As a branch of the Christian Church, our history began with its institution by the Lord Jesus. As a Protestant denomination we are heirs to the Reformation of the sixteenth century, when the gospel was revived and the Bible restored to its rightful place. The Australian chapter commenced in the nineteenth century.
Most Presbyterian settlers in colonial Australia came from Scotland, and back there belonged to the largest denomination - the Church of Scotland. This church dated from the Reformation under John Knox in 1560. In 1841 Presbyterians in the colony of New South Wales (which then included Victoria and Queensland) generally belonged to a body which had a lengthy title: The Synod of Australia in connection with the Established Church of Scotland.
In 1843 an event occurred which was one of the most significant in the politico-religious (social) history of Britain in the nineteenth century, and which had ramifications throughout the colonies. This event is called The Disruption. It came about because the civil authorities in Scotland interfered in the spiritual affairs of the Church. The immediate matter was the demand by the State that ministers, who were unacceptable to the Church and who had not been chosen by the local congregations, be settled in certain parishes. Such action was contrary to the constitutional relationship between Church and State. More importantly, it was a denial of the spiritual independence of the Church and the sole Headship of Christ over her affairs. Thus in 1843, after a protracted struggle, some 470 ministers, led by Dr. Thomas Chalmers, left the established body and formed the Church of Scotland Free - free of these encroachments on Scriptural teaching. While her founders left the Establishment, they maintained the historic place, teachings and position of the Church of Scotland.
The Disruption involved great sacrifice on the part of faithful Christian people. The ministers who left the Established Church forfeited homes and stipends. Congregations had to start over again, often in the face of stiff opposition from those who supported the State's action. Yet the Free Church of Scotland, as it became known, was greatly blessed of God, and has been a powerful influence for good in that land and beyond.
The events of 1843 created great interest in Australia and local Presbyterians could not remain unaffected. One question of immediate consequence was whether the Synod of Australia should receive ministers from the Established Church of Scotland. Some took the view that there was no need to be too precise about the requirements for the ministry and that the Disruption had little bearing on the Australian situation. Others were more perceptive. They realised that many ministers who then remained in the Established Church of Scotland accepted the idea that the State might exercise control over various aspects of the spiritual life of the Church, even though this was manifestly contrary to God's Word. To accept men of such compromised principles was to sow the seed of departure from Biblical standards. Further, while the Disruption was a Scottish event, the principles involved were of universal significance.
Geography could not alter the fact that those Presbyterians who upheld the Headship of Christ and the spiritual independence of the Church were duty bound to support the stand taken by the Free Church. Hence a minority in the Synod of Australia, led by the Rev. William McIntyre of Maitland and the Rev. James Forbes of Scots Church, Melbourne, upheld the truth that ‘A Church must honour Christ in the way she orders her life, even if it means considerable cost. She must back up her words with consistent behaviour’. They declared, ‘We are not prepared to prefer the Established Church over the Free Church for our supply of ministers. And in any event we ought to be an independent body’. McIntyre and three colleagues withdrew and formed the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia in Sydney on the 10th October, 1846. In Melbourne, James Forbes acted similarly and the body he founded, the Free Presbyterian Church of Victoria, co-operated with the PCEA and in 1953 became fully part of it. Other Free Presbyterian Churches were founded in South Australia and Tasmania.
TO THE PRESENT DAY
By the 1860s, most Presbyterian denominations had come together in the various Australian colonies. These union movements were backed by seemingly persuasive arguments, and the various colonial Free Churches lost ground as large sections of those Churches joined the unions. Unfortunately such unions were only achieved by leaving various important matters open questions. In 1901, the State bodies formed the Presbyterian Church of Australia (PCA), but again allowing compromise on important matters. The PCA appended a Declaratory Statement to the Westminster Confession, incorporating an ambiguous ‘liberty of opinion’ clause. This made it easy for error to come in and hard for effective action to be taken against it.
Meanwhile the PCEA maintained its distinctive witness. In the later part of the nineteenth century and into the next, destructive Biblical criticism and erosion of Christian doctrine occurred in many Churches. Throughout, the PCEA has sought to maintain a stand for the 'old paths.' It has not been easy, but we believe it has been right. More than once the demise of this denomination was predicted but the Lord has upheld it for his own good purpose.
Along with attacks from without there were also troubles within. Even in New Testament times the Church was subject to all types of assaults upon her peace and unity. We are to expect opposition, within and without, if we remain faithful to Christ. At the same time, no one can pretend that our Church did not bring some of its troubles upon itself. Indeed, in over 150 years it would be surprising not to find evidence of the adverse impact of strong personalities or unwise decisions!
In 1977 a majority of the PCA churches withdrew to form with others the Uniting Church in Australia. We rejoice that there has been a return to Reformed faith by many in the ongoing PCA and evidence of a growing rejection of that liberalism which stifled evangelical vitality for much of the last century. However, there remain significant points of difference between the two bodies which ought not to be minimised. We believe the distinctive and, as we would respectfully maintain, more Biblically consistent testimony of the PCEA continues to be needed today.
The PCEA is the oldest Presbyterian denomination in Australia. It now consists of some twenty-seven congregations organised into twelve charges. There are three Presbyteries and the Synod of Eastern Australia meets annually. The PCEA maintains relations with other Reformed churches through the International Council of Reformed Churches.