Presbyterians of the Past

2017, Church History Anniversaries

The year 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, which were posted on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg to provide points of debate regarding the papacy’s use of indulgences. Indulgences allowed a parishioner to reduce or eliminate time in purgatory for sins. The theses posting is considered the beginning of the Reformation. Even though there had been reforming efforts before Luther through the work of individuals such as Jan Hus and John Wycliffe, Luther’s nailing his theses to the church door provided a specific event on a single day, October 31, and focused particularly on the importance of sola Scriptura for the Reformation as he scrutinized indulgences in the mirror of the Word. The Reformers wrote books concerned with doctrine, commentaries on the Bible, collections of sermons, confessions and catechisms, and monographs composed to critique the views of others, but Luther took his reforming work not only to the academics and clergy but also to the people. He wrote many tracts and pamphlets for the literate which could then be read to the predominantly illiterate populace. Even though Lutheranism went in a generally different reforming direction with its theology, worship practices, and sacramental views as compared with Calvin and the Reformed, Presbyterians still owe a great debt to Luther for his stand for Scripture as the source for doctrine and life. Thus, five-hundred years after Luther’s theses, he should be remembered for his leadership of the Reformation via sola Scriptura.

Three-hundred years ago the Presbyterians in America convened in Philadelphia on September 17, 1717 for the first meeting of what is named in the minutes, “The Synod.” Present were thirteen ministers and six elders who from their number elected their first synod moderator, Rev. Jedidiah Andrews. The previous year it had been decided by “The Presbytery” that it had grown sufficiently to divide into three or possibly four presbyteries with one to convene in Philadelphia with six ministers, another to gather its six pastors in New Castle, three ministers were to meet in Snow Hill for the third presbytery, and the possibility of a fourth presbytery to be assembled by two ministers in New York. The Synod would continue to grow, divide into Old Side and New Side in the early 1740s then reunite in 1758, and continue to grow so that in 1789 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America would convene for its first meeting.

This year is also the centennial of United States military involvement in the First World War, or as it was called at the time, The Great War. Presbyterian President Woodrow Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress on April 2, 1917 asking for a declaration of war which was granted on April 6. The president had struggled to keep the United States neutral since the fighting erupted in August 1914, and he had planned to continue his program when he was reelected in November 1916 using the campaign slogan, “He kept us out of war.” However, the nation had been providing materials to the Allies for their fight against the Axis powers which included the nations of Germany, Italy, and Japan, among others. The United States was not prepared for war and it took several months to mobilize the military for transport and action in France under the leadership of General John J. Pershing. Among the personnel going overseas were chaplains from many denominations including a representative amount from Presbyterian and Reformed churches. Along with the work of the military chaplains were several other supplementary organizations such as Roman Catholicism’s Knights of Columbus, interdenominational entities such as the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), and medical or humanitarian charities such as the Red Cross. Due to the enlistment for military chaplain positions having filled rapidly there were many Presbyterian ministers who served in supplementary organizations including J. Greshm Machen with the YMCA.

Other anniversaries to be remembered this year include the centennial of the death on September 10, 1917, of the founder of Presbyterian College and Thornwell Orphanage in Clinton, South Carolina, William Plumer Jacobs. Also to be remembered on July 30 is the 100th birthday of Professor of Practical Theology and President Edmund P. Clowney of Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, who passed away in 2005 after many years of ministry. Turning the calendar back to 1817 is the birthday of Samuel J. Baird who may be recognized as an author of several works including his patient compiling of A Collection of the Acts, Deliverances and Testimonies of the Supreme Judicatory of the Presbyterian Church from its Origin in America to the Present Time: With Notes and Documents Explanatory and Historical, Constituting a Complete Illustration of Her Polity, Faith, and History, but which is thankfully known simply as “Baird’s Digest.” Another anniversary is the bicentennial of the opening of Alexander Hall on the Princeton Seminary campus in the fall of 1817; the building, which looks much like Nassau Hall on the Princeton University campus, was named for the founding professor of the seminary, Archibald Alexander. Turning to church standards, this year is the 50th anniversary of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America’s (UPCUSA, currently PCUSA) adoption by a vote of 4 to 1 of the controversial church document known as “The Confession of 1967” at its general assembly meeting in Portland, Oregon, May 22.


Notes—Machen’s letters home from France have been published in Letters from the Front: J. Gresham Machen’s Correspondence from World War I, 2012. The information about the first synod meeting is from Minutes of the Presbyterian Church in America, 1706-1788, which was edited by Guy S. Klett and published in Philadelphia by the Presbyterian Historical Society, 1976; the action regarding establishing the first synod is on page 29. Also, the diagram of the history of the Presbyterian Churches in the United States inside the front of D.G. Hart and John Muether’s Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism, P&R, 2007, was helpful. The portrait of President Wilson is from the online collection of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum, Staunton, Virginia.

Recent Posts

Contact the Author

Join the Mailing List

Be the first to know about the latest posts on Presbyterians of the Past.