Presbyterianism is a system of church government through local assemblies of clergy and lay elders of equal rank (known as a classis), in contrast to Episcopacy, whose hierarchy of bishops was regarded by Presbyterians as a "popish" survival of the pre-Reformation church. Presbyterian doctrine is based upon the teachings of John Calvin (1509-64) with its central theme of predestination — everything that happens is pre-ordained by God.

From the mid-16th century, Presbyterianism developed as a distinct branch of the Reformed church in Scotland, where the Kirk was reconstituted through Calvinism as interpreted in the works of John Knox (c.1513-72). After Knox's death, his work was completed by Andrew Melville (1545-1622) who established the Presbyterian system of church government. The Presbyterians clashed with King James VI of Scotland (James I of England) over the authority of bishops but the General Assembly of the Scottish Church reluctantly accepted the Five Articles of Perth in 1618, which attempted to integrate episcopacy into the Kirk.

James' successor Charles I made further attempts to reform the Scottish Church, which ended disastrously for the King with the signing of the Scottish National Covenant in 1638 and the Bishops' Wars of 1639-40.

During the English Civil War , the Long Parliament negotiated an alliance with Scotland against the King. Under the terms of the Solemn League and Covenant of September 1643, Parliament agreed to reform the Church of England along Presbyterian lines in exchange for military aid. The reforms were debated at the Westminster Assembly and an ordinance was finally passed in March 1646 to set up a limited Presbyterian system in England in which the Church was subordinate to Parliament. However, Presbyterianism never developed into a national system in England; its main centres of influence were London and the south-east, and the north-western counties of Lancashire, Cheshire and Derbyshire.

Political Presbyterians

The "Presbyterian" faction in the Long Parliament developed from the parliamentarian "Peace Party" during the First Civil War, which sought a resolution to the conflict through a negotiated settlement with King Charles rather than an outright military victory over him. Its members were not necessarily Presbyterian in religion; they began to co-operate with Parliament's Scottish allies when it became clear that the Scots were willing to negotiate with the King in the interests of securing a Presbyterian religious settlement in England. The Presbyterian faction was opposed in Parliament by the Independents, and later by the leaders and spokesmen of the New Model Army.

The main component of the Presbyterian faction was the old Peace Party, led by Denzil Holles, which was joined around the end of 1644 by moderate former members of John Pym's "Middle Group", including Sir Philip Stapleton, Sir John Clotworthy and John Glynn. After the passing of the Self-Denying Ordinance in April 1645, a number of discontented former Parliamentarian officers became associated with the Presbyterians, notably Sir William Waller, and, after their election as recruiter MPs, the former major-generals Edward Massie and Richard Browne.

After the ending of the First Civil War, moderate opinion shifted away from the Independents to the Presbyterians who became the dominant faction in the House of Commons. The Presbyterians attempted to disband the New Model Army, unwisely ignoring the soldiers' demands for payment of arrears and the settlement of other grievances. From this point, the Army became increasingly politicised, with the Presbyterian faction as its main opponent. During the summer of 1647, Army radicals forced the temporary suspension of the Presbyterian Eleven Members from Parliament then occupied London in response to increasing militancy from the Presbyterians and their supporters.

After the Second Civil War, the Presbyterians' insistence upon a religious settlement in their favour became a major stumbling block at negotiations between the King and Parliament at the Treaty of Newport, where the King steadfastly refused to concede Episcopacy. In December 1648, the Army purged Parliament of all its political opponents in Pride's Purge, which curtailed Presbyterian influence in the House of Commons and effectively ended the development of a national Presbyterian church in England.

Although all Presbyterians unequivocally condemned the execution of Charles I, their support for his successor Charles II tended to be conditional upon a favourable religious and constitutional settlement. The Third Civil War came about through Charles II's attempt to form an alliance with the Presbyterians and the Scots by promising to impose a Presbyterian religious settlement when he regained the throne of England. However, the Presbyterian alliance was unpopular with Anglican Royalists. Charles II abandoned the policy after the crushing defeat of the Scots-Royalist army at the battle of Worcester in September 1651.

The Presbyterian Knot

During the Commonwealth and Protectorate era, English Presbyterian leaders lived quietly, some in exile. After the fall of the Protectorate and the return of the Rump Parliament in 1659, Presbyterians demanded the reinstatement of the "secluded" MPs who had been excluded at Pride's Purge. When these demands were rejected, several leading Presbyterians became actively involved in the conspiracy to bring about a general Royalist insurrection. The design failed, but the Presbyterian Sir George Booth of Cheshire led the only partially successful uprising.

The Rump was ousted by a military coup in October 1659 but restored two months later, principally through the intervention of General Monck and the army in Scotland. Monck himself favoured a Presbyterian church settlement, with toleration for moderate separatists. Early in 1660, Monck responded to widespread demands for the reinstatement of the secluded MPs. Consequently, the Long Parliament, as constituted prior to Pride's Purge, met for its final session from February to March 1660.

The reinstated Presbyterian majority adopted the Confession of Faith formulated by the Westminster Assembly in 1646 and revived an ordinance of August 1648 that divided the counties of England and Wales into Presbyterian classes. The Solemn League and Covenant was ordered to be read once a year in every church and also to be set up in the Parliament House. A powerful group of statesmen known as the "Presbyterian Knot", which included the Earls of Manchester, Bedford and Northumberland, Denzil Holles, William Pierrepoint John Crew and Sir Harbottle Grimston, tried unsuccessfully to impose a conditional Restoration of the monarchy, with terms similar to those offered to Charles I at the Treaty of Newport in 1648.

Although most Presbyterians welcomed the Restoration in 1660, the reforms of the Church of England were quickly revoked under the restored Stuart régime and Episcopacy was re-established. Under the Act of Uniformity (May 1662), all clergymen had to pass three tests or lose their livings: they had to use the revised Book of Common Prayer, to renounce the Solemn League and Covenant and be ordained by a bishop. Hundreds of Presbyterian and non-conformist clergymen were ejected from their livings on St Bartholomew's Day (24 August) 1662 for refusing to comply.

The Presbyterian form of church government and Reformed theology were formally adopted by the national Church of Scotland in 1690. In England, Presbyterians remained non-conformist.


S.R. Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War, vols. ii, iii & iv (London 1888-94)

Godfrey Davies, The Restoration of Charles II, 1658-60 (San Marino 1955)

Ronald Hutton, The Restoration, a political and religious history of England and Wales 1658-1667 (Oxford 1985)

David Underdown, Pride's Purge (Oxford 1971)

David Underdown, Royalist Conspiracy in England 1649-60 (New Haven 1960)