The Cumberland Presbyterian Church grew out of the revivals on the Tennessee-Kentucky frontier in the early decades of the nineteenth century. The formation of the independent Cumberland Presbytery on February 4, 1810, at Dickson, Tennessee, by ministers Finis Ewing, Samuel King, and Samuel McAdow and the subsequent establishment of the Cumberland Synod (1813) and General Assembly (1829) followed controversies over Calvinist theology and church order raised by the “New Side/Old Side” division within the Presbyterian Church in general, and more specifically, the frontier revivals.
The Cumberland Presbytery, consisting of churches in north Middle Tennessee and south-central Kentucky, was created out of the Transylvania Presbytery in 1802. It was the only presbytery in Kentucky with a majority of “New Side” (pro-revivalist theology and methodology) ministers. After the success of James McGready in Logan County, Kentucky, camp meeting revivals culminated in the Cane Ridge sacrament in 1801 and spread throughout the region. Many who led the revivals challenged the strict Calvinistic theology of the Presbyterian Church and created a demand for more ministers to care for the growing congregations. The specific issues of controversy included strict adherence to the Westminster Confession of Faith, the educational qualifications for ministers (the Cumberland Presbytery was accused of ordaining unqualified men and lowering the standards for ministry), the use of the revival as a valid methodology for evangelism, and the locus of ecclesiastical authority in the Synod or the Presbytery.
Five years after bringing charges against the Cumberland Presbytery, the Synod of Kentucky dissolved the Presbytery in 1806. The failure of repeated efforts at reconciliation led to the founding of a separate Cumberland Presbyterian Church. The church quickly spread throughout Tennessee, Kentucky, and eight other states. When the members formed the General Assembly in 1829, it included four synods and eighteen presbyteries. In 1814 the church adopted a Confession of Faith which revised the Westminster Confession and outlined a “medium theology” between Calvinism and Arminianism that rejected strict predestination, unconditional election, and limited atonement. Reflecting the methodology of the revival, Cumberland Presbyterians confessed the mystery of God's sovereign grace (retaining the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints) while also acknowledging a significant role for human choice in salvation.
The church grew fivefold in membership from 1835 to 1860 and survived the Civil War without division. In 1869 a contingent of African American ministers representing approximately 30,000 black members of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church petitioned for the formation of independent “presbyteries of colored ministers.” The General Assembly of what is known currently as the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America was established in 1874 in Nashville; several CPC in America congregations remain active in the state. The denomination's headquarters is in Huntsville, Alabama.
In 1883 the Cumberland Presbyterian Church revised its Confession of Faith to further eliminate elements of strict Calvinism. An effort at reunion with the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Northern) in 1906, following that denomination's 1903 revision of the Westminster Confession's teaching on divine sovereignty, achieved partial success. A significant minority of the Cumberland presbyteries (51 out of 111), however, objected to the union on theological and constitutional grounds and perpetuated the Cumberland Presbyterian Church as a separate denomination.
The Cumberland Presbyterian Church reported 92,240 members in 782 churches in 1995, located primarily in the southern and border states and in significant missionary works throughout the world. It maintains ecumenical cooperation through the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (since 1956) and also through “union churches” with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Its institutions of higher learning are Bethel College in McKenzie and Memphis Theological Seminary. Denominational headquarters are located in Memphis, and official church literature needs are served by Frontier Press. Its chief publications are The Cumberland Presbyterian and The Missionary Messenger.