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The Westminster Assembly of Divines: Part III by William Symington

By April 9, 2011June 24th, 2019Creeds & Confessions

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 Sternholds 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.