Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Presbyterians have their roots in the Reformed Protestant tradition of sixteenth-century Europe; for Presbyterians, the key figure is John Calvin. His Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559) is a cornerstone of Reformed faith and life. John Knox, the Scottish divine of the sixteenth century, contributed to Presbyterianism by establishing a Presbyterian polity in Scotland as the national church (Balmer and Fitzmier 1993, Leith 1977). Another building block of the tradition is English Presbyterianism. The British Parliament of the Great Rebellion, during which the episcopacy of the Church of England was temporarily abolished, called the Westminster Assembly of Divines together in 1643. The Westminster Confession of Faith, Shorter and Larger Catechism came from this assembly.

The Scots, Scots-Irish, and English Presbyterians came to the New World and established the first Presbyterian stronghold in the Middle Colonies. Francis Makemie, the "father of American Presbyterianism," helped to plant churches in Newark, Elizabeth, Fairfield, and Philadelphia in the second half of the seventeenth century. In 1706, Makemie created the first North American presbytery (regional ruling body of preaching ministers and representative congregational officers—"elders"), known as "The General Presbytery." The Scots-Irish and the New England aggregations of Presbyterians developed tensions early in the eighteenth century. The Scots-Irish remained loyal to a dogmatic understanding of the Westminster Confession, while the New England Presbyterians emphasized the importance of religious piety and the centrality of the Bible. In the midst of the Great Awakening, the two sides reached a compromise with the Adopting Act of 1729. The act distinguished between the essential and the nonessential standards of the Westminster Confession. This debate foreshadowed the pattern of conflict over Presbyterian doctrines in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Schisms broke out between the New Side and Old Side Presbyterians in 1741, and between the Old School and New School factions in 1837. In each case, sides were taken in response to the revivalism that was sweeping the countryside. The traditional camps moved toward a more scholastic, legalist view of Calvinism and the Westminster doctrines, while the so-called New School Presbyterians were anxious to adopt the warmhearted piety of the evangelical movement, represented by George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards.

As the Civil War broke out, the schisms between the Old and New School Presbyterians came to a head over the slavery issue. In 1861, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) passed the Spring Resolution, affirming support of the federal union. In reaction, the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America (PCCSA) was formed by Southern Old School Presbyterians. In 1864, the PCCSA merged with the United Synod of the South to form the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS).


The battle over modernism was joined with the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859 and the growing historical/critical methodology in the interpretation of Scripture. Charles Hodge, the Princeton Theological Seminary Old School theologian, argued against Darwinism in his What Is Darwinism (1874). Not all Presbyterians agreed with Hodge. Charles Briggs of Union Theological Seminary in New York asserted that the Bible contained error that could not readily be explained. He was brought to ecclesiastical trial and the charges against him were sustained, leading to the suspension of his ordination in 1893. In response to these proceedings, the PCUSA General Assembly in 1892 declared that the original manuscripts of the Bible were "without error." The reaction to modernism continued in 1910 with the adoption of the "five points" of fundamentalism (the five fundamentals): the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth of Christ, his substitutional atonement, Christ's bodily resurrection, and the authenticity of miracles. On May 21, 1922, Harry Emerson Fosdick preached "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" from the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church of New York City. This sermon, in part, brought on the fundamentalist-modernist conflict.

J. Gresham Machen of Princeton Seminary led the counterattack of the conservatives by claiming that liberal Christianity was not a form of authentic Christian faith but a new religion. Moderates in the denomination gathered and signed the "Auburn Affirmation" in 1924. This document affirmed the "five points" but allowed for alternative formulae for explaining these doctrines, and it called for toleration in the denomination. Over the next several annual General Assemblies, Machen's contentions were repudiated, and he was denied an appointment at Princeton Seminary. Machen left Princeton to form Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia in 1929. Southern Presbyterians were less affected by the controversy, because liberal opinions on Scripture and doctrines were rare in their ranks (Loetscher 1954, Longfield 1991).

The final act in closing the fundamentalist-modernist controversy came with the commission to study mission in the Protestant Church, led by William Ernest Hocking, a professor at Harvard University. The commission issued a one-volume summary of its work called Rethinking Missions (Harper 1932). The project was funded by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the benefactor behind Fosdick's Riverside Church. The report urged greater sensitivity to the integrity of other religions and called for a more stringent standard in the selection of missionary candidates, criticizing missionaries for their "rigidity." The report received an ambivalent response; it solidified conservative rejection of modernism but, over the next half century, became the basis for much of contemporary mission work in the Presbyterian church.

Social Science and Presbyterianism

The social scientific study of American Presbyterianism began in earnest with H. Richard Niebuhr's classic The Social Sources of Denominationalism (Holt 1929). Niebuhr dissected the class basis for denominations. In 1951, Niebuhr published Christ and Culture (Harper), identifying the Reformed movement and its Presbyterian forms as an effort that seeks to transform culture. Other midcentury figures included Gibson Winter (1961) and Peter Berger (1961); they critiqued the church and attained intellectual respectability, but as R. Laurence Moore has commented, this respectability "encouraged them to jettison those things that social scientists now suggest are essential to the survival of religion in human cultures" (1989:251).

More contemporary figures in the social scientific study of religion have continued the analysis of Protestantism in American religion and, in particular, the Presbyterian denomination. R. Stephen Warner's study of a small Presbyterian church in Mendocino, California (1988), analyzed the vicissitudes of a church struggling with conflict between liberals and conservatives. Warner makes it clear that conservatives are more committed to the local church and give the church greater vitality. Liberals tend to be issue oriented and less able to commit to a local institution. An encyclopedic panorama of Presbyterian life in the twentieth century is provided by the six-volume work published between 1990 and 1992, edited by Milton J Coalter, John M. Mulder, and Louis B. Weeks, titled The Presbyterian Presence: The Twentieth-Century Experience (Westminster).

Dean Hoge, Benton Johnson, and Donald Luidens's study Vanishing Boundaries (Westminster 1994) outlines the religious practice of baby-boomer young adults and the reasons for their disaffiliation from the Presbyterian church. This study promotes understanding of the rapid decline of the Presbyterian church in the last 30 years. In 1958, through the merger of PCUSA and the United Presbyterian Church of North America, the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA) was formed. At its height, the church's membership reached 4.2 million in 1965. In 1996, even after the historic reunion of the UPCUSA with the PCUS in 1983, membership hovered around 2.7 million—a drop in membership of more than 30% over 30 years (see also Thompson et al. 1993). Vanishing Boundaries concludes the Presbyterian Church has declined not because of a liberal church hierarchy or the counterculture of the 1960s but because of changing religious beliefs of its members, brought on in part by the liberal theology of Presbyterian theologians, and because of the steep decline in birthrates in the baby-boomer generation. The new theology is more inclusive, open to alternative religions, more focused on the social and political issues of the day. These factors helped to eventuate a rapid decrease in rates of baptism and confirmation that began in the 1960s and continues into the 1990s. These new theological perspectives tend to decrease the loyalty of individuals to churches in particular and to Christianity in general. Benton Johnson in "On Dropping the Subject: Presbyterians and Sabbath Observance in the Twentieth Century" (1992) shows how the church during this century stopped emphasizing Sabbath observance, family devotions, and other forms of personal piety to the point that spiritual practices as a normative part of religion have disappeared from contemporary Presbyterian theological discourse. Robert Wuthnow also uses the Presbyterian church as a case study to understand the decline of American Protestantism. He comes to the conclusion that the church has lost its ability to witness to any positive religious beliefs; that is, "too often, the strident voices of special purpose groups have become the church's primary witness to the wider world" (1989:92).

Nonetheless, the Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination has continued to work on defining its theological identity. The Confession of 1967 was a significant theological statement, focusing the witness of the gospel on important social issues of the day. Moreover, in leading up to the reunion with the PCUS (or "Southern Church"), the church collected its major confessional documents in the Book of Confession . Following the 1983 reunion, the PC(USA) adopted A Brief Statement of Faith that stated the essentials of the theological tradition in an elegant, concise, and contemporary fashion.

Presbyterians have remained committed to a belief in a sovereign God who is both transcendent over creation, yet intimately and personally involved in the redemption of creation. Presbyterians have consistently supported a representative ecclesiastical government and have continued their struggle to remain united in their witness to the Scripture and to its creeds in the midst of a diverse culture and a history of internecine church conflict. Thus Presbyterians take into an uncertain future a bulwark of long-standing beliefs and ecclesiastical policies.

See also Calvinism, Protestant Ethic Thesis

James K. Wellman, Jr .


R. Balmer and J. R. Fitzmier, The Presbyterians (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1993)

P. L. Berger, The Noise of Solemn Assemblies (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961)

B. Johnson, "From Old to New Agendas," in The Confessional Mosaic , ed. M. J Coalter et al. (Louisville: Westminster, 1990): 208-235

B. Johnson, "On Dropping the Subject," in The Presbyterian Predicament , ed. M. J Coalter et al. (Louisville: Westminster, 1992)

D. R. Hoge and D. A. Roozen (eds.), Understanding Church Growth and Decline (New York: Pilgrim, 1979)

J. H. Leith, Introduction to the Reformed Tradition (Atlanta: Knox, 1977)

L. A. Loetscher, The Broadening Church (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1954)

B. J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991)

R. L. Moore, "Secularization," in Between the Times , ed. W. R. Hutchison (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989)

W. L. Thompson et al., "Growth or Decline in Presbyterian Congregations," Church & Denominational Growth , ed. D. A. Roozen and C. K. Hadaway (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993)

R. S. Warner, New Wine in Old Wineskins (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988)

G. Winter, The Suburban Captivity of the Churches (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961)

R. Wuthnow, The Struggle for America's Soul (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1989).

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