Presbyterianism in America: A World Religion

Celia King a scholar in the First Italian Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, PA

Italian Presbyterian Church Sabbath-School (First Italian PC, Philadelphia, PA), 1905

The Reverend Jeffrey Colarossi called us with a simple question: how did his family become Presbyterian?

Jeffrey is a minister at the United Presbyterian Church in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. His great-grandfather Panfilo Puglieli immigrated from Italy to the United States circa 1900 and settled in the town of Caraopolis, near Pittsburgh. From checking printed resources in our reading room we learned there was an Italian Presbyterian Mission in Caraopolis at the turn-of-the century. A subsequent call to Eleanor Colarossi, Panfilo’s granddaughter and Jeffrey’s mother, turned up extra information—not only about the mission, but also Panfilo.

According to Eleanor, the Reverend Antonio Pastore, a Presbyterian pastor and local missionary, visited Panfilo’s house one day and convinced him to attend services at the mission. “I would love to know what that pastor said,” Eleanor joked. “Because [my grandfather] was not religious and he could be stubborn.”

According to the Works Progress Administration’s Inventory of Presbyterian Churches in Pennsylvania (1932), Rev. Pastore organized the Italian Presbyterian Mission in 1907 with the aid of the Presbytery of Pittsburgh. Eleanor told us that the mission attracted many of the town’s Italian immigrants for one overwhelming reason: it provided services in their native tongue. Each Sunday the mission met at the Second Presbyterian Church, holding morning services in Hungarian and 3pm services in Italian.

First Magyar, Rossiter, PA

First Magyar Presbyterian Church, Rossiter, PA, 1908

Although Presbyterianism has its roots in the British Isles and is commonly perceived as a religion practiced by individuals of Scotch-Irish descent, Presbyterian denominations in America have a long history of outreach to a diverse array of ethnic communities.

As early as the 1850s, the Old School branch of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA) started proselytizing the Reformed faith to new immigrants. According to Presbyterian Panorama by Clifford Drury, the Board of Home Missions of the PCUSA (Old School) had 14 missionaries working with foreign-born immigrant communities in 1856: 10 German, 2 Welsh, 1 French, and 1 Italian. Over the next seventy years the denomination increased its missionary efforts in response to increased rates of immigration to the United States. By 1922, the PCUSA had 100 churches and missions nationwide serving Italian immigrants alone, with a total of 6,173 members, as well as 560 churches and missions serving additional immigrant groups—including Slavic, Hungarian, Portuguese, Asian, Armenian, and Latino communities—with a total of 48,731 members.

In the South, the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) greeted new arrivals with a similarly robust outreach effort. Through its Executive Committee of Home Missions, the PCUS also ministered to underserved minorities of longer standing, such as Native Americans, African Americans, and Mexican Americans. (In 1890, the PCUS Synod of Texas established the first Mexican Presbyterian church in the state at San Marcos; in 1912, it founded the Texas-Mexican Industrial Institute in Kingsville with the aim of training Latin American ministers.) The Executive Committee of Home Missions worked in some of America’s largest cities, conducting outreach to Cubans in Tampa, Italians in Kansas City, Jews in Baltimore, and Chinese in New Orleans.

PC(US) Executive Committee of Home Missions map, undated.

PCUS Executive Committee of Home Missions, undated

Today, the Presbyterian Mission Agency of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) develops Presbyterian communities of faith among new immigrants, including Koreans, Cambodians, and other growing ethnic groups. Additionally, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is engaging in alternative methods of worship to build 1,001 Worshiping Communities in ten years. As the PC(USA) expands its outreach efforts in these and other ways, it is fortunate to have such a long tradition of missionary work to draw from, and families such as the Colarossis to help connect it with that past.

–by David Koch, Reference Archivist

Christian education for the Now Generation

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Banish anxiety from your mind, and put away pain from your body; for youth and the dawn of life are vanity. –Ecclesiastes 11:10

Ah but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now. –Dylan

American Presbyterians prepared for the youth movement of the late 1960s a decade in advance. Responding to the radical changes in American families and society at large following the Second World War – the growth of suburbs, the dominance of the automobile, the power of teen culture – the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Board of Christian Education created a task force known as the Committee on the Christian Home to undertake a broad environmental scan of the American family, to compare the Christian education materials of the 1940s to the family of the 1950s, and to recommend revisions. The Committee made a preliminary report to the 171st General Assembly in 1959, and its findings were published in 1961 as Families in the Church: A Protestant Survey. From 1964 on, Families’ co-author Roy Fairchild followed this work with several editions of Christians in Families for the PCUS Covenant Life Curriculum.

Where prior studies of Christian education dealt with assigning Sunday school classes to professional church educators, as did Wesner Fallaw’s “prophetic” Church Education for Tomorrow (1960), or were dedicated to grouping and grading pupils, Fairchild centered Christian education and evangelization on the family unit. His 1964 Christians in Families: An inquiry into the nature and mission of the Christian home offers a frank rendition of the breakdown of Puritanical sexual mores, and treats sexuality – channeled toward the nuclear family – as a gift. Much of Fairchild’s witness to youth echoes his work of the prior decade: youth attend too many sock hops and wear nylons too early. He accurately identifies a craving among youth to take on political responsibilities – given “a frightening future of automation, rockets with thirty million horsepower thrust, shifting populations, and Kinsey reports” (224) – but locates that desire’s expression in civic clubs, volunteerism and “workreation,” essentially offering to teenagers a bowdlerized adult world.

More than adopting the design habits of the day, Christian education in the late 1960s fundamentally altered the terms of its appeal to youth. Educators and administrators strove for empathy. Whereas, from the 1940s until the early 1960s, the language of curricula attempted to pull adolescents into the behavioral modes of adults – promoting summer conferences on college campuses; explaining the PCUSA’s “youth budget plan” – the literature of the upper end of the 1960s attempted to address teenagers as peers.

By far the hippest proponent of youth-centered Christian education was Dennis C. Benson, director of Youth Ministry of the Council of Churches of the Pittsburgh Area. In his The Now Generation (1969), Benson identifies the barriers between adults and youth as a communication failure. Just as Christ spoke in the “accent and cadence of the common tongue,” so Benson writes a primer on the culture of the now – always italicized – generation for its parents, mainly by doing exegesis on Dylan and the Beatles.

He addresses teachers directly in the fully-multimedia Let it Run (1971), which included two colored vinyl flexi-discs, and was to be read like an LP: read to the middle, flip, and read again. Benson aims for “orgiastic creative teaching” involving multiple sound reels, overlapping slide projections and call-and-response “rapping,” culminating in the run-on: “slidesfilmmusicsoundsshadowscreentouchingeachothergivingbagswithsensualthingsinsidedirtywordsonoverheadprojectorkeepingthelightsoutnudityexploredcommercialsgraffitifrombathroomwalls” (25).

Trailing a waft of media theory and cybernetics, Benson’s Electric Liturgy (1972) follows him as he quits his job from mental overload – “The emotion circuitry of the electric age breaks apart when forced through channels which are too rigid” (88) – and prepares a youth liturgy for his church. Along the way, he re-evaluates his relationship to worship as performance and as community. By 1973’s Electric Love, the “free-lance media consultant” has found in the now generation’s electronic telecommunications a counterpart to the all-enveloping community of believers: “The patterns tend to merge into each other. It may seem hard to find the linear structures for re-grooving the nature of our lives in the wired environment […] We are wired to it and part of its energy.” (117)

Real work on the pavement was also published. In 1968, in an attempt to bring congregations’ resources to bear on the problems of unemployment, teen pregnancy, and alcoholism, the Rochester Area Council of Churches pooled its efforts into Project RISK, which undertook youth outreach in storefronts and coffeehouses, where adult RISK workers made themselves available for conversation. The road was rocky: most teen lounges reported fights and drinking. RISK’s 1969 report, published by the Geneva Press as A Design for Ecumenical Youth Ministry, made clear that the work of plain listening was difficult, and that the ultimate reward – bringing youth into the fold – was hazily glimpsed. It also reads as a rebuke to the age’s jive-talking media gurus: “[Youths’] exodus from the church will not be stemmed by an intellectual debate or by any book that presents our theology in ‘hip’ terms […] Ours is not to convert, ours is to communicate. A decision is the person’s, and if you will, the Spirit’s to make.” (27)

On the Third Day

The Beauty of God's EarthLike many citizens of the world, American Presbyterians have changed their approach to environmental conservation through the years. In the nineteenth century the nation’s largest Presbyterian denomination encouraged a localized, private form of ecological witness, often through church publications. Today, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) regularly issues panel recommendations and press releases advocating a coordinated, planet-wide defense of what God created on the third day.

"Scripture Natural History," p. 206. West Press Collection 173.

From “Scripture Natural History,” p. 206.

Early books such as the Presbyterian Board of Publication’s Evenings’ Entertainments (1844) encouraged young people to marvel at their surroundings, using engravings to illustrate flora and fauna. Scripture Natural History (1854) taxonomized resources mentioned in the Bible into the Animal Kingdom, Vegetable Kingdom, and Inorganic Kingdom, linking the “land where the Saviour lived” to readers’ America. God Revealing His Truth Out of Doors (1924), another PCUSA publication, instructed teachers of Daily Vacation Bible School to use passages from the Good Book as starting points for exploring the topics of forests, oceans, flowers, and birds. Love of the natural world has always been a popular sermon topic, as shown in The Beauty of God’s Earth, preached in 1949 by the Reverend John Allan MacLean in Richmond, Virginia. In it, Rev. MacLean cites Biblical teachings that involve elements of nature, such as Jesus using vines and branches as a parable for the interconnectedness of God’s people.

John Goodwin for Religious News Service, Celebration for the Environment, 1970. Religious News Service PC 40245.

John Goodwin for Religious News Service, Earth Day 1970.

The Church’s environmental activism began to take root in the late 1960s, when “environmentalism” as a movement gained national attention. The first Earth Day, documented in the Presbyterian Historical Society’s Religious News Service collection, was celebrated in New York City in 1970, the same year the United Presbyterian Council on Church and Society undertook a two-year study on threats facing human survival on an increasingly crowded planet. That process culminated in the 1971 United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. General Assembly adopting the council’s report, Christian Responsibility for Environmental Renewal, which affirmed “the priority of human values such as: physical health and cultural heritage, rights of life over property rights, …restraint in consumption, equitable distribution of resources, and modes of corporate decision accountable to the public and to existing communities.”

Unlike many secular organizations that restricted their energies to preserving natural resources, American Presbyterians incorporated issues of economic justice and peace into their environmental work. In 1951, the general assemblies of the three largest Presbyterian denominations began issuing statements regarding the environment and its relationship to economic and political integrity—statements often informed by the experiences of foreign missionaries who had seen natural resources be exploited by industrial interests and aggressive political rulers to the detriment of native populations.

In 1984, the PC(USA) played a founding role in the establishment of the Eco-Justice Working Group (EJWG), confirming its increased commitment to environmental stewardship. An ecumenical effort of the National Council of the Churches of Christ, the EJWG defines “eco-justice” as “the arena where issues of distributive justice and issues of ecological sustainability intersect and affect one another.” Working with denominational and ecumenical staff, as well as secular organizations, the group’s purpose is to “reflect and elucidate the theological bases” of eco-justice concerns. The PC(USA) still participates in the EJWG.

From Presbyterian Panel questionnaire findings, 1991.

Presbyterian Panel questionnaire, 1991.

In response to an overture at the 1987 General Assembly, the PC(USA) Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy formed its own Eco-Justice Task Force. Charged with reviewing existing church policies and program activities related to the environment, and developing and implementing a unified policy for all levels of the church, it released for wide distribution a 1989 resource paper called Keeping and Healing the Creation. Two years later, a Presbyterian Panel questionnaire showed that the Church’s more proactive approach to the environment reflected the changing wishes of its congregants, many of who viewed environmental issues such as the depletion of the ozone layer, waste disposal, and population growth as significant problems that were “appropriate social concerns for the [C]hurch.”

As the PC(USA) prepares to discuss environmental issues at this summer’s 2014 General Assembly, including a possible overture urging divestment from fossil fuel producers, the Church’s outspoken defense of planet earth seems likely to continue.

–Adapted from exhibit text prepared by Reference Archivist Charlene Peacock

General Assembly 221 Resources

With only two months until the 221st PC(USA) General Assembly in Detroit, here is an incomplete list of online resources for those interested in all things GA. Please submit comments or any other useful resource links that may have been omitted.


General Assembly


GA221 Specifics

  • Moderator election 2014 from GA Help.
    “One-stop destination for all the info on the moderator and vice-moderator candidates for GA221.” 
  •  PC-Biz: Read through the overtures for GA221 and browse other church business


Further Resources from the PC(USA)

The following publications are the product of assemblies past, and the stepping stones for future insights:


PHS Goes Digital

binary_code_02On April 1st, we updated our 60-year old microfilming program and officially went digital. Microfilm used to be the only way to permanently preserve records, but technological advances have made digital preservation a good alternative and far superior in its usability, cost, and space saving benefits. Furthermore, microfilm can still be used in conjunction with a digital preservation program by writing digital files to film.

While microfilm only requires storage space with little intervention other than climate control, managing digital files is an ongoing process. The Library of Congress defines digital preservation as “the active management of digital content over time to ensure ongoing access.” Digital preservation requires many ongoing actions, such as routine migration (or transfer) of files, replication of files in many places, and the addition of metadata (or descriptive information).

The Society’s digital preservation program began in 2012 when we hired Digital Archivist Elise Warshavsky. After Elise helped us establish the technological infrastructure that would allow us to preserve digital objects, we purchased a CopiBook HD planetary scanner in January to replace our aging Kodak Recordak microfilming camera.

Reformatting Technician Stephanie Becker uses the CopiBook HD planetary scanner.

So, why are images produced by a planetary scanner so superior to microfilmed images? Here’s a side-by-side comparison of unedited images produced by the CopiBook scanner (left) and one produced by the Kodak microfilm camera (right):

comparisonThe CopiBook allows us to scan in 24-bit color at resolutions up to 600 by 600 pixels. Conversely, preservation-quality microfilm is always captured in grayscale. While microfilm produces good text resolution, it is unable to capture a broad range of gray tones, which is required to reproduce photographs and detailed illustrations. But scanners are excellent at capturing both images and text, making high-quality digital surrogates the closest thing to handling original materials. Having great surrogates available means fragile originals can be protected from damage and agents of deterioration.

Our new planetary scanner allows us to offer a broader range of digitization services. Patrons can now request reproduction of scrapbooks and photo albums, which we previously were unable to microfilm.

You can find all of our digitization rates on our website. PC(USA) congregations and mid councils still receive a discount to digitize their records, and PHS still offers Heritage Preservation Grants that help small, financially needy congregations preserve their records in digital form.

Fine Print

Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, WordPress, Yelp, YouTube, and Google have become essential tools for communicating with larger audiences. If you’re like many people you’ve accepted terms of use for dozens of such online services–some of which may cause you problems down the line, especially if you’ve created an account on behalf of your organization.

Social media platforms are notorious for lengthy terms of service (ToS); besides Tumblr’s latest revision, I’ve yet to find a ToS that is inviting or exciting to read. Still, when pushing your organization’s content onto the internet, it’s important to get a handle on what rights you have or don’t when using certain platforms.

The terms of use for each of the major social media platforms–including Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and Tumblr–include a license provision stating that, as a condition of using the site, the user agrees to give a no-cost license to the site’s proprietors regarding any uploaded content, even if the content is later removed by the user. One should be particularly cautious when using one of these platforms, as there is a potential for loss of control over uploaded content.

One thing you should consider before posting: When you make something publicly available on the Internet, it becomes practically impossible to take down all copies of it.
–Tumblr Terms of Service

Instagram, Facebook, and Google have all recently been involved in lawsuits relating to privacy. If you manage the social media for your organization or have a general interest in your rights as a user, it is recommended that your familiarize yourself with the various ToS documents. You should also do at least one Google search for each network and see what people are saying about changes within the past 6 months; there are usually tips and tactics in online forums that can assist your social media marketing. Terms of Service are fluid documents that change regularly, so be on the look-out for alterations that affect you and your organization.

Some social media website terms of service:

Facebook Terms of Service
(Here’s an extra treat for learning how to use Facebook’s Brand Assets)

Twitter Terms of Service

Youtube Terms of Service

Pinterest Terms of Service

Linkedin Terms of Service

Instagram Terms of Service

Flickr/Yahoo Terms of Service

Foursquare Terms of Service

Google+ Terms of Service