The Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century were motivated by a desire to return to the core doctrines and practices of the early church. Our Presbyterian heritage and tradition in particular, began with the French lawyer John Calvin (1509-1564), whose writings crystallized much of the Reformed thinking that came before him. Calvin did much of his writing from Geneva, Switzerland. From there, the Reformed movement spread to other parts of Europe and the British Isles.
Protestantism, of which Presbyterianism is a subset, originated in the
Swiss Reformation under the leadership of Hienrich Bullinger, Huldrych
Zwingli, William Farel, and John Calvin. Calvin was the most influential
of these Reformed leaders. Preaching the Word of God became the main
emphasis of the church services and sacraments of the church were
reduced to two -- baptism and the Lord's Supper. Presbyterian Polity
was favored over episcopal polity, with congregations being governed by a
representative body of elders (the session) rather than rule by
bishops. Sessions receive oversight from a series of higher
representative authorities in the Presbyterian church: presbyteries, and general assemblies.
Many of the early Presbyterians in America came from England, Scotland and Ireland. The first American Presbytery was organized at Philadelphia in 1706. The first General Assembly was also held in Philadelphia in 1789. The first Assembly was convened by the Rev. John Witherspoon, the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence.