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The Assembly Subscribes the Solemn League & Covenant [1643]

Dr. Will Barker, former president of Covenant Theological Seminary and professor of church history at the Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, has written of “The Men and the Parties” that comprised the Westminster Assembly of Divines. The full text of this article can be found here:, but our post today focuses on the first portion of that article, where Dr. Barker provides a very helpful overview of the five groups which played a role in the history of this great Assembly.

I.  The Parties

Discussions of the Assembly tend to focus on the different parties, often to the neglect of the great unity that existed among the members.  It must never be forgotten that their first concern was for the gospel of Christ and for the unity of all who truly belong to him.  One of the most beautiful chapters in the Confession, “Of the Communion of Saints”, begins: “All saints that are united to Jesus Christ their head by His Spirit and by faith have fellowship with Him…: (WCF XXVI/1).  Further, as teachers they were all Calvinists in theology and could all be called Puritans, depending on the definition of that controversial term.  The main controversy among them was church government and the related matter of church discipline, including the role of the state.  The parties, therefore, are perceived along the lines of church polity:  episcopalian, presbyterian, or congregationalist, with two additional categories being relevant – the Erastians and the Scottish delegation.


All of the Westminster divines appointed by the Long Parliament in 1643 were ordained ministers in the Church of England, although many had refused to conform to some Anglican practices and some had temporarily gone into exile in the Netherlands.  This means that they had entered the ministry in an episcopal system, and many still favored a moderate episcopacy.  Men such as James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh in Ireland, did not attend the Assembly because it did not have the approval of King Charles I.  Others dropped out in the early stages.  But all were opposed to prelacy, that is, the functioning of bishops like secular princes rather than as the teaching and preaching ministers of the New Testament.  Some who favored a moderate episcopacy remained in the Assembly and were gradually persuaded to prefer the presbyterian position.


The Presbyterians, who favored a system with parity of the clergy, but with a graded system of church courts so that local congregations were bonded together and in submission to a regional presbytery, and presbyteries were in submission to a national general assembly, were in the majority in the Assembly.  They were of two persuasions, however:  those who believed in presbyterianism by divine right – i.e., that it is the only system prescribed by the New Testament – and those who believed presbyterianism was simply the system most consistent with the principles of church government taught in the New Testament.  The latter was the prevailing view among the English divines at Westminster.

Congregationalists or Independents

Those who favored congregational church government were led by a very able and vocal group that became known as “the five dissenting brethren.”  These five had all gone into exile in the Netherlands in the 1630’s and had close relations with the congregationalists in New England.  These were non-separating Puritans who wanted local church autonomy while still maintaining an association among churches and with the state.  Although the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay enforced the New England congregational way through the civil magistrate, the English congregationalists were led by circumstances to prefer toleration.


The Erastians, whose name is derived from a 16th-century Swiss theologian, were not in favor of any particular church polity – episcopal, presbyterian, or congregational – by divine right, but were mainly concerned that church discipline be finally carried out only with the approval of the state.  This view was upheld in the Assembly by a small but learned group and was supported by many in Parliament, which had called the Assembly and whose approval was necessary for the implementation of the Assembly’s decisions.

The Scottish Delegation

As a result of the Solemn League and Covenant, approved by the Scottish Parliament on August 17, 1643 and subscribed by the English Parliament and the members of the Westminster Assembly on September 25, four Scottish ministers joined the Assembly in September of 1643.  These were not voting members but had the right to speak.  In exchange for the assistance of the Scottish army to the Parliamentary forces in the Civil War against the King, the Solemn League and Covenant sought to bring the churches of England and Ireland into conformity to the Reformed religion in Scotland in doctrine, worship, discipline, and government.  The Scottish commissioners, with almost a century of presbyterian history behind them, favored presbyterianism by divine right.

Such were the parties that emerged as church government proved to be the most controversial issue in the Assembly.  Again we should remember that all of the Westminster divines were Calvinists.  As we look back to the Assembly with gratitude primarily for the setting forth of the Reformed faith in the Confession and Catechisms, we should celebrate the doctrinal unity which it had.  Where there was diversity, there was also a spirit of accommodation on the part of many.  Richard Baxter, a contemporary Puritan but not a member of the Assembly, had immense appreciation of its members and its accomplishments.  He later commented that if all Episcopalians had been as Archbishop Ussher, all Presbyterians as Stephen Marshall (the great preacher of the Assembly), and Independents as Jeremiah Burroughs, the divisions of the church might soon have been healed.

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Today we come to Chapter VIII of PRESBYTERIANISM FOR THE PEOPLE. In this chapter our author, Rev. Robert P. Kerr, gives us a glimpse of a late nineteenth century ecumenical effort among Presbyterians world-wide. How the ecclesiastical landscape has changed in the intervening years! Today, the World Reformed Fellowship and the International Conference of Reformed Churches are the two global ecumenical works formed by conservative Presbyterian and Reformed denominations. 



This assembly is composed of delegates from the various Presbyterian or Reformed churches throughout the world. It held its first regular meeting in Edinburgh, Scotland, in July, 1877, and will meet triennially in different countries. It has no authority over the churches belonging to it, but can only advise. It is intended to show the world that the various branches of the Presbyterian family are one, to bring their united influence to bear against sin, to help and encourage feeble churches, and to arrange for the formation of native churches among the heathen, gathering into them the converts of the missions of the various Presbyterian churches.

The formation of this body was earnestly desired by the Reformers of the sixteenth century, but was not effected until quite recent times. Much good has already come from the alliance of very many of the divisions of the Presbyterian body, and still greater results are confidently expected.

The following is a catalogue of the organizations holding the Presbyterian faith and order represented by this council:


Evangelical Reformed Church of Hungary.
Reformed Church of Moravia.
Reformed and Evangelical Church of Bohemia.

Union of Evangelical Congregations.

Synod of the Union of Evangelical Congregations.
National Reformed Church.

Waldensian Church.
Free Church of Italy.

Free Reformed Church of Germany.
Old Reformed Church of East Friesland.

Reformed Church of the Netherlands.
Christian Reformed Church of the Netherlands.

Spanish Christian Church.

Berne French Church.
Evangelical Church of Neuchatel.
Reformed Church of Canton de Vaud.
Free Church of Canton de Vaud.
Reformed Church of Geneva.


Presbyterian Church of England.

Presbyterian Church of Ireland.
Reformed Church of Ireland.

Established Church of Scotland.
Free Church of Scotland.
United Presbyterian Church
Reformed Presbyterian Church.
Original Secession Church.

Calvinistic Methodist (Presbyterian) Church.


Presbyterian Church in Canada.

Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa.

Presbytery of Ceylon.

Synod of Eastern Australia.

Dutch Reformed Church.

Presbytery of Natal.
Christian Reformed Church of South Africa.

Mission Synod of New Hebrides.

Presbyterian Church of New South Wales.

Presbyterian Church of New Zealand.

Dutch Reformed Church of Orange Free State.

Presbyterian Church of Queensland.

Presbyterian Church of South Australia.

Presbyterian Church of Tasmania.

Presbyterian Church of Victoria.

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. (Northern).
Presbyterian Church in the United States (Southern).
Reformed (Dutch) Church in America.
Reformed (German) Church in the United States.
Associate Reformed Synod of the South.
General Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church.
Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America.
United Presbyterian Church of North America.
Welsh Calvinistic Methodist (or Presbyterian) Church in America.

These Presbyterian bodies scattered all over the globe, including above forty millions of people, have at last, in “The General Alliance of Reformed or Presbyterian Churches,” found a tie which binds them together. It is proposed thus to combine our forces, to magnify our grand institutions of government and theology, and to remove the stigma of discord which has so often been affixed to the Presbyterian name.

But there is a higher name than Presbyterian. It is CHRISTIAN. Under that name all the followers of Christ at last shall be ONE.

Next Saturday, with Chapter IX, we will come to the topic of Deacons.

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A Strange Name Merits our Attention

He was a tent-maker church planter in the latter part of the sixteen hundreds in what is now Virginia.  Born in Ireland, this unmarried  Presbyterian pastor came over to our shores to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ to the lost souls of the colonies. He found countless Scotch – Irish immigrants who valued his ministry as they were sheep without a shepherd. The earliest record we have of him is June 22, 1692 in the county records of what later became Norfolk, Virginia.  Who was he?

If you answered Josias Mackie, you would be right on target.  What is interesting about him is that he was not a member of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, which began in 1706.  His name is not listed on any Presbytery back in Ireland.  But we have a reference to his request that he be allowed to preach at three houses in the Norfolk, Virginia area, namely,  the houses of Thomas Ivey, Richard Phillpot, John Roberts, and adding a fourth in 1696, the house of John Dickson.  Eventually these four house churches were brought together into a small congregation.  He was to proclaim God’s Word to these hardy Scotch-Irish Presbyterians for two plus decades.

We know from his will, which was left to his three sisters in Ireland, that he owned both land and horses.  We know that he was a planter and a merchant. Somewhere around 1716, there is a mention by the Philadelphia Presbytery of “melancholy circumstances” in his life, to which they gave their sympathy.  The overall conclusion of later Presbyterians was that he was “a good man, a true Presbyterian, bold, active, and laborious.”

What stands out about his life and ministry is the prayer he prayed upon his death bed.  He said on that occasion, “Being heartily sorry for my sins past, and most humbly desiring forgiveness of the same, I commit my soul to Almighty God, trusting to receive full pardon, and free justification, through the merits of Jesus Christ.” In these words, we have a strong hint of his spiritual life and public preaching, all of which we can emulate to the glory of God and the good of His people.

Words to Live By: There are countless in the history of the church who are totally unknown to the members of that same church. By this, I mean, how many of you knew the name of Josais Mackie before this historical devotional?  And yet, laboring in difficult circumstances in the earliest days of this country, he was faithful to his calling. Let us pray for all those laborers in God’s kingdom of grace, who are unrecognized by God’s people, but still persevere  in the work of the gospel.

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The First Attempt to Cross the Atlantic Ocean Failed

It was an ambitious plan to move four Presbyterian pastors and another 140 church members to the new world for religious freedom on a new ship specially built for crossing the Atlantic Ocean. That was the blessed hope and prayer of Scottish Presbyterians living in Ulster, yet under great difficulty from the Church of England. The four ministers—Robert Blair, John Livingston, James Hamilton, and John McClellan—were the spiritual leaders of the expedition. Their life and work in their congregations was being made more and more difficult. So through a letter to the Rev. Cotton Mather in New England asking whether Presbyterians could exist in that colony, and being assured that it could, plans were made.

For a ship to cross the ocean, a ship was built named Eagle Wing, based on Exodus 14;4, “Ye have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagle’s wings and brought you unto myself.” Finished at the small village of Groomsport, Ireland, it was barely large enough for the passengers to board it. With no trial run to see how it would do through rough seas, the ship and its passengers boarded it and left Carrickfergus, Ulster on September 9, 1636. Pastor Livingston commented that “there was much toil in our preparation, many hindrances in our setting out, and both sad and glad hearts in taking leave of our friends.”

Off the coast of Newfoundland, the ship was hit with a mighty hurricane featuring “mountains of water.” Springing a leak, which was fixed, the rudder next broke. A brave passenger went over the side with a rope tied to him so he could be extracted. He fixed the rudder. After a discussion among the whole body, Pastor Livingston suggested that they should wait a day to see if God would give them smooth sailing. However when that delay didn’t accomplish their wishes, they turned around and sailed back to Ulster with smooth sailing.

The first attempt to cross the ocean for Scot-Irish Presbyterians met with failure. But was it a failure? It is true, they did not get to their new place of ministry. But their presence back in Scotland strengthened the cause of Christianity. They became leaders in the new National Covenant of 1638. In Scotland and Ireland, they laid the spiritual foundation of that church which could justly claim to be the mother of the American Presbyterian Church. And after the lapse of a century or less, swarms of Scots-Irish sailed again and again to the shores of this new land, filling the colonies of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the Carolinas, and beyond, with godly Presbyterian families.

Words to Live By:
There have been occasions in all of our spiritual lives where dreams of life and ministry were frustrated by what many have called “dark providences.”  We thought that this was where God wanted us to be, or what God wanted us to do. But instead, God’s sovereign will lovingly spoke by means of a closed door. God had other plans for us, not unlike that which was spoken to the Jewish church in Babylon, where there were “plans for welfare and not for calamity, to give us a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11.) Learn the spiritual lessons behind the Eagle Wing, dear readers. As Solomon writes in Proverbs 16:9, “The mind of man plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps.”

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Deposed by Man, but Not By God

They called them “precopalians,” which strange as it may sound (and spell!), was  defined as Scottish Presbyterians who were leading Anglican congregations in northern Island, or Ulster.  At one time, in the seventeenth century, there were 27 Presbyterian ministers in churches in Ulster, all there to pastor the large number of Ulster Scottish families in the area.

Our post today deals with the Rev. James Hamilton, who traveled before he was ordained to Ulster.  Even after graduation from the University of Glasgow, he went to Ireland where his uncle had vast acreage in the northern part of Ireland. In time, our young man was noticed by a Presbyterian minister by the name of Robert Blair, who encouraged James to enter the ministry. It was on March 3, 1626 that James Hamilton was ordained as a minister in the Church of Ireland by the Irish bishop Robert Echlin. Hamilton began his pastorate in the Ballywalter Church and stayed there for a decade. The church later on became a Presbyterian Church, perhaps by the solid doctrinal preaching of Pastor Hamilton, as he is listed at their first pastor.

The presence of so many Presbyterians in the Irish churches brought the inevitable clash between who was the head of the church—the king of England or the Lord Jesus. When the Church of Ireland sought to bring subservience to the former and urged that the Presbyterian ministers deny the National Covenant of 1638, which had just been signed, James Hamilton resigned. He offered, along with two other ministers, to debate the matter, but the bishop simply deposed him from the ministry. He was ordered to be arrested, but escaped from their hands.

Around this time, Hamilton with three other Presbyterian ministers and 140 Ulster Scots commissioned a sailing vessel known as the Eagle Wing to sail to America. However due to storms, a broken rudder, and other calamities, the ship had to return to Ireland. Hamilton traveled on to Scotland and became involved with the Covenanters. He eventually became the minister of the Presbyterian Church of Dumfrees, Scotland.

It is interesting that he returned to Ireland for various purposes, once even to administer the Solemn League and Covenant in Ulster. Why he was not arrested, we don’t know, other than the providential care of God watching over him. On one of his trips to Northern Ireland, his ship was captured by forces not conducive to his faith. He served 10 months in prison but was set free in 1645. Returning to Scotland, he was appointed by the General Assembly to be a chaplain to King Charles II, but wound up with another prison sentence in the Tower of London.  Oliver Cromwell eventually gave him his freedom.  He eventually retired in Edinburgh.

James Hamilton died this day, May 10, 1666.

Words to Live By: A learned and diligent pastor, his life and ministry was certainly filled with hardship and difficulty. Even in his married live to wife Elizabeth Watson, this union would produce 15 children, with only one living to adulthood and the rest dying in infancy. God’s servants have often lived in hardship and difficulty. Think of Paul’s description of his ministry in 2 Corinthians 6:4 – 10 and 11:23 – 27. James Hamilton was deposed from his office by man, but supported by God’s Spirit in his life and ministry, always faithful to live and work in God’s will.  Let us, dear readers, keep busy serving our God and King, leaving the results of that service  in the hands of the Lord.  Romans 8:28 reads, “And we know that God causes all things (i.e. the sufferings of this present time) to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (NAS)


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