September 8: Presbyterians in America, Part 1

Yesterday we ran a post with a genealogical chart of Presbyterian denominations in North America. As it was from the 1950s, it’s dated, but adequate to provide the basic scheme of things. (see the embedded link).
Today we begin with Part 1 in Dr. Paul Woolley’s brief series on Presbyterian denominations in North America.

Presbyterians in America
by Rev. Paul Woolley

Part I. Introduction.

[first published in The Reformed Presbyterian Advocate, 85.10 (October 1951): 73.]

Editor’s Note – With this introductory article we begin a series by Rev. Paul Woolley, Registrar and Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  In addition to his position on the faculty of the Seminary, Professor Woolley is a keen interpreter of contemporary church affairs, an author, and Co-Editor with Rev. Prof. John Murray of the Westminster Theological Journal.  We welcome Prof. Woolley to the pages of the Reformed Presbyterian Advocate and look forward with eager expectation to the articles that are to come.

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               It would be a great comfort to most of the people of God on earth, if there were no denominational divisions.  People would like to belong to one big church.  Sometimes when they do not stop to think, they believe this could easily be brought about.

               It is true that one cause of the existence of denominations is pure unalloyed selfishness.  That is not the chief reason, however.  The chief reason is that God has made men responsible for ordering their lives according to His Word and until men become free from sin, they will not perfectly know how to follow His Word.  Therefore one man believes the Bible to teach a somewhat different truth from another.  Believing God’s Word to be important, he wishes to support a Church which preaches the whole truth.  That is right and proper, and if a separate denomination is necessary to proclaim God’s truth, such a denomination is right and proper.    It should, at the same time, be recognized that not all truths are of equal weight.  Many are not of sufficient weight to offset the ineffectiveness of the testimony of a divided church.  Nor are the personal habits, customs and preferences of individuals as to worship or procedure adequate grounds for maintaining a separate church fellowship.  Such can be justified only when important principle is involved. 

               The name of a denomination may give little clue to the real reason for its existence.  Perhaps it did originally, but the passage of time often works a change in the situation.  It is my intention to say a few brief words, month by month about the denominations in the United States which are connected in their history with the Presbyterian and Reformed family.  It is important to recognize that for practical purposes the word “Presbyterian” and the word “Reformed” should be considered synonymns when they are used to describe denominations.  The former has a British background, the latter comes from the European continent.  There are some Churches which belong to this family which do not have either word in their official names.

               The Presbyterian and Reformed family, then, is made up in the United States of about fifteen different denominations.  A few more could be counted.  The distinctive mark of the family is that they all owe some marked allegiance as regards doctrine or government, or both, to the truths emphasized at the time of the Reformation by two great men who worked in Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin.  But, of course, the truths existed in Scripture before that time.  It was the service of these men to bring them to people’s attention.  They did not invent them, and the history of the Presbyterian and Reformed Church goes right back through the Reformation period and the Middle Ages, as a part of the history of the great church catholic [i.e, “universal”] to the time of Christ.  Nor does it stop there, for the church has been in conscious existence since God’s first revelation of himself to man in the Garden of Eden.  The Roman Catholic Church is, therefore, no older than the Presbyterian and Reformed Churches.  All began together at the beginning.  The difference may be expressed by saying that some parts of the church catholic have looked at themselves in the mirror of God’s Word more frequently than others and, not liking what they saw, have proceeded to wash their hands and tidy their hair assiduously so that they might more closely resemble the pattern God has set before us.


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