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In 1852, Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, secretary of the Board of Education for the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (Old School), gained General Assembly approval for the creation of an agency that would "collect and preserve the materials of the history of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, and ...promote the knowledge of said history as far as possible." The aptly named "Presbyterian Historical Society" was located in Philadelphia where it joined other Old School agencies like Van Rensselaer's Board of Education. The Society has maintained a continuous presence in Philadelphia ever since, including a long tenure beginning in 1898 in the Witherspoon Building at 1319 Walnut Street (which still stands) followed by a move to the current location on Lombard Street in 1967. PHS is the oldest denominational historical repository in the United States.

In 1925, the Society was formally incorporated as the Department of History in the Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. under the direction of the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly.

The Society's collections reflect the various denominational mergers that have occurred from the 19th century until the present, including the 1983 reunion of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA) and the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (PCUS) that resulted in the creation of the current denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

In 1988, the Historical Foundation of the Presbyterian and Reformed Churches, the historical repository of the former PCUS located in Montreat, North Carolina, formally merged with the Department of History. In 2006, General Assembly voted to close the Montreat office and consolidate operations in Philadelphia.

Today, PHS continues its service to the church, carrying on the legacy of the Presbyterians who had the foresight to found the institution. In our work to safeguard the heritage of American Presbyterianism we continue to find new ways to make history accessible and relevant in our lives today.