Associate Reformed Presbyterians

The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP) was organized in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1782. It was the result of a merger between most of the Reformed Presbyterians and the Associate Presbyterians who had immigrated to America from Scotland and Ireland in the days before the American Revolution.

Historical Background
The Reformed Presbyterians in Scotland (also called Covenanters) had objected to the inclusion of non-Presbyterian ministers in the formation of the Church of Scotland. The Covenanters had had few ministers and had been severely persecuted during the “Killing Times” under King Charles II and King James II in the late 1600s, causing many to move to the British colonies in North America.

The Associate Presbyterian Church was born in the 1730s because of two controversies in Scotland. The first was the use and reading of a book called The Marrow of Modern Divinity, of which Associate Presbyterians approved but the Church of Scotland did not. The second was over the question of local churches being able to call (as in, install) their own ministers. The Church of Scotland allowed the local Laird, or Lord, to appoint the minister. Associate Presbyterians strongly supported the right of the local congregation to choose its own minister.

The early Presbyterian settlers in America followed the same paths as other Scottish immigrants and filled in the back country of the eastern colonies from New York to Georgia. After the Associate Presbyterians and Reformed Presbyterians arrived in the Americas, many members agreed that they had much in common and proceeded to organize as one church in 1782. This church practiced exclusive Psalmody, that is, only Psalms were sung in the service, without any musical instruments. This issue would cause problems in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

All Presbyterians in America experienced splits and mergers. Once the Associate and Reformed Presbyterians had merged into a single national Church, the General Synod, the local congregations were divided into four regional Synods, each of which had smaller regional bodies called Presbyteries. The four Synods were New York, Philadelphia, Scioto, and the South. There were about fifty societies, as the small congregations were called, in the Carolinas and Georgia.

In 1822, the ARP Synod of the South withdrew from the rest of the ARP Church. The issues that led to this division focused on the distance to the national meetings, which were always held in Philadelphia, and the fact that the denominational leadership wished to merge with the larger Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA), which allowed musical instruments and singing hymns. After dismissing the Synod of the South, the General Synod of the ARP Church did vote to join the PCUSA; however, most of the congregations, and two of the Synods, remained outside the union. In 1858, the remaining portions of the Associate Presbyterians and the northern ARPs joined together to form the United Presbyterian Church, North America (UPCNA).

At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a great deal of interest in the ARP Synod of the South joining the UPCNA, with the ARP presbyteries of Texas and Ohio joining the UPCNA, but in the end there was no merger of the two denominations. The UPCNA merged into the PCUSA in 1958 to form the United Presbyterian Church in the USA. The Southerners have maintained a separate existence into present times.

ARP Migration
The heartland of the ARPs in the South is the area from central North Carolina across the border through South Carolina and on into central Georgia. By the 1820s, large numbers of settlers from this area were moving west to Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. Many, unable to realize the dream of their own family farm in the populated eastern United States, headed west to find bountiful land and new opportunities. By the early 1850s, interest in moving to Arkansas had reached a fevered pitch. Arriving in Arkansas, the ARPs settled in three areas.

In 1851, a wagon train with seventy-five people from the Bethany and Pisgah Churches left Kings Mountain on the South Carolina/North Carolina border. These settlers went to what is now Pottsville (Pope County) and founded the Bethany and Pisgah ARP Churches (now united as the Pottsville ARP Church). The Reverend John Patrick was the organizing pastor. Pottsville would provide the founding members for congregations in Havana in Yell County (1879), Russellville in Pope County (1893), and Little Rock in Pulaski County (1893). Long-serving pastors at Pottsville include the Reverend Monroe Oates (1867–1899), the Reverend C. T. Bryson (1908–1948), and the Reverend Thomas Morris (1954–1992). The Arkansas Presbytery of the ARP Church was organized in Pottsville in 1861. Present at this church’s 125th anniversary service in 1978 were people from eighteen states and twenty-two towns in Arkansas.

For many years, the Little Rock congregation, and its daughter churches in Jacksonville (Pulaski County) and southwestern Little Rock, was a flourishing congregation with several hundred active members. But these three eventually went out of existence. A new church in Little Rock was started by the Pottsville congregation, however.

Other groups of ARPs went to southeastern Arkansas and organized seven churches around Monticello (Drew County). The congregations in this part of the state originally benefited from the strong timber industry of southern Arkansas. The Monticello ARP Church, later renamed Wood Avenue, was organized in 1855. The other churches around Monticello were Mount Zion (1858) in Lincoln County; Hickory Springs (1859) in Bradley County, founded by members of the Neely’s Creek ARP Church of South Carolina; Saline (1861) in Drew County; Ebenezer (1869) in Lincoln County; Camp Creek (1875), begun by members from York County, South Carolina (although shortly thereafter, Camp Creek merged with Hickory Springs); and Shady Grove (1879) in Cleveland County.

Mount Zion was founded by transfers from Tipton County, Tennessee, and Chester County, South Carolina. During the Civil War, the pastor and many of the men enlisted in the Confederate army. Most did not return. After the war, the church, along with the pastor of the Monticello Church and many of its congregants, left the ARPs to join the much larger Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) because they believed that the change would give more opportunity to find a pastor and more support from other Presbyterian churches. Ebenezer ARP was then started to replace Mount Zion and included some of the same members.

The Saline ARP Church was of particular note. This congregation was organized in Allis (Drew County), near Wilmar (Drew County), a few miles west of Monticello, by families who could directly trace their history to the “Killing Times” in Scotland. John Jefferson Lee Spence, a towering figure in Arkansas education who became a member of Saline, founded Beauvoir College (originally the Drew Normal Institute) in 1897. Spence served as college president. The Reverend J. W. McCain served both as pastor of the Saline Church and as a professor at Beauvoir. Beauvoir peaked at nearly 500 students in only a few years. However, after a smallpox epidemic, the college closed in 1907. The closure of sawmills in Wilmar caused the population to scatter and the church to decline, join the PCUS for the same reasons as Mount Zion, and eventually close.

A final group of early ARP settlers went to northern Arkansas and settled in Fulton County, a few miles southwest of the current county seat, Salem. They organized the Prosperity and New Hope ARP Churches in 1859 and 1871. Among the family names of this group were also names of Covenanter families who could trace their heritage back to the families who were persecuted in Scotland.

Despite the promising beginnings of the ARP Church in Arkansas, the Civil War was devastating, with ministers and people scattered and funds in short supply. Several ministers and their congregations left the ARP and united with the PCUS. There were disruptions caused by conflict over allowing hymns and musical instruments and an effort to merge the entire ARP church with larger denominations. The movement of people from rural areas to the cities and the Great Depression also contributed to the decline of ARP churches in Arkansas. This resulted in the 1931 merger of the Arkansas Presbytery of the ARP Synod of the South with the ARP Memphis Presbytery to become the Mississippi Valley Presbytery. By 2023, there were only four congregations active in the state, located in Little Rock, Pottsville, Monticello, and Warren (Bradley County).

The ARP Church in the twenty-first century is still strongest in the areas of North Carolina to Georgia where the original settlers settled, although there are congregations from southern California to eastern Canada, and from Florida to the northwestern corner of Washington state, with just over 26,000 active members in nearly 300 congregations.

For additional information:
Anderson, Grace Miller. “From Antrim to Allis, Part One.” Drew County Historical Journal 25, no. 1 (2010): 14–20.

Boyd, William J. “Memories of Growing up in Monticello.” Drew County Historical Journal 13, no. 1 (1998): 42ff.

Boyett, Gene W. Hard Scrabble Frontier: Pope County, Arkansas, in the 1850’s Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc., 1990.

The Centennial History of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, 1803–1903. Charleston, SC: Presses of Walker, Evans & Cogswell Co., 1905.

Coleman, Tom C. “A School Tale.” Drew County Historical Journal 4, no. 1 (1989): 71–81.

DeArmond, Rebecca. Old Times Not Forgotten: A History of Drew County. Little Rock: Rose Publishing Co., 1980.

Falls, Etta. “From Antrim to Allis, Part Two.” Drew County Historical Journal 25, no. 1 (2010): 26–33.

“History Comes Alive at Rough and Ready Cemetery Denise Adams Participates as Agnes Fee.” Drew County Historical Journal 13, no. 1 (1998) 53–54.

“Minutes of the Prosperity ARP Church.” (accessed May 3, 2023).

Moffatt, Walter. “Music in Monticello Churches: 1924–1938.” Drew County Historical Journal 3, no. 1 (1988): 35–39.

Nelson, J. Boyce. Papa Remembers Me. New York: Vantage Press, 1957.

Reaves, Wanda Beaty. Wilmar, Arkansas: Scrapbook of Memories. N.p.: 2005.

Spence, William Tyler.” History of Beauvoir College.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 17 (Winter 1958): 325–336.

Stewart, Kate. “Beauvoir: The Erskine of the West.” The ARP: The Associate Reformed Presbyterian (February 1992): 8–10.

———. “Little Benjamin Goes West: Associate Reformed Presbyterians in Drew County.” Drew County Historical Journal 5, no. 1 (1990): 6–17.

Lathan, Robert. History of the Associate Reformed Synod of the South. Harrisburg, PA: 1882.

Pope County Historical Association. History of Pope County, Arkansas. Winston-Salem, NC: Jostens Publishing Company, 1999.

Ruble, Randall, ed. The Bicentennial History of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church 1950–2003. Grand Rapids, MI: McNaughton and Gunn, 2003.

Ware, Lowery, and James Gettys. The Second Century: A History of the Associate Reformed Presbyterians 1882–1982. Greenville, SC: The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, 1982.

William Holiman
Mississippi Valley Presbytery ARP Church


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