SOME ACCOUNT OF THE ORIGIN OF THE WESTMINSTER CONFESSION AND CATECHISMS.
Most of the Confessions of the Reformed and Lutheran churches were composed by single authors, or by a small group of theologians to whom the task of drawing up a standard of doctrine had been committed. Thus, Luther and Melancthon were the principal authors of the Augsburg Confession, the common standard of faith and bond of union of the Lutheran churches. The Second Helvetic Confession was composed by Bullinger, to whom the work was entrusted by a number of Swiss theologians; and the celebrated Heidelberg Catechism was composed by Ursinus and Olevianus, who had been appointed thereto by Frederick III., Crown Prince of the Palatinate. The Old Scotch Confession, which was the standard of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland for nearly one hundred years before the adoption of the Westminster Confession, was composed by a committee of six theologians, at the head of whom was John Knox, appointed by the Scottish Parliament. The Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England and of the Episcopal Church of America were prepared by the bishops of that Church in 1562, as the result of the revision of "The Forty-two Articles of Edward Sixth," which had been drawn up by Archbishop Cranmer and Bishop Ridley in 1551.
The "Canons of the Synod of Dort," of high authority among all the Reformed churches, and the Standard of the Church of Holland, were on the other hand drawn up by a great international Synod convened in Dort by the States General of the Netherlands, and composed of representatives of all the Reformed churches except that of France. And the Confession of Faith
and Catechisms of our Church were drawn up by a large and illustrious national assembly of divines and civilians convened in Westminster, England, by the Long Parliament from Jul 1, 1643, to Feb 22, 1648; a very brief account of which it is the design of this chapter to give.
The Reformation in Scotland had received its first impulse from the return of the illustrious Patrick Hamilton, in AD 1528, from the Continent, where he had enjoyed the instructions of Luther and Melancthon. It was in no degree a political revolution, nor did it originate with the governing classes. It was purely a religious revolution, wrought among the masses of the people and the body of the Church itself, under the direction at different times of several very eminent leaders, the chief of whom were John Knox and Andrew Melville. "The Church of Scotland framed its Confession of Faith and its First Book of Discipline, and met in its first General Assembly for its own government, seven years before it had even received the sanction of the legislature. Its first General Assembly was held in AD 1560, while the first Act of Parliament recognizing it as the National Church was passed in AD 1567." It continued to maintain in a good degree its independence of civil dictation and its integrity as a Presbyterian Church until after King James assumed the throne of England. After that time, through English influence and the increased power of the throne, the independence of the Church of Scotland was often temporarily destroyed. In resistance to this invasion of their religious liberties, the friends of liberty and of the Reformed religion among the Scotch nobility, clergy and people, signed the ever-memorable National Covenant at Sterling, Feb 28, 1638, and the Solemn League and Covenant between the kingdoms of England and Scotland in AD 1643. "This Solemn League and Covenant (subscribed by the Scotch General Assembly, the English Parliament and Westminster Assembly) bound the united kingdoms to endeavour the preservation of the Reformed religion in the Church of Scotland, in doctrine, worship, discipline and government, and the reformation of religion in the kingdoms of England and Ireland, according to the Word of God and the
example of the best Reformed churches." It was in furtherance of the same design of securing in both kingdoms religious liberty, a more perfect reformation and ecclesiastical uniformity, that the Scotch people gave the effective support of their sympathy to the English Parliament in their struggle with Charles I., and that the Scottish Church sent her most eminent sons as delegates to the Westminster Assembly.
The Reformation in England presents two distinct phases—that of a genuine work of grace, and that of a political and ecclesiastical revolution. In the former character it was introduced by the publication of the Word of God, the Greek Testament of Erasmus, published in Oxford, 1517, and the English translation of the Bible by Tyndal, which was sent over from Worms to England in 1526. By the English Bible, together with the labours of many truly pious men both among the clergy and laity, a thoroughly popular revolution was wrought in the religion of the nation, and its heart rendered permanently Protestant. The real Reformers of England, such as Cranmer, Ridley, Hooper, Latimer and Jewell, were truly evangelical and thoroughly Calvinistic, in full sympathy and constant correspondence with the great theologians and preachers of Switzerland and Germany. This is illustrated in their writings, in the Forty-two Articles of Edward VI., AD 1551, the present doctrinal Articles of the Church of England, prepared in AD 1562, and even in the Lambeth Articles, drawn up by Archbishop Whitgift as late as AD 1595.
Although this work of genuine reformation was in the first instance materially aided by the politico-ecclesiastical revolution introduced by Henry VIII. and confirmed by his daughter, Queen Elizabeth, it was nevertheless greatly impeded and prematurely arrested by it. "The Act of Supremacy," which made the sovereign the earthly head of the Church, and subjected all questions of doctrine, church order and discipline to his absolute control, enabled Elizabeth to arrest the constitutional changes in the Church set up by the process of reform at that precise point which was determined by her worldly taste and her lust of power. An aristocratic hierarchy naturally sided with the Court, and
became the facile instrument of the Crown in repressing both the religious and civil liberties of the people. Gradually the struggle between the party called Puritan and the repressive Court party became more intense and more bitter during the whole period of the reigns of James I. and Charles I. A new element of conflict was introduced in the fact that the despotic Court party naturally abandoned the Calvinism of the founders of the Church, and adopted that Arminianism which has always prevailed among the parasites of arbitrary power and the votaries of a churchly and sacramental religion.
The denial of all reform, and the unrelenting execution of the "Act of Uniformity," repressing all dissent while robbing the people of every trace of religious liberty, necessarily led to such an extension of the royal prerogative, and such constant resort to arbitrary measures and acts of violence, that the civil liberties of the subject were equally trampled under foot. At last, after having for an interval of eleven years attempted to govern the nation through the Star Chamber and Court of High Commission, and having prorogued the refractory Parliament which met in the spring of that year, the king was forced to appeal again to the country, which sent up in Nov, 1640, that illustrious body subsequently known as the Long Parliament. In the May of the next year this body rendered itself practically independent of the king's caprice by passing an act, providing that it should be dissolved only at its own consent, and at the same time all the members of both houses, except two of the peers, subscribed a bond binding them to persevere in the defence of their liberties and of the Protestant religion. In the same year Parliament abolished the Court of High Commission and the Star Chamber; and in Nov, 1642, it was ordained that after Nov 5, 1643, the office of archbishop and bishop, and the whole framework of prelate government, should be abolished.
In Jun 12, 1643, the Parliament passed an act entitled "An ordinance of the Lords and Commons in Parliament, for the calling of an Assembly of Divines and others, to be consulted with by the Parliament for the settling of the government and liturgy of the Church of England, and clearing of the Doctrine of said Church from false aspersions and interpretations." As the
preexisting government of the Church by bishops had ceased to exist, and yet the Church of Christ in England remained, the only universally recognized authority which could convene the representatives of the Church in General Assembly was the National Legislature. The persons who were to constitute this Assembly were named in the ordinance, and comprised the flower of the Church of that age; subsequently about twenty-one clergymen were superadded to make up for the absence of others. The original list embraced the names of ten lords and twenty commoners as lay-members, and one hundred and twenty-one divines. Men of all shades of opinion as to Church government were embraced in this illustrious company—Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Independents and Erastians. "In the original ordinance four bishops were named, one of whom actually attended on the first day, and another excused his absence on the ground of necessary duty; of the others called, five became bishops afterward, 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." The Scotch General Assembly also sent as delegates to Westminster the best and ablest men she had—ministers Alexander Henderson, the author of the Covenant, George Gillespie, Samuel Rutherford and Robert Baillie; and elders Lord John Maitland and Sir Archibald Johnston.
Only sixty appeared the first day, and the average attendance during the protracted sittings of the Assembly ranged between sixty and eighty. Of these the vast majority were Presbyterians, after the Episcopalians had withdrawn subsequently to the signing of the Solemn League and Covenant. The vast majority of the Puritan clergy, after the example of all the Reformed churches of the Continent, were inclined to Presbyterianism, and in many places, especially in the city of London and its neighbourhood, had erected presbyteries.
There were only five prominent Independents in the Assembly, headed by Dr. Thomas Goodwin and Pastor Philip Nye. These were called, from the attitude of opposition to the majority which they occupied, "The Five Dissenting Brethren." In spite of the
smallness of their number, they possessed considerable influence in hindering, and finally preventing, the Assembly in its work of national ecclesiastical construction, and their influence was due to the support they received from politicians without the Assembly, in the Long Parliament, in the army, and, above all, from the great Cromwell himself.
The Erastians, who held that Christian pastors are simply teachers and not rulers in the Church, and that all ecclesiastical as well as all civil power rests exclusively with the civil magistrate, were represented in the Assembly by only two ministers—Thomas Coleman and John Lightfoot, assisted actively by the learned layman, John Selden. Their influence was due to the fact that the Parliament sympathized with them, and as a matter of course all worldly politicians.
The prolocutor, or moderator, appointed by the Parliament, was Dr. Twisse, and after his death he was succeeded by Mr. Herle. On Jul 1, 1643, the Assembly, after hearing a sermon from the prolocutor in the Abbey Church, Westminster, was organized in Henry the VII.'s Chapel. After the weather grew cold they met in the Jerusalem Chamber, "a fair room in the Abbey of Westminster." When the whole Assembly had been divided for despatch of business into three equal committees, they took up the work which was first assigned to them by Parliament—namely, the revision of the "'Thirty-nine Articles," the already existing Creed of the English Church. But on Oct 12, 1643 shortly after subscribing the Solemn League and Covenant, Parliament directed the Assembly "to consider among themselves of such a discipline and government as may be most agreeable to God's holy word." They consequently entered immediately upon the work of preparing a Directory of Government, Worship and Discipline. Being delayed by constant controversies with the Independent and Erastian factions, they did not complete this department of their work until near the close of 1644. Then they began to prepare for the composition of a Confession of Faith, and a committee was appointed to prepare and arrange the main propositions to be embraced in it. This committee consisted of Pastor Drs. Gouge, Temple and Hoyle;
Messrs. Gataker, Arrowsmith, Burroughs, Burgess, Vines and Goodwin, with the Scotch Commissioners.
The committee at first wrought at the work of preparing the Confession and Catechisms simultaneously. "After some progress had been made with both, the Assembly resolved to finish the Confession first, and then to construct the Catechism on its model." They presented in a body the finished Confession to Parliament, Dec 3, 1646, when it was recommitted, that the "Assembly should attach their marginal notes, to prove every part of it by Scripture." They finally reported it as finished, with full Scripture proofs of each separate proposition attached, Apr 29, 1647.
The Shorter Catechism was finished and reported to Parliament Nov 5, 1647, and the Larger Catechism Apr 14, 1648. On Mar 22, 1648, a conference was held between the two Houses, to compare their opinions respecting the Confession of Faith, the result of which is thus stated by Rushworth:
"The Commons this day (Mar 22, 1648), at a conference, presented the Lords with a Confession of Faith passed by them, with some alterations (especially concerning questions of discipline), viz.: That they do agree with their Lordships, and so with the Assembly, in the doctrinal part, and desire the same may be made public, that this kingdom, and all the Reformed churches of Christendom, may see the Parliament of England differ not in doctrine."
The Confession of Faith, Directory of Public Worship and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms were all ratified by the Scotch General Assembly as soon as the several parts of the work were concluded at Westminster.
On Oct 13, 1647, the Long Parliament established the Presbyterian Church in England experimentally, "until the end of the next session of Parliament, which was to be a year after that date." But before that date the Parliament had become subservient to the power of the army under Cromwell. Presbyteries and synods were soon superseded by his Committee of Triers, while the Presbyterian ministers were ejected in mass by Charles II. in 1662.
After the completion of the Catechisms, many of the members quietly dispersed and returned to their homes. "Those that remained in London were chiefly engaged in the examination of such ministers as presented themselves for ordination or induction into vacant charges. They continued to maintain their formal existence until Feb 22, 1649, about three weeks after the king's decapitation, having sat five years, six months and twenty-two days, in which time they had held one thousand one hundred and sixty-three sessions. They were then changed into a committee for conducting the trial and examination of ministers, and continued to hold meetings for this purpose, every Thursday morning, until Mar 25, 1652, when, Oliver Cromwell having forcibly dissolved the Long Parliament by whose authority the Assembly had been at first called together, that committee also broke up, and separated without any formal dissolution, and as a matter of necessity."
The Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly were adopted by the original Synod in North America, AD 1729, as the "Confession of Faith of this Church," and it has been received as the standard of faith by all the branches of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland, England, Ireland and America; and it is highly reverenced, and its Catechisms used as means of public instruction, by all the Congregational bodies of Puritan stock in the world.
Although the Westminster Assembly resolutely excluded from their Confession all that they recognized as savouring of Erastian error, yet their opinions as to church establishments led to views concerning the powers of civil magistrates, concerning religious things (circa sacra), which have always been rejected in this country. Hence, in the original "Adopting Act," the Synod declared that it did not receive the passages relating to this point in the Confession "in any such sense as to suppose the civil magistrate hath a controlling power over synods with respect to the exercise of their ministerial authority; or power to persecute any for their religion, or in any sense contrary to the Protestant succession to the throne of Great Britain."
And again, when the Synod revised and amended its standards in AD 1787, in preparation for the organization of the General Assembly in AD 1789, it "took into consideration the last paragraph of the twentieth chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith; [WCF 20.4] the third paragraph of the twenty-third chapter, [WCF 23.3] and the first paragraph of the thirty-first chapter; [WCF 31.1] and, having made some alterations, agreed that the said paragraphs as now altered be printed for consideration." As thus altered and amended, this Confession and these Catechisms were adopted as the doctrinal part of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America in AD 1788, and so stand to this day.
The original Articles of the Westminster Confession as to the civil magistrate which are altered in our Confession are as follow:
WCF 20.4, of certain offenders it is said: "They may be proceeded against by the censures of the Church and by the power of the civil magistrate." WCF 23.3: "The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church; that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all ordinances of God duly settled, administered and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God." WCF 31.2: "As magistrates may lawfully call a synod of ministers and other fit persons to consult and advise with about matters of religion, so, if magistrates be open enemies to the Church, the ministers of Christ of themselves, by virtue of their office, or they with other fit persons upon delegation from their churches, may meet together in such assemblies."
1. How were most of the Confessions of the Lutheran and Reformed churches composed?
2. What is peculiar in the case of the Canons of the Synod of Dort and the Confession and Catechisms of Westminster?
3. State the general character of the Reformation in Scotland.
4. What were the character and design of the Solemn League and Covenant, and by what parties was it contracted?
5. What was the general character of the Reformation in England?
6. What was the principal instrumentality by which the work was effected?
7. What was the character of the theology, and what the direction of the sympathies, of the early English Reformers?
8. What was the character of the influence exerted upon the English Reformation by her first Protestant sovereigns?
9. What proved to be the civil effects of the attempt upon the part of the Crown to repress religious liberty?
10. State some of the first acts of the Long Parliament.
11. When and for what purpose was the Assembly of Divines called at Westminster?
12. What was the number and what was the character of the persons composing that Assembly?
13. Who were the representatives of the Scotch Church?
14. Into what three principal parties were the members of this Assembly divided? and to which party did the vast majority of the Assembly belong?
15. How was the Assembly organized?
16. What was the first work performed by the Assembly?
17. When and how did they proceed to frame a Confession of Faith?
18. How did they proceed to frame the Catechisms?
19. What was the action of the Long Parliament touching the work of the Assembly?
20. What the action of the Scotch General Assembly as to the same?
21. What was the ultimate fate of the Presbyterian establishment in England?
22. Of what churches is the Westminster Confession the Constitutional Standard of Doctrine?
23. When and with what exceptions was this Confession adopted by the Presbyterian Church in America?
24. When and why and in what sections was it amended?
 Hetherington's "History of the Westminster Assembly," p. 88.
 Hetherington's "History of the Church of Scotland," p. 187.
 Hetherington's "History of the Westminster Assembly," p. 99.
 Hetherington's "History Westminster Assembly," p. 243.
 See "The Westminster Assembly, its History and Standards," by Alex. F. Mitchell, D.D., for the most full and authoritative account of the sources and genesis of the Westminster Confession and Catechism.