Presbyterianism, in a wide sense, is the system of church government by representative assemblies called presbyteries, in opposition to government by bishops (episcopal system, prelacy), or by congregations (congregationalism, independency). In its strict sense, Presbyterianism is the name given to one of the groups of ecclesiastical bodies that represent the features of Protestantism emphasized by John Calvin in the 1530s to 1550s.
Of the various churches modeled on the Swiss Reformation, the Swiss, Dutch, and some German are known as the Reformed; the French as Huguenots; those in Bohemia and Hungary by their national names; the Scots, English, and derived churches as Presbyterian. There is a strong family resemblance between all these churches, and many of them have given their adherence to an "Alliance of the Reformed Churches throughout the World holding the Presbyterian System," formed in 1876 with the special view of securing inter-denominational cooperation in general church work.
The most important standards of orthodox Presbyterianism are the "Westminster Confession of Faith" and "Catechisms" of 1647. Their contents, however, have been more or less modified by the various churches, and many of the formulas of subscription prescribed for church officials do not in practice require more than a qualified acceptance of the standards. The chief distinctive features set forth in the Westminster declarations of belief are Presbyterian church government, Calvinistic theology, and absence of prescribed forms of worship.
The Presbyterian, like the Reformed churches, trace their origin directly to John Calvin. The claims to historical continuity from the Apostles through the Waldenses and the Scotch Culdees have been refuted by Presbyterian scholars. It was in the ecclesiastical republics of Switzerland that the churches holding the Presbyterian polity were first established. John Knox, who had lived with John Calvin at Geneva, impressed upon the Scottish Reformation the ideas of his master, and may be regarded as the father of Presbyterianism as distinct from the Reformed churches.
In 1560, a Confession of Faith, which he drew up, was sanctioned by the Scottish Parliament, which also ratified the jurisdiction exercised by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. This was the beginning of the Kirk, or the Scotch Establishment. There have been many divisions among the Presbyterians of Scotland, but today nearly all the elements of Presbyterianism in that country have been collected into two great churches: the Established Church and the United Free Church. After Scotland, the important centres of Presbyterianism are England, Ireland, Wales, the English colonies, and subsequently, the United States of America.
There was a strong Presbyterian tendency among certain English Reformers of the sixteenth century. For a time, men like Cranmer, Latimer, and Hooper would have reconstructed the church after the manner of Geneva and Zurich in Switzerland, but during the reign of Elizabeth I the "prelatical" system triumphed and was firmly maintained by the sovereign. This policy was opposed by the Puritans who included both Presbyterians and Congregationalists.
Towards the close of Elizabeth's reign, the Presbyterians secretly formed an organization out of which grew, in 1572, the first English presbytery. During the reigns of James I and Charles I the struggle between the Established Church and Presbyterianism continued. In 1647, the Long Parliament abolished the prelacy and Presbyterianism was established as the national religion. In the same year the Westminster Assembly of divines presented to Parliament its Confession of Faith.
With the restoration of the monarchy (Charles II, in 1660), the State Church of England became once more Anglican. English Presbyterianism now began to decline. Its principle of government was quite generally abandoned for independent administration and during the eighteenth century most of its churches succumbed to rationalism. But during the latter part of the nineteenth century there was a revival of Presbyterianism in England. Those who belonged to the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland coalesced in 1876 with the English Presbyterian Synod (an independent organization since the Scotch disruption of 1843), forming the Presbyterian Church of England, which is a very active body to this day.
The "Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church" had its origin prior to, and independent of, English Methodism. Its first organization was effected in 1736, and it shared the enthusiasm of the Methodists of England under the Wesleys, but differed from them in doctrine and polity - the English being Arminian and episcopal, the Welsh, Calvinistic and presbyterian. A Confession of Faith adopted in 1823 follows the Westminster Confession, but is silent as to election and the asperities of the Calvinistic doctrine of reprobation. In 1864, a General Assembly was organized. The Welsh Presbyterians give great attention to home and foreign missions.
3. Northern Ireland
The history of Presbyterianism in Ireland dates from the Ulster plantation during the reign of James I. The greater part of Ulster had been confiscated by the crown, and there emigrated a large number of Scots Presbyterians. At first they received special consideration from the Government, but this policy was reversed while William Laud was Archbishop of Canterbury.
The independent life of Presbyterianism in Northern Ireland began with the formation of the Presbytery of Ulster in 1642, but its growth was checked for a time after the Stuart restoration in 1660. During the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth century there was a general departure from the old standards and Unitarian tendencies caused various dissensions among the Ulster Presbyterians. There are still two Presbyterian bodies in Northern Ireland that are Unitarian. The disruption in the Scottish churches and other causes produced further divisions, and today there are, exclusive of the two mentioned above, five Presbyterian bodies in Northern Ireland, the most important of which is the Presbyterian Church of Ireland.
4. English Colonies - Now America
In tracing the history of Presbyterianism in the English colonies, the churches may be divided into three groups:
* (a) the American churches, which largely discarded foreign
(a) The American Churches
The earliest American Presbyterian churches were established in Virginia, New England, Maryland, and Delaware during the seventeenth century and were chiefly of English origin. The man who brought the scattered churches into organic unity, and who is considered as the apostle of American Presbyterianism, was Rev. Francis Makennie from the Presbytery of Laggan, Ireland. With six other ministers he organized in 1706 the Presbytery of Philadelphia, which ten years later was constituted a synod.
Between 1741 and 1758, the synod was divided into two bodies, the "Old Side" and the "New Side," because of disagreements as to the requirements for the ministry and the interpretation of the standards. During this period of separation the College of New Jersey, later Princeton University, was established by the "New Side," with Rev. John Witherspoon, afterwards a signer of the Declaration of Independence, as first president.
In 1788, the synod adopted a constitution, and a general assembly was established. The dissolution of the Cumberland Presbytery by the Synod of Kentucky led to the formation in 1810 of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. From controversies regarding missionary work and doctrinal matters two independent branches resulted (1837), the "Old School" and the "New School." Both lost most of their southern presbyteries when anti-slavery resolutions were passed. The seceders united to form a southern church known since 1865 as the Presbyterian Church in the United States.
Fraternal relations exist between the northern and the southern churches, who are kept apart especially by their different policies as to the races. In the Cumberland church the colored members were organized into a separate denomination in 1869. That same year the "Old School" and the "New School" reunited forming the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, the largest and most influential of the Presbyterian bodies in America.
Since then, its harmony has been seriously threatened only by the controversy as to the sources of authority in religion, and the authority and credibility of the Scriptures (1891-4). This difficulty terminated with the trials of Prof. Charles A. Briggs and Prof. H. P. Smith, in which the court declared its loyalty to the views of the historic standards. In 1903, the church revived the Confession of Faith, mitigating "the knotty points of Calvinism."
Its position became thereby essentially the same as that of the Cumberland church (white), and three years later (1906) the two bodies entered into an organic union. A part of the Cumberland church, however, repudiated the action of its general assembly and still undertakes to perpetuate itself as a separate denomination.
(b) The Scottish Churches
The second secessionist body from the established church of Scotland, the Associated Synod (Seceders), organized through its missionaries in 1753 the Associate Presbytery of Pennsylvania. Not long after another separatist body of Scotland, the Old Covenanter Church (Cameronians), founded a daughter church in America known as the Reformed Presbytery (1774). In 1782 these new seceder and covenanter bodies united under the name of Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.
Some members of the former body refused to enter this union and continued the Associate Presbytery of Pennsylvania. There were secessions from the united organization in 1801, and 1820. In 1858, nearly all these various elements were brought together in the United Presbyterian Church of North America. Two bodies that remain outside this union are the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, which since 1821 has maintained an independent existence, and the Associate Synod of North America, a lineal descendant of the Associate Presbytery of Pennsylvania, founded in 1858 by those who preferred to continue their own organization rather than enter into the union effected that year.
(2) Cameronians or Covenanters
The Reformed Presbytery, which merged with the Associate Presbytery in 1782, was renewed in an independent existence in 1798 by the isolated covenanters who had taken no part in the union of 1782. This renewed presbytery expanded into a synod in 1809. In 1833, there was a division into two branches, the "Old Lights" (synod) and the "New Lights" (general synod), caused by disagreements as to the attitude the church should take towards the Constitution of the United States.
In 1840, two ministers, dissatisfied with what they considered laxity among the "Old Lights," withdrew from the synod, and formed the "Covenanted Reformed Church," which has been several times disorganized and counts only a handful of members. In 1883, dissatisfaction with a disciplinary decision of the general synod (New Lights) caused the secession of a small number of its members, who have formed at Allegheny, PA, the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States and Canada. Negotiations for a union of the general synod and the synod were made in 1890, but were unsuccessful.
(c) The Welsh Church
The first organization of a Welsh Calvinistic Methodist church in the United States was at Remsen, NY, in 1824. Four years later a presbytery was established, and the growth of the denomination has kept pace with the increase in the Welsh population. The English language is fast gaining control in the church services.
It is said to have been the poet Edmund Spenser who first suggested to Queen Elizabeth I perhaps when he came to London in 1594 to look after the publication of his Faery Queene the plan of putting into Ireland a Protestant population that might come to outnumber and control the Catholics. It was in 1611 that James I began to put this scheme into operation, sending from Scotland and the northern counties of England a Presbyterian company of picked men and women of the best sort, yeomanry and craftsmen like those who settled Massachusetts and Connecticut, with many generations of ancestry behind them on a far higher level of intelligence and training than the native peasantry of Ireland.
At the beginning of the eighteenth century the percentage of illiteracy in Ulster was probably smaller than anywhere else in the world. There were then more than a million of these Presbyterians in Ulster. About 1720, when they began coming in great numbers to America, those families that had been longest in Ireland had dwelt there but three generations, so that there is surely some laxity of speech in calling them Irish without some qualifying adjective.
The English experiment of thus "Scotticising" Ireland was defeated by a crass policy of protectionism combined with petty religious persecution. Flourishing linen and woollen industries had sprung up in Ulster, and sundry legislative handicaps were laid upon them for the protection of native industries in England. Thus did government treat its own pioneers as foreigners whom it was meritorious to plunder.
At the same time, diverse civil disabilities were enacted for Presbyterians. The result of this twofold tyranny was the largest exodus from Europe to America that ever took place before the nineteenth century. Between 1730 and 1770, more than half of the Presbyterian population of Ulster came over to America, where it formed more than one-sixth part of our entire population at the time of the Declaration of Independence.
A few of these Presbyterians came to New England, where they have left their mark. But the great majority came to Pennsylvania and occupied the mountain country west of the Susquehanna. Thence a steady migration was kept up southwesterly along the Appalachian axis into the southern colonies.
Now there was one very important respect in which these Presbyterians of Ulster had come to differ from their Presbyterian brethren in Scotland. In the land of cakes the kirk ruled things pretty much at its own sweet will, and was therefore in favor of keeping civil and spiritual affairs united. But in Ulster, whether in relation to their Catholic neighbors or more especially to the English Parliament, Presbyterians were in a harassed minority, and therefore became convinced of the desirableness of divorcing church from state.
Accordingly, in spite of a very rigid theology, they stood for a liberal principle, and other Protestant sects, such as Lutherans, Mennonites, and Dunkers, found it possible to harmonize with them, especially in the free atmosphere of Pennsylvania. The result was the partial union of two great streams of immigration, the Ulster stream and the Palatinate stream.
It influenced South Carolina and Maryland most powerfully, completely renovated society in North Carolina, and broke down the sway of the Cavalier aristocracy in Virginia. While it sent southward men and women enough to accomplish all this, enough more remained in Pennsylvania to form more than half its population, raising it by 1770 to the third place among the thirteen colonies, next after Virginia and Massachusetts.
From this same prolific hive came the pioneers of Kentucky and Tennessee, with their descendants throughout the vast Mississippi valley and beyond. In all these directions, as elsewhere shown, this sturdy population, distilled through Pennsylvania, has formed the main strength of American democracy, and its influence upon American life has been manifold.
The first dissenter church in South Carolina was the Independent or Circular Church in Charles Town, founded about 1680. The original members were from England, New England, as well as the newly-arrived French Huguenots. By the 1740s, several other dissenter congregations existed - Pon Pon, Beech Hill, Willtown, Edisto Island, St. Johns Island, Ashepoo - all along the Edisto River.
Dorchester on the Ashley River, Wappetaw/Seewee on the Wando River, St. James Goose Creek, and Cainhoy in Berkeley were other congregations existing by 1740. The register of Rev. John Baxter based out of Cainhoy shows that he preached from January 1733 - 1734 in Charles Town, Cainhoy, Williamsburg, Dorchester, Willtown, on the Santee, James Island, Winyaw, John's Island, Black River, Waccamaw Township, on the Pee Dee at Mrs. Brittons, Waccamaw Neck, and at Col. Lynches (History of the Presbyterian Church in South Carolina, by George Howe, p. 204).
Once the Puritans were in the new colonies more fractures appeared. These fractures reflected the divisions within the Church in England. Some religious leaders wanted to remove the Bishops and create a Presbyterian style of church government which resembled the Scottish Church. A result was the creation of the Congregational and Presbyterian movements. Both which showed up in the Dissenting congregations in South Carolina. The Circular Church rotated pastors between both Congregational and Presbyterian schools (South Carolina Historical Magazine, Vol. 71, p. 276). They finally separated into two congregations with the completion of the First Scots Presbyterian Meeting House in 1731.