Presbyterianism originated in the Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe. John Knox worked in Geneva with the Reformation leader, John Calvin. He then returned to Scotland, where he became a leader of the reformation of the Church of Scotland. The style of church life, worship and theology advocated by Knox spread beyond Scotland and was known in Scotland and other English-speaking countries as Presbyterianism.
Presbyterian doctrine adheres to the foundational document, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and emphasises doctrines such as "justification by grace through faith" and the "sovereignty of God". The basic structure of the church was the congregation (session), and then the presbytery (the district court), Synod (the provincial court, replaced in Australia by a state Assembly), and the General Assembly.
Presbyterianism arrived in Australia with the First Fleet, but it was not until 1802 that free Presbyterian settlers began Presbyterian congregations. The first Presbyterian congregation was established in Victoria in 1837. Two years later it was founded in South Australia; it was founded Queensland in 1847 and in Western Australia in 1868.
The Presbyterian Church within Australia was marked by division during the 19th century, with several synods representing Presbyterianism. These divisions reflected rifts within Scottish Presbyterianism and the work of Rev. Dr John Dunmore Lang, who was also a prominent and divisive figure in local politics. Moves toward unity on a state basis were successful in the second half of the 19th century, and in July 1901 a national union was formally instituted. The 1901 Census recorded 11.3 per cent of the population as Presbyterian, making it the fourth largest church in Australia at that time.
The Presbyterian Church experienced decline in numbers through the 20th century. In 1976 only 6.6 per cent of the population identified themselves as Presbyterians. In 1977 the Presbyterian Church joined the Uniting Church, although only 64 per cent of congregations elected join the union, approximately 69 per cent of the individual membership of the two Churches. Presbyterians provided 36 per cent of the initial membership basis of the Uniting Church in Australia.
The Presbyterian Church of Australia is still found in every Australian state and in the Northern Territory. In 1996 the denomination had over 45,000 members and adherents, 580 ministers, deaconesses and home missionaries, 410 parishes and home mission stations, 60 students training for ministry and 140 cross-cultural missionaries.
Uniting Church of Australia website http://nsw.uca.org.au/presbyterian100/history.htm.