Historical note about the PC (USA) General Assembly

I am currently reading The Penguin History of the United States of America by Hugh Brogan- I’ve just got to the bit where the colonies finally decide enough is enough with Britain! So it was interesting to read the following from the Manual of the 2012 Presbyterian Church (USA):


The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was organized on May 21, 1789, in the Second Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia as, “The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.” The Reverend John Witherspoon, the only active member to sign the Declaration of Independence, was the first presiding officer and preached the sermon at the opening service of worship. While  the General
Assembly was meeting in Philadelphia, the first United States Congress to convene under the new Constitution was also in session in the same city.

Organized Presbyterianism in America had its beginnings with the establishment of “The Presbytery” about 1706. “The Presbytery” remained the most inclusive governing body until 1717. While records of that period are incomplete, there is a record of the presbytery meeting of December 26, 1706. In 1717, with seventeen ministers on its roll, the presbytery transformed itself into a synod, divided into the four presbyteries of Long Island, Philadelphia, New Castle, and Snow Hill.

The Presbyterian church was one of a number of denominations that organized on a national basis following the American Revolution. In 1788, the synod organized a General Assembly with four synods: New York and New Jersey, Philadelphia, Virginia, and the Carolinas. The young denomination contained 16 presbyteries, 177 ministers, and 419 congregations. Since its first session in 1789, the General Assembly has met every year.

Twenty-three ministers and eleven elders served as commissioners to the first General Assembly. Today the assembly enrolls approximately 280 elders, 280 ministers, and 140 advisory delegates. The intervening decades have seen both divisions and unions in the life of the Presbyterian family in North America.

In 1810, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church was formed as a separate denomination. The year 1837 saw the division of the church into Old School and New School factions. The tragedy of the United States’ Civil War had an impact on both groups. In 1861, the Old School presbyteries in the South separated to form the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America, renamed the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (PCUS) four years later. The southern presbyteries affiliated with the New School had already split off in 1857, and formed the United Synod of the South in 1858.

The forces leading to unity began to grow even before the end of the war, with the United Synod of the South joining with the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States in 1864. Soon after the end of the fighting, the New School presbyteries in the North were reunited. In 1906, a major part of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church returned to the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Another part of the family was also moving toward a
greater expression of unity. In 1858, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and the Associate Synod of North America united to from the United Presbyterian   Church of North America. That body united with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1958 to form the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA).

In 1983, after several efforts to heal the major split that began in 1861, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. and the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. reunited to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the largest and most diverse member of the reformed family of churches on the continent. It incorporated not only the ancestors described above, but also the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church that united with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1920. The reunited church maintains closer elationships with the continuing Cumberland Presbyterian Church that shares common roots with churches taking part in the unions listed above, and also with
churches established by Christians from different cultural groups in the immigrant population of the nation–the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ, Hungarian Reformed Church, and several others. It continues to seek closer relations with other Reformed churches (including several composed of congregations that have left its fellowship to form separate denominations) and with even more diverse denominations that are part of the modern  ecumenical movement.

During the two hundred years of the Presbyterian church history, clergy have most often served as Moderators, with thirty-two elders having been elected to the office since 1900. Women and racial ethnic persons have been elected Mode rator nine times in the past twenty-one years. Edler G. Hawkins, an African American, was elected Moderator of the UPCUSA General Assembly in 1964, and the PCUS General Assembly elected an African American Moderator in 1974 when Lawrence Bottoms was chosen. The first women to hold office were Lois H. Stair, elected Moderator by the 1971 UPCUSA General Assembly, and Sara Bernice Moseley, 1978 Moderator of the PCUS General Assembly. The UPCUSA General Assembly in 1976 chose as its Moderator, an African American, Thelma C.D. Adair. Of the forty -five Stated Clerks who have served the churches that reunited in 1983, all were ministers except two. John Frizzell was elected Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in 1872, and Will iam P. Thompson was elected Stated Clerk of the UPCUSA
General A sembly in 1966. James E. Andrews was elected Stated Clerk in 1984, following the Reunion that formed the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

John Witherspoon was, of course, Scottish-born (in Yester in Haddingtonshire) and was a minister of the Church of Scotland at Beith until being called to be the first President of what became Princeton University.


About Rev Peter W Nimmo

Minister of Old High St Stephen's Church, Inverness, Scotland, UK www.oldhighststephens.com
This entry was posted in Church of Scotland, General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (USA), Princeton, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Historical note about the PC (USA) General Assembly

  1. Pingback: At the Presbyterian office in Washington DC | peterstudyleave

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