World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

Westminster Assembly

A painting of the Westminster Assembly in session. Philip Nye is standing and gesturing. Various figures are seated around a table. Prolocutor William Twisse is seated on a raised platform.
This painting by John Rogers Herbert depicts a particularly controversial speech before the Assembly by Philip Nye against presbyterian church government.[1]

The Westminster Assembly of Divines was a council of theologians (or "divines") and members of the English Parliament appointed to restructure the Church of England beginning in 1643. It was formed during the lead up to the First English Civil War by the Long Parliament. The Long Parliament was influenced by Puritanism, a religious movement which sought to further reform the church. They were opposed to the religious policies of King Charles I and William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury. As part of a military alliance with Scotland, Parliament agreed that the outcome of the Assembly would bring the English Church into closer conformity with the Church of Scotland. The Scottish Church was governed by a system of elected assemblies of elders called presbyterianism, rather than rule by bishops, called episcopalianism. Scottish commissioners attended and advised the Assembly as part of the agreement. The Assembly met for between ten and seventeen years (1643 until sometime between 1653 and 1660). It produced a new Form of Church Government, a Confession of Faith or statement of belief, two catechisms or manuals for religious instruction (Shorter and Larger), and a liturgical manual for the Churches of England and Scotland.

Disagreements over church government caused open division in the Assembly, despite attempts to maintain unity. The party of divines who favoured presbyterianism was in the majority. However, political and military realities led to greater influence for the congregationalist party. Congregationalists favoured autonomy for individual congregations rather than the subjection of congregations to regional and national assemblies entailed in presbyterianism. Parliament eventually adopted a presbyterian form of government, but it lacked the power the presbyterian divines desired. During the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, all of the documents of the Assembly were repudiated and episcopal church government was reinstated in England. However, these documents and others which were based on them were accepted by some dissenting churches (churches which left the established church). The Confession and catechisms also remain normative in the Church of Scotland. The Assembly's documents became influential worldwide through missionary expansion.

The Assembly worked in the Reformed theological tradition, also known as Calvinism. It took the Bible as the authoritative word of God, from which all theological reflection must be based. The divines were committed to the Reformed doctrine of predestination—that God chooses certain men to be saved and enjoy eternal life rather than eternal punishment. However, there was some disagreement at the Assembly over the doctrine of particular redemption—that Christ died only for those chosen for salvation. The Assembly also held to Reformed covenant theology, a framework for interpreting the Bible. The Assembly's Confession is the first of the Reformed confessions to teach a doctrine called the covenant of works, which teaches that before the fall of man, God promised eternal life to Adam on condition that he perfectly obeyed God.


  • Background 1
  • Calling the assembly 2
  • 3 Revising the Thirty-Nine Articles
  • Debating church government 4
  • Conflicts with Parliament 5
  • Confession, catechisms, and the Directory for Worship 6
  • Theology 7
  • Aftermath 8
  • See also 9
  • Notes 10
  • References 11
  • Bibliography 12
  • Further reading 13
  • External links 14


Painting of William Laud
William Laud was made Archbishop of Canterbury by Charles I of England, leading to greater animosity between Puritans and the king.

Parliament called the Westminster Assembly during a time of increasing hostility between Charles I, monarch of England and Scotland, and the Puritans.[2] Puritans could be distinguished by their insistence that worship practices be supported implicitly or explicitly by the Bible, while their opponents gave greater authority to traditional customs.[3] Puritans, unlike separatists, did not leave the established church.[4] Under Charles, the Puritans' opponents were placed in high positions of authority, most notably William Laud who was made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633, even though these "high churchmen" were in the minority. Puritans were forced to keep their views private.[5] Laud promoted advocates of Arminianism, a theological perspective opposed to the Reformed theology of the Puritans. Worship practices such as kneeling at communion, bowing at the name of Christ, and the placement of communion tables at the East end of churches were also reinstated. To the Puritans, these seemed to be a step in the direction of Roman Catholicism, which the Church of England had separated from during the English Reformation.[6]

There were also conflicts between the king and the Scots, whose church was ruled by a system of elected assemblies called presbyterianism. James, Charles's predecessor, imposed episcopalianism, or rule by hierarchies of bishops, and the Book of Common Prayer on the Scots in 1604. The Scots considered this a reversion to Roman Catholicism. Charles furthered English impositions on the Church of Scotland in 1636 and 1637.[7] This led to the First Bishops' War between Charles and the Scots in 1639. Charles called what came to be known as the Short Parliament to raise funds for the war, but he soon dissolved it when it began voicing opposition to his policies. Following the Second Bishops' War with the Scots in 1640, Charles was forced to call another parliament to raise additional funds.[2]

What came to be known as the Tower of London as retaliation for their repression of Puritans. The Court of High Commission and the Star Chamber, courts which had inflicted severe punishments on Puritan dissenters, were also abolished.[11]

Calling the assembly

Inscription depicting two houses of Parliament and the Westminster Assembly on an ark. Various figures are drowning in the flood. Portraits of other figures surround the scene.
This 1646 allegorical broadside shows the two houses of Parliament and the Westminster Assembly on an ark on a sea in which royalists drown. An accompanying poem calls the three the "Trinity of State".[12]

The idea of a national assembly of theologians to advise Parliament on further church reforms was first presented to the House of Commons in 1641. Such a proposal was also included in the Grand Remonstrance, a list of grievances which Parliament presented to Charles on 1 December that year.[13] Charles responded on 23 December that the church required no reforms. Undeterred, Parliament passed three bills in 1642 appointing an assembly and stipulating that its members would be chosen by Parliament. Charles, whose royal assent was required for the bills to become law, was only willing to consider such an assembly if the members were chosen by the clergy. This was the practice for selection of members of Convocation, the assembly of clergy of the Church of England.[14]

Defying the king, between 12 February and 20 April 1642, each county delegation of England in Commons chose two divines, in addition to two for each county of Wales, four for London, and two for each University (Oxford and Cambridge). County delegations often chose divines from their own county, but not always. Commons chose the members in this way to ensure that their local constituencies were represented in the decision.[15] The House of Lords, Parliament's upper house, added fourteen additional names on 14 May, to which Commons agreed.[16] Meanwhile, relations continued to deteriorate between the king and Parliament. Charles raised the royal standard at Nottingham on 22 August, marking the beginning of the First English Civil War. The start of the war lent support to the cause of the Assembly in Parliament, because holding it would convince the Scots that Parliament was serious about reforming the church and induce them to come to their aid. On the other hand, the war added additional strain to the already busy Parliament.[17]

Parliament finally passed an ordinance to hold the assembly on its own authority without Charles's assent on 12 June.[18] It named as many as 121 ministers,[1] twenty members of Commons, and ten members of the House of Lords, and was printed on 20 June.[20] The Assembly was almost entirely English; Parliament appointed Englishmen for the counties of Wales, but the French stranger churches (churches of Protestant refugees from Catholic France) sent two ministers in place of any from the Channel Islands.[12] Many of the divines were internationally recognized scholars of the Bible, ancient languages, patristics, and scholastic theology. Many were also famous preachers.[21] Most of these theologians had retained their positions in the Church during the tenure of William Laud. Some had been ejected from their churches or cited by ecclesiastical courts for their views, some had fled to the Continent, and one to the American colonies.[22] Nonetheless, they all considered themselves members of the Church of England, had received episcopal ordination, and most were conformists, meaning they agreed to follow the Act of Uniformity 1558 and the Book of Common Prayer.[23]

The Assembly was strictly under the control of Parliament, and was only to debate topics which Parliament directed. Assembly members were not permitted to state their disagreements with majority opinions or share any information about the proceedings, except in writing to Parliament.[24]

Twenty-two appointed members of the Assembly died before 1649, and they along with those who did not attend for other reasons were replaced by nineteen additional members. Three non-voting scribes were also added in 1643.[25]

Revising the Thirty-Nine Articles

Painting of Henry VII Chapel. Wooden stalls are against one wall. The tall ceiling has decorative drop pendants. The floor has a black and white checkerboard pattern.
Henry VII Chapel, the Assembly's first meeting place, in a painting by Canaletto

The Assembly's first meeting began with a sermon by William Twisse, the Assembly's prolocutor[2] or chairman, in the nave of Westminster Abbey on 1 July 1643. The room was so full that the House of Commons had to send members ahead to secure seats. Only sixty-nine of the 120 summoned theologians appeared, probably because Parliament only provided four or five days notice.[27] Following the sermon, the divines processed to the Henry VII Chapel,[28] which would be their place of meeting until 2 October when they moved to the warmer and more private Jerusalem Chamber.[29] After their initial meeting they adjourned for about a week, as Parliament had not yet given specific instructions.[30]

On 6 July, they received a set of rules from Parliament and were ordered to examine the first ten of the

  • The Westminster Assembly Project
  • The 1646 Westminster Confession
  • Westminster Assembly and Related Documents
  • Documents by the Westminster Assembly at Post-Reformation Digital Library
  • Works by or about Westminster Assembly at Internet Archive
  • Works by Westminster Assembly at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)

External links

  • —————— (1841) [1647–1662]. Laing, David, ed. The Letters and Journals of Robert Baillie 3. Edinburgh: Alex Lawrie & Co. 
  • Gatiss, Lee (August 2010). Shades of opinion within a generic Calvinism': The Particular Redemption Debate at the Westminster Assembly"'" (PDF). Reformed Theological Review 69 (2): 101–119. Retrieved 14 October 2013. 
  • Letham, Robert (2015). "The Westminster Assembly and the Communion of the Saints". In Balserak, Jon; Snoddy, Richard. Learning from the Past: Essays on Reception, Catholicity, and Dialogue in Honour of Anthony N. S. Lane. Bloomsbury. 
  • Mitchell; Struthers, John; 9, eds. (1874). Minutes of the Sessions of the Westminster Assembly of Divines While Engaged in Preparing Their Directory for Church Government, Confession of Faith, and Catechisms. Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons. Retrieved 27 October 2013. 

Further reading

  • Bradley, Rosemary D. (1982). "The failure of accommodation: Religious Conflicts Between Presbyterians and Independents in the Westminster Assembly 1643–1646".  
  • Crowley, Weldon S. (Winter 1973). "Erastianism in the Westminster Assembly".  
  • Fesko, J. V. (2014). The Theology of the Westminster Assembly.  
  • Gatiss, Lee (December 2010). "A Deceptive Clarity? Particular Redemption in the Westminster Standards" (PDF). Reformed Theological Review 69 (3): 180–196. Retrieved 14 October 2013. 
  • Holley, Larry Jackson (1979). The Divines of the Westminster Assembly: A Study of Puritanism and Parliament (Ph.D. thesis). Yale University.  
  • Hudson, Winthrop S. (March 1955). "Denominationalism as a Basis for Ecumenicity: A Seventeenth-Century Conception". Church History 24 (1): 32–50.  
  • Jones, Mark (2011a). "John Calvin's Reception at the Westminster Assembly". Church History and Religious Culture 91 (1–2): 215–227.  
  • —————— (2011b). "The 'Old' Covenant". In Haykin, Michael A.G.; Jones, Mark. Drawn Into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates Within Seventeenth-Century British Puritanism.  
  • Kelly, Douglas F. (1994). "The Westminster Shorter Catechism". In Carlson, John L.; Hall, David W. To Glorify and Enjoy God: A Commemoration of the 350th Anniversary of the Westminster Assembly. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust.  
  • Letham, Robert (2009). The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context. The Westminster Assembly and the Reformed Faith. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.  
  • —————— (2010). "Catholicity Global and Historical: Constantinople, Westminster, and the Church in the Twenty-First Century" (PDF).  
  • Logan, Samuel T., Jr. (1994). "The Context and Work of the Assembly". In Carlson, John L.; Hall, David W. To Glorify and Enjoy God: A Commemoration of the 350th Anniversary of the Westminster Assembly. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust.  
  • Moore, Jonathan D. (2011). "The Extent of the Atonement: English Hypothetical Universalism versus Particular Redemption". In Haykin, Michael A.G.; Jones, Mark. Drawn Into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates Within Seventeenth-Century British Puritanism.  
  • —————— (2003b). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker. 
  • Paul, Robert S. (1985). The Assembly of the Lord: Politics and Religion in the Westminster Assembly and the 'Grand Debate'. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.  
  • Spear, Wayne R. (2013) [1976]. Covenanted Uniformity in Religion: the Influence of the Scottish Commissioners on the Ecclesiology of the Westminster Assembly. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books.  
  • ———————— (1994). "The Unfinished Westminster Catechism". In Carlson, John L.; Hall, David W. To Glorify and Enjoy God: A Commemoration of the 350th Anniversary of the Westminster Assembly. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust.  
  • ———————— (1993). "A Brief History of the Westminster Assembly". Evangel 11 (3): 73–76. 
  • Troxel, A. Craig (1996). "Amyraut 'at' the Assembly: The Westminster Confession of Faith and the Extent of the Atonement". Presbyterion 22 (1): 43–55. 
  • ———————— (2009). "The Strange Silence of Prolocutor Twisse: Predestination and Politics in the Westminster Assembly's Debate over Justification".  
  • ———————— (2004). "New Taxonomies Of The Westminster Assembly (1643–52): The Creedal Controversy As Case Study". Reformation & Renaissance Review 6 (1): 82–106.   – via EBSCO (subscription required)
  • de Witt, John Richard (1969). Jus Divinum: The Westminster Assembly and the Divine Right of Church Government (Th.D. thesis). Kampen, Netherlands: J. H. Kok.  
  • ————————— (1994). "The Form of Church Government". In Carlson, John L.; Hall, David W. To Glorify and Enjoy God: A Commemoration of the 350th Anniversary of the Westminster Assembly. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust.  
  • Yule, George (May–August 1974). "English Presbyterianism and the Westminster Assembly".  


  1. ^ a b de Witt 1969, p. 112.
  2. ^ a b Leith 1973, p. 23.
  3. ^ Letham 2009, p. 18–19.
  4. ^ Paul 1985, p. 101.
  5. ^ Letham 2009, p. 20.
  6. ^ Fesko 2014, p. 49.
  7. ^ Paul 1985, pp. 36–37.
  8. ^ Holley 1979, pp. 9–10.
  9. ^ Paul 1985, p. 3.
  10. ^ Holley 1979, p. 15.
  11. ^ Paul 1985, p. 58.
  12. ^ a b Van Dixhoorn 2012, p. 12.
  13. ^ Paul 1985, p. 59.
  14. ^ Holley 1979, p. 54, 96.
  15. ^ Crowley 1973, p. 50; de Witt 1969, p. 15; Holley 1979, pp. 151–152.
  16. ^ Holley 1979, p. 159.
  17. ^ Van Dixhoorn 2012, p. 6.
  18. ^ Letham 2009, p. 30.
  19. ^ Van Dixhoorn 2012, p. 264.
  20. ^ de Witt 1969, p. 22.
  21. ^ Letham 2009, p. 33.
  22. ^ Van Dixhoorn 2004, pp. 83–84; Van Dixhoorn 2012, p. 14.
  23. ^ de Witt 1969, p. 23.
  24. ^ Crowley 1973, p. 51; Van Dixhoorn 2012, p. 9.
  25. ^ Van Dixhoorn 2012, p. 170.
  26. ^ Van Dixhoorn 2012, p. 16.
  27. ^ Van Dixhoorn 2004, pp. 82–83.
  28. ^ Van Dixhoorn 2012, p. 1.
  29. ^ Van Dixhoorn 2012, p. 42.
  30. ^ Paul 1985, p. 74.
  31. ^ Crowley 1973, p. 51; de Witt 1969, pp. 32–33.
  32. ^ Logan 1994, p. 37; Paul 1985, pp. 78, 81.
  33. ^ de Witt 1969, p. 34.
  34. ^ Van Dixhoorn 2004, p. 88.
  35. ^ Van Dixhoorn 2004, p. 98.
  36. ^ Van Dixhoorn 2004, p. 104.
  37. ^ Letham 2009, p. 40.
  38. ^ Letham 2009, p. 41.
  39. ^ Van Dixhoorn 2012, pp. 23, 170, 175.
  40. ^ Paul 1985, p. 116.
  41. ^ Van Dixhoorn 2012, p. 23.
  42. ^ Paul 1985, pp. 135, 161.
  43. ^ de Witt 1969, p. 62.
  44. ^ Van Dixhoorn 2012, p. 27.
  45. ^ a b Letham 2009, p. 32.
  46. ^ de Witt 1969, p. 25.
  47. ^ a b c de Witt 1969, p. 27.
  48. ^ Van Dixhoorn 2012, p. 30.
  49. ^ Crowley 1973, pp. 54–55; de Witt 1969, pp. 25–26.
  50. ^ Van Dixhoorn 2012, p. 14.
  51. ^ Paul 1985, p. 105.
  52. ^ de Witt 1969, pp. 66–67.
  53. ^ Paul 1985, pp. 143–145.
  54. ^ de Witt 1969, pp. 72–73.
  55. ^ Paul 1985, pp. 163, 171.
  56. ^ de Witt 1969, p. 88.
  57. ^ Paul 1985, p. 207; de Witt 1969, pp. 88–89.
  58. ^ de Witt 1969, p. 94.
  59. ^ Paul 1985, p. 214–215.
  60. ^ Paul 1985, p. 276; de Witt 1969, p. 115.
  61. ^ Letham 2010, p. 46.
  62. ^ Yule 1974, pp. 38–39; Bradley 1982, p. 38.
  63. ^ Bradley 1982, p. 41.
  64. ^ Spear 2013, p. 194.
  65. ^ Van Dixhoorn 2012, pp. 31–32.
  66. ^ Letham 2009, p. 43; Yule 1974, p. 42.
  67. ^ Yule 1974, pp. 39–40; de Witt 1994, p. 157.
  68. ^ de Witt 1994, p. 158.
  69. ^ Van Dixhoorn 2012, p. 33.
  70. ^ de Witt 1969, p. 207; Paul 1985, p. 509.
  71. ^ Paul 1985, p. 511.
  72. ^ a b Yule 1974, p. 43–44.
  73. ^ a b Benedict 2002, p. 402.
  74. ^ Spear 2013, pp. 195–196.
  75. ^ a b Paul 1985, p. 518.
  76. ^ Benedict 2002, p. 401.
  77. ^ Van Dixhoorn 2012; Paul 1985, p. 518.
  78. ^ Benedict 2002, p. 401; Spear 2013, p. 196.
  79. ^ Spear 1994, p. 259.
  80. ^ Spear 1994, p. 266.
  81. ^ Godfrey 1994, p. 131.
  82. ^ Kelly 1994, pp. 110–111.
  83. ^ Paul 1985, pp. 518–519.
  84. ^ Spear 2013, p. 196.
  85. ^ de Witt 1969, p. 239.
  86. ^ de Witt 1969, p. 241.
  87. ^ Van Dixhoorn 2012, pp. 37, 229.
  88. ^ Van Dixhoorn 2012, p. 38.
  89. ^ Letham 2009, p. 83.
  90. ^ Letham 2009, pp. 85–86.
  91. ^ Leith 1973, pp. 38–39.
  92. ^ Letham 2009, pp. 94–95.
  93. ^ Fesko 2014, p. 69.
  94. ^ Fesko 2014, p. 71.
  95. ^ Muller 2003a, p. 152; Letham 2009, pp. 121–122.
  96. ^ Leith 1973, p. 77.
  97. ^ Letham 2009, p. 133.
  98. ^ Leith 1973, pp. 82–89.
  99. ^ Letham 2009, p. 176.
  100. ^ Moore 2011, p. 123.
  101. ^ a b Moore 2011, p. 148.
  102. ^ Letham 2009, p. 177.
  103. ^ Gatiss 2010, p. 194 citing Muller 2003b, pp. 76–77
  104. ^ Moore 2011, p. 151.
  105. ^ Fesko 2014, p. 202.
  106. ^ Letham 2009, p. 182.
  107. ^ Troxel 1996, pp. 43–55; Gatiss 2010, p. 194.
  108. ^ Leith 1973, pp. 91–92.
  109. ^ Letham 2009, p. 226.
  110. ^ Jones 2011b, p. 185.
  111. ^ Hudson 1955, pp. 32–33.
  112. ^ Benedict 2002, pp. 402, 404.
  113. ^ Spear 2013, pp. 196–197.
  114. ^ Spear 1993, p. 76.
  115. ^ Leith 1973, p. 64.


  1. ^ The version of the ordinance in the Journal of the House of Lords (probably least reliable) has 119 ministers, the engrossed ordinance has 121, and early printed copies have 120. Josias Shute was included in early copies until the Lords realized he was recently deceased and replaced him with Simeon Ashe.[19]
  2. ^ Parliament chose this term because it was that of the leader of Convocation, the assembly of English bishops, rather than "moderator", the term used by the Scots for the leader of their General Assembly.[26]
  3. ^ Lee Gatiss cites Richard Muller as holding that the Confession intentionally allows for hypothetical universalist views.[103] Jonathan Moore believes the Confession's language can be easily adopted by an hypothetical universalist, and points out that it could have been easily written to be much more clearly exclusive of such a view.[104] J. V. Fesko argues that the Standards lean toward a particularist view, but that they do not exclude non-Amyraldian hypothetical universalist views.[105] Robert Letham believes that the Confession at least intends to exclude hypothetical universalism, though he points out that hypothetical universalist divines were not excluded from the Assembly.[106] A. Craig Troxel writes that the Confession excludes Amyraldism, but does not discuss the other, more moderate forms of hypothetical universalism presented at Westminster.[107]


See also

The work of the Westminster Assembly was repudiated by the Church of England during the Restoration in 1660. However, the confessional documents were adopted with amendments by Congregationalists in England and New England in the form of the 1658 Savoy Declaration, as well as by Particular Baptists in the form of the 1689 Baptist Confession.[112] When the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was reestablished in 1690 following the Glorious Revolution, it ratified the Westminster Confession, but not any other document produced at Westminster.[113] Dissenting Scottish Presbyterian churches, as well as Presbyterian churches in other countries, officially adopted the Confession as well as several other of the Assembly documents. Memorization of the Shorter Catechism has been made a requirement for children in many Presbyterian churches.[114] The missionary efforts of each of these groups lead to the widespread significance of the Westminster Assembly throughout the English-speaking world.[115]

The Civil War brought with it the end of the consensus that there should be a single church imposed by the state, though there was still not complete freedom of religion.[73] The ideals of the dissenting brethren of the Assembly were significant in the rise of denominationalism, the doctrine that the church is found in several institutions rather than a single one in a given location. Though Protestants already commonly recognized the validity of churches in different territories, the outcome of the Assembly's debates marks the wider acceptance of the idea that several true churches may be found in the same territory.[111]


Covenant theology is an interpretive framework used by Reformed theologians which was significantly developed during the seventeenth century. Under this scheme, as articulated by the Assembly, God's dealings with men are described in terms of two covenants: the covenant of works and covenant of grace.[108] The Westminster Confession was the first major Reformed symbol to explicitly mention the covenant of works (sometimes called the covenant of life), in which God offered Adam eternal life on condition of perfect obedience.[109] In the fall of man, Adam broke the covenant of works by eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. To remedy this, God offered salvation apart from human initiative in what was called the covenant of grace. This covenant allowed man to enjoy eternal life despite his inability to obey God's law perfectly. The idea of the covenant of grace was a much more common feature of orthodox Reformed theology. The Westminster divines set these two covenants against each other as the two major ways in which God deals with people.[110]

Puritans believed that God is sovereign over all of history and nature and that none of what were called his decrees would be frustrated.[98] There was significant debate in the Assembly over the relationship of God's decree of predestination, or choice to save some people, to the redemption purchased by Christ's death.[99] Many of the Reformed during this period taught that Christ died with the purpose only to save those who were eternally chosen to be saved, a doctrine called particular redemption.[100] A vocal minority of the divines of the Assembly, however, argued for a position known as hypothetical universalism.[101] Edmund Calamy held such a view, and he argued that Christ's death, in addition to saving those who had been chosen, offered salvation to all people on condition that they believe.[102] The Assembly's Confession did not teach such a view, and its language is much more amenable to a particular redemption interpretation,[101] but there is a general agreement among scholars that the Confession's language allows an hypothetical universalist interpretation.[3]

The Confession starts with the doctrine of revelation, or how people can know about God.[93] The divines believed knowledge of God was available to people through nature as well as the Bible. However, they believed that the Bible, or Scripture, is the only way in which people attain saving knowledge of God.[94] The doctrine of Scripture was also a particularly important area of debate at the time, since some scholars had argued that the Hebrew vowel points of the Old Testament were probably not part of the original. This caused significant debate between Reformed polemicists and Roman Catholics, who argued that such a discovery demonstrated the need for an authoritative magisterium to interpret the Bible. English Reformed writers in particular took up the work of defending the Reformed doctrine of the authority of Scripture against these polemics.[95] The divines had a strong view of the inspiration of the Bible, and believed that God revealed himself in the propositions found in Scripture.[96] While the issue of biblical inerrancy, the belief that there are no errors in the Bible, did not arise until the eighteenth century, the divines clearly did not believe the Bible to contain any errors. Many of the divines held a rather mechanical view of biblical inspiration, believing that not only the words and ideas but the letters and vowel points of the Hebrew text were inspired by God. On the other hand, they acknowledged that the text was written by humans in their own styles. They did not make any distinction between essential and incidental matters with respect to biblical inspiration.[97]

Inscription portrait of Edmund Calamy.jpg
Edmund Calamy argued for hypothetical universalism at the Assembly.

The Assembly was a product of the British Reformed tradition, taking as a major source the Thirty-Nine Articles as well as the theology of James Ussher and his Irish Articles of 1615.[89] The divines also considered themselves to be within the broader European Reformed tradition. They were in frequent correspondence with continental Reformed theologians, and sought their approval.[90] They also drew upon the pre-Reformation British theological tradition, which emphasized biblical knowledge and was influenced by Augustinianism channelled by Anselm, Thomas Bradwardine, and John Wycliffe.[91] The recorded debates of the Assembly are full of citations of church fathers and medieval scholastic theologians.[92]


The Assembly understood its mandate under the Solemn League and Covenant to have been fulfilled on 14 April 1648 when it delivered the scripture citations to Parliament, and the Scottish Commissioners had already left by the end of 1647.[85] The Assembly continued to meet primarily for the purpose of examination of ministers for ordination.[86] Most of the divines, unhappy with the republican Commonwealth that emerged after Colonel Pride's Purge of the Long Parliament on 6 December 1648, stopped attending rather than agree to the oath of Engagement to the Commonwealth that was imposed on 11 October 1649.[87] Newspapers continued to report on the meetings of the Assembly as late as March 1653. The Assembly must have stopped meeting sometime between then and Cromwell's dissolution of the Rump Parliament on 20 April 1653.[88]

The Assembly had already done significant work on a catechism between December 1643 and January 1647[79] containing fifty-five questions, before it decided to create two catechisms rather than one.[80] The Larger Catechism, intended to assist ministers in teaching the Reformed faith to their congregations,[81] was sent to Parliament on 22 October 1647. The Shorter Catechism, which was based on the Larger Catechism but intended for use in teaching the faith to children, was sent on 25 November. Parliament demanded scripture proofs for the catechisms as well, which were presented in April.[82] The House of Commons approved both catechisms, but the Lords only approved the Shorter Catechism.[83] The Scots General Assembly approved both catechisms in 1648.[84]

During and after the debates over church government, the Assembly framed other documents which did not cause open rifts. The Directory for Public Worship, which was to replace the Book of Common Prayer, was swiftly written in 1644 and passed by Parliament on 3 January 1645.[75] The Directory, accepted by the Scots as well, took a middle course between the presbyterians and congregationalists. The presbyterians for the most part preferred a fixed liturgy while congregationalists favoured extemporaneous prayer. The Directory consisted of an order for services with sample prayers.[76] The Assembly also recommended a psalter, translated by Francis Rous for use in worship.[75] A Confession of Faith to replace the Thirty-Nine Articles was begun in August 1646. While there is little record of the actions of the Assembly during the writing of the Confession, it is clear that there were significant debates in the Assembly over almost every doctrine found in it. The Confession was printed and sent to Parliament in December. The House of Commons requested scripture citations be added to the Confession, which were provided in April 1648. Parliament approved the Confession with revisions to the chapters on church censures, synods and councils, and marriage on 20 June 1648.[77] The Confession was not, however, passed into law in England until March 1660. It was revived by the Third Protectorate Parliament, when it was voted as England's confession of faith on 11 April 1659. Richard Cromwell's Protectorate collapsed soon afterwards, and therefore did not pass the confession into law. The restored Long Parliament also voted the Confession the legal confession of faith in England on 5 March 1660. However, the restoration of the Charles II effectively made this legislation a nullity. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland had already adopted the Confession without revision in 1647.[78]

Title page of the first published edition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, printed after the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland approved it in 1647

Confession, catechisms, and the Directory for Worship

The new Form of Government was much more acceptable to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. They passed it on 10 February 1645, contingent on some particularities of presbyterian government which were expected to be worked out in a forthcoming Directory for Church Government. At the same time they announced their desire to formally unite the two churches. Following the rise of Cromwell and the secret Engagement of some Scots with Charles, however, this hope was abandoned, and the documents were never formally adopted. The General Assembly ceased to function under Cromwell and the kings who succeeded him from 1649 to 1690.[74]

The Nine Queries, as they came to be called, focused on the divine right (jure divino) of church government.[70] While the presbyterian divines were capable of defending their vision for church government as established by divine right in the Bible, they were unwilling to answer the queries because doing so would further expose the disunity of the Assembly and weaken their case in Parliament.[71] In July 1647, the New Model Army invaded London and conservative members of Parliament were forced out, leading to an ordinance establishing religious tolerance and ensuring that the Assembly's vision of a national, compulsory presbyterian church would never come to fruition.[72] In London, where support for presbyterianism was greatest, presbyteries were established in only sixty-four of 108 city parishes, and regional presbyterian classes were only formed in fourteen of England's forty counties. A planned national general assembly never met.[73] Many presbyterians did, however, establish voluntary presbyteries in what was a de facto free church situation until the Restoration in 1660, when a compulsory episcopal system was reinstated.[72]

In May 1645, Parliament passed an ordinance allowing excommunicants to appeal the church's sentences to Parliament. Another ordinance on 20 October contained a list of sins to which the church would be limited in its power to excommunicate.[68] The Assembly considered drawing up another petition in response to Parliament until the Commons withdrew the ordinance and requested additional input from the Assembly. However, on 16 March 1646 Parliament proposed an even more Erastian settlement. The Assembly published a protest, provoking the Commons to charge them with breach of privilege and to submit nine questions to the divines on the matter. Votes were to be included with the answers, an attempt to force the divines associated with the protest petition to reveal themselves.[69]

Relations between the Assembly and Parliament were already deteriorating in 1644, when Parliament ignored the Assembly's request that "grossly ignorant and notoriously profane" individuals be barred from communion. While members of Parliament agreed that the sacrament should be kept pure, many of them disagreed with the presbyterian majority in the Assembly over who had the final power of excommunication, taking the Erastian view that it was the state.[65] Also, by 1646, Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army had won the war on behalf of Parliament. Cromwell, along with a majority of the army, was strongly in favour of religious toleration for all sorts of Christians even if the national church was to be presbyterian. His rise to power as a result of his military victories made the idea of a strictly presbyterian settlement without freedom of worship for others very unlikely.[66] Parliament at least wanted to know which sins in particular were grave enough to trigger excommunication by the church. However, the Assembly was reticent to provide such information, as the majority considered the power of the church in this area to be absolute.[67]

Conflicts with Parliament

However, on 21 February, it became clear just how fundamentally opposed the groups were. Philip Nye, one of the dissenting brethren, asserted that a presbytery set over local congregations would become as powerful as the state and was dangerous to the commonwealth, provoking vigorous opposition from presbyterians.[1] The next day, the Assembly finally began to establish a prescription for presbyterian government.[60] Owing to a strong belief in the unity of the church,[61] the Assembly continued to try to find ways to reconcile the two parties throughout 1644, including the establishment of a special committee for that purpose in March.[62] However, on 15 November, the dissenting brethren presented their reasons for disagreement with the rest of the Assembly to Parliament,[63] and on 11 December the majority submitted a draft of a presbyterian form of government.[64]

On 3 or 4 January 1644, the five leading dissenting brethren signalled a break with the rest of the Assembly when they published An Apologeticall Narration, a polemical pamphlet[57] appealing to Parliament. It argued that the congregational system was more amenable to state control of religious matters than that of the presbyterians because they did not desire the church to retain any real power except to withdraw fellowship from aberrant congregations.[58] By 17 January, the majority of the Assembly had become convinced that the best way forward was a presbyterian system similar to that of the Scots, but the dissenting brethren were allowed to continue to state their case in hope that they could eventually be reconciled.[59] It was hoped that by avoiding asserting that presbyterianism was established by divine right, the congregationalists could be accommodated.[47]

Inscription of Thomas Goodwin
Thomas Goodwin was one of the dissenting brethren.

Debate on church officers began on 19 October.[52] The Assembly began with the issue of ordination, as many of the divines were concerned about the rise of various sectarian movements and the lack of any mechanism for ordination of ministers of the established church. While some members did not seem to think ordination necessary for preachers (though they should not administer the sacraments without it), a majority of the divines thought any regular preaching without ordination unacceptable and wished to erect a provisional presbytery for purposes of ordination.[53] There was also debate at this early stage over the nature of the visible church. The congregationalists considered a church to be a single local congregation, while the majority considered the national church to be a unity and were alarmed at the prospect of a disintegrated English church.[54] The Assembly also spent some time, beginning on 22 November, debating the office of ruling elder, a lay officer in Scottish and continental Reformed churches. The English regarded it as a novelty and did not see scriptural justification for it, though in the end they conceded to the Scots on prudential grounds.[55] Despite these debates, up until the end of 1643 there was hope that a common church government could be framed that would be satisfactory to all parties involved.[56]

The entire Assembly was Erastian in the sense that the body had been called by Parliament and was completely under state control.[45] However, those labelled "Erastian" at the Assembly believed the civil authority, rather than church officers, should hold the power of church discipline. This included the power to withhold communion from unrepentant sinners. They did not see any particular form of church government as divinely mandated, and because of this the dissenting brethren allied with them when it became clear that a presbyterian establishment would be much less tolerant of congregationalism than Parliament. There were only two divines at the Assembly who held the Erastian view: John Lightfoot and Thomas Coleman, but the presence of members of Parliament, especially John Selden, as well as the fact of parliamentary oversight of the Assembly gave it disproportional influence.[49] Several episcopalians were also included in the summoning ordinance, but Parliament may have nominated them to lend greater legitimacy to the Assembly and not have expected them to attend. Only one, Daniel Featley, participated,[50] and he only until his arrest for treason in October 1643.[51]

On 12 October 1643, Parliament ordered the Assembly to cease work on the Thirty-Nine Articles and to begin to frame a common form of church government for the two nations.[43] The Assembly would spend a quarter of its full sessions on the subject of church government.[44] The majority of the Assembly members supported presbyterian polity, though many were not dogmatically committed to it.[45] Several members of this group, numbering about twenty and including William Twisse, favoured a "primitive" episcopacy, which would include elements of presbyterianism and a reduced role for bishops.[46] There were also several congregationalists, who favoured autonomy for individual local churches. Their most influential divines were Thomas Goodwin, Philip Nye, Sidrach Simpson, Jeremiah Burroughs, and William Bridge.[47] They were often called the "dissenting brethren" in the Assembly. They have sometimes been labelled "Independents", but they rejected this term. The Assembly members for the most part reserved the label "Independent" for separatists who left the established church.[48] The congregationalist divines cannot be equated with separatists and Brownists, as they had accepted episcopal ordination and remained in the Church of England. Their influence was assisted by the success of Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army in the ongoing civil war. Cromwell and many others in the army supported congregationalism.[47]

Painting of Samuel Rutherford.
Samuel Rutherford was one of the most prominent of the Scottish commissioners.

From the beginning of the First Civil War, the Long Parliament recognized that they would need assistance from the Scots. In return for a military alliance, the Alexander Henderson were the most outspoken of the commissioners.[41] Gillespie, Henderson, and John Maitland began sitting in the Assembly on 15 September, and Rutherford joined on 20 November along with Robert Baillie.[42]

Debating church government

The committees discussed various articles on the eleventh and twelfth,[33] and the full Assembly began discussing the Thirty-Nine Articles on 12 July 1643. It resolved, after some debate, that all the doctrines of the Thirty-Nine articles would need to be proven from the Bible.[34] The eighth of the Thirteen Articles recommended the Apostles' Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed, considered to be basic statements of orthodoxy, to be received and believed. The Assembly was unable to resolve conflicts between those who would not be bound by creeds and those who wished to retain the existing language that the creeds be "thoroughly received and believed". The "excepters", who took the former position, argued that the articles only require the "matter" of the creeds be believed. On 25 August the article was put off until the rest of the articles could be dealt with.[35] This early disagreement on fundamental issues revealed deep rifts between different factions of the assembly.[36]

Black and white photograph of the Jerusalem Chamber. A long table is in the center. A chandelier hangs from the ceiling. There is a fireplace on one wall and a tapestry on another.
The Assembly moved to the Jerusalem Chamber in October 1643.


This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from Hawaii eBook Library are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.