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Religion Library: Presbyterian and Reformed

Schisms and Sects

Written by: Ted Vial

Presbyterians largely supported the Revolutionary War (most Anglicans did not)-in fact King George III thought of the war as "the Presbyterian War."  When Presbyterians were asked to pledge fealty to George Washington, recently elected president, some Scots and Scott-Irish Presbyterians refused, both on principle against oath-taking, and because the new nation had not declared itself a Christian nation.  They formed the Associate Reformed Church (ARC) in 1782.  They joined with others to form the United Presbyterian Church of North America (UPNA) in 1858.  Another Scottish church formed in the south, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP).  These Scottish churches have tended to be more conservative than the larger Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

In the early 1800s, the Presbyterians again split over revivals, this time frontier revivals led by Methodists.  "New Lights" participated in camp meetings, "Old Lights" found them lacking in order and dignity.  Some New Lights joined with former Campbellites, Methodists, and Baptists to form the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  (Thomas [1763-1854] and Alexander Campbell [1788-1866], father and son, were preachers from Scotland who were important in the revival movement known as the Second Great Awakening, and who attempted to abolish sects and denominations by restoring Christianity to its biblical roots.  Their movement is sometimes called the "Restorationist Movement.)  At the same time other frontier Presbyterians began to reject what they saw as Calvin's harsh doctrine of predestination to focus on God's love and mercy.  They formed the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (CPC).

Presbyterians split again in 1836-38 over modernism, revivals, and slavery.  The Old School, centered at Princeton Seminary (key theologians were Benjamin Warfield and Charles Hodge) rejected a "softer" Calvinism that was open to revivalism, and refused to cooperate with Congregationalists.  The General Assembly , under Old School influence, did not allow pronouncements on slavery.  New Schoolers centered at Union Theological Seminary in New York.  They worked with other evangelical denominations, especially on revivals and reform efforts such as antislavery and prohibition.  In 1861, the Old School split north and south, southerners forming the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America (PCCSA).  After the Civil War, the northern Old and New Schoolers merged to form the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA). 

Study Questions:
     1.    Why was there a divide between Luther and Zwingli? How did this divide split Christianity?
     2.    What four divisions, in North America, split the Reformed Churches?
     3.    How were Presbyterians connected to politics within the early history of the United States?
     4.    Did the Reformed Church split over doctrine, or social issues? Explain.


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