The Presbyterian Church in Scotland had 4 main branches, although there were numerous sub branches with all of these groups combining and splitting at different times. These 4 main branches were1:

Calvinism and Presbyterians

The Presbyterian Church theology is largely based on the ideas developed by John Calvin, who extended the ideas first proposed by Martin Luther. John Knox, a Scotsman who studied under John Calvin in Geneva, took Calvin's teachings back to Scotland. Without a detailed description of Calvinism, there are perhaps 4 key implications. The first is that Calvinism substituted the sovereignty of God for the sovereignty of the Roman Catholic Church. The second is the concept that the elect (those that are truly saved) will persevere. Thirdly, the doctrine of divine predestination, which holds that God, and God alone, determines who will be saved. And forth, that all the elect, including heathen and infants are saved (as opposed to the Catholic position that only the baptized are saved). Calvinist theology is often described by the Five Points of Calvinism:

Two key influences of Calvin that had significant implications in America were the concept of individual freedom and Bible study in the original language. Calvin believed that the Bible is the supreme authority in religious, moral and political guidance. These beliefs led to the following principles:

One merely has to look at this list to see the similarities to so many of the beliefs that are the basis of the American Constitution and of America in general, even today

In addition to the Presbyterians, other Calvinists sects included:

The Church of Scotland

Beginning with the Reformation in Scotland the official Church of Scotland has been the Presbyterian Church. It struggled, at times, to maintain its principles against attempts by the various monarchs to re-establish an Episcopal church. As described above, a key aspect of the Presbyterian Church is the election of elders by the members of the church. In general, there are three forms of church governance or polity. Episcopal polity refers to churches that are governed by bishops, who are appointed by the hierarchy of the church. In a Presbyterian polity, the churches are governed by a hierarchy of councils, consisting of the session for the local church and then the presbytery, the synod and the general assembly. Members of these councils are elected by the congregations of the local churches. (Note that the Presbyterian church is not the only church that adheres to a presbyterian polity. Other churches with a presbyterian governance include the various Reformed Churches in Europe.) In a congregation polity, the local congregation rules itself and even though there may be an association with other churches, these associations do not exercise any control over the local churches. This was a key conflict between the monarchy and the Church of Scotland. The monarchs were reluctant to cede power to the church, since they could not control the church if its form of governance was presbyterian. The degree to which the Church of Scotland, at various times reached a compromise with the monarch over Church governance lead to a number of fractions of the church, the main ones being the Associate Presbytery and the Reformed Presbytery.

The Associate Presbytery

In the early 1700s the Presbyterian Church began to moderate some of its stricter teachings including moderating the view of predestination to recognize that “the atonement of Christ is universal” and is available to any person who repents. Contributing to the controversy was the Lay Patronage Act, which gave to a few large landowners the right to appoint pastors. The Lay Patronage Act was an attack on the representative, presbyterian governance of the Church. In 1732, the Moderator of the Synod of Perth and Stirling, Ebenezer Erskine, delivered a sermon in which he condemned the evils of the Lay Patronage Act and the “moderateness, spiritual deadness and oral flabbiness” in the Scottish church. For this he was rebuked by the Synod. When the Assembly sustained the rebuke the following year, he was joined by Alexander Moncrief, William Wilson and James Fisher and entered a protest. The Assembly termed the protest treason and expelled all four from the ministry. As a result, the four ministers formed the Associate Presbytery at Gairney Bridge on 6 December 17332. The Associate Presbyterian Church was a strict conservative Church. (The Associate Presbyterians further divided in 1847 into the Burgher and Anti-Burgher churches over a dispute regarding the Burgher oath.) The Associate Presbyterians were also called Seceders. The Associate Presbyterian Church evolved into the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

The Reformed Presbytery

he first National Covenant of the Scottish Church was in 1581, which was primarily aimed at establishing the Presbyterian doctrines as opposed to those of the Catholic Church. When Charles I became King of England and Scotland in 1625, he was determined to force the Scottish Presbyteri- ans and the English Puritans to conform to the Anglican form of church governance and worship. In 1637 Charles decreed that every Church in Scotland should use the Anglican service. The response of the Scots was a renewal of the National Covenant with some additional protests against the specific acts of Charles. In this covenant, they swore to defend the Presbyterian form of worship to the death, if necessary. Practically every citizen of Scotland signed the agreement. After Charles I was beheaded, his successor, Charles II turned out to be even worse and enacted even more drastic laws against those that did not conform to Anglicanism. The Scots responded with another National Covenant and Charles engaged in a religious war against the Covenanters, as they were called, that came to be known as the “killing time”. The conflict finally ended when William and Mary assumed the throne in 1688 and the Toleration Act was passed by Parliament, which ended the persecution of those outside the Church of England.

During the killing time, the Covenanters separated themselves from the official Church of Scotland, which was under the Control of Charles and organized themselves into local societies. They continued the societies even after the Toleration Act because they continued to feel that Pres- byterianism was now established by the will of the king instead of by divine right. These societies eventually formed the Reformed Presbytery in 1743, lead by the Reverends Thomas Nairn and John Macmillan.

The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP)

The Scots-Irish who immigrated to America beginning in the early eighteenth century brought with them the two versions of the Presbyterian Church that were dominant in Northern Ireland, the Reformed Presbyterians and the Associate Presbyterians. The Associate Presbytery of Pennsylvania was organized in 1753 with headquarters in Philadelphia. The Reformed Presbytery was organized near Harrisburg, PA in 1774. In America, the two churches found that their differences were not so significant as they had been in Scotland and Ireland, and in Philadelphia on 1 November 1782 these two churches merged to form the Associate Reformed Synod3. Not all of the Associate and Reformed Churches joined the new Synod, but it did include churches in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, North and South Carolina and Georgia. The Associate Reformed Presbytery of the Carolinas and Georgia was created in 1790 with headquarters in Abbeville, SC, still within the Associate Reformed Synod. In 1803 it was divided into 4 Synods (Carolinas, Pennsylvania, New York and Scioto4) and one General Synod with headquarters in Philadelphia. In 1822 the Synod of the Carolinas was granted separate status as the ARP Church of the South. In order to educate ministers for the Church, the Associate Reformed Synod of the South established Erskine College, in Due West, SC in 1837. Those churches that did not associate with either the Re- formed Presbyterian Church or the ARP Church of the South became the United Presbyterian Church in 1858.

Today, the ARP church has 10 Presbyteries in North America. They are Canada Presbytery, the Presbytery of the Northeast (Northeastern United States), Virginia Presbytery (Virginia and West Virginia), First Presbytery (North Carolina), Catawba Presbytery (Eastern South Carolina), Second Presbytery (Western South Carolina and Georgia), Florida Presbytery, Tennessee-Alabama Presbytery (Eastern Tennessee and Alabama), Mississippi Valley Presbytery (Arkansas, Missouri, Western Tennessee, Kentucky, and Mississippi), and Pacific Presbytery (Washington, Oregon, and Califor- nia).

The Presbyterian Church in America

There are two major historical origins of the Presbyterian Church in America. Once source is the Reformed Presbytery and the Associated Presbytery introduced by the Scots-Irish and the other is the more mainstream Presbyterians represented by the English and the reformed Churches of Europe. Although they interacted, these two branches essentially followed their own paths.

The first Presbyterian churches in America were formed by Francis Makamie on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Makamie, ordained in Ulster, came to America in 1683 and organized five churches in Maryland. At about the same time, Presbyterian churches were being formed in the middle colonies by English and Welsh Presbyterians as well as by Huguenots. These churches organized the First Presbytery in Philadelphia in 1706 made up of seven ministers from Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania. By 1717, the number of Presbyterian Churches had grown to the extent that the First Synod was formed, consisting of Presbyteries in Long Island, Philadelphia, New Castle (Delaware) and Snow Hill (Eastern Shore of Maryland).

In 1738, George Whitefield, a collaborator of John Wesley made the first of seven visits to America. Whitefield traveled from Georgia to New England, holding evangelical meetings and attracting a great number of converts. A religious fervor took hold in the American Colonies, called the Great Awakening, and large numbers of people underwent religious conversions. Whitefield inspired ministers of all faiths to revitalize their own religion. The evangelicalism inspired by the Great Awakening led to problems in the Presbyterian Church, which split into two groups. The New Side (or New Lights) embraced the evangelism of the Great Awakening, emphasized the New Testament, especially the model of Christ of the Apostles who went out to seek converts. The Old Side consisted of the high churchmen and traditionalists who believed that it was “man's duty to seek the Church, not the Church's duty to seek the man”. Eventually the two groups came together again and in 1758 organized the Presbyterian Church in the US.

The Scots-Irish began to emigrate in large numbers from Northern Ireland in the second quarter of the 18th century and brought their own Presbyterianism in the form of the Associate (Seceders) and the Reformed (Covenanters) Churches that had separated from the Church of Scotland in both Scotland and Northern Ireland. These Ulster Presbyterians conflicted with the largely New England educated (Harvard and Yale) Puritan Presbyterians. In 1753, these Scots-Irish immigrants formed the Associate Presbytery of Pennsylvania. In 1782, the Associate Presbytery and the Reformed Presbytery united to form the Associate Reformed Synod. In 1798, the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America was formed by those Reformed Presbyterian churches that did not become part of the ARP. After the ARP Synod of the South became a separate organization, the remaining ARP Synod eventually became the United Presbyterian Church.

A major problem for the Presbyterians was the demand for ministers created by the immigration of over 200,000 Scots-Irish Presbyterians. Compounding this problem was the fact that these new Presbyterians were scatted over to hard to reach and thinly populated frontier. The primary impediment to meeting this demand was the requirement of the Presbyterian Church that the clergy be educated, which meant that they relied heavily on ministers from Scotland. The first Presbyterian School in America was founded by Rev. William Tennent in Neshaminy in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where he taught Greek, Latin, theology and the “arts and sciences” in a log cabin adjoining his manse, which came to be called the Log College. The New Siders in New Jersey also saw the need for education of ministers and in 1746 founded the College of New Jersey in Princeton, NJ (later to become Princeton University). Other Presbyterian colleges included Hampden-Sydney in 1776 in the Piedmont region of Virginia and Washington & Jefferson in 1780 in Pennsylvania. As more and more institutions were created for educating Presbyterian ministers, the Presbyterian church came to be recognized as a leader in promoting higher education. In spite of this, they still could not keep up with the demand, which was increasingly met by the Baptists, who had no educational requirements for their ministers. In fact, the Baptists ministers were some-times even illiterate. The extent to which the Presbyterians were losing this battle for ministers is shown by the fact that in 1776 only 10% of the ministers in the colonies were Presbyterians and the Presbyterians had already been surpassed by the Baptists.

Number of Ministers in America in 17765
Church New England Middle & South Total per cent
Congregational 1650 113 1763 36%
Episcopalian 127 1136 1263 26%
Baptist 217 391 608 13%
Presbyterian 51 462 513 10%
Other     734 15%

In 1760, one Anglican minister described the religions in the colonies this way. “The Baptists are obstinate, illiterate and grossly ignorant, the Methodists, ignorant, censorious and uncharitable, the Quakers, rigid, but the Presbyterians are pretty moderate except here and there a bigot or rigid Calvinist.”(Letter of James Reed, SPG minister to the Secretary of the Colony, June 26, 1760, Colonial records of NC, V1, 265)6

The Second Great Awakening (or the Great Revival) was a period of great religious activity with widespread Christian evangelism and conversions between 1790 and 1840. Named after the first Great Awakening, which occurred in the 1730s and 1740s in the American Colonies and the United Kingdom. During this period, the Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians sent ministers to the frontier areas of Tennessee and Kentucky, as well as other states, to conduct revivals. There were many conversions and the church membership grew significantly. The Baptist and Methodists were much more successful than the Presbyterians, in large part because they were able to provide more ministers. W. M. Gewehr, historian of the first Great Awakening described the reason for the lack of appeal of the Presbyterians was: “Presbyterianism, 'with its intellectual demands of an elaborate creed’ and its high standards of education for its ministry, was at best restricted in its appeal. It was never able to reach and to stir the common folk as the Baptists did.”7 The Presbyterians required that their ministers be college educated and therefore had great difficulty in the frontier areas in recruiting suitably qualified candidates. In 1802, the Cumberland Presbytery in Tennessee (of the Presbyterian Church in the USA) began licensing as pastors, men with little or no education in order to meet the demand for ministers. As a result, the Cumberland Presbytery was ousted in 1809 and in 1810 formed the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Dickson County, Tennessee.

The Presbyterians were also less popular because they were outspoken critics of slavery, whereas the Methodists and Baptists were much more compromising on this issue. The conflict over the issue of slavery resulted in splits between the North and South in all of the major protestant sects that had large congregations in the South. In 1845, the Methodist Episcopal Church South split off from the main Methodist Church and the same year the Southern Baptist Convention was formed. In 1861, the Presbyterian Church in the US, often called the Southern Presbyterian Church, was formed. Thus there were essentially four Presbyterian Churches in the South: the Presbyterian Church in the US, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian and the Reformed Presbyterian Church (the later two, although not formed as a result of the conflict over slavery, were primarily southern churches).

In the Figure below the major events in the evolution of the various Presbyterian Churches are outlined. In the top half of the figure the history of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland is shown as three main branches (not including the Church of England, which is also shown). They are the Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Associate Presbyterian Secession Church and the Church of Scotland. The first two of these, the Reformed and the Associate, form the bases for one of the two main branches of Presbyterians in America. These churches were brought to America by the Scots-Irish and today exists as the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. Over the years these two organizations split and combined eventually resulting in the separate denominations, as shown in the Figure, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and the United Presbyterian Church.

Meanwhile, the Presbyterian Church in the USA, as it was named in 1788 after Independence, represented the other branch. As described earlier, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church broke off in 1810 in the dispute over educational requirements for the ministry. In 1861, the Presbyterian Church in the CSA separated as a result of the Civil War, and after the war became the Presbyterian Church in the US. In 1958, the United Presbyterian Church merged with the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA). In 1983 this church reunited with the Presbyterian Church in the US to become the Presbyterian Church (USA).


church timeline

1 Gaius Jackson Slusser, Editor, They Seek a Country The American Presbyterians, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1955
2 “The Centennial History of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, 1803 – 1903,” Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, (Walker, Evans & Cogswell Co. Charleston,SC) 1905, page 2.
3 ibid
4 I'm not sure where Scioto is, but there is a Scioto County in Ohio, east of Cincinnati and on the border with Kentucky
5 James G. Leyburn, The Scotch-Irish A Social History, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, 1962, p.283.
6 James G. Leyburn, The Scotch-Irish A Social History, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, 1962, p.287.
7 Wesley M. Gewehr, The Great Awakening in Virginia, 1740-1790, Duke University Press, Durham, NC, p. 193

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