The world-wide membership is said to be 75 million (Presbyterian Church Denomination by Mary Fairchild, learnreligions.com). Some claim the number to be over 90 million (About the Presbyterian Church, rockvillepresbyterian.org).
In America, there are several branches of the Presbyterian Church. The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (PCUSA) shows a membership of 1.24 million (PCUSA 2020 statistics, Rick Jones/office of the General Assembly, pcusa.org). The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) shows a membership of about 385,000 as of 2018 (pcanet.org). The Cumberland Presbyterian Church (CPCA) shows a membership of 65,000 (2020 Yearbook of the General Assembly, cumberland.org). There are other branches. The top states for the PCUSA, the largest branch, were in 2010: by number – (1) Pennsylvania; (2) North Carolina; and (3) California; by percentage of population – (1) South Carolina; (2) North Carolina; and (3) Pennsylvania (thearda.com).
1. Ioannis Calvinus or Jean Cauin/John Calvin (b. 1509 – d. 1564).
The history of the Reformed Tradition and the Presbyterian Church is closely linked with John Calvin. The First Presbyterian Church in Watertown, New York says, “Much of what the Presbyterian Church believes originated with the French lawyer John Calvin… who established much of what we know as Reformed Theology” (What is a Presbyterian?, watertownfirstpres.org).
Here is a brief sketch of John Calvin. He was born in Noyon, Picardy, France. His family was Roman Catholic. In fact, his father was notary and registrar for the local cathedral, and essentially secretary to the Bishop of Noyon. At the age of 12, Calvin, himself, began to serve as clerk to the Bishop. Calvin’s father, Gerald, wanted him to become a Priest.
Calvin continued his education. At the age of 14, he went to Paris to study with the aim of becoming a Priest. He studied Latin and Rhetoric at the College de la Marche. Next, he studied Philosophy at the College de Montaigu. He earned a Master’s Degree by age 18. Then, his father suggested that he study law. Gerald was excommunicated from the Church after some dispute with the local Cathedral chapter. Some believe that this was a factor in the decision. Calvin studied Law at the University of Orleans and the University of Bourges. He earned a Doctorate of Law before he turned 23. After this, and following his father’s death, he returned to Paris to study the humanities. He studied Greek, Hebrew, and Latin classics.
At some point, Calvin became favorable to the Reformation. On November 01, 1533, Nicolas Cop, Rector of the University of Paris and friend of Calvin, preached a lesson which called for reformation of the church. There is some evidence that Calvin actually wrote the sermon. A search was made of his dwelling and a copy of the sermon was found in his handwriting. Theodore Beza (1519-1605) was later a close associate of Calvin. He wrote a biography, The Life of John Calvin, and in it he stated that Calvin supplied the sermon (The Life of John Calvin by Theodore Beza, p. 4, reformationstewards.com).
Cop and Calvin fled Paris. Calvin fled disguised as a farmer. He went to Basel, Switzerland. There he published the first edition of The Institute of the Christian Religion. He planned to go to Strasbourg (a free city, now a part of France) and perhaps teach, write, and continue the academic life. However, war detoured him. In 1536, Calvin arrived in Geneva, Switzerland. He did not expect to stay long. He was passing through. Guillaume (Guilhem or William) Farel (1489-1565), a reformer from France living in Geneva, approached him and convinced him to stay.
He was hired as a minister by the city’s small council. He served there from 1536-1538. He and Farel were fired and exiled from the city. The issues concerned changes that he and Farel were insisting be made.
Martin Bucer (1491-1551) invited Calvin to Strasbourg. Calvin ministered in Strasbourg from 1538-1541, working with Bucer. There he married Idelette de Bure, a widow, in 1540.
The Geneva church began to have some difficulties. One difficulty was from a Catholic Cardinal named Jacopo Sadoleto (1477-1547). He was a counter-reformer who was trying to gain people back to Catholicism. The ministers in Geneva were not skilled enough in the eyes of the city’s leaders to respond to Sadoleto. Calvin would return to Geneva and serve as a minister from 1541-1564. He preached almost every day, until he became too ill to do so.
[The following works were among the works consulted in presenting this material: Owen Chadwick, The Reformation; John Calvin, Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 3 © 1979; Charles Jacobs, The Story of the Church; F.W. Mattox, The Eternal Kingdom; Ryan Reeves YouTube Channel; John Calvin, calvin.edu; John Calvin Biography, notablebiographies.com].
The doctrine of Calvinism has been summarized in 5 points, T.U.L.I.P.. This summary was not provided by Calvin. It appeared much later. The 5 points were codified by the Synod of Dort (1618-1619). The earliest use of the acronym may be a sermon by Cleland Boyd McAfee before the Presbyterian Union, Newark, New Jersey in 1905. The popular use seems to have started with the book The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination by Loraine Boettner published in 1932 (TULIP, theopedia.com).
Here are the 5 points:
T – Total Hereditary Depravity. Man is born in sin. Totally inclined to sin. Man is dead spiritually, unable to respond to God. The Westminster Confession of Faith reads, “Our first parents… sinned in eating the forbidden fruit… the guilt of this sin was imputed… to all their posterity… from this original corruption… we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, wholly inclined to all evil (chapter 6) “Man, by his fall… hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man… dead in sin, is not able… to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto” (chapter 9). Barry Gritter of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America writes, “Can a man want to be born again and follow instructions on ‘how to do it?’ No. Can any man ‘accept Christ’… so that he becomes saved after that? Of course not… only AFTER God makes a person alive, can he and will he accept Christ” (T.U.L.I.P. or the Five Points of Calvinism, pcra.org).
U – Unconditional Election. God has offered salvation unconditionally to some. The Westminster Confession of Faith reads, “God from all eternity did… ordain whatsoever comes to pass… By the decree of God… some men and angels are predestined unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death” (Chapter 3). “The effectual call is of God’s free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who altogether passive therein, until being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call” (Chapter 10).
L – Limited Atonement. Christ did not die for all men. He died only for the elect, those that were unconditionally chosen for salvation. Barry Gritter writes, “It must not be said that Christ died for all men. The Bible says that Christ laid down His life for His sheep, and only them” (prca.org).
I – Irresistible Grace. God’s grace is irresistible to those whom He chose for salvation. Barry Gritter writes, “That means if God gives grace to you, there is nothing in the world that you can do to resist it and thwart God’s intention to take you to heaven” (prca.org). The Westminster Confession of Faith reads, “Yet so they come most freely, being made willing by His grace” (Chapter 10). John Calvin writes, “It is a powerful impulse of the Holy Spirit, which makes men willing who formerly were unwilling and reluctant” (Calvin on John 6:44, studylight.org).
P – Perseverance of the Saints. This doctrine has been called many things: Once saved, always saved; Once in grace, always in grace; The eternal security of the saints; The impossibility of apostasy. The Westminster confession of Faith reads, “They whom God hath accepted… can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace; but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved. This perseverance of the saints depends not upon their free will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election… Nevertheless they may… fall into grievous sins… and bring temporal judgment upon themselves” (Chapter 17).
3. John Knox (c. 1514-1572).
Here is a brief sketch of his life. He was born in Haddington, Scotland. His father was a farmer. Knox is believed to have been educated at St. Andrews University. He was ordained a Catholic Priest sometime between 1536-1540. He never received a parish. He worked as a notary public and as a tutor.
He joined the Reformation. In the mid 1540’s, he met George Wishart, a Scottish reformation leader. He began to work with him. Wishart was burned for heresy in 1546. In 1547, Knox and other reformers were arrested and carried off as slaves in French galleys.
He became a minister. In 1549, he was released and went to England. In England, he served as minister, first in Berwick, then in Newcastle. He also served as a Royal Chaplain during the reign of Edward VI. He married Marjorie Bowes of Berwick while in England.
He left England in 1553, when Mary Tudor became Queen. He went to Continental Europe. He served as a minister to England refugees, first in Frankfurt, Germany, then in Geneva, Switzerland. He met Calvin and became greatly influenced by him. In 1558, he penned The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women advocating rebellion against ungodly rulers, especially women, whom he thought, had no right to rule.
He returned to Scotland in 1559. The time was ripe for reformation. In 1560, Parliament rejected papal jurisdiction and approved a Confession of Faith produced by Knox. His wife died that same year. He married again in 1564 to Margaret Stewart. He was 50. She was 17. This was a great scandal.
Mary Stuart (Mary Queen of Scots) returned from France in 1561. She was Catholic in a reformed country. Knox met with her several times but to little satisfaction. He became her fierce antagonist. He not only opposed her Catholicism but also the idea of a woman monarch.
The organization known as the Presbyterian Church has its roots in Calvin and Knox. “The Presbyterian form of church government and Reformed theology were formally adopted as the national Church of Scotland in 1690. The Church of Scotland remains Presbyterian today” (Presbyterian Church History, learnreligions.com).
The Presbyterian Church came to America in the early colonial days of the 17th century. The College of New Jersey (1746), later known as Princeton University, was started by Presbyterians.
[The following works were among the works consulted in presenting this material: Owen Chadwick, The Reformation; John Knox, Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 10, © 1979; britanica.com; Charles Jacobs, The Story of The Church; F.W. Mattox, The Eternal Kingdom; Ryan Reeves YouTube Channel Calvin, England and Scotland. John Knox, biography. yourdictionary.com; Heroes of the Faith; John Knox, dianaleaghmatthews.com; John Knox, banneroftruth.org; John Knox and Mary Queen of Scots, historyscotland.com; John Knox: Life Story, tudortimes.co.uk; Presbyterian Church History, learningreligions.com].