Westminster Assembly

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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: http://www.graceonlinelibrary.org/creeds-confessions/the-men-and-the-parties-by-william-s-barker/, 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.

Episcopalians

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.

Presbyterians

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.

Erastians

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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A Potential Schism Halted by a Compromise

Initially there was no real problem with the written standards for the Presbyterian Church in America. Ministerial students were simply tested for their learning and soundness in the faith. But a controversy in the mother country soon changed this.  So the question arose, should teaching and ruling elders be required to subscribe to the subordinate standards of the Westminster Assembly in their entirety, or just for their essential truths? The fact that so many officers were still in the process of emigrating to the colonies made this a relevant question for the infant church to resolve.

Conscious of the potential for schism, on September 17, 1729, Jonathan Dickinson became the main proponent against the total subscriptionist party in the church. His argument was simple. He believed the Bible was the sufficient rule for faith and life.  Subscription must be adhered to it and to it alone, not to some man-made summary of it, as good as it might be.

The total subscriptionist side also believed the Bible was all-sufficient for doctrine and life, but were equally convinced that the Westminster standards of confession and catechisms offer an adequate summary of the Old and New Testaments. To receive it and adopt it in its entirely would stop any heresies which may invade the church from either within or without the church.

At the synod in 1729, Dickinson and his followers won the day with what has become known at the Adopting Act of 1729. [Link fixed, 9/17/15 @ 10:23 a.m.] The document stated that on the one hand, there was a clear requirement to receive and adopt the Westminster Standards.  However, if an elder, whether teaching or ruling elder, had an exception to those standards, he was to make known to the church or presbytery his exception. The latter body would then judge whether the exception dealt with essential and necessary articles of doctrine, worship, or government. If it did not, then he could be ordained without official censure or social ostracism.

The entire body of elders gathered at the Philadelphia Synod gave thanks to God in solemn praise and prayer that the resolution of this potential schism had been averted and unity was maintained in the infant Presbyterian church.

Words to live by:  It is always good that disunity should be avoided and unity be maintained. But at what cost, is the question? The compromise here looked good on the surface. But presbyteries and synods and assemblies are made up of fallible men who can, sadly, declare that the basic truths of the Christian religion are not necessary to be held, as is the case now with several liberal Presbyterian bodies.  Obviously, much prayer must be made for those who instruct and rule over us, that God’s Spirit will keep the visible church pure in both faith and life. The true key to doctrinal unity springs from a daily awareness of our own sinfulness, from hearts broken before the Lord in godly humility, Seeking the forgiveness found in Jesus Christ alone.

See also, The Meaning of Subscription, by Rev. Benjamin McKee Gemmill.

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kerr_robertPRev. Robert P. Kerr’s little volume, PRESBYTERIANISM FOR THE PEOPLE, now moves to a short section on Presbyterian theology. There are three chapters in this section: (1) Presbyterian Theology; (2) Peculiarities of Calvinism; and (3) Calvinism and Self-Government. Today we present the first of these three chapters.

Incidentally, Kerr’s book appears to have gone through at least two printings. The PCA Historical Center has a copy with brown cloth boards and gilt lettering, printed in 1883. So much of the work produced for the Southern Presbyterian Church by the Whittet & Shepperson Printing Company had this same appearance—brown boards, typically with beveled edges, and gilt lettering. This then would be the first edition of the book. The Buswell Library at Covenant Seminary also has a copy, but with russet cloth boards and black lettering. This is most likely a later printing, though the same plates were used, as evidenced by the same typographical error in the numbering of Chapter VII. I don’t see that the book has been reprinted since that time.

CHAPTER I.

PRESBYTERIAN THEOLOGY.

“ For we walk by faith, not by sight.”—2 Cor. v. 7.

SALVATION BY FAITH IN A DIVINE SAVIOUR WHO DIED FOR MEN is the great central truth of our holy religion, and it is held by all evangelical Churches. If a man believes this doctrine, he is a Christian, and any denomination which really holds to it is a Christian Church. The differences between evangelical. Churches, while important, are not as the things necessary to the salvation- of the soul.

In the present condition of the world it is well that there should be several denominations. There is more work done, and better work, than if all Christians were in one organization. Now, it would be difficult to maintain the subdivisions necessary for efficiency without differences of opinion. There must be various centres of thought around which men may rally. There is a certain theological system called Arminianism, another called Calvinism, and there are different systems of government and modes of worship, all of which contribute to form the denominations into which, under the providence of God, the Church has been divided. ’The unity of the Church may be sufficiently realized by magnifying our common belief in the great truths of redemption, and in exhibiting at all times a charity, greater than faith and hope, which will shut the mouths of our enemies and command the respect of the world. One of the best signs of our times is the fact that most denominations now recognize one another’s churchship and work together harmoniously for the glory of Christ in the redemption of mankind.

But it is necessary that each division of the great army of Christians should be instructed in the things peculiar to itself, and ought not to be considered uncharitable if it exhibits and defends those distinctive institutions which give it being. There is also need of a brief exposition of Presbyterian doctrines, from the fact that there has been some misunderstanding among other peoples as to what we really believe. For example, we have been accused of teaching the damnation of infants who die in infancy. Though such a statement may seem unnecessary, it is now most emphatically made: The Presbyterian Church holds and teaches that all who die in infancy are saved.

The following is given as a general outline of Presbyterian theology. Some parts of it are taken from an old formula, of unknown authorship, and two articles from the Westminster Catechism;

SUMMARY OF DOCTRINES.

I. There is one God, the Creator, Preserver and Governor of the universe, who is possessed of every natural and moral perfection.

II. This God exists in three Persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, the same in essence and equal in all divine attributes.

III. The Scriptures contained in the Old and New Testaments were given by inspiration of God and furnish a perfect rule of faith and practice.

IV. God created Adam perfectly holy and constituted him the representative of all his posterity, suspending their moral character and legal relation to his probationary conduct.

V. In consequence of Adam’s fall all mankind are in a state of total moral depravity and are under condemnation.

VI. The Lord Jesus Christ, who is God and man, by his sufferings and death has made atonement for the sins of the whole world.

VII. Through the atonement salvation is freely offered to all sinners in the gospel; and though they are free to accept, yet they naturally reject, this gracious offer, and refuse to come to Christ that they might have eternal life.

VIII. God the Spirit, by an act of special sovereign grace, renews the hearts of all the elect and causes them to accept the salvation of the gospel.

IX. The foundation of the elects’ forgiveness and redemption is the atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ, received and rested on in faith.

X. God promises to preserve from final apostasy all who have been renewed in their souls, and to conduct them, through sanctification and belief of the truth, into the kingdom of glory.

XI. All men who hear the good news of the gospel and come to Christ will be saved. God from all eternity has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass, and yet man is free to accept or reject God’s offers of mercy.

XII. God has appointed a day, at the end of the present order of things, in which he will judge the world in righteousness by Jesus Christ, who will receive those that believe on him into everlasting happiness and sentence the wicked unto everlasting punishment.

XIII. The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine according to Christ’s appointment, his death is showed forth, and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.

XIV. Baptism is a sacrament wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost doth signify and seal our in-grafting into Christ and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s.

XV. It is required of the officers in the Presbyterian Church to accept the system of doctrines of the Confession of Faith, but persons are admitted as ‘private members on a simple profession of faith in Christ, a promise of obedience to him and conformity to the rules of the Church. Whatever admits a man into heaven ought to admit him into the communion of the Church on earth.

The greater part of this system of doctrine is held by all Christians, but there are a few important points in which we differ from other denominations.

The Presbyterian system of theology has been called Augustinian because it was first fully elaborated by Augustine in the fifth century, and Calvinistic because its greatest modern expositor was John Calvin, in the sixteenth century. The most complete statement of these doctrines was made by the Westminster Assembly of Divines, in the seventeenth century, in a “Confession of Faith ” which has become the standard of nearly all English- speaking Presbyterians.

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Westminster Confession Approved by Church of Scotland

You may ask upon reading the title of this contribution, why are we thinking about adoption of the Westminster Confession of Faith, when the whole This Day in Presbyterian History blog deals with Presbyterian history in the United States?  And that is a fair question.  But it is quickly answered by two considerations. First, this Reformed standard—The Westminster Confession of Faith—was, with few changes, the subordinate standard of all the Presbyterian denominations in the United States.  And second, the Scots-Irish immigrants who came over to this country in its earliest days held strongly to this Reformed creedal statement.

The Westminster Confession of Faith was formulated by the Westminster Assembly of divines (i.e, pastors and theologians) in the mid-seventeenth century, meeting at Westminster Abby in London, England.  To the one hundred and twenty divines, primarily from the Church of England, were added nine Scottish divines from the Church of Scotland.  While the latter were seated as non-voting members of that Assembly, still their presence was felt in very effective ways during the six-year study that produced this confessional standard.

When it was adopted by the Parliament in England, it then went to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, where it was adopted without amendment onAugust 29, 1647.  It then became the summary of the teachings of the Old and New Testaments which was adopted by both the teaching and ruling elders, as well as the diaconate in each local church, in every Presbyterian and Reformed church deriving from that tradition. Small changes have been made by conservative Presbyterian bodies in our United States which do not affect the overall doctrinal contents of the Confession. The majority of those changes were made in 1789. You can ask your pastor for more information about those changes.

The historic importance of this document is one reason why we have daily reference to it in this devotional guide, as we seek to make our friends more knowledgeable of its magnificent statements.

Words to live by: Most of the Presbyterian denominations do not require their lay members to take vows which speak of their adoption of these historical creedal standards in order to join the church.  Yet a careful study of, and acceptance of this Confession of Westminster will give you a solid foundation for understanding the doctrine and life of the Word of God.  We urge you to do so, perhaps asking for a class in your church on it, or just studying it yourself for your personal and family benefit.

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Presbyterians ought to know Presbyterianism.

Our series earlier this month, TEN REASONS FOR BEING A PRESBYTERIAN, was well received. So taking that encouragement, our plan is to now present each Saturday for the remainder of this summer a chapter from the little book PRESBYTERIANISM FOR THE PEOPLE, by the Rev. Dr. Robert P. Kerr. Today we present Chapter I.

kerr_robertPThis little volume is not for theologians. There are many abler and more elaborate works on Presbyterianism written for them. It is for the people—the busy, earnest people, who have neither the time nor the taste for an extensive study of this subject, but who ought to know—at least, in a general way—what Presbyterianism is, what it has been in the past, what it believes and teaches. In his pastoral work the author has often wished for such a book, and he earnestly hopes that this one may help supply what he believes to be a real need of the Church. For it he asks the blessing of God and the favor of the people.—R.P.K.
[Robert Pollock Kerr, 1850-1923, pictured at right]

CHAPTER I. — THE STUDY OF PRESBYTERIANISM.

The Presbyterian Church, including all its branches, is the largest Protestant organization in the world. Its communion embraces people of every civilized nation, and it is recognized as one of the great forces of Christendom. Its members have acted a distinguished part in literature, philosophy, science, art and government, as well as in religion, and many of the great names of history are found on its rolls. It has been identified with nearly all great movements looking to the advancement of the highest interests of mankind, in Church and in State. Liberality and breadth of vision have at all times characterized this branch of the Church of Christ. The Presbyterian Church has never been sectarian in its treatment of other denominations, but has acknowledged the churchship of all bodies which hold the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, offering fellowship even to those who would not hold fellowship with it, receiving their members at its communion-table and their ministers into its pulpits.

Indeed, in many cases, Presbyterians have been so liberal as to neglect the study of their own peculiar institutions. Thousands of them are in ignorance of the history of their Church and of the high place it holds among the denominations. A boastful spirit is not to be desired, but Presbyterians ought to know Presbyterianism. They have been noted for the study of the great doctrines of religion rather than of forms of government and worship or of their own peculiarities. In other words, they have studied Christianity more than they have studied Presbyterianism. This is right, but they have gone too far. In doing one they should not have left the other undone. The Shorter Catechism, which was drawn up, in connection with other standards of doctrine, by the Westminster Assembly, in London, in 1646, and which is our great theological text-book, is so thoroughly unsectarian that it has been freely used by other denominations for the instruction of the young, and in some instances by persons who did not know that it was a Presbyterian catechism; for the word “Presbyterian” does not occur in the book.

The study of Presbyterianism need not make men bigoted or exclusive, but should contribute to their efficiency in the grand army of God. The cavalry ought to understand cavalry tactics, the infantry and artillery should master their own respective departments, and all should fight harmoniously, side by side, for one great end.

It is hoped that the perusal of these pages may not tend to sectarianism, but that it may help some Presbyterians to a better understanding of the peculiarities of the Church to which they belong. These peculiarities refer to government and doctrine, and may be described as ecclesiastical republicanism combined with Calvinistic theology.. The subject will be examined under these two divisions, prominence being given to the former, as that is our own peculiar possession, Calvinistic theology being held by several other churches in common with our own.

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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?

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“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.

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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)

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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)

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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)

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