First General Assembly of the PCUSA
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Time Period
5/21/1789
Description
As Presbyterianism spread beyond the mid-Atlantic, the requirement of each congregation to send an elder to the annual synod meetings in New York and Philadelphia became more difficult.

In response, the church reorganized along decentralized, republican lines from 1786-1789. Each congregation sent an elder to the presbytery, which then nominated a handful to attend synod, which then sent representatives to the new General Assembly. The new American structure gave more authority to presbyteries and less to the General Assembly, unlike the old centralized model of the Church of Scotland. The first General Assembly meeting was held on May 21, 1789 in Philadelphia.

At this time, the reorganized denomination adopted a new name, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA). In 1789, it was composed of four synods and sixteen presbyteries spanning New York, New Jersey, Virginia, and the Carolinas.

In just over 80 years, American Presbyterianism grew from a single presbytery into a colony-spanning denomination.
Interactive Timeline(s)
Presbyterian Religious Events and People in American History
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Presbyterian Religious Events and People in American History
Narrative
During the Revolutionary War and 1780s attendance at the annual synod meetings in New York and Philadelphia suffered in large part because of the spread of Presbyterianism beyond the mid-Atlantic. Each congregation (known as a "session") was ostensibly expected to send an elder to the synod, a requirement that was especially onerous for congregations hundreds of miles away in Virginia and the Carolinas. The denominational structure was geared towards a smaller, regional church, not the multi-colony institution that Presbyterianism had become.

From 1786 to 1789 the church reorganized along decentralized, republican lines. Congregations each sent an elder to the presbytery, which then nominated a handful to attend synod, which then sent representatives to the new General Assembly. This was a departure from the centralized model of the Church of Scotland, which gave the General Assembly the power to impose order and orthodoxy on synods and presbyteries. Instead, the American church vested much of that authority in the presbyteries, which oversaw ordination. Furthermore, individual congregations were responsible for setting their own membership standards. The American General Assembly, while still an executive body that acted as the final court of appeal from decisions made by the presbyteries, was relatively weak compared to its Scottish cousin. The first General Assembly meeting was held on May 21, 1789 in Philadelphia.

In keeping with the recently ratified US Constitution the reorganized denomination adopted a new name, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA). In 1789, it was composed of four synods and 16 presbyteries spanning New York, New Jersey, Virginia, and the Carolinas. The church faced a serious ministerial shortage, for barely half of its 420 congregations had a regular minister. Even so, American Presbyterianism grew from a handful of churches in a single presbytery in 1706 into a colony-spanning denomination in just over 80 years.
Religious Groups
Presbyterian-Reformed Family: Other ARDA Links

Biographies
Witherspoon, John
Photographs

Proceedings of the General Assembly PCUSA, title page- Internet Archive

John Witherspoon, moderator of the 1789 General Assembly- National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; partial gift of Mrs. Samuel Matthews

Consitution of the PCUSA, title page- Hathi Trust
Book/Journal Source(s)
Hart, D.G. and John R. Muether, 2007. Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism. P & R Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ.
Web Page Contributor
Paul Matzko
Affliated with: Pennsylvania State University, Ph.D. in History

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