Wednesday, October 13, 2010

When Did Presbyterianism Begin?

The following is a rough draft of a chapter from the book A Presbyterian Primer for Curious Christians. It will be further edited for publication.

Most non-Roman Catholic denominations had their start in the years following the Protestant Reformation of the 1500’s (Chapter ???).  They are called Protestants because they protested the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.  As Christians began to read and study the Scriptures for themselves, they developed their own unique interpretations of what the Bible taught.  They joined together to form churches in accordance with their common beliefs.  Lutheranism was the first type of denomination , followed by Anglicanism in England and its territories.  Presbyterians, Congregationalists and the Baptists followed soon after.

John Knox

Presbyterianism developed under the leadership of John Knox in the 1500’s.  Knox was a Scottish minister in the Anglican Church.  He believed that the Anglican Church was too similar to the Roman Catholic Church, so he sought to reform it. The kings and queens of England were the official leaders of the Anglican Church, also known as the Church of England.  This meant that they could decide what the Church of England believed, how it was structured, and who could be its ministers.

One queen, Mary Tudor, also known as Bloody Mary, liked Catholicism much more than Anglicanism, so she sought to restore the Church of England to its Roman Catholic roots.  She ordered the persecution and murder of many ministers who did not want to be Catholic.  Many ministers, including John Knox, escaped the country and went to Geneva, Switzerland, where they studied under John Calvin.  John Calvin was a very important and influential minister in Geneva who organized the city into what John Knox described as the “most perfect School of Christ that ever was in the earth since the Apostles.” Through John Knox and many others who fled to Geneva, John Calvin’s teachings were eventually spread throughout Europe.

While in Geneva, Knox studied Calvin’s teachings and learned about organizing the church using elders, or presbyters.  When he was eventually able to return to Scotland, he brought Calvin’s teachings with him.  In Scotland, he worked to organize the church according to what he had learned.  The result was the Presbyterian Church.   The Presbyterian Church quickly became the most influential religious body in Scotland, to the point of becoming the official Church of Scotland. 

The Westminster Confession of Faith

Since Scottish leaders were involved in the British Parliament, the Presbyterian Church became influential England as well.   The King of England and the Parliament could not agree on what the Church of England should believe and practice, so parliament called together the religious leaders of the Anglican Church, the Presbyterian Church, and other churches to settle their differences and set up an official creed that all of England could agree upon.  These leaders developed what was known as the Westminster Confession of Faith in the 1600’s.  The Presbyterians were very powerful and influenced the wording of the confession more than the other denominations.  As a result, the Westminster Confession of Faith became the official creed of Scotland and all those who call themselves Presbyterian.   However the Confession of Faith did not end up becoming the official creed of the Church of England.  

The Puritans

Many people in the British Isles believed that the Church of England was too similar to the Roman Catholic Church.  They were called Puritans because they wanted to purify the Church of England.  Their reforms were unsuccessful for the most part, so many of them set sail for America in hopes of religious freedom and a fresh start.  Presbyterians and Congregationalists came over to America with the Puritans and began organizing churches in the New World.   Presbyterianism soon spread throughout the New World. Today, conservative Presbyterians still believe that the Westminster Confession of Faith is the best and most complete description of what the Bible teaches.


  1. Note on the first sentence: While most denominations had their start following the start of the Reformation, there were reformers a century earlier, like Wycliff and Hus, to which some denominations trace their origins.

  2. Very true Steve. Trying to keep it very, very simple and broadly sweeping though. Very early draft--probably will expand much in the months ahead, so thanks for the input.

  3. Owners edit at Steve's suggestion in first sentence. "All" changed to "most."