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.