of the Reformation emphasis on being saved out of grace. At the center of the controversy was Jacob Arminius who in his teaching subtly undermined the sovereignty of God in saving sinners. He ascribed to fallen man the power to accept or reject God’s grace. At a synod held in the town of Dort, beginning in the fall 1618 and attended also by delegates from England, Scotland, Germany and Switzerland, the teachings of Arminius were refuted and the sovereignty of God’s grace was maintained. The decision of this Synod became the third confessional document of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. These decisions are called the Canons of Dort. These Canons of Dort, together with the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, became known as the Three Forms of Unity in that these documents in that they expressed the common faith of the Reformed believers in the Netherlands.
While the Reformed churches enjoyed peace and had the benefit of being supported by the State during the seventeenth and eighteenth century, religious vitality gave way to nominal Christianity. The nineteenth century witnessed two groups who separated themselves from the State supported church, the first in 1834 and the second in 1886. While both these separations involved matters of church government as local churches reclaimed their autonomy, at the heart of both these reformations was a return to the gospel as rediscovered in the Reformation and expressed in the Three Forms of Unity.
In 1892, the majority of the churches of these two reformations merged and became the Reformed churches in the Netherlands.
Regrettably, new troubles arose within these united churches. The key issue concerned teachings regarding covenant and baptism. A Synod held in 1942 imposed one particular explanation on all its members. When a number of ministers were deposed and excommunicated a separation occurred involving about ten percent of the membership. Since those who separated themselves indicated they liberated themselves from teachings beyond the Scriptures as agreed upon in the Three Forms of Unity, they became known as the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Liberated). The separation that occurred in 1944 is called 'The Liberation'.
After the Second World War there was a massive immigration from the Netherlands to North America, especially to Canada. When members of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands arrived in Canada, they first took up contact with already existing churches of Reformed persuasion in the hope that they could join with them. That hope soon disappeared when it became clear that one of those churches, the Protestant Reformed Church, expected the newly arrived immigrants to accept a document called "The Declaration of Principles" which essentially equated election and covenant. They refused to do this as they did not wish to be bound by theological formulations beyond the Three Forms of Unity.
The other Reformed church under consideration was the Christian Reformed Church. Joining it also proved impossible when it became clear that this church sided with those in the Netherlands who had earlier expelled the newly arrived immigrants.
The consequence of all this was that immigrants organized their own congregations. The first congregation was instituted on April 16, 1950, in Lethbridge, Alberta. That same year also saw churches instituted in Edmonton and Neerlandia, AB, Orangeville, ON, and New Westminster, BC. Over the years, this has grown to a federation of sixty-nine churches, most of which are in Canada, but also some in the United States.
The Canadian Reformed Churches are therefore rooted in the Protestant Reformation especially as it developed in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and came to Canada via post Second World War Dutch immigrants.