History and Heritage
History of the Presbyterian Church up through to establishment of the Reformed Presbyterian Church General Assembly
The historical origin of the Reformed Presbyterian Church General Assembly begins at the founding of the New Testament Church in Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. The early church was based upon a pattern of representative government. The word Presbyterian comes from the Greek term presbuteros meaning elder. It refers to the Apostolic system of choosing leaders from among those who are the wisest members of the church, based upon biblical qualifications. It literally means ruling by elders, based upon a representative system of government, that is, government by the consent of the people. As time passed, the church began to divert its government from a representative system to an Episcopal hierarchy in ecclesiastical authority. With the onslaught of degenerating morality and leadership in the government of the Church, there came an outcry for reform. Reformation was a demand for the Bible to be translated into the language of the common people and a return to “Gospel simplicity,” i.e., a representative system of government and a biblical form of worship.
In the sixteenth century, there came a divine working of God in the reforming movement of the church. However, the Roman Catholic Church was not about to give up its administrative system of centralized government. Nor was the Roman Church about to return to the Augustinian theology of the early church. As God continued to bless the pure preaching of His Word, there came into existence the establishment of what were called “Reformed Churches.” The great reformer of the church, and its greatest systematician was the French reformer of Geneva, Switzerland John Calvin.
John Calvin was born in Nayon, France in 1509 and was a student of Latin, logic and philosophy at the University of Paris. Later he studied law and classical literature. About 1533, Calvin changed his theological views to those of the Reformation. After being involved in the French reformed movement, Calvin was forced to flee from Paris for His life. From 1534-1536 Calvin wrote the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. It was a systematic theology on the doctrinal teaching of the Reformation. God’s providence lead Calvin to Geneva where he ministered from 1536-1538, was exiled for three years and returned in 1541 where he remained pastor of St. Peters Church until his death in 1564. It was this church at Geneva that became the model of Presbyterian Churches. It was here at Geneva the Scottish Reformer, John Knox, advanced his understanding of systematic and ecclesiastical theology under the instruction of John Calvin.
John Knox began to preach in Scotland at the St. Andrews Castle Church. Having spent time imprisoned on a French galley, Knox was eventually freed and returned to northern England. Knox then became the Chaplain to the Reformer King Edward VI, and soon after King Edward’s death, was required to flee to Europe for his life. Knox was invited to pastor an English congregation in Frankfurt, Germany, the first independent church established outside the Church of England. However, a dispute soon erupted after Dr. Cox, a minister of the Church of England, arrived at Frankfurt. Knox was falsely accused by Cox of undermining the Emperor. However, the dissension was over which prayer book the church would use in worship. Knox was desirous of using the Book of Common Worship developed in Geneva by Calvin and himself. Yet, Knox was forced to leave the church at Frankfurt and flee to Geneva, where another English Church, which had been part of the Frankfurt church, was established as independent of the Church of England. Upon his return to Scotland in 1559, Knox organized the Presbyterian Church as the official Church of Scotland. In 1560, John Knox lead the Church of Scotland in developing a Confession and Covenants as its official religion and the Presbyterian Church as the official Church in Scotland. From Scotland the Presbyterian movement moved westward to Ireland among the Scottish settlers and native Irish.
In the meantime, the Presbyterian movement was developing in England. From 1643 through 1647, there was assembled a group of 100 ministers at Westminster Abbey in London. Here they formed a new confession the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647 that was followed by the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. The Church of Scotland was well represented at this assembly by five of its leading theologians.
Soon the Presbyterian Church found itself in North America. Finally in 1706, the First American Presbytery was formed in Philadelphia, and in 1716, it became the Synod of Philadelphia. In 1729, the Synod of Philadelphia adopted the Westminster Confession and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms as its confession of faith. In 1788, the Synod adopted the official name of their church as “The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America” and held its first meeting in 1789. In 1857, the New School movement became divided over the issue of slavery and formed the United Synod of the Presbyterian Church. In 1861, the Old School movement of the South withdrew from the national church and formed the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America a continuing church of the former body. Near the end of the War Between the States, the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America and a few smaller synods formed the Presbyterian Church in the United States. In 1972, a conservative movement removed itself from the Presbyterian Church in the United States to form the Presbyterian Church in America a continuing church. In 1982, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod merged with the Presbyterian Church in America. In 1983, a few churches in the North Georgia Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America withdrew from the denomination over purity of doctrine and ecclesiastical practices. There upon was formed Covenant Presbytery. In 1985, Covenant Presbytery formed the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States as a continuing church. In 1990, the Reformed Presbyterian Church divided into four presbyteries and changed its name to the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the Americas.
The following year, as a result of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America’s failure to establish and maintain a system of church discipline and the inability (after nine years) to finalize on a constitution (!), three of the four presbyteries chose to depart.
After the departure, the Western Presbytery dissolved itself with several churches electing to join with the Westminster Presbytery. One member church left the Hanover Presbytery (which chose to stand alone to this day) and also joined the Westminster Presbytery. During this time, the Westminster Presbytery sought counsel with representatives of several other denominations, some of who requested that the presbytery join with their denomination.
The conclusion of the matter was that we should seek to be confessional Christians who adhere to and practice our confession in every area of life. This was no longer possible without increasing and unresolvable strife within the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the Americas that was believed would harm the peace of the church. Every other denomination that was considered as a possible place to go had confessional difference or was facing varying struggles over such issues as theistic evolution, inerrancy, charismaticism, Arminianism, dispensationalism, and women in church office. We did not believe these were battles that needed to be joined since they were battles with modernism and liberalism that had already been allowed into the denominations. Therefore, we opted to continue the Presbyterian Church with fresh vigor based upon time-tested principles while seeking to learn from the past and continue the Reformation into the future.
Our first General Assembly adopted a Book of Church Order utilizing large parts of the original from the Westminster Assembly. Our Standards are those of the original Westminster Assembly. Boundaries for four presbyteries were laid out, with churches established in each. We have sought to guard against the extremes of administrative errors in the denominations from which we had separated, though confessing our great dependence upon the Lord to avoid them and others in the future. We are still learning and seek guidance from other denominations around the globe of like precious faith. We also pray that the many battles over biblical, confessional and organizational matters within other denominations will result in victory for the cause of Christ so as to enable us to seriously consider joining with them for the unity of the Church of Jesus Christ, for which we both work and pray.
(Approved by the 2nd General Assembly, July 27-29, 1993, Motion #36.)
(1) This seems to have resulted from an over-reaction to the problems of the Presbyterian Church in America’s tendency to centralism and becoming an administrative church by the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the Americas. The final matters leading to this departure concerned the written threat of “ex post facto” law-making and the discipline of a presbytery, and the unilateral changing of previously agreed upon General Assembly dates. One presbytery decided to withdraw leaving insufficient votes in the other two presbyteries to challenge the original presbytery at the time of the “new dates” of the General Assembly. Consequently, the other two presbyteries decided to withdraw for the sake of peace and their good name.