Last modified on April 9, 2019, at 19:36

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is a large Mainline Protestant denomination in the United States. In 2005 it reported 11,000 churches, 21,200 clergy, and 2.3 million full members.

Most members descend from the Protestant Irish who immigrated to the U.S. in the colonial period; most went to the frontier, especially the South. Others were Yankee Congregationalists from New England who moved west; under an arrangement, their churches—especially in the Midwest—became Presbyterian.

Noll et al (2006) identify some of the beliefs and practices that are distinct to American Presbyterians, such as their adoption of democratic principles and pluralism. The article is divided into three sections, each of which examines an aspect of American Presbyterianism that sets it apart from Presbyterianism in other parts of the world. The first section identifies what Old and New World Presbyterians have in common, and where they have diverged. Section two points to the 1788 revisions to the Westminster Confession - which recognized separate spheres for church and state - as the significant departure that defined American Presbyterians. The final section suggests that strong Irish influences from Ulster helped establish the distinctive American identity.


The Presbyterians put a high premium on well educated ministers. Their leading college was Princeton, which under the Founding Father Reverend John Witherspoon (president 1768-94), played a central role in supporting republicanism and the cause of the American Revolution. The leading seminary was Princeton Theological Seminary, which is separate from Princeton University though in the same town in New Jersey.

Mission to Korea

The Presbyterians supported a very active worldwide missionary campaign beginning by 1820. Their greatest success came in Korea, which has become a major world center for Presbyterian practice and theology. They introduced a conservative, evangelical character to Korean Protestantism, a bedrock feature that continued throughout its history.

After 1882, four American mainline mission boards - the Northern and Southern Presbyterians and their Methodist counterparts comprised all the western missionary work. From 100 members in 1890 the number of converts soared to 3700 in 1900, and 32,000 in 1910. In 1908, America's leading mission promoter, John R. Mott, predicted that "in the immediate future, Korea will be the first nation of the non-Christian world to become a Christian nation." Church membership became in part a statement of defiance against the Japanese, who had taken over Korea in 1910. Christianity thereby became an expression of Korean nationalism.

The missionaries transplanted the conservative confessional statements of their home churches, which reflected the traditional stance of American Protestantism before the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. They brought in revivals as well, which became especially popular. This evangelical-revivalistic version of American Christianity became the template for Korean Protestants, still deeply shaping Korean evangelicals' faith in 2009. Today Korea sends as many missionaries to the world as does the U.S.[1]

Further reading

  • Alvis, Joel L., Jr. Religion and Race: Southern Presbyterians, 1946-1983. (1994). 197 pp.
  • Balmer, Randall, and Fitzmier, John R. The Presbyterians (1993). 274 pp. excellent survey by scholars; good place to start
  • Banker, Mark T. Presbyterian Missions and Cultural Interaction in the Far Southwest, 1850-1950. (1993). 225 pp.
  • Bender, Norman J. Winning the West for Christ: Sheldon Jackson and Presbyterianism on the Rocky Mountain Frontier, 1869-1880. (1996). 265 pp.
  • Boyd, Lois A. and Brackenridge, R. Douglas. Presbyterian Women in America: Two Centuries of a Quest for Status. (1983) 308 pp.
  • Fraser, Brian J. The Social Uplifters: Presbyterian Progressives and the Social Gospel in Canada, 1875-1915. (1988) 212pp.
  • Hirrel, Leo P. Children of Wrath: New School Calvinism and Antebellum Reform. (1998). 248 pp.
  • Klempa, William, ed. The Burning Bush and a Few Acres of Snow: The Presbyterian Contribution to Canadian Life and Culture. (1994). 290 pp.
  • LeBeau, Bryan F. Jonathan Dickinson and the Formative Years of American Presbyterianism. (1997). 252 pp.
  • Loetscher, Lefferts A. A Brief History of the Presbyterians. (1983). 224 pp. good overview
  • Longfield, Bradley J. The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates. (1991). 333 pp.
  • Lucas, Sean Michael. On Being Presbyterian: Our Beliefs, Practices, and Stories (2006) excerpt and text search
  • McKim, Donald K. Presbyterian Beliefs: A Brief Introduction (2003) excerpt and text search
  • Moir, John S. Enduring Witness: A History of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. (1975). 311 pp.
  • Noll, Mark; D. G. Hart, and Marilyn J. Westerkamp. "What Has Been Distinctly American about American Presbyterians?" Journal of Presbyterian History 2006 84(1): 6-22.
  • Parker, Harold M., Jr. The United Synod of the South: The Southern New School Presbyterian Church. (1988). 347 pp.
  • "Presbyterian Presence: The Twentieth-Century Experience"
    • Coalter, Milton J.; Mulder, John M.; and Weeks, Louis B., eds. The Pluralistic Vision: Presbyterians and Mainstream Protestant Education and Leadership. (1992). 417 pp.
    • Coalter, Milton J.; Mulder, John M.; and Weeks, Louis B., eds. The Organizational Revolution: Presbyterians and the American Denominationalism. (1992). 391pp.
    • Coalter, Milton J.; Mulder, John M.; and Weeks, Louis B., eds. The Confessional Mosaic: Presbyterians and Twentieth-Century Theology. (1990). 333pp.
    • Coalter, Milton J.; Mulder, John M.; and Weeks, Louis B., eds. The Mainstream Protestant "Decline": The Presbyterian Pattern. (1990). 263pp.
    • Coalter, Milton J.; Mulder, John M.; and Weeks, Louis B., eds. The Presbyterian Predicament: Six Perspectives. (1990) 179pp
  • Smith, Frank Joseph. The History of the Presbyterian Church in America (1985). 607 pp.
  • Thompson, Ernest Trice. Presbyterians in the South. Vol. 1, 1607-1861. (1963). 629 pp.
  • Wellman, James K., Jr. The Gold Coast Church and the Ghetto: Christ and Culture in Mainline Protestantism. (1999). 241 pp. on Chicago's elite Fourth Presbyterian Church
  • Weston, William J. Presbyterian Pluralism: Competition in a Protestant House. (1997). 192 pp.
  • Yohn, Susan M. A Contest of Faiths: Missionary Women and Pluralism in the American Southwest. (1995). 266 pp.

See also


  1. Dae Young Ryu, "The Origin and Characteristics of Evangelical Protestantism in Korea at the Turn of the Twentieth Century," Church History (2008) Vol. 77#2 pp 371-98, in EBSCO