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Revisiting Pittsburgh

July 13, 2012

From the Executive Director...

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has just concluded the meeting of the 220th General Assembly held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The city of Pittsburgh has hosted many General Assemblies over the years but one of the most memorable occurred in 1958.

In May of 1958, two Presbyterian denominations merged to form a new reformed body. The Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the United Presbyterian Church of North America voted to become the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Inspired by the international ecumenical movement of the twentieth century, American Presbyterians in the wake of the Second World War sought to unite the various regional Presbyterian bodies so that “all might be one.” At that Pittsburgh General Assembly, two denominations put aside their historic differences to become one, thereby bringing together the heirs of the Reformation from Scotland and Ireland and other ethnic traditions into one constituency.

The decision to join these two Presbyterian bodies was not universally popular. In the smaller United Presbyterian Church of North America, some believed the decision was less of a merger and more of a takeover.  Throughout our history, there has always been disagreement about church unions or reunions. When the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. merged in 1983 with the southern Presbyterian Church in the U.S., there was opposition from both predecessor denominations. Nearly 30 years after that reunion, there are still those who question the wisdom of that action.

The 220th General Assembly sought to discern the will of Christ in a time very different than the time that inspired Presbyterians to unite in 1958. As today’s historic issues are passionately debated and closely voted upon, one can fear that a united church is an elusive idea.

Yet if the dynamic of division has, throughout history, shown to be part of our Presbyterian DNA, so too have reunion and reconciliation: in 1958, 1983, and in thousands of smaller examples, walking by faith unites.

Frederick J. Heuser, Ph.D.

P.S. To see more images of the Pittsburgh General Assembly in 1958, click here. You can also read more about Presbyterians in times of controversy here.