Preliminary Principles

As noted in an early printing of the Form of Government for the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., the "Preliminary Principles," with the exception of the first sentence, were originally composed by the Synod of New York and Philadelphia, and prefixed to their Form of Government, as published by that body in 1788. "In that year, after arranging the plan on which the Presbyterian Church is now governed, the Synod was divided into four Synods, and gave place to the General Assembly, which met for the first time in 1789." More specifically, these principles are generally recognized as having been authored by the Rev. John Witherspoon.

At its formation, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) was careful to institute these same Principles at the forefront of its Book of Church Order. As noted in one recent PCA study:

"Since the 16th Century Protestant Reformation, there have been numerous Reformed denominations with varying forms of church polity -- some more hierarchical and others more democratic. These eight principles were originally adopted by the first American General Assembly in 1789. Our American Presbyterian forefathers had come to America with fresh memories of the persecutions under the Act of Supremacy fostered by Henry VIII in England. They did not want to form a denomination that was governed "from the top down" but "from the bottom up."
"In 1787, when the original four Synods agreed to have a General Assembly, they appointed a Committee to first draft a series of Preliminary Principles to be approved before the Book of Church Order was written. This Committee worked for a year and presented these eight Preliminary Principles to the meeting of the Synods in 1788. These Preliminary Principles were approved so that the denomination would not be hierarchical in its polity. They then appointed a committee to draft a Book of Church Order based on these eight Preliminary Principles. This Book of Church Order was adopted at the first American Presbyterian General Assembly in 1789.
"It is interesting to note that by 1973 .... after we had decided to separate from the PCUS and before the PCA was actually formed, we called our group THE CONTINUING CHURCH, meaning that we intended to organize a denomination continuing the polity that our American forefathers adopted in 1789 based on these eight principles."

[excerpted from the Minutes of the 30th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, page 111.]

It is also worthy of note that the Presbyterian Church, U.S. [aka, Southern Presbyterian Church] did not incorporate these same Preliminary Principles into its Constitution. Technically, the Principles were part of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America [1861-1865] and again, technically the Principles remained a part of the PCUS Constitution up until 1879. But as the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. moved slowly over the next fourteen years towards the approval of its first official Book of Church Order, the Preliminary Principles were excised, and were clearly not part of the PCUS Constitution after 1879. This fact is evidenced by the total absence of the Principles from any published edition of the PCUS Book of Church. Thus, when the PCA was formed, it is striking to realize that the new Church was reaching outside of its immediate tradition of the PCUS and by the incorporation of the Preliminary Principles was thereby claiming the larger tradition of American Presbyterianism. Or was the above statement indicated, "we intended to organize a denomination continuing the polity that our American forefathers adopted in 1789 based on these eight principles."

Not surprisingly, both the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Bible Presbyterian Church retained the Preliminary Principles in their Constitutions, each denomination being comprised of pastors and congregations that had originally been a part of the old Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.

Comparison of The Preliminary Principles, as utilized by four Presbyterian denominations:


Introductory Statement
PCUSA, 1789 The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, in presenting to the Christian public the system of union, and the form of government and discipline which they have adopted, have thought proper to state, by way of introduction, a few of the general principles by which they have been governed in the formation of the plan. This, it is hoped, will, in some measure, prevent those rash misconstructions, and uncandid reflections, which usually proceed from an imperfect view of any subject; as well as make the several parts of the system plain, and the whole perspicuous and fully understood. They are unanimously of opinion:
PCA, 1973 The National Presbyterian Church, in setting forth the form of government which it maintains as being founded upon and agreeable to the Word of God, reiterates, by way of introduction, several great principles which have governed the formation of the plan:

[Note: The original name of the Presbyterian Church in America was the "National Presbyterian Church"]
PCA, 2008 The Presbyterian Church in America, in setting forth the form of government founded upon and agreeable to the Word of God, reiterates the following great principles which have governed the formation of the plan:
OPC, 1936 The Presbyterian Church of America in setting forth the Form of Government which it maintains as being founded upon and agreeable to the Word of God, reiterates, by way of introduction, several great principles which are basic to the Presbyterian form of church government:

[Note: The original name of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was the "Presbyterian Church of America."]
BPC, 1938 The Bible Presbyterian Church in setting forth the Form of Government which it maintains as being founded upon and agreeable to the Word of God, reiterates, by way of introduction, several great principles which are basic to and regulative of our form of church government:


Paragraph I.
PCUSA, 1789 I. That "God alone is Lord of the conscience; and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men,
which are in any thing contrary to his word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship:" Therefore, they consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal, and unalienable: they do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security,
and, at the same time, equal and common to all others.
PCA, 1973 (1) That "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrine and commandments of men,
which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matter of faith or worship:" Therefore we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal, and unalienable. We do not even wish to
see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security,
and, at the same time, be equal and common to all others.
PCA, 2008 1. God alone is Lord of the conscience and has left it free from any doctrines or commandments of men
(a) which are in any respect contrary to the Word of God, or (b) which, in regard to matters of faith and worship, are not governed by the Word of God. Therefore, the rights of private judgment in all matters that respect religion are universal and inalienable. No religious constitution should be supported by the civil power further than may be necessary for protection and security equal and common to all others.
OPC, 1936 I. That "God alone is Lord of the conscience; and hath left it free from the doctrine and commandments of men,
which are in any thing contrary to his word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship:" Therefore, we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal, and unalienable: we do not even wish to
see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security,
and, at the same time, equal and common to all others.
BPC, 1938 1. That "God alone is Lord of the conscience"; and "hath left it free from the doctrine and commandments of men,
which are in any thing contrary to his word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship": Therefore, we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal, and unalienable: we do not even wish to
see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security,
and, at the same time, equal and common to all others.


Paragraph II.
PCUSA, 1789 II. That, in perfect consistency with the above principle of common right, every Christian church, or union or association of particular churches, is entitled to declare the terms of admission to its communion, and the qualifications of its ministers and members, as well as the whole system of its internal government which Christ hath appointed: that, in the exercise of this right, they may, notwithstanding, err, in making the terms of communion either too lax or too narrow: yet, even in this case, they do not infringe upon the liberty, or the rights, of others, but only make an improper use of their own.
PCA, 1973 (2) That, in perfect consistency with the above principle of common right, every Christian church, or union or association of particular churches, is entitled to declare the terms of admission into its communion, and the qualifications of its ministers and members, as well as the whole system of its internal government which Christ hath appointed: that, in its exercise of this right it may, nothwithstanding, err, in making the terms of communion either too lax or too narrow; yet, even in this case, it does not infringe upon the liberty or rights of others, but only makes an improper use of its own.
PCA, 2008 2. In perfect consistency with the above principle, every Christian Church, or union or
association of particular churches, is entitled to declare the terms of admission into its communion and the qualifications of its ministers and members, as well as the whole system of its internal government which Christ has appointed. In the exercise of this right it may, notwithstanding, err in making the terms of communion
either too lax or too narrow; yet even in this case, it does not infringe upon the liberty or the rights of others,
but only makes an improper use of its own.
OPC, 1936 II. That, in perfect consistency with the above principle of common right, every Christian Church, or union or association of particular churches, is entitled to declare the terms of admission to its communion, and the
qualifications of its ministers and members, as well as the whole system of its internal government which Christ
hath appointed: that, in the exercise of this right it may, notwithstanding, err, in making the terms of communion
either too lax or too narrow; yet, even in this case, it does not infringe upon the liberty, or the rights of others,
but only make an improper use of its own.
BPC, 1938 2. That, in perfect consistency with the above principle of common right, every Christian Church, or union, or association of particular churches is entitled to declare the terms of admission into its communion, and the
qualifications of its ministers and members, as well as the whole system of its internal government which Christ
hath appointed: that, in the exercise of this right it may, notwithstanding, err, in making the terms of communion
either too lax or too narrow; yet, even in this case, it does not infringe upon the liberty, or the rights of others,
but only makes an improper use of its own.


Paragraph III.
PCUSA, 1789 III. That our blessed Saviour, for the edification of the visible Church, which is his body, hath appointed officers,
not only to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments; but also to exercise discipline, for the preservation both of truth and duty; and, that it is incumbent upon these officers, and upon the whole church, in whose name they act,
to censure, or cast out, the erroneous and scandalous; observing in all cases, the rules contained in the word of God.
PCA, 1973 3. That our blessed Saviour, for the edification of the visible church, which is his body, hath appointed officers,
not only to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments, but also to exercise discipline, for the preservation both
of truth and duty; and that it is incumbent upon these officers, and upon the whole church, in whose name they act,
to censure or cast out the erroneous and scandalous, observing, in all cases, the rules contained in the Word of God.
PCA, 2008 3. Our blessed Saviour, for the edification of the visible Church, which is His body, has appointed officers
not only to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments, but also to exercise discipline for the preservation both
of truth and duty. It is incumbent upon these officers and upon the whole Church in whose name they act,
to censure or cast out the erroneous and scandalous, observing in all cases the rules contained in the Word of God.
OPC, 1936 III. That our blessed Saviour, for the edification of the visible Church, which is his body, hath appointed officers,
not only to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments; but also to exercise discipline, for the preservation both of truth and duty; and, that it is incumbent upon these officers, and upon the whole Church, in whose name they act,
to censure, or cast out the erroneous and scandalous; observing in all cases, the rules contained in the Word of God.
BPC, 1938 3. That our blessed Saviour, for the edification of the visible Church, which is his body, hath appointed officers,
not only to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments; but also to exercise discipline, for the preservation both of truth and duty; and, that it is incumbent upon these officers, and upon the whole Church, in whose name they act,
to censure, or cast out the erroneous and scandalous; observing in all cases, the rules contained in the Word of God.


Paragraph IV.
PCUSA, 1789 IV. That truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness; according to our Saviour's rule, "by their fruits ye shall know them:" And that no opinion can be either more pernicious or absurd, than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man's opinions are. On the contrary, they are persuaded, that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise, it would be of no consequence either to discover truth, or to embrace it.
PCA, 1973 4. That truth is in order to goodness; and a great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness; according to our Saviour's rule, "by their fruits ye shall know them." And that no opinion can be either more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man's opinions are. On the contrary, we are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise, it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it.
PCA, 2008 4. Godliness is founded on truth. A test of truth is its power to promote holiness according
to our Saviour's rule, "By their fruits ye shall know them" (Matthew 7:20). No opinion can be more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon the same level. On the contrary, there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it.
OPC, 1936 IV. That truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness; according to our Saviour's rule, "by their fruits ye shall know them:" And that no opinion can be either more pernicious or absurd, than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man's opinions are. On the contrary, they are persuaded, that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise, it would be of no consequence either to discover truth, or to embrace it.
BPC, 1938 4. That truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness; according to our Saviour's rule, "by their fruits ye shall know them," and that no opinion can be either more pernicious or absurd, than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man's opinions are. On the contrary, we are persuaded, that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise, it would be of no consequence either to discover truth, or to embrace it.


Paragraph V.
PCUSA, 1789 V. That, while under the conviction of the above principle, they think it necessary to make effectual provision,
that all who are admitted as Teachers be sound in the faith; they also believe, that there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ. And, in all these they think it the duty, both of private Christians and societies, to exercise mutual forbearance towards each other.
PCA, 1973 5. That while, under the conviction of the above principle, we think it necessary to make effectual provision
that all who are admitted as teachers be sound in the faith, we also believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ. And, in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance towards each other.
PCA, 2008 5. While, under the conviction of the above principle, it is necessary to make effective provision that all who are admitted as teachers be sound in the faith, there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good character and principles may differ. In all these it is the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.
OPC, 1936 V. That, while under the conviction of the above principle, they think it necessary to make effectual provision, that all who are admitted as teachers, be sound in the faith; we also believe that there are truths and forms, with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty, both of private Christians and societies, to exercise mutual forbearance towards each other.
BPC, 1938 5. That while under the conviction of the above principle, we think it necessary to make effectual provision, that all who are admitted as teachers, be sound in the faith; we also believe that there are truths and forms, with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies, to exercise mutual forbearance towards each other.


Paragraph VI.
PCUSA, 1789 VI. That, though the character, qualifications, and authority of church-officers, are laid down in the Holy Scriptures,
as well as the proper method of their investiture and institution; yet the election of the persons to the exercise of this authority, in any particular society, is in that society.
PCA, 1973 6. That, though the character, qualifications and authority of church officers are laid down in the Holy Scriptures,
as well as the proper method of their investiture and institution, yet the election of the persons to the exercise of this authority, in any particular society, is in that society.
PCA, 2008 6. Though the character, qualifications and authority of church officers are laid down in the Holy Scriptures,
as well as the proper method of officer investiture, the power to elect persons to the exercise of authority in any particular society resides in that society.
OPC, 1936 VI. That though the character, qualifications, and authority of church officers, are laid down in the Holy Scriptures,
as well as the proper method of their investiture and institution; yet the election of the persons to the exercise of this authority, in any particular society, is in that society.
BPC, 1938 6. That though the character, qualifications, and authority of church officers, are laid down in the Holy Scriptures,
as well as the proper method of their investiture and institution; yet the election of the persons to the exercise of this authority, in any particular society, is in that society.


Paragraph VII.
PCUSA, 1789 VII. That all church-power, whether exercised by the body in general, or, in the way of representation, by delegated authority, is only ministerial and declarative: That is to say, that the Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and manners; that no church-judicatory ought to pretend to make laws to bind the conscience, in virtue of their own authority; and that all their decisions should be founded upon the revealed will of God. Now, though it will easily be admitted, that all synods and councils may err though the frailty inseparable from humanity; yet there is much greater danger from the usurped claim of making laws, than from the right of judging upon laws already made, and common to all who profess the Gospel; although this right, as necessity requires in the present state, be lodged with fallible men.
PCA, 1973 7. That all church power, whether exercised by the body in general, or in the way of representation by delegated authority, is only ministerial and declarative, that is to say, that the Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and manners; that no church judicatory ought to pretend to make laws to bind the conscience, in virtue of its own authority; and that all its decisions should be founded upon the revealed will of God. Now though it will easily be admitted, that all synods and councils may err, through the frailty inseparable from humanity; yet there is much greater danger from the usurped claim of making laws, than from the right of judging upon laws already made and common to all who profess the gospel; although this right, as necessity requires in the present state, be lodged with fallible men.
PCA, 2008 7. All church power, whether exercised by the body in general, or by representation, is only ministerial and declarative since the Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and practice. No church judicatory may make laws to bind the conscience. All church courts may err through human frailty, yet it rests upon them to uphold the laws of Scripture though this obligation be lodged with fallible men.
OPC, 1936 VII. That all church power, whether exercised by the body in general, or, in the way of representation, by delegated authority, is only ministerial and declarative; that is to say, that the Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and manners; that no church judicatory ought to pretend to make laws to bind the conscience, in virtue of its own authority; and that all its decisions should be founded upon the revealed will of God. Now though it will easily be admitted, that all synods and councils may err, through the frailty inseparable from humanity; yet there is much greater danger from the usurped claim of making laws, than from the right of judging upon laws already made, and common to all who profess the gospel; although this right, as necessity requires in the present state, be lodged with fallible men.
BPC, 1938 7. That all church power, whether exercised by the body in general, or, in the way of representation by delegated authority, is only ministerial and declarative; that is to say, that the Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and manners; that no church court ought to pretend to make laws, to bind the conscience in virtue of its own authority; and that all its decisions should be founded upon the revealed will of God. Now though it will easily be admitted, that all synods and councils may err, through the frailty inseparable from humanity; yet there is much greater danger from the usurped claim of making laws, than from the right of judging upon laws already made, and common to all who profess the Gospel; although this right, as necessity requires in the present state, be lodged with fallible men.


Paragraph VIII.
PCUSA, 1789 VIII. Lastly, That, if the preceding scriptural and rational principles be steadfastly adhered to, the vigour and strictness of its discipline will contribute to the glory and happiness of any church. Since ecclesiastical discipline must be purely moral or spiritual in its object, and not attended with any civil effects, it can derive no force whatever, but from its own justice, the approbation of an impartial public, and the countenance and blessing of the great Head of the Church universal.
PCA, 1973 8. Lastly, that, if the preceding scriptural and rational principles be steadfastly adhered to, the vigor and strictness
of its discipline will contribute to the glory and happiness of any church. Since eccelesiastical discipline must be purely moral or spiritual in its object, and not attended with any civil effects, it can derive no force whatever but from its own justice, the approbation of an impartial public, and the countenance and blessing of the great Head of the church universal.
PCA, 1997 8. Since ecclesiastical discipline must be purely moral or spiritual in its object, and not attended with any civil effects, it can derive no force whatever, but from its own justice, the approbation of an impartial public, and the countenance and blessing of the great Head of the Church.
OPC, 1936 VIII. Lastly, that, if the preceding Scriptural and rational principles be steadfastly adhered to, the vigour and strictness of its discipline will contribute to the glory and happiness of any Church. Since ecclesiastical discipline must be purely moral or spiritual in its object, and not attended with any civil effects, it can derive no force whatever, but from its own justice, the approbation of an impartial public, and the countenance and blessing of the great Head of the Church universal.
BPC, 1938 8. Lastly, that, if the preceding Scriptural and rational principles be steadfastly adhered to, the vigour and strictness
of its discipline will contribute to the glory and happiness of any Church. Since ecclesiastical discipline must be purely moral or spiritual in its object, and not attended with any civil effects, it can derive no force whatever, but from its own justice, the approbation of an impartial public, and the countenance and blessing of the great Head of the Church universal.


Paragraph IX.
PCUSA, 1789 [no comparable text]
PCA, 1973 [no comparable text]
PCA, 2008 [no comparable text]
OPC, 1936 [no comparable text]
BPC, 1938 9. All powers not in this Constitution specifically granted to the courts of the Church are reserved to the congregations respectively, or to the people.

Conclusion
PCUSA, 1789 [no comparable text]
PCA, 1973 [no comparable text]
PCA, 1997 If the preceding scriptural principles be steadfastly adhered to, the vigor and strictness of government and discipline, applied with pastoral prudence and Christian love, will contribute to the glory and well-being of the Church.
OPC, 1936 [no comparable text]
BPC, 1938 [no comparable text]