Presbyterian Church History

Lesson 13

An Overview of Contemporary American Presbyterianism


Due to all the separations and splits that has fragmented Presbyterians over the last few centuries keeping track of all the various Presbyterian bodies can be a confusing chore. The attached chart of the various denominations representing American Presbyterianism (taken from George Hutchinson’s, The History Behind the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod) is very helpful. I have updated it and added a brief statement about the various denominations listed on it to assist the reader in understanding the origin, distinctives, and nature of all these groups.

Reformed Presbytery

These were the first Covenanters to come to America from Scotland and Northern Ireland. They were Reformed Presbyterians. These people had suffered greatly during the “killing times” under James II, in defense of Presbyterianism. They held to the continuing obligations of both the Scottish National Covenant of 1638 and the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643. They had refused to accept the “revolution settlement” in 1690 that established Presbyterianism in Scotland after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. They felt that this settlement established Presbyterianism not on a scriptural but on an Erastian basis and that the covenants had been ignored.

Associate Presbytery

These were Scotch Presbyterians who had aligned themselves with the secession of 1733. The Seceders from the established church in 1733 were led by Ebenezer Erskine. They seceded for the following reasons. They opposed the continuing practice of lay patronage in the established church. They were concerned by theological error in the church particularly rationalism and neonomianism. And they were strongly aligned with the “Marrow men” in that controversy and opposed all weakening of Calvinist soteriology.

Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church

In 1782 the above two groups united in America to form the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. In doing so they gave up the distinct testimony of the Covenanters for the abiding obligation of the Scotch national covenants and the resulting opposition to any involvement with the American government.

The Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America

A small pastorless group of Reformed Presbyterians refused to go along with the merger of 1782. They remained unorganized until 1798 when they had sufficient ministers (2) to form another Reformed Presbytery. This became the RPCNA. They continued the strict Covenanter heritage and refused all association with the United States Government. Members could not take an oath of allegiance to the United States, or vote in elections, serve on juries, serve in any capacity in the government, or take part in the military forces of the United States. This was based not only on the absence of a National covenant, covenanting to make Jesus Christ the true head of the civil commonwealth, but also on the fact that the United States Constitution was seen as an infidel document because it failed to recognize God as the Declaration of Independence had.

The Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, General Synod

In 1833 the RPCNA split. The issue was the church’s attitude towards the American government. Many of the Scotch and Scotch-Irish immigrants could not become citizens because they could not take the oath of citizenship. This was therefore somewhat relaxed in 1812 due to the exigencies of the War of 1812 with Britain. Similarly the prohibition against jury service was relaxed. A more favorable view of the American government was becoming popular. The General Synod with about two thirds of the church took the more relaxed position. The strict Covenanters continued as the RPCNA.

Associate Presbyterian Synod of North America

This was a rump group of the Associate Presbytery that also refused to go along with the merger of 1782. They continued the historic Seceder tradition.

United Presbyterian Church

This church was formed by the union of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and the Associate Presbyterian Synod of North America. Having lost the distinctive Covenanter witness it became progressively assimilated into American Presbyterianism. It merged with the PCUSA in 1958.

The Associate Presbyterian Synod

This was the part of the Associate Synod of North America that refused to join in the merger that formed the UPC. In 1969 they joined with the RPCNA and were completely assimilated into that body.

Presbyterian Church of America

We have noted in a previous lesson the formation of this church. It was formed by the remaining conservatives in the PCUSA, some of whom had already been put out of the church because of their association with the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions.

Orthodox Presbyterian Church

As previously noted this church came out of the Presbyterian Church of America. This was the more Presbyterian side of the split led by Machen, Murray, and Kuiper etc. They more closely identified with Old School Presbyterianism.

Bible Presbyterian Church

This was the other side in the split in the Presbyterian Church of America and was led by Carl McIntire. This was the faction that identified more with the New School tradition and with American Fundamentalism.

Evangelical Presbyterian Church

This church came out of the split in the Bible Presbyterian Church in 1956. The reasons were manifold. There were objections to McIntire’s person rule dominating the church. There was also a desire for a more regular Presbyterian polity. And there was a desire to soften McIntire’s strong separatist stand and to disassociate with his strong emphasis on political issues.

Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod

This church was formed by the union of the RPCNA, General Synod and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The former having shed their Covenanter distinctives were now simply another conservative American Presbyterian church and therefore similar to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. This denomination later joined the Presbyterian Church in America. Covenant College and Covenant Seminary and Francis Shaeffer’s ministry were all part of this church.

American Presbyterian Church

This church came out of the Bible Presbyterian Church. They were a group that was more Reformed and wanted to influence the church more in the direction of its professed standards (a modified version of the Westminster standards) and away from the Arminianism and dispensationalism of American Fundamentalism. For its testimony a number of its ministers were cast out of the church for founding a rival Seminary called Reformation Seminary. After their expulsion in 1976 they formed an Old School type Presbyterian church, holding to the regulative principle of worship, exclusive psalmody, no unscriptural holydays etc. They continued the Bible Presbyterian heritage of confessing premillennialism and temperance as the faith of the church.

Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States

These was a small group that left the PCA to form a more conservative and Presbyterian body. Some of their pastors such as Dr. Morecroft have strong Theonomist leanings. They have since split into several smaller bodies including the RPCUS, Hanover Presbytery led by Dr. Edwin Eliot, the RPCUS, General Synod led by Dr. Kenneth Talbot, and the RPCUS, Covenant presbytery led by Dr. Joseph Morecraft.

Cumberland Presbyterian Church

This was a church that was formed as a result of the “revivals” in Kentucky and Tennessee in the early part of the nineteenth century. They had a pronounced Arminian streak and a dislike for strict Presbyterian polity and for an educated ministry. In 1906, on the occasion of the revision of the Westminster Confession of Faith by the PCUSA, this group for the most part joined with that body except for the typical rump group that maintained the historic position.

Second Cumberland Presbyterian Church

This church was formed in 1869 by the separation from the main body of its colored (Negro) membership to form a separate church. The abolition of Negro slavery and the resultant segregation policies gave the impetus for this reorganization of the church.


In previous lessons we have already covered the history of the PCUSA and the Old Side-New Side, Old School-New School, North-South splits in that body.


The confusing disarray of various Presbyterian denominations can be discouraging to a student of church history. It may be obvious to many that a greater degree of unity could have and should have been achieved and maintained. It should also be obvious that many of these separations were necessary for the defense and preservation of the historic Christian faith. The undeniable fact is that without any schisms there would be only two Presbyterian bodies in existence, the Church of Scotland and the PCUSA. Both are thoroughly apostate. By God’s grace separation has maintained a remnant.