One of the hazards of being a Presbyterian is spelling the name.

When asked where I work, and they need to write the information down, I usually end up spelling it. Most people have heard the name and can pronounce it correctly, but spelling is more difficult. Something about the sequence of the letters “s, b, y and t” make it a challenge to spell. It also may be hard to spell because the word comes from the historic Greek language, called Koine Greek. Koine Greek would have been the language commonly used in areas of the world that were under the influence of Greek rulers (think of Alexander the Great and his descendants). It was widely used as the language of commerce for people who traded and traveled throughout the region and is also the language in which much of the New Testament of the Bible was written.

So in the Koine Greek of the New Testament, there is the word ‘presbyteros’ and it means elder or senior. These ‘presbyters’ were the people of the church who had the most experience and knowledge and were called to be leaders of the church. About 1,600 years later, a guy by the name of John Calvin started throwing around the idea the church shouldn’t be led by the bishop or priests, but instead should governed by the people who sat in the pews. Another John, John Knox of Scotland, built upon Calvin’s ideas and developed a whole system of church government based upon on the concept of elders as the primary movers and shakers of the church. So the elders, or presbyters, were elected by the congregation to lead the church in cooperation with the minister/pastor. Thus, Presbyterian churches derive their name from the presbyterian form of church government, which is governed by representative assemblies of elders.

Presbyterianism first officially arrived in Colonial America in 1644 with the establishment of Christ's First Presbyterian Church in Hempstead, New York, but it expanded more rapidly into North and South Carolina, and Georgia, by the influx of Scottish immigrants, who first left Scotland for religious reasons, passing through Ireland, and finally settling in the American colonies. I have been told there are as many Presbyterian congregations in the towns of that region as there are Lutheran congregations in Minnesota.

In Minnesota, Presbyterians began ministry 15 years before Minnesota even became a territory (for good or for bad, depending on views of history). Two brothers, Gideon and Samuel Pond, left their home in Connecticut and arrived in 1834 to the area around Fort Snelling. In 1837, Ohio natives the Rev. Stephen Riggs, and his wife Mary, traveled to Lac qui Parle where they worked among the Dakota and translated the Bible into the Dakota language. In 1843, Riggs opened a Dakota mission at Traverse des Sioux, near modern-day St. Peter.

As white settlement increased across Minnesota, Presbyterian churches came to life in many regional city centers and small towns. Meanwhile up in the north woods of Minnesota, logging camps sprang up to provide lumber for the building boom happening all across the nation. A Presbyterian missionary pastor named Frank Higgins began ministering to the men of the lumber camps. He became known as a ‘sky pilot.’ Higgins claimed lumberjacks coined the phrase to describe him. When a lumberjack asked him what he hoped to accomplish through his service, Higgins responded he wanted to pilot their souls to the sky. The lumberjacks responded by calling him a sky pilot. Higgins went on to found many Presbyterian churches in the small towns newly being served by the railroad built to haul out lumber.

This information won’t help you spell Presbyterian, but it goes to show God’s presence in the world began long before any of us were alive and God will continue to do the work of God’s kingdom in and through a variety of people and diverse situations. Presbyterianism and Christianity continues to be transformed for God’s work, but the form, style and purpose will continue to change, just as it has since the beginning of creation.