This was my talk given on the 350th anniversary of the Westminster Assembly and repeated at a special place in 2003 the the form below. Click on the title for photos.
The Westminster Assembly
In February 2003 the First Presbytery of the International Presbyterian Church in England was privileged to meet in the Jerusalem Chamber of Westminster Abbey, by kind permission of the Dean of Westminster. As moderator of the presbytery I gave this short address on the significance of our meeting place.
Believing that the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, and that God is to be worshipped in spirit and truth, we know that ever since the curtain of the Temple was ripped from top to bottom, there have been no holy places. However, there are places of special historic significance, For us Presbyterians, the Jerusalem Chamber is the special of special places., not holy, but very special.
In 1647 the newspaper 'Perfect occurrences of everyday journal in parliament' had something of a scoop. It was the first ever newspaper advert. It was for a book, 'The divine right of church government' This was indeed a different age to our own but it was the most formative one in English history . That was the verdict of historian Christopher
Hill on the 17th century. in general and 1640-50 in particular.
1643 was a year after civil war started in England. In 1642 in the battle at Edgehill there was no clear victory for Charles I nor for Parliament. The king was victorious at Marlborough , Parliament at Winchester, and Turnham Green In 1643 Bristol, Bradford, Grantham Leeds, Reading Warfield, and Gainsborough all saw parliamentary forces victorious.
Theatres were closed, income & property taxes introduced, Hobbes was writing and
Milton too was busy with "The doctrine and discipline of divorce", Rembrandt painting in Holland and in Italy, Galileo died, This year , Isaac Newton was born. Coffee drinking was popular in Paris, Four colonies formed the Confederation of
New England, Tasmania and New Zealand were discovered, Portugal ceded the Gold Coast, now Ghana, to the Dutch. Gillespie, a Scottish commissioner to the Westminster Assembly, said an age of righteousness was to be inaugurated as per the prophet Ezekiel and it could be could be 1643. There was much millennial fever. This was the age of the Westminster Confession.
Our elders' ordination promise is 'To sincerely receive and adopt the Westminster Confession as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures and to approve of the Presbyterian form of church government.' The confession is our subordinate standard after Scripture. The early church formulated the catholic creeds. The Reformation produced national confessions, but in 1618-19, the Synod of Dordt received as true by all reformed churches.
In 1643 England and Scotland were two different countries with one king. Both were united in hatred of Archbishop Laud who was imprisoned in 1641 and executed in 1645. In November 1641 the Long Parliament wanted to ban bishops and have representatives of both countries plus some from abroad to consider 'all things necessary for the peace and good government of the church'. A synod was to report to Parliament. Charles refused assent. The bill was passed without. Royal consent and 1st July 1643 was set for 'an assembly of learned and godly divines and others to be consulted with the
Parliament, for the setting of the government and liturgy of the Church of England' The Assembly met in the Henry VII Chapel of Westminster Abbey. By October it was very cold so they moved to the Jerusalem Chamber. Nearly all saw society as one
with none of modern concept of separation of church from state. They held a Puritan vision of a united Reformed Christendom as previously it was Catholic. All of England was to live in obedience to God. They wanted a national church establishment to encourage national obedience in a united society. Theirs was a different. view of the coercive power of church councils from today. They saw the entire nation to be in covenant with God. The future of the nation, not merely the church was involved.
All members were Calvinists. There were121 divines, all Church of England ministers, plus four Scottish commissioners, 10 Lords and 21 Members of Parliament.
Some didn't come because of the king, e.g. Archbishop Ussher. They met in theJerusalem Chamber until 23.March 16.52, first to revise the 39 articles of the Church of England. But the Scots, Baillie Gillespie, Rutherford and Henderson had sworn to uniform reform by the National Covenant of 1638. Baxter was not there
But said for eminent learning godliness, ministerial abilities and fidelity it was the best Synod, together with Dordt, since the days of the apostles. They had 1163 meetings.
The Scots with the right to speak but not to vote were influential for the divine
right of presbytery. The majority of the English said that Presbyterianism was most agreeable to the Word of God though their church had been Episcopalian, They were not prelatists, seeing bishops are princes of the church but as overseers of several churches. Many were still for moderate episcopacy. Some became Presbyterian.
Independents numbered 5 only, among them Goodwin and Nye . All had been exiled to Netherlands and had links with American Colonies. They were not separatists but accepted establishment though not as strongly as New England. Theirs was an influence beyond their numerical strength in the Assembly, possibly because they enjoyed widespread support in the Army, right up to Cromwell himself. There were no Baptists of any kind nor separatists who wanted no link between church and state. There were though Erastians, Coleman Lightfoot with Selden MP. They believed that pastors are teachers not church rulers. Authority rests with the state. The state is the final arbiter of discipline, excommunication. The church is under state authority. This was the view of many in Parliament. The Assembly was called by Parliament, and prohibited from publishing anything without parliamentary approval. Parliament could and did alter the All Assembly participants had implicit Erastianism.
They took an oath to maintain doctrine "most agreeable to the Word of God" and discipline "most to the glory of God and the good and peace of His Church."
Dissent was allowed but it was to be reported to parliament. Plenary sessions met and committees, Monday to -Friday, 9 to 2 except fast days. They met less frequently later. In the first year they debated meeting on December. 25th as the Scots wanted to decry
superstition and so they did meet on what had formerly been Christmas day. Initially there were three afternoon committees. Members were assigned to one but free to
go to any. All eventually discussed the same material. The Grand Committee, a joint one with the Scots, had about 20 members to report to parliament.
Baillie complained of "the unhappy and unammendable prolixity of these people,
inclined to differ from all the world and from one another and shortly from
themselves. No people had so much need of a presbytery." This Scottish opinion of the English is still relevant today. There was wearisome procrastination. It was difficult to progress in orderly fashion because of members' diversity and state influence. The
English had looked to civil authority for unity and order, but the Scots to the church. Baillie said weekly preaching before parliament and on Fast Days was with profound reverence that took the edge off all exhortation and made all applications to them toothless and adulatorous. There was a battle over liberty versus order. It spread to all society. The Scots were stricter than the English. No one said parliament was restricted to civil matters only.
Concern was raised at a book by Williams, The Bloody Tenet of persecution for cause of conscience, published 1644, and at Milton on Divorce. Palmer suggested the result of Willims' teaching would be all manners of heresies. Every man Jew, Turk, pagan, papist, Arminian, Anabaptist, would to be left to his own free liberty of conscience. Milton wrote his Areopagitica for such liberty of expression.
The Solemn League and Covenant pledged to maintain Presbyterianism in Scotland and reform the churches of England and Ireland according to Scripture and the examples of 'the best reformed churches'. Parliament and the Assembly signed it in September 1643. There was to be a uniform reformation in doctrine, order and worship. It was the price Parliament had to pay for Scotland's help against Charles I . This was why the Scottish commissioners were present. Later the political alliance failed and by 1650, the future Charles II was signing the Solemn League and Covenant, so he could enlist Scots support against Parliament.
Between July and October 1643 revising the Assembly was revising the 39 Articles. By 24 April 1644 a directory for ordination and proposition for church government was finished. It was not accepted by parliament but was by the Church of Scotland. There was church discipline for drunkenness, swearing, blasphemy, image worship, duels, dancing, gambling, Sabbath breaking, going to mediums. extortion, bribery and fraud. In
1644 a big parliament victory at Marston Moor established the authority of Oliver Cromwell. His secret was his disciplined cavalry, the only ones who would reform and charge again instead of the customary cavalry habit of riding off after one charge in order to loot the enemy's baggage train. "God made them as stubble to our swords", Cromwell would write. He was a godly man with a keen sense of the providence of God in all events. His army took York. The Queen fled to France. That year Rutherford published Lex Rex, to show God's law rules, even over Kings. But the assembly was bogged down in eclessiology. There was a breach in the spring of 1645 between Presbyterians and Independents. It is significant that this happened when the army triumphed. In 1645 Naseby, Bristol, Winchester, Carlisle, Basingstoke were all victories for Lt-General Cromwell.
1645 accepted the Directory for Public Worship by the churches and parliament. It was not a liturgy. Preaching was emphasised. Parliament told the Assembly to go on to the Confession and stop the church government. debate. There was trouble over the relation of church courts to parliament and Chapter 30 declared the church free from
parliament overruling excommunication. This clash with the Erastian parliament reopened the church government dispute. The Assembly never formally answered parliament's queries. The Confession's most notable omission is any clear statement of Presbyterian church government. This is understandable once one knows the history of conflict in the Assembly and with parliament.
1646 saw Oxford fall and Charles captured. The Confession not the Assembly's prime task but it was done by April 1647. The king at Carisbrooke agreed to abolish
Episcopacy and restore Presbyterianism. November 5th 1647 saw the completion of the Shorter Catechism. On 13 October 1647 Parliament established a Presbyterian Church of England for one year but Cromwell did not favour this.
14.April 1648 the Longer catechism was finished and approved by the Church of Scotland. But by now Scotland and England were at war. The English were victorious at. Preston and later at Dunbar
1649 saw civil approval of the Westminster Standards in Scotland .Bur when Charles was executed the Scots proclaimed his son king in Edinburgh.
22 February 1649 was the end of the Assembly's numbered sessions but until it continued until 16 52 as ministerial training committee.
In 1660 a modified, less Presbyterian version of the Confession was accepted by parliament but the mood had changed in England by this time 2 years after Cromwell had died
1658 saw the Savoy Declaration, the Congregational confession and in 1689 Baptist Confession Both based on the Westminster Confession. In 1729 it was adopted by the original synod in North America
Now or Confession enjoys the voluntary adhesion of multitudes where this English nation failed to confess it. Now liberals fail to confess while we fail to teach it. Our Confession is a product of its age. But what an age, and what a product.
Solei Deo Gloria
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