Presbyterianism is a form of church government based on the teaching and example of Christ’s apostles in the New Testament. The form of presbyterianism we know today was established during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century (the 1500s) and was eventually adopted by many Christian denominations. In presbyterianism, each church is led by a group of elders, one or more of whom are teaching elders (or pastors).
Presbyterianism, however, is part of a larger set of biblical teachings known as “Reformed theology,” which also came out of the Reformation. The heart of Reformed theology is the love, mercy, and grace that God showed to sinful, rebellious people by sending his Son to die for their sins in order to save them. Because of our sinfulness, we cannot do anything to earn God’s favor. Instead, we must receive his salvation as a free gift, by trusting Jesus Christ and his promise to save us. When we put our faith in Christ, God justifies us—declares us righteous—and grants us eternal life.
Unfortunately, the wonderful truth of salvation in Christ has not always been taught with equal clarity during all periods of church history. But thankfully, time and again the Holy Spirit of God has demonstrated his determination that his word will not return to him empty (Isaiah 55:11), but will succeed in its purpose of changing hearts with the forgiveness and eternal life that comes through Jesus.
In the centuries that led to the end of the Middle Ages (which lasted from roughly A.D. 500 to 1500) many had hoped for and sought the reform of the institutional church in Western Europe. Its bureaucracy had become decadent and its teachings corrupt. Reformers like John Wycliffe of England in the 14th century and Jan Huss of Bohemia in the 15th century worked hard to address the church’s problems, but were attacked
Through a series of events early in the 16th century, the conscience of a Roman Catholic monk and seminary professor in Wittenberg, Germany named Martin Luther was stirred up for the cause of reform in reaction to those in the church who taught that the forgiveness of sins could be purchased with money. In protest he composed a document called “The 95 Theses,” which consisted of 95 points for debate. His intended to debate the matter with other scholars in the hope of influencing the church hierarchy. Instead, his “Theses” were published and distributed all over Europe, causing a major controversy in the church.
In 1521 Luther was summoned to an Imperial Diet—an assembly of the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire—which was being held in the German city of Worms. There, in the presence of the emperor, Luther was interrogated by church authorities who demanded that he abandon his opinions and recant his beliefs.
Before Luther, others who had been put in this situation and refused to recant had been put to death. But this time would be different. In spite of those who sought his life, the prince who ruled the territory where Luther lived was able to protect him.
Luther continued writing and he proceeded to translate the Bible into German. The Reformation picked up momentum, finding its way into cities all over Europe. On a continent where there was no separation of church and state, the Reformation had deep political ramifications.
The followers of Luther were persecuted and killed in areas where they were in the minority. The princes of Germany who converted to Luther’s teachings did their best to protect their people and gain equal recognition for their churches from the emperor, but over the next several years the enemies of the Reformation, including the emperor, worked against them. At an Imperial Diet held in Speyer, Germany, in 1529, the Lutheran princes made a formal protest against this treatment, and from this protest the movement Luther started took its full name: the Protestant Reformation.
Different Streams from the Reformation’s River
As Luther began his campaign of reform there were others in Europe working for the same goal. In Zürich, Switzerland, a Roman Catholic priest named Ulrich Zwingli had been engaged in a deep study of the letters of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament, just as Luther had. When he read what Luther wrote about Paul’s teaching on salvation by God’s grace, he found himself in complete agreement with Luther. As Zwingli preached and wrote, the Reformation began to put down deep roots in both Germany and Switzerland.
As in Germany, social upheaval accompanied the Reformation in Switzerland. Some in Zürich believed that the Reformation was not going far enough. For instance, they believed that only adults who could testify of their faith in Christ should be baptized, leading others to dub them “Anabaptists” (which comes from a Greek word meaning “re-baptizers”). This idea seemed so radical and even threatening to most people in Europe at the time that Anabaptists were tragically persecuted by both Protestants and Catholics.
For several years the leaders of churches of the Reformation labored independently in the cities of Northern Europe, until a Protestant prince urged them to meet for the purpose of producing a common statement of faith. The meeting was held later in the same year as the Diet of Speyer, which had reaffirmed the emperor’s condemnation of Luther and his teachings. It was hoped that all the Protestant churches could join together in a single fellowship, and respond to their persecutor with one voice, but one major stumbling block arose. Luther and Zwingli, along with their colleagues, could not agree on an important issue concerning the Lord’s Supper: to what extent is the physical body of Christ present at communion? This one issue prevented the complete unity of the Reformation churches.
Three years later, Zwingli was killed while serving as a military chaplain in a battle between Zürich and five anti-Protestant Swiss cantons. Meanwhile, Protestant teachings continued to gain audiences among people from all walks of life. Sometime around 1533, a brilliant young law student in his mid-20s at the University of Paris named John Calvin converted to the Protestant faith. By the end of that year he realized he needed to go into hiding and move to a place where Protestantism was tolerated.
He eventually found refuge in the German-speaking city of Basel, Switzerland, which had become Protestant in 1529. One-hundred-fifty miles to the southwest, French-speaking Geneva, Switzerland, was going through a tumultuous ordeal as Protestantism rose in popularity. In 1535, the Reformer Pierre Viret was poisoned, but eventually recovered, though never fully. Two years earlier he had been stabbed by a priest. As the young Calvin kept himself informed of such events he kept himself busy writing and hoping for an opportunity to secure a teaching position at a university in a Protestant city.
Early the next year, four months before his 27th birthday, Calvin published the first edition of what would become perhaps the most influential book of the Protestant Reformation: The Institutes of the Christian Religion. He would revise it four times before he died.
His first edition of 1536 spread his name gradually throughout Europe. As it began circulating Calvin was on the road, visiting other Protestants, briefly returning home to take care of some family business, but always careful to keep a low profile. His destination was the city of Strasbourg, but the way was blocked by troop movements due to an ongoing war between the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of France, so he ended up stuck in the French-speaking city of Geneva, Switzerland, waiting for an opportunity to move on.
Calvin’s presence did not go unnoticed. The fiery evangelist William Farel, who had been instrumental in reforming the church in Geneva found Calvin and persuaded him to remain to help finish the word of reform. Calvin tried to resist Farel’s pressure, but the older man’s thundering exhortation overwhelmed him. Except for a three-year absence (1538-1541) Calvin would spend the rest of his life there, leading that city to the center of influence as Protestantism spread.
Beyond the European Continent
Nowhere would the Protestant Reformation become more entangled with power and politics than in England and Scotland. The same year that Calvin went into hiding (1534), the English parliament passed the First Act of Supremacy at the behest of King Henry VIII, declaring that he was “the only supreme head on earth of the Church in England.” This cleared the way for Henry to secure the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, which Pope Clement VII had refused to grant him.
Up until this time Henry had been an opponent of the Reformation. The only thing that finally moved England toward it was Henry’s interest in gaining a male heir to his throne through a second wife, Anne Boleyn. But, ironically, thanks to him a door to Protestant freedom began opening that eventually no one would be able to close.
Less than 20 years later, however, Henry’s daughter, Mary I, reversed her father’s legislation and began persecuting Protestants. The Marian Persecutions included the burning of 283 Protestants at the stake, earning her the nickname “Bloody Mary.”
Not long after Mary ascended to the throne, a Scottish Protestant who had been enjoying safety in England from persecution in his native land again found himself on the run. John Knox did what many English-speaking Protestants did in the mid-1550s: he escaped to Calvin’s Geneva. So impressed was he that he called the city “the most perfect school of Christ that was ever on earth since the days of the apostles.”
At the same time things were getting worse for Protestants in England, they were getting better for them in Scotland. Knox left Geneva for a brief visit to his homeland, and then three years later, in 1556, he returned permanently. His return precipitated both a political and ecclesiastical revolution and led to the establishment of a Reformed Church of Scotland organized along presbyterian lines. It was from Scotland the presbyterianism eventually came to North America.
The Foundation Laid, the Building Continues
It is important to note that the Protestant Reformers did not set out to establish new churches, but rather to reform the church they had been born and raised in: the Roman Catholic Church. They maintained hope for most of the first half of the 16th century that their dispute with Rome would be resolved and that the all who called themselves Christians could once again be reunited. When the Pope convened the Council of Trent in 1545, however, and it began issuing condemnations of major Protestant beliefs, all hopes for reestablishing unity evaporated.
Some historians date the end of the Protestant Reformation at the death of John Calvin in 1564. Others would date it as late as 1648, when the end of the Thirty Years’ War in Europe marked the beginnings of religious toleration between Protestants and Roman Catholics.
The date chosen depends largely on whether the Reformation is being viewed as a period when its theological foundations were being laid, or as a period when the political and ecclesiastical power structures of the nations involved were being shaken by those who would move them to the new foundations. By Calvin’s death, the foundations had been largely laid, even though a few points remained to be clarified. But the power structures would continue to shake for more than 80 years.
At the end of those 80 years, as the Thirty Years’ War was winding down, the British Isles went through a series of civil wars between 1642 and 1651. During the first English Civil War (1642-1646), Parliament enlisted the aid of the Scottish Covenanters in their conflict with King Charles I. The Scots agreed to help Parliament defeat the king if they would accept the Scottish system of church government—presbyterianism—for the churches in England. Together they signed a treaty known as the “Solemn League and Covenant,” the purpose of which was to preserve the Reformed faith in Scotland and establish it firmly in England.
To comply with the terms of this treaty, Parliament appointed an assembly of English clergymen and accepted a delegation of Scottish commissioners whose task was to meet at Westminster Abbey and create the framework for a Reformed Presbyterian Church of England. The Westminster Assembly of Divines, as it is called, met from 1643 until 1649. Well before its final meeting it had produced the documents now considered to be the confessional standards of the presbyterianism: the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Larger Catechism, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and the Directory of Public Worship. The restoration of the English monarchy in 1660 ended the prospects for presbyterianism in the Church of England, but the documents of the Westminster Assembly became the doctrinal standards for the Church of Scotland.
During the 1600s, Reformed churches not only had to contend with challenges from without, but also from within. In the opening decades of that century, the writings of Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius threatened to undermine the basic Reformed teachings on the sinfulness of humanity and the completeness of God’s grace in salvation. A church synod held in 1618-1619 in the city of Dordrecht in the Netherlands condemned Arminius’s teachings, and contributed another classic document of Reformed theology, the Canons of Dort.
Arminianism, with its rationalistic approach to Scripture, continued to pose a threat to the Reformed faith throughout the 17th century, and gifted theologians like Francis Turretin (1623-1687) faced it head-on. But the intellectual climate in Europe was changing, and the philosophers on that continent soon began exalting human reason over the revelation from God found in the Bible, giving birth to a movement known as the Enlightenment.
The Reformation Comes to America
The first permanent English settlement in the New World at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 was primarily a commercial venture—although, from an accounting perspective, an ultimately unsuccessful one. When the next group of settlers boarded The Mayflower some 13 years later and headed for Virginia, but with a very different sense of purpose. When their ship was blown off course and they ended up in the “howling wilderness” of Massachusetts, they decided to stay, settling at Plymouth Bay in November 1620.
The Pilgrims were a group of Puritans—people who thought the Church of England should be purified of unbiblical teachings and practices, but who had given up hope on seeing this goal met in their lifetimes. They saw the New World as a chance to raise their children under a form of Christianity that was true to their convictions.
Ten years later a much larger group of Puritans arrived at Massachusetts Bay to establish a colony. This turned out to be the beginning of The Great Migration of the 1630s, during which time more than 20,000 people made the same journey. Many of them were inspired by a sermon that the Puritan John Winthrop preached, in which he quoted Christ’s words in Matthew 5:14, challenging the settlers to build “a city upon a hill” that could not be hidden, but would be observed by the whole world as an example as “A Model of Christian Charity.”
Most of the Puritans, both those who stayed behind in England and those who sailed to America, were heirs of the Reformed theology of John Calvin, although they sometimes differed in their views of church government. From its beginnings, American Puritanism was dominated by congregationalists who held that local churches should be independent and governed by their members.
In 1683 Francis Makemie (1658-1708), commissioned by a presbytery in Northern Ireland, journeyed to the colonies for the purpose of planting Presbyterian churches there. In 1684 he established the first Presbyterian congregation at Snow Hill, Maryland, and in 1706 he helped establish the Presbytery of Philadelphia, which began with seven ministers serving in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. By 1800, Presbyterians were the most influential Christian denomination in the middle states of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
In keeping with their growing influence, American Presbyterians founded institutions of higher learning and found themselves at the center of political developments in the colonies. In 1726, William Tennent founded The Log College for the purpose of training ministers. Its doors remained open until Tennent’s death in 1746. That same year a number of Log College alumni were instrumental in the founding of the College of New Jersey at Elizabeth, NJ. The college eventually moved to Princeton, NJ, in 1756, and in 1896 changed its name to Princeton University. Although it was founded as a college of liberal arts and sciences, and not for the purpose of training ministers, it did add a seminary in 1812.
During its 19th century heyday, Princeton Seminary was home to the leading scholars of American Presbyterianism, including Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, A.A. Hodge, and Benjamin B. Warfield. It also featured outstanding theologians from other Reformed denominations, such as Geerhardus Vos.
The Erosion of Biblical Truth & the Response
The opening decades of the 20th century, however, witnessed increasing departures from biblical teachings in American Presbyterianism, resulting in increasing conflicts between theological liberals and conservatives. These conflicts came to a head in 1929 when the General Assembly of Presbyterian denomination in the Northern U.S., which had control of Princeton Seminary, voted to reorganize it in favor of a more liberal theology. As a result, conservative theologian J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) resigned from Princeton and, along with some colleagues, founded Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. When Machen continued to resist his denomination’s liberalizing policies, the denomination revoked his ministerial credentials. And so on June 11, 1936, Machen and others founded the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC).
As time went on, however, it became apparent that this would not settle the problem for many who remained behind in increasingly liberal Presbyterian churches. The vast bulk of presbyterianism had been divided into Northern and Southern camps since the Civil War. Machen’s battles were fought in the North. Conservatives there who decided not to join the OPC often reasoned that the erosion of biblical truth in their midst was not yet fatal to their denomination, and that they could be a force for positive change if they remained in it. Meanwhile, the situation did not seem nearly so bad in the South. So for a while an uneasy status quo was maintained.
All this changed after World War II, when liberalism entered Presbyterian churches in the South and the pace of liberalization accelerated in the North. Many could not fail to see a connection between the rapid abandonment of Christian truth and the social upheavals and moral decline of the 1960s and ’70s.
In 1973, a large group of conservatives left the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS)—the official name of the Southern Presbyterian church—to form the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). In 1981, another major exodus of conservatives from the northern United Presbyterian Church in the USA (UPCUSA) resulted in the formation of the Evangelical Christian Church denomination (EPC). A short while later, the mainline northern and southern branches of presbyterianism reunited to form the Presbyterian Church (USA), or PCUSA.
Periodic upheavals in reaction to increasing departures from biblical truth continue to occur. Shortly after the beginning of the 21st century, unhappy with even more radical departures from historic Christianity, 200 PCUSA churches formed a network called the New Wineskins Association of Churches in order to search for a way forward. Ten years later, many of these churches had joined the EPC denomination. In January 2012, 2,000 people from 900 PCUSA churches belonging to another group called the Fellowship of Presbyterians met in Orlando, Florida for the purpose of forming a new conservative Presbyterian denomination. As God’s Spirit moves in his church, believers are developing a mature realization that a commitment to the Christ of the Bible involves a commitment to the truth of the Bible, and they are acting on that realization.
God’s Work & the Future of His Church
Looking back, church history repeatedly demonstrates that God is in the business of renewing his people for the work of spreading his Gospel and extending his kingdom. Looking forward, God assures us in his word that he does not change (James 1:17), and is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8).