views updated Jun 08 2018


One of the earliest, most influential, and enduring forms of Protestantism, essentially a system of ecclesiastical polity, namely, the government of the church by presbyters. In a larger sense, however, it connotes the theology, liturgy, and discipline that stem from John calvin and as such constitutes the general tradition in Protestantism called "Reformed." This entry surveys the origins, history and significant developments in the evolution of Presbyterianism in Europe.

The specific designation "presbyterian" derives from the Greek presbuteros, the "elder." The presbyter's function in the New Testament church provided a model for the Calvinist ideal of a reformed church that would be neither tyrannical nor anarchical. Calvin sought, by divine warrant, to avoid the two extremes of episcopal authoritarianism and congregational egalitarianism. The entire subsequent history of Presbyterianism can almost be summarized as the struggle to maintain and extend this scripturally based balance in church order.

By definition pre-Calvinist, Presbyterianism traces its origins to the OT, where the tradition of elders in Israel provided an obvious working pattern for the first Christian communities of the NT. The occasional references to elders (presbuteroi ) and especially the apparent equivalence of that term with "overseers" (episcopoi ) established a sufficient scriptural basis for the later Calvinist elaboration of an integral presbyterian polity. Nevertheless, the fact that neither Calvin nor the earliest Reformed churches stemming from him ever really insisted on the claims of presbyterianism to be the only polity with a scriptural sanction lessens the problem of the continuity of the presbyterian system through the centuries that extended from the apostolic age to the Reformation. Practically, then, Presbyterian history begins with Calvin.

Calvinist Origins. The Reformation in the Swiss cantons was already well under way when Calvin arrived in Geneva in 1536. Yet the intellectual eminence of his theology as evidenced in his institutes and the practical acumen of his organizational directives as seen in his Ecclesiastical Ordinances secured for him an ascendancy not only in Geneva but in Protestantism. Under his leadership Geneva became the "Protestant Rome," the model and training center of Reformed religion. Skillfully adapting biblical prescriptions to the circumstances of an autonomous, republican city-state, Calvin devised a system of church government that incorporated four basic features: (1) the autonomy of the churchindependence from the state and competence to administer its own internal discipline; (2) the unity of the churchinterdependence of the individual local congregations in a graded series of disciplinary courts, or judicatories; (3) the parity of ministerscorporate uniformity of clerical power substantiating the presbytery and its varied functions; and (4) the representation of the peopleratification by the laity of the clerical power and functions. All four features were thus mutually integrated and geared toward the ultimate realization of a church wholly incorporated in Christ.

The implementation of this Calvinist scheme was never complete, even in Geneva. Calvin had to accede to the demand of the secular magistrates that they share formally in the appointment of the eldersthe lay members who were to complement the dual commission of the clerical ministers to preach the Word and administer the sacraments by their own dual commission to rule (i.e., legislate and enforce discipline) and care for the sick (and other temporalities). Moreover, a certain Genevan character remained impressed on all subsequent presbyterian polities: an aristocratic, homogeneous body, with a curious proclivity toward erastianism or sectarianism, or both. Not surprisingly, perhaps, an authentic Calvinist presbyterianism never succeeded in displacing the earlier and looser Zwinglianism as the dominant Protestant form in Switzerland.

Growth of Presbyterianism. In the other German-speaking lands Calvinism was likewise a late arrival; but within the lifetime of the founder it became a considerable force, particularly in the Palatinate. In 1563 the Heidelberg Catechism appeared and in 1566 the Second Helvetic Confession, two of the most influential documents in the Reformed tradition. A well-knit presbyterian system posed as much of a threat to the Lutheran territorial churches as to the Catholic Church, and this complicated the situation that eventually led to the thirty years' war. In spite of the toleration finally secured for it at the Peace of westphaliaperhaps because of itGerman Calvinism lapsed into a quiescence in which, after some 200 years, it was practically absorbed into the prevailing Lutheranism. Meanwhile in Eastern Europe the originally fast-growing Calvinism was effectively countered by a revitalized Catholicism under Hapsburg auspices. Of these German and eastern Reformed churches, the one that best survived the Catholic dominance of the 17th century, the "enlightened" laxity of the 18th, and the interconfessional confusion of the 19th has been that of Hungary, where a presbyterian Calvinism is still a vigorous minority.

Although Calvin's initial success lay in German-speaking Strassburg, while his initial plea to Francis I was a failure, his interest in his native France never flagged. Both Catholic and Protestant appreciated the centrality of this greatest kingdom in Christendom; and if the Catholics succeeded in maintaining possession of the crown and the majority of the nation, the Protestants, spearheaded from Geneva, proceeded with skill and momentum to build a powerfully based minority. The first Reformed, or Huguenot, congregation was established in 1555; by 1559 there were enough to justify the adoption of a Gallican Confession and the establishment of a national synod. This first presbyterian church on a nationwide scale was likewise the first to be organized according to a Calvin-inspired series of pyramided judicatories: the local congregations, or consistories (more commonly called sessions), forming regional colloquies (or presbyteries), which in turn were grouped into provincial synods (or simply synods), which finally reached a national unity in the National Synod (or General Assembly). The long politico-religious war that almost inevitably resulted from this organized rupture in French society ended (Edict of nantes, 1598) practically where it began: a Catholic majority and a Protestant minority facing each other in an uneasy truce. Political absolutism (revocation of the Edict of Nantes, 1685) and cultural secularism (the Enlightenment) successively reduced the extent of that Protestant minority; but largely because of their tough presbyterian polity, the Huguenots retain a permanent position in France.

Already strongly affected by Lutheran and Anabaptist influences from Germany, the Netherlands quickly responded to the later and more organized impulses of Calvinism coming from France and the Palatinate. In 1566 a synod in Antwerp adopted the Belgic Confession, composed some years earlier by Guy de Brès, and published in Dutch in the Heidelberg Catechism. In the following years, while Spain pursued a policy of stern repression, refugees in Wesel and Emden organized the Dutch Reformed Church along the same lines as the Reformed Church of France. The declaration of independence of the United Provinces of the North introduced the ambiguous Church-State relationship that would remain a permanent feature of the new Dutch nation. Under the stress of the Spanish war the Calvinist religion assumed an increasingly "established" character, while the Estates-General assumed an increasingly ecclesiastical competence. This ambiguity was compounded by the Arminian controversy, which broke out in 1609 after the Spanish truce, and was finally resolvedin favor of rigid "orthodox" Calvinismin 1619 by state intervention at the Synod of Dort. In spite of their numerical majority and political dominance, the Dutch Presbyterians under-went much the same vicissitudes in the subsequent centuries as did their coreligionists elsewhere on the Continent (see confessions of faith, protestant; reformed churches).

English, Scottish, and Irish Presbyterianism.

While the militant ecclesiasticism called the Reformed religion was taking over the vanguard of Continental Protestantism, another wing of the movement was finding its greatest opportunity yetand its greatest ultimate successin the British Isles. England appeared precluded from direct Calvinist inroads by its formidably state-dominated and instinctively conservative Established Church. Scotland, on the other hand, presented a vacuum. Remote, feudal, and beset by a succession of royal minorities, the country was disunited and pressured by the alien, competing interests of England and France. In 1560, under the driving leadership of John knox, the Reformed Church of Scotland was officially inaugurated by the parliamentary approval of the First Scottish Confession and by the convocation of the first General Assembly of the Kirk, in which a Book of Discipline was adopted. The revised Genevan liturgy of the Book of Common Order completed the formulation of the Scottish Reformation in 1564, by which time the efforts of mary stu art, the young widowed queen, to restore Catholicism had manifestly failed. Although Knox's Kirk was disposed to tolerate bishops as possibly useful superintendents, a rigid presbyterian reaction, claiming an exclusive scriptural sanction, was launched by Andrew melville in 1574 and codified in a Second Book of Discipline in 1581. Episcopacy thus became the classic point at issue between the churches of Scotland and England in the politico-religious crisis that became immediate in 1603 when both countries recognized the sovereignty of a common crown.

Despite the original harrying of radical Protestants under Henry VIII, both the momentum and the ambiguity of his schism indirectly favored the introduction of an integral Protestantism. The dominantly Lutheran and Zwinglian influence gradually yielded to the Calvinist in the course of Edward VI's reign, and this trend was confirmed by the sojourn of the Marian exiles principally in Frankfurt and Geneva. If on Mary's death it was clear that a schismatic Anglicanism would be politically reestablished, it was equally clear that this establishment would be strongly bent theologically toward Calvinism. This fact of a common theology, however, only intensified the quarrel over polity that the anonymous Admonition to Parliament brought to a head in 1572. Demanding a full-scale renovation of the liturgical and organizational fabric of the national church, and encouraged by the antiroyalist example of the Huguenots and the Scots, the "Precisians," or "puritans," as they were called, were repressed by Elizabeth I and her bishops as dangerous subversives. On their part the Puritans were not unanimously agreed regarding the right order in Church and State. The majority, led by Thomas cartwright, advocated a formal presbyterian polity on a nationwide scale; only a minority as yet tended toward the Separatism (or Congregationalism) that would disestablish the church and dissolve it into independent local congregations.

The accession of the Stuarts signaled an ecclesiastical crisis in both kingdoms. In 1603 James I refused the millenary petition for certain Puritan reforms; in 1610 he reintroduced bishops into the Kirk. Against this alliance of high church Anglicanism and divine-right monarchy there coalesced an alliance of Puritans and parliament men, and under Charles I the inevitable crisis came. In 1638 the Scottish General Assembly abolished episcopacy and solemnly adopted the National League and Covenant. In 1641 the English Long Parliament began discussing a reformation of "root and branch." In 1643 an Assembly of Divines of the dominant presbyterian party met in Westminster to formulate the new religious settlement for all three British kingdoms. The result of their four years of labor was the remarkable collection of documents that have been the standards of all English-speaking Presbyterians ever since: the westminster confession, the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, the Directory of Public Worship, and the Form of Church Government. Ironically, the Westminster Standards were at the time successfully adopted only in Scotland, where they supplanted the earlier formularies of Knox. In England the brief Presbyterian triumph succumbed to the congregational Puritans, then called Independents, who abolished the monarchy and the state church. This revolutionary force could not survive Oliver cromwell, and the immediate reaction in 1660 meant not only the restoration of king and bishops but also the "Great Ejectment" of the presbyterian clergy. Thereafter, in spite of toleration secured by the Revolution of 1688 and the partial revival of Calvinist principles by the eventual Evangelical Movement, Presbyterianism as such retained but a small minority in England.

Outside England, in Wales and Scotland, where the latitudinarianism of the 18th century was less marked, the residual Calvinism of the early Reformation kept its vigor. In Wales this took the form of a revival, under the leadership of Howell harris (1735), that anticipated and subsequently fused with John wesley's movement. Like Wesley, Harris had at first no intention of leaving the established Anglican Church. Only when his "societies" were proscribed did he ordain his own ministers and, in 1811, organize a regular presbyterian church. The Calvinist Methodist Church of Wales was structured like the Scottish, with which otherwise it has no connection: local societies (sessions) formed monthly meetings (presbyteries) and quarterly associations (synods) and finally a general assembly. In Scotland, meanwhile, the Kirk had been reestablished (1690); but the Patronage Act of 1712 introduced an Erastian irritant that provoked a series of secessions and partial reunions. The divisions, however, were jurisdictional, not doctrinal; and the basic presbyterian polity was never substantially modified in any of them.

Of almost equal significance with Scotland in the history of Presbyterianism was Ireland. From the first years of the 17th century a royal policy of promoting plantations in the conquered island gave rise to an immigration of Scottish presbyterians to Ulster. When the native Irish revolted in 1641, the Ulstermen, or "Scotch-Irish," replied by forming a church of their own, a militant Presbyterianism modeled on the Kirk, and equally opposed to the Catholicism of the national majority and to the Anglicanism of the government. Although the victory of William of Orange over James II at the Boyne was a triumph for Ulster, nevertheless the Scotch-Irish felt neglected and discriminated against by the government at Whitehall. One reaction was the decidedly conservative trend of the two synods that later united in 1840 to form the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland; another was the emigration of many Ulstermen to America. Beginning even before 1688, they were laying the foundations of Presbyterianism in the future United States.

Seeing their church as a mean between the authoritarian and the anarchical, Presbyterians view it also as both an individual, autonomous entity and a constituent part of a larger whole. The first large-scale and lasting ecumenical achievement within Protestantism, the Alliance of the Reformed Churches throughout the World Holding the Presbyterian Order, established in 1875, represents 90 churches and nearly 50 million members. Through and beyond this world alliance, as well as participation in the World Council of Churches, Presbyterian Churches have committed themselves to the eventual realization of a Christian universality.

Bibliography: j. dall, m. w. armstrong et al., eds., The Presbyterian Enterprise (Philadelphia 1956). c. m. drury, Presbyterian Panorama (Philadelphia 1952). united presbyterian church in the u.s.a., Constitution 19611962 (Philadelphia 1963). g. s. hendry, The Westminster Confession for Today (Richmond, Va. 1960). h. t. kerr, A God-Centered Faith (New York 1935). l. a. loetscher, A Brief History of the Presbyterians (Philadelphia 1958); The Broadening Church (Philadelphia 1957). g. macgregor, Corpus Christi (London 1958). j. a. mackay, The Presbyterian Way of Life (Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1960). j. t. mcneill, The History and Character of Calvinism (New York 1954). h. h. meeter, Calvinism: An Interpretation of Its Basic Ideas (Grand Rapids, Mich. 1939). n. sykes, Old Priest and New Presbyter (Cambridge, Eng. 1956); The English Religious Tradition (London 1953). a. h. drysdale, History of the Presbyterians in England (London 1889). j. viÉnot, Histoire de la réforme française, 2 v. (Paris 192634). e. o. james, A History of Christianity in England (New York 1949). a. c. zenos, Presbyterianism in America (New York 1937).

[r. i. bradley/eds.]


views updated Jun 08 2018


PRESBYTERIANISM is a form of church government that locates church authority in pastors and elders who serve in the local congregation and in regional and national assemblies. It is also part of the Reformed branch of the Protestant Reformation as distinguished from Lutheranism and Anglicanism. As such, Presbyterianism is the Anglophone world's equivalent for Reformed and traces its roots back to the church reforms of John Calvin (1509–1564). Presbyterianism moreover is bound up with the peculiar character of the Church of England and the complicated relations between Crown, Parliament, and bishops. Although the Presbyterian creed, the Westminster Standards, originated at the instigation of Parliament during the English Civil War of the 1640s, Presbyterianism succeeded principally in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the Old World breeding grounds for Presbyterianism in North America.

The Westminster Standards constitute arguably the most comprehensive and detailed creedal statement of Calvinism. Yet the institutional development of Presbyterianism in the New World depended on more than doctrine. Especially significant was the political situation out of which the varieties of Presbyterianism emerged. Three distinct expressions of Presbyterianism took root in the United States after the eighteenth century. Two, the Covenanters and the Seceders, reflect particular circumstances of Scottish Presbyterian history. The third and mainstream branch of American Presbyterianism developed independently of Scottish politics.

Mainstream Presbyterianism

The oldest Presbyterian body in North America, the mainstream branch, originated in 1706 with the founding of the Presbytery of Philadelphia under the leadership of Francis Makemie (1658–1708). Born and educated in Northern Ireland, he migrated to the mid-Atlantic colonies, pastoring Scotch-Irish immigrants in Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. At its founding, the first presbytery consisted of four Scotch-Irish pastors and three pastors from New England. The composition of this body was significant for two reasons. The first concerned a tension between Scotch-Irish Presbyterianism and New England Puritanism that eventually resulted in the division between Old Side and New Side Presbyterians from 1741 to 1758. The controversy focused largely on the revivals of George Whitefield, with the Scotch-Irish (Old Side) cautious and the New Englanders (New Side) supportive. The second notable feature of the first Presbytery was its formal autonomy from Scottish Presbyterianism, which thus made it a church that grew as American society developed.

The uniquely American attributes of mainstream Presbyterianism were readily evident at the time of American independence. The only clergyman who signed the Declaration of Independence was John Witherspoon, a Scottish American Presbyterian minister and the president of the College of New Jersey. Likewise, other mainstream Presbyterian clergy ardently supported the American Revolution. Furthermore, just after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the mainstream Presbyterian denomination held its first general assembly in 1789, calling itself the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA).

Covenanters and Seceders

If Old World norms imposed few constraints upon mainstream Presbyterianism, Scottish church history created some barriers for the other two streams of Presbyterianism in the New World. The chief religious ideal of the oldest of these groups, Covenanters, was to preserve the autonomy of the church from interference by the state. This outlook achieved notable expression in the National Covenant of 1638 and the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643. The Covenanters' first congregation in North America took shape in 1742 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. By 1782 the Covenanters had established enough congregations to form a presbytery, and in 1809 they became the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA). Among this church's distinguishing features was the prohibition against members voting or holding office in American politics because Jesus Christ was not acknowledged as Lord by the Constitution.

A further development in Scotland contributed to a third branch of American Presbyterianism. In 1733 the Seceders withdrew from the Scottish Kirk to protest lay patronage, with debates about Enlightenment closely in the background, and formed the Associate Synod. Some of these Presbyterians migrated to the colonies in the first half of the eighteenth century and in 1753 formed an associate presbytery. By 1782 this body joined with Scotch-Irish Presbyterians from New York to form the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARPC), though some New York congregations remained separate. During the nineteenth century some Seceders were absorbed into the mainstream Presbyterian Church, while others joined with Associate Presbyterians to form the United Presbyterian Church of North America (UPCNA). This left the Synod of the Carolinas to carry on the Associate Reformed Presbyterian name alone. By the end of the nineteenth century, mainstream Presbyterianism accounted for 967,900 members (80 percent in the North, 20 percent in the South)and was the most American branch with respect to its worship and attitudes toward government. The Covenanters in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America were the smallest of the three branches with 4,600 members but were also the denomination most clearly stamped with Old World convictions. The Seceders accounted for two denominations, the UPCNA and the ARPC with 94,400 and 8,500 members respectively, and shared with the Covenanters the practice of exclusive psalmody while following the mainstream branch in attitudes toward government.

New Denominations

Because of its character as the most American of the Presbyterian groups, the mainstream church regularly experienced divisions and mergers based to some extent on the degree of the church's acculturation. In 1810 the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (CPC), which had 164,900 members by 1900, emerged as a separate denomination when its leaders favored American notions of autonomy over Presbyterian teaching on predestination. Mainstream Presbyterians also divided in 1837 between the Old School and New School denominations over the issues of revivalism and social reform, with the former adopting a conservative stance. This division doubled in the aftermath of the Civil War, with Old School and New School bodies existing in the North and the South. After the war, both sides reunited in the South (1867) and the North (1869), but the PCUSA (northern) and PCUS (southern) remained separate.

Even so, the reunion of Old School and New School Presbyterians launched ecumenical activities that set the pattern for twentieth-century developments. To unify Christians and to pool resources against infidelity, mainstream Presbyterians led in forming the Pan Presbyterian Alliance (1880) and the Federal Council of Churches (1908). In 1906 the PCUSA also incorporated a majority of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, though a sizable minority remained separate. One exception to the trend of consolidation was the formation in 1874 of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church of America (CPCA), which had 12,900 members in 1900 and was an African American denomination that reflected the autonomy of blacks after emancipation. In 1936 the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC)separated from the PCUSA in the aftermath of the fundamentalist controversy because of perceived compromises involved in ecumenical efforts. In turn, controversies among conservatives generated two other denominations, the Bible Presbyterian Synod (BPS) in 1937 and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) in 1961. A similar dispute about cooperation and the church's relationship to society occurred in the South in 1972, when the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) left the PCUS in opposition to the apparent softening of historic Presbyterianism. These conservative departures made possible the 1983 reunion of the northern and southern Presbyterian mainstream churches into the PCUSA. Not all in the mainstream welcomed the merger, and some concerned about theological pluralism formed the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) in 1981. A different denomination from the conservative one of the same name formed in 1961, which two decades later was called the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod. By the end of the twentieth century, the mainstream branch of Presbyterianism accounted for 3,079,500 members spread over six denominations: PCUSA 2,631,400; PCA 267,000; CPC 87,800; EPC 56,500; OPC 21,000; CPCA 15,100; BPS 10,000.

The Covenanter and Seceder traditions were not immune to trends in the mainstream. The ARPC upheld the Seceder tradition and was strong in the South with 38,900 members. The UPCNA, however, merged in 1958 with the (northern) PCUSA. The Covenanter tradition of exclusive psalmody and insistence upon a constitutional amendment continued to find vigorous expression in the RPCNA, with 5,700 members by the end of the twentieth century; another wing of the Covenanters, the New Lights, who became a separate denomination in 1833, when they revoked prohibitions on participation in civil affairs, merged with the UPCNA in the late nineteenth century, and the rest joined the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in 1965 to form the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod. In 1983 this body joined the Presbyterian Church in America to become the second largest Presbyterian denomination.

Presbyterian Influence

Although Presbyterianism maintains a reputation of respectability and social prominence, its influence on American culture has been limited. Presbyterianism's largest influence on American life has been through the institutions of higher education it founded, especially Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary. Several Presbyterians have been prominent in American politics, among them President Woodrow Wilson and John Foster Dulles, secretary of state under President Dwight Eisenhower. Presbyterianism was also a vital part of the Protestant establishment that flourished between 1880 and 1960. As much as the mainstream Presbyterian tradition has adapted to American realities, however, it has not competed well against evangelical and charismatic Protestants, whose forms of devotion dovetail with American individualism and egalitarianism. Since the decline of the Protestant establishment and the resurgence of evangelical Protestantism after 1960, Presbyterianism's role in American life has waned.


Fiske, William Lyons. The Scottish High Church Tradition in America: An Essay in Scotch-Irish Ethnoreligious History. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1995.

Hutchinson, George P. The History behind the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod. Cherry Hill, N.J.: Mack Publishing, 1974.

Loetscher, Lefferts A. The Broadening Church: A Study of Theological Issues in the Presbyterian Church since 1869. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1954.

Longfield, Bradley J. The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Marsden, George M. The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience: A Case Study of Thought and Theology in Nineteenth-Century America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1970.

Thompson, Ernest Trice. Presbyterians in the South. 3 vols. Richmond, Va.: John Knox Press, 1963–1973.

Thompson, Robert Ellis. A History of the Presbyterian Churches in the United States. New York: Christian Literature Company, 1895.

Trinterud, Leonard J. The Forming of an American Tradition: A Re-Examination of Colonial Presbyterianism. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1949.

D. G.Hart

See alsoProtestantism ; Religion and Religious Affiliation ; Scotch-Irish .


views updated May 18 2018


Presbyterian churches grew from the Western (Roman) Catholic tradition and underwent separation from Rome in the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation. Reformed Christianity, an international movement that sought to follow Scripture in all church life, gradually came to distinguish its Presbyterian from its Congregational sides. The Reformed have described themselves as "ecclesia reformata, sed semper reformanda," "church reformed, always being reformed."

Presbyterians accentuate a Christian theology balanced between deference to tradition and openness to the new work of God's Spirit in every age. Balance characterizes their distinctive eucharistic doctrine, as the Lord's Supper becomes the "real presence" of Christ spiritually for believers. They affirm the classic Nicene and Apostolic symbols. They speak of the sovereignty (power) of God, of redemption through Jesus Christ by God's grace alone, and of the depravity (flawed nature) of human beings.

Most Presbyterians exercise government through representative local sessions, regional presbyteries and synods, and national general assemblies. They believe also in sharing power between ministers of the word (sometimes called "teaching elders") and ruling elders, and they ordain both clerical and lay leaders. Because Presbyterians affirm that "God alone is Lord of the conscience" and that believers are subject to Scripture as the chief authority for faith and morals, Presbyterians have not usually legislated detailed doctrinal codes.

Following the biblical interpretation of John Calvin, creedal statements from the Westminster Assembly of mid-seventeenth century Britain and other Reformed confessions, Presbyterians formed congregations in most American colonies but concentrated in the middle colonies. In 1706 a first presbytery was formed with Scottish, Welsh, Scotch-Irish (Protestants from Northern Ireland), and English Puritan leaders present. Dutch, Huguenot, German, Native-American, African-American, and other ethnic groups were soon part of many colonial churches.

In the new United States of America, Presbyterians formed a General Assembly in 1789, with 419 congregations and fewer than 40,000 members (including baptized children not yet confirmed). Despite its small numbers, the Presbyterians had congregations in almost all the states, and its strength was considered second only to that of the Congregationalists, who were also Reformed.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Presbyterian churches grew, but their numbers increased more slowly than those of other, similar churches. Plagued by divisions concerning the nature of mission, the sin of slavery, the import of regional differences in culture, and the value of revivalism, Presbyterians spent considerable energy in debate and division.

In doctrine, Presbyterians together continued to emphasize the special work of the Holy Spirit in writing and interpreting of the Bible, a "spirituality of the Word." They also affirm especially the one church as the Body of Christ, the calling of all Christians to vocations that honor God, and serious attention to worship and stewardship in all of life. Family devotions, Sunday schools, and Sabbath observance (dedicating Sundays to worship, volunteer service, and nurture) were seen throughout the nineteenth century as indispensable for Presbyterian life. Presbyterians in 1900 owned more than two hundred colleges; more than a dozen theological seminaries; increasing numbers of orphanages, hospitals, camps, and conference grounds; and scores of boarding schools, especially for members of the racial and ethnic minorities within their membership. As a significant part of mainline, or mainstream, Protestantism, Presbyterian denominations have undergone many of the changes that have characterized American culture more broadly.

In the 1870s and 1880s, Presbyterian congregational and denominational life began to take on more formal tones. Denominational programs for funding and for mission became more numerous, and capital funds drives, weekly offerings, and special collections took the place of pew rents and annual tithes. Choirs grew more formal as well, and Sunday schools organized curricula, departments, and a hierarchy of superintendents. Ministers' studies soon became offices replete with typewriters, secretaries for those churches that could afford additional staff, and duplicating machinery as it became available. Associate and assistant pastors, directors of religious education, directors of music, youth directors, and custodians were common by the early decades of the twentieth century.

In 1960, though several Presbyterian denominations existed—including the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, which dates from 1810; the Orthodox Presbyterian Church from 1937; and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church from 1822—only two denominations exceeded 250,000 in membership—the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA), with 9,383 congregations and 3,259,011 members; and the Presbyterian Church, U.S. (PCUS), with 3,995 congregations and 899,116 members. The UPCUSA had recently formed, in 1957, from a merger of the PCUS and the United Presbyterian Church in North America. Its headquarters were in New York City. The PCUS, or "Southern Presbyterians," had grown from denominational splits dating from the Civil War. Its offices in several cities were gathered in 1972 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Both denominations belonged to the National Council of Churches and to the World Council of Churches, and they helped form the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. Both afforded regional staff for mission, new church development, Christian education, and other specialized ministries. Although some congregations dissented, both denominations came in the 1960s to support the civil rights movement. First the UPCUSA ordained women, elders from the 1920s and ministers from 1956, and then the PCUS followed suit, ordaining women as both elders and ministers from 1964. First the UPCUSA in the late 1950s and then the PCUS a decade later began to lose members. A declining birth rate among Presbyterian women, diminished attention to evangelism and new church development as American demography made radical changes, discontent with the progressive stance of the denominations on matters of race and gender—all these and more reasons have been given for the membership losses. In 1974 dissenting congregations from the PCUS formed the Presbyterian Church in America, at first committed to racial segregation and consistently excluding women from ordination. Its membership grew from 67,345 in that year to 300,000 in 1996. Another small denomination, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, grew from dissenting congregations in both denominations. Still other churches, such as the Korean Presbyterian Church in America, have grown from Asian immigrant roots.

In 1983, in part because some dissenters had departed from them, the two major Presbyterian denominations were able to merge and formed the Presbyterian Church (USA). In 1998 it reported 2,631,466 members, and 3,637,375 inclusive of children and associate members.

Issues that plague American society more generally also divide the UPCUSA and other Presbyterian bodies—whether the government should outlaw abortion; the ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexual Christians; the nature of social witness and evangelical proclamation; the relationship of church and state; the place of women and men in marriage and family relationships as well as in the leadership of the church; and a host of others. At present, the UPCUSA and other Presbyterian denominations forbid the ordination of practicing homosexual Christians, alienating many of the churches and many members sympathetic to gay rights.

Many in the UPCUSA, including the holders of the highest offices in the church in 1999, Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick and Moderator Douglas Oldenburg, speak positively of its future. Indeed, refocused emphases on evangelism, new church development, partnership in mission, congregational initiatives, increasing support for theological education, and a friendlier atmosphere in many churches indicate vitality. Still, the obstacles are daunting—the intractability of positions concerning issues, the lack of stability in many congregations, the diminishing network of church-related institutions, and the dearth of substantial theological conversation among the leadership indicate challenges ahead for the Presbyterians.

See alsoAttendance; Civil Rights Movement; Liturgy and Worship; Lesbian and Gay Rights Movement; Mainline Protestantism; Practice.


Coalter, Milton J, John M. Mulder, and Louis B. Weeks, eds. The Presbyterian Presence: The Twentieth-Century Experience, 7 vols. 1990–1992.

Loetscher, Lefferts. The Broadening Church: A Study ofTheological Issues in the Presbyterian Church Since1869. 1954.

McNeill, John T. The History and Character of Calvinism. 1960.

Thompson, Ernest Trice. Presbyterians in the South, 3 vols. 1963–1973.

Thompson, Robert E. A History of the PresbyterianChurches in the United States. 1902.

Trinterud, Leonard. The Forming of an American Tradition. 1970.

Weeks, Louis B. To Be a Presbyterian. 1983.

Louis B. Weeks


views updated Jun 08 2018


Irish Presbyterianism is largely the result of a movement of population from Scotland to Ireland in the seventeenth century. The defeat of the Ulster Gaelic chieftains after a long struggle against English rule and the inexorable process of anglicization in Ireland had left the northern Irish province devastated and depopulated, ripe for colonization. James VI of Scotland had succeeded Elizabeth I on the English throne. This enabled Scots to settle in Ulster, and some Presbyterian ministers followed them, taking parishes in the state Church of Ireland, which was extending its structures into Ulster. James VI had restored episcopacy in Scotland, some of the Church of Ireland bishops in Ulster were Scots, and in a fluid ecclesiastical situation it was not too difficult for Scottish Presbyterian ministers to become parish ministers in the Irish church. Inevitably, this was a temporary situation, and when the Church of Ireland, under government pressure, began to enforce Anglican discipline, the Presbyterian ministers were expelled from their parishes. This followed a remarkable revival of religion among the settlers, anticipating similar revivals in colonial America a century later.

Laying the Foundations of an Irish Presbyterian Church

There might never have been a Presbyterian Church in Ireland had not the Catholic Irish risen in rebellion in 1641. It was the chaplains of the Scots army that arrived in Ulster in 1642 to save the colony who formed the first presbytery on Irish soil and began the formal history of Irish Presbyterianism. During the Cromwellian interregnum Presbyterian congregations multiplied, and five presbyteries, or meetings of what had become the Ulster presbytery, emerged. Also during this period a number of congregations were formed in Dublin and in the south and west of Ireland, some of them originally Independent or Baptist, which later became Presbyterian. Their background was often English, rather than Scottish, Presbyterian. The restoration of monarchy and the established Episcopal Church of Ireland in 1660 brought eviction from their parishes and outlawry for some seventy Presbyterian ministers, but the colonial government in Ireland could not afford to alienate what was the majority Protestant denomination in Ulster, and Presbyterianism was allowed a precarious and restricted existence as Dissent with a small state subvention, the regium donum (royal bounty), for their ministers. They in turn supported William III against James II in the crisis for the British colony in 1689 to 1690 and were rewarded with an increased royal bounty and some small improvement in their position as Dissenters. Their five presbyteries formed a Synod of Ulster and its records are available from 1691.

The Eighteenth Century

In the eighteenth century Presbyterians experienced continuing disabilities as Dissenters, and many of them suffered economic hardship as tenant farmers, with rising rents and tithes to pay to the established Church of Ireland. Large numbers emigrated to colonial America, where they were known as the Scotch-Irish, and some of them played significant parts in the colonists' fight for independence from Britain. Inspired by events in America, some Ulster Presbyterians became leaders in the United Irish movement for reform in Ireland and independence from Britain, culminating in the disastrous rebellion of 1798. Also in the eighteenth century Irish Presbyterians were divided by tensions between conservative Calvinists, known as Old Lights, and theological liberals, or New Lights, often centering on the issue of subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith by ordinands (ministers on ordination), the Synod having followed the Church of Scotland in adopting the Confession as its official statement of faith. The advance of the New Lights was resisted by conservative church members, who welcomed more conservative Scottish Presbyterian dissenters, Seceders, and Covenanters, who formed congregations and presbyteries in Ulster.

The Nineteenth Century

The Old Light versus New Light controversy entered a new phase in the nineteenth century when evangelicalism breathed new life into the Old Light party, and some of the New Light, nonsubscribing ministers declared themselves Arians, querying the divinity of Christ. After a bitter conflict in the Synod in the 1820s the small minority of Arians and nonsubscribers withdrew to form a separate synod, which later united with other nonsubscribing Presbyterians as the Non-Subscribing Irish Presbyterian Church. The Old Light victory in the Synod of Ulster led in 1840 to a union with the Secession Synod in the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. The new united church displayed great creative energy in outreach at home and abroad, forming new congregations, evangelizing in the south and west of Ireland, initiating a foreign mission, and founding two theological colleges and new institutions of social service such as the Kinghan Mission to the Deaf and Dumb. Evangelicalism, which had contributed so much to these developments, reached a climax of influence in the Ulster revival of 1859, recalling the revival of the early seventeenth century. In politics Irish Presbyterians maintained their essential liberalism, supporting education and land reforms and advancing democracy and social justice. Yet they were also unwavering in their commitment to the parliamentary union with Britain that had followed the 1798 rebellion, opposing the nationalist campaign for Irish Home Rule.

The Twentieth Century

That opposition to Home Rule led to the partition of Ireland in 1921, with Presbyterians as the majority Protestant population in Northern Ireland. The estimated 650,000 Irish Presbyterians in 1840 have now been reduced by at least half, and numbers in what is now the Republic of Ireland have fallen from 50,000 to 15,000 since partition, though that decline seems recently to have been reversed. Most Presbyterians in the Republic of Ireland regard themselves as Irish, not British, while most Presbyterians in Northern Ireland see no contradiction between their Irishness and Britishness, of which they are equally proud. Within the existing political context the Presbyterian Church, which remains undivided in Ireland, endeavors to promote peace, justice, and reconciliation between the two communities in both parts of the island. Relations between different churches in Ireland are better today than in previous centuries, although the theologically conservative Irish Presbyterians remain wary of relationships that they believe would compromise their distinctive Reformed witness.

SEE ALSO Abernethy, John; Cooke, Henry; Education: Primary Public Education—National Schools from 1831; Education: University Education; Evangelicalism and Revivals; Overseas Missions; Paisley, Ian; Religion: Since 1690; Second Reformation from 1822 to 1869; Temperance Movements


Beckett, James C. Protestant Dissent in Ireland, 1687–1780. 1948.

Brooke, Peter. Ulster Presbyterianism. 1987.

Dunlop, John. A Precarious Belonging: Presbyterians and the Conflict in Ireland. 1995.

Holmes, R. Finlay. Our Irish Presbyterian Heritage. 1992.

Holmes, R. Finlay. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland: A Popular History. 2000.

Kilroy, Phil. Protestant Dissent and Controversy in Ireland, 1660–1714. 1994.

McBride, I. R. Scripture Politics: Ulster Presbyterians and Irish Radicalism in the Late Eighteenth Century. 1998.

Miller, David. "Presbyterianism and 'Modernization' in Ulster." Past and Present 80 (1978): 66–90.

Westerkamp, Marilyn. The Triumph of the Laity: Scots-Irish Piety and the Great Awakening, 1620–1760. 1988.

Finlay Holmes


views updated May 21 2018

Presbyterianism Major form of Protestant Christianity that became the national Church of Scotland in 1690. It arose in the mid-16th century from the teachings of John Calvin in Switzerland, and was taken to Britain by the Scottish religious reformer John Knox. Ministers, occasionally called pastors, are elected by their congregations and confirmed in their office by the Presbytery, a group of ministers from the local area. Members of the Presbytery are responsible for ordaining and installing (and removing) Church ministers. Once ordained, the minister carries out his work assisted by elders and trustees. Each presbytery sends delegates to a annual synod and to a General Assembly. In 1972, the Presbyterian Church of England (formed 1876) united with the Congregational Church of England and Wales. There are Presbyterian Churches all over the world, particularly in North America, where the Presbyterian Church (USA) was formed in 1983 through the merger of several older groups.


views updated May 18 2018

Presbyterianism (Gk., presbuteros, ‘elder’). Forms of Christian Church order and doctrine which emerged from the Reformation (although in their own estimate they are in direct continuity from the New Testament), relying on the ministry and governance of elders. When the Swiss reformation reached Scotland, the quest for a Church order which would be both scriptural and open to constant reformation (the principle of semper reformanda, ‘always to be reformed’) led to Presbyterianism (the government by presbyters, parity of ministers and the participation of all church members) and beyond Scotland to Congregationalism (the autonomy of congregations). Reformed/Presbyterian Christianity has been characterized by constant division, to such an extent that the myriad Churches cannot be listed here. In the opposite direction, various alliances have been made, culminating in the formation in 1970 of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (Presbyterian and Congregational).


views updated Jun 11 2018

Presbyterianism a form of Protestant Church government in which the Church is administered locally by the minister with a group of elected elders of equal rank, and regionally and nationally by representative courts of ministers and elders. Presbyterianism was first introduced in Geneva in 1541 under John Calvin, on the principle that all believers are equal in Christ and in the belief that it best represented the pattern of the early church.

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