Presbyterian History

THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH (U.S.A.)

On June 10, 1983, the two largest Presbyterian groups in the United States reunited after 122 years of separation and became the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). We are one of the oldest denominations because our roots go back to the very first settlers in America. Most historians confirm that nearly three-fourths of all Americans held theological beliefs common to Presbyterians at the time of the Revolutionary War. Like most branches of the Christian Church in America, Presbyterians have suffered many divisions and celebrated nearly as many reunions over the years. However, no division has been as painful and lengthy as the division caused by the Civil War. Likewise, no celebration has been as exciting and heartwarming as the feeling of joy and renewal which swept through the newly reunited Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). At the "reunion" General Assembly in June, 1983, the Presbyterian Church in the United States (the "southern" church) and the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (the "northern" church) became the third largest Protestant denomination in America.

The office of elder is a distinctive mark of Presbyterianism: these are specially ordained non-clergy called ruling elders and ministers of Word and Sacrament called teaching elders who take part in local pastoral care and decision making at all levels. The office of deacon is geared toward the care of members, their families, and the surrounding community. Active elders and deacons serve a three-year term that is renewable for a second three-year term and then rotate off for at least a year. The offices of pastor, elder, and deacon all commence with ordination; once a person is ordained, he holds that title for the rest of his life. An individual may serve as both an elder and a deacon.

Presbyterianism is a branch of Protestant Christianity that typically adheres to the Calvinist theological tradition and whose congregations are organized according to a Presbyterian polity. Presbyterian theology typically emphasizes the sovereignty of God, the authority of the Scriptures, and the necessity of grace through faith in Christ and rejects transubstantiation. That is, the belief that the elements of bread and wine are changed into the physical flesh and blood of Jesus. Rather, they believe Christ is present in the communion elements in a spiritual sense. Presbyterianism originated primarily in France and Switzerland and spread to Scotland, where it was very successful. Scotland ensured Presbyterian "church government" in the Acts of Union in 1707 which created the kingdom of Great Britain. In fact, most Presbyterians found in England can trace a Scottish connection, and the Presbyterian denomination was also taken to North America mostly by Scots and Scots-Irish immigrants. The Presbyterian denominations in Scotland hold to the theology of Calvin and his immediate successors, although there is a range of theological views within contemporary Presbyterianism.

Early Presbyterianism in both Europe and America was often characterized by its insistence on a kind of "doctrinal purity" in which all congregations and all members adhered to identical beliefs and practices. Today, however, Presbyterianism is a uniquely diverse denomination in which it is difficult to characterize either a "typical" congregation or an average Presbyterian. Our congregations range from large metropolitan congregations of a few thousand members to small country churches of 20 members to suburban middle-class congregations to inner-city store-front churches. Our worship styles and theological emphases vary from congregation to congregation. We are ethnically and socially diverse and well distributed across the United States. Presbyterians share a common understanding that we are all chosen by God to be disciples of Jesus Christ and this unifying force is much stronger than the things which make us different from one another.

How Did Presbyterianism Begin? The historical movement of which Presbyterianism is a part of is more properly called the "Reformed" movement because it is one of the primary branches coming out of the Protestant Reformation. The movement is also called "Calvinism" by some because John Calvin articulated most of the key ideas of Presbyterianism in Geneva, Switzerland in the Sixteenth Century.

John Calvin: When John Calvin came into prominence as an important religious leader, the Protestant Reformation was already well established under the leadership of men like Martin Luther of Germany and Huldrich Zwingli of Switzerland. Calvin was born in Noyon, France in 1509. He entered the University of Paris and later studied law, theology, and classical literature at the Universities of Orleans and Bourges. By his early 20’s, he was already established as a classical scholar and author of one book. In 1533 or 1534, Calvin became a convert to Protestantism. He shared in the writing of an overly Protestant address delivered by the newly elected rector of the University of Paris and had to flee the city in fear of his life. At age 26, in hiding from the French Catholic authorities, Calvin wrote and published a small book entitled "The Institutes of the Christian Religion", a systematic expression of his understanding of Protestant belief. Because of the book, Calvin suddenly became a major leader of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. "The Institutes" were edited, enlarged, and republished several times in Calvin’s lifetime and it was eventually translated into hundreds of languages as a primer of the Reformed movement. Calvin eventually settled in the Protestant city of Geneva where he became the pastor of St. Peters. Although his career at Geneva had many ups and downs, he gradually became the established political leader as well as the spiritual leader of one of Europe’s most important cities. Under Calvin’s leadership and for generations after, Geneva was the acknowledged center of the Reformed movement. It became a haven for Protestant exiles from Catholic countries and the primary training center for Reformed clergy.

John Knox: Even though John Calvin’s Geneva was the center of the Reformed movement, American Presbyterians are actually linked to the movement through another John, the Scotsman, John Knox. History first noticed Knox, a young priest-turned-Protestant, as the bodyguard for George Wishart, a leading Protestant scholar. In 1546, Wishart was arrested, convicted, and burned at the stake for heresy under orders from Cardinal David Beaton. In reaction to this, the growing body of Protestants in eastern Scotland revolted, murdered Cardinal Beaton and barricaded themselves inside St. Andrew’s Castle. Inside the castle, John Knox was chosen to be the spiritual leader of the rebellious Protestants. Soon, the Scottish Catholics aided by French soldiers, battered their way into the castle and the Protestants - including Knox - became slaves on French galley ships. After a year and a half of slavery, Knox was freed by English Protestants and he became one of the court preachers of Edward VI in England. After Edward’s death, Knox joined the flow of Protestant exiles to Geneva where he studied under Calvin, further sharpened his commitment to the Reformed cause, and served as pastor to the English-speaking exiles.

John Knox returned to his beloved Scotland in 1559 when the nation was ripe for revolution. The Scottish Church had become decadent. Poverty and misery were everywhere. War after war had depleted the population. The government was a shaky coalition of feudal leaders under the French Queen Regent, Mary of Guise. After Knox preached his first sermon at Perth, riots broke out and revolution spread rapidly across the nation. Under Knox’s Leadership, the revolution was not only rapidly successful but largely bloodless. By the summer of 1560, all foreign troops were gone. Mary of Guise was dead, power was in the hands of the Scottish parliament, and the Church of Scotland was reshaped along Presbyterian lines. Even though the Reformation was later challenged by Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, and endangered by both internal and external strife, Scotland had become thoroughly Presbyterian under the almost single-­handed leadership of John Knox.