Schisms and Sects

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.

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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