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What Does It Mean to Be Presbyterian?

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Presbyterians are distinctive in two major ways: they adhere to a pattern of religious thought known as Reformed theology and a form of government that stresses the active, representational leadership of both ministers and church members.

Our name,”Presbyterian,” is rooted in the Greek word presbuteros, which means “elder.” This etymology defines our system of church government, structured around a group of elders elected by the congregation—the same system of government upon which our country’s democratic philosophies were founded.

As Protestant Christians, we accept the authority of the Scriptures, both Old and New Testament, and profess our faith in God, who is known to us as the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Our faith has been especially influenced by the Protestant Reformation, specifically by leaders such as John Calvin and John Knox. We strongly believe in the key elements of the Protestant Reformation: salvation through faith in Jesus Christ alone, the authority of the Bible for faith and life, and our individual duty to be a minister of Christ at all times and in all places. It is up to each individual to determine how to apply these principles in his or her own life.

Above all else it is our mission to share the love of God through Jesus Christ through word and deed. Presbyterians spread the love of God throughout the world by emphasizing the need for worship, developing new churches, and by fostering mission activities. We respond to disaster situations, minister to the sick and the needy, and educate new generations of Christian men and women to continue our legacy of service to God and the community.

Presbyterians trace their history to the 16th century and the Protestant Reformation. Our heritage, and much of what we believe, began with the French lawyer John Calvin (1509-1564), whose writings crystallized much of the Reformed thinking that came before him.

Calvin did much of his writing from Geneva, Switzerland. From there, the Reformed movement spread to other parts of Europe and the British Isles. Many of the early Presbyterians in America came from England, Scotland and Ireland. The first American Presbytery was organized at Philadelphia in 1706. The first General Assembly was held in the same city in 1789. The first Assembly was convened by the Rev. John Witherspoon, the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence.