Presbyterianism in a wide sense is the system of church government by representative assemblies called presbyteries, in opposition to government by bishops (episcopal system), or by congregations (congregationalism). 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 French lawyer John Calvin (1509-1564), whose writings crystallized much of the Reformed thinking that came before him. The most important standards of orthodox Presbyterianism are the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms of 1647. The chief distinctive features set forth in the Westminster declarations of belief are Presbyterian church government, Calvinistic theology, and the absence of prescribed forms of worship. Presbyterians trace their history to the 16th century and the Protestant Reformation.

Presbyterians were among the earliest Reformed immigrants to America. They settled up and down the East Coast, and began to push westward into the American wilderness, founding congregations as early as the 1630s. In 1706, seven Presbyterian ministers formed the first Presbyterian presbytery in the New World. The clergy assumed the freedom to organize and the right to worship, preach, teach, and administer the sacraments. Growing population and immigration prompted the presbytery to organize a synod in 1717, with four constituent presbyteries.

The church began to develop its own indigenous leadership and educational, mission, and charitable institutions, as well as to experience its first internal conflicts.

Presbyterians were only one of the reformed denominations that dominated American colonial life at the time of the Revolutionary War. 

As of 2018, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) had approximately 1.4 million members, 9,300 congregations, and 19,000 ordained and active ministers.

Some of the principles articulated by John Calvin are still at the core of Presbyterian beliefs. Among these are the sovereignty of God, the authority of Scripture, justification by grace through faith and the priesthood of all believers. What these tenets mean is that God is the supreme authority throughout the universe. Our knowledge of God and God’s purpose for humanity comes from the Bible, particularly what is revealed in the New Testament through the life of Jesus Christ. Our salvation (justification) through Jesus is God’s generous gift to us and not the result of our own accomplishments. It is everyone’s job — ministers and lay people alike — to share this Good News with the whole world. That is also why the Presbyterian church is governed at all levels by a combination of clergy and laity, men and women alike.

Points of interest

Presbyterians confess their beliefs through statements that have been adopted over the years and are contained in The Book of Confessions. These statements reflect our understanding of God and what God expects of us at different times in history, but all are faithful to the fundamental beliefs described above. Even though we share these common beliefs, Presbyterians understand that God alone is lord of the conscience, and it is up to each individual to understand what these principles mean in his or her life.

  April 2021  
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