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ARP History -- Kent Moorlach

To chart the streams that lead to the present day Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, one must first begin at its source in the Protestant Reformation. In Western Europe, it was the challenge of authority of the Roman Catholic Church that began after the time of the Renaissance in the 15th century. Martin Luther, a German priest and professor, stands out as a major architect of the Protestant Reformation. His posting of the 95 Thesis (in this case, 95 grievances against the Roman Catholic Church) on the Castle-church door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517, precipitated a growing stream of theologians who further refined the Reformation’s insight concerning the nature of God and His relationship with humanity. Chief among these theologians was John Calvin. His concise writings and persuasive defense of Reformation Theology made his residence of Geneva a training ground for many influential pastors. Among them was John Knox, a Scotsman who studied under Calvin and returned to his native Scotland with full conviction of Reformation truths and with a zeal to establish a pure church based upon Presbyterian polity. Other Reformed communities developed in England, Holland and France.
The Roman Catholic Church at this time not only struggled with the Protestant Reformers theologically, but also politically. The Roman Catholic Church possessed a great deal of influence among ruling monarchs, land owners, and the wealthy. Regular conflicts regarding the ultimate authority on how to worship God and how to organize His church lead to years of intense debate and persecution.
One such controversy foisted Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine unto the social scene. Brothers, and gifted ministers, the Erskines took umbrage with the Patronage Act, which gave the chief landowners a majority vote in deciding which pastors would serve in their parishes – essentially trumping the vote of a congregation. In response to this, Ebenezer Erskine’s sermon at the Synod of Perth (1732) deriding Patronage in the Church of Scotland lead to his suspension, and subsequently gave momentum to the “Seceders.”1 Having determined that the Church of Scotland had ignored a tenant of Presbyterian essentials, a group of four ministers (including Ebenezer Erskine, James Fisher, William Wilson, and Alexander Moncrieff) organized the Associate Presbytery of Scotland at Gairney Bridge, near Kinross, on December 6, 1733. In 1737, brother Ralph also joined. By 1744, the Associate Presbytery became a Synod of 26 ministers and their presbyteries.
Another group born of controversy was the “Covenanters.” Since 1638, these mostly English Christians made a theological and political distinction regarding the true “King” of the Church – it was not the current monarch of the land or day, but the risen and ruling Jesus Christ. Earthly monarchs required oaths of allegiance to their authority; but the Covenanters found this to be repugnant. In Scotland, in 1752, a group of like minded Presbyterians opposing the Church of Scotland, organized the Reformed Presbytery.
The persistent persecutions of many Protestant groups lead to a steady migration to the Americas. The New England states received many transplants from the British Isles, and along with them, their Protestant convictions. Without the political milieu of Europe, every stripe of Protestant church began to flourish in America. The necessity for qualified ministers prompted many pastors to embark on a new life in the New World. Upon arriving in the Colonies, these pastors were quick to identify many factors that united them in life, culture, theology, and ministry; factors previously obscured by tensions abroad. The similarities among these distinct groups made the discussion of uniting into a single body overwhelmingly obvious. On November 1, 1782 the Associate Presbyteries of Pennsylvania and New York, and the Reformed Presbytery, combined to form the Associate Reformed Church and Synod (the first church merger in the United States, however, not all Associate and Reformed Presbyterian churches joined this union).
The Associate Reformed Church flourished. After twenty years, the original Synod was divided into four Synods, the Synod of New York, the Synod of Pennsylvania, the Synod of the Carolinas, and the Synod of Scioto. The first meeting of the General Synod of the Associate Reformed Church was held at Greencastle, Pennsylvania on May 30, 1804.2
This union and “flourishing” was tested regularly; not due to any outside persecution as experienced overseas, but by the expanse of country covered by the denomination, and the related difficulty of travel for southern and western delegates to attend the church courts held in Pennsylvania. This was a primary reason for establishing regional and coordinate Synods -- to keep the weeks of travel to a minimum. Nevertheless, in 1820, the Synod of Scioto became an independent and separate Synod. On April 1, 1822, the Synod of the Carolinas also became an independent and separate Synod known as the “Associate Reformed Synod of the South.” This date remains significant to today’s Associate Reformed Church as it is the only Synod of the Associate Reformed that has continued to this day. The three other original “1804 Synods,” along with the earliest “1782 non-joining” Associate and Reformed Presbyterians have either dissolved, merged with other Presbyterian affiliations, or essentially maintained their unique denominational identity.3
Although predominately in the southeast, the ARP Church has over 230 churches located coast to coast in the United States and Canada, as well as active mission work and affiliations all over the world. Abroad, the Associate Reformed Church has a significant impact in countries as divers as Wales, Mexico, and Pakistan. The ARP’s Seminary and College established in 1836 in Due West Corner, South Carolina carries the name of Erskine.

1. The Erskines were involved in many theological debates, significant among them is, the Marrow of Modern Divinity. Although this will not be discussed here, suffice it to say, they ardently defended the free offer of the gospel to all, not requiring a prior “condition” from those who would be exposed to their preaching.
2. Allison, A Short History…, p. 6
3. Several charts outlining the interweaving of Presbyterian denominations are available; but they also require a knowledgeable person to explain the historical intricacies involved.

Allison, L. M. A Short History of the Associate Reformed Church: Its Agencies and Institutions, 1999

Carson, John L. The Secession (1733): Contending for the Gospel or Quarreling about Words, Paper presented At 2003 ARP General Synod

Roberts, William R. Another Bicentennial Celebration? The Associate Reformed Presbyterian, May 2003

Whytock, Jack C. The Associate Reformed Synod of 1782: Union or Betrayal, Paper presented At 2003 ARP General Synod

Van Dalen, Emily. A Brief History of World Witness: The Board of Foreign Missions of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, ISBN 1-932221-06-9, 2003

Web Sites: Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church; First Associate Reformed
Presbyterian Church; Erskine College, Lake Wales Associate Reformed
Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); SketchesoftheUnitedPresbyterianChurchCongregationOfIndiana