The aspects of the revival of Presbyterianism during the Reformation period had emphases in theology and church government. In theology, Presbyterianism returned to its Biblical roots in its emphasis on salvation by grace alone and its rejection of human merit as the guarantor of acceptance with God. In church government, Presbyterianism returned to its Biblical roots in its emphasis on the sole authority of Jesus Christ in the church, and on the Scriptural designation of elders, chosen by each congregation and ordained by the presbytery, as the spiritual overseers of the people of God.
By the time the Reformation era ended about 1650, more than a century after the death of Martin Luther and nearly a century after the deaths of John Calvin and John Knox, the legacy of the Reformation and of Presbyterianism in particular was under increasing pressure. By the 18th century, the campaign to infiltrate Protestant seminaries with rational skepticism regarding the truths of the Bible, especially the Bible’s emphasis on the miraculous, was gathering momentum. The objective was to undermine the spiritual fervor that was a hallmark of the awakening that was the Reformation.
The Age of Reason (sometimes going under the name of the Age of Enlightenment) argued for the philosophy that the use of reason was the path to knowing the truth, and where reason appeared to contradict the statements of Scripture, reason must prevail. The Protestant seminaries, especially those in Germany, became sources of willingness to challenge the Reformed faith. Because of the academic reputation of those seminaries, many theological students from across Europe, and later from across the Atlantic Ocean in North America, pursued their studies in them. The attack on the divine inspiration of the Holy Scriptures featured the suggestion that the first five books of the Bible were the product of a series of editors instead of the Mosaic authorship that Jesus Christ asserted was the case. New Testament criticism reflected the search for the “historical Jesus” and challenged the inspiration of the Gospels.
As graduates of the rationalistic seminaries returned to their home territories, they began to affect the ministerial training in those areas. In 19th century America, several Presbyterian bastions of orthodoxy fought the rising trend of skepticism about the truths of the Scriptures. Princeton Seminary, the successor to the College of New Jersey where Jonathan Edwards (1703- 1758) served briefly as president, counted among its distinguished faculty Charles Hodge (1797-1878), his son, A. A. Hodge (1823-1886), B. B. Warfield (1851-1921), Robert Dick Wilson (1856-1930), and J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) among other defenders of the truth. Those scholars devoted their lives to defending Presbyterian theology and government.
During the years when those men were active, other men with opposing views rose from the ranks of students to secure faculty positions, not only at Princeton, but also at other seminaries. It became evident, however, that Princeton was the focus of attack because of its longstanding reputation for orthodoxy and its defense of Presbyterianism. During the early decades of the 20th century, that battle reached a fever pitch. J. Gresham Machen and some of his protégés—Charles Woodbridge (1902-1995), Carl McIntire (1906-2002), and O. T. Allis (1880-1973), among others, occupied the front lines. The battle was over fundamental Biblical truths, such as the Virgin Birth of Christ, the inspiration and infallibility of the Scriptures, the creation of man by the direct act of God, the vicarious atonement by Christ, and His bodily resurrection. Machen and those who stood with him argued forcefully against the incursions of modernism and skepticism. Some, including Woodbridge, dated the dividing point in Princeton’s history at 1929. By the mid-1930s, the purveyors of unbelief forced the defenders of the truth out of their positions.
At the same period, the battle between Biblical orthodoxy and modernistic skepticism became prominent in Northern Ireland, the six counties in Ireland that remained in the United Kingdom after the plebiscite of 1921 enabled the remainder of Ireland to form its own republic. The Irish Presbyterian Church became a battleground as James E. Davey (1890-1960), a minister in the church and a professor at the General Assembly’s College, the training ground for ministers, faced accusations of heresy for denying the doctrine of the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. He suggested that to believe in the Bible was a form of idolatry and argued for an approach to Christianity that separated it from the historic doctrines taught in the Bible. A lengthy proceeding in the courts of the Irish Presbyterian Church declined to address Professor Davey’s departures from the faith and ultimately, the General Assembly cleared him on all charges.
In 1953, Davey became the moderator of the General Assembly in the Irish Presbyterian Church. The alarms over modernism troubled many in the denomination, and there were departures. One independent congregation on the Ravenhill Road in Belfast issued a call in 1946 to Ian R. K. Paisley (1926-2014) to become its minister. Early in 1951, the elders of the Irish Presbyterian church in Crossgar planned an evangelistic campaign at which Rev. Paisley, then 24, was to be the preacher. Because of his reputation for opposing the ecumenism of the recently- formed World Council of Churches (its first assembly took place in Amsterdam in 1948), with which the Irish Presbyterian Church affiliated, and his forceful opposition to Roman Catholicism, he became a target for modernists. The Presbytery of [County] Down ordered the Crossgar session to cancel its planned campaign and refused to allow the use of any part of the church building as a venue for it.
The elders received suspensions from that presbytery for refusing to submit to its ruling, but they located another building in the town for the campaign that took place February 4-18. On March 17, Rev. Paisley’s congregation and three others issued the Free Presbyterian Manifesto as they formed the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster. The new denomination was to provide a haven for those who were anxious to separate from the modernism and ecumenism of the Irish Presbyterian Church.
Out of that beginning, the new denomination developed to the point that one of its ministers, Rev. Frank McClelland (b.1936) moved to Toronto in 1976 to establish a Free Presbyterian congregation in that city. The following year, an independent congregation in Greenville, SC affiliated with the Free Presbyterian Church, becoming known as Faith Free Presbyterian Church. Early in 1980, Rev. Alan Cairns (b. 1940) accepted the call of that congregation to become its minister. During the 1980s, other congregations formed in both Canada and the United States. In 2005, the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster constituted the North American churches as an independent presbytery with fraternal relations with the Ulster denomination. In 2013, the Ulster presbytery constituted the churches in the Republic of Nepal as a separate presbytery.
From its 1st century roots in the formation of Christian churches across the Roman world, Presbyterianism has reflected the abiding philosophy that Christ alone is the Head of the church, and that He has established the government of His church as the bulwark against the influences of false religion. Through the Middle Ages in which apostasy seemed to gain the ascendancy to the revival of Presbyterianism during the Protestant Reformation to the reemergence of the continuing struggle with false religion in recent centuries, Presbyterianism’s only recourse has always been to the faith of the Scriptures. Faithful Presbyterians hear the call of Jude in his epistle to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” Those who are the heirs of that heritage continue the battle for the faith.