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The History of Presbyterianism

Presbyterianism came to America in full swing with the immigration of Scottish and Scot-Irish Presbyterians in the early 1700’s. Eventually Scottish Presbyterians allyed with English Presbyterians. The union of Northern Presbyterians with middle Colony Presbyterians led to the formation of the first Presbyterian Church in 1729.

But there was also another group of Presbyterians known as the Covenanters, also called Reformed Presbyterians, who formed the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. Over time, a division would arise in the ARP over pledging allegiance to the flag and those who would not pledge became the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America. Those who would became the RPCNA, General Synod.

During the Great Awakening, this union would be tested. Those who favored the Awakening were called “New Side”. Those who were anti-Awakening were called “Old Side”. In the mid-1700’s, the two sides soon reunited, since the New Side had previously seceded. But this tension never faded.

In the 1800’s the debate over full subscription to the Confession was in swing and one presbytery, the Cumberland Presbytery, had ordained men who did not subscribe to the WCF. They were clearly Arminian, and so in 1830, the Cumberland Presbytery left the church and had revised the WCF. Later another group of Presbyterians left the church and became the Disciples of Christ.

In the 1830’s the New Side/Old Side debate resurged in the form of the Old School/New School debate. The Old School was very much confessional in its stance while the New School was revivalistic and open to work with other church bodies and had a heavy emphasis on social change. The New School was not necessarily unconfessional. They clearly reacted against Finney’s theological stances. This eventually led to the split in Presbyterianism between the North and South—since the Southern churches prized confessionalism and the Northern Churches were abolitionists. The Southern Church was known as the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Northern Chruch was known as the Presbyterian Church (US). The Southern church was not as affected by New School Theology as much as the Northern Church.

Over time the New School opened itself to Modernism and Liberalism. Princeton, which had been a bastion for Old School thought, had succumbed to the New School thinking. In the 1920’s the Modernist/Fundamentalist debate raged in the Northern churches and men like Machen, McIntire were removed from the Presbyterian Church (US) because of their insistence to orthodoxy. Machen formed the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of America and Westminster Seminary. McIntire, a dispensationalist, left the PC of A and formed the Bible Presbyterians. In the 1950’s, a number of people in the Bible Presbyterian church left due to McIntire’s almost dictatorial rule to form the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church soon joined the RPCUS, General Synod in 1965 to become the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod. Meanwhile, in the southern Church things were not well….

The Southern Church (PCUSA) had begun to drink of the liberalism that had long infected the Northern Church. In time, subscription to the Westminster Standards was not in full force. Soon, subscription to Christian orthodoxy was not necessary. Further, the question of ordaining women into the office of elder and the issue of church properties became burning issues for many in the denomination. Some formed an organization known as “Concerned Presbyterians” in the 1960’s. In 1971, more than 25 men gathered together to approach the General Assembly and resolve to continue the Presbyterian Church “loyal to the Scriptures and to the Reformed Faith”. A steering committee was created and in 1971 in Atlanta, the committee drafted the Declaration of Intent in which the intent to form a new denomination for the continuance of the Presbyterian Church was announced.

In 1973, the PCA was formed with the Westminster Standards being adopted. The BCO of 1933 was revised. Strict subscription was not followed, but instead full subscription would be adopted. By the second general assembly, the name was changed from National Presbyterian Church to the PCA. Position papers soon began to be formed, following the Pastoral Letter which mentioned some of the non-constitutional stands on certain theological positions that the PCA would adopt. At the 8th general assembly, the PCA invited the RPCES, RPNA, and the OPC to join them. At the 10th general assembly, the RPCES joined the PCA. The OPC has not to this day joined the PCA. The PCA’s distinctives included a Reformed Church committed to Confessional Presbyterianism, upholding the fundamentals of biblical Christianity, and given to a passion to fulfilling the Great Commission.*

*Placed on this site with Permission from New LIfe Church in Glenside, PA