Presbyterian Churches in the United States
PRESBYTERIAN CHURCHES IN THE UNITED STATES
Adherents of the Reformed (Calvinist) Church tradition implanted in Scotland under the name Presbyterian (Gr. presbyteros, the elder, an officer of the Jewish synagogue at Jerusalem before a.d. 70, then of the Christian congregations) and thereafter in other English-speaking countries and mission territories. The title denotes church government by elected representatives, in contrast with congregational government, and episcopacy, or government by bishops. Historically, Reformed Churches were Continental, and Presbyterian were British and North American.
Origin and Historical Development. Presbyterianism came to North America first as an interpretation of church order held by certain Puritan colonists in Massachusetts, against Increase and Cotton mather of Boston, who taught that church authority belonged solely to congregations. Solomon Stoddard (1643–1729) of Northampton, Mass., organized congregations in associations possessing authority to examine and ordain candidates for the ministry and determine disputes within or between congregations. Governing power in regional bodies, called presbyteries, is a distinctive mark of Presbyterianism; this usually includes the right to ordain, install, discipline, and remove ministers and governing (lay) elders of congregations; to establish discipline, refute error, remedy schism, and receive and determine appeals from congregations; to maintain a corporation for holding property; and to attend to the general spiritual welfare of the congregations in the membership of the presbytery. Although presbyteries are not sacerdotal in character, they may be compared with bishops, and they may be described as a form of corporate episcopacy.
American Calvinist churches were governed by elected elders in a number of colonies before 1700, but not until 1706 was a presbytery formed that survived, the
Presbytery of Philadelphia, Pa. For a century Presbyterians lived on the seaboard and the Appalachian hinterland; after 1800 they moved west. Presbyterian church history in the U.S. is marked by major steps of reorganization, schism, and reunion.
Early Schism. The Presbytery of Philadelphia was composed of some clergy schooled in the Puritan piety of Old and New England and others formed in the controversies of the Church of Scotland. Scotland had just emerged from an epoch of bitter strife with the Church of England and had enforced strict Calvinist orthodoxy on its clergy as a defense against latitudinarianism. In 1729 the clergy of Philadelphia enacted an Adopting Act, declaring the westminster confession of faith—composed by the Westminster Assembly of Puritan divines in England (1646), adopted by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (1647) and by the English Parliament (1648)—to be the confession of the new American church. Its ministers were required to subscribe to it. Dispute concerning the strictness or permissiveness of this measure was continuous until 1741, when rigorists of Scottish background expelled a core of Presbyterian clergy led by Gilbert Tennent of Freehold, N.J. Tennent's father was training ministers at a woodland academy at Neshaminy, Pa.; he was formed in the Puritan tradition of personal religion and had been a leader of the revival.
revivalism is popularly associated with John and Charles wesley; in fact, the earliest outbreak of the great awakening occurred in New Jersey in Dutch Reformed and Presbyterian congregations about 1730. Gilbert Tennent and his associates protested against religious formalism, unspirituality, and materialism, and preached with a view to arousing consciences, renewing conviction, and strengthening Christian obedience. Their doctrine was orthodox, but they attacked their opponents as unconverted and unspiritual; they preached in parishes, training and ordaining ministers in the presbytery they controlled. The revival was immensely successful in winning volunteers for the ministry.
The schism of 1741, a consequence chiefly of revivalism, ended in 1758 with reunion of the Old Side (subscriptionist) and New Side (revivalist) Presbyterian churches. Tennent apologized for his excesses; yet the revival proved to be the vital force of the times. Led by Jonathan Dickinson of Elizabethtown, N.J., a friend of the revival, the New Side body had established the College of New Jersey (Princeton University) in 1746. Under a succession of able leaders, such as John witherspoon, the college trained Presbyterian clergymen until the separate establishment in 1811 of Princeton Theological Seminary.
After the establishment of the new republic, the southern and westward movement of Presbyterianism called for new steps of organization. Although it originally consisted of a single presbytery, by 1758 Presbyterianism had nine, extending from the New York area to Virginia and west into the valleys of the Alleghenies. In 1788 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. was founded, uniting 16 presbyteries and four intermediate bodies or synods in a single national church extending from New York to Kentucky and the Carolinas. Ministers had increased from seven in 1706 to 177.
To assist the new settlements on the frontier, the Presbyterians formed a board (1816) authorized to organize, finance, and direct the mission to the west, reporting annually to the General Assembly. On a similar basis other agencies were established—theological seminaries, boards for education (1818), foreign mission (1831–37), academies and colleges, and a highly organized and effective system for promoting the interests of the Church.
Later Divisions. The second major division of American Presbyterianism (1810) was a consequence of the stresses of westward expansion and resulted in the founding of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. A second wave of revival, first in Virginia (1790), then in Kentucky, had multiplied congregations greatly by 1810. Ministers were few in Kentucky, and the revival overtaxed the power of the College of New Jersey to supply the new congregations. Methodists and Baptists solved their problem by ordaining preachers with spiritual gifts, but little education, and assigning them to circuits, i.e, groups of congregations to be visited periodically. Presbyterians preferred a well-educated, settled ministry. Suspicious of the doctrinal reliability of untrained men, seaboard Presbyterians would not permit freer ordination; they were unable to supply clergy, and the Cumberland Presbytery revolted in 1810. The new church flourished, attaining a large membership by 1906, when the majority merged with the Presbyterian Church. Two continuing Cumberland Presbyterian churches remained, one white, the other predominantly African-American.
The third major division of Presbyterianism (1837) involved a complex range of issues: doctrinal controversy between rationalistic Calvinism (the Old School), fostered by such leaders as Charles hodge of Princeton Seminary, and adherents of the New England Theology of Nathaniel taylor and Samuel Hopkins (the New School); a trend toward denominationalism, specific for Presbyterians in the breakup of a plan of cooperation (the Plan of Union of 1801) with the congregationalists that had united mission effort on the frontier while, according to its critics, introducing doctrinal error; an internal struggle for ecclesiastical power between the two parties; and the early stages of the sectional schism between North and South. The Old School party won the southern clergy by agreeing to exclude slavery from ecclesiastical discussion; the New School was generally abolitionist, more pragmatic than theological in orientation, and opposed to rigid discipline. After 20 years of friction (1818–37), the Old School captured control of the major action agencies established in the first quarter of the century, made its peace with southern Presbyterians, and expelled its critics.
Efforts at Reunion. The national sectional dispute did no further harm to this divided and realigned Presbyterianism until the Civil War broke out. Socially quiescent until President Abraham Lincoln called upon the nation to oppose the secession, the Old School then declared for national unity, and the Presbyterian Church of the Confederacy took shape immediately (1862). The small Southern branch of the New School that had existed since 1837 joined this body in 1864. After the Southern defeat, the Southern denomination became The Presbyterian Church in the U.S. By 1870 it had assembled certain independent Presbyterian groupings in Kentucky and Missouri.
American weariness with strife aided the movement of reunion in the North, however, and the schism of 1837 ended (1869–70) with the reunion of the northern Old and New School under the original name (1788), Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Insistence on doctrinal conformity was tacitly yielded by conservatives, but the organizational structure developed by the Old School before and during the schism became permanent. The trend toward denominational separatism yielded to concern for ecumenism and the Presbyterians entered into a variety of interdenominational groups: the World Presbyterian Alliance, formed in 1872; the Federal Council of Churches of Christ, formed in 1908 and absorbed into the national council of the churches of christ in the U.S.A. in 1950; and the world council of churches (1948). Efforts for reunification of Presbyterianism were continued, with measurable success: Calvinist Methodist (Welsh) and some German groups were absorbed; in 1958, following failure of a plan for a three-way union that would have included the southern Presbyterians, the United Presbyterian Church of North America (1858–1958) merged with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (1788–1958) to form the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.
The United Presbyterian Church of North America was formed in 1858 from two Scottish traditions of dissent from the Church of Scotland: the Covenanters of 1638 and the Seceders (official title: Associate Synod) of 1733. These Presbyterians originally imported Scottish disputes as the basis of their distinctness from one another, but these gradually lost their influence; in 1858 the United Presbyterian Church of North America was formed.
In 1982, the Southern and Northern churches were finally reunited, when the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) joined with the United Presbyterian Church of North America (UPCNA) to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This healed the formal separation that began during the Civil War and lasted for 122 years. In 1988, the national headquarters of the united church was moved to Louisville, Ky., from the Southern Church's Atlanta headquarters and the Northern Church's New York offices.
Bibliography: j. calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. j. t. mcneill, tr. f. l. battles, 2 v. (Philadelphia 1960). p. miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (Cambridge, Mass. 1953). Minutes of the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., pub. annually Office of the General Assembly, Philadelphia. l. j. trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition (Philadelphia 1949). l. a. loetscher, The Broadening Church (Philadelphia 1957). e. a. smith, The Presbyterian Ministry in American Culture: A Study in Changing Concepts, 1700–1900 (Philadelphia 1962). l. vander velde, The Presbyterian Churches and the Federal Union, 1861–1869 (Cambridge, Mass. 1932). w. w. sweet, ed., The Presbyterians, 1783–1840 (Religion on the American Frontier 2; New York 1936). n. r. burr, A Critical Bibliography of Religion in America, 1 v. in 2 (Religion in American Life 4; Princeton 1961). r. t. handy, "A Survey of Recent Literature: American Church History," Church History 27 (1958) 161–165. Periodicals. The Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society (Philadelphia 1901–). Church History (Philadelphia 1932–). f. s. mead, s. s. hill and c. d. atwood, eds., Handbook of Denominations in the United States, 11th ed (Nashville 2001).
[e. a. smith/eds.]