History of Presbyterianism

Fast Facts: History of Presbyterianism
Overview Roots in Calvinism (16th cent.); became the Church of Scotland in 1707.

What are the origins of Presbyterianism?

In the Christian religion, Presbyterianism, whose bodies are also called Reformed Churches, share a common origin in the 16th-century Swiss Reformation and the teachings of John Calvin, and today is one of the largest Christian denominations in Protestantism.

There are about 75 million Reformed or Presbyterian Christians worldwide; about 2.5 million belong to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Calvin trained for the priesthood in Roman Catholicism at the University of Paris and later as a lawyer, but he eventually converted to the Reformation movement and became a theologian and minister.

He wrote a great deal during his career, including lengthy Bible commentaries and the Institutes of the Christian Religion, a work of systematic theology.

Calvin's Life and Ministry

Calvin also gave a great deal of thought to practical matters such as the ministry, the church, religious education, and the Christian life. Although he had planned to live the quiet life of a scholar, Calvin was instead coerced into leading the Reformation in Geneva, Switzerland. He worked in Geneva from 1536 to 1538, was driven out of town for a short time, then returned again from 1541 and remained until his death in 1564.

Calvin was an extremely busy man during his time in Geneva, devoting himself to such duties as corresponding with religious and secular Protestant allies throughout Europe, writing commentaries, preaching, performing weddings and funerals, providing pastoral care and advice, and providing religious and classical education to students of the Geneva Academy, which he founded.

In 1541, the town council of Geneva enacted Calvin's Ecclesiastical Ordinances, which set forth regulations on everything from church order and religious education to gambling, dancing, and swearing. Strict disciplinary measures were put in place to deal with transgressors of these ordinances.

Calvin and Martin Luther

Calvin's theology was similar to that of Martin Luther in many ways. The Frenchman agreed with the German on the doctrines of original sin, justification by faith alone, the priesthood of all believers, and the sole authority of the scriptures. The theological distinctives of John Calvin lie primarily in degrees of emphasis. For example, both reformers affirmed the sovereignty of God, but Calvin tended to emphasize "God's power and glory, whereas Luther often thought of God as the babe in the manger, among human beings." {1}

Although "Calvinist" theology is perhaps most well-known today for its emphasis on predestination, Calvin himself did not emphasize it much more than Luther. He regarded it as a theological mystery, but a comforting doctrine. Some have speculated that Calvin suffered from a great deal of doubt about his own salvation and found reassurance in his faith that the matter was entirely in the hands of a loving and reliable God. {2}

In his ecclesiology (view of the church), Calvin remained closer to Catholicism than Luther did. For instance, Calvin emphasized the institutional church as the true church, the authority of clergy over laity, and the importance of a holy life, whereas Luther saw the body of true believers as the true church, focused on the priesthood of all believers, and continually preached the importance of faith over works. The two reformers also differed in their view of the Eucharist (or Communion): Calvin agreed with Luther on the Real Presence of Christ in the bread and wine, but regarded that presence as purely spiritual.

Reformed Churches in France: The Huguenots

The Huguenots were French Calvinists who endured a great deal of persecution by French Catholic authorities in the 16th and 17th centuries. The origin of the name is not clear, but may have derived from Besançon Hugues, a leader of the Reformation in Geneva (d. 1532). The first French Protestant martyr was burned at the stake in 1523. In 1559, a synod of French Protestant leaders met in Paris. They drew up a confession of faith that reflected Reformed (as opposed to Lutheran) views.

Before long, the Huguenots began to fight back against persecution. In 1560, they plotted to kidnap the boy-king Francis II. In April 1562, leaders signed a declaration stating that they had been forced to take up arms in defense of freedom of conscience. That August, Huguenots were murdered by Catholics in the famous St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, which set off more violence across France against the Huguenots and fanned the flames of the Wars of Religion.

In 1598, King Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes, which granted the Huguenots political and religious freedom. However, in 1629, the Peace of Ales ended the Wars of Religion with the Huguenots defeated. They were granted freedom but lost all military advantages, and persecution continued. Finally, in October 1685, King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes. As a result, most Huguenots emigrated to Prussia, England, the Netherlands, and America, and by 1715 Louis XIV announced that Protestantism had been eradicated in France. However, a Huguenot remnant remained that was determined to revive Protestantism in France. From 1745 to 1754, active persecution of Huguenots resumed.

Finally, in 1789, Emperor Napoleon granted the Huguenots equality under the law and established a state-supported Reformed church. In 1848, a free Reformed church was established apart from state support; the two groups united in 1905 when state support was withdrawn. {3}

John Knox and the Church of Scotland

Second in importance to John Calvin for the history of Presbyterianism is John Knox, a Scotsman who lived from 1514 to 1572. Knox led the Reformation in Scotland in accordance with Calvinistic principles, focusing much of his energy against the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, and Catholic practices like the mass. He "set the austere moral tone of the Church of Scotland and shaped the democratic form of government it adopted." {4} The presbyterian form of church government and Reformed theology were formally adopted as the national Church of Scotland in 1690. The Church of Scotland remains Presbyterian today.

Reformed and Presbyterian Churches in the United States

Presbyterianism has had a strong presence in America since the colonial period. Reformed churches were first established in the colonies in the early 1600s and Presbyterians were instrumental in shaping the religious and political life of the fledgling nation. The only Christian minister to sign the Declaration of Independence, Reverend John Witherspoon, was a Presbyterian. The 18th-century "Great Awakening" was led by evangelically-minded Reformed theologians including Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield.

The United States is in many ways founded on a Calvinist outlook: its focus was on hard work, discipline, the salvation of souls and the building of a better world. Presbyterians were instrumental in the movements for women's rights, abolition of slavery, and temperance. {5}

During the Civil War, American Presbyterians divided into southern and northern branches. These two churches reunited in 1983 to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the largest Presbyterian/Reformed denomination in the United States. {6}

Other Presbyterian churches that exist today were also formed in the 20th century as some chose to move in a more liberal direction and others remained conservative. The United Church of Christ (UCC) was formed in 1957 as a unification of several churches of Reformed, Puritan, and Evangelical backgrounds. The UCC stressed unity of Christians who disagree and rejected the perceived theological and organizational rigidity of other mainline Protestant denominations. {7} Today the UCC is the most liberal of American Presbyterian churches.

More conservative is the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), which left the southern Presbyterian church in 1972 because the latter was perceived as becoming too liberal. The PCA holds to the doctrines of biblical inerrancy and "TULIP," and does not ordain women. {8}

Also at the conservative end of the spectrum is the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS), a small group located mostly in the Dakotas. In 1933 and 1934, most of the RCUS merged with the Evangelical Synod of North America, which merged with the Congregational Christian Churches in 1957 to form the United Church of Christ. The current RCUS consists of those who rejected this merger, believing that they newly merged churches "compromised our Reformed heritage" and "do not honor God and his Word." {9}


    - "John Calvin." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004.

    • Ibid.
    • "Huguenot." Encyclopædia Britannica, 2004.
    • "John Knox." Encyclopædia Britannica, 2004.
    • "Reformed and Presbyterian Church." Encyclopædia Britannica, 2004.
    • "Who We Are." Presbyterian Church (USA).
    • "What is the United Church of Christ?" United Church of Christ.
    • "A Brief History: Presbyterian Church in America." Presbyterian Church in America.
    • "History." Reformed Church in the United States.

Article Info

Title History of Presbyterianism
Last UpdatedJanuary 29, 2021
MLA Citation “History of Presbyterianism.” 29 Jan. 2021. Web. Accessed 16 Jan. 2022. <>