The new Presbyterians – bicentennial, reunification
A united denomination again after more than a century of division, the Presbyterian church is marking its bicentennial with a year-long celebration.
At least two traits deserve note on the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 200th birthday-diversity and representative government. Both took root, along with the whole of Presbyterianism, four centuries ago in the Europe of a dedicated, brilliant theologian, John Calvin. Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, a definitive Protestant treatise, spelled out Calvin’s notion of the ideal church government.
In the Swiss town of Geneva he put that model into practice. Calvin’s Geneva was a place of strict moral standards, where a man could be whipped for disrespect to his elders and where leaders’ interpretation of God’s word was irrefutable law. But it was also a place where each citizen had a vote in the city government and where Calvin encouraged public spiritedness and participation. And Calvin’s church was also organized to give the common man a say. It was run not only by clergy, but also by certain laymen elected by the whole congregation and known as “elders,” or in Greek, “presbyteros”-hence, the latter-day”Presbyterian.”
Geneva attracted converts from all over Europe. It left an indelible impression on many, including a feisty Scot named John Knox. A Roman Catholic priest who converted to Protestantism, Knox studied with Calvin at Geneva, then went home to bring the faith and the Presbyterian-style church government to his native country. Knox wholeheartedly embraced the idea that all men are equal under God, and his Presbyterian Church reflected that conviction.
Presbyterian churches had traditionally been set up along national lines, and now those various groups each brought their own style of Presbyterianism to the New World. The diversity didn’t daunt a young Irish-educated Scot named Francis Makemie: Makemie worked tirelessly to bring the varied groups together, and in 1706 he called the first meeting of the colonies’ first Presbytery, or association of Presbyterian ministers and their congregations. They were joined in short order by Presbyterians of Welsh, Dutch, German, and French origins.
Already steeped in the philosophy of cooperation and a voice for the common man, Presbyterianism was tailor-made for the budding spirit of independence in the New World. In 1775 the church’s governing body in the colonies issued a pastoral letter urging unity among the colonists and a willingness to fight for freedom if necessary.
One of the letter’s architects, the Rev. John Witherspoon, taught many of the Constitution’s framers at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), represented New Jersey in the Continental Congress, and was the only clergyman to sign the American Declaration of Independence.
Once the colonies became a nation, the way was clear for a national Presbyterian Church. In 1789 Witherspoon convened the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America, in Philadelphia. But diversity can be difficult for mortal men, and the church suffered a number of painful schisms, both before and after that first Assembly. One had occurred in the mid-1700s between revivalists and anti-revivalists, and a more significant one came in 1837 over the role of volunteer groups in church missions. This time both factions went to court for custody of the title “Presbyterian Church of the United States of America” and both got it–one through a court in New York and one through a court in Philadelphia.
The most important split took place in 1861 at the outset of the Civil War. Among the divisive issues were slavery and nationalism. At the 73rd General Assembly that year delegates passed the “Gardiner Spring Resolutions,” demanding that every clergyman swear allegiance to the United States of America. The Southern clergy did more than refuse; most of them boycotted the Assembly altogether. The church was wrenched in two. The Northerners kept the name Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Southerners who broke away banded together as, eventually, the Presbyterian Church of the United States (Presbyterian Church [U.S.]).
It would be late in the next century before the two major branches reunited . In the interim, each remained active in evangelical work and in expanding the mission work the early church had started with American Indian tribes. And in 1983, at long last, the north and south branches reunited.
It’s a new version of the old church, just over 3 million members strong, dealing with 20th-century issues and, leaders say, going at them head-on. Diversity and fair representation are two. At the General Assembly, special committees report on the status and needs of the church’s minority-group members, including a fast-growing population of Korean-American Presbyterians. (The largest Presbyterian congregation in the world is located in Seoul.) A Presbyterian seminary in Iowa is specializing in training Native American and Eskimo ministers, and the Hispanic-American Presbyterian population celebrated its 100th anniversary last year.
The church is fostering another kind of diversity-that of opinion, says the Rev. Albert Winn, a retired Presbyterian minister and moderator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.)’s 1979 General Assembly. “We’re looking for ways to give representation of different opinions and attitudes as well as racial groups,” he says.
The church’s mission work has extended into 88 countries, including Central America and the Middle East.
Like other mainline Protestant denominations, Presbyterians are fighting a slight membership decline–about 10 percent in the past decade. In response, the church is emphasizing evangelism. The national headquarters has increased its evangelical staff, and at regional conferences, local church leaders are being trained to evangelize in their own communities.
And the church is dealing with social issues. Some of the papers scheduled at this writing for the 200th Assembly will deal with AIDS; human rights in Chile; the split between North and South Korea; resurgent racism in America; and “Christian Obedience in a Nuclear Age.” Even the expression of church doctrine has progressed. The post-war Presbyterian book of confessions contained nothing written since the 1640s. Now it includes the old standards, along with some 20th-century statements. “We’re still a mainline Reformation theology,” Winn says. “But there is more latitude, more social conscience.”
Some of these matters will–likely spur debate. But discussion and debate, leaders say, give the church its energy and vitality. In the words of this year’s Assembly moderator, Dr. Isabel Rogers: “Presbyterians never agree on anything. We admit our diversity. But from this diversity bubbles up debate, which brings about some of our most thoughtful and forceful statements.” Presbyterian Presidents
Eight U.S. presidents have belonged to or been identified with the Presbyterian Church, a religious denomination closely identified with representative government.
* Abraham Lincoln never joined a Christian congregation: however, he regularly attended New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., during his years as president.
** Although President Reagan was brought up in the Disciples of Christ denomination, his “adopted” church is Bel-Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, pastored by his friend, the Rev. Donn Moomaw.
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