This Most Venerable But Perishing Pile of Stones
For whatever reason, the 200th anniversary of the Westminster Assembly, in 1843, did not garner all that much attention. The 250th anniversary, by comparison, was a much bigger event, widely observed by Presbyterians around the globe. So it was that on this day, April 27th in 1897 that Dr. William Wirt Henry [1831-1900] brought before the Presbytery of East Hanover, as it convened in the First Presbyterian church of Richmond, VA, a message titled “The Westminster Assembly: The Events Leading Up to It, Personnel of the Body, and Its Method of Work.” [Dr. Henry is noted as the grandson and biographer of that great American patriot, Patrick Henry]
From this address, we excerpt here an interesting bit of background on the historic room where the Westminster Assembly convened for most of its meetings:—
Dr. William Twisse was named as prolocutor, or moderator, and he opened the Assembly on the day appointed with a sermon on the text of John 14:18, “I will not leave you comfortless.” This sermon was delivered in the Abbey church in Westminster before a great congregation, in which sat the members of the two houses of Parliament and many of the divines named as members of the Assembly. The Assembly then went into the chapel of Henry VII., where the roll was called. The body continued to meet in this chapel until the approach of winter, when, finding it too cold a place, it adjourned to the Jerusalem Chamber, where the sessions were afterward held.
It was most appropriate to connect the history of this memorable Assembly with the venerable Abbey, which is such a depository of all that is great in English history. The first church built upon the spot now occupied by the Abbey was the pious work of Sebert, king of the East Saxons, upon his conversion to Christianity in the sixth century, and is believed to have been intended as a memorial of the visit of Saint Augustine to England when he attacked and overthrew the Pelagian heresy in the native country of its author. The beautiful chapel of Henry VII. was built in 1502, and dedicated to the Virgin Mary by this last of the medieval kings of England. It has been the burial place of nearly every king since its erection, as the Abbey has been the place of their coronation. This has been beautifully expressed by the poet Waller in the lines,
“That antique pile behold,
Where royal heads receive the sacred gold;
It gives them crowns, and does their ashes keep;
These made like gods, there like mortals sleep,
Making the circle of their reign complete,
These suns of empire, where they rise they set.”
The Jerusalem Chamber was built by Abbot Littlington in the later part of the fourteenth century as a guest chamber for his house,and took its name from the tapestry pictures of the history of the seige of Jerusalem with which it was hung. It had been made memorable by the death of Henry IV. from apoplexy, March 20, 1413, while he was preparing for a visit to the holy land. Shakespeare thus describes the scene:
King Henry: “Doth any name particular belong
Unto the lodging where I first did swoon?”
Warwick: “Tis called Jerusalem, my noble Lord.”
King Henry: “Laud be to God! even there my life must end.
It hath been prophesied to me many years,
I should not die but in Jerusalem;
Which vainly I supposed the Holy Land;
But bear me to that chamber; there I’ll lie;
In that Jerusalem shall Henry die.”
Now a body of the most pious and learned men of English history were to occupy these venerable chambers, to restore the pure theology of Augustine; to teach a wicked king that resistance to tyrants is obedience to God; over the ashes of the greatest and the noblest of the English race, to proclaim the precious doctrines of the resurrection of the dead through a risen Saviour; to point from this most venerable but perishing pile to the new Jerusalem, not built with hands, eternal in the heavens.
Words to Live By:
We find ourselves now at a troubling point in history, where, because of long-standing unbelief and the subsequent advances of idolatry, that many of the great markers and memorials of the Reformed faith throughout England and Europe stand in danger of being overrun and may someday even be threatened with destruction. Should that day come, what will be our response? Nothing in this life is forever, even those things carved in granite. But praise God that we have a greater place to stand. The true Ebenezer of our faith—the very Person of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Rock of our salvation—can never be taken from us. Our faith rests not upon hallowed stones and hallways, but upon the living Lord of Glory who rose again from the dead to live and reign forever.
Rev. Charlie Rodriguez, pastor of Mount Carmel Presbyterian church, Clinton, MS, and owner of Fortress Book Service, has been gracious in granting permission to use these two photographs which he personally took, the first showing the inside the Jerusalem Chamber and the second that of the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey, which also shows the outside window of the Jerusalem Chamber. The Great West Door would most likely have been the primary entry point for the Westminster Divines as they gathered for each day’s work. Our thanks to Pastor Rodriguez.