The Presbyterian journey in this world began in the early 16th century as a result of the Reformation that was begun by Martin Luther in 1517. Luther, a Roman Catholic priest, hammered his famous document known as The 95 Theses to the door of the church he was serving in Wittenberg, Germany. The document was, for all intent and purposes, a manifesto seeking to bring reform to the questionable, and even corrupt, practices and beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church of the time. Luther’s intent was to reform the church, but he was banned from the church as a result of this act and the tradition that followed in his teachings is today known to be the Lutheran Church, in its many different expressions throughout the world.
In the mid-1500’s, a French student for the priesthood, Jean Calvin, was so inspired by the
Reformed movement, he wrote foundational principles in a volume entitled: The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin’s views required him to flee France for Geneva, Switzerland where he led the Reformed Church. The key characteristics of this new tradition was a church governed by “elders” elected by the congregation, and establishing the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the reliable authority for faith and practice, rather than the declarations by certain human agents who happened to serve as the highest leaders in Roman Catholicism.
It was during his time in Geneva that the Scottish reformer, John Knox, fleeing from persecution by Mary, Queen of Scots, studied under Calvin. After returning to Scotland, Knox inspired a Reformed movement that eventually became the Church of Scotland, the foundational principles of which came out of the teachings and writings of Calvin. The Church of Scotland adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith as its foundational and organizing principles, and this important and historical document continues to be a significant confessional statement of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). With the opening of the New World, both Scottish and Irish Presbyterians (from the Greek, presbuteros, a presbyter is one elected by the body to help govern the church) migrated to the colonies and established the Presbyterian tradition and practices on American soil.
With the existence of a good many Presbyterian congregations in the colonies, the tradition began to organize itself into an ecclesiastical institution, and the first Presbytery (a regional body made up of local congregations) was formed in Philadelphia in 1706. The first national body (known as the General Assembly) was established in 1789 and was convened by the Rev. John Witherspoon, who is the only clergy to have signed the Declaration of Independence. This was a heady time in regard to national independence, and because the first U.S. Congress was convening at the same time, the first official actions by both the Presbyterian General Assembly and the U.S. Congress was to send each other official greetings. It is no mistake, therefore, that the governance of both the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United States of America is by representative democracy.
Throughout its history in America, the Presbyterian Church has experienced many great
achievements and some significant challenges. As early as the late 18th and early 19th
centuries there were theological squabbles that resulted in church schisms. One of the largest schisms occurred during the American Civil War, a time when the Presbyterian Church split along the Mason Dixon line, essentially over the same issues that threatened to split the republic. The new denominations that resulted were the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. to the north, and the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. to the south. In 1983 the once divided church celebrated its merger in Atlanta, Georgia and became the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Today this is a denomination that numbers 1.75 million members. Some of the greatest achievements of the church have come in the establishment of outstanding educational institutions throughout the United States and the world. In addition, Presbyterian mission has made a major impact on
various parts of the world including the Middle East, Africa and most especially in Asia,
particularly in Korea. Today there exists more Korean Presbyterians in the United States and in South Korea than there are those of traditional Anglo descent. Eleven United States Presidents have been Presbyterians including Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan.
The Presbyterian tradition has always been on the forefront of social witness in the United States and in the world. Many Presbyterians were abolitionists and participated in the Underground Railroad in their efforts to rid this nation of slavery. Presbyterians have been active in mission regarding needs on Native American reservations, and have called for social change in that regard. Presbyterian leaders marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the struggle for African American civil rights. As an historic peacemaking church, Presbyterian General Assemblies have consistently called upon the administrations of the United States to only consider military response and intervention as an absolute last resort, calling for responsible diplomacy as the first and best option to pursue. For almost half a century, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has had in place its Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) Committee for the purpose of making sure that church investments are in line with Biblical, moral guidelines. This means that our church
makes every effort to never invest in corporations that profit from the sale of alcohol, tobacco, or firearms; from gambling; and from companies that make money in non-peaceful pursuits anywhere in the world. In short, Presbyterians believe that they must be engaged in the world in order to proclaim the values and promises of the Kingdom of God as that was shown forth in the example of Jesus Christ, and articulated by his disciples, apostles and so many faithful throughout the march of time. Because this can be controversial in a world where all significant social movements involve human politics, this is why one of our first most important foundational principles clearly states that the Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life (PCUSA Book of Order).
Our most recent Presbyterian Confession, entitled A Brief Statement Faith (1990) expresses our common journey in this way (excerpts):
In life and in death we belong to God. Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship and serve…
We trust in God the Holy Spirit, everywhere the giver and renewer of life… In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom and peace.
In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and live holy and joyful lives, even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
With believers in every time and place, we rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.
To find out more about this dynamic and thriving denomination, please visit the PCUSA website.