Presbyterian Church History

The history of the  traces back to John Calvin, a 16th-century French reformer, and John Knox (1514–1572), leader of the protestant reformation in Scotland. Knox’s unrelenting efforts transformed Scotland into the most Calvinistic country in the world and the cradle of modern-day Presbyterianism.

In the United States, the Presbyterian Church derives its origin primarily from the Presbyterians of Scotland and Ireland, along with the influence of French Huguenots, and Dutch and German Reformed emigrants. Presbyterian Christians are not bound together in one large denomination but in an association of independent churches.

John Calvin: Reformation Giant

John Calvin trained for the Catholic priesthood, but later converted to the Reformation Movement and became a theologian and minister who revolutionized the Christian church in Europe, America, and ultimately the rest of the world. 

Calvin dedicated a great deal of thought to practical matters such as the ministry, the church, religious education, and the Christian life. He was more or less coerced into leading the Reformation in Geneva, Switzerland. In 1541, the town council of Geneva enacted Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Ordinances, which set forth regulations on issues related to church order, religious training, ganbling, dancing, and even swearing. Strict church disciplinary measures were enacted to deal with those who broke these ordinances.

Calvins theology was very similar to Martin Luther. He agreed with Luther on the doctrines of original sin,justification by faith alone, the priesthood of all believers, and the sole authority of the Scriptures. He distinguishes himself theologically from Luther primarily with the doctrines of predestination and eternal security.

The Presbyterian concept of church elders is based on Calvin’s identification of the office of elder as one of the four ministries of the church, along with pastors, teachers, and deacons. Elders participate in preaching, teaching, and administering the sacraments.

As in 16th-century Geneva, Church governance and discipline, today include elements of Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Ordinances, but these no longer have power beyond the members’ willingness to be bound by them.

The Influence of John Knox on Presbyterianism

Second in importance to John Calvin in the history of Presbyterianism is John Knox. He lived in Scotland in the mid-1500s and led the Reformation there following Calvinistic principles, protesting against the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, and Catholic practices. His ideas set the moral tone for the Church of Scotland and also shaped its democratic form of government.

The Presbyterian form of church government and Reformed theology were formally adopted as the national Church of Scotland in 1690. The Church of Scotland remains Presbyterian today.

Presbyterianism in America

Since the colonial period, Presbyterianism has had a strong presence in the United States of America. Reformed churches were first established in the early 1600s with Presbyterians shaping the religious and political life of the newly established nation. The only Christian minister to sign the Declaration of Independence, was Reverend John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian.

In many ways, the United States is founded on a Calvinist point of view, with emphasis on hard work, discipline, the salvation of souls and the building of a better world. Presbyterians were instrumental in the movements for women’s rights, the abolition of slavery, and temperance.

The present-day Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is rooted in the formation of the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1788. It has remained the major judicatory body of the church ever since.

During the Civil War, American Presbyterians divided into southern and northern branches. These two churches reunited in June of 1983 to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the largest Presbyterian/Reformed denomination in the United States.

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