Skip to content

Presbyterian Polity and Its Historical Roots

Exploring the Social and Political Changes that Influenced the Development of Presbyterian Polity

The development of Presbyterian polity is deeply entwined with the social and political changes of the past several centuries. From its beginnings in the sixteenth century, the Presbyterian denomination has had to constantly adapt to the changing environment in which it exists.

In the early sixteenth century, the Reformation led to a period of religious turmoil throughout Europe. This led to the development of different denominations, each with their own forms of church governance. In Scotland, the Presbyterian church emerged as the main denominational body, led by the Westminster Confession of Faith. This document laid the foundation for the formation of Presbyterian polity, which is based on the idea of a “presbytery” or group of local church leaders.

The English Civil War of the 1640s saw the rise of the Presbyterian Church in England and its adoption of the Westminster Confession of Faith. This document provided the basis for Presbyterianism’s development in England and became its governing document for several centuries. During this period, the Presbyterian Church was also a major player in the political sphere, supporting the Parliamentarian cause in the civil war and playing a major role in the formation of the Westminster Assembly.

The 18th century was a period of great social and political stability in Britain, and the Presbyterian Church took advantage of this to further develop its polity. The Church of Scotland developed its system of Presbyterian government, which was enshrined in the 1707 Acts of Union that saw the formation of the United Kingdom. This saw the rise of the General Assembly as the highest governing body of the Church, and the appointment of “Moderators” who would be responsible for the day-to-day running of the Church.

The 19th century saw the Presbyterian Church spread throughout the English-speaking world. In the United States, the Presbyterian Church was one of the major denominations among the Protestant churches and would eventually become one of the largest Protestant denominations in the country. The Presbyterian Church in America was founded in 1706, and after the American Revolution it was one of the leading denominations among the Protestant churches of the new nation.

The 20th century saw the Presbyterian Church continue to evolve and adapt to the changing social and political environment. In the United States, the Presbyterian Church experienced a period of growth and renewal in the 1950s and 60s, as it embraced its role as a leader among American Protestant denominations. Today, the Presbyterian Church continues to remain a

The Role of John Calvin in Shaping Presbyterian Polity

John Calvin was a 16th-century theologian whose teachings profoundly shaped the Protestant Reformation and had an enduring impact on Presbyterian polity. His ideas gave rise to a system of church governance and discipline known as Calvinism, which would later be adopted in part by the Presbyterian Church.

Calvin’s teachings emphasized the importance of the Bible as the sole source of authoritative instruction, and argued that the church’s government should be structured accordingly. He advocated for a hierarchical system of government, with authority held by a ruling council of ordained elders. This council, known as the presbytery, or “session” in Presbyteries, would oversee the spiritual life of the church by appointing ministers and handling church discipline.

Calvin also argued that the civil government should protect the right of the church to operate freely, and should even be subordinate to the church in matters of faith and practice. This view was influential in the development of the Presbyterian Church’s position on religious freedom.

In addition, Calvin’s teachings placed a strong emphasis on education and the cultivation of good moral character. He argued that the church should require that ministers receive proper training and be held to a high standard of moral conduct. This emphasis on education and moral character is still evident in the Presbyterian Church’s requirements for ministers and other church officers.

John Calvin’s ideas and teachings have been highly influential in shaping Presbyterian polity over the centuries. His emphasis on the authority of Scripture, the hierarchical structure of church governance, and the importance of education and moral character have all had a lasting impact on the Presbyterian Church.

Examining the Impact of the Westminster Assembly on Presbyterian Polity

The Westminster Assembly of 1643 to 1653 had a profound impact on the development of Presbyterian polity. The Assembly was convened by the Long Parliament in order to reform the Church of England and create a new Confession of Faith. The Assembly produced the Westminster Confession of Faith, a document that outlined the beliefs of the Church of England, and the Westminster Shorter Catechism and Larger Catechism, which are still used to this day.

The Westminster Confession of Faith was the most influential document of the Assembly, and it was the basis for Presbyterian polity. The Confession outlined a Calvinist theology, discussed the structure of the Church, and provided instructions for the ordination of ministers. This document was adopted by most Presbyterian denominations, and it formed the basis for the Presbyterian Church’s organizational structure.

The Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms were also influential documents. These documents outlined the basics of Christian faith and doctrine, and they were used as teaching tools in Presbyterian churches. The Shorter Catechism was often memorized by children, and it provided a basic overview of the doctrine of the Church. The Larger Catechism, on the other hand, provided a more detailed exploration of the doctrine and was used as a teaching tool for adults.

The Westminster Assembly had a profound impact on the development of Presbyterian polity. Through these documents, the Assembly established the foundational tenets of the Church, and provided a blueprint for organized religious life. These documents have shaped the Presbyterian Church’s understanding of theology and have served as a guide for the Church’s organization and structure. The Assembly’s impact on Presbyterian polity has been felt for centuries, and its documents continue to be studied, taught, and respected.


Presbyterian polity has long been a defining characteristic of the Presbyterian Church, having been shaped and formed by its historical roots of Reformation, Puritanism, and Anglicanism. Its emphasis on order, structure, and congregational autonomy has been a source of strength for the denomination and a hallmark of its growth and success. Presbyterian polity is rooted in an understanding of God’s sovereignty and the priesthood of all believers, and has been key to the denomination’s ability to reach out and serve people of many backgrounds and beliefs. While the principles of Presbyterian polity have remained largely unchanged over the centuries, they continue to be adapted and applied in a way that is relevant and meaningful to today’s Presbyterian community.