The Westminster Assembly
The Westminster Assembly of Divines was appointed by the Long Parliament during the English Civil War to discuss reform of the Church of England. A reforming synod was first proposed in the Grand Remonstrance of November 1641. A bill authorising an Assembly was passed by both Houses of Parliament in June 1642 but King Charles withheld his assent. A year later, with King and Parliament openly at war, Parliament passed an ordinance on 12 June 1643 calling the Assembly under its own authority.
Despite a royal proclamation prohibiting its meeting, the Assembly first convened on 1 July 1643 at the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey, later moving to the Abbey's Jerusalem Chamber. Ten members of the House of Lords and thirty members of the Commons were appointed as lay assessors to the main assembly of 120 clergymen, or divines, from all counties of England and Wales. The Assembly first met against the background of Parliament's negotiations for a military alliance with the Scottish Covenanters who sought the unification of the churches of England and Scotland under a Presbyterian system of church government. Twelve Scottish commissioners were authorised to attend the Assembly.
The earliest meetings of the Assembly debated a revision of the Thirty-Nine Articles, which had been established as the basis of Church of England doctrine in 1563 during the reign of Elizabeth I. After the signing of the Solemn League and Covenant between Parliament and the Covenanters in September 1643, the Assembly was directed by Parliament to debate reform of church government and to consider proposals for the unification of the English and Scottish churches. The debates continued throughout 1643-6. Presbyterian clergymen formed the largest group in the Assembly but few in England were willing to accept the Scottish Kirk as the model for reform of the English church. A Presbyterian settlement was fiercely opposed by Independent ministers who wanted toleration of the independent sects and congregations. A third group, known as the Erastians, argued that civil authority should have precedence over ecclesiastical law. To the disillusionment of the Covenanters, an ordinance was finally passed in March 1646 to set up a limited Presbyterian system in England in which the Church was subordinate to Parliament.
In October 1644, the Westminster Assembly began preparing a Directory of Worship to replace the Book of Common Prayer, which was abolished in January 1645. Three years were spent over the preparation of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which set out the creed of the reformed Church of England. The final form of the Confession, with scriptural proofs of its clauses, was approved by both Houses of Parliament in April 1647 and by the General Assembly of the Scottish Church in August. Two Catechisms and the Form of Presbyterial Church-Government, which summarised the principles of the reformed doctrines, were approved by the Westminster Parliament by November 1647. The Scottish General Assembly approved the Catechisms in July 1648; they were ratified by the Scottish Parliament, along with the Confession of Faith, in February 1649.
After February 1649, the Westminster Assembly continued to sit as a committee to examine ministers for ordination and to consider other judicial matters. It was never formally dissolved but ceased to exist after Cromwell's expulsion of the Rump in 1653. The reforms of the Church of England implemented by the Westminster Assembly remained in force throughout the Commonwealth and Protectorate but were revoked at the Restoration in 1660. However, they remained in force for the Church of Scotland and formed the doctrinal basis of Presbyterian churches subsequently established in Europe and America.
S.R. Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War vols. i, ii & iii, (London 1888-9)
John Murray, The Calling of the Westminster Assembly (The Presbyterian Guardian 1942)
John Murray, The Work of the Westminster Assembly (The Presbyterian Guardian 1942)
John Murray, Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly (The Presbyterian Guardian 1943)
David Stevenson, The Scottish Revolution 1637-44 (Newton Abbott 1973)
The Westminster Standards 1647 A Puritan's Mind website
W.M. Hetherington, History of the Westminster Assembly of Divines www.reformed.org