Presbyterianism is a form of Protestant Christianity, primarily in the Reformed
branch of Christendom, as well as a particular form of church government. Its
primary tenets include the Five solas: Scripture alone, faith alone, Christ
alone, grace alone, glory to God alone. It is practised by many (although not
all) of those Protestant churches which historically subscribed to the teachings
of John Calvin (known as Reformed churches). Presbyterianism traces its
institutional roots back to the Scottish Reformation, especially as led by John
Knox. There are many separate Presbyterian Churches in different nations around
the world. Besides national distinctions, Presbyterians also have divided from
one another for doctrinal reasons, especially in the wake of the Enlightenment.
Theologically, Presbyterianism has a strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God
in all things, including human salvation, a high regard for the authority of
Scripture, and an emphasis on the necessity of personal conversion by grace
through faith in Christ Jesus alone.
History of Presbyterianism
These denominations derive their name from the Greek word presbyteros (πρεσβύτερος),
which means "elder." Presbyterian church governance is common to the Protestant
churches that were most closely modelled after the Reformation in Switzerland.
In England, Scotland and Ireland, the Reformed churches that adopted a
Presbyterian instead of Episcopal government became known, naturally enough, as
the Presbyterian Church.
John Knox (1505-1572), a Scot who had spent time studying under Calvin in
Geneva, returned to Scotland and led the Parliament of Scotland to embrace the
Reformation in 1560. The Church of Scotland was eventually reformed along
Presbyterian lines. In Ireland the Presbyterian Church was formed from the
Church of Scotland and later became the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. In
England, Presbyterianism was established in secret in 1572, toward the end of
the reign of Elizabeth I of England. In 1647, by an act of the Long Parliament
under the control of Puritans, the Church of England embraced Presbyterianism.
The re-establishment of the monarchy in 1660 brought the return of Episcopal
church government in England (and in Scotland for a short time); but the
Presbyterian church in England continued in non-conformity, outside of the
established church. However, by the 19th century most English Presbyterian
congregations had become Unitarian in doctrine.
In Ireland, Presbyterianism was introduced by Scottish immigrants and
missionaries to Ulster. The Presbytery of Ulster was formed separately from the
established church, in 1642. Presbyterians, along with Roman Catholics in Ulster
and the rest of Ireland, suffered under the discriminatory Penal Laws until they
were revoked in the early 19th century. All three, very diverse branches of
Presbyterianism, as well as independents, and some Dutch, German, and French
Reformed denominations, combined in America to form what would eventually become
the Presbyterian Church USA (1706).
According to the official web site of the American Presbyterian Church,
controversy over slavery and the politics that led to the civil war caused
schism in the church. "The extreme position on slavery and this religious
veneration of the United States government made union with Southern
Presbyterians literally impossible. Can two walk together except they be agreed?
In 1861 as the nation separated into two nations, the United States of America
and the Confederate States of America, so did the Presbyterian Church. Both The
Old School and the New School communions split into Northern and Southern
churches. The New School had already split over slavery 4 years earlier in 1857.
There were now four Presbyterian denominations where back in 1837 there had been
In England, a number of new Presbyterian Churches were founded by Scottish
immigrants in the 19th century. Those linked to the Church of Scotland
eventually joined the Presbyterian Church of England. Although the United Free
Church of Scotland united with the Church of Scotland in 1929, the English
churches linked with that denomination did not join the English denomination,
which is why there are Churches of Scotland in England such as those at Crown
Court (Covent Garden), and Pont Street (Knightsbridge) in London. In 1972, the
Presbyterian Church of England (PCofE) united with the Congregational Church in
England and Wales to form the United Reformed Church (URC). Among the
congregations the PCofE brought to the URC were Tunley (Lancashire) and Aston
Tirrold (Oxfordshire) - these are the sole survivors today of the English
Presbyterian churches of the 17th century.
In recent years a number of smaller denominations adopting Presbyterian forms of
Church Government have organised in England, including the International
Presbyterian Church planted by Francis Schaeffer of L'Abri Fellowship in the
1970s, and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in England and Wales was started
in the North of England in the late 1980s.
In Wales Presbyterianism is represented by the Presbyterian Church of Wales.
In Canada, the largest Presbyterian denomination -- and indeed the largest
Protestant denomination -- was the Presbyterian Church in Canada, formed in
1875, about seventy percent of congregations, merged in 1925 with the Methodist
Church, Canada, and the Congregational Union of Canada to form the United Church
of Canada; a sizeable minority of Canadian Presbyterians, primarily in southern
Ontario, but covering the nation, withdrew from the institutional Presbyterian
Church in Canada, and reconstituted themselves as a non-concurring continuing
Characteristics of Presbyterians
Presbyterians distinguish themselves from other denominations by both doctrine
and institutional organization, or, as they prefer to call it, "church order".
The origins of the Presbyterian churches were in Calvinism, which is no longer
emphasized in some of the contemporary branches. Many of the branches of
Presbyterianism are remnants of previous splits from larger groups. Some of the
splits have been due to doctrinal controversy between the more liberal and the
more conservative members. Some have been caused by disagreement concerning the
degree to which those ordained to church office should be required to agree with
the Calvinist Westminster Confession of Faith, which historically serves as the
main constitutional document of Presbyterian churches. Those groups that adhere
to the document most strictly are typified by: baptism of the infant children of
believers, a common communion cup, limiting eligibility for ordination to the
offices of pastor of elder to men only, and a fully Calvinist doctrine of
Presbyterian government is based on Elders. Teaching and ruling elders are
ordained and convene as a 'Kirk Session' (commonly referred to as simply
'session') responsible for the discipline, nurture, and mission of the local
congregation. Usually, especially in larger congregations, the practicalities of
buildings, finance, and temporal ministry to the needy in the congregation are
delegated to a distinct group of officers (sometimes called deacons, which are
ordained in some denominations). This group may variously be known as a 'Board',
'Diaconate', or 'Deacons' Court'. Teaching elders (ministers) have
responsibility for teaching, worship, and performing sacraments. Ministers are
called by individual congregations. A congregation issues a call for the
minister's service, but this call must be ratified by the Presbytery.
Above the Kirk Sessions exist Presbyteries, which have area responsibilities.
These are composed of ministers and elders from each of the constituent
congregations. The Presbytery sends representatives to a broader regional
assembly, generally known as the General Assembly, although an intermediate
level of a synod sometimes exists. This congregation / presbytery / synod /
general assembly schema is based on the historical structure of the larger
Presbyterian churches, such as the Church of Scotland or the Presbyterian Church
(USA) (PCUSA); some of the smaller bodies, such as the Presbyterian Church in
America or the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, skip one of the steps between
congregation and General Assembly, and usually the step skipped is the Synod.
The Church of Scotland has now abolished the Synod.
Presbyterians place great importance upon education and continuous study of the
scriptures, theological writings, and understanding and interpretation of church
doctrine embodied in several statements of faith and catechisms formally adopted
by various branches of the church. It is generally considered that the point of
such learning is to enable one to put one's faith into practice; most
Presbyterians generally exhibit their faith in action as well as words, by
generosity, hospitality, and the constant pursuit of social justice and reform,
as well as proclaiming the gospel of Christ.