All Is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism

By Marsha G. Witten | Go to book overview
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Appendix One
BRIEF HISTORIES OF THE TWO DENOMINATIONS

THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH (U.S.A.)

The current differences of theological and definitional opinion within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), discussed in chapter one, were foreshadowed by a long denominational history of doctrinal disputes, internal quarrels, and schism. A Reformed tradition rooted in a strict interpretation of Calvinism, Presbyterianism began its institutional life in the United States with the founding of the first presbytery in 1706. 1 Not long after the burgeoning denomination was theologically organized by adoption of the tenets of the Westminster standards (1729), its ranks were split as the sweep of the First Great Awakening challenged traditional Calvinist notions of the relationship of the individual to church and God. 2 Theological conservatives—the “Old Side”—opposed the personal and emotional revivalism of the Awakening, hewing to formulations that maintained the centrality of the corporate church to issues of salvation. In contrast, the theological innovators of the “New Side” pronounced the importance of the inner experience of the individual person in the conversion event, unmediated by any person or institution. 3 The acrimony between the two groups over these theological issues and related concerns about the training of clergy led, at the middle of the eighteenth century, to a split that lasted over a decade. 4 In the interim, the New Side evangelized the Mid-Atlantic region, leading to marked gains in membership, and founded a college for the training of pastors (later, Princeton University). The influence of the New Side was sufficiently strong that the groups reunited in 1758 with considerable concessions to the innovators. 5

Vigorous evangelistic efforts continued after the Revolutionary War. Presbyterians enjoyed a period of great membership growth in frontier areas and in the South as a result of the religious revival that ushered in the Second Great Awakening. A price was paid for this success, however. As evangelistic preachers modified the denomination's theological tenets and adapted their own preaching methods to make them more consonant with the requirements of converting large numbers of people through revivals, the resulting erosion in Calvinist doctrine lay the groundwork for future doctrinal disputes. 6 These adaptations included simplifying the complexities and theological refinements of the Westminster Confession and some modification of doctrine in the direction of Arminianism (the belief that human beings can, of their own free will, work toward their salvation). Further territory for contention over doctrine

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