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date: 30 October 2020

Westminster assemblyfree

(act. 1643–1652)
  • Chad Van Dixhoorn

Westminster assembly (act. 1643–1652), was both an extension of the Long Parliament and the last of the great post-Reformation synods. Its membership comprised approximately 120 clergymen, 20 members of the House of Commons, and 10 members of the House of Lords [for a complete listing [see members of the Westminster assembly and Scottish commissioners]. The assembly, which took its name from Westminster Abbey, where its members worked and where many of them lived, was initially commissioned by parliament in July 1643 to revise the doctrine, liturgy, and government of the English church.

In the opinion of parliament, its petitioners, and the divines assembled in the abbey, a major grievance that had provoked the civil war that had broken out between Charles I's English subjects in 1642 religion, was specifically the perceived abuses of Archbishop William Laud, made possible by the hierarchical system of the Church of England. The Westminster assembly was supposed to proffer a solution, producing documents on theology and belief that both Charles I and his reform-minded subjects could accept. Simultaneously the assembly showed the presbyterian authorities in Edinburgh that Westminster was serious about church reform, and served as an inducement for the Scots to send an army southward to aid the flagging parliamentary cause. Any hope of royal approval of the synod was doomed from the start, as Charles forbade attendance. But Scottish presbyterians responded positively, and in September 1643 the solemn league and covenant with Scotland was signed, soon giving parliament the impetus to charge the assembly with a more thorough reform of the institution and texts of the Church of England.

Leaders and members of the assembly

The leaders of the assembly were William Twisse, the prolocutor, and Cornelius Burges and John White of Dorchester, elected by the body as assessors and potential deputies. Twisse was an internationally respected theologian and parliament's most obvious choice for the chair. However, as a result of his ill health, and because White was crippled by gout and could attend only infrequently, Cornelius Burges was for several years placed in the odd position of almost perpetually serving as the prolocutor pro tempore. He remained in his post from 1643 to 1649, save for a brief exile for opposing the solemn league and covenant. Burges involved himself in virtually every debate and expressed convictions on the full range of topics discussed. He had a hand in the formation of every major document—literally so, for he sometimes wrote the final draft of the assembly's texts, and he forced the scribe to rewrite two of his speeches in the synod's minutes. Yet Burges was also the frequent opponent of the majority, with his efforts to control the agenda and behaviour of the assembly fiercely resisted. He was a doctor of divinity disputing with mere masters of arts, a presbyterian whom neither Independents nor Scots fully trusted, an old minister correcting younger men and, like most of his fellow officers, one of an Oxford University minority attempting to control a Cambridge University majority. Twisse finally died in summer 1646 and White resigned that autumn. Parliament replaced Twisse with Charles Herle and the assembly replaced White with Herbert Palmer, who had already been functioning as assessor pro tempore since January that year. Palmer too was unwell and died in November 1646. William Gouge was chosen as his successor.

The synod's membership was selected by parliament in 1642 and 1643. The House of Commons used county committees to elect two divines for each English shire, one for each Welsh shire, and four for the City of London. The House of Lords reviewed the list and nominated additional divines not designated by county, perhaps because many of the divines appointed by the Commons for one county actually held their livings in another. Thus Thomas Case had a London lectureship but represented Cheshire; Richard Heyrick had a Cheshire living but represented Lancashire; while Herle held a Lancashire living and actually represented Lancashire. The two houses of parliament may have had some formula for their choices—Case had temporarily retreated to the north-west in the late 1630s to avoid Bishop Matthew Wren, and Heyrick was a pluralist with a second living in Lancashire—but the logic behind parliamentary appointments to the assembly is by no means clear.

Selection criteria are also difficult to establish. The choice of some divines was obvious. Popular preachers before parliament like Stephen Marshall and Edmund Calamy had been linked to calls for a synod since the beginning of the Long Parliament. With the future members Thomas Young, Matthew Newcomen, and William Spurstow they had anonymously penned pamphlets protesting against episcopacy under the acronym Smectymnuus. Others were invited as leading theologians, polemicists, or puritan patriarchs—men like Joshua Hoyle, Thomas Gataker, Edmund Staunton, Thomas Temple, and the assembly's oldest member, Henry Wilkinson the elder (1566–1647) [see under Wilkinson, Henry (1610–1675)]. Further choices were more political in nature: episcopalians like Daniel Featley, Ralph Brownrigg, Henry Hammond, George Morley, Samuel Ward, and James Ussher may not have been expected to attend—indeed only Featley participated meaningfully—but the inclusion of their names on the summoning ordinance would have given the assembly credibility and the appearance of fairness.

Many others were called for reasons that are unclear. Most of those appointed had gritted their teeth and held on to their livings in the church or place in a university during William Laud's tenure as archbishop of Canterbury from 1633. Although many had been cited before the ecclesiastical courts, only a minority had been deprived of their livings, with some men fleeing to the continent and one to the American colonies. Most divines were not pluralists; most held at least the degree of MA. Yet these things are better viewed as component parts of a godly minister than distinctive marks of a future Westminster divine.

Surviving evidence suggests that personal contacts and patronage probably proved most significant to the knights and burgesses of each county. Thus Thomas Wilson may have been named because of his popular market-day lectures in Kent or simply because he was godly, unemployed, and Sir Edward Dering's friend. Many in the circle of the educational reformer Samuel Hartlib—including Independents like William Carter, Philip Nye, Sidrach Simpson, and William Greenhill, as well as moderates or presbyterians like Joseph Caryl, Simeon Ashe, Jeremiah Whitaker, William Price, John Ley, Daniel Cawdrey, Thomas Hill, Anthony Tuckney, George Walker, and Thomas Valentine (1586–1665)—were summoned in 1643. Sir Cheney Culpeper actually asked Hartlib to get John Durie elected to the synod when he saw that Durie was not mentioned on the summoning ordinance.

Equal mystery surrounds the thirty parliamentary appointees, but the character of the group is significant. Of the ten peers who were first appointed to the assembly and actually attended—including Edward Montagu, second earl of Manchester, Algernon Percy, tenth earl of Northumberland, William Fiennes, first Viscount Saye and Sele, and Robert Rich, second earl of Warwick—all were radical war-party men. The more moderate Robert Devereux, third earl of Essex, was not invited until later in the assembly's history. The overwhelming majority of the members of the House of Commons named in the ordinance were prominent men whose political and ecclesiastical affiliations were widely known, such as John Pym, Francis Rous, Sir Benjamin Rudyerd, and Oliver St John. Many had links with the peers appointed to the assembly. Their perspectives on the political crisis are identifiable and covered the whole spectrum from men insisting on negotiation to those who demanded total war. Their positions on the church are also definable: most were presbyterians, leaving the Independents better represented in the two houses of parliament than in the assembly. No geographical pattern emerges, although there are fewer members from the north. Significant in retrospect is the fact that only one of the Commons appointees became a regicide in 1649, whereas 15 per cent of the House of Commons were regicides.

Members of parliament had little involvement in the day-to-day running of the assembly. Theological debate remained a spectator sport, albeit a relatively popular one. On the first day of the assembly forty members of the Commons came to watch. A later day saw eight peers arrive during a probationer's sermon, followed by 'some other Lords', while another session experienced overcrowding on account of visiting parliamentarians. One politician who uniquely engaged more actively in the assembly was John Selden, lionized by Bulstrode Whitelocke for his defence of Erastian ecclesiology. Like the parliamentary observers, the assembly's scribes were non-voting members appointed by parliament. Adoniram Byfield was the chief scribe. His companion at the writing table, first in Henry VII's lady chapel and then in the Jerusalem chamber, was Henry Roborough. John Wallis, later Savilian professor of geometry at Oxford, was added to the scribal team late in 1643.

The assembly at work

The mandate of the Westminster assembly was a compound one that involved 'the setling of the Government and Liturgy, of the Church of England' and 'vindicating and clearing of the Doctrine of the said Church'. Much of this reforming work is invisible to us as it was carried on by the assembly's three standing committees, led by Burges, Staunton, and Temple respectively. A multitude of other tasks was delegated to the assembly's ad hoc committees, which numbered in excess of 200. The divines examined over 2600 preachers for churches, fellows for colleges, and heretics for heresy. They were consulted about the price of bibles, translations of books, exchanges of prisoners, and collections for troops. They wrote letters to foreign churches in defence of their cause, and corresponded with Edward Bowles in Yorkshire, who with John Shawe headed what appears to have been a satellite committee of the assembly for the north.

As the assembly's tasks diversified they took years to complete. The synod began its work with a revision of the Thirty-Nine Articles and experienced a surprising amount of disagreement and variety in doctrinal expression. It provided many members with a forum to raise questions about the development and codification of post-Reformation theology that they preferred not to make in print. Divines then proved reluctant to limit their speeches and solidify their votes, leaving the assembly's leadership frustrated by the gathering's disorganized and untidy progress.

In October 1643, the solemn league and covenant having been signed, a team of Scottish commissioners entered the assembly. Unlike the Channel Islanders Jean de la Marche and Samuel de la Place, the Scots opted for non-voting participation, supposing that full membership would have restricted their rights to treat on behalf of their church and state with the English parliament. Throughout their attendance Alexander Henderson, and especially Samuel Rutherford and George Gillespie, participated heavily in the debates, the last two almost being among the ten most frequent speakers (a group dominated in the surviving sources by Marshall, Lazarus Seaman, and Thomas Goodwin). The Scottish laymen—chiefly John Elphinstone, second Baron Balmerino, John Maitland, Viscount Maitland (later duke of Lauderdale), and Sir Archibald Johnston, Lord Warriston—also contributed but, as with the English parliamentarians, usually with a message for the assembly or a request for greater urgency.

The arrival of the Scottish commissioners turned attention to church government (on which the assembly expended a quarter of its 1333 plenary sessions, a fifth of its ad hoc committees, and a quarter of its texts), pastoral theology, and a Directory for Ordination (printed in 1644). The assembly also engaged in a lengthy war over worship, which concluded with the abandonment of the Book of Common Prayer and the creation of the Directory for Worship (printed in 1645), a text that served as 'a guide to the construction of do-it-yourself services' (Morrill, 153). In 1645 it debated standards for admission to the Lord's supper, continued drafting the Directory for Church Government (belatedly printed by the Scots in 1647 and revised and printed by parliament in 1648), and commenced discussions about the confession of faith. Among the constantly shifting parties in the synod, the Scottish commissioners were the most unified, managing to align themselves with Independents when debating elders, or with English presbyterians when discussing synods, or standing alone when considering worship. In August 1646 the assembly turned its full attention to the production of its Confession of Faith (printed in 1646) and then to its catechism—a text that developed into two catechisms, one known as the ‘larger’ and the other as the ‘shorter’ (both printed in 1647). Only in 1648 did the assembly return, at parliament's insistence, to matters of ecclesiology, debating the relationship between civil and ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

The assembly's legacy

The assembly pursued its mandate for nearly a decade, first in its most constructive years (1643–9) and then as a ‘rump’ assembly after the oath of engagement to the Commonwealth was pressed on its members. From 1649 the synod reduced the number of its meetings and focused only on the examination of ministers until March 1652, when it came to an unceremonious end. The execution of Charles I appalled the majority of the divines, but the resulting demise of the synod must have been something of a relief. The assemblymen had seen their most important works published, but few of them were implemented with any seriousness. Their continuing controversy with parliament over church power appeared hopeless. And by any estimate the divines were underpaid and overworked. Many were never compensated for their labours, days were long, and in five years the divines had only two weeks' holiday. The fragile unity in the assembly, artificially created by a summoning ordinance, was in a state of disrepair. As individual Oxford DNB biographies indicate, the experience of the civil wars and of the assembly itself left some divines ready for a return to episcopacy, and others committed to presbyterianism, Independency, or new directions in theology.

As an attempt to reform the church, the Westminster assembly proved an English failure, but a Scottish and Irish success. The directories, confession, and catechism of the assembly were officially adopted by the Church of Scotland and presbyterian church in Ireland, and through emigration and missionary activity the ideals and teachings of the Westminster divines were spread around the world. The Westminster confession of faith, in its original and altered forms, became 'by far the most influential doctrinal symbol in American Protestant history' (Ahlstrom, 131). In fact many consider the synod's confession and catechisms, generally known as the ‘Westminster standards’, as the finest and most enduring statements of early modern Reformed theology. But recognition of the assembly was slow in coming. It was almost two centuries before ecclesiastical historians began to revisit the assembly and publish the works of the divines. Political historians were chiefly interested in the dissenting minority and even then, as J. R. Herbert's 1847 painting of the assembly suggests, only for their assertions about liberty of conscience. Recent discoveries of sources and developments in historiography have furthered knowledge of the Westminster assembly, but much of its story remains to be told.


  • DWL, MS 38.1–3
  • University of Sheffield, Hartlib MS 13; MS 29/2
  • The whole works of the Rev. John Lightfoot, ed. J. R. Pitman, 13 vols. (1822–5), vol. 13
  • The letters and journals of Robert Baillie, ed. D. Laing, 3 vols. (1841–2)
  • S. E. Ahlstrom, A religious history of the American people (1972)
  • P. J. Smith, ‘The debates on church government at the Westminster Assembly’, PhD diss., Boston U., 1975
  • W. R. Spear, ‘Covenanted uniformity in religion’, PhD diss., U. Pittsburgh, 1976
  • L. J. Holley, ‘The divines of the Westminster Assembly: a study of puritanism and parliament’, PhD diss., Yale U., 1979
  • W. H. Coates, A. Steele Young, and V. F. Snow, eds., The private journals of the Long Parliament, 1: 3 January to 5 March 1642 (1982)
  • D. Underdown, Pride's Purge: politics in the puritan revolution (1985)
  • V. F. Snow and A. Steele Young, eds., The private journals of the Long Parliament, 2: 7 March to 1 June 1642 (1987)
  • J. Morrill, The nature of the English revolution (1993)
  • T. Webster, Godly clergy in early Stuart England: the Caroline puritan movement, c.1620–1643 (1997)
  • C. B. Van Dixhoorn, ‘Reforming the Reformation: theological debate at the Westminster Assembly’, PhD diss, U. Cam., 2004
  • W. Sheils, ‘John Shawe and Edward Bowles: civic preachers at peace and war’, Religious politics in post-Reformation England, ed. K. Fincham and P. Lake (2006)