Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
Westminster Assembly of Divines
a name given to the synod of divines called by Parliament in the reign of Charles I, for the purpose of settling the government, liturgy, and doctrine of the Church of England. The Westminster Synod or Assembly of Divines derived its name from the locality in London where it held its sessions, and owed its origin to the ecclesiastico-political conflict between the "Long Parliament" and king Charles I, which resulted in the decapitation of Charles, the protectorate of Cromwell, and the events consequent on those changes. This conflict was, in its religious aspects, a struggle of Puritanism or radical Protestantism against a semi-Romish Episcopal hierarchy and liturgy; in its political bearings, a contest for parliamentary privilege, anti popular freedom against the monarchical absolutism of the Stuarts.
The final result of the struggle was a constitutional monarchy and a moderate episcopacy, with an Edict of Toleration in favor of Protestant Dissenters. After some unsuccessful attempts to obtain the sanction of the king, a joint resolution of the houses of Parliament was passed, June 12, 1643, which convoked a synod "for settling the government and liturgy of the Church of England, and for vindicating and clearing of the doctrine of said Church from false aspersions and interpretations," and, furthermore, for bringing about a more perfect reformation in the Church than was obtained under Edward VI and Elizabeth, by which a closer union of sentiment with the Church of Scotland and the Reformed churches of the Continent might be secured. It was intended that it should include, among its members adherents of all the chief parties among English-speaking Protestants, except the party of archbishop Laud, whose innovations and despotic tendencies had been one main cause of the troubles in. Church and State. Parliament appointed to membership in this synod 121 clergymen taken from the various shires of England, ten members of the House of Lords, and twenty of the Commons.
The General Synod of Scotland, August 19, 1643, elected five clergymen and three lay elders as commissioners to the Westminster Synod. These, it will be seen, were simply a committee raised, by Parliament and amenable to its authority. About twenty of the members originally summoned were clergymen of the Church of England, and several of them afterwards bishops; but few of the Episcopal members took their seats. The bishops of the English Church never acknowledged its claims, and the king forbade its sessions under extreme penalties, June 22, 1643; but it nevertheless became, if measured by the far-reaching consequences of its work, the most important synod held in the history of the Reformed faith. The synod convened July 1, 1643, in Westminster Abbey, in the presence of both houses of Parliament. On the opening of the Assembly sixty-nine of the clerical members were in attendance, and at different times ninety-six of them were present, though the usual attendance ranged between sixty and eighty. The great body of the members, both clerical and lay, were Presbyterians; ten or twelve were Independents or Congregationalists; and five or six styled themselves Erastians.
Nearly or quite all were Calvinists. The purposes for which, according to the ordinance, the Assembly was convoked were, as above stated, to vindicate the doctrine of the Church of England, and to recommend such further reformation of her discipline, liturgy, and government as "might be agreeable to God's holy word, and most apt to procure and preserve the peace of the Church at home, and nearer agreement with the Church of Scotland and other Reformed churches abroad." But when the Parliament, feeling their need of Scottish aid, acceded to the Solemn League and Covenant, and urged the Scotch to send their deputies to the Assembly, its objects were extended; and in order to carry out the covenanted uniformity, it was empowered to prepare a new confession of. faith and catechism, as well as directories for public worship and Church government, which might be adopted by all the churches represented. It retained to the last, however, its advisory character. The Church of Scotland threw all its influence in favor of strict Calvinism and Presbyterianism. Before electing delegates to the Westminster Assembly, in compliance: with the request of Parliament, it adopted, Aug. 17, 1643, the so-called Solemn League and Covenant, (See COVENANT, SOLEMN LEAGUE AND), which bound the Scottish nation to the defense of the Reformed religion in Scotland, the furtherance of the Reformation in England and Ireland in doctrine, worship, Church organization, and discipline; the establishing of ecclesiastical and religious uniformity in the three realms; the extirpation of papacy and prelacy, of heresy and all ungodliness; and the support of all the rights of Parliament and of the rightful authority of the king.
This document was immediately transmitted to Parliament, and thence to the Westminster Assembly, and was formally endorsed by each of those bodies, but was condemned by the king. The Assembly sought to gain the fraternal sympathies of the Reformed churches on the Continent also, and to that end addressed to them circular letters which drew forth more or less favorable responses, and which the king endeavored to neutralize by issuing a manifesto in Latin and English, in which he denied the intention charged upon him of re- establishing the papacy in his realm.
The opening sermon was preached by Dr. William Twisse, who had been chosen prolocutor, and immediately thereafter the Assembly was constituted in the Chapel of Henry VII. The meetings continued, to be held in this chapel till after the arrival of the Scottish commissioners, and were chiefly occupied with the revision of the first fifteen of the "Articles." On Sept. 15 four Scottish ministers and two lay-assessors were, by a warrant from the Parliament, admitted to seats in the Assembly, but without votes, as commissioners from the Church of Scotland The Solemn League and Covenant, binding the ecclesiastical bodies of the two nations into a union, had been passed in Scotland, Aug. 17, was subsequently accepted by the Westminster Assembly, and ordered by the English Parliament to be printed, Sept. 21, and subscribed Sept. 25, when the House of Commons, with the Scottish commissioners and the Westminster Assembly, met in the Church of St. Margaret, Westminster. The House of Lords took the "Covenant" Oct. 15.
The manner of proceeding is thus described by Baillie, one of the Scotch commissioners: "We meet every day of the week but Saturday. Ordinarily there will be present about threescore of their divines. These are divided into three committees; in one whereof every man is a member. No man is excluded who pleases to come to any of the three. Every committee, as the Parliament gives order in writing to take any purpose into consideration, takes a portion, and in their afternoon meeting prepares matters for the Assembly, sets down their mind in distinct propositions with texts of Scripture. After the prayer, Mr. Byfield, the scribe, reads the propositions and Scriptures, whereupon the Assembly debates in a most grave and orderly way. No man is called up to speak; but who stands up of his own accord, he speaks, so long as he will, without interruption. They harangue long and learnedly. They study the questions well beforehand, and prepare their speeches, but withal the men are exceedingly prompt and well spoken. I do marvel at the very accurate and extemporal replies that many of them usually make."
The question of Church government occasioned the most difficulty, and seemed for a time impossible to be settled. Many of the most learned divines who were entirely on the side of Parliament were yet in favor of what they termed primitive episcopacy, or the system in which the presbyters, and their president governed the churches in common. Then there were the Scotch commissioners and the more radical Puritans who were at the opposite extreme; and, in order to reach a conclusion, these differences must be reconciled. It was accomplished after much discussion and long delay by the adoption of the Presbyterian form of government.
The subjects relating to the form of public worship and the statement of doctrines occasioned less difficulty. Early in 1644 each of these was assigned to a small committee for the preparation of materials, after which they were to be brought first before the larger committees and then before the Assembly. The Directory for Public Worship was prepared in 1644. The question of Church Government, so far as it referred to ordination, was submitted to Parliament April 20, 1644, and ratified by that body Oct. 2, the same year. This Directory was completed during the following year, but the printing of it was delayed till 1647. In 1645 to 1646 the Confession of Faith was elaborated, and finally put into the shape in which it is still printed in Scotland The Larger Catechism was sent to the House of Commons Oct. 22, 1647; the Shorter Catechism, Nov. 25, the same year. In the autumn of 1648 both houses of Parliament ordered the printing and publishing of the Shorter Catechism, but the House of Lords was discontinued before it had acted on the Larger Catechism.
The other papers issued by the Assembly consisted only of admonitions to Parliament and the nation, controversial tracts, letters of foreign churches, etc. The last of the Scotch commissioners left the Assembly Nov. 9, 1647. On Feb. 22, 1649, after it had held 1163 sittings, lasting each from 9 o'clock A.M. to 2 P.M., the Parliament, by an ordinance, changed what remained of the Assembly into a committee for trying and examining ministers, and in this form it continued to hold weekly sittings until the dissolution of the "Long Parliament," April 20, 1653.
A monthly day of fasting and prayer was regularly held in union with the houses of Parliament. In this time it had framed and adopted a complete standard of doctrine, government, and worship for the Reformed churches of the three kingdoms. Its labors were approved by Parliament, and, their results elevated into laws of the State, though with certain modifications in the disciplinary arrangements. A perfect execution of these decrees was, however, impossible, because a large number of the English people adhered to the Episcopal establishment and liturgy, and the great majority of Irishmen were of the Roman Catholic faith. Scotland alone gave them an unqualified obedience, which has been continued almost intact down to the present day. From Scotland the Westminster standards were transmitted, with unimportant modifications of statement, to the different Presbyterian bodies of North America. After completing its labors, the synod was perpetuated in the character of a board of examination and ordination until March 25, 1652, when the dissolution of Parliament by Cromwell ended its existence, without any formal adjournment having been had.
The official records of the Assembly are supposed to have been lost in the great fire of London in 1666, though it is said that Dr. McCrie, the younger, recovered a portion of them. Extensive private reports by members of the synod are yet extant, however, c. g. Lightfoot's Journal of the Proceedings of the Assembly of Divines (Lond. 1824), Robert Baillie's Letters, and three manuscript volumes of Goodwin's Notes. Clarendon's History of the Puritan Rebellion is, biased and insufficient; but Neal's History of the Puritans, pt. 3, ch. 2-10, has a very full and, upon the whole, trustworthy report. See also Hetherington. History of the Westminster Assembly of Divines (Edinb. 1843; N. Y. 1856); History of the Westminster Assembly of Divines (Presb. Board of Publ., Phila. 1841); Minutes of the Sessions of the Westminster Assembly of Divines (Edinb. 1874); Gillespie (Works, vol. 2), Notes of the Proceedings of the Assembly of Divines (ibid. 1844); Fuller, Church History, and Worthies of England; Palmer, Nonconformists Memorial; Price, History of Protestant Nonconformity; Hetherington, History of the Church of Scotland; Reid, History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland; Stoughton, Ecclesiastical History of England; Rutherford, Letters; Hanbury, Historical Memorials of the Independents; Brook, Lives of the Puritans; Reed, Lives of the; Westminster Divines; Smith, Lives of English and Scottish Divines; Wood, Athenae Oxonienses; Marsden, Early and Later Puritans; McCrie, Annals of English Presbytery; Stanley, Memorials of Westminster Abbey; and Skeats, History of the Free Churches of England.
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Westminster Assembly of Divines'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/w/westminster-assembly-of-divines.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.