WILLIAM MAXWELL HETHERINGTON,
D. D., LL. D.
CONCLUSION OF THE WESTMINSTER ASSEMBLY.
The Larger and Shorter Catechisms – Inquiry concerning their Authorship – Departure of the Scottish Commissioners – Final Dissolution of the Westminster Assembly – The Ratification of the Directory of Worship, and of Church Government by the Church of Scotland – Also of the Confession of Faith, with an Explanation Guarding against any Erastian Construction – Brief View of Public Events connected with the Assembly’s Proceedings – Struggle between the Parliament and the Army – Cromwell’s Usurpation – Death of Charles I – Dissolution of the Long Parliament and the Westminster Assembly – Synod of London – The Independents in power – Committee of Triers – The Savoy Confession – Restoration of Charles II – Prelacy Restored – Act of Uniformity and Ejection of Two Thousand Presbyterian Ministers on St. Bartholomew’s Day – Retrospective Review and Summary of the Westminster Assembly’s Proceedings – Religious Uniformity in the Three Kingdoms by Mutual Consultation, intended to Form the Basis of a Secure and Permanent Peace – Erastian Element and its Consequences – Mutual Misunderstandings – Mutual Agreement – Effect on the Universities – On Theological Literature – On Education – State of the Kingdom and Army – Sectarians – Toleration – Its True Nature Intimated – How Misunderstood by both Parties – Liberty of Conscience – Unlimited Toleration not Granted by the Independents when in Power – Great Idea of a General Protestant Union entertained by the Westminster Assembly – How yet Attainable – Theological Productions of the Westminster Assembly – Conclusion.
ALTHOUGH the chief duties for which the Assembly of Divines were summoned to meet at Westminster, may be regarded as having been discharged when they had prepared and laid before the Parliament Directories for Public Worship and Ordination, a Form of Government, Rules of Discipline, and a Confession of Faith, yet there remained several matters, subordinate indeed, but still important, on account of which they continued to sit and deliberate for some time longer, an outline of which we now proceed to give, before offering some concluding remarks on the whole subject.
A catechism for the instruction of children and of the comparatively ignorant in religious truth will always be regarded as a most important matter by every true Christian Church; and as the Catechism of the Church of England was undeniably both meager and unsound, it formed a part of the Assembly’s duty to prepare a more accurate and complete catechism, as a portion of the national system to be established. The attention of the Assembly was occupied almost entirely by the discussions respecting the Directories of Ordination and Worship, till towards the end of 1644. They then began to prepare for composing a Confession of Faith and a Catechism; and according to their usual course of procedure, committees were appointed to draw up an outline, in regular systematic order, for the consideration of the Assembly. But the progress of the Assembly in these points was retarded by the various events which have been already related, so that little was done till towards the end of May 1645. The committees from that time forward carried on their labors in preparing the Confession and the Catechism simultaneously, but, as Baillie says, "languidly, the minds of the divines being enfeebled by the delay of the House to grant the petition respecting power to exclude scandalous persons from communion." After some progress had been made with both, the Assembly resolved to finish the Confession first, and then to construct the Catechism upon its model, so far at least as to have no proposition in the one which was not in the other; by which arrangement there would be left scarcely any ground for subsequent debate and delay. But political1 movements, answers to the Independents and to the Erastians, and other disturbing influences, so impeded the Assembly’s progress, that the Catechisms were not so speedily completed as had been expected. The Shorter Catechism was presented to the House of Commons on the 5th of November 1647, and the Larger on the 14th of April 1648. After they had been carefully perused by the Parliament, an order was issued on the 15th of September 1648, commanding them to be printed for public use. The king, during his residence in the Isle of Wight, after many solicitations, consented to license the Shorter Catechism, with a suitable preface; but as the negotiations did not end in a treaty, that consent was never realized.
There have been many inquiries instituted in order to ascertain, if possible, by whom the original outline of the Catechism was prepared, but hitherto without success. In our opinion, there is no reason to think that it was done by any one person. Committees were appointed to prepare every thing that was to be brought before the Assembly. We find no separate committee named expressly for the purpose of drawing up the Catechism; and we find repeated proofs of a very close connection between the Catechism band the Confession. It may reasonably be inferred that both subjects were conducted by the same committee, which was composed of Drs. Gouge and Hoyle, Messrs Herle, Gataker, Tuckney, Reynolds, Vines, and the Scottish ministers. Some add Arrowsmith and Palmer; both men of great piety, learning and abilities, and the latter termed by Baillie "the best catechist in England." Palmer, it appears, was appointed to draw up a section in the Directory of Public Worship, on catechizing; but it did not give satisfaction, and that topic was not inserted in the Directory. 2 Scarcely could it be called an unfair inference, were we to conclude from this fact that Palmer had no peculiar share in framing the Catechism. It may be mentioned, that Dr. Arrowsmith was appointed Master of St. John’s College, Cambridge, in the year 1644, before the Catechism was begun, and that his attendance upon the Assembly after that period was only occasional, in consequence of the new sphere of duties on which he was called to enter. Mr. Palmer was also constituted Master of Queen’s College, Cambridge, in the same year; but he continued to attend the Assembly very constantly till the time of his death, in the year 1647, – at which time the Catechism was still unfinished. It has been also conjectured, that the first outline of the Catechism may have been drawn by Dr. Wallis, one of the scribes of the Assembly at that period, and afterwards so justly celebrated as Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford, and one of the first mathematicians of the age. This conjecture may have arisen from the fact that he wrote a short treatise, entitled, "A Brief and Easy Explanation of the Shorter Catechism;" which was so much approved of by the Assembly that they caused it to be presented to both Houses of Parliament. But in truth, as has been already suggested, the 3 framing of the Catechism appears to have been the work of the committee, and not of any one individual; and it was brought to its present admirable degree of nearness to perfection by the united deliberations of the whole Assembly.
The chief matters on account of which the Assembly had been called together being now completed, so far as depended on that venerable body itself, the Scottish commissioners prepared to take their departure. This, indeed, had to a certain extent already taken place, though not formally. The celebrated Alexander Henderson had been sent to Newcastle to converse with the king, during his majesty’s residence along with the Scottish army, for the purpose of endeavoring to persuade him to consent to such terms as might form the basis of a satisfactory and permanent peace. Exhausted already with the long continuance and severity of his arduous public toils, and finding it impossible to make any impression on the mind of the infatuated monarch, Henderson left Newcastle and returned to Edinburgh; where he soon afterwards died, leaving behind him a reputation unsurpassed by any man since the days of the first reformers. And towards the close of the year 1646, Baillie obtained permission to leave the Assembly and return to Scotland, that he might communicate to the Commission of the Scottish General Assembly what had been done by the Westminster Divines, preparatory for the meeting of the Assembly at Edinburgh in August 1647, when it was expected that the proceedings of the Westminster Assembly would be formally considered and approved of by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, as the ground of the desired uniformity in religion between the two kingdoms. Gillespie and Rutherford still remained, as the Westminster Assembly had been required by the Parliament to add Scripture proofs to the Confession of Faith; but Gillespie left London in time to be present in the General Assembly, Rutherford remaining a little longer. It may be stated, that the Assembly had intentionally abstained from inserting texts of Scripture in the copy of the Confession first presented to Parliament, not because they had themselves any difficulty in doing so, but to avoid giving offense to the Parliament, whose custom had previously been, to enact nothing concerning religion on divine right, or on scriptural grounds. This change4 in the procedure of the Parliament was doubtless intended to cause delay; but its effect was, the rendering of the Confession a much more perfect work than it would otherwise have been.
On the 24th of October 1647, Samuel Rutherford moved, that it might be recorded in the books of the scribes, that the Assembly had enjoyed the assistance of the honorable, reverend, and learned commissioners of the Church of Scotland, during all the time they had been debating and perfecting these four things mentioned in the Covenant, namely, a Directory for Public Worship, a uniform Confession of Faith, a Form of Church Government and Discipline, and a public Catechism. The Assembly assented unanimously to this motion; and Mr. Herle, the prolocutor, rose up, and, in the name of the Assembly, returned thanks to the honorable and reverend commissioners for their assistance. He went on to explain the causes which prevented the Directory from being so well observed as it ought to be, and lamented that the Assembly had not power to call offenders to account. He further adverted to the chaos of confusion in which public affairs in England were continuing, the king having been seized by the army, and the Parliament being overawed by the same usurping power; acknowledging that their extraordinary successes hitherto had been granted in answer to the prayers of their brethren of Scotland, and other Protestants abroad, as well as to their own. 5
The business of the Assembly was now virtually at an end. The subjects brought before them by Parliament had been all fully discussed, and the result of their long and well-matured deliberations presented to both Houses, to be approved or rejected by the supreme civil power on its own responsibility. But the Parliament neither fully approved nor rejected the Assembly’s productions, nor yet issued an ordinance for a formal dissolution of that venerable body. Negotiations were still going on with the king; and in one of the papers which passed between his majesty and the Parliament, he signified his willingness to sanction the continuation of Presbyterian Church government for three years; and also, that the Assembly should continue to sit and deliberate, his majesty being allowed to nominate twenty Episcopalian divines to be added to it, for the purpose of having the whole subject of religion again formally debated. To this proposal the Parliament refused to consent; but it probably tended to prevent them from formally dissolving the Assembly, so long as there remained any shadow of hope that a pacific arrangement might be effected with his majesty.
In the meantime many members of the Assembly, especially those from the country, returned to their own homes and ordinary duties; and those who 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 till the 22d of February 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 till the 25th of March 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.
As the main object of the Westminster Assembly was, to frame such a system of Church government and public worship as might unite the kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland, in religious uniformity, and as the Assembly had completed its task, the next point was to lay the result of its labors before the Church of Scotland, that its consent might be obtained. This was in perfect harmony with the whole procedure of Scotland in this great and sacred enterprise. The Church of Scotland had neither the power nor the wish to force its system upon England; as little would it have submitted to English dictation in a matter so important: and although the English Parliament had not fully ratified all the propositions of the Westminster Assembly, yet, since these were completed, the delay of England was no sufficient reason why the Church and kingdom of Scotland should also delay, if satisfied with the system which the Assembly of Divines had prepared. Even before the completion of the Westminster Assembly’s labors, the Church of Scotland had shown its satisfaction and its readiness to promote the desired uniformity; for, in the General Assembly held at Edinburgh early in the year 1645, an act of Assembly was passed on the 3d of February, ratifying the Directory of Public Worship; and on the 15th of February another act was passed, ratifying the Form of Church Government and Ordination, though these had not yet received the full ratification of the English Parliament. Again, in the General Assembly which met in August 1647, the Confession of Faith was taken into consideration, copies having been previously distributed throughout the Church, and was solemnly ratified by an act of Assembly passed on the 27th of August 1647. The Larger and Shorter Catechisms, not being ready at that time, owing to the delays which had impeded the progress of the Westminster Divines, were not ratified till the following year, when both of them obtained the full sanction of the General Assembly in July 1648.
It may be necessary to mention, that so jealous was the Church of Scotland lest her sanction should be given to any thing which bore an Erastian taint, or might, by perverse ingenuity, be so construed, that in the act of Assembly which ratified the Confession of Faith, an explanation was inserted, giving the Assembly’s understanding of some parts of the second article of the thirty-first chapter, which seemed, or might be interpreted to seem, to grant more power to the civil magistrate in the calling of synods than the Church of Scotland was prepared to admit. And still more completely to guard against the very suspicion of any tincture of Erastianism, the Assembly caused to be printed a series of propositions, or "Theses against Erastianism," as Baillie terms them, amounting to one hundred and eleven, drawn up by George Gillespie, embodying eight of them in the act which authorized their publication. It is impossible to peruse these hundred and eleven propositions without being thoroughly convinced, that the General Assembly never would have ratified the Confession of Faith if they had understood it to contain any such Erastian taint as some in modern times have affected to discover in it. Let the third section of the twenty-third chapter be carefully perused by any intelligent and candid person, in connection with the whole proceedings of the Assembly of Divines at Westminster, and of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and with the hundred and eleven propositions, and he must conclude that it cannot possibly have an Erastian meaning, even though he should be unable to state what it really does mean; unless, indeed, he were to suppose that the Westminster Assembly and the Church of Scotland did not understand the true meaning of their own propositions. But the truth appears to be, that the learned and able men of that period had so thoroughly studied and mastered the essential elements of the Erastian controversy, that they could state the propositions respecting the duty and power of the civil magistrate circa sacra, about religious matters, without admitting his possession of any duty and power in sacris, in religious matters, in terms which, to their practiced minds, marked the boundaries in sharp and narrow but clear and definite distinctions; while men who have not so deeply studied these subjects, and whose mental acumen has not been so much exercised, cannot trace, and are perpetually crossing, these boundary-lines, more, it may be, from want of perspicacity or knowledge, than in willful perverseness. A full and clear history of the Erastian controversy, stating distinctly the great principles which it involves, and their bearing upon liberty, civil and religious, would be a work of incalculable value at the present time, – that very controversy having again begun to disturb men’s minds, and threatening to shake to pieces the most valuable institutions, if not to overturn the entire structure of society.
Although the course of events has led to the statement of the Westminster Assembly’s dissolution, with which this narrative might close, yet, as its influence did not at once terminate with its actual duration, it seems expedient to give a brief outline of some of the leading events which still retained its impress, till they became almost indistinguishably blended with the onward movements of the national mind and history. It will be remembered, that a new element was introduced into the acting powers of the body politic, when, by means of the "self-denying ordinance," members of Parliament were prohibited from holding any post in the army, and new general officers were appointed, while a special permission was given to Cromwell enabling him to retain his military command. From that time forward there was a distinction of aims and interests between the Parliament and the army, although they continued their mutual cooperation till the king’s power was laid prostrate. In the Parliament, the Presbyterian party retained the ascendancy; in the army, the Independents appeared to do so, although they formed but one of the many sects of which it was almost entirely composed. For some time after the king had taken up his residence at Holmby, the disagreement between the Parliament and the army appeared only in the shape of negotiations in the terms of which the two parties could not agree, – the Parliament wishing to disband a large proportion of the troops, and to send a considerable body to Ireland, to suppress the Popish insurrection in that country, – and the army petitioning for an act of indemnity for any illegal actions they might have committed during the war. This petition was stigmatized by the Commons as of a mutinous tendency, subjecting its promoters to be proceeded against as disturbers of the public peace. The army immediately formed a council of the principal officers, to deliberate for their own protection; and to this was added two soldiers out of each company, to assist the officers in their council. To these soldiers was given the designation, adjutators, or assistants; but this somewhat pedantic title very speedily degenerated into the more intelligible word, agitators, – by which name, accordingly, they are best known. The disagreement continuing, the army seized possession of the king’s person, and marched towards London, declaring their intention to new-model the government, as the only method of securing a settled peace to the nation. Eleven of the leading Presbyterian members of the House of Commons were accused as guilty of high treason, and enemies of the army, and, with equally unwise and unmanly terror, left the House.
The city of London prepared to meet the danger, – enrolled the militia, threw up defenses, and made ready to repel force by force. But the Parliament was divided. The Speakers of both Houses favored the Independents, and the absence of the eleven impeached members discouraged their party. The two Speakers and about sixty-two of the members retired to the army. This gave to that formidable power what it wanted, – the semblance of being engaged in defense of the Legislature itself, – and with increased alacrity it advanced against the city. Strife and confusion had, in the meantime, done their work. Without men of ability and determination to direct and lead them on, the citizens were unable to encounter a veteran army, and London threw open its gates, and submitted to a power, formidable indeed, but utterly unable to have taken forcible possession of the city, had it been boldly and vigorously defended.
The army having thus manifested its power, recoiled a little and allowed the Parliament to continue to sit and deliberate, as if still the supreme authority in the nation, although the king was carefully retained under the superintendence of the military leaders. At length Charles contrived to escape from Hampton Court, with the intention of withdrawing from the kingdom, and seeking the aid of foreign powers to reinstate him on his throne; but not being able to procure a passage, he entrusted himself to Hammond, governor of the Isle of Wight, by whom he was kept in Carisbrooke Castle, in real imprisonment, though treated with respect. A series of negotiations for a treaty was resumed between the king and the Parliament, which, like every preceding attempt, proved abortive, in consequence of that strange peculiarity in his majesty’s character, the union of inflexible obstinacy in one point, with boundless and incurable dissimulation in every other. At the very time that the king was treating with the English Parliament for peace, he was framing a private engagement with the Scottish Royalists, by means of which he hoped to recover his power by force of arms. This led to the march into England of another Scottish army, under the command of the Duke of Hamilton, who had obtained a temporary ascendancy in the Scottish Parliament, but against the opposition, and under the protest of the true and faithful Covenanters. Cromwell marched against this army, defeated it, and returned to London determined to put an end to the struggle, by putting to death a monarch whose principles were of the most despotic character, and upon whose most solemn treaties no reliance could be placed. Again was the Parliament subjected to military force. Upwards of forty of the Presbyterian members were cast into confinement; above one hundred and sixty were excluded from the House; and none were suffered to sit and deliberate but the most determined Sectarians, in all not exceeding sixty. This violent invasion of parliamentary rights is commonly termed "Pride’s purge," from the name of Colonel Pride, the person who commanded the military detachment by which it was perpetrated; and the parliamentary section which was allowed to remain, is known by the designation of the Rump Parliament.
The republican revolution now swept onward with great rapidity and irresistible force. It was resolved that the king should be brought to trial, as guilty of treason against the people of England, before what was termed a Court of Justice. The House of Lords refused to give their consent; and the Commons voted the concurrence of the Lords to be unnecessary, the people being the source of all just power. The unfortunate king was brought before the Court of Justice, and accused of treason. He declined their jurisdiction, and defended himself with great dignity and courage. But all his defenses were overruled. The dread sentence was pronounced; and on the 30th of January 1649, he perished on the scaffold, the victim of an inflexible attachment to superstitious observances and despotic principles, and of an incurable perseverance in the art of dissimulation; yet in his last moments displaying a degree of personal intrepidity, firmness of character, and Christian-like calmness and elevation of mind, worthy of a better cause.
No sooner had the tidings of the ill-fated monarch’s tragic end reached Scotland, than it called forth a burst of intense sorrow and indignation from the heart of every true Presbyterian Covenanter in the kingdom. Arrangements were instantly made for placing the young prince on the Scottish throne, and supporting him there by force of arms, if necessary, provided he would subscribe the Covenant. To this Charles was unwilling to consent, if he could otherwise obtain his purpose; and with this design held the Scottish commissioners in terms, while conducting a private treaty with Montrose, in the hope of securing the kingdom by his means without any stipulation. But while in this he showed proofs of hereditary dissimulation, when Montrose failed, he consented to swear the Covenant which he never intended to keep: in this respect committing a crime darker far than any with which his father’s memory is chargeable; for though Charles I seems to have regarded dissimulation as allowable in diplomacy, – which perhaps statesmen in general may be thought also to do, – he reverenced an oath, and would not on any account have sworn what he did not intend to perform. But Cromwell was not disposed to permit the establishment of the royal power in Scotland, by which his own supremacy might be endangered. He therefore marched northwards at the head of his veteran army, invaded Scotland, and after a series of military movements, in which he was fairly matched by David Leslie, he gained a decisive victory near Dunbar. The Scottish army rallied and took up a strong position near Stirling; but their flank being turned, and their resources cut off, the young prince adopted the daring enterprise of marching into England, hoping to be joined by the Royalists in that country. His hopes were disappointed, that party being thoroughly broken and dispirited; and being overtaken by Cromwell, a final struggle took place at Worcester, which ended in the total rout and dispersion of the royal army. After encountering many perilous adventures and narrow escapes, Charles fled to the Continent, and Cromwell returned to London to consolidate that power in which he had now no rival but the degraded Rump of the Long Parliament. As he no longer needed the services of that faction, he fostered, or at least encouraged a quarrel between the army and Parliament, and taking part with the former, he hastened to the House of Commons, assailed the astonished members with a torrent of violent invectives, ordered the mace, "that bauble," to be taken away, called in the military to eject the dismayed but struggling members, and having locked the door, put the key in his pocket, and returned to Whitehall. So fell the English Parliament beneath the power of military usurpation; and at the same moment terminated the Westminster Assembly.
It will be remembered, that London and its immediate vicinity had been formed into twelve Presbyteries, constituting the Provincial Synod of London. This Synod continued to hold regular half-yearly meetings till the year 1655, without encountering any direct obstruction from Cromwell, but receiving no encouragement. They then ceased to hold regular meetings as a Synod, but continued to meet as Presbyteries, and to maintain, as far as possible, every other point of Presbyterian Church government and discipline. It is probable, or rather certain, that their ceasing to act as a Synod was caused by the conduct of Cromwell in regard to religious matters. When, upon the death of the king, the government of England was changed to a commonwealth, an ordinance was passed appointing an engagement to be taken, first by all civil and military officers, and afterwards by all who held official situations in the universities; and at last it was further ordered that no minister be capable of enjoying any preferment in the Church, unless he should, within six months, take the engagement publicly before the congregation. The consequence of this was, that while the engagement was readily taken by all the Sectarians, and by many Episcopalians of lax principles, it was refused by great numbers of the Presbyterians, several of whom were in a short time ejected from the situations to which they had been appointed by the Parliament. Cromwell and his council, carrying into full execution this course of procedure, certainly not that of toleration, immediately placed Independents in the situations thus rendered vacant by the ejection of the Presbyterians, prohibited the publication of pamphlets censuring the conduct of the new government, and abolished the monthly fasts, which had continued to be regularly kept for about seven years, and whose sacred influence had often been deeply and beneficially felt by both Parliament and Assembly. The Rev. Christopher Love was beheaded for being engaged in, or cognizant of, a correspondence with Scotland for the purpose of supporting the interests of Charles II. Not long afterwards, in the year 1654, an ordinance of council was issued, appointing a new committee of thirty-eight persons, nine of whom were laymen, to examine and approve all who should be presented, nominated, chosen, or appointed to any benefice with cure of souls, or to any public settled lecture in England or Wales. Of this new committee, commonly called Triers, some were Presbyterians, a large proportion Independents, and a few were Baptists. Any five were sufficient to approve; but no number under nine had power to reject a person as unqualified. In this manner, although the Presbyterian Church government was not formally abolished by Cromwell, its power was transferred to the hands of the committee of Triers, and consequently the Synods ceased to hold meetings which could no longer exercise any authority. This committee continued to exercise its functions till the Protector’s death in 1658, when it was discontinued.
Another ordinance appointed commissioners, chiefly laymen, for every county, with power to eject scandalous, ignorant, and insufficient ministers and schoolmasters. This also superseded the previous arrangements which had been made by the Long Parliament for a similar purpose, and tended to bring every ecclesiastical matter under the direct control of the civil power, and in a great measure under the superintendence of the Protector himself and his council. By this ordinance, as well as by that of the Parliament, it was appointed that ample time should be allowed to the ejected person for his removal, and the fifths of the benefice were reserved for the support of his family. When the Prelatic party silenced and deposed the Puritans and Nonconformists of other days, no such generosity was shown to them or their families; but neither the Presbyterians nor the Independents were so forgetful of the principles of Christianity as to requite evil with evil, but showed kindness to their former calumniators and oppressors.
The Independents were now raised to the enjoyment of a large measure of power and favor, though the Protector managed to reserve to himself the reality without the name of ecclesiastical supremacy. They felt, accordingly, that they might now safely adopt a course on which nothing had hitherto been able to induce them to enter, – the preparation, namely, of some public document of the nature of a Confession of Faith. To this they had been often urged by the Westminster Assembly, but in vain.
They were aware that a full and explicit statement of their principles would deprive them of the support of a large proportion of the numerous sects who viewed them as the leading Sectarian party, and might thereby so reduce their influence as to render their hopes of promoting their own system exceedingly feeble. But the Presbyterians were now depressed and overborne; some of the most dangerous of the sects had been forcibly suppressed, such as the Levellers, Fifth Monarchy men, etc.; and they might now promulgate their own views without incurring the danger of losing valuable adherents. Some of the leading men among them accordingly met in London, and having agreed upon the propriety of framing a Confession of Faith, as had been done by other Churches, they requested permission from the Protector to hold an Assembly for that purpose. This was granted with some reluctance, and their Assembly was appointed to meet at the Savoy, on the 12th of October 1658.
They opened their meeting with a day of fasting and prayer; and after some deliberation, resolved to keep as near as possible to the method and order of the Westminster Assembly’s Confession of Faith, in framing a similar document for themselves. A committee was chosen to prepare the outline, consisting of Drs. Goodwin and Owen, Messrs Nye, Bridge, Caryl, and Greenhill. In the short period of about eleven or twelve days they finished their work, which was soon afterwards published under the title of "A Declaration of the Faith and Order owned and practiced in the Congregational Churches in England, agreed upon and consented unto by their elders and messengers in their meeting at the Savoy." The speed with which they completed their task contrasts very strongly with the manner in which they contrived to retard the progress of the Westminster Assembly, but may be readily explained. They followed the Assembly’s Confession very closely, to which indeed their leading men had already assented; they omitted all the chapters which relate to discipline, thus avoiding the discussion of disputed topics; and they had now no object to serve by delay, but many a motive to induce them to make haste. At the end of their work there is a chapter of discipline, consisting of five sections, and giving a brief statement and assertion of the main points in which their system differed from that of the Presbyterians, respecting the power of single congregations, the method of ordination, the administration of the sacraments, the use of Synods and Assemblies to consult and advise, but without authority, and occasional communion with other Churches. This Savoy Confession, as it is commonly called, never6 acquired any importance in the community, and did not supersede the Assembly’s Confession of Faith even in the estimation of a large proportion of the Independents themselves; and as Cromwell, the great supporter of the Independent party, died very soon after its production, on the 3d of September 1658, it never received his public sanction.
Upon the death of Cromwell, he was succeeded by his son Richard, a man of an amiable character, but utterly unfit to conduct the government of the country in such a time of storm and peril. A plot was formed against him by a part of the army, headed by Fleetwood and Desborough, to whom the leading Independent divines, especially Mr. Nye and his party, lent their ready assistance. Richard was persuaded to dissolve the Parliament; Fleetwood and Desborough, and their party, immediately summoned the Rump of the Long Parliament to reassemble, and Richard seeing it impossible to maintain his power without another civil war, and being destitute of military talents, resolved to abdicate his authority, and retire to private life. A new series of dark intrigues followed, in which General Monk acted a prominent part, the issue of which was, the restoration of Charles II on the 29th of May 1660. In consequence of the mutual jealousies of the various parties, the king was restored without conditions of any kind; and thus the liberties, both civil and religious, of the kingdom, in defense of which so much blood had been shed, and so many miseries endured, were laid at his feet. The Prelatic hierarchy were immediately restored to the possession of all their rank, wealth, and power, and speedily proved that the persecuting spirit of Prelacy had sustained no abatement.
For a short time the king affected to treat the Presbyterian ministers with respect and kindness; and they were encouraged to hope, that although Prelacy was restored to its former supremacy, yet some modification of it might be made to which it might be possible to conform. After some consultation among themselves, they presented to his majesty a petition expressing their desires for such alterations as might lead to an accommodation and agreement in an amended and modified Episcopacy. This petition was communicated to the Prelates, who returned such an answer as greatly to obscure all prospect of any accommodation. But as matters were not yet ripe for what was intended, the king issued a declaration concerning ecclesiastical affairs, containing so many plausible statements, that the hopes of the Presbyterians were somewhat revived. At length it was arranged that a conference should be held at the Savoy, between twelve bishops and nine assistants on the part of the Episcopalian Church, and an equal number of ministers on the part of the Presbyterians. The first meeting of this conference took place on the 15th of April 1661, and it was continued, with intermissions, till the 25th of July, when it expired without producing the slightest approximation towards an agreement, the bishops refusing to make any alterations in the Book of Common Prayer, to which their discussions were limited, or to make any concession to the conscientious scruples, or more grave and solid arguments, of the Presbyterian ministers. 7
A convocation was held soon after the termination of the conference, in which a few alterations were made in the Prayer-Book, not all for the better; and the proceedings of the convocation were ratified by both Houses of Parliament. It now remained to enforce the Prelatic system by the strong hand of legislative power. This was done by the Act of Uniformity, which, after passing both Houses, by small majorities, received the royal assent on the 19th of May 1662, and was to take effect from the 24th of August following. The terms of conformity specified by this act were:
1. Re-ordination, if they had not been episcopally ordained.
2. A declaration of unfeigned assent and consent to all and every thing prescribed and contained in the Book of Common Prayer, and administration of sacraments and other rites and ceremonies of the Church of England, together with the psalter, and the form and manner of making, ordaining, and consecrating of bishops, priests, and deacons.
3. To take the oath of canonical obedience.
4. To abjure the Solemn League and Covenant.
5. To abjure the lawfulness of taking arms against the king, or any commissioned by him, on any pretense whatsoever.
Such were the terms of the infamous and tyrannical Act of Uniformity, which was to come into force on what is termed the Feast of St. Bartholomew; and the penalty for any one who should refuse, was deprivation of all his spiritual promotions. The result was, that when the fatal St. Bartholomew’s day arrived, about two thousand Presbyterians relinquished all their ecclesiastical preferments, abandoned all their worldly means of subsistence, left their homes, and more painful than all, their churches and their weeping and heart-stricken flocks, and became literally strangers and pilgrims in their native country, like their Divine Master, not having where to lay their heads. In their day of power, when ejecting Episcopalian ministers convicted of scandalous offenses or of ignorance, they had allowed to these men a fifth part of their former livings; but no similar mercy or charity was shown to them. They were at once driven and abandoned to utter poverty and homelessness; and to grievous wrong was added not less grievous insult, in the cruel and contumelious treatment which they received from their proud and pitiless oppressors. Yet in one respect the day of St. Bartholomew was a glorious day. It testified to a wondering world the strength and the integrity of Presbyterian principles, in their triumph over every earthly influence; or rather, let us say, it proved that the essential spirit of the Presbyterian Church is the spirit of Christianity itself, and therefore it received divine strength in the day of sore trial, that it might finish its testimony in behalf of the sole sovereignty of Christ over his own spiritual kingdom, to the laws and institutions of which man has no right to add, and which he cannot without sin diminish. Yes, for the Presbyterian Church, and even for the Westminster Assembly, by which that Church had been introduced into England, it was a glorious day. But what was it for Prelacy? A day of everlasting infamy, stamping upon its character indelibly the charge, proved by so many repeated facts, of being essentially A PERSECUTING SYSTEM.
But it is equally unnecessary and ungracious to dwell on the detailed results of this tyrannical and persecuting act; and therefore, with a few incidental remarks of some general importance, we shall pass from the painful subject. It must have been observed, that the religious body once known by the name of Puritans, became Presbyterians both in principles and practice, partly before, and thoroughly during the time of the Westminster Assembly. Against them, accordingly, as Presbyterians, was the force of persecution directed, although the demands and the penalties of the Act of Uniformity were equally applicable to the Independents and all other sects of Dissenters; and of the whole two thousand who were ejected by that act, above nine-tenths were Presbyterians. The Independents did not, at that time, number more than an hundred churches in their communion; the Baptists were still fewer; and of the other sects, the greater part had only those lay preachers who had sprung up during the enthusiastic times of the civil war. Of the divines who had constituted the Westminster Assembly, not more than six, or, in strict propriety, only four, conformed. About thirty of them were dead before the act came into operation, some of them very close upon the time, and one or two almost immediately after preaching what would have proved by persecution, as they did by death, their farewell sermons. The names of the six who are stated to have conformed were, Drs. Conant, Wallis, Reynolds, and Lightfoot, and Messrs Heyrick and Hodges. But of these Dr. Conant at first refused to conform, was ejected, and continued so for a period of eight years, when the persuasion of relatives prevailed on him to comply, and he was appointed to a ministerial charge in Northampton, and subsequently obtained other preferments; and Dr. Wallis, who had been one of the scribes to the Westminster Assembly, was made Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford, in the year 1649 – an office which in a great measure excluded him from ecclesiastical affairs, and rendered the act of conformity to him little different from a university qualification. It thus appears, that almost the entire surviving members of the Westminster Assembly gave to the principles which they had then declared and advocated the strong and clear testimony of suffering in their defense.
Having now stated all the leading events connected with, and resulting from, the Westminster Assembly, we might here conclude; but in order to obtain as clear and comprehensive a conception of the whole subject as possible, it seems expedient to retrace, for the purpose of combining in one view its leading principles, characteristics, endeavors, and intentions, offering some remarks explanatory of their nature, showing how far they were successful, or by what and to what extent obstructed, what actual impress they gave to the form of society, or what vital elements they infused into its heart, and how far the great objects which they sought to attain may yet be susceptible of resuscitation and accomplishment.
It has been already shown, by a series of historical deductions, that the principle of the sovereign’s supremacy in ecclesiastical matters, conjoined with the encroaching and domineering spirit of Prelacy, had so nearly subverted all liberty, civil and religious, that it became the imperative duty of every Christian and every patriot to unite in resisting the cruel and degrading thralldom with which the kingdom was threatened. To that subject it is not necessary again to direct our attention. Nor need we do more than simply refer to the important fact, that the main purpose for which the Westminster Assembly was called together, and the Solemn League and Covenant was framed, was to produce, so far as might be practicable, unity of religious belief and uniformity in Church government throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland. Even for the sake of procuring and maintaining peace among the nations composing the one British empire, such an uniformity was regarded as almost indispensable. For, as the Scottish commissioners reasoned, there is "nothing so powerful to divide the hearts of people as division in religion; nothing so strong to unite them as unity in religion." The same idea was entertained by both James VI and his son Charles I, and both of them sought to realize it by imposing the English system on the Church and people of Scotland, the one by fraud and the other by force. As might have been expected, neither of them was successful; but the attempt to realize the idea by such methods, both showed its importance, and placed it in a clearer light, as related to the two kingdoms of England and Scotland. The people of Scotland loved their Church devotedly, not only on account of its purity of doctrine and scriptural simplicity of form, but also because by its means alone had they acquired a partial release from that feudal thralldom in which they had previously been held by their haughty and oppressive nobles. And they were compelled to see that their beloved Church would never be safe from the aggressions of Prelacy so long as the prelatic form of Church government prevailed in England. On the other hand, the oppressive, persecuting, and despotic conduct of Prelacy, in its treatment of the Puritans, and in the aid which it so willingly lent to the sovereign in his invasions of civil liberty, had at length aroused the strong and free spirit of England, which determined to shake off the prelatic yoke, and to make such alterations as should render its future re-imposition impossible. Such a concurrence of sentiment and feeling between the two nations held out the prospect that at least an approach to uniformity of religion might now be obtained, such as would form the only sure basis of a thorough and permanent national peace; and that, too, not by one of the two dictating to the other, but in the only way by which real uniformity can ever be effected, – by mutual consultation and consent.
Such were the enlarged, free, and generous views which led to the calling of the Westminster Assembly, and the framing of the Solemn League and Covenant, – such, in an especial manner, were the views entertained by the Scottish Covenanters, both statesmen and divines, as is proved by that remarkably able paper presented by them to the English Parliament in the year 1641. It is, however, a painful truth, that these elevated ideas were not received and held with equal fullness, sincerity, and perseverance, by a large proportion of the English statesmen; and this defectiveness on their part allowed the remaining existence and the subsequent growth and development of those disturbing influences, which at length prevented the grand object from being fully realized. In England the struggle was chiefly in defense of civil rights and privileges, involving also, though somewhat less directly, the still more important element of religious liberty. Hence the ordinary secular opinions and feelings, that mold the course of human action, were allowed to have almost full scope, and produced their common narrowing and self-seeking influence. Had not this been the case, Erastianism would not have characterized so strongly the conduct of the English Parliament, exercising a power so baneful in impeding the final settlement of the desired religious uniformity, involving the nation in protracted anarchy, and exposing the cause of freedom to the crushing grasp of military usurpation. There might be traced, did our limits allow it, a very close connection between the development of Erastian principles in the Parliament, and the successive disasters which befell them through the insubordination of the army in its growing republicanism, – so close, that the latter would almost seem like the direct infliction of retributive justice upon the former, ending in the completed guilt and the final overthrow of the Parliament being almost simultaneous.
The great advantage which would arise to Christendom from the existence of something approaching to a general religious uniformity must be apparent to every reflecting mind, both as a general homage to the certainties of revealed truth, and as itself the master element of general harmony anti peace. But it is contrary alike to the nature of religion and to the constitution of the human mind, to suppose that this desirable object can be obtained by compulsion. Open, candid, brother-like consultation may do much, when Christian men fairly and honestly wish to arrive at as close a degree of uniformity, in doctrine, worship, and government; as can be attained, with due respect to liberty and integrity of conscience. It was for this very purpose that the Westminster Assembly was called, and that Scottish divines were requested to be present at and aid in its deliberations. This was right, and bore fair prospect and promise of good; but mutual jealousies and rivalries arose; men misjudged and misinterpreted each other’s intentions; and the intrigues of mere worldly politicians intermingled with, biased, and baffled far higher and holier objects than those with which such men are usually conversant. Probably the two parties of a religious character (we speak not now of mere Erastians), of whom the Assembly was composed, the Presbyterians and the Independents, were both in error; probably they both entertained narrower conceptions of the nature of religious uniformity, and also of religious toleration and liberty, than the terms, rightly understood, imply. Uniformity is not necessarily absolute identity. Neither of these two parties held that absolute identity was necessary, as appears from their respective writings; but each of them dreaded that nothing less than absolute identity would satisfy the other, and to that neither of them could agree. And this misapprehension was enough, not only to prevent the accomplishment of the purpose for which they met, but even to act as a wedge, rending them daily more widely and hopelessly asunder.
Yet, in spite of this unpropitious misapprehension, a very considerable amount of religious uniformity was produced. The Independents expressed no dissent from the Confession of Faith and the Directory of Worship prepared by the Assembly. All the Puritan nonconformists received these documents with cordial approbation. Parliament gave to their most important principles and arrangements its legislative sanction, and England was on the very point of being favored with the establishment of a Presbyterian Church. So far did this proceed, that at first the University of Cambridge, and afterwards that of Oxford, were new-modeled, and the professorships given to Presbyterian divines. Prelatic writers have been in the habit of representing this change as barbarizing these universities. To refute such calumny, nothing more is necessary than to name the men on whom these academic appointments were conferred, – men than whom none more eminent, for learning, abilities, and true piety, ever graced the universities of any age or country. But something still more striking may be said in answer to prelatic calumny. Not only did the new professors ably sustain the reputation of the English universities, they also infused into them a spirit of freedom, originality, and energy of thought, which burst forth in the manhood of the men trained under their care, with a degree of power and splendor that has scarcely been ever equaled, much less surpassed. In proof of this, it is enough to mention the names of Locke, Boyle, Newton, Tillotson, Stillingfleet, Cave, Whitby, South, and many others. In short, the Presbyterian dynasty of the universities infused into them new life, the vigorous tone and movements of which were not exhausted till the lapse of two generations.
Closely associated with the subject of university learning, is that of eminence in theological acquirements and pulpit oratory. On this point also a very prevalent fallacy exists, and is repeated and believed without inquiry. It is very common to meet with extravagant praises bestowed upon the eminent learning and the valuable theological works produced by the Church of England; but it seems to be generally forgotten, that by far the largest and most precious portion of English theological literature was composed either by the Puritan divines, or by the Presbyterians of the Westminster Assembly, or by the generation which was trained up under them in the universities. If all the works produced by these men were carefully marked and set aside, and the works of none but the genuine Prelatists were ascribed to the Church of England, her renown for theological literature would be shorn of its beams indeed. It is not denied that the Church of England has contributed many valuable additions to the literature of Christianity; and considering the ample means at her command for bestowing on her office-bearers extensive education and literary leisure, it would have been strange if she had not. But it is not the less true, that a very large share of her reputation is derived from the writings of the Puritan and Presbyterian divines, and their immediate pupils, – from the very men whom she calumniated and persecuted, and strove to exterminate when living, and when dead, has pillaged of their hard-won honors, which she arrogates for her own, or suffers to be ascribed to her by unwise or unblushing flatterers.
Not only was an impulse given to the universities during the short prevalence of the Presbyterian Church in England, but also throughout considerable districts of the kingdom. Strenuous exertions were made to provide an adequate remedy for the deplorable state of ignorance in which the great body of the population had been suffered to remain. The removal of scandalous and ignorant ministers was the first step taken towards this desirable object. Another was, the sequestration of the surplus wealth of the Prelatic dignitaries; a portion of which it was intended to employ in providing academies, schools, and all that was necessary for instituting a national system of education. This noble and generous scheme also was embarrassed and impeded by Erastian interference; because it would have naturally fallen under the superintendence of Presbyteries, to the erection of which throughout the kingdom, with full and due powers, they could not be persuaded to consent. Even when almost paralyzed by this unhappy Erastian interference, the Presbyterian ministers set themselves to promote education to the utmost of their power. There may still be found, in several country districts in England, where Presbyterians once abounded, schools having a right to a small salary to the schoolmaster, on condition that he shall teach the children the Assembly’s Shorter Catechism.7 The people of England do not yet know, and cannot easily 8 conceive, how grievous was the loss which they sustained by the unfortunate failure of the attempt to render the Presbyterian Church the ecclesiastical establishment of the kingdom. To them it would have been a source of almost unmingled and incalculable good, giving to them the advantage of an evangelical, pious, laborious, and regularly resident ministry in every parish, together with cheap and universally accessible education, the constant inspection of elders to watch over their moral conduct, and deacons to attend to the wants of the poor in the spirit of Christian kindness and benevolence; all regulated by the superintendence of Presbyteries and Synods, to prevent the hazard of injury from local neglect or prejudice. And surely a truly wise and paternal government ought to have rejoiced at the opportunity of attaining so easily advantages so inestimable to the nation at large, and consequently to its rulers, and to all that wished its welfare. All this was once attainable, – was very nearly attained; has it become for ever impossible? We will not think so; a time may come.
Reference has been repeatedly made to the state of the army, and of the almost innumerable varieties of sects which appeared in it, and throughout the kingdom; and it has been shown that this strange and formidable chaos of religious opinions can best be accounted for by attending to the fact, that almost the entire population had been allowed, or rather constrained, to remain in a state of deplorable ignorance, by the wretched policy of the Prelatists and of the despotic monarchs, who deemed it inexpedient to teach the people to think, lest they should turn their attention to public matters, and learn to think and act for themselves. The direct consequence of this was, that when the naturally strong mind of England was fairly roused, it put forth its strength, but, like the mighty Hebrew when fallen into the hands of his adversaries, put it forth in blindness. At the commencement of the war between the king and the Parliament, ministers were appointed to accompany the parliamentary army, to train the troops in sound religious knowledge, and guide them in the worship of God. But this was both an irksome and a dangerous task; sufficient numbers could not be obtained. When the Westminster Assembly met, some of the ablest were called to attend its deliberations; and after the self-denying ordinance, when the army was new-modeled, it was left almost entirely to the wildly erratic instructions of self-called and uneducated lay-preachers. It was not strange that enthusiastic notions should be promulgated, and should be widely received, when poured forth amidst such exciting scenes and circumstances by the wildly eloquent fervor of strong and earnest minds. And as little was it strange that the thoroughly learned and deep-thinking divines of the Assembly should perceive the dangerous consequences to religion, morality, and peace, which must inevitably follow from the unrestrained diffusion of all the lawless and extravagant fancies by which the fermenting public mind was agitated and borne along. They knew what had taken place in Germany, when the peasantry were roused to insurrectionary tumults by the licentious principles and harangues of the Anabaptists, and they dreaded the occurrence of similar events in England. For such reasons they were exceedingly anxious that a regular and authoritative system of Church government and discipline should be established, and put in operation with all convenient speed; and this wish was in itself of a truly pious and patriotic nature, even though it could be proved that the means by which it was sought to be realized were not the most judicious that could have been imagined.
This course of reflection leads us to make some inquiry into the subject of religious toleration, of which so much has been said and written, in the present as well as in former times. The term itself, toleration in matters of religion, is one which has rarely been defined with that care and exactness which its great importance demands; consequently, the whole subject is liable to every sort of sophistical perversion; and very many of the controversial writings that have appeared concerning it start from different points, and run on either in parallel or in diverging lines, without the possibility of ever arriving at the same conclusion. Many thousands have been oppressed, persecuted, and put to death, for maintaining and promoting God’s revealed truth; many thousands have suffered equal extremities for maintaining and promoting satanic falsehood; and many thousands have sustained all degrees of punishment for the perpetration of immorality and crime. But who will assert that the same principle appears in all these cases? Who will say, that because it is right to suppress and punish the commission of crime, therefore it is right to suppress and punish men for asserting religious truth? Or, that because it is wrong to suppress truth, therefore it is wrong to suppress crime, or discountenance error? But men try to escape from such reasoning, by asserting that truth cannot be ascertained with certainty; and that therefore it is best to give equal toleration to all opinions, lest a grievous mistake should be committed, and truth suppressed instead of error. This is the language of skepticism, and the principle which it promulgates is not toleration, but latitudinarian laxity and licentiousness. Such language really implies, either that God did not intend to convey saving truth in a manner intelligible to the minds of men, or that he failed in his intention. But since few will be found reckless enough to maintain such opinions in their naked deformity, the advocates of skeptical laxity have recourse to every kind of evasion, in order to conceal alike the nature of the principle which they support and of that which they oppose. And, unhappily, these evasions are but too consonant to the character of the fallen mind of man, which is "enmity against God, and is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be." This is a truth which the sincere Christian feels and knows, but which philosophers and politicians reject, despise, and hate.
The essence of the inquiry is, "Has God revealed sacred saving truth to man, as the only sure guide and rule in all religious, moral, and social duties?" And if this be admitted, then arises the next question, – "Can this truth be so fully ascertained and known as to become a sufficient guide and rule in all such duties?" If this too should be admitted, we then arrive at the important practical inquiry, – "In what manner may the knowledge of this sacred saving truth be most successfully diffused throughout the world?" For if such truth has been revealed, and can be known, man’s first duty must be to know it himself, and his next, to communicate it to others. But he may err in this second point of duty, and may actually impede, while he is intending to promote, its progress. Few will deny that it is the duty of every man, in his station, to encourage the extension of truth by every legitimate means within his power; but it does not at once appear so clear, whether it be also his duty to engage so actively in such a removal of opposing obstacles as would involve the direct suppression of error. And it is at this stage of the inquiry that the question of religious toleration arises in its proper form and character. For it never ought to be made a question, whether truth ought to be tolerated or not, – truth ought to be encouraged and diffused; but the question is, Ought error also, and with equal directness, to be suppressed? The best method of obtaining a right answer to this inquiry is, to consult the Word of God, and to investigate the nature of conscience. The Word of God, in almost innumerable instances, commands the direct encouragement of truth, and also the suppression of certain forms of error, – as of idolatry and blasphemy; but gives no authority to man to judge and punish errors of the mind, so far as these amount not to violations of known and equitable laws, and disturb not the peace of society. And with regard to the nature of conscience, it is manifest to every thinking man, that conscience cannot be compelled. It may be enlightened, it may be convinced, but its very nature is the free exercise of that self-judging faculty which is the essential principle of personal responsibility. Hence it is evident, that it is alike contrary to the Word of God and to the nature of conscience, for man to attempt to promote truth by the compulsive suppression of error, when that error does not obtrude itself on public view by open violation of God’s commandments and the just laws of the land. But it by no means follows that toleration means, or ought to mean, equal favor shown to error as to truth. Truth ought to be expressly favored and encouraged: erring men ought to be treated with all tenderness and compassionate toleration; but error itself ought to be condemned, and all fair means employed for its extirpation. This could never lead to persecution; because it would constantly preserve the distinction between the abstract error and the man whose misfortune it is to be an erring man, and to whom it would show all tenderness, while it strove to rescue him from the evil consequences of those erroneous notions by which he was blinded and misled.
There is great reason to believe that the Presbyterians and the Independents of the Westminster Assembly misapprehended each other’s opinions on the subject of religious toleration. What the Presbyterians understood their opponents to mean by that term was what they called a "boundless toleration," implying equal encouragement to all shades and kinds of religious opinions, however wild, extravagant, and pernicious in their principles, and in their evident tendency. And when they somewhat vehemently condemned such laxity and licentiousness, the Independents seem to have thought that they intended or desired the forcible suppression of all opinions that differed from their own. Yet surely the Independents might have better understood both the principles and the practice of Presbyterian Churches. In Holland, a Presbyterian country, they had themselves enjoyed the most complete and undisturbed toleration in religious matters. They had often witnessed the interposition of the Scottish divines on their behalf in the debates of the Assembly; and if they experienced somewhat sharper treatment and more pointed opposition from the English Presbyterians, that might easily be explained by the difference of temper in men struggling to obtain the establishment of a system, and in men living in that system when established, and then acting according to its native spirit and character. They might have made allowance also for the feeling of excited alarm with which the Presbyterians regarded the portentous growth and multiplication of heretical sects, alike dangerous to religious truth, to moral purity, and to national peace; for it must be observed, that during Cromwell’s administration, when the Independents were in the enjoyment of chief power, many of these sects (such as Levelers, the Fifth-Monarchy Men, the Socinians, the Antinomians, the Quakers, etc.) were forcibly suppressed, without any opposition being offered by them to this suppression, as an intolerant interference with liberty of conscience. The only explanation, we apprehend, which can be given of this inconsistency of the Independents, is one not very creditable to their character for integrity of principle.
During their struggle with the Presbyterians, they needed the support of numbers, being but few themselves, and therefore they advocated a "boundless toleration," – of which they did not really approve, and which, when in power themselves, they did not grant. 9
It has been often confidently asserted, that the Independents were the first who rightly understood and publicly advocated the great principle of religious toleration. That they did assert that principle is certain; but that they were the first who did so is not the truth. Luther declared, that "The Church ought not to force persons to believe, nor to animadvert capitally on those who follow a different religion:" "That to believe is something free, yea, divine, being the fruit of the Spirit; wherefore it cannot, and ought not, to be forced by any external violence." The language of Zuingle is not less explicit: "It is at once contrary to the Gospel and to reason, to employ violent measures to extort a confession of faith contrary to conscience. Reason and persuasion are the arms that a Christian ought to employ." Even Calvin and Knox, terrible as their very names appear to some, and associated with the very essence of intolerance, repeatedly expressed sentiments precisely similar, strenuously maintaining the liberty of the conscience, and condemning persecution. And in Scotland, where the Presbyterian Church was early established, and repeatedly enjoyed much power, often as that Church suffered persecution in every form and degree, it never, in its day of power, persecuted its enemies in return. This some will think a strange assertion, accustomed as they have been to hear so much about Presbyterian intolerance; yet it is not more strange than true. And did our space permit, we could furnish ample proof that the true principles of religious toleration were both held and practiced in Scotland by the Presbyterian Church, both before Independency had come into existence, and during the very time of the struggle between the two parties in England. And even in the Westminster Assembly, at the time when the subject of toleration was under discussion, the true principles of religious liberty were avowedly held and publicly taught by the Presbyterian divines, the very men who are so vehemently accused of intolerance, – at least as distinctly and earnestly as they were by the Independents. Such sentiments as the following were frequently expressed by them in their public sermons: – "Fierce and furious prosecution, even of a good cause, is rather prejudice than promotion. We must tenaciously adhere to all divine truths ourselves, and, with our wisest moderation, plant and propagate them in others. Opposites, indeed, must be opposed, gainsaid, reclaimed; but all must be done in a way, and by the means, appointed from heaven. It is one thing to show moderation to pious, peaceable, and tender consciences; it is another thing to proclaim beforehand toleration to impious, fiery, and unpeaceable opinions."
In the last sentence of this quotation a distinction is drawn which touches the essential point of the controversy between the Presbyterians and the Independents. The Presbyterians wished Church government to be established in the first instance, and then a toleration to be granted to tender consciences. the Independents, on the other hand, strove to obtain a legislative toleration first, and then it would have been a matter of little moment which, or whether any, form of Church government should be established. The Presbyterians not only apprehended that this would amount to the establishment of the Independent system, instead of their own, and consequently, to the frustration of the very object for which the Assembly had met, and for which they had sworn the Covenant, namely, the promotion of uniformity in religious matters throughout Protestant Christendom, Independency being prevalent in no European country; but also, they regarded it with strong alarm, as sanctioning all the pernicious heresies with which England abounded, and establishing the principle of universal licentiousness. On the other hand, the Independents knew well, that unless the spirit of a Presbyterian Church should be different in England from what it was in every other country, its establishment would not prevent toleration, to the utmost extent that God’s Word warrants, and an enlightened conscience can require. Such, indeed, was the conviction of Dr. Owen, who, though not a member of the Westminster Assembly, was thoroughly acquainted with many of the leading Presbyterians, knew their sentiments, and understood their system. "Had the Presbyterian government," says he, "been settled at the king’s restoration, by the encouragement and protection of the practice of it, without a rigorous imposition of every thing supposed by any to belong thereunto, or a mixture of human institutions, if there had been any appearance of a schism or separation between the parties, I do judge they would have been both to blame; for they allowed distinct communion upon distinct apprehensions of things belonging to Church order or worship, – all ‘keeping the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. ’ If it shall be asked, Then why did they not formerly agree in the Assembly? I answer,
1. I was none of them, and cannot tell.
2. They did agree, in my judgment, well enough, if they could have thought so; and further I am not concerned in the difference." 10
The real cause, most probably, why they did not agree, was what has been already suggested, – that the intriguing spirit of Nye involved the Assembly Independents in the political schemes of Cromwell. But though that ambitious man made use of them to promote his designs, by retarding the settlement of any thing till his power was matured; and though he continued to bestow upon them the chief share of his favor after he had seized upon the scepter of imperial sway; he neither granted, nor did they sue for, universal toleration. This is placed beyond doubt by the circumstances connected with some ecclesiastical arrangements proposed in his Parliament in the year 1654. The leading Independent ministers laid before the Committee of Triers, at that time formed, a series of requests, in the form of a representation, one article of which was as follows: – "That this honorable Committee be desired to propose to the Parliament, that such who do not receive those principles of religion, without acknowledgment whereof the Scriptures do clearly and plainly affirm that salvation is not to be obtained, as those formerly complained of by the ministers, may not be suffered to preach or promulgate any thing in opposition unto such principles." In consequence of this, a discussion arose respecting the extent to which religious toleration was to be carried, when "it was voted, that all should be tolerated or indulged who professed the fundamentals of Christianity;" and a committee was appointed to nominate certain divines to draw up a catalogue of the fundamentals, to be presented to the House. These divines, chiefly Owen, Nye, and Goodwin, accordingly drew up sixteen articles, and presented them to the Committee of Parliament, by whom they were ordered to be printed. A strict interpretation and application of these sixteen fundamental principles of religion would exclude from toleration all Deists, Papists, Socinians, Arians, Antinomians, and Quakers, and even Arminians, by no very strained construction. 11 From this it is evident, that whether the Presbyterians really did understand and act upon the true principles of religious liberty or not, it cannot with truth be said that the views of the Independents were in any respect more liberal and enlarged. For this we blame them not, but merely state the fact. Perhaps the exact truth is, that their opinions on the subject were nearly identical, all the difference between them being that of position and circumstance; and it may fairly be admitted, that the subject had not at that period received all the attention it deserved, and the elucidation of which it was capable. It was, however, brought so strongly before the notice of the public mind, and attention was so forcibly directed to it by the ejection of the two thousand ministers on St. Bartholomew’s day, and by subsequent events during that and the succeeding reign, that it became one of the essential elements which produced the Revolution of 1688, and was secured by the Toleration Act of the following year. The Toleration Act itself may therefore be fairly regarded as one of the results of the Westminster Assembly, though few have been hitherto disposed to trace it to that truly illustrious source.
There was one great, and even sublime idea, brought somewhat indefinitely before the Westminster Assembly, which has not yet been realized, – the idea of a Protestant union throughout Christendom, not merely for the purpose of counterbalancing Popery, but in order to purify, strengthen, and unite all true Christian Churches, so that with combined energy and zeal they might go forth, in glad compliance with the Redeemer’s commands, teaching all nations, and preaching the everlasting gospel to every creature under heaven. This truly magnificent, and also truly Christian idea, seems to have originated in the mind of that distinguished man, Alexander Henderson. It was suggested by him to the Scottish commissioners, and by them partially brought before the English Parliament, requesting them to direct the Assembly to write letters to the Protestant Churches in France, Holland, Switzerland, and other Reformed Churches. Henderson had too much wisdom to state the subject fully to the Parliament, lest they should be startled by a thought vast beyond their conception. They gave to the Assembly the desired direction, and the letters were prepared and sent. A hasty perusal of these letters might not suggest the idea of a great Protestant union, the greater part of them being occupied with a statement of the causes which had led to the calling of the Assembly, and in vindication of themselves against the accusations wherewith they might be assailed. But towards the conclusion the idea is dimly traced; and along with these letters were sent copies of the Solemn League and Covenant, – a document which might itself form the basis of such a Protestant union. The deep thinking divines of the Netherlands apprehended the idea, and in their answer, not only expressed their approbation of the Covenant, but also desired to join in it with the British kingdoms. Nor did they content themselves with the mere expression of approval and willingness to join. A letter was soon afterwards sent to the Assembly from the Hague, written by Duraeus (the celebrated John Dury), offering to come to the Assembly, and containing a copy of a vow which he had prepared and tendered to the distinguished Oxenstiern, chancellor of Sweden, wherein he bound himself "to prosecute a reconciliation between Protestants in point of religion."12
That this was the real object contemplated in this remarkable correspondence is indicated with sufficient plainness by Baillie: "We are thinking of a new work over sea, if this Church were settled. The times of Antichrist’s fall are approaching. The very outward providence of God seems to be disposing France, Spain, Italy, and Germany, for the receiving of the gospel. When the curtains of the Lord’s tabernacle are thus far, and much farther enlarged, by the means which yet appear not, how shall our mouth be filled with laughter, our tongue with praise, and our heart with rejoicing!" 13 There are several other hints of a similar character to be found in Baillie’s Letters; and on one occasion Henderson procured a passport to go to Holland, most probably for the purpose of prosecuting this grand idea. But the intrigues of politicians, the delays caused by the conduct of the Independents, and the narrow-minded Erastianism of the English Parliament, all conspired to prevent the Assembly from entering farther into that truly glorious Christian enterprise. Days of trouble and darkness came; persecution wore out the great men of that remarkable period; pure and vital Christianity was stricken to the earth and trampled under foot; and when the time of deliverance came at the Revolution, it found the Churches too much exhausted to resume the mighty tasks begun, but not accomplished, in the previous generation. Peace and repose were chiefly sought; listless inactivity and spiritual deadness ensued; and all the noble purposes and great ideas of a former age were basely forgotten or sinfully despised.
But although the Westminster Assembly and its labors seemed to have been thus consigned to oblivion, or mentioned by prelatic or infidel historians merely as a topic on which they might freely pour forth their spite or their mockery, its influence in the deep undercurrent of the national mind was unseen, but was not unfelt. Even in England, where every effort was made to destroy alike its principles and their fruit, it succeeded in communicating a secret impulse of irresistible energy to the nation’s heart. This was first proved by the noble testimony borne on St. Bartholomew’s day, in defense of religious liberty. And the feeling thus called into action showed its might when afterwards the Popish tyrant, James VII, was hurled from his throne by the indignant voice of a free Protestant people. Let it be frankly granted that the English bishops bore a considerable part in that memorable Revolution; but let it also be remembered, that in their youth they had imbibed the principles of religious and civil liberty under the instruction of Presbyterian and Independent professors and masters in the universities; and let it also be remembered that the Toleration Act was the production of the same well-trained generation: and when these things are borne in mind, it will not be said that the nation derived no advantage from the labors of the Westminster Assembly.
In Scotland its results were more directly and signally beneficial, being fully accepted by the Church, and ratified by the State. Not even twenty-eight years of ruthless persecution could extinguish the bright light of sacred truth which it had contributed to shed over our own northern hills, or trample out of existence the strong spirit of liberty which it inspired and hallowed. What can ever expel from the mind and heart of a Christian people that single sentence of the Confession of Faith: "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship." The people who can feel and understand that sacred truth can never be enslaved. And although, after the Union, the perfidy of traitorous statesmen introduced the unconstitutional element of patronage into the external arrangements of the Church of Scotland, contrary to the express stipulations of the Act of Security, by which the Scottish nation had so anxiously sought to protect their National Church; yet it required the lapse of generations to produce a race sufficiently degenerated to allow the pernicious element to do its work. Even when a majority of the Scottish ministers had become unfaithful, the Confession of Faith and the Catechism continued to infuse their strong and living principles of Christian truth into the hearts and minds of the people, maintaining a spirit and an energy that nothing could subdue. The effect of this was seen in the Secession; and not less manifestly in the deep and steady devotedness with which the ministrations of evangelical truth were attended in the Established Church itself. A recent and still more signal manifestation of the power of these principles was displayed in the memorable Disruption of 1843, when, in vindication of their truth, and to secure the liberty of maintaining them, four hundred and seventy-four ministers gave up all connection with the State, and all the advantages thence arising, rather than surrender spiritual freedom in obedience to Christ alone. Such was the state of the Churches in both kingdoms throughout the listless length of a dreary century, – the still and heavy torpor of lethargic sluggishness above, the silent but strong current of a deep life-stream beneath.
1 Baillie, vol. 2 p. 379.
2 Baillie, vol, 2 p. 148.
3 Reid’s Lives of the Westminster Divines, vol. 2 p. 214.
4 Baillie, vol. 3 p. 2.
5 Neal, vol. 2 p. 431.
6 Neal, vol. 2 pp. 690-692.
7 For a full account of this Conference, see History of Nonconformity, Life of Baxter, etc.
8 One of these the author was fortunate enough to assist in rescuing from the hands of Socinians, a few years ago, on the strength of that very condition.
9 "Some, perhaps, by a toleration understand an universal, uncontrolled license of living as you please in things concerning religion: that every one may be let alone, and not so much as discountenanced in doing, speaking, acting, how, what, where, or when he pleaseth, in all such things as concerneth the worship of God, articles of belief, or generally any thing commanded in religion; and in the meantime, the parties at variance, and litigant about differences, freely to revile, reject, and despise one another, according as their provoked genius shall dispose their minds thereunto. Now, truly, though every one of this mind pretends to cry for mercy to be extended unto poor afflicted Truth, yet I cannot but be persuaded that such a toleration would prove exceeding pernicious to all sorts of men." – Essay by Dr. Owen, appended to a Sermon preached before the House of Commons, April 29, 1646; p. 66.
10 Answer to Stillingfleet’s Unreasonableness of Separation. Works, vol. 15 p. 433, Johnstone & Hunter’s edition.
11 "The Principles of Faith presented by Mr. Thomas Goodwin, Mr. Nye, Mr. Simpson, and other Ministers, to the Committee of Parliament for Religion, etc."
1. That the Holy Scripture is that rule of knowing God, and living unto him, which whoso does not believe cannot be saved.
2. That there is a God, who is the Creator, Governor, and Judge of the world, – which is to be received by faith; and every other way of the knowledge of him is insufficient.
3. That this God, who is the Creator, is eternally distinct from all creatures, in his being and blessedness. " 4. That this God is one, in three persons or subsistences.
5. That Jesus Christ is the only Mediator between God and man, without the knowledge of whom there is no salvation.
6. That this Jesus Christ is the true God.
7. That this Jesus Christ is also true man.
8. That this Jesus Christ is God and man in one person.
9. That this Jesus Christ is our Redeemer, who, by paying a ransom, and bearing our sins, has made satisfaction for them.
10. That this same Jesus Christ is he that was crucified at Jerusalem, and rose again, and ascended into heaven.
11. That this same Jesus Christ, being the only God and man in one person, remains for ever a distinct person from all saints and angels, notwithstanding their union and communion with him.
12. That all men by nature are dead in trespasses and sins; and no man can be saved unless he be born again, repent, and believe.
13. That we are justified and saved by grace, and faith in Jesus Christ, and not by works.
14. That to continue in any known sin, upon what pretense or principle soever, is damnable.
15. That God is to be worshipped according to his own will; and whosoever shall forsake and despise all the duties of his worship cannot be saved.
16. That the dead shall rise; and that there is a day of judgment, wherein all shall appear, some to go into everlasting life, and some into everlasting condemnation." – Neal, vol. ii. pp. 621, 622.
12 Lightfoot, p. 86.
13 Baillie, vol. 2 p. 192