Presbyterianism, form of Christian church organization based on administration by a hierarchy of courts composed of clerical and lay presbyters. Holding a position between episcopacy (government by bishops) and Congregationalism (government by local congregation), Presbyterianism sought a return to the early practice of appointed elders as described in the New Testament.
The basic spiritual order of the church is composed of the presbyters (elders), all of equal status, divided into teaching elders (ministers) and ruling elders. The deacons and trustees complete the order; they may manage temporal affairs. The presiding minister and ruling elders make up the session or consistory; it is the first in the hierarchy of courts. Since both the minister and ruling elders are elected by the congregation, the Presbyterian polity is ultimately determined by the people.
Appeal from the session may be made to the presbytery or colloquy, the next highest court. The presbytery includes equal numbers of ministers and lay elders. The presbytery holds jurisdiction over church properties and ministers and confirms a church's call to a minister. The synod, the next court in the hierarchy, consists of ministers and elders from a stated number of presbyteries; it exercises limited supervisory authority over both presbyteries and congregations. Finally, there is the general assembly, composed of lay and clerical representatives in equal numbers, which meets annually to supervise the interests of the whole denomination.
Spiritually, Presbyterianism embodies the principles of Calvinism and forms the main branch of the Reformed churches. The Westminster Confession (see creed) and the Larger and Shorter Catechism composed by the Westminster Assembly, convened (1643–49) by the British Parliament, provide the doctrinal and liturgical standards for Presbyterian churches. These assert the sovereignty of God and the prime authority of Scripture as guides to church doctrine. The Bible is held to be the rule of government and discipline, as well as faith. Presbyterians accept the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper. They are opposed to state interference in ecclesiastical affairs.
Presbyterianism in Europe
Calvinism first influenced the Protestant churches of Geneva and of the Huguenots. In the Netherlands the Protestant church was Presbyterian in government but not independent of the state until the middle of the 19th cent. By the mid-16th cent., Presbyterian sentiment was strong in England and Scotland. The English Presbyterians were never numerous after Oliver Cromwell's time; in 1876 various branches united to form the Presbyterian Church of England. In 1972 this church merged with the Congregational Church in England and Wales to become the United Reformed Church in Great Britain, now with an estimated 150,000 adult members (1997). The Church of Scotland (see Scotland, Church of), founded in 1557 under the leadership of John Knox, is the only Presbyterian state church established by law; however, it maintains the traditional independence from the state. There are an estimated 641,000 members (1997). Presbyterianism in Northern Ireland began early in the 17th cent. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland (1840) is the principal body; it has an estimated 300,000 members (1997). The largest Protestant church of Wales, the Calvinistic Methodist Church (also called the Presbyterian Church of Wales), has an estimated 45,700 members (1998). The World Presbyterian Alliance merged with the International Congregational Council in 1970 to form the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.
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.
See W. L. Lingle and J. W. Kuykendall, Presbyterians (1960, rev. ed. 1978); A. M. Davies, Presbyterian Heritage (1965); J. Melton, Presbyterian Worship in America (1967); G. M. Marsden, The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience (1970).