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What is a Presbyterian?


To be a Presbyterian means that you are a Christian, a Christian from a particular branch of the larger Christian family tree.

Presbyterians trace our history back to the movement to reform the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th Century. In that Reformation movement, the German monk, Martin Luther, declared that a relationship with God doesn’t depend on doing good works to gain God’s approval, but rather trusting in the unconditional acceptance and love of God, known as grace. As part of the second wave of the Reformation that created the Protestant (as in “to protest”) family of churches, a brilliant Bible teacher and leader named John Calvin arose to lead the church in Geneva, Switzerland, and to crystallize the thinking that would create the Presbyterian or Reformed movement. His contributions include the following:

Education– Calvin believed everyone needed an education so that everyone could read the Bible for themselves. As a result, Geneva created the first public schools.


Presbytery – The word “Presbyterian” comes from the New Testament Greek word, presbuteros, meaning “elder.” Calvin believed that the people should govern the church through elected leaders, not through a pope and his appointed hierarchy. He built in checks and balances to power so that a few people could not dominate the church. Therefore, Presbyterian churches are led by a board of elders, who are members of the congregation elected by the congregation to lead the congregation.

John Knox, a Scottish student of Calvin persuaded his native Scotland to join the Presbyterian revolution. The Presbyterian focus on leadership and education transformed Scotland and later parts of Ireland. When Scottish and Irish Presbyterians moved to the new world, they brought these transforming ideas there as well. In fact, the Presbyterian model of government deeply influenced the form of government proposed by the United States Constitution. Fourteen signers of the Declaration of Independence were Presbyterians, and among American Presidents and Vice Presidents, more have been Presbyterian than any other Christian denomination.


Over the years in the United States, Presbyterians have not been perfect. Like every other Protestant denomination, Presbyterians split during the Civil War. In the 1980s, they reunited, and have striven to become a denomination reflecting the full diversity of God’s creation. Swissvale Presbyterian is affiliated with the largest Presbyterian body in the U.S., the Presbyterian Church USA.

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