So I’m standing at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 29th Street, gazing at Marble Collegiate Church, of the Reformed Church in America. A cold breeze is blowing, and I wish I’d thought to dress a bit more warmly. Although the building in front of me was erected in the nineteenth century, the church was founded in 1628, making it among the oldest continuous Protestant congregations in the New World. It is regularly passed by tourists and shoppers who give it nary a glance, not realizing that the Dutch who gave us New Amsterdam also gave us a Reformed Church that has stood the test of time in an increasingly secular New York City.
I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Calvinist. That may seem odd coming from a religion scholar who attended a very Presbyterian College and earned a doctorate at a Presbyterian department at the University of Edinburgh. Nevertheless, despite the many belief systems I’ve indulged, the Reformed wing has never appealed. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate what Calvinists have to offer: where would we be without the many good things Presbyterians have brought to us? In any case, I was recently considering how I automatically equate Calvinism with Presbyterianism, and how I really need to get over that habit. The Swiss reformers were a far more fragmented sect than the Lutheran contingent ever became. That still shows in the many historic Calvinistic traditions out there.
Presbyterianism, on its own, is not a uniform denomination anymore. For the time being, however, if we consider all Presbyterian groups as one stream of Calvinism, we need also to consider the Reformed groups. Although all Calvinists are reformed, the Reformed Church had its historic stronghold in the Netherlands. Doctrinal differences continued to fracture the Reformed Church into several denominations, two of the most prominent in the New World being the Reformed Church in America and its splinter, now larger, of the Christian Reformed Church (not to be confused with the Christian Church, (Disciples of Christ)). Congregational churches, which have no overarching governing body, frequently fall into the Calvinistic theological tradition, although that is not necessarily the case. Other Protestant denominations, such as Methodism, have equally diverse origins. Others, like the Baptists, have an early history that is unclear even today.
The Calvinist theological family tree is well studied, and it stretches back from where I’m standing to Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin and their peers, some five centuries ago. Although it never reached the size of the Baptist and Methodist growth spurts during the Great Awakening, Calvinism did make a lasting imprint on the landscape of North America, and still continues to bring some of us out on a chilly day just to look and wonder.