In August 1971, the leaders of the conservative movement within the southern Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) announced plans for a “continuing Presbyterian church.” It was a difficult decision that carried great risk and brought great opposition. As one of the new denomination’s founders, Paul Settle, remembered, “Before the final vote, [the leaders] dropped to their knees and prayed. Many wept.” (This and all subsequent quotes appear in my book, For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America.)
Erstwhile conservative leaders like Nelson Bell and Andrew Jumper publicly disagreed with the decision to form the new denomination. And the steps along the way to December 4, 1973, when the first General Assembly met at Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, were fraught. Only 41,000 members identified with what was then called the National Presbyterian Church.
Flash forward 50 years. The initial 41,000 who formed the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) in 1973 have become nearly 400,000 total members. With almost 2,000 churches and church plants, over 5,000 pastors and nearly 1,000 ministry candidates and licentiates, the largest Anglo-American Presbyterian mission force, and the largest Reformed college ministry in the world, the PCA has far surpassed what the founders envisioned.
The 70 children of Jacob went to Egypt and emerged as over 600,000 fighting men with women and children besides. Likewise, the Lord has faithfully multiplied and established the work of our founders. We should rejoice and give thanks to the Lord for his faithfulness.
As we reflect on the PCA’s beginnings in this golden anniversary year, there are four areas of our founding for which we might be thankful—and they chart the pathway for our future.
1. Founded by (Flawed) Heroes
As we age, we more clearly see our earthly fathers’ flaws. So it’s been with our understanding of the history of the PCA. Many have become aware of the sinful flaws of some in the generation that founded the PCA, especially around racial justice, and we’ve sought to confess and repent of our covenantal relationship to those sins.
But make no mistake: that founding generation was heroic. Those pastors, elders, and church members took a bold stand for the truth of the inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word of God. They defended the gospel of Jesus Christ and the fundamentals of the faith. They were willing to step out in faith, believing in a big God who was able to do far beyond what they could ask or imagine. They lost church buildings and pensions, but they gained a true Presbyterian church. That’s something to recognize and celebrate.
2. Founded out of Gospel Priorities
Right at the beginning, the PCA took as its motto “Faithful to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission.” This speaks to the gospel priorities the founding generation feared were being lost in the old church and sought to conserve in the new denomination.
The three parts of the motto hang together. From the 1920s to the present day, the conservatives who would fight for, establish, and then lead the PCA stood for Scripture alone as the supreme authority in the church, the norming norm for theology, witness, and life.
This was the central disagreement with progressives in the southern Presbyterian church—does Scripture supply the norms for renewing the church and transforming the world? As one PCA church leader put it, “The basic divergence has to do with attitudes toward the Bible—on the one hand the full integrity and authority of the Scriptures, and on the other, varying degrees of rejection, from belief that the Bible contains the Word of God (but is not the Word of God), down to the viewpoint that the Bible is no longer relevant to today’s world.” While the Presbyterian conservatives who formed the PCA might have disagreed about much, they were all united on sola scriptura.
While the Presbyterian conservatives who formed the PCA might have disagreed about much, they were all united on sola scriptura.
The founders held to the Reformed faith as given in the Westminster Standards. As the first moderator of the PCA General Assembly, W. Jack Williamson, noted, “We believe the faith we prize is clearly and comprehensively systematized in the subordinate standards which are the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechism. We make no apology for our determination that this Church will be thoroughly Calvinistic in doctrine and intensely Presbyterian in government.”
Fearful that the loss of Calvinistic fundamentals would lead to the decline of the church, the founders desired a church to maintain the Reformed faith.
3. Founded for Missional Partnership
These gospel priorities would lead to gospel outreach. Throughout the 20th century, Presbyterian conservatives stood for the “spiritual mission of the church,” which they believed meant the church shouldn’t concern itself with social or political issues primarily but with religious ones. They believed the only way to renew American culture was through evangelism.
That’s why these Bible-believing Calvinists passionately supported Billy Graham in the 1950s and 1960s. They saw in Graham’s ministry what they desired for themselves: firm belief in an inerrant Bible fueling love for lost souls and a willingness to go with the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth.
That’s also why one of the organizations Presbyterian conservatives started prior to forming the PCA was one for international missions, the Executive Commission for Overseas Evangelization, which would be adopted by the newly formed PCA as Mission to the World.
But the founders also wanted to partner with other organizations, Reformed and otherwise, to further the gospel. Our denomination has long recognized we don’t need to agree on every jot and tittle to advance the gospel cause. Ours was a broad-minded gospel mission and outreach because we knew the kingdom of God was bigger than our branch of the visible church.
4. Founded for Mainline Influence
There was a great concern for these founders to maintain engagement with, influence on, and custodianship over American culture. Essentially, they saw themselves as a mainline Presbyterian body, just as mainline as the northern United Presbyterian Church in the USA and the southern PCUS that would form the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1983. That’s what they meant when they claimed the PCA was a “continuing Presbyterian Church.”
Our church has long recognized we don’t need to agree on every jot and tittle to advance the gospel cause. We knew the kingdom of God was bigger than our branch of the visible church.
Their orientation toward American culture is unmistakable in the pages of conservatives’ primary organ, the Presbyterian Journal. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Presbyterian conservatives bemoaned the decay of American civilization and blamed the church for its failure. Yet southern Presbyterian conservatives felt they had the solution: the warm and winsome gospel rooted in the inerrant Word and preached with evangelistic passion.
While they would declare this gospel in generally Calvinistic terms, they also saw their place within the larger world of the new evangelicalism emerging in the 1950s. Nelson Bell, Billy Graham, Harold Ockenga, Carl F. H. Henry—these were the people most of that founding generation identified with.
This would be the way the PCA would steward its cultural influence: through a clear proclamation of the gospel that would influence genuine cultural and social change in the United States. The denomination didn’t want to retreat to the margins or become a “sideline” Presbyterian body. Rather, its members saw their mission as national, even international, in scope. They were willing to fight in the early days of the denomination to keep the PCA in the middle of the evangelical world, where they might exert the most influence for the advancement of the gospel.
These four areas represent an important reminder in our golden anniversary year. There are many of us who still believe in and desire to work for this founding ideal: that we might be a church pure in doctrine and comprehensive in scope, a national denomination that aggressively works together for mission with a shared doctrinal commitment to the Westminster Standards.
I’m thankful for the founding generation—for their heroic stand for the gospel, for missional partnership, and for mainline custodianship. I trust that our generation might build on their foundational ministry.