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The Oxford History of Protestant Dissenting Traditions, Volume IIIThe Nineteenth Century$
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Timothy Larsen and Michael Ledger-Lomas

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780199683710

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780199683710.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 02 December 2021

Presbyterians and Congregationalists in North America

Presbyterians and Congregationalists in North America

(p.177) 7 Presbyterians and Congregationalists in North America
The Oxford History of Protestant Dissenting Traditions, Volume III

David W. Kling

Oxford University Press

Presbyterians and Congregationalists arrived in colonial America as Dissenters; however, they soon exercised a religious and cultural dominance that extended well into the first half of the nineteenth century. The multi-faceted Second Great Awakening led within the Reformed camp by the Presbyterian James McGready in Kentucky, a host of New Divinity ministers in New England, and Congregationalist Charles Finney in New York energized Christians to improve society (Congregational and Presbyterian women were crucial to the three most important reform movements of the nineteenth century—antislavery, temperance, and missions) and extend the evangelical message around the world. Although outnumbered by other Protestant denominations by mid-century, Presbyterians and Congregationalists nevertheless expanded geographically, increased in absolute numbers, spread the Gospel at home and abroad, created enduring institutions, and continued to dominate formal religious thought. The overall trajectory of nineteenth-century Presbyterianism and Congregationalism in the United States is one that tracks from convergence to divergence, from cooperative endeavours and mutual interests in the first half the nineteenth century to an increasingly self-conscious denominational awareness that became firmly established in both denominations by the 1850s. With regional distribution of Congregationalists in the North and Presbyterians in the mid-Atlantic region and South, the Civil War intensified their differences (and also divided Presbyterians into antislavery northern and pro-slavery southern parties). By the post-Civil War period these denominations had for the most part gone their separate ways. However, apart from the southern Presbyterians, who remained consciously committed to conservatism, they faced a similar host of social and intellectual challenges, including higher criticism of the Bible and Darwinian evolutionary theory, to which they responded in varying ways. In general, Presbyterians maintained a conservative theological posture whereas Congregationalists accommodated to the challenges of modernity. At the turn of the century Congregationalists and Presbyterians continued to influence sectors of American life but their days of cultural hegemony were long past. In contrast to the nineteenth-century history of Presbyterian and Congregational churches in the United States, the Canadian story witnessed divergence evolving towards convergence and self-conscious denominationalism to ecclesiastical cooperation. During the very years when American Presbyterians were fragmenting over first theology, then slavery, and finally sectional conflict, political leaders in all regions of Canada entered negotiations aimed at establishing the Dominion of Canada, which were finalized in 1867. The new Dominion enjoyed the strong support of leading Canadian Presbyterians who saw in political confederation a model for uniting the many Presbyterian churches that Scotland’s fractious history had bequeathed to British North America. In 1875, the four largest Presbyterian denominations joined together as the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The unifying and mediating instincts of nineteenth-century Canadian Presbyterianism contributed to forces that in 1925 led two-thirds of Canadian Presbyterians (and almost 90 per cent of their ministers) into the United Church, Canada’s grand experiment in institutional ecumenism. By the end of the nineteenth century, Congregationalism had only a slight presence, whereas Presbyterians, by contrast, became increasingly more important until they stood at the centre of Canada’s Protestant history.

Keywords:   biblical criticism, Civil War, Congregationalists, Darwinism, Presbyterians, Plan of Union (1801), old-school Presbyterians, new-school Presbyterians, Presbyterian Church in Canada, Second Great Awakening, social gospel, United Church of Canada

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