Presbyterian Church in the United States of America

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This article is about the historic denomination. For the modern denomination, see Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Presbyterian Church in the United States of America
Presbyterian Church in the United States of America no background.png
Classification Protestant
Orientation Calvinist
Associations Federal Council of Churches; United Andean Indian Mission
Founder John Witherspoon
Origin 1789
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Branched from Church of Scotland
Separations Cumberland Presbyterian Church (separated 1810, reunited in part 1906);
New School Presbyterians (separated 1838; reunited 1869);
Presbyterian Church in the United States ("Southern Presbyterians" - separated 1861);
Orthodox Presbyterian Church (separated 1936)
Merged into United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (1958)
Congregations 8,351 in 1957
Members 2,775,464 in 1957
Ministers 10,261 in 1957[1]

The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PC-USA) was a Presbyterian denomination in the United States that existed from 1789 to 1958. It was organized under the leadership of John Witherspoon in the wake of the American Revolution and merged with the United Presbyterian Church of North America to form the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPC-USA). Although national and ecumenical in membership in its later years, it acquired the nickname of the "Northern Presbyterians" as a result of a division over slavery, politics and theology precipitated by the American Civil War.


Colonial era[edit]

By the second half of the 17th century, Presbyterians were immigrating to British North America. Scottish and Scotch-Irish immigrants contributed to a strong Presbyterian presence in the Middle Colonies, particularly Philadelphia.[2] Before 1706, however, Presbyterian congregations were disorganized and autonomous.[3]

In 1706, seven ministers led by Francis Makemie established the first presbytery in North America, the Presbytery of Philadelphia. The presbytery was primarily created to promote fellowship and discipline among its members and only gradually developed into a governing body. These early years were marked by growth as Scotch-Irish immigration increased and Puritan congregations in New England joined the presbytery. As a result, two other presbyteries were organized (Long Island and New Castle) resulting in the formation of the Synod of Philadelphia (known as the "General Synod") in 1717.[4]

At the time, the Synod still had no official confessional statement. In the 1720s, disputes between ministers and their congregations in New York as well as the prosecution of disciplinary cases against clergy for fornication and sexual harassment convinced some clergy of the need for an official statement of the Presbyterian Church's theology and polity. The Church of Scotland and the General Synod of Ulster already required clergy to subscribe to the Westminster Confession, and New England Puritans had endorsed the Confession's theology (but not its presbyterian polity) in the Cambridge Platform. Nevertheless, many New Englanders were concerned that requiring subscription to any confession could force ministers into violating their consciences. Ethnic and cultural tensions fed the controversy because New Englanders also felt that the Scottish and Scotch-Irish clergy were attempting a takeover of the Synod. The New England faction was led by Jonathan Dickinson, who would later become the first president of Princeton University.[5]

In 1729, the Synod reached a compromise with passage of the Adopting Act. The Act required clergy to assent to the Westminster Confession and Larger and Shorter Catechisms; however, subscription was only required for those parts of the Confession deemed an "essential and necessary article of faith". Ministers could declare any scruples to their presbytery or the Synod, which would then decide if the minister's views were acceptable. The Synod also recommended that churches use the Westminster Directory for worship. While crafted as a compromise, the Adopting Act failed to end debate over the meaning of subscription.[6]

During the 1730s and 1740s, the Presbyterian Church was divided over the impact of the First Great Awakening. Drawing from a Scotch-Irish revivalist tradition, ministers such as William and Gilbert Tennent emphasized the necessity of a genuine conversion experience and stressed the need for higher moral standards among the clergy. In 1726, William Tennent established an academy to train ministers that became known as the Log College. Other Presbyterians were concerned that revivalism presented a threat to church order. In particular, the practice of itinerant preaching across presbytery boundaries and the tendency of revivalists to doubt the conversion experiences of other ministers caused controversy between supporters of revivalism, known as the "New Side", and their conservative opponents, known as the "Old Side".[7]

The Old Side–New Side Controversy intensified in 1738. That year, the Synod took two actions that infuriated the revivalists. The first required candidates for ordination who did not have college degrees to be examined by a committee of the Synod before being allowed to join a presbytery. This was seen as an insult to ministers who had been educated through the Log College and similar informal academies. The second restricted the right of clergymen to preach outside of their presbytery.[8] By May of 1741, the two factions had definitively split, and this division would last until 1758.

In the early 1770s American Presbyterians were initially reluctant to support American Independence, but in time many Presbyterians came to support the Revolutionary War.[9] In 1785, a proposal for the creation of a General Assembly went before Synod, yet the convening of one was delayed due to the necessity of having to write a constitution, a constitution which officers could not initially agree upon.[10]

19th century[edit]

Year Membership
1789 18,000 (estimation)
1800 20,000 (estimation)
1810 28,901
1820 72,096
1830 173,327
1837 220,557
1839 126,583 Old School;
106,000 New School
1849 200,830 OS;
139,047 NS
1859 279,630 OS;
137,990 NS
1869 258,963 OS;
172,560 NS
1870 446,560
1880 578,671
1887 697,835
1925 1,828,916
1929 1,959,006
1931 1,859,495
1933 1,914,886
1935 1,909,487
1937 1,906,100
1940 1,971,364
1942 1,986,257
1944 2,040,399
1946 2,174,530
1947 2,234,798
1950 2,364,112
1952 2,441,933
1953 2,492,504
1954 2,526,129
1955 2,645,745
1956 2,717,320
1957 2,775,464

The first General Assembly of the PC-USA met in Philadelphia in 1789. It adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith, together with the Larger Catechism and the Shorter Catechism, as the church's subordinate standard (i.e. subordinate to the Bible). The General Assembly modified the confession to bring its teaching on civil government in line with American practices and by removing references to the pope as an anti-christ. The new church was organized into four synods: New York and New Jersey, Philadelphia, Virginia, and the Carolinas. These synods included 17 presbyteries and 419 congregations.

The late 18th and early 19th centuries saw Americans leaving the Eastern Seaboard to settle further inland. One of the results was that the PC-USA signed a Plan of Union with the Congregationalists in 1801, which formalized cooperation between the two bodies, and attempted provide adequate visitation and preaching for frontier congregations, along with eliminating rivalry between the two denominations.[12] Another result was that, not unlike the circuit riders in the Episcopal and Methodist traditions, the presbyteries often sent out licencates to minister in multiple congregations that were spread out over a wide area.[13]

During the Second Great Awakening, the PC-USA was much less involved in the newly emergent revivalism than the other newly-emergent Methodist and Baptist or even immigrant Lutheran and Reformed or Congregationalist denominations in America. The Cumberland Presbyterian Church (CPC), which originated from revivals in Kentucky and Tennessee, separated from the PC-USA in 1810. Nonetheless, growth progressed apace from east to west, covering most of the U.S.A.

In the 1830s, debates over issues such as confessional subscription, revivalism, and New England theology, resulted in what became known as the Old School-New School Controversy. Eventually, in 1838, the two factions split into two separate bodies, with the Old School Presbyterians, who included Charles Hodge, and Ashbel Green being for stricter standards of confessional subscription, and opposed to New England theology and revivalism, and the New School Presbyterians, who included Lyman Beecher, Albert Barnes and Charles Finney positions largely opposite of the Old School Presbyterians. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania decided that the Old School body was the true representative of the PC-USA and their decisions would govern.[14]

In May 1861, just weeks after the opening hostilities of the Civil War, the PC-USA's General Assembly controversially passed the Gardiner Spring Resolutions, which, among other things, called for Presbyterians to support the Constitution and the Federal Government. Despite language in the resolutions which attempted to clarify that the "Federal Government" mentioned in the resolution was not limited to any particular administration, it was an obvious source of tension, and by the end of the year, like the New School Presbyterians who had split over slavery in 1858, the Old School Southern Presbyterians had formed the Presbyterian Church of the Confederate States of America, later renamed the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) in 1865. The PC-USA thus became known (sometimes pejoratively) as the "Northern church," although it maintained a presence in the southern U.S.A. through its work among African-Americans and through some congregations in Appalachia region of the Appalachian Mountains that, in accordance with the region's political support for the Union, refused to leave for the PCUS.

1869 saw the reunion of the Old and New School bodies, infusing an emphasis on ecumenicism and social reform into the PC-USA, along with a softening of Calvinistic convictions, which led to a 1903 revision of the Westminster Confession that reflected the theological shift . The softening of the Calvinistic theology of the confession eventually led to many congregations in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church merging with the PC-USA in 1906. The CPC acquisitions brought this group of Southern and border-state (e.g., Kentucky, Missouri) churches back into the historic fold, and the "Northern church" once again had member congregations in the south.

Fundamentalist–Modernist Controversy[edit]

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John Calvin
 Calvinism portal

Between 1922 and 1936, the PC-USA became embroiled in the so-called Fundamentalist–Modernist Controversy. Tensions had been building in the years following the Old School-New School reunion of 1869. Incidences, such as the trial of Charles A. Briggs for heresy in 1893 and the attempt of the Presbytery of New York to ordain a group of men who could not affirm the virgin birth in 1909, had led the 1910 General Assembly to publish five essential tenets of the Christian faith (later expounded upon in The Fundamentals). In 1922, prominent New York minister Harry Emerson Fosdick, pastor of New York's First Presbyterian Church, preached a sermon entitled, "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?," challenging what he perceived to be a rising tide of fundamentalism. In response, conservative Presbyterian minister Clarence E. Macartney preached a sermon called "Shall Unbelief Win?"

Battle lines were eventually drawn with Princeton Theological Seminary New Testament professor J. Gresham Machen publishing Christianity & Liberalism in 1923, arguing that liberalism and Christianity were two different religions, and a group of liberal ministers signing the Auburn Affirmation the following year. In 1929, Princeton Seminary was reorganized to give more influence to the modernists, and Machen and several of his colleagues founded Westminster Theological Seminary.

In 1933, Machen, concerned about the PC-USA supporting modernist missionaries including celebrated author Pearl S. Buck, founded the Independent Board for Presbyterian Missions. After having his ordination suspended in 1936, Machen led an exodus of conservatives to form what would be later known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

The controversy also hit the national consciousness and headlines with the famed 1923 "Scopes Monkey Trial" in Dayton, Tennessee. The trial of John Scopes, a young school teacher, for teaching evolution in his classroom contrary to a recently passed state law demonstrated the widening gap between religious modernists and fundamentalists in American life. William Jennings Bryan, arguing for the prosecution, was a Presbyterian.

In 1946, meanwhile, the PC-USA cooperated with three other denominations to form the United Andean Indian Mission, an agency that sent missionaries to Ecuador.

1958 Merger[edit]

In 1958, the PC-USA merged with the almost exactly century old United Presbyterian Church of North America (UPCNA), a denomination of Scottish Covenanter and Seceder heritage. Between 1937 and 1955, the PC-USA had been discussing merger negotiations with the UPCNA, PCUS and even the Episcopalians before settling on the UPCNA merger. Despite conservative reservations over the PC-USA's decision to ordain women to the office of minister in 1956 (the PC-USA had been ordaining women to the office of deacon since 1922 and elder since 1930) and dropping support for the merger from within the UPCNA,[15] the merger of the two denominations to form the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America was celebrated in Pittsburgh that summer. It was this body that would grow increasingly ecumenical and cultivate more progressive theological and political views, finally merging with the PCUS in 1983 to form the current Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).


  1. ^ a b Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Denominational Profile. The Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA). Accessed May 26, 2014.
  2. ^ "Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Accessed May 29, 2014.
  3. ^ Longfield 2013, pp. 1-2.
  4. ^ Longfield 2013, pp. 2-3.
  5. ^ Longfield 2013, pp. 3-5.
  6. ^ Longfield 2013, pp. 5-6.
  7. ^ Longfield 2013, pp. 7-8.
  8. ^ Longfield 2013, pp. 9-10.
  9. ^ Hart and Meuther 2007, pp. 77.
  10. ^ Hart and Meuther 2007, pp. 83-84.
  11. ^ Nevin 1888, pp. vii.
  12. ^ Hart and Meuther 2007, pp. 103.
  13. ^ Hart and Meuther 2007, pp. 97.
  14. ^ Commonwealth v. Green, 4 Wharton 531, 1839 Pa. LEXIS 238 (1839).
  15. ^ Hart and Meuther 2007, pp. 214.


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