HISTORY OF THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
By Dallas Bogan
Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan.
The following is a short history of the Presbyterian Church. America’s first Presbyterian Church goes back to 1706.
"In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives, even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth praying, ‘Come Lord Jesus.’" —From a Brief Statement of Faith
“Presbuteros” is the Greek word meaning elder, and is used 72 times in the New Testament. It furnished the name for the Presbyterian family of churches, which consists of the Reformed churches of the world. Both Presbyterian and Reformed are one and the same with churches of the Calvinist tradition.
The earliest Christian church consisted of Jews in the first century who had known Jesus and heard his teachings. It steadily grew and increased from the Middle East to other parts of the world, though not without disagreement and adversity among its supporters.
During the 4th century, after more than 300 years of maltreatment under various Roman emperors, the church became established as a political as well as a spiritual power under the Emperor Constantine. Theological and political differences served to widen the gap between members of the eastern (Greek-speaking) and western (Latin-speaking) elements of the church. Ultimately, the western portions of Europe, came under the religious and political authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Eastern Europe and parts of Asia came under the authority of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
In western Europe, the authority of the Roman Catholic Church remained largely partial until the Renaissance in the 15th century. The invention of the printing press in Germany around 1440 made it possible for common people to have access to printed materials including the Bible. This, however, permitted many to discover religious thinkers who had begun to question the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. One such figure, Martin Luther, a German priest and professor, started the assemblage known as the Protestant Reformation when he posted a list of 95 grievances against the Roman Catholic Church on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517.
Some 20 years later, a French/Swiss theologian, John Calvin, further refined the reformers' new way of thinking about the nature of God and God's relationship with humanity in what came to be known as Reformed theology. John Knox, a Scotsman who studied with Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland, took Calvin's teachings back to Scotland. Other Reformed communities developed in England, Holland and France. The Presbyterian church traces its ancestry back primarily to Scotland and England.
Presbyterians have attributed significantly in United States history. The Rev. Francis Mackemie, who arrived in the U.S. from Ireland in 1683, helped to organize the first American Presbytery at Philadelphia in 1706. One of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, the Rev. John Witherspoon, was a Presbyterian minister. The Rev. William Tennent founded a ministerial "log college" in New Jersey that evolved into Princeton University. Other Presbyterian ministers, such as the Rev. Jonathan Edwards and the Rev. Gilbert Tennent, were driving forces in the so-called "Great Awakening," a revivalist movement in the early 18th century.
The Presbyterian church in the United States has split and parts have reunited several times. Currently the largest group is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which has its national offices in Louisville, Ky. It was formed in 1983 as a result of reunion between the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (PCUS), the so-called "southern branch," and the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA), the so-called "northern branch." Other Presbyterian churches in the United States include: the Presbyterian Church in America, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.
In America, the first presbytery was organized in 1706, the first synod in 1717; the first General Assembly was held in 1789. Today’s Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was created by the 1983 reunion of the two main branches of Presbyterians in America, separated since the Civil War: the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. and the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. The latter had been created by the union of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the United Presbyterian Church of North America in 1958.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is distinctly a confessional and a connectional church, distinguished by the representation of elders—laymen and laywomen—in its government. The church has a membership of 2,587,674 in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. Presently there are 11,260 congregations, 20,940 ordained ministers, 1,255 candidates for ministry, and 108,532 elders.
Presbyterians trace their history to the 16th century and the Protestant Reformation. Our heritage, and much of what we believe, began with the French lawyer John Calvin (1509-1564), whose writings crystallized much of the Reformed thinking that came before him.
Calvin did much of his writing from Geneva, Switzerland. From there, the Reformed movement spread to other part of Europe and the British Isles. Many of the early Presbyterians in America came from England, Scotland and Ireland. The first American Presbytery was organized at Philadelphia in 1706. The first General Assembly was held in the same city in 1789. The first Assembly was convened by the Rev. John Witherspoon, the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence.
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