A Presbyterian is a Protestant Christian who opposes state intervention in religious affairs and advocates the primacy of the Bible as a rule of faith. The first Presbyterian Church to be organized on a national basis was in six-teenth-century France.
In 1876, the Presbyterian Church of England was formed by a merger. Various factions from English and Scottish congregations came together and adopted the Presbyterian system of church government. Its history is a rocky one, and didn't come close to real stability until 1972, when it merged into the United Reformed Church in England and Wales. Similarly, in 1983 the American Presbyterian Churches' headquarters in New York City and Atlanta, Georgia, merged to end a North-South split that dated from the Civil War.
Mergers seem to have been the historic norm in the Presbyterian Church; it didn't consist of just those mentioned above, but was present through the years with the North America Church, the Southern Church, the Cumberland Church, the Secession Church, and the Synod of Ulster. Perhaps this isn't surprising, considering the church was a blend of New England Puritans — the Scottish, Irish, English, and Welsh. Actually, the Cumberland Presbyterian Churches, which were founded on the American Frontier in the early 1800s, have two heritages, one from the 1800s and a new version that came about in 1906. It has survived all the upsets, and today is centered in Memphis, Tennessee.
It should come as no surprise to learn that the church avoids highly centralized authority in the government.
Foundations of Faith
Presbyterians believe in the Trinity: God the Father and Creator, Jesus Christ his Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Bible is considered the foundation of their faith, and they acknowledge the common creeds of the church (Apostles' and Nicene Creeds). They hold that they are saved “by faith alone, by God's grace only, through scripture only.” The sacraments are two: baptism for infants and adults and the Lord's Supper, open to all baptized Christians.
The churches are governed by elders — the word “Presbyterian” means “elder” — who are elected by their congregations. Similarly, the congregation elects and ordains pastors. Elders and pastors from all the churches are gathered to form presbyteries for mutual support and cooperative governance. It is a policy of the church that they seek community with all Christian churches.
Stands on Controversial Issues
The Special Committee on Problem Pregnancies and Abortion recommended in 1992 that the General Assembly approve a paper and adopt it as policy. The report stated that it affirmed the ability and responsibility of women, guided by the scriptures and the Holy Spirit, in the context of their communities to make good moral choices regarding problem pregnancies. There were strong recommendations that all Presbyterians work for a decrease in the number of problem pregnancies, thereby decreasing the number of abortions.
It considered the decision of a woman to terminate a pregnancy morally acceptable, though certainly not the only or required decision. Further, the report stated that there may be possible justifying circumstances including medical indications of severe physical or mental deformity, conception as a result of rape or incest, or conditions under which the physical or mental health of either woman or child would be gravely threatened. The report went on to say that it did not wish to see laws enacted that would attach criminal penalties to those who seek abortions or to appropriately qualified and licensed persons who perform them in medically approved facilities.
In 1997, all members voted on the issue of ordination of homosexuals. The result was to bar any members who were sexually active outside marriage from the office of clergy, elder, or deacon. The church's Book of Order was specifically amended to address the church's deep division over homosexuality.
In June 2001, a move intended to include lesbians, homosexuals, bisexuals, and transgender people as candidates for ordained ministers, elders, or deacons took place. A decision was made to change the language in the Book of Order to do away with any prohibition of sexual minorities. That decision has to be ratified by the majority of the denomination's local governing bodies, the presbyteries.