Reformed-Presbyterian Family

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6 Reformed-Presbyterian Family







Intrafaith Organizations




The Lutheran Reformation, centered in Germany, provided a climate in which further efforts to reform the Western Roman Church could proceed. In Switzerland that reforming activity led to the establishment of the Reformed Church based on the work of John Calvin (1509–1564), who established himself in Geneva, Switzerland, in the 1540s. Subsequently, his thought would come to dominate Holland, Scotland, and parts of Germany, and to be received by significant minorities in France and Hungary. The various churches that trace their origins to Calvin are set apart from other Christian churches by their theology (Reformed) and church government (Presbyterian).

Calvin’s theological system was shaped by his belief in God’s sovereignty in creation and salvation. The other major theological tenets of Calvinism—predestination and limited atonement—are built on this belief in God’s sovereignty. Strictly interpreted, predestination means that the number and identity of “the elect’’ (those who are saved) were ordained by the sovereign God before the beginning of the world. Christ’s atonement for sin was thus limited to the elect; salvation is not possible for all humanity, but only for those predestined to be saved. The issue of a strict or lenient interpretation of predestination has divided both European and American Calvinists.

Churches in the Reformed-Presbyterian tradition perpetuated a presbyterial (rule by elders) form of church government. The presbytery is a legislative and/or judicial body composed of clergy (teaching elders) and laity (ruling elders) in equal numbers from the churches of a given region. The laity are elected by the members of the church. The word presbytery is also sometimes used to refer to the ruling body of the local church, but the name Presbyterian derives from the regional governing body.

Thus the name of this family has been designated Reformed for Calvin’s theology (an attempt to reform the Roman Catholic Church) and Presbyterian for the form of church government based on the presbytery. The name for this tradition also reflects history. On the continent, Calvinists established Reformed churches. In the British Isles, predominantly in Scotland, Calvinists established Presbyterian churches. In America, both the Reformed churches and the Presbyterian churches belong to the same Reformed-Presbyterian tradition, along with the Congregational churches. In this chapter, the word Reformed applies to Calvinist theology, worship, and churches using Calvinist theology. The word Reformed is not used to refer to the whole Reformation, a movement much broader than Calvinism, although Calvin played a major role in that movement.

Reformed theology involves many beliefs in addition to the distinguishing tenets mentioned above—beliefs in God’s sovereignty, human depravity, predestination, and a limited atonement. Reformed churches join the Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox, and Lutherans in accepting the theological decisions reached during the conciliar era (fourth to eighth centuries). These are expressed in the creeds of the early centuries of Christianity: beliefs in the parental creator God, Christ and his atoning and salvific work, the Holy Spirit, the resurrection of the body, and the Christian’s life with God after the experience of death.

Beyond these beliefs come those shared by Reformed theology with Lutherans and other Protestant theologies: the belief in salvation by grace through faith, and the reliance on the Bible as the sole authority for faith and doctrine. With the followers of Martin Luther (1483–1546) and Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531), the leader of the Reformation in Zurich and German-speaking Switzerland, Calvinists were Protestants in that they both spoke forth their faith and disagreed with various doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church during the sixteenth century. The Protestant emphasis on salvation by grace through faith stands opposed to the Roman Catholic understanding of salvation that is worked out through a life of faith and good works. Further, when Protestants claim the Bible as their sole authority for faith and doctrine, they negate the Roman Catholic dual reliance on both the Bible and tradition. Reformed churchmen were generally hostile toward practices sanctioned by tradition unless the practices could be substantiated by scripture.

Within Reformed theology, the definition of the church makes no reference to bishops or apostolic succession (the line of succession by ordination from the apostles to modern times), two elements that are crucial to churches in the liturgical traditions. Instead, Reformed theology defines the church as the place where the “pure doctrine of the gospel is preached” and the “pure administration of the sacraments” is maintained. By the “pure doctrine of the gospel” is meant the gospel preached by ordained ministers according to Calvinist emphases (e.g., the authority of the Bible, the sovereignty of God, and predestination). By the “pure administration of the sacraments” is meant the administration only of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as sacraments. This practice contrasts with

Reformed-Presbyterian Family Chronology
1536John Calvin publishes the Institutes of the Christian Religion, the first systematic presentation of Protestant theology.
1541Calvin establishes the Reformed Church in Geneva.
1560John Knox leads in establishing Presbyterianism as state religion in Scotland.
1618A synod convenes at Dortrecht, in the Netherlands, to respond to the Remonstrants, followers of Jacob Arminius, whose theology opposed ideas of predestination and by extension other basic of Reformed Church thought. The synod suggested five basic pillows of Calvinist theology: total predestination, utter depravity, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. The Arminian perspective would later be embodied in the Methodist movement.
1620The Pilgrims (independent separatists) land at Plymouth, Massachusetts.
1628Dutch reformed minister Jonas Michaelius organizes the Collegiate Church of the City of New York, now the oldest continuously existing congregation in the United States.
1630Puritans launch settlement of New England.
1640The first Presbyterian congregation in the British American colonies is formed at South Hampton, Long Island, New York.
1647–48British church leaders meeting at Westminster Abbey produce the defining documents of the Presbyterian tradition, the “Westminster Confession of Faith,” the “Larger Catechism,” and the “Shorter Catechism.”
1648American Congregationalists define stance in the Cambridge Platform.
c.1705Francis Makemie organizes the first Presbyterian synod in the British American colonies.
1747German congregations in Pennsylvania form the Coetus of the Reformed Ministerium of Pennsylvania, later the Reformed Church in the U.S.
1749Presbyterians and Congregationalists begin settlement of British Nova Scotia.
1789The first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. meets in Philadelphia, May 21.
The First Congress chose Rev. William Lynn, a Presbyterian from Philadelphia, as the official chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives.
1792Dutch Reformed congregations organize what becomes the Reformed Church in America.
1801Congregationalists and Presbyterians approve a Plan of Union outlining the development of congregations west of the Alleghany Mountains.
1813Conflict within Presbyterianism over revivalism in the western states led those supportive of the revivals to form the Cumberland Synod (later the Cumberland Presbyterian Church).
1840Saxon Germans in the Mississippi Valley organize the German Evangelical Church Society of the West, later the Evangelical Synod.
1858Scottish American synods unite to form the United Presbyterian Church of North America.
1859Conservative reformed congregations in the Midwest that have withdrawn from the Reformed Church in America form what would become known as the Christian Reformed Church.
1861Southern commissioners withdraw from the main denomination to form the Confederate Presbyterian Church, later named the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.
1874African American members of the Cumberland Presbyterian organize separately as the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America.
1906The Cumberland Presbyterian Church unites with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.
1925Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists in Canada merge to form the United Church of Canada. A minority of Canadian Presbyterians refuse to join the merger and continue as the Presbyterian Church in Canada.
1931National Council of Congregationalist Churches unites with the Christian Church to form the General Council of Congregationalist Christian Churches.
1934The Reformed Church in the U.S. and the Evangelical Synod unite to form the Evangelical and Reformed Church.
1934–36The Fundamentalist-Modernist debate culminates in the defrocking of Princeton professor J. Gresham Machen (1934) and the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (1936).
1956Margaret Towner becomes the first ordained female minister in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.
1957The Evangelical and Reformed Church unites with the Congregational-Christian Churches to form the United Church of Christ.
1958United Presbyterian Church of North America and the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. unite to form the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.
1972Conservatives in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. form the Presbyterian Church in America.
Rev. William Johnson of the United Church of Christ becomes the first openly gay person ordained in a major American denomination.
1977Anne Holmes of the United Church of Christ becomes the first openly lesbian person ordained in a major American denomination.
1983The United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. merge to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
1995The Christian Reformed Church votes to accept women into the ordained ministry. As a result, it is forced to withdraw from the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council.

Roman Catholicism’s celebration of seven sacraments and some churches’ rejection of all sacraments. (The Zwinglians and the Anabaptists serve as two examples of those rejecting all the sacraments. Zwinglians considered the Eucharist a memorial meal, not a sacrament. The Anabaptists had no sacraments but did have ordinances, including foot washing and adult baptism.)

Though not without some differences, Lutherans and Roman Catholics accepted the doctrine of the real physical presence of Christ in the sacraments. The followers of Calvin supplanted this idea with belief in the spiritual presence apprehended by faith. In Calvin’s perspective, changes in the sacrament as a special focus of Christ’s presence in the world move away from the sacramental world of the liturgical churches. The Reformed world is a secular world. God is present and can be apprehended by one of faith.

Worship in a Reformed church is centered on the preaching of the sermon, which ideally combines the exposition of scripture with the ordered presentation of a great truth of the faith. While having been influenced by the emotive appeal of the Methodists in modern times, the Reformed sermon still serves primarily a teaching function. Prayers and hymns rehearse the basic tenets of the Reformed faith—confession, forgiveness, and the acknowledgement of the sovereignty of God. Hymns for many years were limited to the Psalms set to music, and the church produced many editions of Psalters. Most now use hymnbooks, though the Psalms remain important.

As spelled out in the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), the characteristics of Reformed worship are the Word of God properly preached to the people, decent meeting spaces purged of anything offensive to the church, and services conducted in order, modesty, discipline, and in the language of the people. Gone are the aesthetic/theological/sacramental appeals of worship. Gone are “offensive” elements such as statues, vestments, saints’ festivals, indulgences, pilgrimages, and relics. Reformed worship is directed on a cognitive level—preaching, worship understandable to the layperson, logical thoughts and ordered behavior, and a disciplined atmosphere.

The Reformed theological position was codified in confessions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The main Reformed confessions are the First Helvetic Confession (1536), the Belgic Confession (1561), the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1619), and the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647). Also helpful in understanding the Reformed faith is the Heidelberg Catechism (1693) and the two Westminster Catechisms (1647). The above description of Reformed theology aligns with these confessions, all of which agree on a basic doctrinal position and in addition address whatever current crisis or local debate prompted the confessions. Along with other documents written by the Westminster Assembly of Divines in the 1640s, the Westminster Confession is the confession that has had the greatest impact on English-speaking church bodies in the Reformed-Presbyterian tradition. Most Congregationalists and Baptists, which are Reformed in theology while rejecting the Presbyterian organization, have written or accepted confessions of faith derived from the Westminster documents.

Calvin developed the doctrine of two spheres of action, the secular and religious. Although his Reformed Church in Geneva was an established state church, he ended most interference of the state in church affairs, including the celebration of church festivals and the appointment of church officials. Calvin attempted to develop a theocracy, a form of government designed to have God as its head. The church defined the magistrates’ authority as coming from God and the church had power over the magistrates in that magistrates were church members. Thus religion had considerable power over all social activities; for some years, Calvin was the most powerful man in Geneva. The theocracy was patterned on church life described in Calvin’s monumental theological treatise, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536).

The presbyterial system assumes the existence of state authority and was designed for intimate communion between the church and the secular authority. It was based on a parish system in which the country would be divided into geographic areas with one congregation to a parish. All people who had been baptized would be members. The church and state together, each in its proper sphere, would keep order. The most notable example of the interworking of church and state in Geneva concerned a heretic, Michael Servetus (1511–1553). Above the technical objections to his denial of orthodox Christian doctrines, Servetus had brought great offense to Roman Catholics and Protestants alike by his comparing the Trinity to the three-headed hound of hell. Calvin condemned Servetus as a heretic, and subsequently the secular authorities in Geneva tried and executed him.

Within the presbyterial system of the Reformed-Presbyterian tradition, clergy and laypeople together rule the church. The preaching elders (ministers) are the pastors and teachers. The ruling elders (laypeople) are to assist the teaching elders in discipline and in the governance and administration of the church. Deacons collect the offering and see to its distribution. In the local congregation, the ministers and elders together make up the consistory or session, occasionally called the presbytery. In some cases, the deacons also belong to the consistory. All ministers and elders are called and elected by the other elders.

The ministers and elders form a series of judicial and legislative bodies. The local consistories (or sessions) are organized into what is variously termed a presbytery, classis, or coetus. From this body of all the ministers in a given region, plus an equal number of elected elders, comes the name for the presbyterial form of government. The presbyters, those in the presbytery, have the power within the church. Several presbyteries (usually a minimum of three) may come together to form a synod (or classis), and synods may form an even larger body, such as the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Each body has specific functions and usually a protest of a decision at one level can be appealed to a higher level. (In actual practice, among some Presbyterian churches, a congregational form of government prevails and the presbytery functions as an advisory forum to facilitate cooperative endeavor.)

Both Luther and Calvin established state churches, as did Zwingli. Following Zwingli’s death, his church in Zurich, Switzerland, would be absorbed into Calvin’s Reformed Church. The Anabaptists (discussed in chapter 10) opposed all state churches, whether Lutheran, Calvinist, or Roman Catholic, and they were persecuted by the state churches. The Reformation brought its share of bloodshed.

Calvin’s doctrine, more than the doctrine of any other religion, moved with the rising mercantile society and justified secular activity in the world. By contrast, Anabaptism was a world-denying view that sheltered the elect against a hostile, sinful, secular society. The Anabaptist tradition continues in the Mennonites, the Amish, the Quakers, and the Church of the Brethren. Lutheranism retained a more sacred character than Calvinism; Lutheranism spread by refurbishing Catholic forms. Calvinism, however, rose on the emerging middle class of Western Europe.

John Calvin wrote the single most influential Protestant theological text, Institutes of the Christian Religion, and was the first Protestant systematic theologian. He gained a reputation for intellectual brilliance while a student in Paris. After a 1533 sermon in which he pleaded for the reform of the Roman Catholic Church, he was forced to leave Paris. In Geneva, he introduced reforms, but in 1538 he was forced to leave Geneva because of the severity of the reforms he tried to institute. (Later his church would be characterized by stern morality, austerity, and insistence on attending church services.) A noted preacher, Calvin went to Strassburg for several years and from there he maintained communication with those in Geneva. In 1541 the people of Geneva recalled him. From then on, Geneva was the headquarters for Calvin and the Reformed Church.

There the future leaders of Calvin’s reform found a haven from non-Calvinist magistrates of other areas. William Tyndale (c. 1494–1536), Miles Coverdale (1488–1568), and John Knox (c. 1514–1572) exported Calvin’s ideas from Geneva to the British Isles. By 1600, representatives of the Reformed faith were making themselves heard throughout all of central Europe.


As early as 1555, a Protestant congregation was organized in France by a disciple of Calvin. In 1559 the first synod of the French Reformed Church met. The next centuries for the French Reformed Church, or the Huguenots as they were popularly called, were years of persecution. In 1598 Henry IV (r. 1589–1610) issued the Edict of Nantes and began a brief period of toleration. But Louis XIV (r. 1643–1715) revoked the edict in 1685, and periods of persecution followed until the Constitution of 1795 granted religious freedom.

Reformed Church advocates entered the Netherlands very soon after Calvin’s reign in Geneva began. The religious wars that followed led to revolution by the Protestants and the formation of two countries, predominantly Reformed Holland and predominantly Catholic Belgium. This separation was completed in 1579 under the Protestant leader William of Orange (1533–1584). In Holland in 1618 a major controversy that had troubled Calvinism for several decades reached a climax with the Synod of Dort. The synod was called to refute what was considered the theological heresies of Jacob Arminius (1560–1609), former professor of theology at the University of Leyden. In 1610, the year after Arminius’s death, his followers summarized his theories in a five-point remonstrance, which led to his followers becoming known as the Remonstrants.

Arminius’s revision of Calvin’s thought affirmed: (1) a general atonement, that is, that Christ died for every person; (2) that God’s foreknowledge of who would accept Christ’s saving grace came before his predestination and election of them; (3) that God’s grace could be resisted; (4) that humans were fallen and in need of God’s grace, but were capable of responding to it; and (5) that while victory over sin was possible with God’s grace, it was also possible for individuals to fall away from grace. The Synod of Dort responded by affirming that: (1) Christ died only for those elected to salvation; (2) predestination and election to salvation constituted an act of God’s sovereign will (rather than being the natural result of his foreknowledge); (3) God’s grace given to an individual is irresistible; (4) humans were so depraved that they could do nothing for their own salvation; and (5) God’s elect will persevere to the end.

The canons of the Synod of Dort became the official doctrine of the Dutch church and of many Reformed Church bodies. Among those in attendance at Dort were several of the British Separatists then residing in Holland who were later to travel to America as the Pilgrims. In contrast, Armenian ideas found their way to England and became the theological starting point for John Wesley (1703–1791) and the Methodists of the eighteenth century.

No other centers of Reformed faith on the continent grew as did Switzerland, France, and Holland. However, the faith did seep into the surrounding countries, and synods were formed in what is today the Czech Republic and Hungary. Also, in northern Italy the Reformed faith began to dominate the Waldensians, a group that had separated from the Roman Catholic Church in the previous century. Because of its affinity with Lutheranism, the Reformed Church moved north into Germany and, while never challenging Lutherans for control, became a large minority religion. It is from this body that the 1693 Heidelberg Catechism emerged; its teaching was to have a profound influence on the interpretation of Calvin in Reformed history.

The leading center of Reformed faith in the British Isles was Scotland. John Knox, a devout follower of Calvin, returned to Scotland in 1559 after a year and a half on a French galley and 12 years of exile in Europe. He found the country ripe for Protestantism. He quickly became the leader of the cause that in another year saw the Scottish parliament abolish Catholicism and begin to set up Presbyterianism, the name given the Reformed Church in Scotland. Despite recurrent battles with then Episcopal England, Presbyterianism was firmly settled in Scotland and became the seedbed from which the Reformed movement could spread to Ireland and England.

In 1603 James I of England (r. 1603–1625) invited the Scots to settle the rebels’ land in Ulster (Northern Ireland), which had been forfeited to the crown. So many came to Ireland that soon Ulster was dominantly Protestant and, in spite of James’s Catholic preferences, he reasoned that Presbyterians were better than people with no religion at all. Irish Catholics were not so quick to give in to the Protestant intruders, and religious wars ensued. By 1642 things had quieted to a point that the first presbytery in Ireland could be formed, but a stable accord has never been reached between Irish Catholics and Presbyterians.


In England, Reformed-Presbyterian thinking was labeled Puritanism. This name came as a result of the different Reformed thinkers’ uniting around the issue of “further purifying the church,” as the latter stages of the Reformation brought Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603) to the

throne in 1558 with her via media solution to religious strife. (For a discussion of Elizabeth’s blending of both Roman Catholic and Protestant elements, see the section in chapter 3 on the Anglican tradition.) The two major groups within Puritanism were the Independents and the Presbyterians. Most Puritans were Reformed in their thinking, but beyond that they varied from those who merely wished to simplify church vestments and worship, to the Independents who wished to set up a congregationally organized church, one in which the highest authority lay within the local church instead of in a regional or national governing body.

The years 1558 to 1649 were years of struggle, persecutions, war, and on-again, off-again toleration among proponents of the various churches in England. In 1649 Puritan Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658) succeeded in his revolt against the monarchy and established the Puritan Commonwealth. Although Cromwell was an Independent, the Presbyterians were dominant in Parliament, so when Cromwell’s reign began, Presbyterianism was imposed upon the established Church of England. Up to that time the Presbyterians and Independents had sustained a united front against the Episcopalian state church of the monarchy. However, once Puritanism gained the position of state church, the factions within Puritanism—Presbyterians and Independents—no longer needed to be united against Episcopalianism, and their differences with each other intensified. The Congregationalists, a group within the Independents, began to press for a state church based on a congregational system instead of on a presbyterial system. The Congregationalists wanted to remain attached to the Church of England in the sense that the Congregationalists would preach the doctrines of the Church of England but they would choose their own ministers, own their own property, and would not come under the authority of any bishops of the Church of England. The Congregationalists were opposed by another party within the Independents, the Separatists. This latter party wished to become separate from any Episcopal entanglements.

In 1660 Presbyterianism lost its established church status. That year, the monarchy was restored to power, and the Anglican Church and its bishops again received state support. Presbyterians were reduced to simply another small English sect among a range of Christian sectarian groups. The Restoration therefore meant the end of Presbyterian ecclesiastical power, though Reformed theology remained equally dominant in most of England’s Puritan bodies—Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Separatists.

Several years before Cromwell came to power, Parliament paved the way for the establishment of Presbyterianism by abolishing the system of bishops. In 1642 Parliament convoked the Westminster Assembly of Divines to reorder the Church of England. This assembly, meeting for a number of years, produced the three most important works in Reformed history (apart from Calvin’s Institutes, from which they derived): the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Directory of Public Worship. Even though only four Scots were in the Westminster Assembly, the Church of Scotland quickly adopted the Westminster documents. These documents remain to this day the basic works in doctrine and organization for most Presbyterian churches around the world.

With time, the Separatists, a group within the Independents, divided into Brownists and Baptists. Robert Browne (c. 1550–1633) was among the first to move toward the idea of a “sect” church of pure Christians, as opposed to a universal or state church of all baptized citizens. The Baptists were even more radical than the Brownists. The Baptists were antiliturgical and rejected even the Calvinist understanding of the sacraments. For them, baptism was an ordinance and was reserved for adults instead of being available also to children.

The various groups mentioned above existed as parties within the Puritan movement in England from the late 1500s until the 1689 Act of Toleration, which allowed them freedom to develop fully as distinct sects. The Brownists, however, gradually faded from existence as a separate group.


Among the first European Christians in the New World were members of the Reformed Church. As early as 1564, Huguenots (French Protestants), fleeing persecution, settled along the St. John’s River near present-day Jacksonville, Florida. The colony was destroyed the next year by the Spanish who had already claimed the territory. During the last half of the century, others began to flee to the towns of New France along the St. Lawrence River. They continued to arrive until forbidden to migrate by Cardinal Richelieu (1585–1642) in 1628. Huguenots did not prosper, but a few did survive in Canada until the fall of Quebec in 1749. They were soon absorbed into other Protestant churches.

With the establishment of Halifax in 1749, German and Dutch members of the Reformed Church, as well as Congregationalists and Presbyterians (primarily from Scotland), became residents of the new city. At first they shared the same building. As years passed, they spread through Nova Scotia founding churches. Growth of the Reformed faith was greatly augmented by the arrival of the Loyalists, many from New England, after the American Revolution (1775–1783). The first synods were formed in 1795 and 1796 by two factions of the Scottish Presbyterians.

Dissension, already high among the Scots, increased with the arrival of the New Englanders, among whom was Henry Alline (1748–1784), a fervent disciple of Newlightism, the revival-oriented separatist Congregationalism that had been inaugurated by the First Great Awakening (1740s), prior to the American Revolution. Alline drew away many Congregationalists into independent congregations that eventually became the birthing place of the Baptists of the province.

The story of the Reformed-Presbyterian tradition in colonial America is the story of the establishment of American branches of the various European Reformed churches. As early as 1611 the Reverend Alexander Whitaker (1585–c. 1614) arrived in Virginia with his Presbyterian views. The Pilgrims and Puritans arrived in the 1620s to establish American Congregationalism. Dutch Calvinists were in New York as early as 1623. French Huguenots, who settled along the coast in a number of different communities, quickly Americanized and joined the Presbyterian Church. The backbone of American Presbyterianism was the vast migration of the Scottish-Irish Ulsterites. Between 1705 and 1775, more than 500,000 Ulsterites reached America and settled in its middle section, particularly the Carolinas. Germans began to arrive in the late 1600s and settled in Pennsylvania, where the Calvinists among them organized the German Reformed Church.

Francis Makemie (1658–1708), recognized as the father of American Presbyterianism, landed in the colonies in 1683 to begin organizing the scattered Presbyterians. About 1705 (the date is not clear), he organized the first presbytery (of Philadelphia). Makemie died early in the new century just as the great Scottish-Irish immigration was beginning. In 1717 the Synod of Philadelphia was organized with 19 ministers, 40 churches, and 3,000 members.

The Reformed traditions have displayed several interesting patterns of growth in America. The churches of the Reformed tradition (with the possible exception of Presbyterianism) are regional churches. Largely continental in their background, they are concentrated in those areas in the Northeast and Midwest where large-scale German migration occurred. The Congregationalists were located largely in the Northeast, but gained strength in the Midwest through mergers in 1931 and 1958.

Significant in the spread of the Reformed churches were the antievangelical, antirevivalistic policies of church leaders in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Reformed churches gained new members largely through groups of laymen who migrated West, formed congregations, and called a pastor.

Education has been a major contribution of the Reformed tradition to Protestantism. The churches always insisted on a college-trained clergy, and they created numerous colleges for that purpose. They have based their program on a theologically sound teaching ministry. A large number of the outstanding theologians in American history were out of this tradition—Cotton Mather (1663–1728), Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), John Williamson Nevin (1803–1886), Horace Bushnell (1802–1886), Benjamin B. Warfield (1851–1921), Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971), and H. Richard Niebuhr (1894–1962).

The Plan of Union of 1801 was an agreement between Presbyterians and Congregationalists concerning their frontier congregations. (The “frontier” of the early 1800s was the area west of the Allegheny Mountains.) The Plan of Union stipulated that in those areas where small groups of Presbyterians and Congregationalists resided, the two groups would unite and be served by a minister from either church. Because more Presbyterian ministers went to the frontier than Congregationalist ministers, most of those united churches became Presbyterian.

Splintered into a number of separate denominational bodies in the nineteenth century, Presbyterians made significant strides in bringing members together into one organization during the twentieth century. The most important step in the merging process was accomplished in 1983 when the two largest Presbyterian bodies, split since before the Civil War (1861–1865), merged to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The story of this church and its antecedents constitutes the bulk of Presbyterian history in the United States.


Congregationalism, a form of Puritanism that lies between Presbyterianism and Separatism, is somewhat unique in that it developed in America within the Massachusetts Bay Colony and was then taken back to England. In contrast to the Presbyterians, who looked for the development of a state church modeled on the theocracy that Calvin established in Geneva and headed by a synod of elders (presbyters), the Congregationalists looked for a state church that was congregationally oriented. While agreeing with the Separatists on the issue of the local church, Congregationalists disagreed with them in that they wished to keep their supportive ties to the state. In colonial America, Separatism was first represented by the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts. All three groups were Reformed in their theology and acknowledged the Westminster documents, but differed fundamentally on their desires for church organization and its relation to the state. Eventually, Congregationalism would absorb the Separatists of Plymouth (those not lost to Unitarianism), but a new separatist movement would emerge in the 1700s and survive as Baptists.

Congregational organization had four distinctive features. First, the church was built on the covenant of people together. A church was not formed until the people constituted it. Second, the church was tied to a place. It was the covenanted people in a specific location. Ideally, the whole countryside would be divided into parishes, geographic areas each with one congregation. The importance of place is reflected in the fact that the Mayflower Compact (a civil version of the church covenant) was not drawn up until the Pilgrims reached the New World. Third, the church was to be an established church. In New England, it had intimate ties with the government, and ministers drew their salaries from the civil authority. Finally, the church was to be the sacred institute for the society. The clergy spoke directly to issues of public morals, expected to be consulted on matters of importance to public life, and often represented the colony as political figures.

The early Congregationalists have often been confused with those Independents who desired a church totally cut off from state affiliation, control, and finance. While it is true that Congregationalism later became independent of state authority, it is well to keep in mind the movement’s original aim to be a state church.

Meeting at Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1648, representatives of the four Puritan colonies issued what came to be called the Cambridge Platform. It became the basic document of Congregational policy in New England. As stated in the Platform, “The Government of the Church is a mixed Government … in respect of Christ the Head and King of the Church, and the sovereign power residing in Him, it is a Monarchy; in respect of the Body of Brotherhood of the Church, and Power from Christ granted unto them, it resembles a Democracy; in respect of the Presbytery, and Power committed unto them, it is an Aristocracy.” The basic unit was the visible congregation united into one body by a covenant. The care of the church was left to elders (pastors, teachers, and ruling elders) and deacons, all elected by the congregation.

Churches, though equal, were to maintain communion with one another by means of synods. Synods, though not of the essence of the church, were deemed necessary to the times, to establish truth and peace. Composed of elders and other messengers, synods were to “debate and determine controversies of Faith and Cases of Conscience; to clear from the Word holy directions for the Holy Worship of God, and good Government of the Church; to hear witness against mal-administration and corruption of manners in any particular church; and to give Directions for the Reformation thereof.” Churches were enjoined not to remove themselves from the communion of the other churches. In its developed form, Congregationalism was very close to Presbyterianism rather than to the independent congregational policy that later became typical of the Baptists. Developed Congregationalism was also far removed from the free church structure of the Plymouth Brethren.

A key element in Congregationalism was the power granted by the church to the secular magistrate. The magistery was encouraged to restrain and punish idolatry, blasphemy, heresy, schism, and like actions. When the power of the magistery was removed from Congregationalism by the American Revolution, the churches adopted an independent congregationalism, but always with a tendency to presbyterial forms.

Some have asserted that Congregationalism was a noncreedal church. However, when asked to prepare a creed, the same body that drew up the Cambridge Platform adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith, which placed Congregationalism doctrinally within British Calvinism (Puritanism).

The first branch of the Reformed tradition in America was Congregationalism, the church of the Massachusetts Puritans. They landed in 1620 and 1630 and established their theocracy. Their church operated as a state church until disestablished after the American Revolution. It adopted the Westminster Confession shortly after promulgation by the English believers. It was the church of the New England patriots, Harvard and Yale universities, and of famous ministers, including Thomas Hooker (1586–1647), Cotton Mather, Charles Chauncy (1592–1672), Jonathan Edwards, and Timothy Dwight (1752–1816). It also became the seedbed upon which Unitarianism, Universalism, and Christian Science were to grow. Only in the twentieth century, as it became a major force in Reformed family ecumenism, did it produce schismatic churches.


As a new century began, the larger churches of the Reformed-Presbyterian tradition remain powerful forces in the American religious scene, and home to many of the tensions that have defined concerns in the decades since World War II (1939–1945). During the 1920s and 1930s, intense battles over the emergence of modernist expressions of Reformed thought divided the churches, and theologies variously labeled liberal or modernist came to dominate the larger bodies that would eventually merge to create the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Along the way, important dissenting movements arose to champion more traditional approaches to the Calvinist tradition—the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church being among the more prominent. They were joined by several Korean American churches founded by very conservative Christian who migrated to America after the Korean War (1950–1953).

As might be expected, the national gatherings of the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have become occasions for the ongoing debates concerning such issues as abortion, women in the ministry, and the acceptance of homosexuals within the church. The United Church of Christ has emerged as possibly the most liberal of all the Protestant churches. Its antecedent bodies were among the first to ordain females, and it remains one of the few major Protestant bodies to ordain noncelibate gay men and lesbians. While the Presbyterian Church has yet to condone such acts, it has regularly faced intensive debates and close votes. Meanwhile, the more conservative churches remain opposed to even considering the changes being discussed in the more liberal churches. (A similar liberal-conservative polarity has emerged between the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church).


Historical work on the Reformed Church tradition is given focus through the Commission on History of the Reformed Church in America, c/o New Brunswick Theological Seminary, New Brunswick, NJ 08901. The Christian Reformed Church archives are at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI 49056.

Presbyterian history is coordinated by the Presbyterian Historical Association and Department of History of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 425 Leonard St., Philadelphia, PA 28757. A second center, which served the former southern Presbyterian Church in the U.S., is to be found at the Historical Foundation, Montreat, NC 28757.

Congregational history is parceled out among the surviving structures of the churches that merged to form the United Church of Christ. Both the Evangelical and Reformed Historical Society and the archives of the United Church of Christ are at the Lancaster Theological Seminary, Lancaster, PA 17603. The archives of the former Evangelical and Reformed Church are at Eden Theological Seminary, St. Louis, MO 63119. The Congregational Christian Historical Society and the Congregational Library are at 14 Beacon St., Boston, MA 02108.

The central archives of the United Church of Canada are at Victoria University in Toronto.


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