IN common with all true Presbyterians, I have often regretted the want of a History of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, by whose labors were produced the Confession of Faith, the Directory of Public Worship, the Form of Church Government, and. the Catechisms, which have so long been held as the Standards of the Presbyterian Churches throughout the world. Especially in such a time as the present, when all distinctive Presbyterian principles are not only called in question, but also misrepresented and condemned, such a want has become absolutely unendurable, unless Presbyterians are willing to permit their Church to perish under a load of unanswered, yet easily refuted, calumny. And as the best refutation of calumny is the plain and direct statement of truth, it is by that process that I have endeavored to vindicate the principles and the character of the Presbyterian Church.
When contemplating the subject, there were two not very reconcilable ideas before my mind. The one was, to restrict the Work to such a size as might keep it within the reach of all Presbyterians, even those whose means were more limited than their inclinations, but who equally needed and desired information; the other was, to give details sufficiently minute and conclusive to place the whole matter fully and fairly before the mind of the reader, that he might be able to form an accurate judgment respecting the character and proceedings of the Westminster Assembly, and also of the Church and people of Scotland, who were so intimately connected with it. How far these conflicting purposes have been reconciled it is for others to judge; this, however, I may be permitted to say, that no pains have been spared in the endeavor to ascertain the truth in even the most minute points which required investigation; almost every book or pamphlet of any importance written at the time, or by men whose course of inquiries has led them to traverse that period, having been carefully read. I had, indeed, entertained the design of giving a complete list of all the productions, in book or pamphlet form, which have been consulted or perused; but, in honest sincerity, I confess that I shrunk from doing so, lest it might seem too like mere ostentation. For a similar reason, but one or two references to authorities, in each instance, have been given, when it would have been equally easy to have produced half a dozen; and I have chiefly referred to original authorities, rather than to those which may be got in the common histories of the period; for there can be little use in quoting Hume, and Brodie, and Laing, and Godwin, and D’Israeli, when we have before us the original authorities on which their statements are founded. By adopting this method, I have also avoided the necessity of encumbering my Work with digressive corrections of the erroneous or distorted views generally given by these historians, in their accounts of the Westminster Assembly, and of the conduct of the Presbyterians.
Inquiries have been frequently made respecting the manuscript of the Westminster Assembly’s proceedings, kept by the scribes or clerks of the Assembly; but that important document appears to be irrecoverably lost. One account states that it was burned in the great fire of London, in the year 1000. It was long thought that a copy of it had been taken, and was preserved in the library of Sion College; and some aver that this was actually the case, and that it too was destroyed in the fire which burned the House of Commons in 1884, having been placed. there, along with other manuscript records relating to the Church of Scotland, during the inquiries of the Committee on Patronage.
We are informed by Baillie, that many members of the Assembly employed themselves in taking copious notes, during the course of the discussions in which they were engaged. It might have been expected that several of these manuscript notebooks would have been still extant, by comparing which, the loss of the Assembly’s own record. might have been in a great measure supplied. None, however, have been published, except Lightfoot’s Journal, and Baillie’s Letters, and Gillespie’s Notes; which are accordingly the most minute and authentic accounts that can now be obtained. The edition of Baillie to which I have referred, is that admirable one recently published under the care of David Laing, Esq. To that gentleman, to the Librarians of the Advocates’ and the Theological Libraries, to the Reverend Dr. Cunningham, the Reverend Dr. M’Crie, the Reverend Dr. Goold, the late Reverend Samuel Martin of Bathgate, and the Reverend Robert Craig of Rothesay, I take this opportunity of expressing my grateful thanks for the access which they so readily gave me to their literary stores.
Dr. Thomas Goodwin, one of the leading Independent divines, wrote fifteen volumes of notes or journals of the Assembly’s proceedings, as we are informed in a memoir of his life by his son, three only of which are still preserved in Dr. Williams’ Library, London. It was my intention to have consulted these, but I found it impracticable at the time. There are in the Advocates’ Library, Edinburgh, two manuscript volumes of notes by Gillespie, one in quarto, the other in octavo; both of which I have been courteously permitted to peruse. They seem to be transcripts from the original, and of the two the octavo is the more complete. They both begin February 2, 1644; the quarto ends May 22, and the octavo, October 25, the same year. Their chief value consists in the complete corroboration which they furnish to the printed accounts of Lightfoot and Baillie, — as will be seen from an extract inserted in the Appendix; but they would be well worthy of publication in any collected edition of Gillespie’s works — as has recently been done.
In tracing the controversies by which both Church and kingdom were agitated during the deliberations of the Westminster Assembly, it has been my endeavor to avoid, as much as possible, giving a controversial aspect to my own production. My duty was, to relate faithfully what was said, written, and done, by the eminent men of that period; and, in discharging that duty, I have often felt it expedient to transcribe their own language, as the most impartial way of recording their sentiments; and when occasionally stating my own opinions, I have striven to do so as fairly and impartially as may well be expected. from one who does not hesitate to acknowledge that he feels deeply and warmly interested, in every thing that relates to Presbyterian principles and character. Certainly I have no wish to misrepresent either the opinions or the practice of any body of sincere Christians, — least of all would I censure harshly the errors into which pious and earnest-hearted men were driven by Prelatic persecution, or into which they fell in the sudden revulsion produced by its overthrow, and in the excitement arising from unwonted religious liberty. Let me trust that Evangelical Dissenters will give credit to the sincerity of the feelings which I thus avow. There is no pleasure in recording the errors of the good, and the follies of the wise; but there may be much advantage, if we are thereby taught to shun the error and the folly, and to imitate only the goodness and the wisdom.
The plan of compression within the narrowest practicable limits, which I have adopted, has prevented me from recording many particulars of much interest and importance; but should time and health be spared me, I may at some future period resume the task, and attempt to produce a work on the subject at once more minute and more comprehensive. In the meantime, if my present Work shall be found to have vindicated the character of that truly venerable body of Presbyterian divines from the unjust aspersions by which it has been so long assailed, and to have rendered the principles which they held, and. the objects which they sought to accomplish, more clear and intelligible than they have hitherto been, I shall be amply recompensed, — especially if, in pointing out the errors into which contending parties fell, and the way in which these errors and contentions might have been avoided, I shall have succeeded to any degree in directing the minds of all sincere Christians to contemplate the necessity and the practicability of realizing now the great idea of a general Evangelical Union, far more extensive and complete than could have been either hoped for or attained at the period, of the Westminster Assembly.
PREFATORY NOTE TO THE THIRD EDITION.
IN preparing a new edition of the History of the Westminster Assembly, I have both given it a careful revision, for the purpose of correcting inaccuracies and inserting such further information as renewed inquiries had afforded; and in an additional chapter I have furnished an outline of the theological productions of that learned and venerable body, thereby supplying what had been complained of as defective, — the proof that their labors were not merely controversial. I have also enlarged. the Appendix, by giving brief biographical sketches of the Scottish Commissioners to the Assembly; and a note on Philip Nye, the leading Independent divine, investigating the question how far he is entitled to be regarded as the man who first proclaimed the great principle of religious liberty. And I venture to entertain the hope, that these additions, amounting in all to about fifty pages, will be found to have increased the value of the work, and to have rendered it somewhat more worthy of that public favor with which it has already, in previous editions, been honored.
EDINBURGH, May 1856.