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Stories from GA: 1958 Union of PCUSA and UPCNA

February 17, 2022
Moderators Harold R. Martin and Robert N. Montgomery shake hands during march. Pearl ID: islandora:7479

On May 27, 1958, in the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Presbyterians gathered at the 170th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A; at the same time, the United Presbyterian Church of North America celebrated a centennial anniversary at their 100th General Assembly. The two events were held just miles away from each other. The very next day, on May 28, the two groups joined forces for a momentous occasion: the very first General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.

The merging of the United Presbyterian Church of North America (UPCNA) and the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) was both historic and record-breaking. This union raised the membership number to over 3,000,000 communicants, making the newly created United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA) the world’s largest Presbyterian denomination. 

United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America seal. Pearl ID: islandora:280938

Hosting the first official assembly of the UPCUSA in Pittsburgh held historical value for both stakeholders. Pittsburgh was where the UPCNA had been established 100 years earlier in 1858; the city was the site of the reunion of the New and Old School branches of the PCUSA in 1869. Moreover, Pittsburgh in 1958 was a hub of Presbyterianism, with it being home to 17 congregations and over 1,000 members--more than any other city in the world. It was the perfect setting for an assembly devoted to carrying out a mission of Christian unity.

At the time of the merger, the United Presbyterian Church of North America had around 250,000 members under the leadership of Stated Clerk Dr. Samuel W. Shane. The UPCNA traced its roots to the 1858 union of the Associate Presbyterians and the Reformed Presbyterians, two denominations with former ties to the Church of Scotland. Most of their communicants had been geographically centered in rural areas of Western Pennsylvanian and Eastern Ohio. In the past, leaders of the UPCNA had considered mergers with other Reformed Churches, but none proved successful for the fiercely independent denomination. Even leading up to the 1958 union, not all UPCNA congregations and presbyteries were thrilled with the idea of joining with the PCUSA. A year prior, at their 99th Assembly, only 57% of the commissioners voted in favor of the union. Nonetheless, with majority voting in favor, the movement to create the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America was underway.

The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America was much larger at the time of union, with well over 2 million members. It had been established almost 70 years earlier than the UPCNA—it was the first Presbyterian denomination in the country, its inception occurring in 1789. The Stated Clerk in 1958, Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, was passionate about this new union; he was determined to have a more powerful church to live out the way of God. Having previously served as President of the National Council of Churches, Dr. Blake viewed ecumenicism as a priority for strengthening the ministry of the Church. 

Before the two denominations came together for their first official assembly, each held their last assemblies as two separate identities. The United Presbyterian Church of North America held their meeting at Sixth United Church, with Rev. Robert N. Montgomery serving as Moderator. Simultaneously, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America was having their assembly at East Liberty Church, with Rev. Harold R. Martin serving as Moderator.

The United Presbyterian Church of North America observed their centennial assembly, while also celebrating the 75th year milestone of their Women’s Missionary Society. At the meeting, a resolution was presented by New York elder George W. Forsythe. Forsythe proposed that a congregation be permitted to opt out of the merge with the PCUSA, leaving the denomination in doing so, if two-thirds of its members voted in favor. In total, six congregations petitioned to withdraw, but in the end only one small New York congregation, with less than 50 members, was granted its independence. It was a remarkable feat to have every congregation—except one—support the historic union, when only a year prior 43% of commissioners were against it.

Procession with the three banners on Bigelow Boulevard, Pittsburgh, Pa. Pearl ID: islandora:7377

With the symbolic handshaking between Moderator Martin and Moderator Montgomery, the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America became a massive denomination boasting over 9,400 congregations. Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, who had served as Stated Clerk of the PCUSA since 1951, was elected Stated Clerk of the new group. Dr. Samuel W. Shane, the former Stated Clerk of the UPCNA, assumed the role of Associate Stated Clerk. Commissioners of the newly formed UPCUSA then voted to elect Rev. Theophilus M. Taylor as the first moderator of the assembly. Rev. Taylor, a professor at Pittsburgh-Xenia Seminary and retired UPCNA missionary, received support from members of both former churches. While on stage at the assembly, Moderator Taylor held together two Celtic crosses, signifying the two denominations joining as one. He proclaimed that he was waiting for the third cross—the Presbyterian Church in the United States—to join as well (foreshadowing the eventual reunion in 1983.)

Of course, a merger of this scale came with careful planning. A Special Committee on Consolidations, with 40 total representatives from both groups, had been given the daunting task of crafting recommendations for merging entities like boards, national agencies, and mid-councils. Over the course of a year leading to the union, the Special Committee worked together to consider the logistics. Their final plan, which was presented and voted on at the first official General Assembly of the UPCUSA, resulted in a complete merge of the Board of Pensions, the Board of National Missions, and the Board of Christian Education, among others. In addition, two Pittsburgh seminaries—Pittsburgh-Xenia Seminary (UPCNA) and Western Theological Seminary (PCUSA)—merged to form Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

Another big change that came with the union was the elimination of each entities’ Board of Foreign Missions. The two agencies were reformed and intermixed with three interchurch commissions to create the Commission on Ecumenical Mission and Relations. This transformation made the UPCUSA the first of America’s major Protestant denominations to embrace interchurch work over foreign mission work.

Group photo at Soldier's Memorial, Pittsburgh, Pa. Pearl ID: islandora:281787

That day in May of 1958, the general mood of the first meeting of the newly minted UPCUSA was one of optimism and strength. The combined annual report published that year by the Board of American Missions of UPCNA and the Board of National Missions of the PCUSA was aptly named, “Two Great Streams.” The creation of the colossal United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America gave the denomination greater influence in both the religious and secular worlds. Under the leadership of Dr. Blake, the church entered an era of ecumenical and civil rights work, one that birthed the Confession of 1967

Over time, disagreements in the UPCUSA would emerge, leading to departures from some congregations in the years to follow. However, the feat of the 1958 union was impressive—and paved the way for the historic reunion with the Presbyterian Church in the United States that would occur in 1983.

To get a glimpse of this historic meeting of the UPCUSA, you can view images in Pearl—including one of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. giving a speech at a breakfast for commissioners.