Let me first state that what follows is a very brief (despite its appearance) and therefore a very general overview of American Presbyterianism. If you want more information, I recommend Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism by D. G. Hart and John R. Muether.
The first presbytery meeting in the United States was in Philadelphia in 1706. A presbytery meeting is a meeting of the elders in a given geographical region to conduct church business. The church grew, other presbyteries formed, and the first synod convened in 1717. A synod is a group of presbyteries that gather to conduct church business. Overtime, the synod became too large to function efficiently, so in 1786 the sixteen presbyteries that made up the synod were divided into four separate synods. Three years later, in 1789 the first General Assembly (meeting of all the synods) convened.
However, the eighty-three year journey from the first presbytery meeting to the first General Assembly was not without bumps. From 1741 to 1758, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America split between the Old Side and New Side over the issue of revivalism. The New Side, following men such as George Whitfield and Gilbert Tennent were pro-revivalism and viewed by the Old Side, represented by John Thomson and George Gillespie, as emotional and theatrical in their preaching. When the two sides came back together in 1758 the influence of the New Side was apparent.
While the Old Side and New Side were able to reunite, the issue of revivalism continued to cause controversy in the Presbyterian Church. Following the tradition of the New Side, the Cumberland Presbytery, located in Kentucky, began ordaining men who did not meet the education requirements of the Presbyterian Church and who only loosely subscribed to the Westminster Confession of Faith, the long standing doctrinal standard of Presbyterians. The Cumberland Presbyterian Church began pulling away in 1810, and in 1825, the Presbyterian Church in United States of America officially excluded the Cumberland Presbyterians from the General Assembly.
In the 1830′s a new debate, or perhaps the same debate with a new focus, arose. The two sides were the Old School and the New School. The Old School party pushed for a strict subscription to the Westminster Standards, and accused the New School party of unbiblical views of the depravity of man, the headship of Adam, and other central doctrines. The split was official in 1838 when the Old School constituents to the General Assembly effectively locked the New School constituents out of the assembly meeting.
As the Old School New School controversy lingered on, the issues of slavery and states’ rights, the hot political issues of the day, further complicated the debate. Holding a higher view of states’ rights and seeing slavery as not necessarily condemned in Scripture, the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America organized in 1861. The organizing churches were southern and predominately Old School congregations. With the end of the Civil War in 1865, the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America was renamed the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS).
In 1869, eight years after the Southern church formed, the Old School and New School sides came back together to form the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA). The reuniting of the Old and New School in the North established two main Presbyterian bodies divided less over theological issues and more over Civil War era politics. The Northern Church was the PCUSA, and the Southern Church was the PCUS.
Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, theological liberalism grew within the PCUSA, the Northern Church. In the 1920′s, the debate between fundamentalism and liberalism reached fever pitch. Harry Emerson Fosdick, a liberal Baptist minister preached a sermon titled “Shall the Fundamentalists Win” at the First Presbyterian Church of New York City in 1922. In his sermon, Fosdick openly denied fundamentals of the faith such as the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, the inspiration of Scripture, and the second coming of Jesus Christ. In 1923 the General Assembly responded by affirming five fundamentals: 1) the inerrancy of Scripture; 2) the miracles of Christ; 3) the virgin birth of Christ; 4) the substitutionary atonement (the doctrine that Christ died in place of his people, as a substitute); and 5) the bodily resurrection. In addition, J. Gresham Machen, a leading conservative theologian and Princeton professor, sought to address the issue with a book titled, Christianity and Liberalism. Machen’s argument was that the debate between fundamentalism and liberalism was not a debate between two different varieties of Christianity but a debate between Christianity and a different religion altogether, liberalism. The liberal camp responded in 1924 with the Auburn Affirmation, a document calling into question the need for men to affirm the five fundamentals in order to be ordained as ministers in the PCUSA.
The controversy continued, resulting in Machen and the fundamentalists opening Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929 and forming the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions in 1933. These separatist actions by Machen and others resulted in their suspension from the ministry by the PCUSA in 1935. In 1936, Machen and the others organized the Presbyterian Church in America, which then changed its name to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) in 1939. Westminster Theological Seminary and the OPC still stand as biblically faithful institutions today.
Forms of liberalism, similar to that in the Northern Church, crept into the Southern Church in the late 20′s and early 30′s. By the 1940′s, liberalism had firmly taken root in the PCUS. One of the landmark cases within the PCUS involved Hay Watson Smith, a minister in Little Rock, AR whom the Arkansas Presbytery received as a minister despite his denial of Biblical inerrancy and affirmation of other liberal positions. In 1929, the General Assembly requested that the Arkansas Presbytery open a disciplinary investigation regarding Smith’s beliefs. The investigation went on until 1934 and ended with the Presbytery refusing to discipline Smith for his unorthodox and even heretical views.
As the fight against liberalism in the Southern Church grew, several groups emerged to uphold the conservative, biblical position. Dr. L. Nelson Bell, Billy Graham’s father-in-law, began the Southern Presbyterian Journal in 1942, which joined with the Association for the Preservation of the Southern Presbyterian Church in 1954. In 1964, a group of laymen formed the Concerned Presbyterians and joined a conservative group of clergy known as the Presbyterian Churchmen United. The Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship formed in the same year and eventually formed the Executive Committee on Overseas Missions in 1971. This group was concerned with carrying out biblically faithful evangelism in the U.S. and abroad. The education of ministers had always been important to most Presbyterians. Therefore, a group of men started Reformed Theological Seminary in 1966 in Jackson, MS to educate men to be biblically faithful ministers. Representatives from each of these groups drafted a Declaration of Commitment in 1969, which was a commitment to take the necessary action in the event that the doctrine of the church was further compromised.
Only a few years later a Plan of Union was introduced which forced the hand of the conservative groups in the PCUS resulting in a meeting at Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL at which the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA – originally called the National Presbyterian Church) was formed. In 1982, the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod (RPCES), a micro-denomination made up of groups from various Presbyterian and Reformed backgrounds including the OPC, merged with the PCA. The RPCES brought with it Covenant College (Lookout Mountain, GA) and Covenant Seminary (St. Louis, MO) which remain as the denominational undergraduate college and seminary of the PCA.
In 1983, the remaining liberal sides of the Southern Church (PCUS) and the Northern Church (PCUSA), which had come to be known as the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, reunited to form the Presbyterian Church (USA). The OPC and the PCA remain biblically faithful “sister” denominations ministering alongside and in conjunction with one another.
The history of American Presbyterianism is eye opening. What I have presented in this article is only a fraction of the divisions and mergers that have taken place between various groups over the last 300-or-so years. With good reason, many refer to Presbyterian history as “split-pea-soup.” However, the reality is that every denomination shares a similar history made up of various episodes of divisiveness and grace.
The PCA does not claim to be a perfect denomination. Nor does the PCA claim to be the only true Christian denomination. We recognize that there are other biblically sound and faithful denominations alongside whom we have the privilege of proclaiming the wonderful gospel of Jesus Christ. If our history teaches us anything, it teaches us that we are great sinners in need of a great Savior.