On May 26, 1789, the first General Assembly of Presbyterians in America adjourned. With the newly won independence of the nation, American Presbyterians organized themselves as the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA) in order to establish greater stability and uniformity among their 419 congregations, sixteen presbyteries, and four synods. Fittingly, John Witherspoon, President of the College of New Jersey and the only minster to sign the Declaration of Independence, was elected moderator of that first assembly which convened on May 21, at Second Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.
The formation of the General Assembly was accompanied by adjustments in the church’s constitution. The first Assembly approved revisions to Westminster Confession’s teaching on the civil magistrate (chapter 23), which took account of the principle of religious disestablishment in the new republic. No longer did the civil magistrate have the power to call synods or to see that the church conducted its business “according to the mind of God.” The revisions went on the affirm the principle of religious liberty, asserting that the civil magistrate had the duty to protect the liberty even of religious infidels. Moreover, synods and councils were not to handle matters of civil polity except in “cases extraordinary” (chapter 31).
To be sure, new world political realities occasioned these changes. But by stripping the state of authority over the church, the revisions also served to protect the independence of the church from the whims of the civil magistrate. And by liberating it from the sanction and support of the state, the PCUSA, as a “voluntary church,” was better positioned to witness to the lordship of Christ over his church.
Picture: John Witherspoon
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