A Story in Short Compass
Often it is helpful to have a brief overview, to get the lay of the land and so to gain some orientation of a matter to be further studied. The Rev. George P. Hays provides us with one such overview—a history in short order—of the Westminster Assembly and its work. The following is from Presbyterians: A Popular Narrative of their Origin, Progress, Doctrines and Achievements, published in 1892, quoting from pages 49-51 of that work. Details are skimmed over; many features are not explained, but the broad strokes of the story are here:—
James died in 1625 and left all his British dominions in a state of religious ferment to his unfortunate son, Charles I. Charles inherited the self-sufficiency of the Tudors through his mother, and the blind egotism of the Stuarts through his father, and illustrated in himself the vices of both. He early fell under the influence of William Laud, and finally made Laud the Archbishop of Canterbury, and so Primate of all England.
James I., in his very earliest dealings with the English Parliament, intimated that the duty of Parliament was to register his will, and was told by Parliament that the rights of the people represented therein was quite as sacred as the rights of the king. Charles followed his father’s policy, only pushing it to the extent of undertaking to do without any Parliament whatever. Archbishop Laud was essentially a Roman Catholic, and with this dictatorialness on the part of the king in civil matters, and Laud’s dictatorialness in religious matters, affairs swiftly came to a struggle for life.
The people would not pay taxes which Parliament had not voted. Parliament would not vote supplies for the king until he had redressed their grievances. The king insisted “supplies first and redress afterward.” The lines were soon drawn throughout the kingdom. One Parliament would be dissolved and another elected, until in the struggle the people grew weary of Episcopacy and finally elected the Long Parliament. It originally had in it a majority favorable to Presbyterianism as against Episcopacy. It was the project of that Parliament to call in Westminster an Assembly “for settling the government and liturgy of the Church of England, and for vindicating and clearing of the doctrines of said Church from false aspersions and interpretations as should be found most agreeable to the Word of God, and most apt to procure and preserve the peace of the Church at home and near agreement with the Church of Scotland and other reformed churches abroad.” This ordinance was entered at full length on the journals of the House of Lords, June 12, 11643.
King Charles, two days before the meeting, prohibited by royal proclamation the Assembly to proceed under the bill. He had already revived the “Book of Sports,” and otherwise outraged the moral sentiments of his people. Under the influence of Laud, he had undertaken to re-establish Episcopacy in Scotland, and on the 23d of July, 1637, the Archbishop of St. Andrews and the Bishop of Edinburgh assembled an audience in St. Giles Church to introduce the new liturgy. When the famous Jennie Geddes started the riot that day, by throwing her stool at the reader, Scotland had already organized its form of church government and was anxious for a common system with England.
The English Parliament had invited the General Assembly of Scotland to send delegates to this Westminster Assembly and so Commissioners arrived from Scotland, at the head of whom was the notable Alexander Henderson. In this Westminster Assembly, sitting in defiance of the king, were thus gathered the chief representatives of the British Presbyterians. Close correspondence was maintained with the Reformed Church on the Continent. While the Long Parliament was in session in their House, this Assembly was in session in the Jerusalem Chamber of Westminster Abbey.
The first meeting of the Westminster Assembly was held Saturday, July 1, 1643; its last numbered meeting was held on the 22d of February, 1649, and is marked “Session 1163.” One hundred and twenty ministers, ten lords and twenty commoners were chosen to membership in it by Parliament. Of those thus elected many declined, but at different times ninety-six of them sat as members. Two months after it first met the commissioners from Scotland, four ministers and two laymen, took their seats, yet without the right to vote. On December 6, 1648, Parliament was purged of its Presbyterian membership, leaving just 140 members and the constitution of England was virtually overthrown by Oliver Cromwell and his army. The Assembly was never officially dissolved. Its power waned with that of Parliament, and so vanished. The last pretense of a meeting of the Assembly took place on March 25, 1652.
Words to Live By:
Creeds and confessions, documents such as the Westminster Confession of Faith, serve to provide unity among Christians. They are in effect a commentary on the Bible, a succinct statement of what we believe the Bible teaches. As we jointly hold this Confession, affirming it together as a faithful representation of what the Scriptures teach on these matters, so we have unity and we uphold the truths of the Scriptures, insofar as we best understand them.
“Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. That good thing which was committed unto thee keep by the Holy Ghost which dwelleth in us.” — (2 Timothy 1:13-14, KJV)