My experience over the years as a confessional Presbyterian has been that many who subscribe to or draw heavily on the Westminster Standards (the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Larger Catechism, and the Westminster Shorter Catechism) as the basis for their theological views understand the standards in a manner largely disembodied from the historical context in which they were written. For that reason, it has been often overlooked, or at least greatly underappreciated, that the Westminster Assembly (the ministerial gathering where the standards were crafted) took place at an all-important time in English and Protestant history—namely, the English Civil War (1642–51).
For those who love theology, the temptation can be strong to bypass the assembly’s historical context and to focus on interpreting and applying its doctrinal truths to the contemporary church. Grasping the historical context can be perceived as a necessary evil endured for the sake of appeasing church historians. However, understanding the historical context is integral, not incidental, for a full and robust interpretation, exposition, and application of the confessional, catechetical, and ecclesiastical documents that arose from the Westminster Assembly. Indeed, without an understanding of the assembly’s context, these confessional documents are easily misinterpreted, and the richest of components of these confessional formulations are certainly overlooked. This article will explore the historical context of the Westminster Assembly and end with three reasons why all those who draw on the standards and want to understand their theology should continue studying the assembly’s historical context.
Political Context of the Assembly
The Westminster Assembly took place after a decade of reform under King Charles I and Archbishop William Laud, who persecuted members of the Puritan movement. In 1637, Laud attempted to reform Scotland by mandating that the Scottish church utilize a new version of the Book of Common Prayer, which had been revised in a distinctly Roman Catholic direction. The people rebelled, and a full-blown Scottish revolution ensued. Unfortunately for Charles, his invasions in 1638 and 1639 failed as most of the soldiers were more sympathetic to the Scots than they were to the king. This forced Charles to call Parliament to raise an army to fight the Scots.
The fact that Charles called Parliament in the first place is a testimony to the direness of his situation. Indeed, Charles had not called Parliament, and thus he had ruled alone, for eleven years, a period known as the Personal Rule, after his dissolution of the 1629 Parliament because of its growing sympathy to Puritanism. After this suspension of Parliament, many Puritans left for New England in anticipation that Charles and his fellow anti-Calvinists were headed for a collision with Puritans. By 1640, however, the king had no money and was forced to call Parliament in an effective admission that the Personal Rule had failed. The recall of Parliament in 1640 was a disaster for the king, and the next Parliament was even worse for him, ending with a radical gathering demanding “root and branch” reform of the church and state.
In 1641, Archbishop Laud was arrested and put on trial. In January 1642, Charles fled from London to Oxford after a series of unsuccessful attempts to seize political control of the country. This geographical departure effectively reinforced, and opened up physical space between, the two parties. Surrendering London, the political stronghold, to their enemies had devastating implications for Charles and his Royalist supporters. Although war was now likely, it was obvious that the Royalists were in a weaker position. Men and money were on Parliament’s side, and the New Model Army led by Oliver Cromwell was dominant over Royalist forces. By January 1647, Charles was captured and in the custody of Parliament. While the king had been apprehended, there was significant division over what to do next. Some demanded that he be executed, while others wanted a compromise. The stalemate was finally resolved on December 6, 1648, when New Model Army soldiers prevented eighty-five members of Parliament who were against the execution of the king from entering the House of Commons (an event known as Pride’s Purge), effectively guaranteeing Charles’ fate. He was tried for treason and beheaded on January 30, 1649. To date, he is the only English monarch ever to be executed.
Reforming the Reformation
Since this was a time when political stability and ecclesiastical reform were seen as inseparably linked, as Parliament—which contained a number of influential Puritans—gained political power it pursued a reformation of religion. The seeds of what would eventually become the Westminster Assembly were planted in 1641 with petitions for “a free synod to Reform the Reformation itself” that would not only reverse Laudian reform but establish a purity of worship, polity, and doctrine. Parliament also crafted the Solemn League and Covenant (1643), a contract between it and the Scottish rebels stating that Parliament supported the Scots in their rebellion over the prayer book. Although Parliament wanted the king’s consent, Charles condemned the Westminster Assembly and Solemn League and Covenant as treasonous against the king.
On June 12, 1643, Parliament released a summoning ordinance to gather together “an Assemblie of Learned and Godlie divines . . . for the Settling of the Government and the Litturgie of the Church of England.” In The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, Chad Van Dixhoorn has shown how assembly members were chosen by Parliament through an advisory board made up of clergymen. The support of major Puritan leaders and the existence of personal relationships between invited members and the selection committee were the primary factors in determining who was invited to the assembly. The total number of invited participants was 120, although the average attendance of most sessions was between seventy and eighty divines, as the members are called. Also, the terminological parallels between the Westminster Assembly summons and the Solemn League and Covenant reveals that attendance at the Westminster Assembly was the definitive litmus test for Calvinist clergy regarding their political allegiance. Although initially there was some desire for international participation in the assembly, as happened with the Synod of Dort, this never came to fruition. The assembly eventually convened on July 1, 1643, to redefine and refine orthodoxy in England after a tumultuous decade of Laudian reform. This body was the intellectual engine behind Parliament and the Puritan revolution and became one of the most formidable institutions in Britain during this time.
The assembly met extensively over a decade of turmoil—1,330 times from 1643 to 1652—and then appeared to meet for another year, likely on a weekly basis. The divines gathered Monday through Friday, beginning their days at 6 a.m. with a lecture and prayer, followed by a sermon from a probationary minister, and then held committee meetings. The plenary sessions began at nine a.m. and consisted of debating the day’s proposition until lunch (usually breaking between noon and two p.m.). After lunch were further committee meetings until around five p.m. or later. In all, Van Dixhoorn notes that at least 2,400 people were present on 11,300 separate occurrences during the assembly. While the divines’ initial aim was to reform the Thirty-Nine Articles, eventually they pursued a full-scale reformation of English worship, doctrine, and church government.
There were many practical matters involved in the divines’ attendance at the assembly, including many divines’ relocating their families to London to participate. This explains why only half of those invited were present at the opening ceremony. Members were paid four shillings per day for their labors, though in the end, members only received half of the final remuneration that was due to them. Understanding the context allows us to appreciate the literal blood, sweat, and tears that went into crafting these principal documents. This reveals that far from being armchair theologians, these men understood that the matters they were considering were truly matters of life and death. They pursued their ministry in the midst of a gruesome civil war that divided the country and resulted in the execution of the king. As a result of these labors, they produced not only the Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms but also the Directory of Worship, a psalter, and other shorter papers. They also examined more than two thousand preachers and some heretics.
Three Practical Reasons to Continue Studying the Assembly
Since this article has merely scratched the surface of the assembly’s context, I want to end with three reasons one should continue studying its historical context. First, understanding the historical context of the Westminster Assembly cultivates theological integrity. Since these documents arose from a specific period in the history of the church, to study them in their historical context is to study them on their own terms. Many secular scholars have studied the Bible, theology, and church history in the service of their own secular goals. Likewise, all too often, confessional theologians and pastors have made the same error by distorting the Westminster divines’ positions in service of defending their own theological views. Understanding the divines on their own terms will guard us from making this mistake.
Second, understanding the historical context can give insight into theological meaning. Theological (and especially polemical) statements were often crafted in response to competing doctrinal positions on various issues. Thus, understanding the various figures and movements to which the divines were responding can aid one in understanding the meaning and motivations underpinning these doctrines.
Finally, studying theology in its historical context produces the most practical and experientially edifying application. There has been quite a lot of hagiography (embellished history) written on the Westminster Assembly. Perhaps what is most unfortunate about this is that real history, rather than hagiography, is the most practical kind of history. Indeed, when the imagined romanticism of the assembly is stripped away and we see these divines for who they were—greatly gifted, but struggling against their own sin and finitude—we are reminded that God used sinners to advance His kingdom. Despite living in a time of pandemic, political turmoil, and deep unrest, we can have confidence that the same God who preserved, provided for, and reformed His church will likewise sustain, sanctify, and use it, despite the sin, weakness, and failures that permeate both it and our society.