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THE WESTMINSTER ASSEMBLY : ITS ORIGIN AND OBJECTS.
BY THE REV. DR. HETHERINGTON.
During the course of the preceding year we gave a series of papers on the history of the Presbyterian Church in England, from the Reformation down to the calling of the Assembly of Divines at Westminster, in 1643. In the present year various articles will appear on the history and proceedings of that memorable Assembly, along with extracts from the original journals and the writings of contemporary divines, so that the present volume of the “Messenger," will contain a valuable collection of documents and extracts illustrative of this important period of the history of our Presbyterian Church. We commence with a statement by the Rev. Dr. Hetherington, of St. Andrew's, Scotland, on the events that led to the calling of the Assembly. ] *
It is well known that the Reformation and exercise their steady influence there, in England was from its very outset too mighty for human power to conquer, biassed and controlled by the despotic or even greatly to control. Consequently principles and the fierce temper of there arose, almost in the infancy of the Henry VIII. That haughty tyrant was Reformation in England, a sincere and quite willing to break the yoke of earnest reforming spirit, which sought Rome, so far as it bound himself, or in the Word of God for those principles checked the exercise of his arbitrary and laws by which to guide its course. sway over any or all of his subjects; The true and godly divines who were but he was by no means disposed to filled with that spirit sought faithfully to allow to them that exercise of the right promote reformation, far beyond what of private judgment in religious matters kings and statesmen and courtly divines which is the very essence of religious thought necessary. Their efforts were liberty. For that reason he assumed, checked, their desires were disappointed, as a prerogative of the crown, complete their principles were misunderstood and supremacy in all causes civil and eccle- misrepresented, their motives were siastical. From this it inevitably calumniated, and as the contest deepened, followed, that the Church of England they were not only repelled from every could not reform itself in any direction, attempted reformation, but they were or to any extent, beyond what the themselves exposed to almost every arbitrary will of the sovereign might species of persecution short of death. please to permit. The effect was, what Still they held on their course; because, could alone be expected, an early taking Scripture for their sole authoarrest laid upon the reformation of the ritative guide in matters of religion, Church,—the retention within it of they could not but endeavour to act everything which the caprice or the pride according to its divine commands. In of the reigning monarch chose to retain, this manner arose that noble band of —and the various and sudden changes heavenly-minded men, known by the which took their cause and form from name of English Puritans, whose lives the opinions or prejudices of successive were exposed to so much undeserved sovereigns, — reforming progress under | persecution, and whose memories ever the mild and gracious Edward,--return since have been assailed by so much to Popery under the reign of her whose | black and malicious calumny. cruel and tyrannical conduct procured for After the death of Elizabeth, her her the fearful appellation of “the successor James pursued a similar course, bloody Mary,”—reformation resumed resting his hostility to the Puritans on under Elizabeth, but moulded by the the same ground, that of the royal personal tastes and the arbitrary temper supremacy in all causes civil and eccleof that great queen.
siastical. But though his principles But Christianity is not, in its essence, were sufficiently arbitrary, his temper so mutable and capricious as kings and was too feeble and vacillating, and his governments could wish. It has its own character too timid, to admit of his proeternal laws, which enter into the soul, ceeding to any desperate extremities.
He was willing enough to grasp at des
potism of the most absolute kind; but # We recommend to our readers a most when his conduct provoked resistance he interesting little volume by Dr. Hetherington, “ The History of the Westminster Assembly of S4
Opstarted fearfully back, “scared by the Divines," published by John Johnstone, sound himself had made." He succeeded, Edinburgh, and Paternoster-row, London. Thowever, in so far corrupting the
national principles by his. “Book of Sports,” — in imposing his beloved prelacy on the Church of Scotland-and in causing the friends of civil and religious liberty in England to feel, that unless some strong and determined opposition were speedily made to such despotic principles and measures, all that they most valued on earth would ere long be laid prostrate beneath an absolute tyranny. In the meantime a new principle had almost imperceptibly begun to guide and characterize the conflict. So early as the year 1588, Bancroft, at that time chaplain to Archbishop Whitgift, promulgated the opinion, “that bishops were a distinct order from presbyters, and had authority over them jure divino, and directly from God.” None of the English Reformers had ever entertained such an opinion; but merely held, that prelacy was of human institution, and appointed for the sake of order in the government of the Church. The consequences of this theory were not immediately perceived by either its ol. or its opponents, till after the lapse of nearly two generations, when it got possession of the narrow mind of the restless and bigoted Laud, and impelled him to that fatal course which plunged the nation into the horrors of civil war, and brought himself and his ill-fated sovereign to the block. Charles the First, the son and successor of James, not only followed the despotic course of his father, but, partly instigated by Laud, and Wentworth, partly urged on by his own inflexible and arbitrary character, advanced to the adoption and enforcement of measures, the direct operation of which would speedily have reduced the kingdom to a state of abject slavery. Not contented with having the Church of Scotland brought under the thraldom of bishops, which had been accomplished by the “king-craft” of his wily father, he determined to change its form of worshi entirely, and to compel the ministers an people to adopt all the rites and ceremonies of prelacy, or rather popery, to which the Book of Canons and the Liturgy destined for Scotland very closely approached. But Scotland awoke in all her cities, through all her glens, and on all her mountains. Prelacy was banished from the land, and the heart of the entire nation rejoiced in the precious blessing of its recovered freedom, civil
and religious. In vain did the haughty king attempt to subjugate his free Scottish people by the help of , an English army. The people of Scotland were prepared to die, but not to surrender what had been so nobly won; and England could too well understand and value freedom, to put forth her strength for its destruction. The baffled monarch recoiled from the too perilous encounter, leaving Scotland a brief breathing time, till he should have subverted English liberty, intending then to return and ote his fearful triumph in the overthrow of Scotland, and the subjugation of the three kingdoms to an absolute despotism, civil and religious. Of this there can be no doubt in the mind of any one who has carefully and impartially studied the private, or even the public records, of that period. The struggle in England had in the meantime somewhat shifted its ground. The English Parliament had repeatedly attempted to interpose in behalf of the oppressed and persecuted Puritans ; many of the members being well acquainted with those pious men, and o their undeserved sufferings. ese interpositions were renewed generally by means of petitions; and to }. a stop to such troublesome intererence, the King (James) in 1604, obtained an opinion from the twelve judges, “That the King, having the supreme ecclesiastical power, could, without Parliament, make orders and constitutions for Church government; that the High Commission might enforce them ea officio, without libel; and that subjects might not frame petitions for redress, without being guilty of an offence fineable at discretion, and very near to treason and felony.” . We cannot help remarking, how little safety there would be for liberty, if its preservation depended upon the opinions of mere lawyers and judges. It was easily perceived that this struck directly at the essence of all liberty civil and #. alike, and the free spirit of England began to be aroused. But as James did not immediately employ the despotic principle thus declared, the spirit aroused was rather that of jealous vigilance than direct opposition. When, however, Charles not only refused redress of rievances, but attempted to rule without arliaments, imposing taxes without the consent of the representatives and guardians of the people; and when the bishops proceeded to assess themselves and the Church, for the purpose of enabling Charles to levy and support an army, without the support or concurrence of Parliament, the English patriots perceived clearly that the time for decided resistance was come, unless they were prepared to yield up every vestige of their ancient liberties. Nor could they help perceiving, that the combined sycophancy and tyranny of the prelatic form of Church government had been the means by which the nation had been brought to such a degree of extreme peril; and that, in reality, the Puritans were the true defenders of both civil and religious freedom. It may well be supposed that the state of matters in Scotland had exercised no slight influence on the English mind. They had seen the Presbyterian Church putting forth its great powers in defence of religious liberty, and securing civil liberty at the same time; while they had experienced painfully that almost the entire force of their own prelatic Church had been exerted so directly and strenuously against religious liberty, that civil liberty was almost destroyed in the illomened and formidable struggle. At the same time the Puritans had almost instinctively assumed the Presbyterian form of Church Government, so far as their circumstances would permit, so that the natural progress of events inevitably suggested the idea, that if civil liberty was to be secured, it must be by first securing religious liberty; and that religious liberty would be best secured by abolishing their own form of Church government, reducing it to a more simple and scriptural aspect, and giving it the essential characteristics of a Presbyterian Church. At length the crisis came. The bishops attempted to arrest the proceedings of the Legislature itself, by withdrawing, and declaring that all acts passed in their absence should be null and void; and the King attempted to seize the leading patriots even in the House of Commons. Resistance to such violent measures was felt to be a sacred duty. The standard of civil war was raised; first, however, by the King himself. The English Parliament passed an ordinance abolishing the prelatic form of Church government throughout its entire hierarchy, entered into negotiations with Scotland,-and passed an ordinance summoning an Assembly of
Divines to meet at Westminster, for the purpose of “consulting and advising, that such a government should be settled in the Church as might be most agreeable to God's Holy Word, and most apt to procure and preserve the peace of the Church at home, and nearer agreement with the Church of Scotland and other
reformed Churches abroad.”
Such was the state of matters which led to the calling of the Assembly, and such the object for which it was called to meet and deliberate; and it was unquestionably a very remarkable state of matters. On the one hand we contemplate a nation professing Christianity, entertaining very decidedly the idea of a National Church, but having abolished that form of Church government which prevailed, because it had proved subversive of both civil and religious liberty. On the other hand, we behold a Christian Church existing without a regular form or principles of government, necessary for giving it unity of aspect, and harmony of operation, — those of the ministers who were Puritans, never having obtained complete union and organization, and those who had been Episcopalians having lost their hierarchy and been disorganized.
In such a state of matters, it is evident that there could be but two lines of procedure adopted by the nation and the Church. Either a great self-formed convention of the ministers should themselves meet, and determine upon the form of Church government which, guided by the authority of the sacred Scriptures, and the example of other reformed Churches, they would adopt, —the discipline which they would harmoniously exercise, the form of worship which they would use,_and the Confession of Faith which they would subscribe : or, the nation itself, acting by its Legislature, should call together an assembly of the most eminent divines, for the purpose of determining the very same points, with the view of giving civil sanction to whatever should be so determined, and adopting a Church so constituted, as the Established Church of the kingdom. The former method would probably have been most consistent with the o character and duty of a Christian Church, and would have led to the most satisfactory and beneficial results; but the latter was that which the English Parliament thought proper to follow.
We are thus brought to see what was the real character of the Westminster Assembly. It was an assembly of the most eminent divines, called together by the Legislative representatives of the nation, in a time of great political and religious commotion and danger, for the purpose of deliberating, on the authority of Scripture, and by the aid of the example and the opinions of the best reformed Churches, respecting what, in their solemn judgment, appeared to be the mind of Christ with regard to the government, discipline, and faith of the Christian Church. Such an Assembly might have met entirely on its own authority, as did the first, the apostolic council of Jerusalem; and its decisions and decrees might have been binding upon all its members and all who adhered to them, without the sanction of the civil magistrate. But it could not have constituted itself an Establishment, in the full and proper sense of that term. It might have been a National Church in the same sense as the Presbyterian Church was the National Church of Scotland from 1560 to 1567, before a single Act of Parliament was formed for the purpose of making it the Establishment; or as the Free Church may become the National Church of Scotland, though disestablished. But although, abstractly viewed, there might be a nation professing Christianity without an Established Church, or a Church comprising the body of a nation without being established, yet no such idea was entertained by either the Church or the nation at that period. Therefore, the framing of a Church to comprise the body of the nation, and the establishing of that Church, were with them identical ideas. The formation of a National Church, on a purely scriptural basis, and as nearly as possible agreeing with the Church of Scotland, and other reformed Churches abroad in doctrine, worship, discipline, and government, was the very object for which the Westminster Assembly was called together by the English Parliament, and towards the accomplishment of which its whole deliberations were directed.
While I admit, that if the Assembly had met on its own sole authority, it might have more readily arrived at a sound conclusion on all points of deliberation; yet I wish it to be remembered, that when it met, it was not in the position to assume and exercise spiritual
jurisdiction, for it was not actually a church court. And were I to follow out this view, it might be possible to vindicate the conduct of the Assembly from the charge of even seeming to submit to an Erastian interference on the part of the Parliament, for it could neither yield nor exercise a jurisdiction, which in reality it was not in a condition to possess, which also the Parliament could neither give nor take away, in a spiritual sense, but the exercise of which it could and did too successfully prevent. The necessity for such an event has been already briefly traced, and as I resume to think, proved. But it may e expedient to remark, in passing, that such an Assembly might have been called and held, without the dread compulsion and accompaniment of a civil war. Had Charles been a truly enlightened and reforming king, instead of being narrow-minded, full of the strongest and most illiberal prejudices, and of a dark and despotic temper, he might, with the advice of his Parliament, have called together a similar Assembly of Divines, and requested their deliberate and solemn counsel respecting the best method of effecting a complete and thorough reformation of the Church, with the view of having it then established in purity and on a truly scriptural basis. That this might have been the case, cannot, I think, be disputed; and this consideration alone may show, that the civil war was in reality rather an accidental and most unpropitious accompaniment of the Westminster Assembly, than in any degree essential to it, or necessary to its being held. When the Westminster Assembly was thus called by the legislative representatives of the kingdom, it was very properly constituted of men holding the various leading opinions at that time entertained by the Christian Churches. In the original ordinance summoning the members, four bishops were named, one of whom attended on the first day of its meeting, and another sent an excuse, on the ground of necessary duty. Of the others originally summoned five became bishops afterwards; and about twenty-five declined attending, partly because it was not a regular convocation called by the King, and partly because the Solemn League and Covenant was expressly condemned by his Majesty; and in this number were four of those who afterwards became bishops. At first there were no more than five Independents, avowedly such, in the Assembly; who afterwards increased to seven, and ultimately numbered eleven or twelve. All the rest may properly be termed Presbyterians; because the old Puritans had gradually assumed that form of worship and government, and even discipline, as far as circumstances would permit. And although the six Scottish commissioners sat regularly in the Assembly, and often took a very prominent partin its discussions, yet, as they never voted in any division, they cannot be regarded as exercising any other influence in it than the very legitimate influence which eminent piety, learning, and ability will always exercise in an Assembly of rational and conscientious men. The immediate object for which the Westminster Assembly was called, was the re-construction, on a scriptural basis, of the shattered and disorganized English Church. But that object, vastly important as it was, did not terminate its aim and bearing. The enlightened and great-minded men, by whose influence the chief movements of both Church and State were guided, contemplated an object, immeasurably more vast and grand. They looked abroad over Christendom, and marked the character and the bearing of the times. They perceived clearly that a period of reaction had begun, that Popery was fast recovering its strength, and that true Protestantism had not merely ceased to advance, but was beginning to recoil, and to exhibit symptoms of torpor in some places, and of mutually counter: balancing and paralyzing division and strife in others. In France the commanding genius of Cardinal Richelieu had repressed the Protestants, and knit that kingdom into united strength; and though he was recently, dead, yet his schemes were ably followed out by Cardinal Mazarin, and by the youthful energy of Louis XIV. Spain, guided
by Olivarez, , was also apparently recovering its shattered power. Germany Was s reeling under the dreadful .#. of the Thirty Years' War; and the Protestant hero, the great Gustavus of Sweden, was no more. The King of England was married to Henrietta of France; and while Popish intriguers thronged the English court, there was | too much reason to believe that Charles himself was not disposed to dis; countenance their intrigues, provided that these should promote his aim at securing the possession of absolute monarchy. In Ireland a terrible insurrection of the Popish population had caused the massacre oft at the very lowest computation, above 40,000 of the Protestant inhabitants. Scotland had but scarcely succeeded in throwing off the yoke of a Prelacy which was but little remote from Popery in nearly all its essential characteristics. And England was engaged in a desperate endeavour to rescue its civil and religious liberties from the grasp of a despotic monarch, and the thinly disguised Popery of Laud and his associates, Laud, to whom the Pope himself had recently offered the popish title and dignity of a cardinal. In such a formidable conjuncture of events and circumstances, our distinguished countryman Alexander Henderson, and some other large-minded and far-foreseeing men, conceived the idea of a great Protestant union, for the purpose of combining into one firm and well-compacted phalanx all that held the essentials of reformed and scriptural Christianity, that thus they might the more effectually stem and bear back the returning tide of Popish error, superstition, and cruelty. This great idea was so far communicated to the churches in Holland. It was by them made known to the celebrated Oxenstiern, Chancellor of Sweden, who saw at once its grandeur and importance, and was prepared to give it his ready and influential concurrence and support.
THE DOCTRINE OF CHRIST'S IMPUTED RIGHTEOUSNESS.
THE prevalence of errors on this subject induces us to be more careful in maintaining it, as one of the distinishing truths of the Confession of our hurch. In the Westminster Assembly's
Larger Catechism the definition given of justification, with great clearness states the scriptural doctrine of imputed righteousness:— “What is justification ? Justification