Presbyterian History


The New Testament does not set up denominations. It establishes a body of faith, with some detail on practical matters (such as church government and the sacraments).


The greatest early intellect and champion of Biblical theology was Aurelius Augustine (354-430) bishop of Hippo in North Africa. Augustine battled and bested the heretic Pelagius – a British monk who denied the depravity of man and the great doctrines of grace. Pelagius taught that the human will is free to do good or evil, and that divine grace only facilitates what the will can do of itself.

Pelagius choked on the notion that a divine gift (grace) is essential to produce what God commands. He reasoned that if man has the moral responsibility to obey the law of God, then he must also have the moral capacity to perform it.

Augustine did not dispute that man has a will and is capable of making choices or that he has the moral responsibility to obey God. But he did argue that fallen humanity’s “will” has lost its moral liberty. Original sin, (inherited from Adam) puts us in the miserable situation of being unable to keep from sinning. We still choose what we want, but our “want” is straight jacketed by our evil nature. Augustine contended that mankind’s “free will” always leads to sin. It is an empty “freedom” because it is morally shackled. Authentic moral freedom comes from an outside work of God, totally dependent upon His grace.

The early church branded Pelagianism as heresy. “Several church councils condemned the Pelagians, and the Council of Orange (529) condemned the Semi-Pelagians as well. In spite of those actions, the later Roman Catholic Church did not follow Augustine in all points on grace, the will of man, and predestination. From the thirteenth century, Roman Catholics followed Thomas Aquinas, who modified the Augustinian position.”

To a large degree, Augustinianism is the theological system of Presbyterianism.


It might surprise you to know that the next name that surfaces in the study of Presbyterianism is a Lutheran, not a Presbyterian–the famed Martin Luther. Responding to a book written by Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) called Diatribe on Free-Will; Luther countered with The Bondage of the Will. Erasmus’ work was a defense of Pelagius and free will; Luther’s work was a defense of Augustine and predestination. “Luther affirmed that man cannot will to turn to God or play any part in the process leading to his own salvation.”

After the death of Luther and under the influence of Philip Melanchthon, Lutheranism soon rejected the Augustinian theology of Luther and moved away from its “Reformed” origins, eventually into full-blown Arminianism.

At this point, another somewhat younger man took up the cause. John Calvin (1509-1564) is considered by many to be the greatest systematic theologian since Augustine. Following in the footsteps of Augustine and Luther, Calvin systematized the theology of the Scriptures and of the Reformation. Many within the Reformation church took their direction from him, referring to themselves as “Calvinists.” But because of the general agreement of the Reformation church on theology, this term has often been considered too narrow, and most prefer the term “Reformed.”


The next giant that strides across our path is the noted Scotsman, John Knox (1514-1572). During the turmoil of the early years of the Reformation in Scotland, Knox was forced to flee his homeland. Making his way to Geneva, he came under the tutelage of John Calvin, where he learned the nuances of Reformed theology. In time, Knox returned to Scotland taking with him a firm commitment to the Reformed faith.

The political scene in Scotland was considerably different than on the continent. The continental churches of the Reformation, like the Roman Church, developed into state churches. Approved and financed by the state, the church was a type of Department of Religion, continuing the 1200 year European tradition. But in Scotland, the political climate fostered a clash between the Reformation church and the state.

The Roman Church and after it, the Episcopal (Anglican) Church held the reigns of government in Scotland. The Scottish people refused to embrace either the Roman or Episcopal (Anglican) church, preferring the church of the Reformation. But “Reformed” pertained more to theology than to polity (church government). This development created a crucial distinction of Presbyterianism — a church government that did not require the approval or support of the state. The Presbyterians of Scotland often worked closely with the state, but only when the state did not attempt to manage the affairs of the church. Presbyterians stoutly defended their right to exist apart from the state, and at times resisted government that proved to be antagonistic.


The personal whims of King Henry VIII (1509-1547) and his obsession for a male heir fanned the flames of Reformation in England. Furious with Rome for denying his divorce from Catherine, he declared himself head of England’s Church, persuaded Parliament to abolish payments to Rome, insisted on the right to appoint bishops without interference from the Vatican and shut down the monasteries. Yet he refused the doctrines of grace preached by Luther and Calvin, and pronounced as heretics all who dissented from Roman Catholic doctrine. Still, Henry’s defiance broke the vice-like grip Rome once held on Britain.

Under Henry’s son Edward, (1547-1553) Protestantism gained ground in England, with Reformed-minded people forming a significant element within the Church of England. Holding prominent positions in schools and churches, they were able to achieve some real doctrinal reform. These Calvinist/Presbyterians formed the core of the first “Puritans” who wanted less pageantry and ritual and more spiritual discipline in the church. Just when it seemed Calvinism would conquer England, the sixteen-year-old king died of tuberculosis.

Upon Edward’s death, his half-sister Mary (1553-1558) ascended the throne. A Roman Catholic zealot, she hoped to restore Rome’s dominance over England. Deposing hundreds of Protestant ministers, she jailed leading Puritans, condemning 286 courageous clergymen to be burned at the stake. Hundreds of oppressed believers fled to the continent.

Elizabeth (1558-1603) came to the throne when her sister Mary died. She greatly preferred the pomp and pageantry of Anglican ritual, but desperately needed the sympathies and support of the Puritan/Calvinists to hold her throne against the Catholic nations of Europe. She encouraged Calvinists to return to England from their asylum in Geneva, but stubbornly resisted their disciplined theology, engaging in substantial conflict with them once they gained a majority in the House of Commons. Because of their influence, Parliament recognized the right of the Presbyterian element to ordain elders, allowing them to ignore the “smells and bells” of high liturgy. As a result, the Presbyterian community remained within the Anglican Church until 1660.

King James VI of Scotland ascended the throne upon Elizabeth’s death – reigning as James I in England (1603-1625). Despite the fact that he was from Presbyterian Scotland, James was no friend to freedom-loving Presbyterians. Claiming the Divine Right of Kings, he assumed headship over both church and state after the death of Elizabeth. During his reign, Puritan ministers were removed from their pulpits and imprisoned. Many migrated to America. Others engaged in pamphleteering, setting forth powerful and persuasive arguments for religious toleration. Through their preaching they sowed the seeds of revolution, eventually resulting in the English Civil Wars (1639-1650).


On June 12, 1643, the English Parliament passed an act calling for an assembly of learned and godly divines to consult with Parliament to settle the government and liturgy of the Church of England. One hundred twenty-one Puritan ministers, six Scottish commissioners, and thirty laymen from both houses of Parliament were invited to this assembly. They were the finest theologians of the day and included Presbyterians, moderate Episcopalians (Anglicans), Independents, and Congregationalists.

The dominant force in the Assembly was the Presbyterians. They were the largest in number, and their influence grew as the convocation progressed. They understood that the crucial issue facing the church was the doctrine of the sovereign saving action of God in Jesus Christ (how a person becomes a Christian). They also emphasized that government by Presbytery is “expressly instituted or commanded” in the New Testament as the proper polity of the Church. A vast majority of the Presbyterians believed that the Lord Jesus Christ was the only King and Head of the Church and never any monarch, bishop or pope.

But important differences existed in other areas. Serious debates raged about the Church/State relationship, and the issue of Church discipline. Secondary arguments concerned the order of God’s decrees, assurance of salvation, eschatology (representing three the millennial positions), and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer in justification. On each subject the members worked for clarity and faithfulness to the Word of God, while graciously permitting shades of differences under the broader Reformed umbrella.

The Westminster Confession of Faith was quickly adopted by the Scottish General Assembly on August 27, 1647 and speedily endorsed by the Scottish Parliament. The first Presbyterian Synod in North America (the Philadelphia Synod) adopted the entire Westminster Standards in the historic action known as “the Adopting Act” in 1729.

The Church of England failed to become Presbyterian, due to the political rise of the Independents under Oliver Cromwell. The dream of a unifying religion for Great Britain based on Presbyterianism gradually evaporated. But while the Reformed movement and the Westminster standards lost favor among the English, Presbyterians around the world continue to subscribe to the Confession as the definitive expression of biblical faith.

According to the esteemed professor B. B. Warfield of 19th century Princeton Seminary, the Westminster divines left as their legacy, “the most thoroughly thought-out statement ever penned of the elements of evangelical religion” while at the same time emitting “the finest fragrance of spiritual religion.”


Soon, Scottish Presbyterians immigrated in great numbers to Northern Ireland and later to the American colonies where they were known as the “Scotch-Irish.” Presbyterians were fiercely independent minded. Unlike other churches that withered away without the support of the state, the Presbyterians flourished in the free air of the New World. They grouped themselves into “presbyteries,” synods, and general assemblies without the involvement of the state. In this New World, Presbyterianism found a home like no other.

Presbyterians played a leading role in the religious and political life of the American colonies. The first presbytery in the New World was formed in Philadelphia in 1706, under the leadership of the Irish immigrant Francis Makamie, commonly regarded as the “Father of American Presbyterianism.” The growth of the Presbyterian population in Pennsylvania and New Jersey necessitated the organizing of the Synod of Philadelphia in 1716.

Expanding to the south and the west, Presbyterians stayed true to their rich doctrinal legacy and vibrant history. Through the Adopting Act of 1729, these New World Puritans declared allegiance to the Westminster Standards, affirming them as the best expression of biblical doctrine and church government in the English language.

The enormous influx of Scots and Scottish-Irish spurred the significant growth of Presbyterianism in the American Colonies. In the brief interval, between 1771-1773, more than 30,000 Presbyterians arrived from Ireland alone. Dependable historians agree that by the Revolutionary War era, two of every three colonists were Reformed in their theology and worldview, though not all were Presbyterians.

Highly influential in culture and government, Presbyterians left an indelible mark on state and federal constitutionals. The fundamental principles of “checks and balances” and “separation of powers” grew out of their commitment to the sovereignty of God and their recognition of innate human sinfulness.

The nineteenth century was marked by disagreement, dissension, and division among Presbyterians in the United States. The schism of 1837 pitted the “Old School” (who insisted on strict adherence to the Westminster Confession and Catechisms), against the “New School” (who were inclined to a less strict application of the Confession and were interested in cooperation with other believers for the sake of evangelism).

By 1861, the slavery issue reached the breaking point. At this point, Presbyterians failed the Protestant church in America by not taking the moral high ground. By default, theological liberalism and the abolitionist’s movement claimed that ground. The intellectual and moral leadership that Christians had come to expect from Presbyterians was lacking at a critical juncture in history. The conflict that divided the states drove a wedge between Presbyterians as well. As a result of the slavery conflict, the Southern and Northern churches officially broke communion. But soon after the civil war ended, the Northern and Southern Presbyterian churches exchanged fraternal delegates to pursue the possibilities of a reunion. That reunification was achieved in 1869.

By the latter part of the nineteenth century, Presbyterian ministers and seminary professors trained in the “higher criticism” of European graduate schools began to teach unorthodox ideas – denying the inspiration and authority of the Bible, and thus contradicting cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith. At the grass roots level, American Presbyterians were theologically conservative. However, many leading ministers were in hot pursuit of pragmatism and the social gospel, so they ultimately ended up rejecting historic Christianity.

By the early twentieth century, theological liberalism had secured a safe home in the mainline Presbyterian Church. In his book Christianity and Liberalism, former Princeton Seminary Professor J. Gresham Machen, spoke for millions of American Christians when he skewered theological leftists as enemies of the gospel who were beyond the pale of Christendom.

In the following decades the mainline Presbyterian denomination yielded more and more ground to the advancing army of heterodoxy. The General Assemblies’ social agenda has been dominated by debates about abortion rights, homosexuality, and radical feminism, while undercutting the cherished Presbyterian legacy of unequivocally affirming the relevance and authority of Scriptures.

Though the mainline Presbyterian denomination in the Unites States declined from 2.5 million members in 1965 to 1.8 million by 1990, other Presbyterian communions such as the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church remain faithful to the rich history of Reformed theology and biblical polity. In addition, newer denominations such as the Presbyterian Church in America and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church have declared a commitment to the Scriptures, fully embracing the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ.