In 1984, Ben Weir, Presbyterian mission worker in Beruit, Lebanon, was kidnapped by Islamic Jihad Shiites, while walking with his wife on city streets. After this happened, An American ambassador who was the target of repeated requests to facilitate his freedom was heard to ask, Who are these Presbyterians? He was told they were a small Protestant denomination, whereupon he retorted, “They may be small, but they make a lot of noise!” (Hostage Bound, Hostage Free, by Ben Weir, Carol Weir, and Dennis Benson). When Weir was finally freed, it was with a promise that the church would raise its voice to teach the Muslim side of the conflict. The church initiated a program to teach church members about Islam, and the friendships both Ben and Carol had enjoyed before the kidnapping as they worked in Beruit.
Presbyterians have always made a lot of noise. Church polity is and has always been important to them. In the face of Royal opposition, Presbyterians in Great Britain clung to a system of shared authority among the various levels or courts of the church, with significant authority located at the local level. This theory of governance developed in Geneva under John Calvin and was introduced to Scotland by John Knox after his period of exile in Geneva. Presbyterians in Scotland took to the streets to reject the authority of the English bishops the English King wanted to appoint over them. The Scottish church adopted as its standard the 1646 Westminster Confession composed by the Divines in the Calvinist-influenced Westminster Assembly in London. Presbyterian colonists brought these traditions to American shores. Today, Presbyterian churches select their own pastors, with the help and approval of the local Presbytery. Other duties and authority are vested in the regional Synod and the national General Assembly.
During the American Revolution, Presbyterians made so much noise and were so involved in the struggle that British prime minister Horace Walpole remarked, “Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson.” During the Battle of Springfield, when the Americans ran out of wadding for their muskets, a local pastor brought them a stack of hymn books containing songwriter Isaac Watts’s controversial “hymns of human inspiration” to use instead. Tearing out and crumpling the pages, he cried, “Give ‘em Watts, boys!”
During the American Civil War, the Presbyterian Church, like most other denominations, split along north and south lines over a motion to condemn slavery, and since it had earlier split over other issues (how to do missions, worship style, and theology), there were four Presbyterian main denominations during the conflict. Presbyterians fought on both sides of the war. Abraham Lincoln and his family attended the First Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln served as a trustee beginning in 1853. Southern General Andrew “Stonewall” Jackson was a well-respected Presbyterian deacon. For more information, see “Presbyterians and the Civil War: Witnesses to a Great Moral Earthquake.”
Presbyterians were not quiet during the turbulent 1960s, either. From 1951 to 1966 Eugene Carson Blake was stated clerk of the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church USA, a predecessor of today’s Presbyterian Church (USA). Blake demonstrated against segregation and was in the vanguard of the ecumenical movement. This caused controversy among members who thought the church should stay out of politics and social issues.
Presbyterians have always found themselves involved in the issues of the day. They identify themselves with banners, another tradition inherited from the Scottish church. They argue over music, but they support each other in time of trouble. Although the first reaction to a problem may be to appoint a committee, that committee is not quiet. Yes, Presbyterians make a lot of noise.
For further reading:
“History of the Church.” Presbyterian Historical Society, Presbyterian Church (USA). Accessed 14 October 2015. http://www.history.pcusa.org/history-online/presbyterian-history/history-church
“Presbyterians and the Civil War: Witnesses to a Great Moral Earthquake.” Presbyterian Historical Society, Presbyterian Church (USA). 2012. Accessed 25 September 2012. “http://www.history.pcusa.org/resources/exhibits/civil_war/
Smylie, James H. A Brief History of the Presbyterians. Geneva Press, 1996. (partial version available on Google Books).
Weir, Benjamin, Carol Weir, and Dennis Benson. Hostage Bound, Hostage Free. Lutterworth, 1987.
A Little Presbyterian History
From the PC (USA) Web Site
A general guide to facts about the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Presbyterians trace their history to the 16th century and the Protestant Reformation. Our heritage, and much of what we believe, began with John Calvin (1509-1564), whose writings crystallized much of the Reformed thinking that came before him.
Calvin did much of his writing from Geneva, Switzerland. From there, the Reformed movement spread to other parts of Europe and the British Isles. John Knox, a Scotsman who studied with Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland, took Calvin’s teachings back to Scotland.
Presbyterians in the United States
Many of the early Presbyterians in America came from England, Scotland, and Ireland. The Rev. Francis Makemie, who arrived in the United States from Ireland in 1683, helped to organize the first American Presbytery at Philadelphia in 1706. In 1726, the Rev. William Tennent founded a ministerial “log college” in Pennsylvania. The first General Assembly was held in the Philadelphia in 1789. It was convened by the Rev. John Witherspoon, the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence.
Portions of the Presbyterian church in the United States have separated from the main body, and some parts have reunited, several times. The greatest division occurred in 1861 during the American Civil War. The two branches created by that division were reunited in 1983 to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), currently the largest Presbyterian group in this country.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), with denominational offices in Louisville, Kentucky, has approximately 2.3 million members, more than 10,000 congregations and 14,000 ordained and active ministers.
What is distinctive about the Presbyterian Church?
Presbyterians are distinctive in two major ways: They adhere to a pattern of religious thought known as Reformed theology and a form of government that stresses the active, representational leadership of both ministers and church members.
Presbyterian theological beliefs
Some of the principles articulated by John Calvin remain at the core of Presbyterian beliefs. Among these are the sovereignty of God, the authority of the Scripture, justification by grace through faith and the priesthood of all believers. What they mean is that God is the supreme authority throughout the universe. Our knowledge of God and God’s purpose for humanity comes from the Bible, particularly what is revealed in the New Testament through the life of Jesus Christ. Our salvation (justification) through Jesus is God’s generous gift to us and not the result of our own accomplishments. It is everyone’s job — ministers and lay people alike — to share this Good News with the whole world. That is also why the Presbyterian church is governed at all levels by a combination of clergy and laity, men and women alike.