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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).

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 Presbyterian body.

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 salvation.

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.

Varieties of Presbyterianism in the United States

USVA headstone emb-04

Presbyterian Cross

Even before Presbyterianism spread abroad from Scotland there were divisions in the larger Presbyterian family, some of which later rejoined only to separate again. In rueful self-reproach some Presbyterians refer to the divided Presbyterian churches as the "Split P's".

In North America, because of past doctrinal differences, Presbyterian churches often overlap, with congregations of many different Presbyterian groups in any one city. The largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States is the Presbyterian Church (USA). Other Presbyterian bodies in the United States include the Presbyterian Church in America, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Bible Presbyterian Church, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP Synod), the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States (RPCUS). This image shows the evolution of Presbyterianism in the United States.

Presbyterian Family Connections

Courtesy of the Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, PA.


Presbyterianism is historically a confessional tradition, which means that the doctrines taught in the church are compared to a doctrinal standard. However, there has arisen a spectrum of approaches to "confessionalism." The manner of subscription, or the degree to which the official standards establish the actual doctrine of the church, turns out to be a practical matter. That is, the decisions rendered in ordination and in the courts of the church largely determine what the church means, representing the whole, by its adherence to the doctrinal standard.

Some Presbyterian traditions adopt only the Westminster Confession of Faith, as the doctrinal standard to which ministers are required to subscribe, in contrast to the Larger and Shorter catechisms, which are approved for use in instruction. Many Presbyterian denominations, especially in North America, have adopted all of the Westminster Standards as their standard of doctrine "subordinate to the Bible." These documents are Calvinistic in their doctrinal orientation, although some versions of the Confession and the catechisms are more overtly Calvinist than some other, later American revisions.

The Presbyterian Church USA has adopted the Book of Confessions, which reflects the inclusion of other Reformed confessions in addition to the Westminster documents. These other documents include ancient creedal statements, (the Nicene Creed, the Apostles' Creed), 16th century Reformed confessions (the Scots Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Second Helvetic Confession, all of which were written before Calvinism had developed as a particular strand of Reformed doctrine), and 20th century documents (The Theological Declaration of Barmen and the Confession of 1967).

Presbyterians who rejected Calvinism and the Westminster Confessions formed the Non-subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland.


  • Stewart J Brown. The National Churches of England, Ireland, and Scotland, 1801-46 (2001)
  • Andrew Lang. John Knox and the Reformation (1905)
  • William Klempa, ed. The Burning Bush and a Few Acres of Snow: The Presbyterian Contribution to Canadian Life and Culture (1994)
  • Marsden, George M. The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience (1970)
  • Mark A Noll. Princeton And The Republic, 1768-1822 (2004)
  • Frank Joseph Smith, The History of the Presbyterian Church in America, Reformation Education Foundation, Manassas, VA 1985
  • William Warren Sweet, Religion on the American Frontier, 1783—1840, vol. 2, The Presbyterians (1936), primary sources
  • Ernest Trice Thompson. Presbyterians in the South vol 1: to 1860; Vol 2: 1861-1890; Vol 3: 1890-1972. (1963-1973)
  • Leonard J. Trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition: A Re-examination of Colonial Presbyterianism (1949)
  • Encyclopedia of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (1884)

See also


Colleges and seminaries

see also Category:Presbyterian universities and colleges


This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Presbyterianism. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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