The Unfolding of providence leading to the Westminster Assembly


Westminster Shorter Catechism (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

1517 31st October. Martin Luther nails his famous 95 Theses.

1526 William Tyndale‘s English New Testament (completed 1 year earlier) reaches England.

1536 Henry VIII and the English Parliament separate the Church of England from Rome because the Pope would not sanction his proposal to divorce Queen Katherine.

1538 Henry VIII changes his position again, and authorizes 6 articles which essentially brought many of the Roman Catholic doctrine and practices back into the Church of England. Many who are persuaded of the truth of the Protestant faith (eg. John Hooper, Miles Coverdale) leave for the continent, and come under the influence of the Continental Reformers like Zwingli and Calvin.

1547 Edward VI becomes king. The Protestant Reformation in England advances dramatically. Key players are Thomas Cranmer (Archbishop of Canterbury), Nicholas Ridley (scholar) and Hugh Latimer (preacher).

John Knox becomes preacher at St. Andrews Castle (Scotland), but when it fell to the French, he was captured and made a French gallery slave for 19 months. Upon his release in 1549, he came to England and pastored a congregation for the next 5 years.

1553 Mary Tudor, Roman Catholic, becomes queen in England. 300 English Protestants were martyred (including Latimer, Ridley, Cranmer), and 800 fled to the Continent, where they imbibed the doctrinal tenets of the Continental Reformers.

1554-59 John Knox flees. While in exile in Geneva, he studied under John Calvin: “the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the apostles.”

1558 Queen Elizabeth I ascents to the throne and establishes the Elizabethan Compromise, which is insufficiently reformed to satisfy those who would soon be known as Puritans. Many of these Puritans were strict Calvinist who were religious refugees returning from Switzerland.

1559 The English Puritans who had returned from Geneva had become parish ministers. But the Archbishop Matthew Parker had not been in exile, and he carried out a policy of conformity to the Anglican church. Under his advice, the Queen issued the Act of Uniformity which authorizes the Anglican Prayer Book for public worship and lays down penalties for those who refuse to use it or who speak against it.

Thus the English returnees could not implement their Presbyterian ideals. Instead they formed “classes” (from Latin classis or division) for mutual study and the encouragement of preaching. These advocated the Presbyterian system. Two men’s views were particularly influential: Walter Travers (1548-1625) and Thomas Cartwright, professor at Cambridge University (1535-1603); both friends of Theodore Beza. Their views would later influence the Westminster Divines.

In Scotland, Knox arrived in May. Shortly, he and others wrote the Reformed Scottish Confession and established the first truly Presbyterian Church based on the teachings he had received at Geneva. Presbyterian from Greek presbuteros (elder). The church was to be governed by a plurality of elders.

1561 Belgic (or Netherlands) Confession composed largely by Guido de Bres, one of several itinerant preachers during those days of persecution.

1563 Heidelberg Catechism written by Zacharias Ursinus, professor at Heidelberg University and Caspar Olevianus, court preacher of Heidelberg; and published on the behest of Elector Frederick III.

1583 John Whitgift becomes Archbishop of Canterbury and enforces conformity to the ceremonies of the Anglican Church, leading to oppression of Puritan nonconformists. The Presbyterian classes were driven underground, but their influence persisted, and many of the Puritans favoured the Presbyterian form of church Government.

1603 James VI of Scotland became James I of England. Puritans initially had hopes that their situation would improve since James I was a Scottish Calvinist much influenced by John Knox. They presented the king with the Millenary Petition.

In 1604 they met with the new king at the Hampton Court Conference to present their requests. The bishops and the Puritans debated. The king presided as chairman. One of the Puritans accidentally used the term ‘synod’. The king immediately felt threatened: “If you aim at a Scottish Presbytery, it agrees as well with a monarchy as God with the devil! No bishop, no king.”

The king threatened to “harry them out of the land, or else do worse.” James had heartily embraced the Anglican system. Although the king approved of a new translation of the English Bible (KJV), after the conference 300 Puritan clergymen were deprived of their livings. Large numbers emigrated. Many went to Holland where they would later sail the Mayflower to America.

1618 The Book of Sports is first published, encouraging sports on Sunday afternoons in direct contradiction of Puritan Sabbatarianism. This is cited by the seventeenth-century British church historian Thomas Fuller as one of the leading causes of the English civil war.

1618-19 Synod of Dordrecht (Netherlands) met concerning the five points of the Remonstrance. Canons of Dort from which the 5 points of Calvinism are derived resulted.

1620 Puritan Separatists (led by John Robinson) left Holland and found the Pilgrim colony at Plymouth, Massachusetts in America. These were either congregational or Presbyterian.

1625 Charles I, unsympathetic to the Puritans, becomes king.

1628 William Laud becomes Bishop of London (and Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633) and undertakes stringent measures to stamp nonconformity out of the Anglican Church. Laudian oppression is a leading contributor to Puritan migrations to America such as the large group led by John Winthrop in 1630.

The notorious William Laud, was however to become a very important figure in Presbyterian history. “Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee: the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain” (Ps 76:10). William Laud was an Arminian and he was trying to use Arminianism as an instrument to bring the church of England back to Roman fold. On one occasion members of Parliament spoke openly against Arminianism, and that angered King Charles I. And he decided to rule without Parliament, and so for 11 years he did not convene the Parliament.

But in 1637, William Laud decided to extend his influence, and decreed that the Anglican Prayer Book should be read also in Scottish churches. There was great opposition, and soon the people rose in revolt. They would not be ruled by bishops. The people flocked to sign the National Covenant upholding Presbyterianism.

Civil war broke out. The king soon found out that it was not so easy to force the Scottish into submission. He soon ran out of money and also found it difficult to raise troops. Soon he was compelled to recall the Parliament.

1640 The parliament met twice, and in the second, known as the Long Parliament, the Parliament decided to curtail the power of the king. The rift between parliament and king widened.

1642 A second civil war broke out, this time between Parliament’s New Model Army led by Oliver Cromwell and the king’s army.

Immediately, John Pym, parliamentary leader and a Puritan decided to appeal to Scotland to help. Scotland agreed. But as part of the agreement, the English parliament would be required to undertake positive steps for the reformation of religion in doctrine, worship, discipline and government of the church, according to the Word of God. The English parliament agreeing to these terms decided to convene and assembly of English and Scottish ministers to bring about the necessary changes.

1643-49 This assembly met at the Westminster Abbey and is thus called the Westminster Assembly. From 1 July, 1643 to 22 Feb, 1649, in 1,163 sessions, 121 English divines and 6 Scottish commissions met. The result was the Westminster Confession, a Larger Catechism, a Shorter Catechism, a Directory of Worship, and a Psalter for singing by the churches among other documents.

By 1646, Oliver Cromwell’s army defeated the king’s army and made Scottish help unnecessary. In the same year, the Episcopalian form of church government was abolished in the Church of England, and three years later in 1649, King Charles I was executed. Cromwell became the Lord Protector of England. But because his army comprised many Independents, Cromwell refused to enforce the spread of Presbyterianism.

(taken from PCC Bulletin, 1 November 2009)


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