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Reformed Church in America Denominational Membership Data, 1818-2000




Luidens, D., & Nemeth, R. (2019, November 20). Reformed Church in America Denominational Membership Data, 1818-2000.


This file contains information on all congregations in the Reformed Church in America (RCA) from 1818 to 2000. The data are from the "Orange Book" directories of the RCA. They include all information that is recorded there for each congregation, from ministers' names to "total contributions." Churches are identified by name, with a deliberate attempt to include multiple names where applicable. Also included are the city, classis(es), synod(s), and county where the church is located. Annual national fertility rates are included on each church's records, as are decadal U.S. population and Consumer Price Index figures.

Data File

Cases: 112971
Variables: 89
Weight Variable: None

Data Collection


Funded By

Reformed Church in America
The Lilly Endowment, Inc.
Hope College

Collection Procedures

The data come from the "Orange Book" directories of the RCA (with considerable assistance from Russ' Historical Directory, 1992 edition). See notes below for more information.

Principal Investigators

Donald Luidens
Roger Nemeth

Related Publications

Roger Nemeth and Donald Luidens. 1994. "The RCA in the Larger Pictures: Facing Structural Realities." Reformed Review 47.

Roger Nemeth and Donald Luidens. 2000. "Dutch Immigration and Membership Growth in the Reformed Church in America." In H. Krabbendam and L. Wagenaar (eds.) The Dutch-American Experience: A Festschrift to Robert P. Swierenga. Eerdmans.

Roger Nemeth and Donald Luidens. 2001. "Fragmentation and Dispersion: Postmodernity Hits the Reformed Church in America." In H.J. Hendriks et al (eds.) Reformed Encounters with Modernity. The International Society for the Study of Reformed Communities.

Roger Nemeth and Donald Luidens. 1994. "Congregational Vs. Denominational Giving: An Analysis of Giving Patterns in the Presbyterian Church in the United States and the Reformed Church in America." Review of Religious Research 36.

Donald Luidens and Roger Nemeth. 1994. "Social Sources of Family Contributions: Giving Patterns in the Reformed Church in America." Review of Religious Research 36.


The following notes are provided by the principal investigators:

1) There has not been a consistent list of variables throughout the period. This is particularly the case with the critical "members" category. We've created our best guess at an "omnibus members" category which pulls together the variously defined equivalents ("active communicants," "communicant members," "total members," and so forth). The varying terms are also included in the listing, so it is possible to check the collated figures against the term used at any one time.

Other terms which have morphed all over the place have to do with contributions and where they're headed. In particular, there were times when "benevolence" implied everything spent outside the congregation; at other times, it was distinguished from designated funds used by the national or regional offices. As a result, we have added categories as they were introduced into the annual directories-to the point where they proliferated across the spreadsheet. This is a maze which is probably best used in aggregate.

Another raft of confusing data has to do with the variously used terms "pastoral instruction," "Bible study," "catechetical training," and "new member training." Again, we've retained all the variations-which makes for vast expanses of "no data" when a term was not in use.

2) There are some rather idiosyncratic----although systematic---problems which we tried valiantly to overcome. At times, the data were printed with type-set which was slightly askew from the church and minister names. As a result, it was an easy error to shift the data "down" one congregation from its appointed place. While we were quite successful in catching that kind of error from our transcribers, we were less successful when the printer made the same mistake, skipping a church in order to "line up" the data. This didn't happen often, but when it did, it often made an entire classis' data inaccurate.

Along the same lines, on a number of occasions the data from one church was switched with the succeeding church's data. This most often happened when there was a change in the church's status (such as when there was a merger of churches or when there was a name change---or when an intervening congregation was inserted or discontinued. We found several of these errors and corrected them when we did; but there may be others still outstanding.

3) The "year" in the data set refers to the year for which the data was collected, not the year it was reported. In other words, the data we have listed for 1867 was reported in the 1868 Orange Book (the 1817 data were reported in the 1818 Orange Book; on the other end, the 2000 data appeared in the 2001 edition.). This created a couple of problems, in particular with the rotation of ministers. On many occasions, the year's report included the minister who had arrived during the reporting year (e.g., in 1868) rather than the data's year (e.g., 1867). We decided to include the minister as soon as his/her name appeared in the Orange Book for a specific congregation. This meant that a minister's reported beginning in a congregation is sometimes (indeed, most of the time) a year earlier than the minister's actual arrival (a significant discrepancy with the Historical Directory).

4) For many congregations (especially those which were experiencing transitions between pastors), annual data are missing. However, in order to provide continuous information about name, context, and the congregation's ministerial status, an annual entry for the congregation was included. This is particularly the case early in the data when only a fraction of the congregations reported their annual data (especially through about 1835 or so). From time to time we may have failed to "catch" when a church failed to submit its annual data. Omissions will inevitably be the result.

Other congregations submitted "contrived" data of one kind of another (such as the previous year's data repeated for the current year). Rather than trying to decide which data should be preserved, we included all submissions.

More problematically, the annual directories used different conventions for "no data" and for "zero," at times reporting when no occurrences too place (such as the number of transfers or dismissals) and at other times (most of the time) just leaving the category blank. We have tried to record the data as they appeared; zeros are zeros, blanks are blanks. In analyzing the data, we would be inclined to recode the blanks to zeros (such as to find out how many infant baptisms take place at various times in the congregation's life) so that the data are not lost. A conservative way to do this would be to make the recode blanks to zeros contingent on the report of ANY data within related categories (such as the report of X adult baptisms or of Y deaths within the same annual record; this would indicate that there was active data collected during that annual cycle).

5) Congregations are clearly identified with the listing of their names for each year of existence. ONE NAME (usually the congregation's most recent) is used throughout the history, although second and even third names are mentioned. The Church ID number is our contrivance; it is included for ease of data processing (such as for ordering the data on the basis of congregation or for quickly finding a congregation's data).

6) Ministers are identified ONLY by ID number (MinID). This is to provide some anonymity (and to keep from having to include several thousand names in the value labels listing). It provides the possibility of following an individual's career from one congregation to another (by reordering the data on year and on MinID).

7) Time Series Analysis requires that data be arranged so that categorical information appears on EVERY LINE of data. Accordingly, we have included a number of "consistent" information on every line of entry.

8) One of the final variables in the list is entitled "yrsinorg" ("Years Since Organization"), a measure of the number of years since a congregation's organization. This variable provides some flexibility in looking at each congregation's characteristics by making "dummy variables" easy to create (by looking, for instance, at just the lines coded "1"). One caution: Congregations which date from pre-1817 don't have a "1" line.

9) Many congregations have had short life spans. We've tried to catch all of them (an uneven task because some "congregations" never made it into the Orange Book, and others listed in the Historical Directory were never formally "organized." Others have merged with neighboring congregations; still others have "transferred" to other denominations. The "Status" column reports on the ultimate fate of all congregations; a parallel line indicates the year when this "termination" took place.

10) One of the nightmares of data collecting and processing has been to keep track of the jurisdictional lines which have applied at varying points in congregation's lives. We have tried to do so with information about the names of Classes and Particular Synods in which congregations have existed. For some this has not changed from the 18th century, but for most this has been a tangled web. The Holland, Michigan churches, for instance, have variously been in the Albany, Chicago, Michigan, and Great Lakes Synods as well as the Holland and Michigan Classes. Similarly, the same geographic areas have often had different Classis names. Again, each congregation's jurisdictional affiliations for each year have been recorded.

11) County decadal data have been taken from public sources. A couple of counties are missing for a handful of churches (particularly ones which were short of duration and whose published locations no longer appear in our atlases).

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