Westminster Assembly

You are currently browsing articles tagged Westminster Assembly.

robinson_Stuart_1814-1881A Bellweather of Our Church’s Health?

Dipping into an article by the Rev. Stuart Robinson [pictured at right], titled “Recently Discovered Memoranda of the Westminster Assembly” (The Southern Presbyterian Review, 27.4 (October 1876): 730-759, we find this excerpt on the Westminster Assembly’s work on the Shorter and Larger Catechisms:—

 

The Catechisms, Larger and Shorter, were discussed with equal care before the whole Assembly, as reported from their Committees, question by question.  Under date of January 14, 1646, the record is :

“Upon motion made by Mr. Vines, it was Ordered :

“That the Committee for the Catechism do prepare a draught of two Catechisms, one more large and another more brief, in which they are to have an eye to the Confession of Faith, and to the matter of the Catechism already begun.” [cf. Van Dixhoorn, Minutes & Papers of the Westminster Assembly, vol. 4, p. 399]

wsc_london_02To Dr. Tuckney was assigned the Shorter Catechism.

It is not until April 12, 1648, that we find the Minute of their completion, as follows :

“The proofs for both Catechisms shall be transcribed and sent up to both Honorable Houses of Parliament.  Ordered to be carried up on Friday morning by the Prolocutor with the Assembly.”
[Session 1049., cf. M&PWA, iv.749.]

“APRIL 14, 1648, Friday Morning. 

“Prolocutor informed the Assembly that he had delivered the Cate­chisms, and was called in and told that they had ordered six hundred copies with those proofs to be printed for the use of the Assembly and two Houses ; and give thanks to the Assembly for the same.”
[Session 1051, cf. M&PWA, iv.750.]

Use of the Westminster Shorter Catechism has had its ups and downs. In the Southern Presbyterian denomination throughout the first half of the 20th-century, there were often nearly one thousand children per year who would memorize the whole of the Shorter Catechism. The Christian Observer would annually print an honor roll with the names of these children. It is interesting (and depressing) to watch over the next few decades as, year by year, those numbers declined. Even as late as 1958, there were perhaps a thousand in that list. But by 1975, the list of names had shrunk to less than two hundred. Finally, by 1988 the publisher had given up on this annual feature. If we tried to put together such a roster today, where would we stand? Every good Presbyterian will acclaim the value of the Shorter Catechism, but how many actually use it? How many disciple their children through the memorization of it?

It’s not a new problem, though. In his review of Dr. Ashbel Green’s then-recently published Lectures on the Shorter Catechism, Dr. Archibald Alexander wrote:—.

But if we do not entirely misinterpret the temper and taste of the times in which we live, doctrinal catechisms, and lectures explanatory of such catechisms, are not the books which will be sought after and read with avidity. The religious taste of most readers is, we fear, greatly vitiated by works of fiction and other kinds of light reading. Nothing will now please, unless it be characterized by novelty and variety; and while many new means of instruction have been afforded to our youth, in which we sincerely rejoice, we are so old fashioned in our notions, as to feel regret that in our own church those excellent little summaries of Christian doctrine, the Westminster Catechisms, are falling with many into disuse.”
[The Biblical Repertory, and Theological Review, Vol. 2 No. 2 (1830): 299]

Words to Live By:
Few things in this life just fall into our laps. Most good things take work to acquire, develop and maintain; discipline bears a good fruit for the long term. The value of the Westminster Shorter Catechism has been acclaimed by many, but for how many of us is that acclamation mere lip service? The year is still young, and its not too late to slip in another resolution. Wouldn’t this be a great year to work on the Shorter Catechism?

Tags: , , ,

“The ripest fruit of the Assembly’s thought and experience.”

It was on this day, November 25th, a Thursday in 1647, that the British House of Commons ordered the printing of the Shorter Catechism, composed by the Westminster Assembly.

WSC_order_to_printThe Westminster Assembly of Divines had first met on July 1, 1643, having been summoned by the two Houses of the British Parliament to advise as to a further and more perfect reformation in the liturgy, discipline, and government of the Church of England. They immediately set about working on a revision of the Thirty-nine Articles. When the Commissioners sent by the Church of Scotland arrived to be seated as part of the Assembly, the work then began to take on a wider scope. The Assembly was now required to prepare creeds and directories, not for the Church of England alone, but for the Churches of Christ in the three kingdoms, so as to bring all of them into the nearest possible uniformity in doctrine and practice.

The documents which are today the authoritative secondary standards of so many Presbyterian Churches throughout the world (and not just English-speaking churches), were prepared by an Assembly of English Divines, men who were episcopally ordained clergymen of the Church of England. That Church was as yet undivided at that time. The members of the Assembly represented the different views of doctrine and order that were entertained within it. Many of the prelatic party who were nominated by Parliament declined to attend the Assembly, but others of them took the required oath, and assisted in the deliberations of the Assembly, at least for a time. The Independents [or Congregationalists, by another term] were represented by seven men who came to be known as the “dissenting brethren” in the Assembly.

The great majority of the members of this Assembly held Presbyterian views of Church polity, and were the successors of the Puritans, who formed a considerable body in the Church of England from the time of the Reformation. They had all along been working for a more primitive organization of the Church, and a freedom from the practices and priestly robes borrowed from the corrupt Roman Church. In the days of Elizabeth they had instituted a voluntary Presbyterian organization of the Church, and they had often suffered in her days, and during the reigns of James and Charles, for refusing to carry out the practices or wear the robes enjoined by the prelates [or high-Church Anglicans].

To this Assembly were added three ministers of the Reformed Church of France, and four learned divines of the Church of Scotland, who were seated as non-voting members, but whose voice carried great weight in the deliberations of the Assembly.

WSC_coverThe committee first charged with the work of preparing a Catechism never managed to complete its work. Some time later, the Assembly directed that both larger and a briefer catechisms should be produced, both works keeping an eye to the content of the Confession of Faith. Work then proceeded, first on the Larger Catechism, and only as that work was nearing completion did the Assembly turn its attention again to a Shorter Catechism. A new committee was named and by most accounts, the successful completion of the work is due to the efforts of just four men, and in particular the work of Antony Tuckney, Minister of St. Michael’s, London, and Master of Emanuel College, Cambridge.

Completing their work, the committee presented its report to the Assembly. After some revision of the Catechism, the addition of the Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed were considered. A vocal minority opposed the addition of the Apostles’ Creed, and to settle the matter, the Assembly determined that an explanation of the words “he descended into hell” would be added as a marginal notation. That postscript is typically not found in the American editions.

The work now finished, a message was prepared by a committee to be addressed to the Houses of Parliament when the Catechism was carried up. On Thursday, 25th of November, 1647, the House of Commons was informed that divers divines of the Assembly were at the door. They were called in, and the Prolocutor [moderator of the Assembly] delivered the Catechism and addressed the House. On the following day (November 26th) the Catechism was carried to the Lords. Each House thanked the Assembly for its care and pains in this matter. It was ordered that 600 copies be printed under the care of Mr. Byfield, for the use of the Members of Parliament and of Assembly, and that Scripture proofs be affixed in the margin of the Catechism.

Words to Live By:

One characteristic of the Shorter Catechism has not been sufficiently recognized in the past. It is a statement of personal religion. It appeals to the individual sinner, and helps the individual believer.

One anecdote serves to illustrate:

The Rev. Thomas Doolittle, a famous catechist, took great delight in catechizing and urged ministers to that work, as an effective way of establishing young people in the truth, and preparing them to read and hear sermons with advantage. Accordingly, every Lord’s day, he catechized the youth and adults of his congregation, and this part of his work bore great fruit. Once, when he had come to the question “What is effectual calling,” after some explanation, Rev. Doolittle proposed that the question should be answered by changing the words us and ourto me and my. The congregation, hearing this suggestion, a long and solemn silence followed. Many felt the weight of the idea, but none had the courage to answer. At length, one young man stood up, and with every mark of a broken and contrite heart, was able to say, “Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing me of my sin and misery, enlightening my mind to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to me in the Gospel.”

The scene was truly affecting. The proposal of the question had commanded unusual solemnity. The rising up of the young man had created high expectations; and, the answer being accompanied with proofs of sincere piety and modesty, the congregation was bathed in tears. This young man had been converted by being catechized, and, to his honor, Rev. Doolittle says, “Of an ignorant and wicked youth, he had become a knowing and serious believer to God’s glory and my much comfort.”

There was an old expression, particularly among the Scottish Presbyterians, who would say, “I own the Confession.” By that, they meant that they had made its doctrine their own; they had taken the content to heart, and saw that indeed it was an accurate reflection of the teaching of Scripture. So too the Catechism, though briefer.

Reader, do you own the Catechism? Have you made it your own? Clearly it is not Scripture; no such claim is made, and that is why we speak of it as part of thesecondary standards of the Church. But it is worthwhile reading, and a great help in understanding what the Bible teaches.

[The bulk of the above was based on and freely edited from an historical account written by William Carruthers [1830-1922], which is found bound with a facsimile reproduction of an original printing of the Shorter Catechism. A digital edition of that work is available here.

WSC_order_to_print

Tags: ,

He Went About Doing Good

Thomas Gouge is not a household name to countless American Presbyterians today, but maybe he should be, considering his ministering of good to all. Born September 19, 1605 (and some say September 29, 1609) in England, he was the oldest son of celebrated William Gouge, member of the Westminster Assembly which produced our Confession and Catechisms.

Educated in the finest institutions of his day (Cambridge), Thomas graduated in 1626. After a time of three years, and marrying the daughter of a prominent family of that day, Thomas was called to the St. Sepulchre’s Church in London, England, where for the next twenty-four years he preached and pastored the membership and surrounding area. Not only did he minister to their spiritual needs, but also to their material needs.

Catechizing the people every morning of the week, Thomas Gouge would distribute gifts among the aged poor on varying days of the week so as to encourage regular attendance upon his catechism studies. These monies came out of his own pocket. To those abled-bodied among the poverty-stricken members, he distributed flax and hemp for them to spin, paying them for their yarn to be worked into cloth. Often in selling them later, he took the financial loss himself.

All of these benevolent work, including his proclamation of the Word of God, came to an end when the Great Ejection of 1662 took place. Hundreds of Presbyterian clergy were ejected from their Anglican pulpits, including Thomas Gouge. Unlike many others, he simply entered another ministry instead of continuing on to minister in secret to  his pastor-less flock. With two or three other ministers, he raised a considerable annual sum of money, to make provision for the ejected ministers then in desperate need. Even when the Great Fire of 1666 devastated London and brought a considerable loss to his income, he still continued to live on less and distribute to those in real need. He believed full the promise of the Psalmist when the latter wrote in Psalm 37:26, “He is ever merciful and lendeth; and his seed is blessed.” (KJV)

Looking to minister in ever widening circles, he had a heart for Wales.  Traveling there, he went from town to town to find out whether there would be interest in teaching willing children to read and write in the English language, and—oh yes—be catechized, no doubt using the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Assembly.  Great droves of children came under the influence of the Scriptures, along with their families. Rev. Gouge began to preach regularly to the families, until the prelates of the Anglican church forbid him to preach the Word.  So in addition to the catechism classes, he arranged for the Word of God to be translated and printed into Welsh to be given freely to  Welsh families.  Added to the Scriptures were Christian books in Welsh which he freely handed out.

He entered heaven on October 29, 1681, remembered widely for his character and conduct in times of persecution.

Words to Live By:
And let us not be weary in well doing, for in due season, we shall reap if we faint not.  As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good to all men, especially unto those who are of the household of faith.”  Galatians 6;9, 10 (KJV)

Tags: , , ,

It was on this day, August 19, in 1643 that the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland nominated and elected five ministers and three ruling elders to serve as non-voting members of Westminster Assembly.

The Westminster Assembly had convened its historic meeting in July 1, 1643, for the initial purpose of revising the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. During the course of the first three months, two events stood out. First, the Solemn League and Covenant were adopted by the Assembly. Second, and this is the topic of this day’s post, the Scottish commissioners arrived to, “put the sickle into the great harvest” then coming into fruition.

Earlier, the Assembly of the Church of Scotland had responded to the call of the English church by nominating a number of commissioners to go to England, join the Westminster Assembly as non-voting members, and unify believers in both kingdoms in the common faith of the two churches. Those nominated included six ministers by the names of Robert Baillie, Robert Blair, Robert Douglas, George Gillespie, Alexander Henderson, and Samuel Rutherford.  Blair and Douglas never attended the meetings, for reasons unknown to us. The  ruling elders commissioned by the Church of Scotland were Archibald Campbell, John Campbell, John Elphinstone, Charles Erskine, Archibald Johnston, John Kennedy, John Maitland, Robert Meldrum, and George Winram. Of these elders, Kennedy and Meldrum never attended any sessions, again, for reasons unknown to us. Of the remaining elders, Archibald Campbell, and George Winram attended only one year of the sessions. The rest of them were actively involved and attended the sessions of the Assembly anywhere from three years to six years.

westminsterabbey1647The purpose in so naming these men to this work was simple and direct. It was “to repair unto the Assembly of Divines and others of the Church of England now sitting at Westminster to propound, consult, treat, and conclude with them in all such things as may be conductive for the setting of the so much desired union of this whole island in one Form of Government, one Confession of Faith, and one Directory of the Worship of God.”

When the first three Scottish elders arrived on September 15, 1643, in the persons of Alexander Henderson, George Gillespie, and John Lord Maitland, they were welcomed with great kindness and courtesy. In fact, they were officially welcomed with three sermons by the English divines!  When did we who are elders ever show up at a Presbytery or General Assembly meeting, and find ourselves welcomed by the delivery of three addresses, presented for the occasion of our arrival?  But as some of our previous posts have shown, and as future posts will prove, the presence of these Scots did accomplish that putting of the spiritual sickle into the great spiritual harvest of souls in both kingdoms.

Words to Live By:
As we read of the Scottish delegates, we cannot help but praise God for the gifts of Alexander Henderson, Samuel Rutherford, and George Gillespie.  These men were spiritual giants in the faith and faithful pastors to the people of God.  We have treated of them and will again in these posts. But then again, when we read the name of another—that of John Lord Maitland, the first Duke of Lauderdale, our spirits are saddened, for we know the end of his story as well.  This elder who sat through years of Assembly speeches and conversations, nonetheless ended up a terrible persecutor of the Presbyterians in Scotland in later years.  He showed his true colors at the last. There may very well be a Judas Iscariot in many a visible church. How we need to pray for one another. How we need to encourage one another. How we need to teach one another. As John put it, “beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1)

Tags: ,

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:—

westminsterabbey1647

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)

Tags: , , ,

« Older entries § Newer entries »

%d bloggers like this: