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Early organization efforts (1650–1729)
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. Before 1706, however, Presbyterian congregations were not yet organized into presbyteries or synods.
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. Initially, member congregations were located in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland.
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. The Synod's membership consisted of all ministers and one lay elder from every congregation. The Presbytery of Londonderry in New Hampshire, called "the Irish Presbytery" because it was populated by Ulster immigrants, was organized in 1729.
Adopting Act of 1729
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 Irish 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.
In 1729, the Synod reached a compromise with passage of the Adopting Act. Originally proposed by John Thomson, 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.
Old Side–New Side Controversy (1730–1758)
During the 1730s and 1740s, the Presbyterian Church was divided over the impact of the First Great Awakening. Drawing from the Scotch-Irish revivalist tradition, ministers such as William and Gilbert Tennent emphasized the necessity of a conscious conversion experience and the need for higher moral standards among the clergy. Gilbert Tennent was personally influenced by the ministry of Jacob Frelinghuysen, a Dutch Reformed pastor in Raritan, New Jersey. Frelinghuysen himself had been influenced by contact with Pietism.
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". While the Old Side and New Side disagreed over the possibility of immediate assurance of salvation, the controversy was not primarily theological. Both sides believed in justification by faith, predestination, and that regeneration occurred in stages.
In 1738, 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. At the time, there were no Presbyterian colleges in America, and candidates for the clergy were forced to attend either Harvard and Yale (both Congregational institutions) or schools in Britain. Candidates unable to do so received training from pastors or at informal academies. One such academy was founded by William Tennent and became known as the Log College. The new ordination requirement was taken as an insult to these informally trained ministers, many of whom were revivalists. The second action restricted the right of clergymen to preach outside of their presbytery. Revivalists objected to this restriction noting that itinerant preaching helped to spread the gospel and alleviate clergy shortages.
Tensions between the two sides continued to escalate. When the Synod met in May 1741, relations between the two factions had reached the breaking point. By the time the meeting had concluded, a definite split had occurred. The Old Side retained control of the Synod of Philadelphia, and it immediately required unconditional subscription to the Westminster Confession with no option to state scruples.
The New Side was initially organized as the Conjunct Presbyteries of New Brunswick and Londonderry. In 1745, the Presbytery of New York, led by moderate revivalist Jonathan Dickinson, left the Philadelphia Synod and joined the Conjunct Presbyteries to form the New Side Synod of New York. The new Synod required subscription to the Westminster Confession in accordance with the Adopting Act, but no college degrees were required for ordination.
While the controversy raged, American Presbyterians were also concerned with expanding their influence. In 1740, a New York Board of the Society in Scotland for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge was established. Four years later, David Brainerd was assigned as a missionary to the Native Americans. New Side Presbyterians were responsible for founding Princeton University (originally the College of New Jersey) primarily to train ministers in 1746. In 1755, the New Side Synod created the Presbytery of Hanover (named for Hanover County, Virginia), which encompassed Virginia and the Carolinas. In addition, the Old Side Synod had one minister located in the South.
By 1758, both sides were ready for reconciliation. Over the years, New Side revivalism had become less radical. At the same time, Old Side Presbyterians were experiencing numerical decline and were eager to share in the New Side's vitality and growth. The two synods merged to become the Synod of New York and Philadelphia. The united Synod required unqualified subscription to the Westminster Confession, but clergy candidates would also be examined for their "experimental acquaintance with religion" (i.e. their personal conversion experiences).
Following America's victory in the Revolutionary War, the Synod of New York and Philadelphia proposed the creation of a national Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. The first General Assembly met in 1789.
Covenanters and Seceders
Divisions originating in Scotland and Ireland were also duplicated in America, giving rise to Presbyterian denominations not affiliated with either Old Side or New Side synods. Within the Synod of Philadelphia, three ministers had Covenanter sympathies, believing that submission to the National Covenant (1638) and the Solemn League and Covenant (1643) were perpetual obligations. After the Old Side–New Side split, one of these men, Alexander Craighead of Middle Octorara, Pennsylvania, asked Scotland's Reformed Presbytery to send ministers to America (Craighead had already joined the Synod of New York by the time his request was answered). In 1751, the Reformed Presbytery sent John Cuthbertson to serve the Covenanters of Pennsylvania and lay the foundation of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America.
Meanwhile, a group of Presbyterians in Pennsylvania were dissatisfied with the Adopting Act, which allowed qualified subscription to the Westminster Confession. They requested ministers from the Anti-Burgher Associate Presbytery in Scotland, who were called "Seceders" because they had broken away from the Church of Scotland during the First Secession of 1733. In 1753, the Associate Presbytery sent Alexander Gellatley and Andrew Arnot to establish congregations and organize a presbytery. The New Side Presbytery of Newcastle denounced the newcomers as schismatics and declared the Associate Presbytery's Marrow doctrine to be unorthodox. A dispute over exclusive psalmody and whether to use Isaac Watts' or Francis Rous' psalter led one congregation to leave the Synod of New York and join the Associate Presbytery.
In 1782, the majority of Associate Presbyterians joined the majority of Reformed Presbyterians to form the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, thus uniting most Covenanters and Seceders in America. In 1858, the remaining Associate Presbyterians would merge with part of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church to form the United Presbyterian Church of North America.
Religious revivals and Civil War
Some Presbyterians supported the revivals of the Second and Third Great Awakenings in the nineteenth century, including Lyman Beecher and Charles G. Finney. In 1810, a group of pro-revivalist Presbyterians in Kentucky broke away from the main-line Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. to form the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. In 1837, revivalism was one of the issues that led to the Old School-New School Controversy in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. In 1857, as the United States edged closer to civil war, the New School Presbyterians split over slavery, with the southern New School Presbyterians forming the United Synod of the South. In December 1861, following the outbreak of the Civil War and the Gardiner Spring resolutions, the Old School Southern Presbyterians, which included men such as James Henley Thornwell and R.L. Dabney, formed the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America. Following the end of the war, the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America renamed itself the Presbyterian Church in the United States.
In 1864, the Old School and New School Southern Presbyterians reunited, with the New School Presbyterians effectively swallowed up by the much larger Old School majority. A reunion of the Old School and New School Presbyterians, despite the protests of Old School Presbyterians, such as Charles Hodge, occurred among the mainline Northern Presbyterians in 1869. Unlike in the south, the Old School and New School reunion led the entire denomination to alter its course. By the 1870s, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. began downplaying doctrinal disagreements in the name of ecumenism with other denominations. This resulted in a test of confessional orthodoxy within the denomination, resulting in a heresy trial in 1893 for Charles A. Briggs, a professor of Hebrew at Union Theological Seminary in New York, who questioned the literal inspiration of Scripture. In 1903, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. modified the Westminster Standards to downplay strict Calvinism. One of the results was the reunion of many of the Cumberland Presbyterians with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1906.
In 1909, the presbytery of New York attempted to ordain a group of men who could not affirm the Virgin Birth, leading to the affirmation of five fundamentals as requirements for ordination: the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, the deity of Christ, the virgin birth of Christ, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and the resurrection. In time, these doctrines were explicated in a series of essays known as The Fundamentals. In 1922, Harry Emerson Fosdick, a Baptist serving as pastor of a Presbyterian church in New York City, delivered a sermon entitled "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?", igniting the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy. At Princeton Theological Seminary, a New Testament professor J. Gresham Machen, who stood in the tradition of earlier Princetonians such as Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield, responded with Christianity and Liberalism, which argued that liberalism and Christianity were two different religions. Machen founded Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929 and, following a controversy regarding the establishment of an Independent Mission Board that resulted in his suspension from the ministry in the PC-USA, Machen led an exodus of conservatives in 1936 to form what became known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. A group within that body, led by men such as Carl McIntire and J. Oliver Buswell, broke away to form the Bible Presbyterian Church in 1937.
1950s to the present
The mainline Northern Presbyterians continued to move away from their traditional Presbyterian past, ordaining women in 1956 and merging with the smaller and more conservative century-old United Presbyterian Church in North America in 1958 to form the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America in Pittsburgh that summer. The UPCUSA, under the leadership of Eugene Carson Blake, the denomination's stated clerk, joined the Presbyterian Church in the United States, the Episcopalians, the United Methodists and the United Church of Christ in meetings of the "Consultation on Church Union" and adopted the Confession of 1967, which had a more neo-orthodox understanding of Scripture and called for a commitment to social action. That same year, the UPCUSA published the Book of Confessions and modified the ordination vows for their ministers. In the 1970s, the trial of Walter Kenyon, a minister who refused to participate in women's ordinations, lead to a ruling that UPCUSA churches must ordain female officers.
In 1942, the Presbyterian Church in the United States began to experiment with confessional revision, prompting PCUS conservatives, such as L. Nelson Bell, father-in-law of Billy Graham, to begin renewal efforts. The PCUS, like its counterparts in the north, began to embrace neo-orthodoxy and liberalism and opened the position of minister to women. In 1966, conservatives founded Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi to educate students along Old School Presbyterian lines. Following merger discussions with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., in 1956 a proposal was passed by the PCUS general assembly, but rejected by the presbyteries. Nevertheless, the two denominations collaborated on a hymnal and in 1970 a Plan of Union was drawn up. Owing to the lack of an escape clause in the Plan of Union for churches that were opposed to the union and to the increasingly liberal views of the denomination, a group of delegates from roughly 200 churches met in Birmingham, Alabama, in December 1973 to form the National Presbyterian Church, later known as the Presbyterian Church in America. In 1981, theological controversy in the UPCUSA, most notably the General Assembly's affirmation of the National Capitol Union Presbytery's reception of a United Church of Christ minister who allegedly denied the deity, sinless nature and bodily resurrection of Christ, led to the formation of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a denomination that puts greater emphasis on their "Essentials of the Faith," a brief statement of evangelical theology, rather than the Westminster Standards. With conservatives gone from both the UPCUSA and the PCUS, the denominations moved closer to merger and united in 1983 to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
For the Bible Presbyterians, a disagreement over leadership and the direction of the denomination led to a split in 1957, when the Bible Presbyterian Church-Collingswood Synod, under the control of Carl McIntire, left the Bible Presbyterian Church-Columbus Synod, which in 1961 took the name Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Four years later, the EPC merged with the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Synod to form the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod. The RPCES, in turn, would join the Presbyterian Church in America in 1982.
In 1975, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America, and the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod joined the Christian Reformed Church in North America in forming the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC), an organization which comprises thirteen confessional Continental Reformed and Presbyterian denominations and federations.
In 1983, the theonomic Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States was formed as an offshoot from the Presbyterian Church in America. Further splits in the RPCUS lead to the creation of the Reformed Presbyterian Church – Hanover Presbytery and the Reformed Presbyterian Church General Assembly. Later, a group from the RPCGA formed the Covenant Presbyterian Church.
In recent years, the debate over homosexuality has caused rifts in the PC(U.S.A.). Following the removal of the bar on homosexual clergy in the PC(U.S.A.) on the denominational level in 2010, many churches left the denomination, joining either the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and or the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, which became its own denomination in 2012.
Other Presbyterian groups formed recently include the Free Presbyterian Church of North America, which initially operated under the auspices of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster until it became a distinct denomination in 2005, the Westminster Presbyterian Church in the United States, and the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches, which admits Continental Reformed and Reformed Baptists as well.
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