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Covenanted Uniformity In Religion:
The Influence of the Scottish Commissioners upon
the Ecclesiology of the Westminster Assembly
Wayne R. Spear

Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy

A.B., Geneva College, 1957
Th.M., Westminster Theological Seminary, 1969


The study that follows had its origins in my interest in theological and practical questions regarding the nature of the Christian Church. Throughout the Christian community as a whole, and in the particular branch of the Church in which I serve, the middle part of the twentieth century has been a time of dissatisfaction with the existing forms and functions of the Church, and of searching for a new understanding of the Church. The Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church, and the Consultation on Church Union of the mainline American Protestant bodies, are only the best-known of many such efforts. Even among the more conservative churches, such as the one to which I belong, it has not yet been possible to remain immune from the necessity to re-examine the doctrine of the Church.

A new examination of the ecclesiology of the Westminster Assembly should be useful to the Church in the present discussions. That Assembly, called by the English Parliament during the Civil War of the 1940’s, represented the culmination of the puritan movement in England, which had sought for at least seventy-five yeas to achieve the “further reformation” of the Church of England. For more than five years, leading Puritan theologians, with the representative of the Church of Scotland, met together at Westminster Abbey to debate with great freedom concerning the government, worship, and doctrine of the church.

The view of the Church advocated by the Westminster Assembly did not gain general acceptance in England, especially after Cromwell’s rise to power. However, when the Assembly’s documents were carried north to Scotland, most of them received official approval. Perhaps more importantly, they were revered by the people of Scotland, and by those who emigrated to Ulster, North America, and other parts of the world. The result was that the beliefs and practices of the English-speaking Presbyterian churches were strongly influenced by the work of the Westminster Assembly for more than three centuries.

An underlying assumption of this study, therefore, is that an investigation of the work of the Westminster assembly can make a contribution to the present re-examination of the nature of the church, especially for those whose ecclesiastical tradition has been shaped by English Puritanism or Scottish Presbyterianism.

Originally, it was my intention to study the Assembly’s “ecclesiology” in the broad sense of that term – that is, to examine everything which the Assembly had to say on the subject of the Christian Church. As my research progressed, however, I found it necessary to narrow the field of investigation. The first document produced by the Assembly was the “Form of Presbyterial Church-Government.” It soon became apparent that an intensive analysis of that document would be necessary before it could be used as a source of information for the Westminster Assembly’s ecclesiology as a whole. For one thing, there is an almost complete lack of literature concerning the document itself. I know of no published exposition of it. This stands in sharp contrast to the great number of works which have interpreted and explained the Assembly’s Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. As a document which has been included among the subordinate standards of many of the Presbyterian churches, the Form of Church Government has not yet received a thorough and scholarly interpretation.

The nature of the Church Government, however, is such that it requires careful investigation. It is a virtual mosaic, whose bits and pieces are the sentences debated and passed by the assembly over a period of many months, and subsequently rearranged by two different editorial committees. In the process of redaction, many of the sentences approved by the Assembly in the context of discussion were inserted in quite another context in the finished document. It also happened that minor changes of wording which were made in the editorial process obscured the real intention of the Assembly in voting approval of certain statements. In order to ascertain the real meaning of the Assembly, therefore, it is necessary to gain knowledge of the debates in the Assembly, which produced the proposition making up the document as it now stands.

The effort to gain a clear and accurate understanding of the process by which the Westminster Assembly produced its Form of Church Government has become the central part of this dissertation. It has proved to be a difficult and time-consuming task. Because of this, the term “ecclesiology” in the title must be understood in its narrower sense, as meaning the study of the proper structure and operation of the church. With that understanding of the term, the dissertation deals with the ecclesiology of the Westminster Assembly as expressed in the formulation of the Form of Church Government. For a fuller understanding of the Assembly’s view of the Church, much more work still needs to be done; but it is hoped that the present study will make a contribution toward that continuing task.

In the process of seeking a clearer understanding of the Westminster Assembly’s work on the Form of Church Government, I have also looked for evidence which would shed light on the question of the degree of Scottish influence upon the Assembly. It is a rather common view that the Westminster Assembly was dominated by the Scottish commissioners, whose power lay in the fact that the English Parliament desperately needed the assistance of the Scottish army. According to this view, agreement to the Solemn League and Covenant, which bound England to seek religious uniformity with Scotland, was the price which Parliament unwillingly paid for Scotland’s help.

A good deal of evidence can be cited to show that the Scots did attempt to control the general course of events during the Civil War in accordance with their own interests. Though it is not within the scope of this study to give an account of the political, military, diplomatic, economic, or social forces which were at work during the momentous period of the English Civil War, beyond what was necessary in order to place the Westminster Assembly in its historical context, research into the detailed, day-by-day records of the debates of the Westminster Assembly has made it possible for me to make a judgment about the nature and success of the Scottish influences within the Assembly itself during the first year and a half of its existence.

It is a major finding of this investigation that the Westminster Assembly operated as a truly deliberative body, in which the Scottish commissioners were prominent participants: the results of the Assembly’s debates were neither pre-determined by the Solemn League and Covenant, nor dictated by the Scots. Such a judgment requires that attention be paid to specific decisions made by the Assembly, and to the positions taken by the Scots in the discussion leading op to those decisions. The detailed description of the production of the Form of Church, Government provides evidence which is important for assessing the degree of Scottish influences in the Westminster Assembly.

In this study I have relied heavily upon original materials from Westminster Assembly. Robert Baillie’s revealing and readable letters are well known to every student of the Civil War period, and are of special usefulness in understanding the activities within and surrounding the Westminster Assembly. Two men who attended the Assembly kept careful notes of the proceedings: John Lightfoot’s “Journal” and George Gillespie’s Notes are the only published materials which give a day-by-day account of the first year of the Assembly’s work, and I have referred to them constantly.

In addition to these well-known sources, I have had the advantage of access to the unpublished “Minutes” of the Westminster assembly. The original manuscripts, mostly in the hand of Adoniram Byfield, the Assembly’s official scribe, consist for the most part of hastily written notes on the speeches which were made in the Assembly. Though Byfield’s handwriting is nearly illegible, a transcript was made in the last century by E. Maude Thomas and J. Struthers. The third volume, containing reports of the sessions from 18 November 1644 to 22 February 1648/9, was published from that transcript. A.F. Mitchell, editor of that volume, wrote in the Introduction that further historical work on the Assembly awaited the publication of the remaining volumes, but that has never occurred, and the existence of the transcripts themselves was nearly forgotten. Recently, however, microfilm copies of the transcript have been made, and I have had the advantage of the use of a copy in my research. The unpublished minutes cover the same general time period as Lightfoot’s “Journal” and Gillespie’s Notes, but offer significant clarification and supplementation of what is contained in those published sources.

Many histories of the Westminster Assembly have been written, most of them partisan in perspective and heavily dependent on secondary materials. Three works are worthy of special mention. The third volume of Daniel Neal’s History of the Puritans contains a good bit of material on the Westminster Assembly. Neal made good use of the published works which were available to him nearly a century after the Assembly met, as well as certain unidentified manuscripts. (He thought that the Assembly’s own records had been destroyed in the Great Fire in London in 1666.) When Neal’s work is compared with the better materials now available, it is clear that while his general interpretation of the period is worthy of consideration, he cannot be relied upon for a detailed understanding of the work of the Assembly. A number of later histories have relied upon Neal, and have tended to perpetuate his mistakes.

In my judgment, the most knowledgeable and dependable historian of the Westminster Assembly is Alexander F. Mitchell, whose work on the Assembly is set forth in his Baird Lectures, as well as in his extensive Introduction to the published Minutes. Mitchell had the advantage of an intimate knowledge of the unpublished Minutes, and a broad acquaintance with the confessional literature of the period. He was primarily interested in the doctrinal work of the assembly, as expressed in its Confession of faith and Catechisms, so that he gave relatively little attention to the Assembly’s discussion of church government.

A third important history of the Assembly is that of S.W. Curruthers, whose aim was to set forth the human side of the Assembly, in response to the reverential and often unrealistic view of the assembly which has been prominent in the Scottish tradition. Curruthers gives a wealth of factual material about the Assembly. He must have made use of the unpublished Minutes, since he refers to information contained only in them; but nowhere in his book does he make a clear reference to the unpublished Minutes as a distinct source.

Although the major purpose for which the Long Parliament summoned the Westminster Assembly was to advise it in setting up a structure of church government to replace episcopacy, relatively little attention has been given to this aspect of its work. Only three studies of any length are known to the writer. Edward D. Morris has a long chapter on “The Church of God” in his study of the Westminster documents, but his approach is theological rather than historical. W.A. Shaw’s History of the English Church, to which reference has already been made, is important because of its treatment of the sequence of events in the Assembly’s work, and especially because it narrates the fate of the Assembly’s advice in the English Parliament. Shaw’s work must be used with caution, however, because of his overt hostility to the whole Presbyterian movement, and because, though he new of their existence, he failed to make use of the unpublished Minutes of the Assembly. A recent doctoral dissertation by J.R. De Witt gives a detailed chronological study of the Assembly’s work on church government. De Witt focuses upon the question of the “divine right” of church government, and follows that question through the whole course of the Assembly. He made extensive use of the transcripts of the unpublished Minutes, and one of the values of his work is that it calls attention to this neglected source. My study differs from his in that I have concentrated upon the Form of Church Government as a distinct document, and I have therefore traced its development in greater detail than De Witt intended to do. My approach is also different in that I have attempted to look at the Westminster Assembly from the standpoint of the Scottish commissioners and their influence in the drawing up of the Form of Church Government.

The dissertation is divided into three parts. Part One places the Westminster Assembly in its historical setting, and gives an overview of the way in which it conducted its business. The first chapter draws heavily upon well-known secondary materials to set forth the historical background of the Assembly, giving special emphasis to the history of Anglo-Scottish relations leading to the swearing of the Solemn League and Covenant by the parliamentary parties of both nations. The second chapter gives necessary information on the organization and operation of the Assembly. The complicated committee structure of the Assembly is dealt with in some detail, because knowledge of the various committees is essential for understanding of the process by which the Form of Church Government was formulated. (The manuscript Minutes are especially helpful in giving the membership of the committees.) In keeping with my interest in the Scottish influence upon the Assembly, the third chapter presents biographical sketches of the Scottish Commissioners, and a description of the methods by which they attempted to fulfill their mission in England.

Part Two of the dissertation contains an analysis of the Westminster Assembly’s Form of Church Government. For convenience, it is divided into four chapters, dealing respectively with the officers of the church, particular or local congregations, governmental assemblies, and ordination. The analysis follows the order of the Form of Church Government as a complete document, taking it up section by section. Each significant expression is traced from its origin in a committee, through its debate and modification in the Assembly, to its final placement in the document. At points where Scottish interest or influence was significant, the development of the Scottish position id presented, with reference to the important historical documents on church polity in the Church of Scotland.

The third part of the dissertation consists of the concluding chapter, which traces the response which the Form of Church Government received in England and Scotland. While its acceptance in Scotland, but not in England, might be taken as evidence that the Scottish Commissioners had imposed their church polity on an unwilling English Assembly, I argue differently. The careful analysis of the language of the Form of Church Government reveals the fact that the Scots failed to achieve some of their most cherished goals in the Assembly debates on the church government. I contend, therefore, that the reception of the Form of Church Government in Scotland is evidence of good faith in which the Scots entered into the Solemn League and Covenant. That Covenant was not a mere mask for pursuing Scottish nationalistic goals. The Scottish Commissioners to the Westminster Assembly did not entirely lack Scottish chauvinism, and they were not above attempts to manipulate matters behind the scenes. But my research has persuaded me that they were motivated in an important way by a desire to achieve the “covenanted uniformity in religion” to which they were pledged by the Solemn League and Covenant, and went to London full of hope that it might be achieved by mutual agreement with their brethren in England.

The pages which follow contain the fruit of my research, and the evidence on which I have based my conclusions. It is my hope that from them may be gathered a more accurate picture than has hereto been available of the Westminster Assembly, as it debated the proper structure and function of the Christian Church.

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