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Religion Library: Presbyterian and Reformed

Schisms and Sects

Written by: Ted Vial

The fact that there are Lutheran and Reformed churches, rather than one Protestant church, is the result of a split between Luther and Zwingli.  Their reforms began independently, though Zwingli was soon impressed and influenced by Luther. The Catholic Church had argued that without an institution with the authority to guide correct interpretation of scripture, Christianity would soon dissolve into a confusion of groups, each with their own interpretation.  Luther and Zwingli believed that the same Holy Spirit that inspired scripture would lead believers to agree on the correct interpretation of scripture.  Luther and Zwingli met once, in 1529, at the Colloquy of Marburg.  They drew up thirteen articles of faith, twelve of which they could agree on,  but they could not agree on what happened during the Lord's Supper. They left Marburg without unifying their two movements, and each thinking the other arrogant.

In Europe the tendency to divide and form new denominations was somewhat suppressed by the fact that most regions established an official state church, and the church could rely on state power to persecute those who wanted to split.  In the North American context, without an established church (though most individual states had an established church into the 19th century), a quick glance at any telephone directory will confirm that, while anarchy may be too strong a word, certainly there has been a creative effusion of Protestant schisms and sects.  (Sociologists distinguish denominations, which tend to be larger and more inclusive of different beliefs, from sects, which tend to be small and claim to hold the whole and exclusive truth.)

In North America there have been at least four important divisions in the Reformed churches: the Old Side/New Side controversy in the 1740s; the formation of the Associate Reformed Church in the wake of the Revolutionary War; the New Light/Old Light split in the first decade of the 19th century; and the Old School/New School splits beginning in the 1830s.

The Great Awakening was a revival movement in the 1740s sparked by itinerant preachers such as George Whitefield. (Whitefield was the man who convinced John Wesley to become a revival preacher, though Whitefield remained an orthodox Calvinist while Wesley was an Arminian.) Some ministers, such as Jonathan Edwards (1668-1759), welcomed the revival, but others resented the intrusion of itinerants into their parishes.  The tensions caused a split in the general synod. The New York Synod became a "New Side" synod, friendly to the revival, while the "Old Side" synod of Pennsylvania resisted.  When the New York synod flourished, the Pennsylvania synod relented and compromised with the revivalists.


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