By William Symington
The Westminster Assembly, it is well known, was convened by an ordinance of Parliament. In the year 1641 the ministers of London had petitioned both Houses to use their influence with the King to obtain a free Synod, for the purpose of taking under consideration the state of the country in regard to religious matters. The Grand Remonstrance of December 1 contained the following clause: “We desire that there may be a general Synod of the most grave, pious, learned, and judicious divines of this island, assisted with some from foreign parts, professing the same religion with us, who may consider of all things necessary for the peace and good government of the church.” A Bill to the same effect, afterwards introduced into the Treaty of Oxford, was rejected by King Charles. And, after various unsuccessful attempts to obtain the royal concurrence, the Parliament found themselves compelled to convene the Assembly on their own responsibility, which accordingly they did by turning the bill into an ordinance.
An Advisory Assembly
In forming an accurate idea of the constitution of the Westminster Assembly, several elements must be taken into account: the character which it held, the authority by which it was called, the circumstances of the country at the time, the individuals of whom it was composed, and the end which it was designed to accomplish. It is, first of all, to be distinctly observed that the Westminster Assembly was not a church court. Its character was deliberative, consultative, advisory, not judicial or ecclesiastical. The very title of the ordinance has these words, “to be consulted with by the Parliament.” The concluding sentence sets this matter at rest: “Provided always, that this ordinance or anything therein contained, shall not give unto the persons aforesaid, or any of them, nor shall they in this assembly assume to exercise any jurisdiction, power, or authority ecclesiastical whatsoever, or any other power than is herein particularly expressed.”
The Assembly, accordingly, assumed no authoritative power, claimed no right to enact or enforce, but professed only to hold consultation, to offer advice, to set forth opinions, without arrogating to itself any other influence over the sentiments and consciences of others than what necessarily belonged to the evidence, rational or scriptural, by which the statements put forth were supported. It was a Convocation rather than a Synod. This ought to be distinctly marked, and kept constantly in view. The circumstances of the case were such as to preclude its having an ecclesiastical character, agreeably either to the Prelatical (that is, the Episcopal), to the Presbyterian, or to the Independent form of church polity.
It is true that some things, which in another state of affairs might have properly fallen within the province of ecclesiastical courts, were transacted by the Assembly. Erroneous publications, particularly of an antinomian complexion, were examined and condemned, and the authors of them virtually censured. Trial discourses, by persons designed to supply the churches of the sequestered ministers, were heard and pronounced upon from time to time. But the Assembly, after the members had expressed their opinion, took no farther judicial step, but referred the ordination of the individuals in question to a committee appointed for this purpose, consisting of the ministers of London, who were invested with this power on the reasonable ground, that “in extraordinary cases something extraordinary might be done, keeping always so near to the rule as may be.” Such things as these, however, did not, and could not, change the nature of the Assembly. And even had it, in its proceedings, deviated in some degree or for a time from its proper constitution ‑ which we are not to be understood as conceding, excepting for the sake of argument ‑ such deviation could not have sufficed to invest it with the quality of an ecclesiastical court, in express contravention of the enactment to which it owed its existence, and which, of course, must be held decisive of its true constitutional character.
Convened by Civil Authority
The Assembly, it is also to be remarked, was convened, as we have seen, by civil authority. That it was competent to Parliament to take such a step may be denied by some and granted by others, but will not, of course, be disputed by any of those who have given an intelligent and conscientious assent to the clause in the twenty‑third chapter of the Confession of Faith, which affirms that “the civil magistrate hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed; for the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call Synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.”
This passage may be viewed as receiving its proper exposition from the very fact now under consideration. It was framed by men who were convened at the time, in circumstances which, if they did not suggest its language, are certainly fitted to explain its meaning, apart from any such heretical gloss as has been put upon it. Their meeting was just a practical exemplification of the doctrine propounded. It was a “Synod,” not in the technical, but the popular sense of the term, called together by “the civil magistrate,” at a time when “blasphemies, heresies, corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline” alarmingly prevailed, to “take order that unity and peace be preserved in the church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, and that the ordinances of God be duly settled, administered, and observed” by consulting with, and giving their best advice to, the constituted civil authorities in matters deeply affecting the welfare of the commonwealth. We cannot imagine a clearer comment on the terms of the clause in question than is thus furnished to our hands in the simple facts of the case.
The Circumstances of the Country
It must be admitted that the interference of the civil magistrate, in some shape or other, was called for by the nature of the times. The country was in a state of fearful disorder, the result of a long‑protracted course of maladministration both in church and state. The measures successively pursued by King Henry VIII, by Queen Elizabeth, by James I and by Charles I, had induced such a state of things as rendered a civil war inevitable. Encroachments on the temporal rights of the subject were accompanied with an intolerable extension of prelatic domination in matters of religion. The lives and property of men were placed in jeopardy; their consciences had also been invaded, by the appointment and procedure of the infamous High Commission Court; and the strong religious feelings of the people had been grossly outraged by the enactment of a Book of Sports, giving the royal sanction to every desecration of the Lord’s holy day.
The legal tyrannies of Charles and the prelatic oppressions of Laud had, in short, been such as to conspire in forcing on a crisis in the country, when submission became a sin and resistance a clear and unequivocal duty ‑ a crisis when it became the part of a gigantic but long‑insulted patriotism to grasp the pillars of the temple, even at the risk of being buried in the ruins of its overthrow. “The vessel was full,” to appropriate the eloquent words of Lord Bolingbroke, “and the last drop had made the waters of bitterness to overflow.”
In such circumstances, it cannot surely be matter of surprise that Parliament had declared its sittings permanent, and that a bill for the abolition of Prelacy had been brought in and speedily carried. Nor can any true lover of his country regret these decisive measures, as every competent witness must testify that, if Charles and Laud had succeeded in the course on which they had entered, and which they were determined at all hazards to pursue, the civil and religious interests of Britain must have perished utterly and for ever. Such was the critical conjuncture in which Parliament solicited the advice of “the most learned, godly, and judicious divines” in the kingdom, as to what steps ought to be taken to supply the land with religious ordinances, in room of that bloated and effete hierarchy which had just before been cast down by legal enactment.
The interference of the civil power, in such a case, would seem to be in itself not only perfectly warrantable but highly commendable, whatever there might be wrong in the manner in which it was done. Such interposition was in strict accordance with the approved maxim that extraordinary circumstances justify extraordinary measures. It was also in beautiful harmony with the act of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland approving the Confession of Faith ‑ which act explains and defines the power of the civil magistrate in calling synods, to be restricted, in respect of matter to “consultation and advice,” and in respect of time to “kirks not settled or constituted in point of government.” These things considered, it thus appears that the interference of which we are speaking was such as in itself involved no stretch of erastian power or authority.
The object for which the Westminster Assembly was convoked throws additional light on its constitution. That object was not, to adjudicate in the case of controversies that had risen up in the church itself. It was not, to take a judicial review of matters falling under the categories of ecclesiastical discipline and government. It was not even to frame and send forth, with the sanction of its own authority, ecclesiastical symbols of a doctrinal, liturgical, or judicial nature. It was rather to lend assistance in the construction of such scriptural formularies for the Church of England, as should approve themselves to those judicatories, whether civil or religious, which might feel disposed to adopt, enact, or ratify them as subordinate standards of faith, worship, and government, with an ultimate view to uniformity, in such matters, not only in these, but also in other lands.
The Composition of the Assembly
But it will be necessary that we consider the parties who composed the Westminster Assembly, with special reference to the great questions which came under discussion, and to the places which they respectively occupied in these discussions. Few Episcopalians, indeed, took their seat in the Assembly. Many such, however, were included in the original appointment. But the royal prohibition was the signal for the greater number of these to withdraw, a step which was greatly aided by the bringing in, at an early period, of the Solemn League and Covenant, to which, of course, no honest Prelatist could give his assent. Out of the four bishops who were cited, one at least, Dr. Westfield of Bristol, appeared at first, and was accompanied by several other decided friends of Episcopacy; but they all retired before any business of importance was taken up, with the exception of Dr. Daniel Fealty of Lambeth, who continued to sit until he was expelled for prematurely revealing the proceedings of the Assembly.
Many, if not all, however, of the puritan divines who remained, it ought to be borne in mind, had been Episcopalians; that is to say, they had been episcopally ordained, and had held the office of the ministry in connection with the prelatic establishment. And there is reason to conclude that, although their sentiments on the subject of church government came ultimately round to the Presbyterian form, they would most of them have been satisfied, at least at first, to accept a modified Episcopacy. A few of them even conformed after the Restoration. In consequence, however, of the absence of decided Episcopalians, the subject of Prelacy held no place among the discussions of the Assembly. Strictly speaking, the parties were Erastians, Independents, and Presbyterians.
The Erastians were few in number, but by no means contemptible in point of either talent or learning. Generally speaking, they were greatly skilled in oriental literature, of which they did not fail to avail themselves in their attempt to uphold the main positions of Thomas Erastus, the physician of Heidelberg; namely, that the Jewish state and church were one, and that the Christian church is formed on the exact model of the Jewish. This party boasted of only two divines in the Assembly, Dr. John Lightfoot of Ashley, and Mr. Thomas Coleman of Bliton. From among the lay assessors, however, it received great support in the persons more especially of such eminent statesmen and lawyers as Selden, Whitelocke, and St. John. The champion of the party was Selden, who must be admitted to have been a man deeply skilled in the ancient languages, and in ecclesiastical antiquities, and to have been eminent in sound logic, and a calm, clear, penetrating judgment. The Erastians, in spite of the smallness of their number, were enabled to give the Assembly no little annoyance, and materially to embarrass and retard its proceedings, in consequence not merely of the undeniable superiority of their abilities, but also and principally in consequence of the sympathy and support they obtained from the Houses of Parliament, amongst whose members the theory of Erastus was in high favor.
The Independents formed another party. This, like the former, though small in point of numbers, comprehended some men, not only of eminent learning and talent, but of great and undoubted piety. Their theory of church government was what is called Congregationalism, the principal feature of which consists in regarding each separate congregation, or church, as they choose to call it, as having the entire power of government within itself, and being fully competent to perform all the functions of ordination, discipline, and worship, without the co‑operation of any other congregation or church. The members of this party were known in the Assembly by the name of “the dissenting brethren.” Their number has been differently stated. Robert Baillie speaks of “ten or eleven,” but gives the names of only nine. There were only five, however, who took a lead in the proceedings of the Assembly, namely, Thomas Goodman, Philip Nye, Jeremiah Burroughs, William Bridge, and Sidrach Simpson.
Baillie speaks of the Independents being most able men, and of great credit. “Truly,” says he, “if the cause were good, the men have plenty of learning, wit, eloquence, and above all, boldness and stiffness to make it out.” They made a bold stand for the distinguishing tenets of their party, and against the Presbyterian polity. Their talent in debate, which was not small, was surpassed by the pertinacity with which they clung to and urged their opinions. And when fairly vanquished on the arena of open discussion, they were by no means backward to have recourse to private political intrigue, in order either to secure time or to occasion a diversion in their favor. It is rather a singular circumstance that all the Independents in the Assembly were paedobaptists, there not being a single person in the house of the opposite view. “There was not one professed anti‑paedobaptist in the Assembly,” says Daniel Neal, “though their sentiments began to spread wonderfully without doors.”
The party which possessed an overwhelming majority consisted of Presbyterians. The leading views of this class need not to be stated or characterized here. They held that the government of the Church is reposed in ecclesiastical office‑bearers, having all a perfect parity of power, but exercising their jurisdiction in a gradation of courts. Among the lay assessors, the Presbyterian cause was warmly espoused by Sir Benjamin Rudyard, Sir John Clotworthy, Sergeant Maynard, and Recorder Glynn, members of Parliament, besides other persons not less distinguished and influential. The divines who ranked on this side were too numerous to admit of specification by name. The great body of them had belonged to the English Puritans, and had seen so much of the evils of Prelatic domination on the one hand and sectarian anarchy on the other, as to have been gradually led to form a favorable opinion of Presbyterianism, which occupied the golden mean between these two extremes ‑ which opinion may be supposed to have been assisted by the treaties of the English Parliament with the Convention of Estates and the General Assembly in Scotland. The ministers in and about the metropolis, partly in consequence of having their minds directed to the subject by these negotiations, and partly also in consequence of studying the constitution of the Reformed Churches on the continent, had almost to a man become Presbyterians in mind and in heart. “Blessed be God,” says Baillie in a letter to the Earl of Eglinton, “all the ministers of London are for us.”
Such, properly speaking, were the parties which existed in the Westminster Assembly, parties whose jarring sentiments, while occasioning long and sometimes bitter and unseemly contentions, nevertheless under Providence tended materially to the elucidation and final triumph of truth, and to the confirming of men’s minds in the scriptural soundness of conclusions which had been arrived at by such a deliberate and sifting process.
The Scottish Commissioners
Although the Scottish commissioners cannot be said to have formed a party in the Westminster Assembly, this is perhaps the proper place to advert to their appointment, character, and peculiar position in that meeting. When the calling of an assembly of divines first suggested itself, the English Parliament had determined to ask the counsel and assistance of the Church of Scotland in regard to the new form of government that should be set up in room of that which had been abolished. So long a time, however, elapsed before any formal application was made to the General Assembly for an appointment to this effect, that the Scots began to suspect the sincerity of their English friends. At length, in August 1643, commissioners from England arrived with power to consult with both the Convention of Estates and the General Assembly.
These commissioners represented the Lords, the Commons, and the Westminster Assembly respectively, and consisted of persons selected from each of these bodies ‑ the Earl of Rutland, from the Lords, Sir William Armyn, Sir Henry Vane, Mr. Hatcher, and Mr. Darley, from the Commons, and Messrs. Marshall and Nye, from the Assembly. They were charged with a declaration of both Houses of Parliament, expressing a desire for reformation in religion, and begging aid from Scotland in the matter; also, with a document to the same effect from the Westminster Assembly, signed by the prolocutor, Dr. Twisse, and by Dr. Burgess and Mr. White, his two assessors; and further, with a private letter, subscribed by no fewer than seventy of the Westminster divines. The English commissioners were introduced in due form to the General Assembly, having been previously saluted and welcomed, in name of that court, by Mr. Robert Douglas, Mr. George Gillespie, and my Lord Maitland. The papers were all presented and read in public. “The letter of the private divines,” says Baillie, “was so lamentable that it drew tears from many.” Certain preliminary steps having been taken, and particularly the English commissioners and the General Assembly having agreed upon a Bond of Union between the two countries ‑ the famous Solemn League and Covenant, the General Assembly proceeded to appoint persons to represent them in the meeting of divines at Westminster. Those fixed upon were, Messrs Henderson, Douglas, Baillie, Gillespie, and Rutherford, ministers; with the Earl of Cassils, Lord Maitland, and Johnstone of Warriston, elders. Two of this number, Mr. Douglas and the Earl of Cassils, never attended.
We cannot afford time to portray the characters of the Scots commissioners individually and minutely. The extensive knowledge, the studious habits, and the promptitude and ease in graphic composition, of Baillie; the mental power, the logical precision, the affectionate earnestness, and the lofty devotional feeling, of Rutherford; the calm dignity, the intellectual might, the prodigious wisdom, and the true moral greatness, of Henderson; and the untiring energy, the comprehensive learning, the controversial tact, and the brilliant eloquence, of young Gillespie, conspired to render the commissioners from Scotland the admiration of the Assembly, and to reflect the highest honor on the country and the church to which they belonged.
Soon after the General Assembly of August 1643, the Scots commissioners proceeded to London. Henderson, Gillespie, and Lord Maitland arrived some short time before the others. They obtained from Parliament a warrant to sit in the Westminster Assembly; for without this, they could not find access even after being invited. “Here no mortal man,” says Baillie, “may enter to see or hear, let be to sit, without an order in write from both Houses.” They were received, September 15th, in the most courteous manner; the prolocutor and other members delivering congratulatory addresses, to which a suitable reply was made by Henderson. The same order was observed when Baillie and Rutherford were introduced a month afterwards.
As the Scots commissioners were not included in the list of persons nominated in the Parliamentary ordinance calling the Assembly, they are to be regarded as occupying a somewhat peculiar position. They were not so much constituent as corresponding members. They were there, not by appointment of Parliament, although they needed to obtain a warrant to sit, but rather in virtue of an invitation from both Houses and from the Westminster Assembly itself, conveyed to them by the commissioners sent down by these respective bodies to solicit aid from the Church of Scotland, and also in virtue of the authority of the General Assembly, by which, in compliance with this call, they had been delegated.
Such is the view which the Scots commissioners themselves were disposed to take of their position in the Assembly. “When our commissioners came up,” Baillie remarks, “they were desired to sit as members of the Assembly; but they wisely declined to do so; but since they came up as commissioners for our national Church to treat for uniformity, they required to be dealt with in that capacity. They were willing, as private men, to sit in the Assembly, and upon occasion to give advice in points debated; but for the uniformity they required a committee might be appointed from the Parliament and Assembly to treat with them thereanent. All this, after some harsh enough debates, was granted; so once a week, and whiles ofter, there is a committee of some Lords, and Commons, and Divines, which meet with us anent our own commission.” To this circumstance Gillespie pointedly refers in the opening of his speech before the General Assembly on his return: “Ye know we have acted in a double capacity according to our commission: we have gone on in a way of treating with the committee of Parliament and Divines jointly, and have given in many papers, etc. We have acted in another capacity, debating with and assisting the Assembly of divines their debates.”
In conformity with this dignified attitude, the Scots commissioners had places both of private residence and official ministrations appropriated to their use. They lived at Worcester House in the city, a mansion on the banks of the Thames, near the Tower, which belonged to the Lord High Treasurer of England. Baillie, in a letter to Dickson, remarks, “In all outward accommodations, and civil respects, from all kinds of men, we are all here served as princes.” The Church of St. Antholin or St. Anthony was especially set apart for their service, and there the ministers preached in turn to crowded audiences. Even Clarendon, with all his prejudices, while he characterizes their preaching as “most insipid and flat,” admits that “to hear those sermons there was so great a conflux and resort, that from the first appearance of day in the morning on every Sunday, to the shutting in the light, the church was never empty.”
The Scots commissioners reported from time to time to the General Assembly the proceedings of the divines at Westminster, and some of them even went down occasionally to Scotland, and in person put the church there in possession of the facts of the case. Baillie’s Assembly speeches in 1645 and 1647, and that of Gillespie on his return, are admirable specimens of that peculiar style of composition, and for gravity and dignity of manner, for condensation of thought, and for beauty of language, they might be profitably studied as models by some of the ecclesiastical orators of our own day.
It is admitted on all hands that the services performed by the Scots commissioners in the Westminster Assembly were great. Their laborious application to the business with which they were entrusted is above all praise, and there is reason to fear that more than one of them fell victims to their unwearied industry and uncompromising fidelity. Their correspondence expresses many complaints of fatigue and exhaustion. “Believe it,” says Baillie, “for as slow as you may think us, and as we pronounce ourselves to be, yet all the days of the week we are pretty busy. We sit daily from nine till near one; and afternoon till night we are usually in committees. Saturday, our only free day, is to prepare for Sunday, wherein we seldom vaick from preaching in some eminent place of the city. Judge what time we have for letters, and writing of pamphlets, and many other business. We would think it a great ease, both in our body and spirits, to be at home.” “If our neighbors at Edinburgh,” says he in another place, “tasted the sauce wherein we dip our venison at London, their teeth would not water so fast to be here as some of them doth.”
And lest these should be mistaken for a querulous temper, take another extract, which evinces the fervent and deep‑toned piety by which these men were sustained amid their superhuman exertions: “We expect the favor of God to help us over the rocks, and through the storms, in the midst whereof we sail at this hour. The answer and return of your prayers we oft feel and acknowledge. All our company, blessed be God, have had perfect health, good courage, and hearty unanimity, in all things; great credit and reputation; sensible assistance in every thing, and hitherto very good success, to all our motions, either for Church or State; so that we are hopeful to wrestle through the present difficulties, as we have done many before, by the help of the prayers of God’s people among you.”
A large share of the honor due to the Westminster Assembly for its incomparable productions must be ascribed to the efficient aid lent by the commissioners from Scotland. This is especially the case in respect of every thing connected with the Presbyterian form of church government, which, notwithstanding the formidable opposition they had to encounter, both from Erastians and Independents within, and from the Houses of Parliament without, they succeeded in settling on a solid basis of Scripture. “Had not God sent Hr. Henderson, Mr. Rutherford, and Mr. Gillespie among them,” observes the faithful chronicler so often quoted, “I see not that ever they could have agreed to any settled government.”
The extent of these services was both appreciated and acknowledged by the Assembly itself, as appears from the compliments paid the Scots commissioners on their taking leave, to return to their own country. It was unanimously agreed to record in the books, “that the Assembly had enjoyed the assistance of the honourable, reverend, and learned commissioners of the Church of Scotland, during all the time they had been debating and perfecting the Directory of Public Worship, the Confession of Faith, the Form of Church Government, and the Catechism.” The prolocutor, Mr. Herle (who had been appointed in room of Dr. Twisse, deceased), returned thanks, in name of the Assembly, to the honorable and reverend commissioners. Baillie speaks of “an honourable testimony and many thanks for his labours” having been bestowed on him by the prolocutor on his taking leave of the Assembly. The “honourable testimony” is supposed by his biographer to have been a silver cup with a suitable inscription, which was voted to him, and which is said to be still in the possession of one of his descendants.
While all the commissioners contributed their share of labor, in committees, in giving advice, in writing letters, and in publishing pamphlets on subjects of importance, the chief weight of the public discussions devolved on Rutherford and Gillespie. “None in all the company,” says Baillie, “did reason more, or more pertinently, than Mr. Gillespie. That is an excellent youth; my heart blesses God in his behalf. Of a truth there is no man whose parts in a public dispute I do so admire. He has studied so accurately all the points ever yet came to our Assembly; he has gotten so ready, so assured, so solid a way of public debating, that however there be in the Assembly diverse very excellent men, yet in my poor judgment, there is not one who speaks more rationally and to the point, than that brave youth has ever done.”
It may here be observed that, notwithstanding the number of members in the Assembly, few comparatively were accustomed to take part in the public discussions. Baillie says, “I had been ever silent in all their debates; and, however this silence sometimes weighted my mind, yet I found it the best and wisest course. No man there is desired to speak: four parts of five does not speak at all; and among these are many most able men, and known by their writes and sermons to be much abler than sundry of the speakers; and of these few that use to speak, sundry are so tedious and thrusts themselves in with such misregard of others, that it were better for them to be silent. Also there are some eight or nine so able, and ready at all times, that hardly a man can say anything, but what others, without his labour, are sure to say as well or better. Finding therefore that silence was a matter of no reproach, and of great ease, and brought no hurt to the work, I was content to use it, as Mr. Henderson also did for the farmost part of the last two years. My writes did conciliate to me credit enough, and my sense of inability to debate with the best, made me content to abstain; whereof I never did as yet repent.”
The Business of the Assembly
Having thus glanced at the origin, constitution, and parties of the Westminster Assembly, we are prepared to look at its proceedings. The Assembly was convened for the first time on Saturday, July 1, 1643, and it continued to hold regular meetings until February 22, 1649, when, instead of being formally dissolved, it was resolved into a committee for conducting the trials leading to the ordination of ministers. In this capacity is sat until March 25, 1652, when an end was put to its existence by the dissolution of the Long Parliament which had called it into being. The number of its sessions was one thousand one hundred and sixty‑three, and the period of its duration, five years, six months, and twenty‑one days.
The Assembly sat at first in King Henry VIIth’s chapel at Westminster, and afterwards when “the weather grew cold they did go to Jerusalem chamber, a fair room in the Abbey of Westminster.” A sermon had been previously preached, before an immense audience, by Dr. Twisse, in the Abbey church, from John 14:18 , “I will not leave you comfortless, I will come unto you.” After having adjourned to the chapel, the roll of members appointed by Parliament was called, when it appeared that sixty‑ nine of the number were present. The ordinance authorizing the meeting was read, and the members adjourned until the Thursday following. When they met on Thursday, certain general instructions by the Lords and Commons for the regulation of their proceedings were submitted. Some subordinate regulations were added, and a protestation agreed upon to be taken by every member before his being admitted to a seat. The whole of the members were divided into three committees, each having its own chairman, and charged with its own peculiar business.
The first thing submitted by Parliament to the Assembly, was the thirty‑nine articles of the Church of England, which they were requested to revise. Ten weeks were spent on the first fifteen articles; but, on the arrival of the Scots commissioners, a new turn was given to affairs, and the articles in consequence were thrown aside ‑ not, however, until some important amendments were made upon them. The circumstance which gave a new turn to the discussions of the Assembly was the Solemn League and Covenant, which had been agreed upon by the English commissioners when in Scotland, and sent up to Parliament for their approval. The document was deliberated upon, clause by clause, by the Westminster divines for several days. With some slight alterations, it was solemnly taken by the House of Commons and the Assembly of divines, and soon after by the House of Lords and the congregations in and about London. This circumstance exerted a powerful influence over the deliberations of the Westminster Assembly. The League had for its object, not merely to secure “the preservation of the reformed religion in the Church of Scotland,” but “the reformation of religion in the kingdoms of England and Ireland, in doctrine, worship, discipline, and government, according to the word of God, and the example of the best reformed churches, and to bring the churches of God in the three kingdoms to the nearest conjunction and uniformity in religion, Confession of Faith, Form of Church Government, Directory for Worship, and Catechising.”
The Directory for Public Worship constituted the first business of importance after the arrival of the Scots commissioners. The framing of it was entrusted to a committee, the members of which distributed the different portions among themselves. The subject of preaching was given to Mr. Marshall, of catechizing, to Palmer, of reading the Scriptures and singing psalms, to Young, of fasting and thanksgiving, to Goodwin and Herle, of the sacraments and prayer, to the Scots commissioners. When completed, it passed the Assembly with great unanimity, and forthwith received the sanction of Parliament, in room of the Book of Common Prayer, which was suppressed. One or two matters of interest may be noted. The reading of the Holy Scriptures was distinctly held to be a part of the public worship of God, and provision made for a chapter of each testament being read at every ordinary meeting. Whether the Lord’s Supper should be given to the communicants in their pews, or “seated about or at a table decently covered, and conveniently placed,” was debated for three weeks ‑ the Independents contending for the former method, and the Presbyterians for the latter, which was what was carried in the end. Gillespie, in his Miscellaneous Questions, devotes a whole chapter to this point, which we would recommend to the attention of such as feel an interest in this matter.
On November 20, 1643, the Parliament sent down an order to the Westminster Assembly to take under their consideration Rous’ metrical version of the Psalms, with a view to its use in public singing, instead of that hitherto employed, by Sternhold and Hopkins. The Independents were opposed to the use of any one Psalter, but the Presbyterians were in favor of such a measure, and the Scots commissioners appear to have entered warmly into the matter. Many alterations and amendments were suggested by the Assembly from time to time on the version of Rous. Baillie remarks in one place, “The Psalter is a great part of our uniformity, which we can not let pass till our Church be well advised with it.” In another, “The Psalms are perfyted; the best without all doubt that ever yet were extant.” Again, in urging attention to the revision on his friend Douglas: “These lines are likely to go up to God from many millions of tongues for many generations; it were a pity but all possible diligence were used to have them framed so well as might be.” The version on which all this labor was bestowed both by the Westminster Assembly and by the Church in Scotland, is that which is still in use in Scotland, having been authorized by an act of the commission of the General Assembly, November 23, 1649, and confirmed by an order of the Committee of Estates, January 8, 1650.
The Form of Church Government, as might be expected, was the occasion of much more discussion than the Directory for Worship. The nature of the church, church officers, church courts, the power of ordination, and so forth, were all of them points on which the respective parties in the Assembly held different sentiments. The Presbyterians had here to fight their way, inch by inch, against the combined assaults of both Independents and Erastians. One point would call up the opposition of one of these parties, and another point the opposition of the other, while some topics would provoke the hostility of both.
Through the pertinaciousness of the Independents, the Assembly was kept fourteen days debating on some preliminary propositions. Twenty long sessions were spent on ordination alone. But the chief controversy between the Presbyterians and the Independents turned on the questions, whether many particular congregations may be under one Presbyterial government? whether there be a subordination of ecclesiastical assemblies? and whether a single congregation may assume to itself all and sole power in ordination? The Assembly passed propositions on all these topics, in accordance with the sentiments of Presbyterians. Reasons against these propositions were given in by the Dissenting Brethren, and these reasons of dissent were, again, answered by the Assembly. The documents were afterwards submitted to Parliament, and by an order of the House of Lords were printed in a volume best known by the title of the Grand Debate.
The Erastian controversy stands intimately connected with the subject of church government. It was keenly agitated in the Westminster Assembly. That the church is identified with the state, that the power of church officers is not judicial but persuasive only, and that the right to admit to or exclude from sealing ordinances resides with the civil magistrate, are propositions which the followers of Erastus undertook to defend, but which were most triumphantly overthrown by other members of Assembly, and by none with more weight and effect than the commissioners from Scotland. But although Erastianism was thus overthrown in the Assembly, the houses of Parliament could not be so easily persuaded to “put away the accursed thing.” They pertinaciously claimed the right of determining who should be admitted to the Lord’s table. And, notwithstanding all the efforts of the divines, an ordinance was passed, October 20, 1645, warranting, in case of suspension from the Lord’s Supper, an appeal on the part of the aggrieved person from the church courts to the Parliament. It need scarcely be added that in this the divines refused to acquiesce. Still Parliament, desirous of retaining church power in their own hands, afterwards (March 14, 1646) decreed that there should be, in every province, commissioners empowered to judge of scandalous offenses, on whose decision elders were to proceed in suspending from sealing ordinances, an enactment in which the erastian element is but too apparent.
The subject of Erastianism came under discussion in the Assembly again and again. The sum of the matter is this, that the Assembly, succeeded in carrying, with but one dissentient vote (that of Lightfoot; Coleman was absent from indisposition), that simple but truly noble proposition which, as has been well said, “cuts the heart out of the erastian theory,” a proposition which, while it maintains its place in the standards of the Presbyterian church, and retains its hold on the judgment and hearts of her ministers and her people, must ultimately prove a sufficient bulwark against submission to the encroachments of the civil power: “The Lord Jesus, as king and head of his church, hath therein appointed a government in the hand of church‑officers, distinct from the civil magistrate.” There are other passages in the writings of the Westminster divines which wear an equally anti‑erastian aspect. And unless we are prepared to maintain, either that they did not understand the meaning of the words they employed, or that their conduct contradicted their sentiments, the Westminster divines must be held to have been decidedly opposed to the notions of Erastus.
These points having been settled, the drawing up and passing of the Confession of Faith were comparatively easy matters, inasmuch as the members of the Assembly were pretty much agreed on doctrinal points. A committee, consisting of Dr. Hoyle, Dr. Gouge, Messrs. Herle, Gataker, Tuckney, Reynolds, and Vine, with the Scots commissioners, was entrusted with this matter. The first thing was to agree upon the thirty‑three titles or heads of chapters, and the subordinate sections under each. A particular department was then assigned to each member of committee, subject of course, when finished, to the review of the whole. Part was laid before the House of Commons, in October 1646, and the remainder in December of the same year. On this latter occasion the whole Assembly went up to the House in a body. Five hundred copies were ordered to be printed for the use of the members of both Houses, and the Assembly was instructed to place the Scripture proofs in the margin. It is singular that the Confession of Faith should have been submitted at first without the proofs, considering the way in which the Assembly proceeded with the Directory and Form of Government, and it is not less singular that for the supply of this defect we should be indebted to a request of the civil power.
The fourth point of uniformity was a Catechism. To this the Assembly applied itself with all the diligence becoming its importance. “The framing of this,” says Gillespie, “the Assembly have been very laborious in, and have found great difficulty how to make it full, such as might be expected from an Assembly, and upon the other part how to condescend to the capacity of the common and unlearned. Therefore they are a‑making two distinct catechisms, a short and plain one for these, and a larger one for those of understanding.” The Shorter was presented to Parliament, November 5, 1647, the Larger, April 14, 1648, and they were afterwards commanded to be printed for public use.
Such is a brief review of the proceedings of the Westminster Assembly. Its members succeeded in unfolding the scriptural evidence on behalf of the Presbyterian form of church government, with such clearness and strength as to lead to both Houses of Parliament giving their voice for its establishment in England. The Assembly’s productions obtained the formal ratification of the civil authorities as the authorized symbols of doctrine, worship, and discipline.
In proportion to the importance of the Westminster Standards is the obligation under which we lie to peruse, profess, maintain, and disseminate them. We shall ill requite the labors of those honored men by whom they were compiled, if we suffer ourselves or our children to continue ignorant of their contents. While we claim and exercise the right of bringing these, like all other human productions, to the infallible touchstone of revelation, let us deal candidly by their authors in affixing a meaning to their words; we must beware of misconstruing or perverting their language; we must be on guard against the meanness of interposing a dissent merely for the purpose of showing our independence or asserting our liberty, as much as against the mental sycophancy of adopting their sentiments on trust, or being afraid to subject them to the scrutiny of the Scriptures. And, if we only intelligently appreciate and honestly profess them ourselves, we shall feel necessarily prompted to use every lawful effort for the purpose of inducing others to do the same. We cannot but cherish the hope that the present commemoration may be regarded as symptomatic at once of a growing attachment to the sentiments of the Westminster divines, and of an enlightened determination to maintain them more firmly and diffuse them more extensively than ever.
Excerpts from William Symington, “Historical Sketch of the Westminster Assembly of Divines,” inCommemoration of the Bicentenary of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, by the Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Scotland, Glasgow, 1843.