Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Presbyterian Reunions and Divisions of the 20th Century

Elsberry A.R. Presbyterian Church, est. 1911
In my last post, I described the history of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which was formed by those who left the northern mainline church, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, in 1936 due to the PCUSA's actions against those who opposed liberalism in the church. I also mentioned that in 1937, the Bible Presbyterian Church departed from the OPC. The Bible Presbyterians held to Premillennialism, abstinence from alcohol, and support for the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. The rest of the 20th century saw multiple reunions and divisions among American Presbyterians. This account is adapted from a lesson I gave in my lesson series on American Presbyterian history, available here.

Developments in the North in the 1950s and 1960s

The Bible Presbyterian Church divided into two groups in 1956. They came to be named the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Bible Presbyterian Church.

In 1965, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church united with the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Synod (a “New Light” Covenanter denomination), forming the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES).

The PCUSA and the United Presbyterian Church of North America (UPCNA) united in 1958, forming the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA). The UPCNA had been formed in the 1800s from several northern denominations in the Reformed Presbyterian (“Covenanter”) and Associate Reformed (“Seceder”) traditions. The Covenanter and Seceder traditions originated from groups that left the Church of Scotland in 1662-1689 and 1733, respectively, before coming to America. Two other denominations, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (in the north) and Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (in the south), remain independent representatives of those traditions.

In 1967, the UPCUSA produced the Confession of 1967 (strongly influenced by the “neo-orthodox” theology of Karl Barth), a “Book of Confessions,” and revised ordination vows that redefined and basically eliminated confessional subscription and a commitment to biblical authority, although the full implications of the change would become evident later.

Developments in the South, 1930s-1970s

The Presbyterian Church in the United States (the southern Presbyterian church) resisted liberalism longer than its northern counterpart, but controversy began to heat up in the late 1930s, when major confessional revision was narrowly avoided and attempts to discipline several high profile liberals failed. Liberals had organized a secretive organization to advance their cause in the PCUS (“The Fellowship of St. James,” later replaced by “The Fellowship of Concern”).

Confessional members in the PCUS formed four organizations that would prove important for the later formation of the Presbyterian Church in America: (1) The (Southern) Presbyterian Journal, est. 1942, edited by L. Nelson Bell 1942-1959 and by G. Aiken Taylor 1959-1987; (2) The Presbyterian Evangelical Fellowship, est. 1958 by Bill Hill, (3) Concerned Presbyterians, est. 1964 by Kenneth Keys as an organization for ruling elders, and (4) Presbyterian Churchman United, est. 1969 by John Richards as an organization for ministers.

Reunion with the northern mainline church was defeated in 1954, but looked likely by 1970. Delegates from the four organizations formed the Conservative Caucus in 1970. A steering committee was formed to organize a withdrawal in 1971. The first general assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America met on December 4, 1973. At its founding, the PCA had 260 church with 41,000 communicant members. Initially it was called the National Presbyterian Church, but when the church by that name in Washington DC challenged them in court, they changed the name to the Presbyterian Church in America.

In their "Message to all Churches of Jesus Christ throughout the World," the PCA said, 
We declare, therefore, that the Bible is the very Word of God, so inspired in the whole and in all its parts, as in the original auto-graphs, to be the inerrant Word of God. It is, therefore, the only infallible and all-sufficient rule of faith and practice. … Deviations in doctrine and practice from historic Presbyterian positions as evident in the Presbyterian Church in the United States, result from accepting other sources of authority, and from making them coordinate or superior to the divine Word. A diluted theology, a gospel tending towards humanism, an unbiblical view of marriage and divorce, the ordination of women, financing of abortion on socio-economic grounds, and numerous other non-Biblical positions are all traceable to a different view of Scripture from that we hold and that which was held by the Southern Presbyterian forefathers.
More Departures from the Mainline

Meanwhile, the northern mainline church was going more liberal. In 1975, the judicial commission of the UPCUSA overturned the ordination of Walter Kenyon, who had informed his presbytery that he would not participate in the installation of women ministers. This prompted some churches and ministers to leave and join the PCA, including R.C. Sproul (both he and his friend Kenyon had been students of John Gerstner, a confessional professor at the UPCUSA seminary in Pittsburgh). In 1979, the UPCUSA’s general assembly ruled that all congregations must elect both men and women to the office of ruling elder. About 40 churches departed, including Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, which joined the RPCES.

In 1981, the UPCUSA’s general assembly upheld the reception from the United Church of Christ of a minister, Mansfield Kaseman, who refused to affirm the deity of Christ, his sinless nature, and the bodily resurrection. The ordination vows were interpreted in the decision as no longer binding officers to a confessional system of doctrine, but to a general willingness to be guided by the confessions. This decision, on top of other concerns, prompted more churches to leave, including those that founded the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

The Evangelical Presbyterian Church was formed in 1981 by churches that left the mainline churches, both the UPCUSA and the PCUS. It is a confessional Presbyterian denomination, although it allows for churches to decide whether to have women elders and deacons and for its presbyteries to decide whether to have women ministers. It also allows for different views on the gifts of the Spirit within certain parameters. It rejects the practice of abortion and homosexuality.

North and South Unite

The RPCES joined the PCA in 1982 by the Joining and Receiving Act. With the RPCES came Covenant Seminary, Covenant College, and Francis Schaeffer. (Initially the OPC was going to be a part of this, but the PCA presbyteries did not approve its reception.) By receiving churches from the mainline denominations in the 70s and 80s, receiving the RPCES in 82, and its own church planting efforts, the PCA grew rapidly and spread throughout the USA.

The mainline denominations, the UPCUSA and the PCUS, united in 1983, forming the Presbyterian Church (United States of America). At the time, the PC(USA) had 3.2 million members. Evangelicals in it had obtained the guarantee that Southern churches could have eight years after the reunion to leave with their properties to another Reformed body, a provision which a number of churches used during those years, many of which joined the PCA. The PC(USA) has only continued to grow more liberal in this century, especially on sexual ethics. As churches left it, the EPC doubled in size from 2007 to 2012. The PC(USA) has declined to an aging membership today of 1.1 million.

In 2012, another denomination was founded by churches leaving the PC(USA), called ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. Their departure was prompted by the PC(USA)’s decision to ordain practicing homosexuals. The formation of a new denomination, rather than joining an existing one, was prompted by ECO’s egalitarian commitment to women’s ordination. ECO’s loose practice of confessional subscription is guided by its “Essential Tenets” and it did exclude the Confession of 1967 and the PC(USA)’s 1991 Brief Statement of Faith from its Book of Confessions. Meanwhile, the PC(USA) is considering at this year’s general assembly whether to require the affirmation of homosexuality and transgenderism of its officers.


American Presbyterian Denominations, by Membership
Members of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council marked with an asterisk. These statistics are taken mostly from 2021, so growing churches like the OPC and PCA have more today, while shrinking churches the PCUSA have less. This does not include denominations from Dutch or German Reformed traditions.

Presbyterian Church (United States of America) 1,245,354 members, 8,813 churches
Presbyterian Church in America* - 386,345 members, 1,932 churches
Evangelical Presbyterian Church - 145,000 members, 627 churches
ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians - 127,500 members, 391 churches
Korean American Presbyterian Church* - 80,000 members, 650 churches
Cumberland Presbyterian Church - 70,810 members, 685 churches
Korean Presbyterian Church Abroad - 55,000 members, 302 churches
Orthodox Presbyterian Church* - 31,112 members, 328 churches
Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church* - 29,317 members, 264 churches
Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America - 15,142 members, 113 churches
Korean Presbyterian Church in America (Kosin)* - 10,300 members, 135 churches
Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America* - 7,076 members, 100 churches
Bible Presbyterian Church* - 3,500 members, 29 churches
Vanguard Presbytery - 26 churches
Free Presbyterian Church in North America - 22 churches
The Reformed Presbyterian Church, Hanover Presbytery - 17 churches
The Covenant Presbyterian Church - 12 churches
The Reformed Presbyterian Church General Assembly - 11 churches
Free Church of Scotland (in North America) - 9 churches
Presbyterian Reformed Church* - 7 churches
Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) (in North America) - 6 churches

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