BIG TENT 2015 • July 30–August 1, Knoxville, TN REGISTER NOW →

Skip to main content

“Daughter, your faith has made you well.” —Mark 5:34

Presbyterian 101
Subscribe by RSS

For more information:

(800) 872-3283
Send email

Or write to
100 Witherspoon Street
Louisville, KY 40202

Presbyterian Church history

The earliest Christian church consisted of Jews in the first century who had known Jesus and heard his teachings. It gradually grew and spread from the Middle East to other parts of the world, though not without controversy and hardship among its supporters.

During the fourth century, after more than 300 years of persecution under various Roman emperors, the church became established as a political as well as a spiritual power under the Emperor Constantine. Theological and political disagreements, however, served to widen the rift between members of the eastern (Greek-speaking) and western (Latin-speaking) branches of the church. Eventually the western portions of Europe came under the religious and political authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Eastern Europe and parts of Asia came under the authority of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

In western Europe, the authority of the Roman Catholic Church remained largely unquestioned until the Renaissance in the 15th century. The invention of the printing press in Germany around 1440 made it possible for common people to have access to printed materials including the Bible. This, in turn, enabled many to discover religious thinkers who had begun to question the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. One such figure, Martin Luther, a German priest and professor, started the movement known as the Protestant Reformation when he posted a list of 95 grievances against the Roman Catholic Church on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517. Some 20 years later, a French/Swiss theologian, John Calvin, further refined the reformers’ new way of thinking about the nature of God and God’s relationship with humanity in what came to be known as Reformed theology. John Knox, a Scotsman who studied with Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland, took Calvin’s teachings back to Scotland. Other Reformed communities developed in England, Holland and France. The Presbyterian church traces its ancestry back primarily to Scotland and England.

Presbyterians have featured prominently in United States history. The Rev. Francis Makemie, who arrived in the United States from Ireland in 1683, helped to organize the first American Presbytery at Philadelphia in 1706. In 1726, the Rev. William Tennent founded a ministerial “log college” in Pennsylvania. Twenty years later, the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton University) was established. Other Presbyterian ministers, such as the Rev. Jonathan Edwards and the Rev. Gilbert Tennent, were driving forces in the so-called “Great Awakening,” a revivalist movement in the early 18th century. One of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, the Rev. John Witherspoon, was a Presbyterian minister and the president of Princeton University from 1768-1793.

Presbyterian denominations in the United States have split and parts have reunited several times. Currently the largest Presbyterian denomination is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which has its national offices in Louisville, Ky. It was formed in 1983 as a result of reunion between the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (PCUS), the so-called “southern branch,” and the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA), the so-called “northern branch.” Other Presbyterian churches in the United States include the Presbyterian Church in America, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.



  • I recently went to a Presbyterian Church service and heard/read the "apostles creed" that said "We believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints...". I respectfully ask: Is the Presbyterian Church currently a branch of the Catholic Church ? Do the Presbyterians embrace the concept of saints like the catholics do ? I got a little confused because of it. by Ivan on 09/07/2014 at 1:08 p.m.

  • very goood by kyle on 05/13/2014 at 4:55 p.m.

  • Mr. Olvey, I'll answer this briefly: 1) The Associate Reformed Church is the descendant of Covenanter and Seceder streams of Scottish Presbyterianism that formally came together before the PCUSA in the 18th century, see The Cumberland Presbyterian Church was formed around 1808 in Kentucky when a dispute arose about standards for ministers. The Cumbereland Church was convinced that the needs of the frontier church required the PCUSA to not insist on uniform educational standards for ministers and favored a more flexible model for church leadership. The Cumberland church continues, but the majority of them reunited with the PCUSA in the late 19th century. The schism with the Presbyterian Church in America is much more recent. This was a split with the then PCUS, the former Southern Church. The PCA departed over issues of what we believe about the scriptures (the PCA insisted on inerrancy), the ordination of women (the PCA did not agree with the affirmation of women's ordination by the PCUS), and engagement in society (the PCUS was getting more deeply engaged in the civil rights movement). I hope this is helpful, Charles by Charles Wiley on 12/11/2013 at 2:44 p.m.

  • What causes or caused the presbyterian church in america, the cumberland presbyterian church and the associate reformed presbyterian church to remain outside of the presbyterian church (usa)? by Jed Olvey on 12/11/2013 at 12:21 p.m.

  • We are new and have come from another church that we no longer felt comfortable in. Thank you Jesus for this fresh start with the Presbyterians of San Mateo Florida. We now call it our church home. by on 01/09/2013 at 8:05 a.m.

Join the Discussion

Post Comment