American Presbyterianism

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A chart of the family tree of American Presbyterianism, between 1706 & 1983.

Presbyterianism has had a presence in the United States since colonial times and has exerted an important influence over broader American religion and culture.

Early organization[edit]

Established in 1706, the Presbytery of Philadelphia was the first presbytery organized in North America. Unlike their Dutch Reformed and German Reformed counterparts in North American colonies, this presbytery had no ties to a European counterpart.[1] Two other presbyteries were soon formed and the three constituted the Synod of Philadelphia in 1717. Despite controversies over confessional subscription and the Old Side-New Side Controversy, which led to a decade-long schism, the American Presbyterians formed the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America following Americans' victory in the Revolutionary War.

At the same time, Covenanters and Seceders, with support from their churches in Scotland to establish congregations in the American colonies, with the Seceders forming the Associate Presbytery in 1753 and the Covenanters forming the Reformed Presbytery in 1774. Eventually, some in the Covenanter and Seceder traditions merged to form the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. In 1858, the Northern Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterians merged with the Associate Presbyterians to form the United Presbyterian Church of North America. Other Covenanters formed the Reformed Synod around the turn of the 19th century. This lasted until the "Old Light-New Light" controversy split the Synod into two groups in 1833 when the Old Lights formed the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America and the New Lights after some years organized the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Synod.

Religious revivals and Civil War[edit]

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.[2] 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.[3] 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.

Fundamentalist–Modernist Controversy[edit]

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[edit]

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 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.


  1. ^ D.G. Hart & John Muether Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism pp. 24-25
  2. ^ Hart & Muether, pp. 100-101
  3. ^ Hart & Meuther, p. 150