* Last year, Presbyterians celebrated the 350th anniversary of the meeting of the Westminster Assembly. This assembly produced the confessional, catechetical, and church political documents of the Presbyterian churches- the Westminster Standards. This article commemorates the historic event of the calling of the assembly. The Rev. Chris Coleborn is pastor of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brisbane, Australia. -Ed.
June the 12th, 1993, was the 350th anniversary of the calling of the Westminster Assembly of Divines. Because the work of this justly famous assembly means so much to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, as it should to any who bears the name “Presbyterian” and “Reformed,” we ought to pause to remember what it was about, and to thank the Lord, the Ring and Head of the church, for using the times and labours of the men who sat and worked on this assembly to help build His church. What a blessing that Assembly has been – to all who love the Saviour and to all who love those truths of the Word of God which most honour Him. We believe the Reformed faith most. consistently summarizes these truths.
Following the Reformation in England, several Protestant groups emerged. Out of one of these, the Puritans, came the English Presbyterians. These early groups were greatly influenced by the work of Tyndale and Hooper, proponents of covenant theology. Later, during the reign of King Edward VI, the Reformation was given royal support. During this time, European Reformers visited England, and the church there was closely knit with the Reformed church on the continent and in Scotland.
The early death of Edward and the ascension to the throne of Mary Tudor brought the Roman Catholic Church to power again, and one of the consequences was the persecution of the Protestants or Reformed Christians. Many of the English Reformers fled to Europe in what is now known as the “marian exile;” Some gave their lives as martyrs for Christ and His truth.
Three distinct groups emerged at this time. There were the moderate Reformers, generally Episcopalians, who thought that the reforms that had taken place under Edward VI were enough. Then there were the Presbyterians, who had close ties to, and links with, the Reformed church, in Switzerland, and finally there were the Independents.
When Elizabeth I came to power, her policy was in favour of the Episcopalian moderate reform group. She ignored the Presbyterian Puritans, and thought of the Independent Puritans (Congregationalists and Baptists) as dangerous subversives. This forced the Presbyterians and Independents into secret meetings. Under God’s blessing, the Puritans understanding of the Bible was spread by faithful preachers and writings, and many in England became convinced Puritans. Eventually the majority of the elected members of the Parliament of England were Puritans, and this resulted in the Parliament becoming very supportive of the Puritans, most of whom were now generally Presbyterian but with some Independents. The Presbyterians believed that the authority for state and church was ultimately Christ’s good ways and rule by His Word, the Bible. However, the monarchs of England/ Scotland and their followers believed that the king had absolute authority over the nation and church.
Eventually, due to the excesses of King Charles I, the Parliamentary- Presbyterian group gained the greatest following and support in England. At this time, there were great troubles economically, socially, politically – in fact, in all departments of life. They faced the same sort of problems that face our country now, only far worse. This group also had the support of the Presbyterians of Scotland. There had been a great work of God in Scotland, so that the land was deeply persuaded that Presbyterian beliefs and practices were the most biblical. The Parliament then abolished episcopacy as the National Church in England.
In Scotland, in God’s providence, a development similar to that in England occurred. Charles I had tried to force the Presbyterian Church (the great majority church in the nation of the Reformation) to accept that he, the king, had authority to tell the church how to worship, and what to believe. The church, however, was deeply persuaded that only Ring Jesus, speaking to His people in the Bible, had that authority, and not Ring Charles I. The Scottish Parliament, “The Four Tables,” met, and as the nation was overwhelmingly Presbyterian, the Parliament supported the Presbyterian cause as just and right. The king would not listen to the Parliament, however. The nation then, under the leadership both of the church and Parliament, called the nation to prayer and fasting, and it was decided to bind all the Presbyterians in a National Covenant, to be faithful to the King of the church, the Lord Jesus. The king continued to oppose his Parliament and people, contrary to the constitution of the land, and even raised an army to force them to do his will. The nation and church rallied under their Parliament, and their banner was, For Christ’s Crown and Covenant. When Ring Charles saw this opposition he did not use his army against the Scats.
When the English Parliament met (with a Presbyterian majority), the English felt they had much in common with the Scats, and asked them to join with them in drawing up a common Confession of Faith for the Christians of England, Scotland, and Ireland. The Scats agreed, provided the basis of that common work was a Scriptural agreement or covenant. This covenant was called The Solemn League and Covenant. It bound the nations, by God’s grace, to work together for a biblical basis for the church and nations. The English agreed to this, and then requested the aid of the Scats at the Westminster Assembly. The church and the Parliament of Scotland sent commissioners to attend the Westminster Assembly to help it in its work. The original commissioners were five ministers, Alexander Henderson, Samuel Rutherford, Robert Douglas, Robert Baillie, and George Gillespie. There were three ruling elders: John, Lord Maitland, afterwards Duke of Lauderdale; Archibald Johnston of Warriston; and John, Earl of Cassilis.
On June 12th, 1643, the Parliament of England summoned an Assembly of Divines to meet at Westminster to do several things. They were to act as advisors to the Parliament with biblical and spiritual advice. More importantly, however, they were to draw up a biblical constitution for England, Scotland, and Ireland. It was believed that one of the best ways to solve the problems of the nations was to turn sincerely and truly to the Lord and His ways for us, and to establish the nation on a proper spiritual basis, and that this would lead to the solving of the problems of the land to a wonderful extent. The gospel and truth of Christ and the grace of God would heal the country. A representative of each English county was chosen.
The Assembly sat for five and a half years, from 1643 to 1649, to draw up the Westminster Confessional Standards. The Assembly met four times a week, with over one thousand one hundred and sixty-three recorded sessions. One hundred and fifty-one divines were called to meet. About twenty-five never attended. Those present worked at the confessional standards with prayer and fasting, the diligent study of God’s Word, and Christian debate. They laboured, in the words of the historian J. Wylie, to build a “temple in which three nations might worship; to erect a citadel within which three kingdoms might entrust their independence and liberties.”
The Assembly consisted of a few mild Episcopalians, five Independents, and the majority, about one hundred, Presbyterians. The Assembly drafted a Confession of Faith, Larger and Shorter Catechisms, and Form of Government and a Directory for Public Worship.
The Westminster Standards were speedily adopted by the Scottish church and Parliament. The English Parliament did not adopt them because of the military power and influence over the Parliament of the Independents. One of their soldiers, Oliver Cromwell, became the military dictator of the three kingdoms. Sadly, because of this, the English church was never given the opportunity to adopt them, as was the church and Parliament in Scotland.
Oliver Cromwell, who supported the Independents, alienated the Scots, and in 1648, because of his military’ power, purged the Parliament of England of all 140 Presbyterians, leaving about 50 Independents. This “Rump Parliament” tried and executed Charles I, and set up a military dictatorship under Cromwell. It terminated the Presbyterian establishment in England, and while Presbyterians were allowed to worship, it granted special privileges to the Independents (Congregationalists and Baptists).
The kingdoms returned to a monarchy following the death of Oliver Cromwell, and, sadly, this brought a return of the royal extreme episcopal group, with their despotic claims, to power. The Solemn League and Covenant was abjured, and the government tried to force Presbyterians and other Puritans to deny their faith in both England and Scotland.
After years of persecution of the Presbyterians in England, Scotland, and Ireland, the Lord finally brought King William and Queen Mary of the royal house of Orange in Holland to accept the thrones of Scotland and England. Queen Mary was a descendant of the royal house of Scotland and England, a Protestant daughter of James II. The Presbyterian churches of England, Ireland, and especially Scotland were able once more to serve the Lord according to the summary of His Word, the Bible, which they believed was most faithfully summarized in the Westminster Confessional Standards.
The men of the Westminster Assembly were unashamedly attached to the following grand principles:
1. They were greatly persuaded of the truth that Almighty God has revealed Himself and His will for both faith and life through the Mediator of the Covenant, Jesus Christ. This is not mere dogma. It is life, and it is to be a hearty, warm, and personal belief that impacts upon all of our life. We are to have a “new heart” from the Lord; Christ Jesus is to be our King we are to be bound to Him in His everlasting covenant, if we are to find true life in this world and the next.
2. They deeply believed that the visible and true church of the Lord Jesus had obligations to teach what absolutes God had to say about civil rulers and civil life and its limits and duties, as well as about the church and its life and calling.
3. They held, in the light of God’s Word, that liberty, justice, and prosperity for daily true life, natural and civil, not just spiritual, is had in Christ Jesus and His covenant, and belonged to the common people to enjoy and possess as much as to the aristocracy and scholars.
4. The Divines were very concerned to give a consolidated form and statement to one hundred and fifty years of biblical study, begun and rediscovered at the time of the Reformation. They prayerfully laboured to confess true biblical christianity as a faith that uplifted Christ, gave the Lord the glory due to His name, and was for our happiness and good.
The Westminster Confessional Standards, that fruit and labour of such godly and good men, are what the Evangelical Presbyterian Church unashamedly holds as its confessional standards in 1994. We continue to believe that these standards most consistently summarize the truth of God’s Word. We have a godly and great heritage in these standards. We believe they are the ways for the glory of God and our good in both church and nation. May Christ Jesus, the King and Head of the church, guide us as a church in our day and age by His Word and Spirit into those truths of His Word that bring healing to individuals, families, and nations, and establish and keep His true church in our day and age faithful to Him and the faith of our fathers.
Let us thank God for the work of the Westminster Assembly that was called to meet on the 12th, June, 1643.