Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Historical Context of the Westminster Assembly

I have recently started teaching a series on the Westminster Confession of Faith. You can find the recordings at this link. In the first lesson, I gave an overview of the confession and its historical context. 

In 1560, the Church of Scotland had been reestablished on the Genevan model as a Presbyterian church through the influence of John Knox and others. Further to the south, the Church of England (the Anglican Church) had gone back and forth under Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary Tutor, settling down in the reign of Elizabeth I with the Calvinist theology of the 39 Articles and Book of Homilies, government by bishops appointed by the monarch, and worship directed by the Book of Common Prayer. 

James I introduced a few Anglican practices in the Church of Scotland and came into conflict with Presbyterian protest. His son, Charles I, became more aggressive against Presbyterians and Puritans. Under his archbishop, William Laud, the Puritans were persecuted and some who embraced Arminianism and “high church” practices were promoted. 

The tipping point was reached when Charles I sought to impose a new Book of Common Prayer on the Church of Scotland in 1637. This led to widespread protest, a firm stand for Presbyterianism by the Scottish church, and successful armed resistance by the Scottish authorities and nation, which caused Charles I to relent. Because this left the king in a poor financial condition, he was forced to assemble the English Parliament to ask for taxes. But since Charles I had ruled without Parliament for eleven years, Parliament had many grievances and desired reforms it sought to act upon once it was called into existence. 

Because of a growing desire for the reformation of the church, the English Parliament called the Westminster Assembly “for the settling of the government and liturgy of the Church of England, and clearing of the Doctrine of said Church from false aspersions and interpretations.” The assembly was composed of about 120 “divines” (ministers of the word) representing all the counties of England and Wales, along with 30 representatives from the English parliament (the members of the assembly are listed here). The assembly began with the work of revising the 39 Articles, with the chief aim of making the Calvinist theology of the articles unmistakably clear. 

A couple months after the assembly began, the Solemn League and Covenant was signed between England and Scotland. This gave the assembly the task of creating new Reformed standards for doctrine, government, and worship for the churches in the three kingdoms of England, Ireland, and Scotland. Scotland sent commissioners to assist the assembly, including Alexander Henderson, George Gillespie, and Samuel Rutherford. The English Civil War had begun between the forces of the king and the forces of the English Parliament, and so the English Parliament allied itself with Scotland by this covenant. 

In The Solemn League and Covenant (1643), the kingdoms pledged,
“I. That we shall sincerely, really, and constantly, through the grace of GOD, endeavor, in our several places and callings, the preservation of the reformed religion in the Church of Scotland, in doctrine, worship, discipline, and government, against our common enemies; 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 shall endeavour 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; that we, and our posterity after us, may, as brethren, live in faith and love, and the Lord may delight to dwell in the midst of us. 
“II. That we shall, in like manner, without respect of persons, endeavour the extirpation of Popery, Prelacy (that is, Church government by archbishops, bishops, their chancellors and commissioners, deans, deans and chapters, archdeacons, and all other ecclesiastical officers depending on that hierarchy), superstition, heresy, schism, profaneness, and whatsoever shall be found contrary to sound doctrine and the power of Godliness; lest we partake in other men’s sins, and thereby be in danger to receive of their plagues; and that the Lord may be one, and his name one, in the three kingdoms. 
“III. We shall, with the same sincerity, reality, and constancy, in our several vocations, endeavour, with our estates and lives, mutually to preserve the rights and privileges of the Parliaments, and the liberties of the kingdoms; and to preserve and defend the king’s majesty’s person and authority, in the preservation and defence of the true religion and liberties of the kingdoms; that the world may bear witness with our consciences of our loyalty, and that we have no thoughts or intentions to diminish his majesty’s just power and greatness.” (The full text is available here.)
The Westminster Assembly (1643-1652) accordingly went on to produce the Westminster Confession of Faith, Larger and Shorter Catechisms, Directory of Public Worship, and Form of Presbyterial Church Government. The established churches of Ireland and England did not hold to these standards for long, since Charles II rejected them after he became king in 1660. Nevertheless, the Westminster Confession and Catechisms endured as the standards of the Church of Scotland and of confessional Presbyterian churches throughout the world. 

In America, the Westminster Confession and Catechisms were adopted by the Synod of Philadelphia in 1729 and by the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America in 1789 with a few minor revisions regarding church-state relations. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church adopted them in 1936, with a few more minor revisions that had taken place in the meantime. 

Even though the Westminster Assembly (1643-1652) did not bring about the lasting uniformity of religion between Scotland, Ireland, and England that was its goal, it did lay important groundwork for unity among the Scots, Scot-Irish, and English who came to America.

Because of the Solemn League and Covenant between Scotland and England and how it shaped the task of the Westminster Assembly, Presbyterians from the three kingdoms of the British Isles were prepared to form one Presbyterian church in America. They had already gone through the work of agreeing to shared standards for doctrine, worship, and church government. This also united them as they sent missionaries throughout the world. 

The Congregationalists in New England also used the confession and catechisms of the Westminster Assembly, sometimes with modifications, which helped them to work with the Presbyterians in various ways over the years, including the Plan of Union (1803). The Westminster Shorter Catechism was often included in the popular New England Primer. Early Baptists in America also based their confessional documents on the Westminster Confession of Faith and the modifications Congregationalists had made to it.

Today, there are more Presbyterians in Mexico than there are in the USA, more Presbyterians in Brazil than there are in Scotland, and more Presbyterians in South Korea than there are in all these other four countries combined. The legacy of the Westminster Assembly endures. These documents continue to serve as a rich statement of biblical truth and a time-tested summary of the Christian faith.

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