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Presbyterianism

Presbyterianism in America

Presbyterians were to be found in most of the English colonies of North America. Through the efforts of Francis Makemie, a missionary from Ireland (1683), the first presbytery in America was formed at Philadelphia in 1706; a synod was constituted in 1716. New England had its own synod (1775–82). In the 18th cent. American Presbyterians divided temporarily over the question of revivals and evangelism: the Old School rejected them; the group known as the New School encouraged them. Before the Revolution the Presbyterians established the College of New Jersey, now Princeton. The General Assembly of 1789 in Philadelphia represented a united Presbyterian Church. A Plan of Union with the Congregational associations of New England that existed from 1792 until 1837 was disrupted when the Old School Presbyterians, favoring separate denominational agencies for missionary and evangelistic work, prevailed. The Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions was then established.

Until 1982 the main body of Presbyterianism in North America was the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. It was formed by the merger (1958) of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, descending from the Philadelphia presbytery of 1706, and the United Presbyterian Church of North America, which had been constituted (1858) by a union of two older churches. In 1983, the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America merged with the second largest body, the Presbyterian Church in the United States (also known as the "Southern Presbyterian Church"), to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); it is now the main body, with about 3.6 million members (1997). Thus was healed the major division in American Presbyterianism, which originated shortly before the Civil War over the issue of slavery and resulted in the formation of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States. In 1810 the Cumberland Presbyterian Church was established by the secession of revivalist groups in Kentucky; many of its congregations were reunited with the main body in 1906. The ones who remain independent now number about 88,000 members (1997), not including members of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America (originally set apart in 1869 as the Colored Cumberland Presbyterian Church).

In 1973 the Presbyterian Church in America, first known as the National Presbyterian Church, was organized as a constitutional assembly; it has about 279,000 members (1996). There are several other smaller branches of Presbyterianism in America. Presbyterians are the fourth largest Protestant denomination in the United States, after the Baptists, Methodists, and Lutherans. The Presbyterian Church in Canada was formed in 1875; some Presbyterians joined with the Methodist and Congregational churches in 1925 to form the United Church of Canada.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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