Why Study the Westminster Assembly?

August 27, 2010

by Chad Van Dixhoorn

Last year my wife announced that I had been studying the Westminster Assembly longer than the gathering had met. She was amused. I had been working on the Assembly for eleven years; the Assembly had met for ten. In defense of myself, I should say that I discovered recently that the Assembly actually met for eleven years. But since it took me another year to figure this out, Emily’s point still stands: this has taken a while.

When a person spends a decade of life working on a single project, it requires some justification. Really, what is so special about the Westminster Assembly anyway? Since this is a question that I am often asked, and since by now I ought to have an answer, I want to provide . . . readers . . . with that answer. Elsewhere and on another occasion it might be appropriate to mention some of the failures of the Assembly. Here and now I wish to catalogue six reasons why various people, myself included, continue to find the Westminster Assembly an event worthy of their attention.

A Great Story

The Assembly enjoyed a storybook setting and enough messy drama and high politics to entertain Christians and non-Christians alike.

The first reason why the Assembly is worth noticing, is that it is a great story. The Westminster Assembly—what foreigners then called the “Synod of London”—was in many ways the high point of the Puritan experiment. The synod came after years of suffering by godly people, and although some of that suffering was self-induced through bad decisions and ill-timed confrontations, most of it was not. Indeed, the plight of the godly, never good, had reached one of its all-time lows in the 1630s. But then, unexpectedly, events in England, Scotland, and Ireland conspired together to produce a war, and the war called for a religious solution to the religious problems, and eventually an Assembly of 121 godly divines (theologians) was called, plus thirty political observers.

The Assembly opened on July 1, 1643, and from that point forward the gathering was celebrated or hated as the mastermind behind a revolution in the church—but never ignored. Members of the Assembly were paraded down London’s streets and feasted at banquets. People across Britain and Europe sought the Assembly’s patronage and approval. Everyone from an unknown Muslim to an aristocrat hoping to secure the English throne made their way to Westminster Abbey to meet with the Assembly or to ask permission to hear them debate. People wrote from Europe to present the Assembly with their cases of conscience. Printers tried to get the rights to the Assembly’s productions and pirated them if they could not. Booksellers promoted the works of Assembly members, and newspapers reported their activities—or, in the absence of any real news, simply made something up.

The Assembly had been called by the English Parliament to reform the doctrine, liturgy, and discipline of the Church of England, and it did much more than it was asked. It reformed the church and the universities. From birth to marriage to the grave, no ceremony or symbol was left untouched. Its impact, after the signing of a Solemn League and Covenant with England’s neighbors to the north and west, was also felt in Scotland and Ireland.

Often at great risk to themselves, their families, and their property, Assembly members continued to meet through three civil wars, notable London riots, and one showdown with Parliament. Set in an ancient abbey, across the street from the rebel parliament and a constant fairground of activity, the Assembly enjoyed a storybook setting and enough messy drama and high politics to entertain Christians and non-Christians alike. Perhaps that is why much of the work on the Assembly has been supported by the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust, and is to be published by a university press. The Assembly was a major player in one of the most significant decades in British history, and historians recognize a good story when they see one.

An Unusual Assembly

Membership at the Assembly made a reputation, not the other way around.

The second reason why the Assembly is fascinating is that it left behind a documentary record almost unparalleled in the history of Christianity. Most of the work of the Christian church is done by ordinary people, but most of its history is told through the lens of great theological heroes. The reason for this, in part, is that the records of synods and councils are often sparse. Heroes have biographers; church councils do not. Celebrated people often leave behind their writings, whereas councils leave a creed, some canons or resolutions, and perhaps their votes and less significant decisions.

The Westminster Assembly is different. Most of the men who attended were not already legends in their own day. Membership at the Assembly made a reputation, not the other way around. The Assembly is remembered more than its participants—not least because one of the synod’s scribes spent much of his time working as the Assembly’s historian. In thousands of pages, he not only recorded Assembly decisions, but also speeches, comments, and the arguments of individual members. In a treasure trove for historians and biographers alike, he left a record of events and a window into personalities that is unique, or virtually unique, in the history of Christian synods and councils.

The Assembly also produced dozens of papers, petitions, and directories, along with two confessions (one shorter, one longer) and two catechisms (one shorter, one longer). The extant minutes document almost two thousand examinations of preachers for churches, fellows for colleges, and heretics for heresy. More than twice that number came before the Assembly.

The surviving record, it must be said, will never be easy to read, nor is it complete. Some sessions have multiple accounts, some hardly anything at all. Some debates are summarized in a line, some in thousands of words. But if one adds to the Assembly’s own records the journal of an Assembly member discovered in 2001, we now, at least, have information about every day that the Assembly met, excepting the last year of its meetings, where we have newspaper reports only. Nonetheless, the story of the Westminster Assembly can be told like few other stories of major Christian assemblies, and for this reason, too, it is worthy of our attention.

. . . continue reading at New Horizons.

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