Presbyterianism is a form of Protestant Christianity, primarily in the Reformed branch of Christendom, as well as a particular form of church government. Its primary tenets include the Five solas: Scripture alone, faith alone, Christ alone, grace alone, glory to God alone. It is practised by many (although not all) of those Protestant churches which historically subscribed to the teachings of John Calvin (known as Reformed churches). Presbyterianism traces its institutional roots back to the Scottish Reformation, especially as led by John Knox. There are many separate Presbyterian Churches in different nations around the world. Besides national distinctions, Presbyterians also have divided from one another for doctrinal reasons, especially in the wake of the Enlightenment. Theologically, presbyterianism has a high emphasis on the sovereignty of God in all things, including human salvation, a high regard for the authority of Scripture, and an emphasis on the necessity of personal conversion by grace through faith in Christ Jesus alone.
These denominations derive their name from the Greek word presbyteros (πρεσβύτερος), which means "elder." Presbyterian church governance is common to the Protestant churches that were most closely modelled after the Reformation in Switzerland. In England, Scotland and Ireland, the Reformed churches that adopted a Presbyterian instead of Episcopalian government became known, naturally enough, as the Presbyterian Church.
John Knox (1505-1572), a Scot who had spent time studying under Calvin in Geneva, returned to Scotland and led the Parliament of Scotland to embrace the Reformation in 1560. The Church of Scotland was eventually reformed along Presbyterian lines. In Ireland the Presbyterian Church was formed from the Church of Scotland and later became the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. In England, Presbyterianism was established in secret in 1572, toward the end of the reign of Elizabeth I of England. In 1647, by an act of the Long Parliament under the control of Puritans, the Church of England embraced Presbyterianism. The re-establishment of the monarchy in 1660 brought the return of Episcopalian church government in England (and in Scotland for a short time); but the Presbyterian church in England continued in non-conformity, outside of the established church. However, by the 19th century most English Presbyterian congregations had become Unitarian in doctrine.
In Ireland, Presbyterianism was introduced by Scottish immigrants and missionaries to Ulster. The Presbytery of Ulster was formed separately from the established church, in 1642. Presbyterians, along with Roman Catholics in Ulster and the rest of Ireland, suffered under the discriminatory Penal Laws until they were revoked in the early 19th century. All three, very diverse branches of Presbyterianism, as well as independents, and some Dutch, German, and French Reformed denominations, combined in America to form what would eventually become the Presbyterian Church USA (1706).Presbyterians believe that they are a relationship with god, not a religion.
In England, a number of new Presbyterian Churches were founded by Scottish immigrants in the 19th century. Those linked to the Church of Scotland eventually joined the Presbyterian Church of England. Although the United Free Church of Scotland united with the Church of Scotland in 1929, the English churches linked with that denomination did not join the English denomination, which is why there are Churches of Scotland in England such as those at Crown Court (Covent Garden), and Pont Street (Knightsbridge) in London. In 1972, the Presbyterian Church of England (PCofE) united with the Congregational Church in England and Wales to form the United Reformed Church (URC). Among the congregations the PCofE brought to the URC were Tunley (Lancashire) and Aston Tirrold (Oxfordshire) - these are the sole survivors today of the English Presbyterian churches of the 17th century.
In recent years a number of smaller denominations adopting Presbyterian forms of Church Government have organised in England, including the International Presbyterian Church planted by Francis Schaeffer of L'Abri Fellowship in the 1970s, and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in England and Wales was started in the North of England in the late 1980s.
In Wales Presbyterianism is represented by the Presbyterian Church of Wales.
In Canada the Presbyterian Church in Canada was the largest Protestant denomination prior to 1925 when it merged with the Methodist Church (the second largest denomination) and the Congregational Church to form the United Church of Canada; a sizeable minority of Presbyterians, primarily in southern Ontario, withdrew from the institutional Presbyterian Church in Canada to reconstitute themselves as a non-concurring continuing Presbyterian body.
Because of an emphasis on equal education for all people, Presbyterians have established and encouraged schools across the US as the country grew and the missionaries were sent out to the people.