Dr. Kenneth G. Talbot


The term Presbyterian comes form the Greek term presbuteros meaning elder. It refers to the New Testament system of church government, i.e., government by rule of the elders. It is a government by representation, or more correctly stated, a representative form of government. It is government by ‘divine right.’ That means that the Presbyterian system of government is the biblical form of government given to the Church of Jesus Christ in order to govern its affairs.


The history of the Presbyterian Church begins with its support from the Old Testament in its representative form of government as reported in Exodus 3:16: “Go and gather the elders of Israel together, and say to them, `The LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, appeared to me, saying, “I have surely visited you and seen what is done to you in Egypt;” Again we find the elders noted in Numbers 11:16: “So the LORD said to Moses: “Gather to Me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tabernacle of meeting, that they may stand there with you.” Also we find in the New Testament the establishment of Presbyterian churches in the name of the Lord Jesus by His Apostles. This Apostolic system of choosing leaders from among those who are the wisest members of the church was based upon biblical qualifications. In the Book of Acts we are told that Paul and Barnabas ordained elders in every church. St. Luke writes: “So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” Acts 14:23. In Acts 20:17 again Luke records Paul’s sending for the elders: “From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church.” In Titus 1:5 we again see St. Paul commanding Titus to ordain elders in every city: “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you..” As Church History Professor, R.C.Reed pointed out:

“A complete history of the Presbyterian churches must include the church founded by the apostles…[T]hey organized the Church under very simple forms. They appointed presbyters or elders in every church, and committed to them its oversight, charging them to “take heed unto … all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church.” Or to exercise pastoral care over it. Some of these presbyters labored in Word and doctrine; other did not; but they all ruled. No distinction in name, or qualification, or office was made between them. They were designated indiscriminately by the two titles, bishop and presbyter, and were all exhorted to discharge the duty of pastors..[b]eing of equal rank and authority, they must of necessity have exercised their rule jointly. This is Presbyterianism, reduced to its simplest elements – a government in the hands of presbyters, ruling jointly.”


As time passed, the church began to divert its government from a representative system to an Episcopal hierarchy in ecclesiastical authority. With the onslaught of degenerating morality and leadership in the government of the Church, there came an outcry for reform. Reformation was a demand for the Bible to be translated into the language of the common people and a return to “Gospel simplicity,” i.e., a representative system of government and a biblical form of worship.


In the sixteenth century, there came a divine working of God in the reforming movement of the church. However, the Roman Catholic Church was not about to give up its administrative system of centralized government. Nor was the Roman Church about to return to the Augustinian theology of the early church. As God continued to bless the pure preaching of His Word, there came into existence the establishment of what were called “Reformed Churches.” The great reformer of the church, and its greatest systematician was the French reformer of Geneva, Switzerland, John Calvin.


John Calvin was born in Nayon, France in 1509 and was a student of Latin, logic and philosophy at the University of Paris. Later he studied law and classical literature. About 1533, Calvin changed his theological views to those of the Reformation. After being involved in the French reformed movement, Calvin was forced to flee from Paris for His life. From 1534-1536 Calvin wrote the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. It was a systematic theology on the doctrinal teaching of the Reformation. God’s providence lead Calvin to Geneva where he ministered from 1536-1538, was exiled for three years and returned in 1541 where he remained pastor of St. Peters Church until his death in 1564. It was this church at Geneva that became the model of Presbyterian Churches. It was here at Geneva the Scottish Reformer, John Knox, advanced his understanding of systematic and ecclesiastical theology under the instruction of John Calvin.


John Knox began to preach in Scotland at the St. Andrews Castle Church. Having spent time imprisoned on a French galley, Knox was eventually freed and returned to northern England. Knox then became the Chaplain to the Reformer King Edward VI, and soon after King Edward’s death, was required to flee to Europe for his life. Knox was invited to pastor an English congregation in Frankfurt, Germany, the first independent church established outside the Church of England. However, a dispute soon erupted after Dr. Cox, a minister of the Church of England, arrived at Frankfurt. Knox was falsely accused by Cox of undermining the Emperor. However, the dissension was over which prayer book the church would use in worship. Knox was desirous of using the Book of Common Worship developed in Geneva by Calvin and himself. Yet, Knox was forced to leave the church at Frankfurt and flee to Geneva, where another English Church, which had been part of the Frankfurt church, was established as independent of the Church of England. Upon his return to Scotland in 1559, Knox organized the Presbyterian Church as the official Church of Scotland. In 1560, John Knox lead the Church of Scotland in developing a Confession and Covenants as its official religion and the Presbyterian Church as the official Church in Scotland. From Scotland the Presbyterian movement moved westward to Ireland among the Scottish settlers and native Irish. Eventually hundreds of thousands Scotch-Irish Presbyterians would make their way to America and settle in the colonies of North and South Carolina.


In the meantime, the Presbyterian movement was developing in England. From 1643 through 1647, there was assembled a group of 100 ministers at Westminster Abbey in London. Here they formed a new confession entitled the Westminster Confession of Faith. That was followed by the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. This work was in response to the solemon league and covenant signed by Scotland, Ireland and England which established that the three nations would maintain the theology of the Reformation. The Church of Scotland was well represented at this assembly by six of its leading theologians. This confession was adopted by Presbyterian Churches in Scotland and England and eventually in Amreica.


Soon the Presbyterian Church found itself in North America. Finally in 1706, the First American Presbytery was formed in Philadelphia, and in 1716, it became the Synod of Philadelphia. In 1729, the Synod of Philadelphia adopted the Westminster Confession and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms as its confession of faith under the ‘Adopting Act’ which transformed the church in to a subscriptionist body. This meant that the Westminster Confession and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms were now the offical confession of the Presbyterian Church and its officers would be required to submit to its teachings and practices if they were to minister in the Presbyterian Church. In 1788, the Synod adopted the official name of their church as “The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America” and held its first meeting in 1789. In 1857, the New School movement became divided over the issue of slavery and formed the United Synod of the Presbyterian Church. In 1861, the Old School movement of the South withdrew from the national church and formed the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America as a continuing church of the former body. Near the end of the War Between the States, the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America and a few smaller synods formed the Presbyterian Church in the United States. The North and Southern Church would eventually reunite, but under the banner of liberal theology. As a result, continuing churches were established to carry on the theology of the Reformation and Presbyterian Government.

© Copyright 1997 Dr. Kenneth Talbot