General Information

Presbyterianism is the form of church government in which elders, both lay people and ministers, govern. The name derives from the Greek word presbuteros, or "elder." Approximately 50 million Protestants around the world practice Presbyterian church government. Substantial numbers of Presbyterians are found in Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and its former colonies, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Hungary, France, South Africa, Indonesia, and Korea. The largest Presbyterian body in the United States is the 3 million - member Presbyterian Church, formed in 1983 by the union of the United Presbyterian Church and the (Southern) Presbyterian Church in the United States. A number of other Presbyterian and Reformed denominations in America trace their origins to Europe or to secessions from the larger American bodies. (The older name Reformed Churches remains prevalent among groups of continental European origin; "Presbyterian" is generally used by churches of British origin.)

Presbyterianism emerged in the 16th century Reformation as an effort by Protestant reformers to recapture the form as well as the message of the New Testament church. Lutherans were content to adapt the Roman Catholic episcopacy and medieval connections between church and state to their Protestant needs. Other reformers in Switzerland, the Netherlands and south Germany were more radical. They noted that in the New Testament "elders" had been appointed to rule the early churches (Acts 14:23) and that the term elder had been used interchangeably with the word bishop, Greek episcopos (Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5 - 7). These reformers argued that although a hierarchy among elders could be observed in New Testament times (1 Tim. 5:17), it was not the sharp division between bishop and priest (a contraction of presbyter) that characterized the Roman Catholic church.

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From his study of the Bible, John Calvin, the Reformed leader in Geneva, concluded that Jesus Christ himself is the sole ruler of the church and that he exercises that rule through four kinds of officers: preachers (to exhort, admonish, and encourage), doctors or teachers (to instruct), deacons (to aid the poor), and lay elders (to guide and discipline the church). Calvin felt that church and state were parallel authorities, sovereign in their own spheres, which should aid each other. Today the Church of Scotland is the only Presbyterian body that retains even the vestige of a governmental connection.

When Calvin's Genevan church order was carried to Scotland by John Knox, it evolved into the Presbyterianism that, in essentials, is still practiced today. Individual local congregations elect their own elders, including the minister, who together govern the church as a session (or consistory in certain Reformed churches). The minister (or teaching elder), who is called by the local church and who usually serves as moderator of the session, is, however, ordained and disciplined by the next level of church organization, the presbytery (or classis), which administers groups of churches in one area.

Presbyteries select delegates to regional synods, which in turn select representatives to the General Assembly (or General Synod), a national body, the final judiciary of the church. Traditionally, presbyteries, synods, and general assemblies have consisted of equal numbers of ordained ministers and lay elders. From the precedent set by the Scottish Barrier Act of 1697, Presbyterians have made major changes only after approving them in two different general assemblies and in a majority of individual presbyteries.

The Westminster Assembly, held in London at the behest of the English Parliament (1643 - 49), produced doctrinal and ecclesiastical standards that have been foundational for Presbyterians. The Westminster Confession, along with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, made Calvinism teachable to the English. Even recent Presbyterians who have modified the theology of Westminster in many particulars continue to honor its doctrinal pronouncements. Westminster's Form of Church Government and Directory for Public Worship set standards for ecclesiastical practice. Although the Westminster documents were never adopted in England itself, they became official standards in Scotland and have shaped Presbyterianism in America and other English - speaking areas of the world.

Presbyterian worship is simple and orderly. It revolves around preaching from the Scriptures. Presbyterian hymnody is indebted to the Calvinistic tradition of singing paraphrased Psalms. Two sacraments are recognized: the Lord's Supper, which is usually celebrated monthly or quarterly; and baptism, which is administered to the infant children of church members as a sign of God's covenant of mercy. The discipline of the local church is not as rigorous as in Calvin's Geneva. It is, nonetheless, still the responsibility of the session, whose decisions, as also those of presbyteries, can be appealed to synods and the General Assembly.

Mark A Noll

J H S Burleigh, The Church History of Scotland (1961); J H Leith, An Introduction to the Reformed Tradition (1977). L A Loetscher, The Broadening Church (1954) and A Brief History of the Presbyterians (1984); J T McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism (1967); J Melton, Presbyterian Worship in America (1967); J H Smylie, American Presbyterians (1985); E T Thompson, Presbyterians in the South (1963 - 73); L J Trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition: A Reexamination of Colonial Presbyterianism (1949); B B Warfield, Assembly at Westminster (1931)


Catholic Information

Presbyterianism in a wide sense is the system of church government by representative assemblies called presbyteries, in opposition to government by bishops (episcopal system, prelacy), or by congregations (congregationalism, independency), 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 Calvin. Of the various churches modelled on the Swiss Reformation, the Swiss, Dutch, and some German are known as the Reformed; the French as Huguenots; those in Bohemia and Hungary by their national names; the Scotch, English, and derived churches as Presbyterian. There is a strong family resemblance between all these churches, and many of them have given their adherence to an "Alliance of the Reformed Churches throughout the World holding the Presbyterian System", formed in 1876 with the special view of securing interdenominational cooperation in general church work.


The most important standards of orthodox Presbyterianism are the "Westminster Confession of Faith" and "Catechisms" of 1647 (see FAITH, PROTESTANT CONFESSIONS OF). Their contents, however, have been more or less modified by the various churches, and many of the formulas of subscription prescribed for church officials do not in practice require more than a qualified acceptance of the standards. The chief distinctive features set forth in the Westminster declarations of belief are Presbyterian church government, Calvinistic theology, and absence of prescribed forms of worship.

A. Polity

Between the episcopal and congregational systems of church government, Presbyterianism holds a middle position, which it claims to be the method of church organization indicated in the New Testament. On the one hand, it declares against hierarchical government, holding that all clergymen are peers one of another and that church authority is vested not in individuals but in representative bodies composed of lay (ruling) elders and duly ordained (ruling and teaching elders). On the other hand, Presbyterianism is opposed to Congregational independency and asserts the lawful authority of the larger church. The constitutions of most of the churches provide for four grades of administrative courts: the Session, which governs the congregation; the Presbytery, which governs a number of congregations within a limited territory; the Synod, which governs the congregations within a larger territory; and the General Assembly, which is the highest court. Generally the church officers include, besides the pastor, ruling elders and deacons. These officers are elected by the congregation, but the election of the pastor is subject to the approval of the presbytery. The elders with the pastor as presiding officer form the session which supervises the spiritual affairs of the congregation. The deacons have charge of certain temporalities, and are responsible to the session.

B. Theology

The Westminster Confession gives great prominence to the question of predestination, and favours the infralapsarian view of reprobation. It teaches the total depravity of fallen man and the exclusion of the non-elect from the benefits of Christ's atonement. But within the last thirty years there has been a tendency to mitigate the harsher features of Calvinistic theology, and nearly all the important Presbyterian churches have officially disavowed the doctrines of total depravity and limited redemption. Some have even gone so far as to state a belief that all who die in infancy are saved. Such passages of the standards as proclaim the necessity of a union between Church and State and the duty of the civil magistrate to suppress heresy have also to a great extent been eliminated or modified. In its doctrine on the Sacraments the Presbyterian Church is thoroughly Calvinistic. It holds that baptism is necessary to salvation not as a means (necessitate medii), but only as something that has been commanded (necessitate prœcepti). It teaches that Christ is present in the Lord's Supper not merely symbollically, as Zwingli held, nor, on the other hand, substantially, but dynamically or effectively and for believers only.

C. Worship

No invariable forms are recognized in the conduct of public services. Directories of worship have been adopted as aids to the ordering of the various offices but their use is optional. The services are generally characterized by extreme simplicity and consist of hymns, prayers, and readings from the Scriptures. In some of the churches instrumental music is not allowed nor the use of any other songs than those contained in the Book of Psalms. The communion rite is administered at stated intervals or on days appointed by the church officers. Generally the sermon is the principal part of the services. In Europe and in some American churches the minister wears a black gown while in the pulpit. Of recent years certain Presbyterian missionary societies in the United States and Canada have used a form of Mass and other services according to the Greek liturgy in their missions for Ruthenian immigrants


The Presbyterian, like the Reformed churches, trace their origin to Calvin. The claims to historical continuity from the Apostles through the Waldenses and the Scotch Culdees have been refuted by Presbyterian scholars. It was in the ecclesiastical republics of Switzerland that the churches holding the Presbyterian polity were first established. John Knox, who had lived with Calvin at Geneva, impressed upon the Scottish Reformation the ideas of his master, and may be regarded as the father of Presbyterianism as distinct from the Reformed churches. In 1560 a Confession of Faith which he drew up was sanctioned by the Scotch Parliament, which also ratified the jurisdiction exercised by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. This was the beginning of the Kirk or the Scotch Establishment. There have been many divisions among the Presbyterians of Scotland, but today nearly all the elements of Presbyterianism in that country have been collected into two great churches: the Established Church and the United Free Church (see SCOTLAND, ESTABLISHED CHURCH OF). After Scotland the important centres of Presbyterianism are England, Ireland, Wales, the British colonies, and the United States.

A. England

There was a strong Presbyterian tendency among certain English Reformers of the sixteenth century. For a time men like Cranmer, Latimer, and Hooper would have reconstructed the church after the manner of Geneva and Zurich but during the reign of Elizabeth the "prelatical" system triumphed and was firmly maintained by the sovereign. This policy was opposed by the Puritans who included both Presbyterians and Congregationalists. Towards the close of Elizabeth's reign, the Presbyterians secretly formed an organization out of which grew in 1572 the first English presbytery. During the reigns of James I and Charles I the struggle between the Established Church and Presbyterianism continued. In 1647 the Long Parliament abolished the prelacy and Presbyterianism was established as the national religion. In the same year the Westminster Assembly of divines presented to Parliament its Confession of Faith. With the restoration of the monarchy (1660), the State Church became once more episcopal. English Presbyterianism now began to decline. Its principle of government was quite generally abandoned for independent administration and during the eighteenth century most of its churches succumbed to rationalism. But during the latter part of the nineteenth century there was a revival of Presbyterianism in England. Those who belonged to the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland coalesced in 1876 with the English Presbyterian Synod (an independent organization since the Scotch disruption of 1843), forming the Presbyterian Church of England, which is a very active body.

B. Wales

The "Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church" had its origin prior to, and independent of, English Methodism. Its first organization was effected in 1736, and it shared the enthusiasm of the Methodists of England under the Wesleys, but differed from them in doctrine and polity, the English being Arminian and episcopal, the Welsh, Calvinistic and presbyterian. A Confession of Faith adopted in 1823 follows the Westminster Confession, but is silent as to election and the asperities of the Calvinistic doctrine of reprobation. In 1864 a General Assembly was organized. The Welsh Presbyterians give great attention to home and foreign missions.

C. Ireland

The history of Presbyterianism in Ireland dates from the Ulster plantation during the reign of James I. The greater part of Ulster had been confiscated to the crown, and thither emigrated a large number of Scotch Presbyterians. At first they received special consideration from the Government, but this policy was reversed whilst William Laud was Archbishop of Canterbury. The independent life of Presbyterianism in Ireland began with the formation of the Presbytery of Ulster in 1642, but its growth was checked for a time after the Stuart restoration in 1660. During the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth century there was a general departure from the old standards and Unitarian tendencies caused various dissensions among the Ulster Presbyterians. There are still two Presbyterian bodies in Ireland that are Unitarian. The disruption in the Scottish churches and other causes produced further divisions, and today there are, exclusive of the two mentioned above, five Presbyterian bodies in Ireland, the most important of which is the Presbyterian Church of Ireland.

D. Colonial and Missionary Churches

Presbyterianism in Canada dates its origin from 1765, when a military chaplain began regular ministrations in Quebec. There was very little growth, however, until the early part of the nineteenth century, when British immigration set in. Before 1835 there were six independent organizations. The disruption of 1843 in Scotland had its echo in Canada, and secessionist bodies were formed, but during the sixties four organic unions prepared the way for the consolidation in 1875 of all the important bodies into one denomination, the Presbyterian Church in Canada. There remain only two small organizations not affiliated with this main body. The Canadian Church maintains many educational institutions and carries on extensive mission work. Its doctrinal standards are latitudinarian. Canada has the largest of the colonial churches, but there are important Presbyterian organizations in the other British possessions. In Australia Presbyterianism may be dated from the formation of the Presbytery of New South Wales in 1826. There have been several divisions since then, but at present all the churches of the six provinces are federated in one General Assembly. In New Zealand the church of North Island, an offshoot of the Scottish Kirk, organized 1856, and the church of South Island (founded by Scottish Free Churchmen, 1854) have consolidated in one General Assembly. There is a considerable number of Scotch and English Presbyterians in S. Africa. In 1909 they proposed a basis of union to the Wesleyan Methodists, Congregationalists, and Baptists, but thus far without result. In Southern India a basis of union was agreed on by the Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians in July, 1908. There are Presbyterian churches organized by British and American missionaries in various parts of Asia, Africa, Mexico, S. America, and the West Indies.

E. United States

In tracing the history of Presbyterianism in the United States the churches may be divided into three groups:

(1) the American churches, which largely discarded foreign influences;

(2) the Scottish churches directly descended from Presbyterian bodies in Scotland;

(3) the Welsh church, a descendant of the Calvinistic Methodist church of Wales.

(1) The American Churches

The earliest American Presbyterian churches were established in Virginia, New England, Maryland, and Delaware during the seventeenth century and were chiefly of English origin. The man who brought the scattered churches into organic unity, and who is considered as the apostle of American Presbyterianism, was Rev. Francis Makennie from the Presbytery of Laggan, Ireland. With six other ministers he organized in 1706 the Presbytery of Philadelphia, which ten years later was constituted a synod. Between 1741 and 1758 the synod was divided into two bodies, the "Old Side" and the "New Side", because of disagreements as to the requirements for the ministry and the interpretation of the standards. During this period of separation the College of New Jersey, later Princeton University, was established by the "New Side", with Rev. John Witherspoon, afterwards a signer of the Declaration of Independence, as first president. In 1788 the synod adopted a constitution, and a general assembly was established. The dissolution of the Cumberland Presbytery by the Synod of Kentucky led to the formation in 1810 of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. From controversies regarding missionary work and doctrinal matters two independent branches resulted (1837), the "Old School" and the "New School". Both lost most of their southern presbyteries when anti-slavery resolutions were passed. The seceders united to form a southern church known since 1865 as the Presbyterian Church in the United States. Fraternal relations exist between the northern and the southern churches, who are kept apart especially by their different policies as to the races. In the Cumberland church the coloured members were organized into a separate denomination in 1869. That same year the "Old School" and the "New School" reunited forming the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, the largest and most influential of the Presbyterian bodies in America. Since then its harmony has been seriously threatened only by the controversy as to the sources of authority in religion, and the authority and credibility of the Scriptures (1891-4). This difficulty terminated with the trials of Prof. Charles A. Briggs and Prof. H. P. Smith, in which the court declared its loyalty to the views of the historic standards. In 1903 the church revived the Confession of Faith, mitigating "the knotty points of Calvinism". Its position became thereby essentially the same as that of the Cumberland church (white), and three years later (1906) the two bodies entered into an organic union. A part of the Cumberland church, however, repudiated the action of its general assembly and still undertakes to perpetuate itself as a separate denomination.

(2) The Scottish Churches

(a) Seceders

The second secessionist body from the established church of Scotland, the Associated Synod (Seceders), organized through its missionaries in 1753 the Associate Presbytery of Pennsylvania. Not long after another separatist body of Scotland, the Old Covenanter Church (Cameronians), founded a daughter church in America known as the Reformed Presbytery (1774). In 1782 these new seceder and covenanter bodies united under the name of Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. Some members of the former body refused to enter this union and continued the Associate Presbytery of Pennsylvania. There were secessions from the united organization in 1801, and 1820. In 1858 nearly all these various elements were brought together in the United Presbyterian Church of North America. Two bodies that remain outside this union are the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, which since 1821 has maintained an independent existence, and the Associate Synod of North America, a lineal descendant of the Associate Presbytery of Pennsylvania, founded in 1858 by those who preferred to continue their own organization rather than enter into the union effected that year.

(b) Cameronians or Covenanters.

The Reformed Presbytery, which merged with the Associate Presbytery in 1782, was renewed in an independent existence in 1798 by the isolated covenanters who had taken no part in the union of 1782. This renewed presbytery expanded into a synod in 1809. In 1833 there was a division into two branches, the "Old Lights" (synod) and the "New Lights" (general synod), caused by disagreements as to the attitude the church should take towards the Constitution of the United States. In 1840 two ministers, dissatisfied with what they considered laxity among the "Old Lights", withdrew from the synod, and formed the "Covenanted Reformed Church" which has been several times disorganized and counts only a handful of members. In 1883 dissatisfaction with a disciplinary decision of the general synod (New Lights) caused the secession of a small number of its members, who have formed at Allegheny, Pa., the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States and Canada. Negotiations for a union of the general synod and the synod were made in 1890, but were unsuccessful.

(3) The Welsh Church

The first organization of a Welsh Calvinistic Methodist church in the United States was at Remsen, N. Y., in 1824. Four years later a presbytery was established, and the growth of the denomination has kept pace with the increase in the Welsh population. The English language is fast gaining control in the church services.


The Presbyterian denomination throughout the world, exclusive of the Reformed churches, numbers over 5,000,000 communicants. Of these the United States has 1,897,534 (12 bodies); Scotland, 1,233,226 (6 bodies); Canada, 289,556 (3 bodies); Wales, 195,000; Ireland, 112,481 (4 bodies); England, 90,808 (2 bodies); Australia, 50,000; New Zealand, 28,000; Jamaica, 12,017; S. Africa, 11,323.

Publication information Written by J.A. McHugh. Transcribed by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XII. Published 1911. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York


BENSON, Non-Catholic Denominations (New York, 1910). 91-117; LYON, A Study of the Sects (Boston, 1891), 99-109; New Schaff-Herzog Encyc. of Religious Knowledge, IX (New York, 1911), s. v.

I. A. - HODGE, Discussions in Church Polity (New York, 1878); IDEM, What is Presbyterian Law as Defined by the Church Courts? (Philadelphia, 1882); THOMPSON, The Historic Episcopate (Philadelphia, 1910). B. - SCHAFF, The Creeds of Christendom (New York, 1905), I, 669-817; III, 600-76; HODGE, Systematic Theology (3 vols., New York, 1885); SMITH, The Creed of the Presbyterians (New York, 1901); Encyc. of Religion and Ethics, III (New York, 1911), see Confessions. C. - BAIRD, Eutaxia. or the Presbyterian Liturgies (New York, 1855); SHIELDS, Liturgia Expurgata (New York, 1844); The Book of Common Worship (Philadelphia, 1906).

II. - KERR, The People's History of Presbyterianism (Richmond, 1888); BROADLEY, The Rise and Progress of Presbyterianism; DRYSDALE, History of Presbyterianism in England (London, 1889); REID, A History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (3 vols., Belfast, 1867); PATTON, Popular History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (New York. 1900); THOMPSON, A History of the Presbyterian Churches in the United States (New York, 1895) in Am. Church Hist. Ser., VI, bibliog., xi-xxxi; Amer. Church Hist. Ser., XI, 145-479.

III. - STEPHENS, The Presbyterian Churches (Philadelphia, 1910); ROBERTS, The Presbyterian Handbook (Philadelphia, 1911).

Also, see:
Westminster Confession of Faith

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