THE WESTMINSTER ASSEMBLY.
By W. A. SHAW, Litt.D. Vict., Public Record Office.
Early ecclesiastical legislation of the Long Parliament .356
Calling of the Assembly .358
The Thirty-nine Articles. Presbytery . 359
Ecclesiastical Discipline . 360
Ordination. Directory for Worship . 361
Confession of Faith. Catechisms .362
Estimate of the work of the Assembly . 363
THE WESTMINSTER ASSEMBLY.
RELIGIOUS grievances formed one of the chief irritant causes of the revolt heralded by the meeting of the Long Parliament in November, 1640. As a consequence, the attention of both Houses was immediately on their assembling directed to these grievances ; and the consideration of them consumed a serious part of the time of the Parliament during the first three years of its existence. Most of the religious debates and agitations of these three years, 1640-3, proved futile, in the sense that very little sound legislative enactment resulted from them : but in another sense they proved effectual beyond the anticipation even of extremists. For they brought to light an irreconcilable difference of opinion between the party of moderate reform and the Root-and-Branch party. From the moment that the Long Parliament accepted the Covenant as the price of Scotch military aid, the reconstruction of the national Church on a Presbyterian basis became a political necessity ; and, so soon as the Long Parliament clearly apprehended that necessity, the existence of the Assembly of Divines was determined and its work was outlined in prospect.
There is thus an important difference in kind between the attempted religious legislation of the Long Parliament prior to the outbreak of the Civil War and the actually accomplished legislation after its outbreak. Starting with a marked unwillingness to approach the question of Episcopacy as an institution, the House of Commons gradually, by means of its debates of December, 1640, on the moderate proposals of the "Ministers' Petition," and of February and March, 1641, on the more drastic proposals of the "London Petition," rose to the point of challenging Episcopacy as a system. At the same time, and proceeding quite independently, the House of Lords was, under the guidance of Bishop Williams1 Committee, feeling its way to a standard of reform a little, but not much, short of that reached by the Commons. The debates in the Commons resulted in the Bill of April, 1641, for removing Bishops from the House of Lords : while the debates in the Lords finally resulted in the Bill of July, 1641, for regulating Bishops and Ecclesiastical
Courts. Both Bills proved abortive ; and it was doubtless the indignation of the Commons at the loss of their Bill in the Upper House which gave the opportunity for the introduction of the Root-and-Branch Bill in May, 1641. Henceforward the extremists held the field, and the moderate standard of ecclesiastical reform previously proposed was thrown over. But the important point to notice is that even when the extremists thus held the field their proposals not merely fell short of a Scottish Presbytery but were essentially different in kind from it. The Root-and-Branch debates resulted in the formulation of a scheme of ecclesiastical discipline and proposals for ordination which were essentially non-Presbyterian in character. This was the point reached by the Long Parliament in July, 1641, and beyond that point it never went of its own initiative. After the recess the Parliament was occupied with the debates on the Grand Remonstrance ; and, as the year 1642 advanced, the certainty of the outbreak of strife made the extremists in the Commons only too well pleased to let religious reform rest until the necessity for the Scottish alliance and the price to be paid for that alliance should have become clear.
The degree of intimacy in the relations between the Scottish faction and the English parliamentary leaders will probably never be known, any more than the precise date of the commencement of negotiations between them. There can be little doubt that when in November, 1641, the Parliament in the Grand Remonstrance desired of the King the summoning of a general synod of the most grave divines of the island to effect the intended reformation, the secret understanding between the parliamentary leaders and the Scottish was already at work. In the following February, 1642, the Commons returned to the project ; and from April onwards they were intermittently engaged in nominating the divines who were to constitute the Assembly. But although, when the nomination of the divines was finished, the Commons proceeded to the next logical step and read for the first time (May 9, 1642) a Bill for calling an assembly of the divines, it was not until June 17 of the following year (1643) that the Bill finally passed. The interval is to be regarded as taken up with the fluctuating negotiations between the English parliamentary leaders and the Scottish. The chequered story of these negotiations and the extraordinary parallelism between their course and that of the military fortunes of the Parliament is too long to be presented here. Within a fortnight of the final passing of the Bill for calling the Assembly, the Long Parliament had practically made up its mind to purchase Scotch assistance at whatever price. The Solemn League and Covenant bound both countries to use all their endeavours for the preservation of the true Protestant Reformed religion in Scotland, and for such a reformation of the Church in England as would bring about a uniformity in the two countries of religion, faith and Church government, according to the example of the best Reformed Church and
According to the Ordinance of June, 1643, which summoned the Assembly, that body consisted of 30 lay assessors (10 English lords and 20 English commoners), 121 English divines, 3 scribes, and 8 Scottish commissioners (5 thereof clerical and 3 lay). The Assembly sat at first in Henry VH's Chapel at Westminster ; but, as the winter approached, the Chapel proved too cold, and in the end of September, 1643, it moved its sessions to the Jerusalem Chamber in the Abbey. In its palmy days the ordinary attendance was about sixty, and the members received pay for their attendance.
Although the Long Parliament had had a matter of eighteen months within which to prepare a programme for the Assembly, yet when the divines met there was as a matter of fact no programme of agenda before them. In all its resolutions covering the interim period February, 1642, to July, 1643, the Parliament had refrained from any but the most general expressions of resolve. It voted the abolition of Episcopacy and declared its intention of a due and necessary reformation of the government and liturgy of the Church, and for the better effecting thereof to have consultation with divines, but it framed no programme for the Assembly. To have done so would have been to give to the divines a larger reference and a more comprehensive authority than the Parliament had ever intended them to have. Of set and deliberate policy the Commons chose the alternative course of deciding piecemeal and as it went along what particular questions should be referred to the Assembly for debate and advice. By such a method of piecemeal reference the Parliament not only kept its finger on the whole conduct of the Assembly's debates, but also deprived its work of any appearance of creative independence. It was not for the Assembly to take in hand the reformation of the Church: that was the high function of Parliament alone : the Assembly's work was only to advise the Parliament on such points as the latter specifically referred to it for advice upon them. Although therefore the Assembly met on July 1, it was not until the 5th that the Commons agreed to the rules for guiding the divines in their debates, and autocratically sent to the Assembly the first meagre instalment of agenda.
The constructive work of the Assembly may be reviewed under the following heads :
The Thirty-nine Articles. On July 5 the Parliament requested the Assembly to consider the first ten of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, in order to free and vindicate the doctrine contained therein from all aspersion and false interpretations. Six weeks later the Parliament similarly referred the succeeding nine Articles to
The form of Church Government : Presbytery. Following up the formulation of the Solemn League and Covenant, the General Assembly of the Scottish Church on August 19, 1643, elected eight Commissioners to treat with the English Parliament for the union of the English and Scottish Churches in one form of Kirk Government. These Scottish Commissioners made their entry into the Assembly of Divines on September 15, 1643 ; and three days later the Commons referred it to the Assembly to consider of a discipline and government of the Church apt to procure nearer agreement with the Church of Scotland. Besides sitting in the Assembly, however, the Scotch Commissioners claimed an independent function as Treaty Commissioners specifically appointed ad hoc-that is for the consideration of Church union ; and in this capacity they held weekly meetings with a Committee of the two Houses and with another Committee of the Assembly. It was in these weekly treaty meetings that the initiatory proposals on this subject were made, to be thence carried to the Assembly for debate. Under the unseen guidance therefore of these Grand or Treaty Committees the Assembly began its debate on the great question of Church Government on October 12, 1643. It was the debate of this thorny subject which brought to the front the bitter antagonism between Independent and Presbyterian. In the matter of the officers of the Church, the Independents were for the divine institution of a doctor or teacher in every congregation as well as of a Pastor : and they argued strongly against the divine institution of the ruling Elder. In the matter of Church organisation, they objected to the inclusion of several parishes in one presbytery. On all these points hot and obstinate debates ensued, the Independent minority being led by Thomas Goodwyn, Nye, Burroughs, Bridge, Carter, Caryll, Phillips and Sterry; while the Presbyterian majority was led by Marshall and Burgess, and of course supported by the Scottish Commissioners. After a preliminary trial of strength in February-March, 1644, and an ineffectual attempt at conciliation between Independents and Presbyterians, the systematic debate on the subject of Presbytery was begun in September, 1644 ; and on November 8 following, " The Humble Advice
The Larger and the Smaller Catechism. The debate of a Catechism was commenced in December, 1644 ; but the project slept for a time, and, when it was taken up again in January, 1647, it was determined to prepare two Catechisms, a Larger and a Smaller. The Larger was in debate from April to October, 1647, and the Smaller from August to November of the same year. The Larger-in a great measure an abridgment from the Confession-was delivered to the Parliament in October, 1647, and the Smaller-less directly so abridged, but quite as thoroughly Calvinistic-in June, 1648.
With this last item the effective constructive work of the Assembly practically closes-for we may disregard its work on the metrical revision of the Psalms, as in this connexion it attempted no direct constructive original work of its own.
In point of time also the discussion of the Catechisms represents the last deliberative work of the Assembly. The Larger was completed in October and the Smaller in November, 1647; and from that date onwards with the single exception of the merely academic debate in 1648 of the Long Parliament's queries concerning the jus divinum, the remainder of the Assembly's existence was devoted to the examining and approving of ministers. This function the Assembly had all along performed at scattered moments ; but from August, 1647, it had, under the lead and in subordination to the Parliamentary Committee for Plundered Ministers, specially devoted itself to this work as a temporary f makeshift to meet the pressing need for a clergy ordination office. The formal sessions of the Assembly ceased on February 22, 1649, three weeks after the execution of Charles. From that date onwards such of the divines of the Assembly as remained members of it became a Committee for the Examination of Ministers, and held meetings for this purpose every Thursday morning till March 25, 1652. On that day Cromwell dissolved the Rump, with which the Committee of the almost moribund Assembly of Divines automatically disappeared. The func tions which it had performed in its later years were subsequently in 1654 transferred to the Commissioners for Approbation of Public Preachers. The respect which has been paid to the memory of the Westminster
Assembly is due only to the individual learning of its leading members. As an assembly, that is in the aggregate, it was merely a tool in the hands of a Parliament engaged in a factious revolution. It had none of the freedom of action of an ecclesiastical Council ; its constructive proposals have, therefore, none of the constitutional significance attaching to the decisions of any of the Great Councils of the Church ; there was no doctrinal width or scope in its debates, so that there attaches to its record not a particle of the intense dogmatic interest attaching to a great doctrinal synod such as, say, the Synod of Dort. The purpose for which the Westminster Assembly was called was a purely practical purpose. At the behest of its master it had to put down on paper a plan for the various portions of the Church edifice which the Parliament had set itself to rear. An Attorney-General who drafts a party Bill for a party Government performs a function exactly like that performed by the Assembly.
But not only so. The Assembly was not merely entirely subordinate to the two Houses ; bereft of initiative and again and again checked and chidden by them, it was also itself a prey to faction, not really theological but political; and it was dragged along in the wake of the faction fight which was raging in the political world of England at that time.
The opposition of the Independents to the Presbyterians in the Assembly was simply a prolongation of the same faction fight which was being fought out in the Parliament and in the Army ; and the Scots joined in the fray in the Assembly with just as open and vehement intrigue as they did in the political domain. " Plots and packing worse than those of Trent," says Milton. It is impossible to accord to the Assembly the respect which would be due to it, had it been a free and unfettered body with an initiative and programme of its own, and it is equally impossible to clear its memory from the stain of servile subjection to political faction. Even with regard to some of its practical creations-the Confession and the Catechisms-which have earned for it the gratitude and respect of the Presbyterian Churches from that day to this, it is uncertain whether they owe their origin to the divines of the Assembly or to the Scottish Commissioners.