Being Presbyterian

Being Presbyterian; our History & Governance


The name “PRESBYTERIAN” comes from the word “presbyter” meaning “elder.“ Presbyterian churches have a representational form of church government, in which authority is given to elected lay leaders (elders). These lay elders work together with the church’s ordained minister. The governing body of an individual Presbyterian congregation is called a session. Several sessions constitute a presbytery, several presbyteries make up a synod, and the General Assembly oversees the entire denomination.


The first Presbyterian Church in Canada was formed in 1753 by German-speaking Calvinists in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, and named “St. Andrews”. A German-speaking Swiss black-smith was the first minister of St. Andrew’s, Lunenberg. It remained a German-speaking congregation until 1838.

The oldest Presbyterian congregation in Canada of Scottish origin is St. Andrew’s, Quebec City. This church was started in 1759, six years after the Lunenberg church. St. Andrew’s, Quebec City, was started by Rev. Robert MacPherson, one of General Wolfe’s chaplains.

However, before these congregations were established, the roots of the Presbyterian church in Canada were being established by a variety of immigrants. During the period of French occupation, there were “Huguenots” (sometimes called “Calvinists”) who were “Presbyterians” by doctine, in government, and worship. In their Confession of Faith, prepared by Calvin and De Chandieu, and approved by the Synod of Paris in 1559, their doctines and governance closely matches the beliefs and doctrines of Presbyterians today.

The term Presbyterian refers to a distinctive pattern of Church government developed by John Calvin and other Reformers during the 16th Century Protestant Reformation. Calvin believed that this model was based upon the Bible, but that it was NOT the only acceptable form. Calvin saw the Church as a community, or body, in which Christ only is Head, and all members are equal under Him. The priesthood of all believers means that the ministry is given to the entire church. All who hold office do so by election of the people.

Churches following Calvin’s model are usually called Reformed, but churches of English-speaking origin have generally been called “Presbyterian”, since the Westminster Assembly of 1647 popularized the Presbyterial form of church government. Since the Reformation, the various Reformed and Presbyterian churches have made many adaptations of the basic structure, but have not departed from the essentials.

Our Canadian Presbyterian roots have been heavily influenced by our Scottish ancestry.

The Church of Scotland, known informally by its Scots language name, The Kirk, is a Presbyterian church, decisively shaped by the Scottish Reformation. Although it is the national church, the Kirk is not a “state church”, and in this, and other regards, is dissimilar to the Church of England. Under its Presbyterian church constitution, which is recognised by acts of Parliament, the Kirk enjoys complete independence from the state in spiritual matters.

As a Presbyterian church, the Kirk has no bishops, but is rather governed by a series of courts made up of elders and ministers (collectively called presbyters). Each congregation is led by a Kirk (church) Session. The Kirk Sessions, in turn, are answerable to regional presbyteries (The Presbytery of Hamilton). The supreme body is the General Assembly, which typically meets annually. The chairperson of each court is known as the ‘moderator’—at the local level of the Kirk Session, the moderator is always a minister. Presbyteries and the General Assembly elect a moderator each year. The Moderator of the General Assembly serves for the year as the public representative of the Church—but beyond that enjoys no special powers or privileges and is in no sense the leader or official spokesperson of the Kirk. At all levels (not the Kirk Session), moderators may be either elders or ministers.


1) We are Protestant. The term originally referred to a group of German princes and cities that presented a defense of freedom of conscience against an edict intended to suppress the Lutheran movement in 1529. In a sense, they were “protesting”, but the Latin roots of the word (pro-testare) show that they were “testifying for” or bearing witness to what they regarded as New Testament Christianity. The term now describes the members and adherents of Christian Churches deriving from the Reformation, who believe in justification by faith, the priesthood of all believers, and the sole authority of the Bible. The Reformation came about because these beliefs, which we take as standard, were not believed by the Church then.

2) We are “catholic”. This word means universal, world-wide, or comprehensive. When we say, in the Apostle’s Creed, “I believe in the holy catholic church”, we are speaking of the church of Jesus Christ as it is found around the world, and throughout all ages. When one is baptized in our church, one is first and foremost baptized into the church catholic, the universal body of Christ, and only secondarily into the Presbyterian church. A minister is ordained primarily into the ministry of the church catholic, and only resultantly into the Presbyterian ministry.

3) We are Reformed, that is reformed according to the Biblical Gospel. Presbyterians became a separate branch of the christian church during the 16th century Reformation, which produced four main denominations: Lutheran, Reformed (Presbyterian), Anglican, and Anabaptist. Our leaders in the Reformation were John Calvin, and John Knox. A favourite motto of Presbyterian and Reformed churches is “semper reformanda” (ever being reformed). Our denomination is one of about 100 that belong to the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. About half of the member churches are “younger” churches formed in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

4) We are Evangelical. The term comes from a Greek word “euangelion” (gospel, or good news). We are evangelical in a general sense, in that, in common with all christians, we believe in the good news of Christ’s victory over sin and death in His resurrection. In a more specific sense, “evangelical” refers to doctrine that emphasizes (i) salvation by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ through personal conversion, (ii) the authority of scripture, and (iii) the importance of preaching, as contrasted with ritual. The word “evangelical” also implies a warm, personal, trusting relationship with Christ, as opposed to believing about Jesus. We believe not with our heads alone, but also with our hearts. With the intellect we discover what God wants of us; with the heart, we say “yes” to God. One cannot inherit that kind of faith; one must trust and obey for oneself.

5) We are Ecumenical (promoting worldwide christian co-operation).Because we believe we are but part of the universal church of Christ, we do not believe we are the only church, or that “all others will go to hell”. Believing that the christian church goes beyond denominational and geographic boundaries has enabled Presbyterians to co-operate extensively with christians of other denominations. Our denomination is a member of the Canadian Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches.

6) We are a confessional church, in that we believe in “confessing our faith” or declaring our adherence to various formal statements of our beliefs, e.g. The Apostles’ Creed, The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), and the Declaration of Faith concerning Church and Nation (1954). The last two of these are designated as our “subordinate standards”; that is, secondary to the Bible.